The Christmas Spirit

Fitness is part of it, but there’s more to the story


Late in the afternoon, the autumn sun sprays orange kisses and blue shadows all around the oceanic parking lot at Greensboro’s Jaycee Park. Along one asphalt shoreline, personal fitness trainer Jamie Christmas — yes, that’s his real name, and yes, his business really is called Body by XMAS — is ready to go.

The tools of his trade lie on the leaf-littered pavement beside his silvery SUV: yoga mats, dumbbells, jump rope and BOSU, a half-ball used for balance exercises.

“We’re gonna do single-leg RDLs on the BOSU,” he directs 51-year-old Laurie Preslan, a longtime client who has been doing squats while standing on the platform side of the half-ball.

Now, Christmas, who’s also 51, wants her to add some dumbbells, balance on one leg, extend the other leg back and pivot at the hips, not unlike a “drinking bird” toy.

Preslan, ponytailed for the workout, stares at him from underneath dark bangs.

“This leg ain’t comin’ up,” says the elementary school teacher, tapping a thigh.

“Then step off,” he says calmly.

She begins a set of one-legged Romanian deadlifts on the blacktop.

Before COVID, Christmas, a competitive bodybuilder and former tailback and sprinter at the University of Virginia, trained a few of his private clients outdoors, but he coached the bulk of his customers at Strive, a gym where he is employed. Then came the virus. Gyms shuttered, and Christmas’ most ardent gym-based clientele, along with his sweat-or-die freelance customers, followed him outside, where fresh air and social distance were plentiful.

He wasn’t alone. From Zumba leaders to yoga teachers, other trainers embraced the great outdoors. Some of them have rooted there, despite partial re-openings.

“Since COVID, I’ve come to train about 15 people that I’d never met,” Christmas says, confirming the marketing impact of push-ups done in public. His freelance business, which is more lucrative than the gym-based work, has bulked up considerably, thanks to passers-by.

As a parade of dog-walkers, cyclists, walkers and joggers stream past, Christmas calls out to acquaintances. Strangers rubberneck to study his breathless clients.

Fifty-four-year-old Anita McCoy, a former gym regular, used to be one of those curious onlookers. Now, she spends 30 minutes a week knocking out super sets with Christmas. “I’m moving better. I feel better,” says the computer systems expert.

Her plans for winter? “Put on a hat and keep rolling.”

The gains aren’t all physical. McCoy and Preslan talk about noticing deer and owls and changing seasons in the park. They talk about seeing other people in person — “Most of the people outside are happy,” notes Preslan.

“Sometimes, it’s like a therapy session,” says Christmas. “Not only do I uplift my clients; they uplift me, too. This has been a good time for people to talk.”  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry.

Scuppernong Bookshelf

The Future is Bright

Let us imagine so — for the sake of our children at least


Compiled by Brian Lampkin

Can we look forward? As I write this in October I want to imagine November. A November with a Thanksgiving for friends and family. A November with a normal, peaceful transition of power. And a November where we can think about what our children will need in the future. They’ll need books, for certain.

As you begin to think about holiday gift-giving, here’s our annual list of November’s best new children’s books. May they all be received in peace with optimism for a bright future for democracy for our children.

Where Is Our Library?: A Story of Patience and Fortitude, by Josh Funk and Stevie Lewis (Henry Holt & Co., $18.99). The two iconic lions, curious Patience and steadfast Fortitude, wait every morning to greet visitors of the New York Public Library — and slip away every night to read in the Children’s Center. But one day, Patience and Fortitude find the Children’s Center empty! The two lions set out into the city to locate their missing books and encounter some literary landmarks along the way. Josh Funk’s clever rhymes and Stevie Lewis’ vibrant art take young readers into the heart of New York City in this latest adventure.

I Am the Storm, by Jane Yolen and Heidi E. Y. Stemple (Rise x Penguin Workshop, $17.99). Jane Yolen has just published her 380th book! Much of her oeuvre focuses on nature, such as the Caldecott winner Owl Moon (in its 80th printing) and a series of picture books on birds with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In the face of our shifting climate, young children everywhere are finding themselves subject to unfamiliar and often frightening extreme weather. Yolen and her daughter, Heidi Stemple, address four distinct weather emergencies (a tornado, a blizzard, a forest fire and a hurricane) with warm family stories of finding the joy in preparedness and resilience. Their honest reassurance leaves readers with this message: Nature is powerful, but you are powerful, too. Illustrated in rich environmental tones and featuring additional information about storms in the back, this book educates, comforts and empowers young readers in stormy or sunny weather — and all the weather in between.

The All-Together Quilt, by Lizzy Rockwell (Knopf Books for Young Readers, $17.99). The kids and grown-ups at a community center begin with lots of colorful fabrics and an idea. Then step-by-step they make that idea a reality. They design, cut, stitch, layer and quilt. It’s the work of many hands, many hours and many stories. And the result is something warm and wonderful they all can share. Lizzy Rockwell is the artistic director and organizing force behind The Norwalk Community Quilt Project: Peace by Piece, and this book is inspired by all the people who have gathered over the years to teach and learn and to make something beautiful together.

The Couch Potato, by Jory John (HarperCollins, $18.99). The Couch Potato has everything he needs within reach of his sunken couch cushion. But when the electricity goes out, Couch Potato is forced to peel himself away from the comforts of his living room and venture outside. And when he does, he realizes fresh air and sunshine could be just the things he needs. From the author (and illustrator Pete Oswald) of the modern classics The Bad Seed and The Good Egg.

The Ickabog, by J. K. Rowling (Scholastic, $26.99). Once upon a time there was a tiny kingdom called Cornucopia, as rich in happiness as it was in gold, and famous for its food. From the delicate cream cheeses of Kurdsburg to the Hopes-of-Heaven pastries of Chouxville, each was so delicious that people wept with joy as they ate them. But even in this happy kingdom, a monster lurks. Legend tells of a fearsome creature living far to the north in the Marshlands . . . the Ickabog. Some say it breathes fire, spits poison and roars through the mist as it carries off wayward sheep and children alike. Some say it’s just a myth. Rumor is: This Rowling may amount to something.

This Is Your Time, by Ruby Bridges (Delacorte Books for Young Readers, $15.99). Ruby Bridges is a civil rights activist who, at the age of 6, was the first black student to integrate an all-white elementary school in New Orleans. She was born in Mississippi in 1954, the same year the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its landmark decision ordering the integration of public schools. Her family happened to move to New Orleans, where on November 14, 1960, Bridges began attending William Frantz Elementary School, single-handedly initiating the desegregation of public education in New Orleans. Her walk to the front door of the building was immortalized in Norman Rockwell’s famous painting The Problem We All Live With.  OH

Brian Lampkin is one of the proprietors of Scuppernong Books

Simple Life

A Country Made of Clouds

Awakening the dreamer is as simple as slowing down and looking up


By Jim Dodson

Not long ago, an old friend named Macduff Everton sent me a gift that reminded me to look up and take heart.

It was a stunning picture of clouds passing over a clubhouse at Smith Mountain Lake, Va., taken in late August of this year. Set against a dark, rainy sky, a line of bright white clouds that resembled the curling tops of ocean waves tumbled over the horizon, a remarkable cloud formation caused by shearing winds.

Macduff happens to be one of the world’s most honored landscape photographers, an artist whose work hangs in numerous museums around the world.  Art critics have compared him to Ansel Adams for his soulful eye and brilliant portraits of nature, landscape and people.

Years ago, we traveled the world in each other’s company, photographing and writing about people and places from Ireland to New Zealand. Along with his wife, Mary, an internationally known artist in her own right, we once spent two weeks working in Cuba while Mary lectured at an art school in Havana. His photos from our fortnight on the forbidden island 25 years ago are some of the most soulful and revealing photos you’ve ever laid eyes on.

The amazing photo of clouds at Smith Mountain Lake, a rare formation technically known as a Kelvin-Helmholtz fluctus cloud, however, wasn’t a Macduff Everton jewel.

It was a simple photograph taken by Amy Hunter, member 50,322 of something called the Cloud Appreciation Society.

Macduff knew I would find it fascinating, which explains why his email featured the Society’s “Cloud of the Day” photograph along with a link to the organization’s website.

I clicked on it and spent a dreamy hour looking at a spectacular array of photographs and paintings of clouds posted by the society’s tens of thousands of members across 100 nations around the world, people who find comfort and inspiration in looking up at clouds. I also watched a TED Talk by the society’s founder, Gavin Pretor-Pinney.

His purpose in founding the Cloud Appreciation Society was to simply remind people of the value of looking up at the Earth’s most ephemeral live artwork.

“Clouds are so commonplace, so beautiful, people don’t even notice them unless they get in the way of the sun,” Pretor-Pinney told his TED audience, adding that Aristophanes, the Greek playwright, described passing clouds as “the goddesses of idle fellows” and believed they were, on the contrary, a boon to human imagination.

“Most people will admit to a nostalgic fondness for clouds that reminds them of their youth, finding shapes in the sky when we were masters of daydreams,” he said, pointing out that the digital world we live in today conspires to make us terminally too busy to pause and look up.

The point of cloud-spotting, as he calls it, is simply to slow down life’s swirling pace and observe the ever-changing beauty that is right above you, the perfect everyday meditation. “I think if you live with your head in the clouds it will help you keep your feet on the ground,” he says.

The society’s manifesto is a gem.

WE BELIEVE that clouds are unjustly maligned and that life would be immeasurably poorer without them.

We think that they are Nature’s poetry, and the most egalitarian of her displays, since everyone can have a fantastic view of them.

We pledge to fight “blue-sky thinking” wherever we find it. Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.

We seek to remind people that clouds are expressions of the atmosphere’s moods and can be read like those of a person’s countenance.

We believe that clouds are for dreamers and their contemplation benefits the soul. Indeed, all who consider the shapes they see in them will save money on psychoanalysis bills.

And so we say to all who’ll listen:

Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and always remember to live life with your head in the clouds!

In a year under assault by a killer pandemic, a world suffering from a collapsed economy and a death rate spiraling ever upward, not to mention a presidential election that will offer either a ray of hope or more hopeless chaos, looking up at clouds suddenly struck me a very sensible thing to do.

I signed up right away and within days received my official Cloud Appreciation Society Certificate of Membership, newly minted member number 52,509, plus a nifty “Cloud Selector” designed to help a rookie cloud spotter identify the ephemeral art forever passing overhead.

It felt like 1957 all over.

That year, as a dreamy four-year-old who lived in a house directly across the street from the Gulf of Mexico in Mississippi, I became obsessed with storm clouds over the ocean thanks to a man named Big Earl who ran the printing press at my father’s weekly newspaper in Gulfport. Big Earl informed me that we lived “smack dab in the middle of Hurricane Alley.”

With a kind of ghoulish enthusiasm, he suggested that I keep a sharp eye on storm clouds over the Gulf because they would indicate when a major hurricane was headed our way.

His warning prompted me to write off for an official Hurricane Preparation Kit offered, as I recall, by the National Geographic Society, just to be ready for the big blow. Every day I watched the clouds over the Gulf.

But no hurricane ever came.

Plenty of bone-rattling thunderstorms did, however, which caused the Gulf to cough up spectacular sea shells for my mom and me to collect on our evening walks.  We often sat at the end of the dune boardwalk watching the changing skies over the water — a gorgeous light show of pleated pinks and purples — picking out shapes that looked like faces or animals in the sky.

That autumn, we moved home to Carolina. By then, I was hooked on skywatching.

On my first trip to England in 1977, arriving as dawn broke over the continent, my plane dropped through a thick soup of clouds that always seem to blanket the Blessed Isles when suddenly, just below, a magical green world of hedgerows and winding lanes appeared, a storybook village with a Norman church tower and a herd of sheep on the hill. I was utterly awestruck. Those clouds were a curtain to enchantment.

From that point forward, whenever work duties placed me in the sky — which was often in those days — I loved flying through and above clouds, watching moving continents of white stretching away to eternity below the wings of the airplane, a visually majestic kingdom where light and weather forever danced together. I came to think of that peaceful, otherworldly place as a “country made of clouds.” 

Several years ago, in fact, I even began writing a novel with that notion in its title, a project that recently morphed into a screenplay about a troupe of pioneering female pilots after World War II that my daughter Maggie — the real writer in the family — is working on, with a little help from her cloud-loving old man.

Here’s a key scene from my unfinished novel, A Country Made of Clouds, in which the protagonist, a famous aviatrix and women’s activist named Dodo Barnes, takes her young son up for his first ride in her old barnstorming biplane for a sunset flight over the Outer Banks. He’s a wispy little kid, not unlike I was in 1957. Dodo speaks into his ear as he perches on her lap, awestruck by the beauty of the shapes in clouds he sees below them.

“You know, Hawk,” says Dodo, “I find such happiness up here. It’s like a beautiful country made of clouds, a place where there are no wars, no turmoil, no sadness of any kind, only endless light and peaceful clouds you could almost walk on to forever. I sometimes think this must be what the way to heaven looks like.”

Somewhere during our many journeys together, I must have told my buddy Macduff Everton about this novel, describing a scene that was inspired by my mother’s own words as we sat on the dunes long ago watching clouds over the Gulf of Mexico.

Or maybe he just sensed that I would find the Cloud Appreciation Society a timely reminder of my days as a master of daydreams, the perfect antidote to a world turned upside down.

Whichever it is, society member 52,509 is thrilled to look up and put his head in the clouds.  OH

Contact founding editor Jim Dodson at

Weekend Away

Port City Adventure

The Madcap Cottage gents “arrive” in Wilmington, literally


By Jason Oliver Nixon

John and I moved to North Carolina from Brooklyn, New York, six years ago and, egads!, had yet to visit the North Carolina coast. Over the years, Florida friends had invited us to their retreats in Highlands and Blowing Rock, but a trip to the shore kept getting shelved in favor of somewhere more far-flung — say, Sicily.

And then . . . Hello, pandemic!

Living in High Point, our Emerywood nabes escape to the Figure Eights and Bald Heads, but we are a bit less fancy and more “beach-adjacent” people who like to savor the strands for a stroll rather than loll about shoreside all day. John and I enjoy a view of the water but we don’t really swim — unless it’s a pool. We love history. Sidewalks. Charming residential architecture. Cool restaurants. And a hotel with a real personality that welcomes dogs and avoids trough-style breakfast situations.

John and I polled our style-setting friends, and, eureka!, Wilmington seemed to fit the checklist perfectly.

Hence, we piled into the trusty Subaru with the four-pound rescue pups, and the “circus” set sail for the easy three-hour drive to downtown Wilmington. Home base for the long weekend: The supremely relaxed-chic ARRIVE Wilmington Hotel.

“You will love it — very Palm Springs,” said an in-the-know pal. And we did.

ARRIVE Wilmington, a bold charcoal-and-white brick, cobbled-together group of buildings, is part of a mini hotel group that stretches from Phoenix to Austin, from Memphis to, yes, Palm Springs. Easy, breezy, modern and yet steeped in history: The motel-like structure is actually one part circa-1915 dye factory meets one part former nunnery. On the dye factory front, the hotel has a colorful history: The historic marker outside the hotel’s main entrance trumpets the aptly named Topsy, the circus elephant who somehow escaped from her circus in the 1920s and ran amuck at the factory. Whew, we sighed, knowing that our high-strung pups would fit right in — but what did happen to Topsy après le déluge, we wondered.

Within the ARRIVE complex, 36 rooms look onto a stunning, verdant garden kitted out with Adirondack and French bistro-style chairs and gas lanterns amidst a cornhole course, fire pits and cozy tables. Enjoy nibbles such as fried beets with whipped goat cheese and ginger-marinated beef skewers whilst sipping a vodka- and Campari-laced Drunken Monk cocktail, proffered from the super-friendly team working the Gazebo Bar. Our suite — #16 — was largely proportioned with a vaguely nautical theme: beadboard paneling, leather sofa, cozy kitchenette (aka mini fridge) and spacious tiled bathroom with the sign “Head” above the door. In summary: The ARRIVE’s location at the corner of South Second Street and Dock is perfect for exploring. The staff couldn’t be more lovely and accommodating. And the rates — we feel — are wonderfully affordable (rooms start at $109/night for two adults).

Factoid: The hotel’s nunnery annex houses a kooky “confessional,” a performance-like living sculpture accessed via your room key card — the perfect tonic after a night of too much sinning out on the town.

After settling in with the pups, John and I walked to nearby Manna for a wonderful dinner. The meal was pricey — almost $225 for two — but beautifully crafted and paired with a level of intuitive, thoughtful service that we rarely, if ever, find in the Triad. John savored his half chicken with Carolina Gold dirty rice and kale, and I lapped up the Vichyssoise with trout roe and crème fraîche, plus smoked pork loin with radicchio and peaches.

Next morning, we explored downtown Wilmington and popped into a few of the charming shops lining ever-gentrifying Front Street before grabbing potent coffees at Java Dog.

For lunch we walked to Indochine, a good 3-mile stroll. “You walked?’ our chic-ster friend later asked, eyes wide, grasping her Chanel pearls. But, yes, these former New Yorkers can handle our own and had a blast stopping in at the several antiques outposts and a hipster coffee shop en route on up-and-coming Castle Street.

Indochine is pure bliss. Fun, funky, irreverent, no pretense, bustling, no reservations and housed within a former public library that’s ablaze with color and pattern — so very us. Plus, our 6-mile round trip adventure burned off the glorious dumpling sampler, papaya salad and crispy bird-nest noodles washed down with a cool Allagash beer. After lunching and before hiking back, we explored the numerous buildings next door to Indochine that comprise The Ivy Cottage consignment store and trundled home a Tiffany vase, blanc-de-chine Chinoiserie figures and an Italian ceramic basket filed with ornamental apples. Yes, that was us.

We toured moss-dripping Airlie Gardens, strolled postcard-perfect Wrightsville Beach at sundown, sipped margaritas with friends who arrived by boat at Wrightsville’s Tower 7, and explored downtown Wilmington with the pups who love wide sidewalks and abundant greenery. Oh, the amazing architecture and history in this port city! Sadly, the city’s many house museums were closed due to COVID, but they will be top of our list on our next visit.

And the epicurean adventures continued at full gallop . . .

Ah, Brasserie du Soleil out near Wrightsville Beach where we supped on knockout French bistro fare (think tuna tartare, steak frites and Scottish salmon with mint yogurt) as tree frogs serenaded us from the fountain on the bustling patio. We loved the cooking at True Blue Butcher and Table, but the strip-mall setting (read, primo view of a Chicken Salad Chick sign) left us aesthetically challenged. But, oh!, the terrific, buttery New York Strip with divine Béarnaise sauce and side of mac and cheese that we split with a glass of spot-on, $9 Tempranillo red. A little more ambience, s’il-vous plaît, or take advantage of the to-go option.

Breakfast at the long-running, dive-ish White Front Breakfast House was a blast, and we walked and walked and then walked some more. On our final afternoon, we kicked back at the ARRIVE’s Gazebo Bar with the dogs scampering about. We sipped a cool rosé and took stock.

Noted John, “I think this is the new Charleston but without the hordes. And there’s more of a range of restaurants here — I get so tired of the same Gullah fare night after night in the Holy City.”

And my take?

It’s still very affordable and a little rough around the edges and that’s part of the magic.

Final assessment?


John and I definitely need to return — and soon — to this little weekend wonderland called Wilmington.  OH

The Madcap Cottage gents, John Loecke and Jason Oliver Nixon, embrace the new reality of COVID-friendly travel — heaps of road trips.

ARRIVE Wilmington, arrivehotels.com0

Short Stories

Real Talk

Have you seen GreenHill’s current exhibit? All women. All abstract artists from across the state. All worthy of starting a conversation about. And on Thursday, November 5 — the penultimate day of the exhibit — North Carolina Museum of Art’s executive director Valerie Hillings will start a conversation, right here at the GreenHill gallery at noon. Her one-hour presentation, “Multiple Perspectives,” will offer fresh insights and a new vision for museum collecting in North Carolina. Real talk: the times demand it. NC Women Abstract Painters is GreenHill’s first exhibit in 30 years dedicated exclusively to women. Don’t miss the chance to see it and hear Hillings, who, prior to landing at NCMA in 2018, curated more than 15 exhibitions on four continents during her tenure at the Guggenheim. Join the conversation in person or via Zoom:

The Inside Scoop

That’s right. The Greensboro Farmers Curb Market is back inside at 501 Yanceyville Street — with new Saturday fall hours, 8 a.m. to noon. Upfitted with handwashing stations and wayfinding signs, the Market building meets state mandates and CDC recommendations with ample space between vendors and improved air circulation. Or there’s always drive-through and curbside pickup on Saturdays or on Wednesdays through November 18. (Indoor shopping is not available on Wednesdays except for a special pre-Thanksgiving extravaganza from 8 a.m. until noon). So go online ( to preorder your root vegetables and mushroom jerky. And if you happen to be on the pumpkin spice-everything train, don’t miss GFCM’s Harvest Pancake Breakfast Fundraiser on November 7 — to go. Order online and scarf down either pumpkin-spice or apple cinnamon pancakes — you choose — made by Alex and Tim Amoroso of Cheesecakes by Alex, $10. Add a Neese’s Country Sausage patty ($2) to your cart and call it brunch.

Sauce of the Month

In March, we reviewed Bill Howland’s South Carolina-inspired “Slapp-it-on” Mustard IPA BBQ Sauce — sassy with hoppy IPA, smoky chipotle peppers and mustard. The Kayser-Roth veteran now at the Center for Creative Leadership explained that he’d turned to mustard when he wasn’t able to concoct his ideal of a ketchup-based sauce. Now he’s ketching up (so to speak) with his Gate City Red IPA BBQ Sauce. Unabashedly sweet, his new concoction is aromatic with a hint of curry. Cider vinegar and chipotles smoldering in adobo sauce balance the ketchup’s sugar. Look for a sweet-and-sour yin and yang that will keep you coming back for just one more dollop. Available at the Extra Ingredient and other outlets as far flung as South Carolina and Virginia. Info:

Scorpio Season: This Might Sting A Little

If you haven’t at least a healthy dose of fear of those born under Scorpio, the eighth astrological sign of the zodiac, consider that its symbol is, in fact, a scorpion. As in the predatory arachnid with murderous pincers and a tail punctuated by a venomous barb. But dive deeper into the shadowy depths of this emotional water sign and you will find a highly sensitive and intuitive being who is often the most loyal and compassionate of friends — even if they can hold a grudge for the better part of eternity. Ruled by Pluto (god of the underworld) and Mars (god of war), it’s no wonder Scorpios are portrayed as the Kali Ma of the zodiac — the dark mother who kills demons in the name of love and freedom and dances on corpses, tongue-wagging like some kind of wild beast. In other words: they’re misunderstood. But their mystery is part of their charm and their eyes, you will notice, are utterly hypnotic. This month, Mercury enters Scorpio on November 10. Translation: watch your mouth. And while Scorpios have a habit of internalizing, keep in mind, you’re only poisoning yourself. The new moon in Scorpio on November 15 is all about intense beginnings. But what about this year hasn’t been? If anyone is equipped to handle these turbulent times, surely it’s the fearlessly curious Scorpio. They hold the venom, yes. But they also hold the salve.

Omnivorous Reader

Siberian Odyssey

Exploring the exotic and the desolate


By Stephen E. Smith

“Loss of Travel Causing Americans to Feel Stress and Anxiety” a recent MSN headline blared. If that’s the case, here’s a possible pandemic-proof cure: The Lost Pianos of Siberia, by Sophy Roberts, a beautifully written travelogue/social history that will likely transport the reader to heretofore unknown locales.

You can’t travel much farther afield than Siberia, the wasteland to which tsarist political prisoners were exiled and in which purged Soviet dissidents disappeared into gulags surrounded by ice, swamps, mosquitoes and intellectual sterility. Much of what the average American knows about Siberia — if he or she knows anything at all — is based on the movie Doctor Zhivago, which wasn’t set in Siberia, or Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which was, and that’s unfortunate, since Siberia contains an 11th of the world’s land mass, the largest continuous forest, the longest railroad, the biggest lake, the coldest city, and an exotic ethnic mix that’s bewildering even by American standards.

So why would a British journalist travel to Siberia to find lost pianos? Roberts isn’t an authority on the evolution of the instrument or a connoisseur of the finer points of piano construction or restoration. She isn’t even an accomplished pianist. Although she never overtly states her motivation, the reader is left with the impression that the book, in addition to being immensely entertaining and informative, is a testament to the power of music in the most adverse circumstances man can conjure. Simply stated, Roberts went looking for lost pianos in the most desolate place on the planet and wrote a book about what she found.

The narrative is organized around physical locations, social histories and characters. “The pull of private histories is always present in Siberia,” she writes. “Every face informs the enigmatic texture of a place where legacy of exile lingers, like the smell of incense, or the feeble gleam of traffic lights, with the complexity of Russia’s identity, and the mix of Europe and Asia, evident not just in the jumble of architecture of the Siberian baroque church I stood on top of in a snow-breeze in winter, but in the routes reaching out from every side.”

Typical of Roberts’ happier discoveries is the story of Maria Volkonskaya. When Maria was forced into exile in the 1850s with her Decembrist husband, she took a clavichord, dragging it on a sledge. Once settled in Irkutsk, one of the largest cities in Siberia, she opened a hospital and concert hall, where recitals became a social force in the region. Roberts visits Maria’s home, now a museum, and discovers a pyramid piano shaped like a concert piano turned up against the wall (the original clavichord had long since disappeared into history) and a Lichtenthal owned by Maria.

When played the Lichtenthal “behaved awkwardly,” but the muffled notes lift Roberts into lyricism: “The keys were sticky, like an old typewriter gluey with ink. He struck the keys until the softened notes — muted by layers of dust, perhaps, or felt that had swollen in the damp — started to appear. At first the sound was reed-thin, no louder than the flick of a fingernail on a bell. Inside the piano, the amber wood still gleamed, the strings’ fragile tensions held in place by tiny twists around the heads of golden, round-headed tuning pins.”

Chapter 8, “The Last Tsar’s Piano: The Urals,” is a predictable rehashing of the Russian Revolution and the transport of the Romanovs to Ekaterinburg. The Tsarina played the piano, an ebony instrument, perhaps a Russian made Schröder, which disappeared along with the Romanovs and the Ipatiev House in which they were executed. Ironically, the body of Rasputin, the Tsarina’s personal mystic, was disinterred, stuffed into an old piano and burned.

Maxim Gorky, who knew something about suffering, wrote of the “genuine horrors” of everyday life in his native Russia, and certainly there are examples aplenty in Roberts’ telling. While visiting Kiakhta, a city located on the Russian-Mongolian border, she describes gruesome deaths by bayonet during the tsarist and Soviet eras. Prisoners were poisoned and shoved alive into bakers’ ovens. Many exiles were sprayed with water and frozen to death so as not to waste bullets.

Near Tomsk, one of the oldest cities in Siberia, she hears stories of a family of “Old Believers,” examples of Slavic civilization before the introduction of Westernizing reforms in the 18th century, who had retreated so far into the snowy taiga of the western Sayan Mountains that they lived in complete isolation until discovered in the late 1970s. They knew nothing of Stalin and the moon landings, which they didn’t believe anyway, and thought cellophane was crumpled glass.

In describing Sakhalin Island near Aleksandrovsk in the North Pacific Ocean, she quotes Chekhov: “A dreadful, hideous place, wretched in every respect, in which only saints or profoundly perverse people could live of their own free will.” Vlas Doroshevick, one of Russia’s most popular and widely read journalists of the 20th century, described Sakhalin as “perhaps the most foul hole as exists on earth.”

On the Yamal Peninsula, Roberts observed abandoned “skeletons of iron, diggers, lorries, and drilling machines stuck in hollows of land from Yamal’s vast natural gas fields” — a desolate place that “felt close to the start of time.” The forsaken landscape of Kolyma “felt like the saddest place on the planet.”

And so it goes: the Altai Mountains, Harbin, Novosibirsk, Akademgorodok, Kamchatka, Khabarovsk, etc. — place names so foreign they’re almost unpronounceable.

Roberts spent two years wandering the inhospitable wilderness of Siberia, and her powers of description bring those locales and their histories to life. There may have been pianos yet undiscovered, but Russian authorities eventually became suspicious of her “lost pianos” rationale, and she was ordered out of the country. Riding to the airport, she studied the texture of the skull of a man sitting in front of her. It was “like a brain exposed. The image stayed with me, along with the sight of a handgun in our driver’s glove compartment, the swelling in the land from mass graves, and the statues of Lenin in Kadykchan with half his face shot away.” 

There are disturbing, indelible images in The Lost Pianos of Siberia, visions of what Gorky called the “grotesquely terrible.” But there are also touches of humor and occasional moments of beauty. If Roberts’ descriptions of Siberia don’t magically cure the stress and anxiety of living in pandemic America, thoughtful readers might well find they sleep a little more soundly.  OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press Awards

November 2020


The tendency to give up trying to talk about an experience because people are unable to relate to it. – The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows 

To my Northern friends: I regret

I can no longer speak with authority

about winter. I’ve forgotten the feeling

of ears ringing with the silence

of fresh snowfall, air so cold it stabs

the lungs. Gone are those Norse names,

the rough wool, heavy boots,

bodies bent against wind so fierce

there must be a name for it in Lakota.

I can’t recall how despair closes in,

a cloud blanket for days, dense, ominous.

Remind me how, in a whiteout,

a person can get lost between car

and house. Tell me about

children in mufflers waiting

for the school bus in handmade huts,

the shush of skis down slushy streets.

Didn’t we find Easter eggs nested

on the icy crust? I do remember

that just when you vow to never

shovel another drive,

the bright flags of daffodils flare. 

— Debra Kaufman

Debra Kaufman’s most recent book is God Shattered

Life’s Funny

Plymouth Rock On

This isn’t the first Thanksgiving — but it’s the first one like this


By Maria Johnson

I’ve been thinking a lot about Pilgrims lately.

I started down this road because my younger son was in Massachusetts recently, and he made a special trip to see Plymouth Rock, which was a “What the . . . ?” moment for him because he found out that Plymouth Rock is really small, as tourist rocks go.

I understand the disappointment. Before I saw the historic landmark for the first time, I imagined it would be like the Rock of Gibraltar, a looming outcrop that represented safety and solidity, a sort of “Land ho!” formation.

In fact, it looks like the kind of rock the Pilgrims might have stubbed their toes on, or maybe sat on to take a load off because their Pilgrim shoes were killing them.

Another reason for my son’s reaction was that a couple of gummy worms were stuck to the rock (see photo). It would be inaccurate to say he was disappointed at this. In fact, it bolstered his faith in human nature.

No wonder the Pilgrims thought this rock was special.

Imagine their excitement when — after cramming themselves into dank ships, rocking to-and-fro on the high seas, gnawing on hardtack for months — they finally got to experience dry land . . . and gummy worms. All at once.

I’d have stayed, too.

So there’s that background to explain why I’ve gone Myles Standish lately. There’s also the fact that I’ve been wondering how the heck to host Thanksgiving in the age of COVID.

It occurred to me that maybe I should take a lesson from the first Thanksgiving, which as we all know from our childhood picture books, occurred outdoors at long tables where the Pilgrims and Native Americans mingled around lots of cornucopia to celebrate a bountiful harvest and converse about topics of the day.

Pilgrims: We’re so grateful for your help. Leaving the gummy worms on Plymouth Rock was a special touch, like mints on a pillow. Now, how about a drumstick in exchange for all of your land?

Native Americans: Great. May we have another helping of smallpox, too?

Ah, Thanksgiving conversations.

The point is, they were aerosolizing OUTSIDE, which seems like a good idea for our family this year. We’re expecting six to eight guests, including my elderly mom and some folks who’ve been sharing the air with college students.

The idea of renting a small tent flickered through my mind, so last month I called a local party supply company and spoke to a very nice woman who basically said: “HAHAHAHAHA.”

Her store couldn’t pitch party tents fast enough. Some of the tents had been rented long-term by hospitals offering drive-through COVID tests and by restaurants dishing up take-out meals. The tent manufacturers were back-ordered. Ditto with the makers of gas heaters. Her company had even purchased hand sanitizing stations because the demand for them was so great.


In desperation, I eyed our garage, notable for the fact that after 25 years of living here, we can still fit two cars inside. Still, it’s no glam bay. No epoxy floors, or built-in cabinetry, or drywall interior. We’re talking about exposed studs with bent hooks that hold ladders, bikes, garden tools, golf bags, old skateboards.

In other words, a real-deal family space.

Might it work if we rolled up the garage doors, propped open a side door and set up a couple of electric fans to promote air circulation?

Naturally, we would screen guests as they arrived. They would answer some health questions, then my husband would hold an electric drill near their foreheads and pull the trigger. If they flinched, an indication of normal health, they could proceed.

A vision formed. Roast turkey carved with hedge trimmers; a centerpiece of scented candles and hacksaws; sweet potatoes on a bed of Craftsman wrenches.

In the event, God forbid, that any of our guests should become sick before Thanksgiving, they’d be welcome to join us via a cardboard cutout (thanks for the idea, Major League Baseball) or via Zoom (appreciate the assist, NBA).

For Zoomers, we’d set up a computer monitor at their table and allow for a three-second lag between our “amen” and theirs; our laughter and theirs; our visible discomfort at bad jokes and theirs.

On the subject of politics, no matter who wins the election, the rules would be firm. Any jabs from a Zoomer and we’d mute their square.

Should the barbs come from anyone attending in person, I’d dispatch my husband to the workbench with a sheet of plexiglass — yes, we have some of that, too — and the offender soon would be encased.

The Garage of Gratitude is sounding better and better.

As we all know by now, nothing is off the table this year.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. She can be reached at


The Return of the Bufflehead

The little ducks are back — if only for the winter


By Susan Campbell

For me, late autumn means one of my favorite groups of birds, waterfowl, are on the way south.

As the colder months bring thousands south to spend the winter, the vast majority of ducks, geese and swans touch down along the coast. Still, inland throughout the Sandhills and Piedmont, reservoirs and farm ponds attract a great diversity of these web-footed wonders. Although nonmigratory wood ducks and mallards are common enough, smaller species can be seen, including the bufflehead.

Male and female buffleheads have distinctly different plumage. Males are the showier of the two with lots of white on the head and the body and a splash on the wings. The glossy green “buffle” over the male’s cheeks and crown, though, is the bird’s really distinguishing feature. Also look for dark feathers on the back, and, in flight, a white stripe at the shoulder and a patch across the middle of the wing. 

Females are brown all over with just a white “ear” patch. Juveniles will sport their first set of feathers through most of the winter with young males looking very much like their mothers: having very limited white feathering. Overall, these are small, stout ducks with short, wide bills.

One surprising feature of the males is their red-orange legs. You may get a glimpse of them as they come in for a landing. But come late winter, as their hormone levels change, they will be more apt to display their colorful shanks in addition to bobbing their handsome heads. Listen for their characteristic croaking calls as they swim around their mate, showing off. Unlike other species of ducks, they mate for life, only spending a little time apart in late summer when they undergo a complete molt.

Bufflehead breed way up north in boreal forests — in close association with northern flickers. They are dependent on the woodpecker; abandoned flicker cavities are just the right size for the diminutive hen to lay her eggs. As with other cavity-nesting waterfowl, as soon as all of the eggs have hatched (and that may take all day since there can be a dozen or more), mom will exit and call the young to her on the ground. The literal “leap of faith” ensues and the fat, downy balls of feathers will, one by one, jump out of the nest hole. It is not unusual for them to bounce a time or two when they hit the leaf litter. But their insulation and soft bones protect them from the impact.  The brood will be led a short distance to water where they are well equipped to spend day and night from there on out.

Inland, the birds have quite a broad diet during the cooler months.  They have legs placed well back on their bodies so they are at ease diving and swimming in all sorts of wet habitats. You may see bufflehead diving not only for invertebrates but small clams, snails and worms in deep water. In shallow bays and around pond edges, they search out seeds and berries.

Quite unexpectedly I came to realize that buffleheads can become regular “yard birds” if you live on a body of water that they frequent. In Whispering Pines, I would throw corn to the ring-necked ducks (yet another small wintering species) that came up to our bulkhead. Not long after the first bufflehead appeared, in about 2010, they not only zeroed in on the free food but quickly drove away the ring-necked fowl. Week after week, these little ducks would arrive at dawn looking for breakfast and provide lots of entertainment, enthusiastically diving to gobble up cracked corn. By the end of February, the flock would disappear, no doubt heading north, back to their breeding grounds. So each fall I would anticipate the return of the buffleheads. I would wait and wait: until one morning in late October, following a good cold front, the first feisty group would show up once again — hungry as ever!  OH

Susan would love to receive your wildlife observations and/or photos at

Earning His Wings

Joe Bemis’ High Flying World War II Recreations

By Billy Ingram     Photographs by Joe Bemis/Victory Productions


Seventy-five years ago this year, the United States and our Allies emerged victorious in both the Japanese and German theaters of war, marking the end of a senseless conflagration that upended an entire world.

Photo-illustrator Joe Bemis has spent his entire professional career composing meticulously detailed pictorial recreations of scenes from America’s past wars, from the Revolution to Vietnam, with a special emphasis on the Second World War. Authenticity is everything. “Every little detail of the photo has to be period correct,” Bemis insists. “I try my best and ask a lot of living historians and re-enactors for advice.” Between his research and theirs, he usually gets it right.


“To preserve and educate,” Bemis replies when asked why he goes to such lengths to capture bygone eras. “We have to preserve the memories of our veterans and the experiences they went through. And we also have to teach new generations about the sacrifices that they were willing to go through to preserve our democracy.”

He travels the world photographing organized re-enactments of famous military campaigns as well as staging his own Victory Weekends where family, friends, war re-enactors, makeup artists and assistants breathe new life into long ago, far-away conflicts.

“You have different types of re-enacts,” Bemis explains. “Tactical, which is going through maneuvers, camping, stuff like that. Or you have living history events that the public is allowed to attend, at a historic site or an airshow.” He goes on to say that there are also total immersion re-enactments “where you can’t have anything at all that’s modern.” Those events last for days, no one is allowed to go to their cars or make phone calls. “You’re in character for three or four days. I haven’t even made it to one of those because everyone and everything has to be completely authentic. There are people who shoot with period cameras but I’m not one of them. I’ve gotten used to the modern digital aspect of the art.”

At Toccoa, Ga., he recently photographed a reenactment of 101st Airborne paratroopers training for battle, as depicted in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, based on Stephen Ambrose’s book by the same name. “I actually got to meet [Jim] “Pee Wee” Martin, one of the last surviving members of the 504th who trained at Camp Toccoa. Martin was in charge of a training exercise called Currahee, where recruits, among other skills, had to run 3 miles up a mountain and three miles back down. “You had to be able to run that mountain in 55 minutes, full gear,” he recalls. “We ran Currahee and it almost killed me. But I’m not 18 so . . .”

Warbirds Over Monroe Air Show in Monroe, North Carolina, is where the photo of 101st and 82nd Airborne paratroopers getting a lift in a Jeep was shot. “That’s Eric Kalamaja at the wheel,” Bemis explains. “He’s 101st Airborne retired and does that re-enactment every year. That guy is hardcore, he rebuilds military Jeeps in his spare time and sells them.”

This collection also contains photos taken at “D-Day Conneaut” in Ohio, a yearly, four-day long re-enactment of the Allies landing at Normandy. “I was one of the few photographers that got to shoot the landing craft,” Bemis says. “The Higgins boats in the background and the explosions I added in Photoshop.”

As exciting as these off-site experiences can be, there’s nothing like on-scene re-enactments. Naturally, Bemis and his Victory team were present on June 6, 2019, for the 75th anniversary celebration of D-Day held at Normandy, France, where nearly 160,000 Allied service members embarked in Operation Overlord back in 1944. It was the largest military invasion in history, which, at a great human cost, would prove to be the decisive engagement leading to the end of World War II just one year later.

He recalls the morning of June 6, 2019: “I was on Utah Beach when the sun came up at 6 in the morning on the 6th,” Bemis recalls with pride. “The same moment, 75 years prior, those troops were landing on the beach.”

That’s when he took the shot of a GI’s helmet lying on the early morning beach at Normandy, an iconic image seen in the motion picture The Longest Day. “Everybody’s attempted that shot but I did it a little differently just to make it my own. I’d always dreamed of being there and capturing that photograph.”

Bemis watched in awe as a dozen Douglas C-47 Skytrains roared overhead, releasing paratroopers over actual D-Day drop zones as they had 75 years ago. “Nobody had parachuted into these historic drop zones since then,” he notes. Heading the formation was the original C-47 that led the assault in 1944, “The entire sky was nothing but paratroopers, there’s no Photoshopping in that picture, that’s the way it looked.”

He staged a shot of Sherman tanks at Normandy, “But none of the Shermans made it to the beach on that first day,” Bemis tells me. “They weren’t counting on rough seas in the channel, so pretty much every tank that came off the delivery ships sank. They’re all still down there in the channel; you can actually go and dive on them.”

While in the town of Sainte-Mère-Église, Bemis describes one of the most beautiful sounds he’s ever heard: “A column of Sherman tanks, half-tracks and armored vehicles I’d only seen in museums.” The lead tank is the one used in the movie Fury starring Brad Pitt. “I was in shock, I was really excited taking photos, looking, watching, smelling. One of the soldiers pointed me out saying, ‘C’mon up.’ So I got to sit on one of the Sherman tanks while it was moving through town. With crowds of people all around us, it looked like the town was being liberated all over again.”

As for the picture taken at Mulberry harbour of an older gentleman staring off into space, reminiscing no doubt about what he witnessed 75 years earlier as part of the first wave to hit Gold Beach on June 6th: “We were leaving when I saw him just sitting there,” Bemis says. “At the time I didn’t know who he was, what got my attention were all the medals hanging on his jacket.” While snapping a few shots, out of nowhere, the former Sapper with the Royal Engineers was surrounded by reporters and TV crews. “This was actually a combination of three shots because those guys ran in front of me while I was shooting.” After returning home, Bemis just happened to see an interview with the fellow, Harry Billinge. “He’s all over the place right now. When he was 94 he was knighted by the Queen, he turned 100 this year so he was 99 in that picture.”


Admittedly somewhat jaded after decades behind the camera documenting life during wartime, Bemis says, “When I first started going to these events I’d show up and say, ‘Oh my God, three Jeeps, a C-47, a P-51!’ Now I’m like, ‘What do you mean you don’t have two tanks?’”


What’s t

he latest from Joe Bemis and Victory Productions? “There’s a big event in September,” he said last summer. “‘Road to Rome’ will have some 200 participants with tanks, half-tracks and equipment in a reimagining of the Italian campaigns from 1943–1945 staged at Enfield, N.C. The organizers have set up separate Allied and Axis Facebook pages so, if you’re a German re-enactor, for instance, you can’t go to the GI page to see what they’re doing.”

Imagine how much faster the Allies could have won the war if only we could have peeked at Hitler’s Facebook page or intercepted his tweets.  OH

Joe Bemis shot many of these images in collaboration with Patrice Wessling. You can purchase prints of these photos and other American combat depictions at