Going Native

Be kind to our feathered friends by gardening
with local plant species


By Susan Campbell

During these dog days
of summer, if you are looking for a reason to shirk tasks such as weeding or abandoning your attempts to grow the perfect lawn (not to mention spending less time watering), I may have some good news for you!  More and more folks are abandoning conventional landscaping to take advantage of local plants — from towering trees right down to ground-hugging grasses, even mosses in order to produce patches of native habitat. And this is very good news for our birds and our pollinators — actually an invaluable turn of events for literally scores of wildlife species.

Anyone who has been a backyard gardener will probably give you more than one argument for shunning vast lawns and alien ornamental plantings. The list is endless: pest problems, irrigation, expensive fertilizers, dangerous herbicides and pesticides, plus the cost and pollution from gas-operated trimmers and mowers. Using local species is not only likely to result in better success but it provides a “sense of place.”

But the real and lasting bonus to embracing native landscaping has a more global reach. It restores vestiges of original ecosystems — so much of which were lost as a result of agriculture, forestry and other land use changes since the Industrial Revolution.  All of those small patches of habitat being created represent a new hope for bees, birds, reptiles, amphibians and even mammals that have been displaced over the decades. Relatively few large tracts of land are available for preservation these days: Our best hope for the future literally lies in each and every one of our own backyards.

Dare I begin with exotics? Sadly, many have escaped and turned into an invasive species nightmare. Water hyacinth smother ponds. Rapacious Japanese wisteria or rampant Japanese honeysuckle gobbles up trees and shrubs. Popular privet hedges and the Bradford pears crowd out native species. Worse yet, the drought-tolerant nandina, whose berries are loaded with cyanide, can actually kill birds, including cedar waxwing, American robin, Northern mockingbird and Eastern bluebird.

Buy local and get good local advice on native species. Better yet, visit the N.C. Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill where you can see native flora growing during the course of the entire year. For a good online source, type “NCSU Native Plant Resources” into Google to get expert advice by region.

Finally, should you reside in a community with restrictions on landscaping that may make this sort of yard challenging, I would suggest looking into National Wildlife Federation’s backyard certification program by typing “nwf certified wildlife habitat” into Google. With hope, an official designation as well as the signage that goes with it, your project will be justified and understood as beneficial by the powers-that-be.  OH

Susan would love to hear from you. Send wildlife sightings and photos to

True South

Climbing the Ladder

Summer jobs are the bottom rung


By Susan S. Kelly

It’s August. How’s that summer job going for your prodigal son and daughter? You know, the fancy-pants NYC internship that you’re heavily subsidizing. Or are your offspring going to one day say accusingly, as mine have, “Why didn’t you make me get an internship?”

The short answer is that we were clueless, and, more accurately, didn’t know anyone higher up the career-boosting food chain. Your father and I just figured everyone had the same kind of summer jobs we did, i.e., menial. Because the true purpose of summer jobs is to show you what you don’t want to be when you grow up. My husband: delivering Cokes from a flatbed truck all over Fayetteville in 100-degree heat; me, hustling quahog jewelry and fake scrimshaw in a tourist joint on Nantucket, where I was hired solely on the basis of my built-in “pleases” and “ma’ams.”

Ergo, my children had glam jobs as caddies, counselors, ground trash collectors at apartment complexes (think candy wrappers and condoms; they came home with bloody knuckles from working the parking lot), and as stockroom employees packaging bolts of fabric in a warehouse for UPS pickup. Still, everyone should have to work in what’s known as the “service industry” at some time in their life: retail clerk, waitress, lifeguard, etc. If you know an adult who’s a jerk, I bet he/she never had to wait tables or take orders as a teenager.

And if you have a college grad on the professional prowl, whatever you do, guide him or her away from the three jobs that nobody, nobody in their sane mind, wants: minister, head of a private school, and the manager of a country club. Constituents — congregations, parents and members — of those occupations believe themselves entitled. In other words, they own you. And I have proof, with the following true-to-life examples.


My aunt and uncle’s son, William, went away to boarding school. Before Thanksgiving had even arrived, the headmaster called my aunt to say that William just wasn’t going to cut it. He couldn’t conform to the rules, couldn’t toe the various lines, and William was just going to have to come home. My aunt wasn’t fazed. “Oh no, he is not,” she informed the headmaster. “I sent a perfectly good child to you in September. Whatever’s happened since then is your fault, and you’re going to keep him.”

Country Club Manager

Frank was an incorrigible charmer who basically lived at the country club. In the dining room, on the golf course, in the card room, but mostly in the bar. Your classic handsome bad boy, who was also drunk, demanding, misbehaving and embarrassing. One morning when the club manager found Frank sleeping under a table in the bar, glasses and cigarettes strewn around him, he called Frank’s mother. “Mrs. Simpson,” he said politely, “your son has become a real problem. I’m going to have to ask you to do something about his behavior at the club.” There was a pause over the line. “And you, sir,” Mrs. Simpson replied, “serve very ordinary chicken salad.”


My great-uncle Bill in Walnut Cove had a dog he loved better than life, named John G. But John G kept getting into Lou Petrie’s garden. Lou told Bill that if John G got into his garden one more time, he was going to shoot him. Bill paid no attention. One Sunday in church, where my grandmother played the organ, word got ‘round the congregation that John G had gotten into the garden again and Lou Petrie had flat-out shot him. Church stopped then and there, and everyone went to the Petries’ where, sure enough, John G was lying dead between the tomato vines. The minister’s wife dropped to her knees beside the lifeless animal. “Do not worry,” she said. “I’ll bring John G back to life,” and praying loudly, began massaging his bloody body. My grandmother looked on, horrified, then headed straight for the house, and the telephone. She dialed the operator and put in a long-distance call to the bishop of the North Carolina Diocese of the Episcopal Church on a Sunday morning. “Bishop,” she said, “you have a minister’s wife down here trying to raise a dog from the dead. What are you going to do about it?”

My advice? Steer clear of a career that involves dues, tuition or tithing.  OH

Susan S. Kelly is a blithe spirit, author of several novels, and a proud grandmother.


Summer Daze

When being outdoors was a terrifying adventure


By Clyde Edgerton

It was a hot summer day. 1951. In my memories of my seventh year, all summer days were hot ones, calling for me to go outside and get into them. There was no air conditioning yet in any home in our neighborhood, so there were no cool, enticing places except by a creek in the woods. You wouldn’t be caught dead inside a house — even looking at the little Emerson black and white TV. You couldn’t pull up a Minecraft adventure, or a video game, or a YouTube on that little machine. Life was outside.

Don Mitchell and Norris Campbell were on their bikes out in the yard. Did
I want to go see a dead snake? Of course I did.

We were off, down the dirt road we lived on — on our bicycles — a right turn into the Goodwins’ driveway, which kept going behind their house, straight ahead on through the church graveyard, onto school grounds, by the ballfield, and on to a less familiar place down behind the school. They were in the lead, we were pedaling right along.

My Roy Rogers bike (Roy was a cowboy movie star back then) had a saddlebag like a horse and a small molded head of Roy’s horse, Trigger, between the handle bars. (Bumping along on my bike, I could never have dreamed nor been persuaded that Roy Rogers would one day be unknown to most anyone alive.) Don veered slightly to the left around a large, ground- level square of cement; Norris veered right. I saw no reason to avoid it — it was about the size of a room. I didn’t notice that a deep ditch filled with growing green grass was around the perimeter of the cement.

The bike’s front wheel dropped into the ditch, the bike stopped, I kept going, my hands out in front of me. When I gained some sense of where I was, I was sitting on the cement, staring at my right hand. Where the thumb connects to the hand looked like no thumb joint I’d ever seen; the thumb was off at an angle, and a bone was pushing up from somewhere, but not breaking through the skin; it looked absurdly irregular. I screamed and started crying loudly. I have a vague sense that Don and Norris were with me all the way home, one of them pushing my bike.

My next clear memory is of my mother staring at my hand, asking me to sit on the front steps of our house, while she goes into the neighborhood to find a car so she can take me to the emergency room. My father is at work with our car. And next comes Teresa . . . oh gosh, last name escapes me. Teresa stands before me. She’s my age.

“What happened?” she asks.

“I think I broke my thumb,” I say, between sobs. I’m crying from fear as much as from pain — my thumb is deformed.

Teresa reaches out and gently takes my arm, turns it so she can get a good look. She announces: “They might have to take it off.”

Those words seared me — are still seared into my memory.

I tell the story above because it’s a story. And because it happened in my childhood — outdoors. These days, I drive through neighborhoods and I often see no children out of doors on bikes. Maybe I’m in the wrong neighborhood. Maybe I’m in the wrong town. Maybe I’m in the wrong century.

A careful parent, or a glazed-eyed teenager, might say, “You don’t get hurt when you stay inside.”

Yes, you do.  OH

Clyde Edgerton is the author of 10 novels, a memoir and most recently, Papadaddy’s Book for New Fathers. He is the Thomas S. Kenan III Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at UNCW.

O.Henry Ending

Ready for Rhyme Time

And waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting . . .

By Nancy Oakley

Call me a philistine, but I’m a sucker for rhyme.

My penchant for verse  perverse, some would say — traces to childhood, when my mom would sing nursery rhymes, usually involving cruelty to birds, whether the infamous four-and-twenty baked in a pie or the tragic song about a robin in winter: “The North wind doth blow,/ And we shall have snow,/ And what will poor robin do then, poor thing?/ He’ll sit in a barn/And keep himself warm/And hide his head under his wing, poor thing.” This one would send me into hysterics, screaming and crying about poor robin every time she sang it. (I didn’t realize how lucky I was. A friend’s mother used to serenade her children with a grisly little ditty about the ghost of Anne Bolyen, “With her Head Tucked Under Her Arm.”)

Whether  “ ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’” or “plop, plop, fizz, fizz/ Oh, what a relief it is?” or “If it doesn’t fit/You must acquit,’” rhyme, especially when it’s set to music, grabs us by the heartstrings and stays with us. Ancient poets understood its power. Why have Beowulf and Chanson de Roland (literally translated as  — hello! —The SONG of Roland) achieved epic status? Because generation upon generation could remember those heroic stories made more heroic by rhyme. Don’t believe me? You should hear my colleague David Bailey sing Homer’s Odyssey, as Homer did to his audiences 2,800 years ago . . . in Greek  . . . burnished with a Reidsville accent.

Once I was beyond crying about poor robin, I cut my teeth on Mother Goose, of course, and an all-time favorite, The Big Golden Book of Poetry, an anthology compiled by the publishers of the Little Golden Books, distributed, by and large, in grocery stores. Recently they’ve enjoyed a resurgence among boomers as coffee table tomes with ironic titles, such as Everything I Need to Know, I Learned from a Little Golden Book, and similar ones about love, family and so on, each no doubt racking up enough sales to put the gold in Golden. The poetry anthology is no exception: Out of print, a used edition lists for $164 on Amazon. But its content, as Mastercard would say? Priceless.

Among the book’s heavily illustrated pages are long poems, such as “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod,” Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat” and small ones like “Sally and Manda.” (Two “little lizards,” FYI, “Who gobble up flies in their two little gizzards.”) There are poems by well-known children’s authors — Robert Louis Stevenson, Kate Greenaway, Rachel Field — and anonymous ones, too. Poems about nature, animals, taxis, shoes, country fairs, games of make-believe. And one I loved to read aloud, a 14-stanza opus by Ogden Nash, “The Tale of Custard, the Dragon.” In a nutshell, it’s the story of Belinda, a little girl who “lives in a little white house,/ With a little black kitten [Ink] and a little gray mouse [Blink],/ And a little yellow dog [Mustard],/and a little red wagon, /And a realio, trulio, little pet dragon [Custard].” Nash goes on to explain that “Belinda is as brave as a barrel full of bears,/And Ink and Blink chase lions down the stairs.” Mustard? “Sharp as a tiger in a rage.” Custard? Not so much. He keeps “[crying] for a cage.” Until a home invasion – from a pirate, with (trigger warning for the hypersensitive) “pistol in his left hand, pistol in his right,/And he held in his teeth, a cutlass bright.” Everyone is paralyzed with fear except Custard who — spoiler alert! — gobbles up the pirate, gains newfound respect from his housemates, but still cries for a cage. The end. Kind of a yawner when told in prose. But in poetry it packs a punch.

However silly — OK, childish; guilty as charged — Nash’s verse stood me in good stead by the time I was steeped in lit crit in college, identifying rhyme schemes of Italian and Shakespearean sonnets, or learning how The Bard used rhyming couplets as a signal, a trigger warning, if you will. I came to appreciate the poet’s craft — including Broadway “poets” Cole Porter or Alan Jay Lerner — of expressing emotion and soul-searching within strict rhyming structures, like French poet Paul Verlaine’s phonic experimentation, “les sanglots longs, des violons, de l’autonne/Blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone.” Never mind its meaning (unless you prefer an irreverent British cartoonist’s take that the poem is about “a leaf falling on a pile of dogshit”), the point is the music in the sounds of the words.

So what the hell happened? Once I got to studying — excuse me, “explicating” — non-rhyming poetry, I was a little lost. Though, one of my sister’s boyfriends had a solution as irreverent as that British cartoonist’s: “Just interpret everything as man’s alienation in the modern world,” he advised. But I was the one who felt alienated. And still do, especially when I turn on the radio. Sorry, but Taylor Swift moaning about how some man done her wrong ohhhhooooowhoooaahhhh. Yeaaaaaaaah. Unnnhhhh-huunnnh are words pathetic compared to Cole’s poetic, “You’re romance/You’re the steppes of Russia/You’re the pants / On a Roxy usher.”

I guess that’s why I’m the bottom, and Taylor’s in the Top 10. Like poor old Custard the Dragon, crying for his cage, little ol’ Nancy O., looking back toward long ago, realio, trulio, longs for rhymes on the radio, if not on the page.  OH

Meantime, she finds solace in editing the poetic prose of O.Henry’s scribes.



August brings some entertaining reads about writing,
language and believe it or not, punctuation


Compiled by Brian Lampkin

While it might seem obvious to say, the simple fact is often overlooked: Poems are made up of words, syllables, symbols. The raw material of high-minded, emotionally charged, life-changing poetry is the humble letter and its disrespected companion punctuation. Below you’ll find a compendium of recently published or soon-to-be published books on words, language and letters. Some of them are more useful — and more readable — than your average book of poems.

Take this gem of prose style: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer (Random House, $25. 2019). Dreyer, among other things, is the copy chief at Random House and has been the editor for books by Michael Chabon, Shirley Jackson, Michael Pollan, Elizabeth Strout and dozens more of our favorite writers. Much funnier than most poems, Dreyer’s English gives example after example of how to use language and how to avoid misuses of language. But really the entire book is an example of effective, engaging prose style. 

Mary Norris continues her love affair with the roots of language with Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen (W.W. Norton, $25.95. 2019). Greek to Me is a charming account of Norris’ solo adventures in the land of olive trees and ouzo. Along the way, Norris explains how the alphabet originated in Greece, makes the case for Athena as a feminist icon, goes searching for the fabled Baths of Aphrodite and reveals the surprising ways Greek helped form English. Filled with Norris’ memorable encounters with Greek words, Greek gods, Greek wine — and more than a few Greek men — Greek to Me is the Comma Queen’s fresh take on Greece and the exotic yet strangely familiar language that so deeply influences our own.

Coming soon: 

August 6: In Other Words: An Illustrated Miscellany of the World’s Most Intriguing Words and Phrases, by Christopher Moore (Bloomsbury, $18). Ever racked your brain for a word you’re convinced should exist, yet is inexplicably absent from the dictionary? All languages have their limitations — should English fall short, the expression may lie elsewhere. That’s where this book comes in: a quirky, international lexicon of linguistic gems that captures (lexicon is the subject, right?) cultural untranslatables with satisfying precision. 

August 13: And How Are You, Dr. Sacks?: A Biographical Memoir of Oliver Sacks, by Lawrence Weschler (FSG, $28). Whatever else neurologist Oliver Sacks was addressing, language and communication were at the center of his concern. Weschler sets Sacks’ brilliant table talk and extravagant personality in vivid relief, casting himself as a beanpole Sancho to Sacks’ capacious Quixote. We see Sacks rowing and ranting and caring deeply; composing the essays that would form The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat; recalling his turbulent drug-fueled younger days; helping his patients and exhausting his friends; and waging intellectual war against a medical and scientific establishment that failed to address his greatest concern: the spontaneous specificity of the individual human soul. And all the while he is pouring out a stream of glorious, ribald, hilarious and often profound conversation that establishes him as one of the great talkers of the age. Here is the definitive portrait of Sacks as our preeminent romantic scientist, a self-described “clinical ontologist” whose entire practice revolved around the single fundamental question he effectively asked each of his patients: How are you? Which is to say, How do you be? 

August 13: First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing . . . and Life, by Joe Moran (Penguin, $17). The sentence is the common ground where every writer walks. A good sentence can be written (and read) by anyone if we simply give it the gift of our time, and it is as close as most of us will get to making something truly beautiful. Using minimal technical terms and sources ranging from the Bible and Shakespeare to George Orwell and Maggie Nelson, as well as scientific studies of what can best fire the reader’s mind, author Joe Moran shows how we can all write in a way that is clear, compelling and alive.

August 13: Have You Eaten Grandma?: Or, the Life-Saving Importance of Correct Punctuation, Grammar, and Good English, by Gyles Brandreth (Atria, $26). In this brilliantly funny and accessible guide to proper punctuation and so much more, Gyles Brandreth explores the linguistic horrors of our times, tells us what we’ve been doing wrong and shows us how, in the future, we can get it right every time. Covering everything from dangling participles to transitive verbs, from age-old conundrums like “lay” vs. “lie,” to the confounding influences of social media on our everyday language, Have You Eaten Grandma? is an endlessly useful and entertaining resource for all.  OH

Brian Lampkin is one of the proprietors of Scuppernong Books.

Simple Life

The Reluctant Pilgrim


By Jim Dodson

Two decades ago, on the eve of the new millennium, the acclaimed Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake was asked what single change in human behavior could make a better world.

Every tourist, he replied, should become a pilgrim.

Sheldrake earned the distinction of being the “world’s most controversial scientist” because he rejected the conventional belief that nature and the universe can only be explained by scientific data. 

His journey from atheism to an ever-expanding spiritual awareness and eventual embrace of his Christian heritage produced several fine books on the subject along the way, but it began with his simple curiosity about the common spiritual practices of the world’s religious traditions, highlighted by pilgrimages that awakened and expanded his own evolving views of human consciousness. 

What Sheldrake was getting at, I think, was that a tourist travels the world in search of new experiences that provide superficial pleasure or delight, a material quest, if you will, that looks outward rather than probing inward.

A pilgrim, on the other hand, travels over unknown territory with an open mind and spirit willing to face any physical obstacle that arises, stepping out of the daily routine to deepen one’s awareness of a divine presence and the journey within. Pilgrimages are as old  and varied as the world’s many religions, personal journeys that mean different things to every pilgrim. 

Two decades ago, I took my dying father on a journey back to England and Scotland to play the golf courses where he learned to play the game as a lonely airman just before D-Day. Ours wasn’t a conventional spiritual pilgrimage, I suppose, though in retrospect I see it as something akin. For 10 days we traveled and talked about his life and mine, leaving nothing unspoken between us, ushering his long journey to a beautiful close and enriching mine in ways I’m still counting up today.

A couple of years later, in the midst of an unexpected divorce, my young daughter, Maggie, and our elderly golden retriever spent an entire summer camping and fly-fishing our way to the fabled trout streams of the West. Like a couple of modern-day pilgrims from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales — or maybe a Hope-and-Crosby road movie — we went in search of new meaning and old rivers, lost the dog briefly in Yellowstone, blew up the truck in Oklahoma, saw soul-stirring countryside and met a host of colorful characters who made us laugh and cry, creating a bond my daughter and I share to this day.

When Maggie’s little brother, Jack, asked to have his own mythic adventure, we took off the summer before 9/11 hoping to see every wonder of the Classical World. Owing to events in a suddenly unraveling planet, age-old conflicts in the Middle East, China and Africa, we only got as far as the island of Crete before turning for home. But traveling together through the ruins of a mythological world — following the footsteps of Homer and Herodotus, Marcus Aurelius and Aristotle — brought us both a deeper understanding of how we got here. Today, my son works as a documentary journalist in the Middle East, still trying to make sense of its age-old conflicts.

As it happens, I wrote books about these family adventures, which in my mind perfectly fit the definition of a spiritual pilgrimage, a journey over unknown ground that mystically leaves the traveler changed for the better.   

Last August, my wife and I joined 30 other pilgrims from our Episcopal Church for a more traditional spiritual walk along the Via Francigena — the ancient pathway linking Canterbury to Rome. In Medieval times, Christian pilgrims traveled the long road to pay homage to the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul before catching ships to the Holy Land. 

I’ll confess, at first I was hesitant to go — a reluctant pilgrim who prefers to walk alone — or with only one or two others on such travels.

In a sense, my wife and I reversed this ancient tradition by making our first trip to the Holy Land weeks before our Tuscan walk to attend my son Jack’s wedding to a lovely Palestinian gal he met in graduate school at Columbia University.  The wedding festivities lasted several nights in Old Jaffa, the ancient port town next to Tel Aviv, where legend holds that Saint Peter received his vision to take Christianity to the gentiles of the Levant.

For the father of the groom, perhaps the most moving moment of this life-changing journey came on the morning of the ceremony when my wife, daughter and her fiancé Nathanial went for a swim on the beautiful beach that links the modern city of Tel Aviv to the ancient one of Jaffa. Afterward, following Arab tradition, I walked to the Char family patriarch’s house to ask permission for his beautiful granddaughter to marry my son. Tannous, 77, smiled and gave his blessing and we shared an embrace as both families applauded and music broke out.

An hour or so later, the wedding took place at a stunning basilica on the bluffs over the Mediterranean Sea. The rooftop celebration went on well after midnight beneath a full summer moon, prompting my own bride and me to slip away and stand on Jaffa’s famous Bridge of Wishes, where we quietly renewed our own wedding vows — for it was our wedding anniversary, too.  As we walked home to bed through Jaffa’s moonlit streets, I suddenly remembered that I’d left my watch on the beach where we swam that afternoon.

True, it was only an inexpensive Timex Expedition watch, one of half a dozen Expeditions I’ve owned — and lost — over the decades. But in this instance, it seemed like a metaphor for our travel through time and space.

The last full day of this family pilgrimage was spent following a scholar from Hebrew University through the familiar and rarely explored corners of Old Jerusalem, whose famous public spaces — the Wailing Wall, the Via Delorosa, the Church of the Sepulcher, the Dome of the Rock — were jammed with tourists throwing down money on “holy” relics and cheap souvenirs while young Israeli guards kept watch with Uzis in hand, a stunning contrast that made these famous pilgrimage sites feel oddly oppressive.

It was only in the much quieter Armenian and Christian sectors of the old city, where tourists rarely venture and the churches are spectacular, airy and cool, that I found myself breathing easier and wondering why the so-called holy sites had felt anything but.

An answer of sorts revealed itself weeks later when we set off on foot with our fellow pilgrims on the Via Francigena, an 80-mile walk through the stunning countryside and soulful hill towns of Tuscany.

On our first day out, we walked 18 miles through lush vineyards and olive orchards — sampling ripening grapes and recently cured olives as we went — traversing a forest where the annual wild boar hunt had just begun. Owing to my dodgy knees, I volunteered to be a sweeper bringing up the rear of the group, a pattern I repeated all week. This allowed me to walk at my own pace, get to know other pilgrims who took their turn bringing up the rear, and travel at my leisure, frequently by myself for hours at a time, entirely off the clock of the world and my lost Expedition watch — as our group leader Greg liked to say — off the hamster wheel of our lives.

At the end of each grueling hike, I enjoyed getting to know my fellow travelers over pasta and good red wine, rowdy fellowship and swapping tales of blistered feet and the day’s ah-ha! moments.  The excellent gelato cured a lot of what ailed my aching feet and muscles.

For this pilgrim, however, it was the quiet hours of walking alone or with my wife that I came to savor most, following a stony trail traveled by untold thousands before us across the ages, through deep forests or over sweeping hilltops where distant villages and Medieval abbeys — our destination each day — sat like painted kingdoms in a Medici fresco.

My only real concern was the fabled Tuscan heat of late summer. But after walking for two days in the heat, something rather marvelous happened.

I emerged from a deep glen where I’d stopped to look at chestnut trees and wild mushrooms to find Wendy waiting for me on a rise in the stony road, just as a thunderstorm broke and a cooling rain fell. Over the hill, we came upon idle orchards and an abandoned farmhouse being reclaimed by the wild. 

We sheltered there for a while, soaking in the glorious rain, looking at the vacant rooms, wondering about the people who once called this beautiful ruin a home half a century ago or just last year.

Unexpectedly, I found this to be the most moving moment of the entire pilgrimage, a reminder of our own brief walk through the storms of life and a changing universe. Wendy was kind enough to take a photograph of it.

The rain mercifully followed us to Siena and Rome, where the skies cleared, the sun bobbed out, the heat returned and the summer tourists swarmed over the Vatican and its celebrated museums.

I bailed out halfway on the official Vatican tour, feeling as oppressed by the grandeur of  monumental Rome as the holy relics of Old Jerusalem, concluding I must either be a poor excuse for a Christian pilgrim or a true country mouse.

Back home, I had a friend who is a gifted artist secretly paint the abandoned farmhouse, and gave it to my wife for Christmas.

She loved the painting but joked that it was really for me. I couldn’t disagree, pointing out that I also gave myself a new Expedition watch for our next pilgrimage.  OH

Contact Editor Jim Dodson at

Gate City Journal

Extra, Extra, Read All About It!

While most journalists struggle, Sally Nagappan has found a niche


By Maria Johnson

Like most writers, Sally Nagappan is curious. She asks a lot of questions, and sometimes the answers light a fire in her — a passion for truth that passes through who-what-when-where-and-how.

In other words, she’s a journalist.

Two years ago, Sally, now a rising fifth grader at Irving Park Elementary School, started a neighborhood newsletter called A Better World: Fisher Park Kids News.

The first issue — printed on a single sheet of paper, front and back, in full color — came about after Sally and her mom, Sarah Jordan, stopped to talk to a neighbor who’s a teacher.

The conversation turned to immigration. Sally, whose paternal grandparents came to the United States from India in 1970, jumped into the front-yard discussion about modern-day newcomers.

“We decided we should write about this, and so we did,” says Sally, with 11-year-old matter-of-factness.

Sally and her neighbor teamed up to create the first newsletter. In the lead editorial, labeled “Sally’s Opinion,” the fledgling scribe supported legal immigration.

“I think maybe they should have documents,” Sally wrote.

But she challenged readers to have compassion for refugees and illegal immigrants.

“How do you think it would feel if you had to leave your country because it was dangerous or you needed a better job but you were undocumented?” she asked.

With fifth-grade simplicity, she summed up a complicated issue that stymies older, supposedly wiser heads.

In neighborhood news, she investigated water that was flooding the streets around her house. She found out the city had hired a contractor to flush out water pipes that had not been cleaned in 60 years.

“Look at all this wasted water! But really they were flushing the pipes,” she wrote under photos of the repairs in progress. In lighter news, she included a short feature about Halloween.

“There was a zombie wandering the streets. He chased people but he wouldn’t hurt them because he was a nice zombie,” she reported. “It was tiring toward the end but all in all it was fun.”

Sally and her neighbor assembled the paper. Sally drafted her dad, Suresh, to print them on his office printer and help with distribution of the first issue in November 2017.

“I was the paperboy,” he says.

After that, the bulletin became a family enterprise. Sally’s dad, who wrote for his high school newspaper near East Lansing, Michigan, lent Sally his cell phone to take photographs. He helped her lay out the newsletter on a laptop. Together they walked door-to-door, delivering the sheet to people living on Isabel, Hendrix and Olive streets in the northeast quadrant of historic Fisher Park.

The second issue appeared in March 2018 — “I tried to make it monthly, but it was too much,” Sally says — and she settled into the current format: a question-and-answer session with someone in the community, plus an editorial and a photo feature.

Her interviewees have included Officer R.C. Dixon of the SCALE (School- Community Alternative Learning Environment) School in Greensboro; Rabbi Andy Koren of Temple Emanuel; her grandmother, Saku Nagappan; Rev. David Fraccaro, executive director of FaithAction International House; Greensboro fire chief Bobby Nugent; Holocaust survivor Hank Brodt; and, most recently, Sally’s great-great-uncle Victor Troutman, who was a Marine in the Pacific theater in World War II.

With help from her father, Sally picks subjects whose views are sometimes neglected.

“They don’t get their voices heard a lot,” she says.

Maybe because she’s so young, Sally has a way of bringing out her subjects’ vulnerabilities. Officer Dixon confessed to her that sometimes police are  just as scared to speak to people as people are to speak to them.

Sally doesn’t hesitate to ask tough questions.

“Is a wall really that bad?” she asked FaithAction’s Fraccaro on the subject of adding more wall along the southern border of the United States.

“We think there are smarter ways and more affordable ways to monitor the border,” replied Fraccaro.

The reason Sally likes to interview older people, she says, is to document their experiences while there’s time.

“It’s now or never,” she says candidly.

Suresh Nagappan says the project reflects his daughter’s determination.

“I’ve always appreciated Sally’s work ethic,” he says. “She dives in and sticks to it.”

Her ability to ferret out subtleties and yet understand the big picture makes her a good journalist, he adds. 

“I think she does a great job of not reducing people to a job or activity or event in their life.”

So far, through eight issues, readers have responded favorably.
Sally’s across-the-street neighbor, Marianne Gingher, a professor of English and comparative literature at UNC-Chapel Hill, sends notes of support regularly.

“I like getting fan mail from her,” Sally says. She perches on a comfortable chair in the lobby of her editorial office, also known as the living room of the family’s bungalow.

“I’ve lived in this house all my life,” Sally says, tugging at the sleeve of her cardigan. When she’s not churning out copy, she explains, she likes to swim for fun and play violin and ukulele. She enjoys crafting with beads.

A few feet away, her brother Will, who’s 8, wiggles on a couch between his parents.

“My dad wants Sally to ask me to write an opinion piece about school lockdowns,” says Will.

The look on Sally’s face says she’s heard this story idea before, and she’s not sold on it.

“Maybe the next issue,” she offers.

Will presses. He brings up her refusal to run a free ad for the leaf-raking business he operates with a buddy.

“I don’t want to do advertising,” she says cleanly.

The kid is a born editor.

But she nixes her current gig as a career.

She’d rather be a doctor, like both of her parents are, or maybe help immigrants by working at FaithAction, she says.

Still, her stint in journalism is teaching her a few things.

No. 1, it’s not easy work, she says. It takes a lot of planning to conduct interviews and put together an interesting paper, especially when your news hole has doubled from two to four pages.

Also, she’s found out, being a reporter introduces you to all kinds of people, including people you don’t agree with.

In Sally’s opinion, that’s not a bad practice.

“It makes me a better person to listen and learn,” she says.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. She wants to be like Sally Nagappan


A Musical Walk in the Park

Approaching its fourth decade, MUSEP is proof that some things get better with age


For the last four decades, a Sunday stroll in the park for Greensboro residents comes with a musical option. Conceived by former Greensboro Park and Recreation’s musical program director Barry Auman in 1979, the aptly named Music for a Sunday Evening in the Park (MUSEP) series showcases local bands in free concerts in citywide parks. Originally a 6-week program, over the years it expanded into a 12-week, summer-long, fabulously popular celebration of the season. The series features local and regional artists as well as pairing with the EMF, this year featuring the Young Artists Wind Ensemble. It also showcases the Greensboro Concert Band, who kicked off that first MUSEP in Latham Park in ’79, the Philharmonia of Greensboro and the Greensboro Big Band.

The concerts are held in various venues including a new venue addition this year, White Oak Amphitheatre, which hosted the initial dual offering of the Gate City Divas and poet/daredemon/honky-tonk angel David Childers and the Serpents on June 2. Local is the name of the game, says Jennifer Hance, MUSEP’s planner since 2006 (and successor to O.Henry’s own Lynn Donovan, who succeeded Auman in 1991). “We really want to focus on musicians who are in Greensboro and surrounding areas,” she says (which is no doubt music to the ears of journeymen singers, players, bands and orchestras.) Always in touch with its audience to see what they’d like to hear, Hance says “We make sure that we’re getting bands and musicians that the community wants.” Hance has recently moved to the position of community engagement coordinator for Parks and Recreation, with a new Music Center director to be chosen next year.

But no matter who’s in charge, the roving venue concept for the concerts will endure. “It’s always been that way,” Hance says. “The main reason we do that is because we have so many beautiful park facilities here in Greensboro, and we really want to highlight those different facilities and be sure that we’re reaching into all areas of our community.”

Proof of that comes this month, MUSEP’s last for the season, starting with  Sweet Dreams’ blues, jazz and R&B echoing through Gateway Gardens on August 4. Wally West, a staple of the series, will wrap up it up on August 25 at Blandwood Mansion with jazz from his Little Big Band.

In addition to the music, Hance says MUSEP gives Greensboroians an opportunity to explore the city’s open air gardens, which she calls hidden gems, showcasing all the facilities available for them to enjoy year round.  OH

— Grant Britt

Life of Jane

Fun with Moby Dick and Jane

Or not so much


By Jane Borden

Think Moby Dick is overly long, unnecessarily complicated and tedious enough to make readers question the existence of God? Congratulations! You may as well be an academic (print your own Ph.D.), because not only are you right, but that was also (mostly) the author’s intent. This is in part why fans of the novel are rabid. Rather than regarding its laborious nature as something to be endured on the way to enjoyment, they see the hardship as part of the point. Every supernerd longs to be part of a secret meta club, the more winking and clever, the better.

This is how, back in the early 2010s, a handful of ubersupernerds came to create a board game based on Moby Dick — a game as intentionally long, complicated and tedious as its source material. And because this is exactly the kind of literary humor my husband, Nathan, adores, he donated to the game’s Kickstarter page, which means that once the instrument of torture, I mean, game, was finally produced, we received a copy in the mail.

“Cool,” I said. Then I opened the instruction booklet and discovered it is 10 full pages — including a page of (small-text!) glossary terms. Before you can learn the rules of the game, you must adopt a lexicon? Hard pass. The game sat on a shelf for more than a year because Nathan had no one to play it with.

Finally, almost two years later, in the summer of 2015, when we rented a house in Joshua Tree with two other couples, Nathan saw his chance. There would be ample time to pass, others in our group were avid readers and I would literally be trapped in the desert. He packed “Moby Dick or, the card game”— of course, it has a referential title — in his suitcase.  Almost immediately after we arrived at the Airbnb, Nathan suggested we play. Our friends were intrigued.

But then, in spite of the fact that he is employed as a teacher, it took him 20 minutes to explain the rules to our friends. I do not blame him. I do not blame our friends. And so we embarked on a great adventure that would test our strength and rattle the very scaffolds of our souls, and from which we would emerge forever changed. Which is to say, it was annoying.

Since Moby Dick is ultimately a story about revenge, then you can call me Ishmael, because the tale I’m about to relay is one of a person wishing a fate worse than death on the creators of this game. Sure, this essay is a little unfair, because I am not the target market for this game. In fact, I have never even read Moby Dick. But I have been stranded on a plane and had to sleep at an airport hotel and then wake up to take a train to rent a car, which got stuck in the snow — and I’m guessing that’s more or less the same experience.

If you are like my husband, go and buy this game. It will scratch your highbrow itches. If you are like me, Yahhhrrr, beware the depths of confusion and futility into which ye will hurtle headfirst, not unlike the sailor, in the beginning of the novel, who, while retrieving oil from a hunted whale, falls into the carcass of said whale, which then sinks into the sea. In other words, kiss your night goodbye.

You may wonder how I know that plot detail if I haven’t read the book. Ah, you’re a close reader! I scoured a plot breakdown of the novel on the Internet in order to execute the following compare-and-contrast between the novel and the experience of playing a game based on the novel, with the intention of saving you from ever having to play it yourself. Now, let’s ship out.

• While writing Moby Dick, Melville invented several words by taking existing words and changing them slightly. While we were playing the game, my friend Susanna challenged Nathan several times, “Are you just making up these rules?”

• The book is one digression after another.  It’s a story about a whale hunt until, for dozens of pages, it’s instead a reference text detailing the process of hunting whales and extracting their oil. No, it’s about imperialism. Or, wait . . . boats? This is how you’ll feel while playing the game. Once you figure it out, it will change and you must learn new rules that force you to adopt new worldviews — which, come to think of it, sounds like imperialism, so that’s an interesting layer, but still, Nathan, are you making up these rules?!?

• In the book, Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, couples — or gams — with nine other ships. Each meeting is a kind of parable. The repetitiveness of the game is also a series of parables, each one telling you to get a life.

• While sailing toward the equator, the Pequod experiences a typhoon. Lightning strikes the mast and disorients the compass. There will come a time when you will also feel completely lost.

• After taking what they want from hunted animals, the crew leaves behind the whale carcasses for sharks to consume, sometimes without even untying them from the ship. While playing, you will envy the whales.

• Throughout the novel, Melville alludes to or references the Bible, Shakespeare, Homer, and various other literary, religious and cultural sources. The game also borrows elements: from card games, dice games, role-playing games, and, when you’ve reached your breaking point, Russian Roulette.

• As the book does, playing this game will also force you to question the existence of God, because how could a just and loving creator put you through this?

• Or perhaps it is judgment meted. Melville named his sea captain after this Bible verse: “Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him” (I Kings 16:33). While playing the game, you will ask yourself: What did I do to anger God?

We didn’t sit down to dinner until 10:30 p.m. It had taken four hours for us to reach the last “chapter,” after which we could finally fight the great white whale, Moby Dick. Who won? No one! That’s the point. Everyone loses. The game is a metaphor and, as such, was never actually intended to be fun. I went to bed around midnight. Have I mentioned yet that I was very pregnant?

When I waked at 6 a.m. the following morning due to a series of single-engine planes buzzing past my window on account of a meetup of the local recreational pilots’ club, I thought about something Nathan said the night before. Scholarship tends to agree that Moby Dick is a criticism of transcendentalism and, specifically, an argument against the transcendental tenet of self-reliance. Ahab is a caricature of extreme self-reliance.

Lying in bed, I certainly did not feel in control. The planes would only continue, like the incessant and inescapable waves of a typhoon on open seas. I dressed myself and entered the living room. Everyone else was also awake, having reached similar conclusions. It was the perfect morning to play “Moby Dick or, the card game.”  OH

Jane Borden is a Greensboro native, who now lives in Los Angeles, where she is still playing that last round of “Moby Dick or, the card game.” Please send help.