Bontanicus

Bontanicus

The Natural World

In Fisher Park, a seed grows, a finch sings

By Ross Howell Jr.

Driving east on U.S. Route 421 near Liberty, I heard the North Carolina public radio announcement that my neighbor, Rob Brown, had just won the WFDD photo of the week.

I was on a sad trip. I was going to see Becky, my mother-in-law, who was in hospice care at her home in Lillington.

My wife, Mary Leigh, was already with her mom. Over the summer, we’d made many trips together — first to the facility where Becky received regularly-scheduled infusions; later, to a rehabilitation facility in Cary after she had broken a hip; and, more recently, to her bedside.

We were near the end.

Still, I smiled when I heard the radio announcement about Rob.

He lives across the street from us in Fisher Park with his wife, Lane. He’s a professional photographer. I’ve interviewed him for the pages of this magazine — a story in his own words about how the COVID pandemic had brought him back to doing the thing he’s loved since he was a kid: taking photos.

I knew quite a bit about Rob’s prize-winning picture.

It started with a sunflower seed a bird had sown in front of our house. I’d noticed the lone volunteer in the spring, sprouting about six inches from the edge of a flower bed.

If I had just taken the time to move the sprout from the edge farther into the bed, maybe I could’ve forestalled its demise.

But I didn’t. All I did was keep it well mulched.

The sunflower grew like Jack’s beanstalk.

On July 1, Mary Leigh took a snapshot of me with the volunteer. The sunflower stood higher than the gutters of the house, some 12 feet tall, with at least a dozen flower heads sprouting midway on the stalk all the way to the very top. Its broad-leafed foliage was profuse.

Neighbors emailed, thanking me for growing such a beautiful specimen. Passersby voiced their admiration. I protested that I had little, or nothing, to do with its success — that it was truly a self-made sunflower.

I thought about staking it because of its size and weight — but didn’t.

At least I thought to ask Rob to photograph the extraordinary plant when its bright yellow flowers opened.

Which he did, one hot morning while Mary Leigh and I were visiting Becky.

When we returned near dusk, twigs and leaves scattered on the street foretold what we would find. A thunderstorm had taken the sunflower down.

The leaves hadn’t yet wilted, so I hoisted up the stalk and tried to brace it with stakes. But to no avail. The roots were broken, so the stalk teetered and spun with the slightest breeze.

As the light faded, neighbors murmured encouragement and went inside. Warm light spilled from their windows into the dusk.

Near dark, I gave up, too.

We’re all under a death sentence, when you think about it. But it doesn’t pay to think about it too much.

When I was growing up in the mountains of Virginia, I often sought refuge in the natural world. There was conflict in my household, but outside, I found solace. Quietude. Beauty. Hope. And a myriad of interesting things.

The spring wildflowers I discovered in the woodlands were treasures. In school, I was careful to learn their names and characteristics. Likewise for bugs and spiders, and all number of slimy or slithering creatures.

It seemed to me that among the wildflowers and critters, death was a natural part of life. The large and constant pattern of their lives was indifferent to sorrow and death.

Early the next morning after the thunderstorm, I clipped a few of the wilted sunflowers. I arranged a place for them to dry out, planning to give seeds to the neighbors at Christmas and to plant some myself come spring — in the middle of a flower bed, so the roots could better anchor the stalks this time.

Then Rob’s photo arrived in my email inbox.

Perfection.

A goldfinch perched on a bower of gold singing to a blue sky. Indifferent to the coming storm. Captured by my neighbor’s skill, as a favor to me.

Just days later, Mary Leigh’s mom left us.

It was grim to watch her go, of course — to see how determined her body was to cling to the spirit that was leaving it.

But I’m sure Becky’s spirit found quietude and beauty. And her memory is our hope.

This spring, finches have returned and sunflowers will bloom — indifferent to destiny, indifferent even to their own beauty.

And that is the natural world.  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is a contributor to O.Henry magazine. Currently, he’s reading Margaret Renkl’s new book, The Comfort of Crows.

Home Grown

Home Grown

By Cynthia Adams

On a recent trip with friends, I casually mentioned my father’s unfortunate incarceration, an expression adopted from the character Anthony Bouvier, portrayed by Meshach Taylor, on the hit sitcom Designing Women. Fans of the show may recall that from 1986–1993 Taylor played a gentle quipster, unfairly convicted of robbery. 

I preferred Bouvier’s jokey euphemism; it landed gentler than saying, “My father went to the big house.” Or, “Dad did time.”

Prison talk is freighted, folks. Predictably, eyebrows raised.

“It’s not like he killed anyone,” I hastily added. What I didn’t add was he was merely one case among others in my family line.

A former mentor shared these encouraging words, “Normal families seldom produce writers.”

Take this magazine’s namesake and this city’s native son, William Sydney Porter — pen name O. Henry — who went on the lam to Honduras before serving time. He served three years in an Ohio prison; my father served only three months. I found myself bringing that up, as if it explains anything. Dad, however, could have easily walked out of an O. Henry plot — with a love for storytelling and an obsession for Pepsi-Colas and Mounds candy bars.

Dad, himself, and other relatives were never shy about sharing our family’s hapless narrative.

During a visit in Atlanta with my great uncle, Miles McClellan, he shared an alarming story. Our ancestral widowed Scots-Irish grandmother killed a tax collector during the Great Famine. “I’ve spent time at the Library of Congress,” Miles confided, “trying to learn more about her.”

Uncle Miles told an incredible tale: She whacked the tax collector with a fireplace poker when he attempted to collect their cow in lieu of taxes. She was spared a death sentence, but she and her children were exiled.

He died before finding proof, but the tale had taken unshakeable root in my imagination. 

There was more. Uncle Miles himself experienced incarceration as an adventurous young man who loved newfangled motor cars. He sought his fortune in Atlanta, starting one of the city’s early car dealerships. My grandmother insisted her favorite brother was framed by older, jealous rivals. Then, the narrative grew tricky: He fled after faking his own death by driving his Model T into a creek, then lived in Baltimore under an assumed name. But he returned to face the charges, just as O. Henry did, however false. My grandmother fainted outright when her brother walked up her driveway, very much alive.

After serving time, Uncle Miles went on to found another successful business — this time selling municipal water towers — and (honestly) earned wealth. He piloted his own plane, lived in an Emerywood mansion, and remained witty and compassionate, while walking the straight and narrow.

But when my father was sentenced to a federal penitentiary in Birmingham, Alabama, tales of redemption didn’t soothe us, despite his funny and considerate probation officer, Randy Harrell, who became a family friend. The fact that Dad was appointed a pre-trial probation officer seemed a clear indication of pending doom. When Dad was led away in handcuffs, I was a new college student. Three younger siblings were still at home. Dad was jailed at Maxwell Air Force Base with Watergate offender Charles Colson. My liberal father’s response? “This is cruel and unusual punishment,” he wrote to the warden and to anyone he could think to complain to. 

Dad and Charles apparently became buddies, although Dad was wary of Colson’s “jailhouse religion.” I kept a letter sent by Colson to me on Pentagon stationary urging me to keep up my studies. The logo, incidentally, is crossed out.

Dad returned to a business and family life in ruins. And the family curse continued. A young sibling would wind up spending months jailed for fishing without a license — so help me God. (He had a prior DUI). The old saw about he who represents himself in court has a fool for a client proved true in his case and mine; read on.

When appealing a driving conviction before Judge Elreta Alexander before her retirement, I tested that theory. Standing well apart from the hangdog guilty group and edging closer to the allegedly innocent, I pleaded “guilty with exonerating circumstances.” The judge snapped: “Stand there with the rest of the guilty!”

Admonished, I slipped a folder of images of “No Right on Red” signage at a downtown stoplight behind my back, now terrified of actually presenting my evidence. Would this clever judge realize my wide-angle lens might have distorted the sign’s distance from the stoplight? I had sworn to give honest testimony; but were the pictures just a tad misleading?

After systematically finding each “innocent” plaintiff guilty, Judge Alexander beckoned me to approach the bench. “You. The one who doesn’t know if she’s guilty or innocent. What is it that you brought?” she asked, demanding the ill-concealed folder.

As she studied my pictures, I lightly joked that the worst that could happen was she would find me guilty. Fixing me with an assessing look, she warned that, no, things could get worse. 

“Read your ticket,” the judge said grimly. She could, in fact, jail me for illegally turning right on red. And levy fines. 

Jail?! I grew redder than a fully ripe McIntosh apple.

Perhaps because the ticketing officer failed to appear, Judge Alexander relented, ruling prayer for judgment continued, a PJC. 

I paid the court costs and sprinted out — a near miss as a jailbird. 

Long afterward, I refused to turn right on a red light, no matter how many horns honked or fingers flipped me off.

Felonious grandmother, uncle, father and brother, know this: I vow to break the chain of unfortunate incarcerations.

That annoying driver who rubbernecks before proceeding right at the stoplight? It’s probably law-abiding little ole me. Just wave hello and please don’t honk; there’s some serious ancestral baggage riding with me and a curse I’m doing my best to shake.  OH

Cynthia Adam is a contributing editor to O.Henry magazine.

Art of the State

Art of the State

Wild Clay, Ancient Art

Takuro and Hitomi Shibata shape pots — and their community

By Liza Roberts

Eighteen years ago, when ceramic artists Takuro and Hitomi Shibata moved to Seagrove from the ancient pottery village of Shigaraki, Japan, they had with them nothing but a couple of suitcases, a rescued stray cat and plans for a short adventure.

Today they are pillars of the community. Hitomi is a respected and prolific Seagrove ceramic artist, and Takuro, a fellow potter and the procurer and refiner of most of the area’s local clay, is a community fulcrum. They live with their two American-born sons on Busbee Road in a striking modernist house designed by a protégé of famed architect Frank Harmon, built in part with their own hands. Their wood-fired kilns are a stone’s throw from its front door, and the tiny farmhouse where they first lived on the property now serves as a gallery for their work. Their former garage is now their studio.

The art they make here and sell under the Studio Touya name is distinctly their own. Hitomi’s sculptural pieces have the rounded, organic shapes of abstract feminine nudes. Takuro’s are distinct for their architectural geometry, acute angles and jutting planes. It’s impossible to see the couple’s pieces side by side and not admire the harmony of their yin and yang. 

A reverence for local clay is at the heart of the couple’s individual art and their mutual business. They put that shared love and knowledge into Wild Clay: Creating Ceramics and Glazes from Natural and Found Resources, a book they co-wrote and published with Herbert Press in 2022. Its publication took their local story to an international audience, changing their business and their work in the process.

“We have been very busy doing more exhibitions and workshops outside of North Carolina, nationally and internationally,” Hitomi says. “Especially after releasing our book, we were invited to ceramic conferences, meetings and workshops to talk about our clay stories from Shigaraki to North Carolina.” When so much time on the road meant less time for making pots, the couple decided to refine their work. “We tried to improve the quality of our art,” Hitomi says. “Also, using beautiful wild clays and natural materials, which we have been doing for many years, became even more important for our artistic practices.”

Finding Home 

The couple credits the Seagrove community and its native clay for nurturing the art they originally learned in Shigaraki. The first time they saw this place, they had a feeling it would be important to them. “We were surprised,” Hitomi recalls. “There were so many pottery studios. We realized Seagrove was the biggest pottery community in the United States.” 

They’d come down from a Virginia artist’s residence on a Greyhound bus at the invitation of Nancy Gottovi (now executive director of nearby arts hub Starworks) and her husband, Seagrove potter David Stumpfle, who had visited Shigaraki a few years earlier.

The Shibatas loved what they saw, but their visas were up.

Two years later, Gottovi called again. She was working with Central Park NC, an organization dedicated to preserving the natural and cultural assets of central North Carolina, and offered Takuro, who has an engineering and chemistry degree, an opportunity to establish a clay factory to serve Seagrove’s potters.

The Shibatas jumped at the chance. People in Seagrove, they believed, truly understood the value of pottery. In other places, Hitomi says, “people love art, but they don’t think that pottery is the same thing as art. But here, people are so crazy about pottery. They love the tradition, they have so much appreciation . . . it’s part of the history of the state.”

The Pottery Ecosystem

Today, Starworks Ceramics is an integral part of the Seagrove pottery ecosystem, and it’s growing. “We went through a tough time during the pandemic,” Takuro says, “but now we have more people working, and it’s a great team. Our clay is getting more popular, and potters and artists support not only our clays, but the story of a clay factory.”

The process is laborious: Takuro takes raw clay dug from the earth and turns it into a viable material. The equipment he and his assistants use to refine it is massive and low-tech, the stuff of a fairy-tale giant’s bakery. Some of it is from the 1940s. There’s a shredder, a mixer, a separator and a vibrating screen; there are things called filter presses and pug mills. All of it fills a cavernous warehouse room. Massive buckets of what looks like sticky dirt go in one end; several days of man and machine power later, neat clay cubes come out the other. These cubes are sold in increasing numbers to potters in Seagrove and around the world.

“Using wild clays for pottery in the studio is a growing trend in American ceramic art education and in small pottery businesses,” Takuro says. “It’s good for people to think about sustainability and the environment. However, these methods have been used and improved for thousands of years all over the world. Nothing is new.”

He hopes his clay and the couple’s book inspires more potters around the country to learn about the clay histories in their own regions: “Our clay story is very personal, and our clay experience doesn’t cover all wild clays, but we heard from readers that many places in the world have interesting histories, communities and people who work in clay. We believe clay is universal.”

At the same time, Takuro knows that what makes and sells at Starworks can’t be found just anywhere. “North Carolina clay is special,” he says. “It’s high in silica, it can be fired at high temperatures and it is from this place.”  OH

This is an excerpt from Art of the State: Celebrating the Art of North Carolina, published by UNC Press.

Omnivorous Reader

Omnivorous Reader

Letters from Death Row

Finding purpose behind bars

By Anne Blythe

Much has been written about how the art of letter writing has been in decline for years — except in prisons. Behind the barbed fences, putting pen to paper remains a vital connection to the world outside the prison walls. It was one such letter that launched Rap and Redemption on Death Row: Seeking Justice and Finding Purpose Behind Bars, a book by Alim Braxton and Mark Katz.

Braxton, born Michael Jerome Jackson on June 1, 1974, has been in prison since he was 19 years old, incarcerated more than a quarter-century of that time on North Carolina’s death row. His co-author, Katz, is a music professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who started the Carolina Hip Hop Institute in the summer of 2019.

Braxton, who chose the Muslim name Alim in prison, read a newspaper story about the program and wrote a letter to Katz in August 2019 asking for help. Rap music had been a big part of Braxton’s life, even before prison. He had been writing and recording lyrics over the phone but was not pleased with the sound quality.

Let’s get this out of the way: Braxton killed three people and robbed two others. He accepts responsibility and apologizes for killing Emmanuel Ogauyo, Donald Bryant and Dwayne Caldwell, as he does for robbing Susan Indula and Lindanette Walker.

“I know my situation may seem despairing and perhaps unlike anyone you’ve worked with before, but despite the circumstances I still have faith and I still have a dream, and I believe that with the right sound and someone who knows what to do with my vocals I can accomplish something BIG!” Braxton wrote to Katz, who held on to the letter for a month.

“I wasn’t sure I wanted to offer my help,” Katz writes in the preface to the book. “I didn’t know him, and after all, this request was coming from a convicted murderer.” He decided to respond anyway.

“I was intrigued by his passion. I also saw an earnestness is his neatly handwritten letter that amplified the sincerity of his words,” Katz writes.

That led to a relationship and the exchange of many letters to build a team of people who worked with Braxton to record his first album — the first-ever recorded from death row — and to this book.

“It wasn’t long into our correspondence that I came to believe that Alim’s letters were worth preserving and making public, and that is what spurred me to suggest the possibility of a book,” Katz writes. “Earlier in my career, I had spent many hours in archives reading correspondence by famous musicians. I would count myself lucky anytime I found a single paragraph of interest out of a batch of letters. That is not the case with Alim’s letters.”

Braxton’s blunt but colorful accounts of how he got to prison and his life inside it are contemplative and eye-opening. He gives readers a glimpse of the inmate hierarchy, the violence, the loss of dignity, privacy and rights, the code of survival and his path to redemption, love, a wife and even hope for the future despite his circumstances.

His rap, which is interspersed with the narrative, is personal and wide-ranging. His lyrics offer views of the George Floyd protests, COVID, pop culture and much more. In telling his story, Braxton wants to make sure that the stories of others — those on death row who maintain their innocence and have cases he believes involve wrongful convictions — are lifted up with his rap.

Braxton grew up in a rough-and-tumble Raleigh neighborhood about 2 miles from Central Prison. There are times he dreams of nearby places he visited as a boy or the rolling Dix Park across the busy boulevard from the prison cell “the size of a bathroom” he now lives in.

“I have fond memories of my childhood growing up in Raleigh, but as I wrote in my song, ‘Unremarkable,’ it’s also where I learned ‘to thug it properly.’ Stealing, fighting and drinking were rites of passage in my neighborhood,” Braxton writes. “My descent into crime didn’t happen overnight. I got my feet wet shoplifting around the age of 11. By the time I was 16 I had gone to prison for two months for stealing a car. I soaked up more criminal knowledge while inside, and after my release, the front gate became a revolving door, with three dozen arrests and three additional stints in prison.”

In vivid detail, Braxton goes on to describe his first time with a gun, his move from a pistol to a sawed-off shotgun, the first time he killed a person, and the almost out-of-body experience he had during those times. It was as if he was playing a role in a movie or a TV show, he wrote. He says the adage “the decisions you make today determine your tomorrow” rolls around in his head, especially when he thinks about the 1993 robbery spree where he claimed the lives of two people.

“Why didn’t I just leave at some point during that February night in 1993?” Braxton writes. “The truth is that I was afraid that I would look weak. I know now that it’s not weak to walk away from something you don’t want to be involved in. . . . Not walking away was a pivotal decision that changed the course of my life forever.”

Not walking away from a conflict in prison is what landed him on death row. He had been spared the death penalty and given two life sentences plus 110 years for the 1993 robbery-turned-kidnapping-turned-murder. Then he stabbed a fellow inmate to death.

Although North Carolina has had a de facto moratorium on the death penalty since 2006 while lawsuits make their way through the courts, the possibility of executions starting again looms.

“The true reality of life on Death Row is that every day is a life of fear, regret and humiliation . . . ,” Braxton wrote in a newspaper letter to the editor published in the book. “I live every day with the fear of standing before my God and accounting for my deeds.”  OH

Anne Blythe has been a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades covering city halls, higher education, the courts, crime, hurricanes, ice storms, droughts, floods, college sports, health care and many wonderful characters who make this state such an interesting place.

O.Henry Ending

O.Henry Ending

The Gift of the Fan Belt

What goes around . . .

By Harry Roach

Note from the editor: This was second place in our 2023 O.Henry Essay Contest.

In the summer of 1969, I was driving a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair. Yes, a Corvair, not a Corvette. Manufactured from 1960–1969, the Corvair was America’s first and only automobile with an air-cooled, rear-mount engine. That engine was the heart of the vehicle, and near the center of this story.

After a long day trip to a state park in southeastern Missouri, my wife and I were in the Corvair, engine off, waiting in line for a ferry to carry us across the Mississippi River to southern Illinois. We chatted and laughed, recounting the highlights of the day.  From the ferry landing, fields of corn flowed north and south to the horizon, filling thousands of acres of bottom land between the river and the levee. I could say that the scene reminded me of that ominous Stephen King story, but he didn’t write it until 1977.   

With the late afternoon sun behind us, we could see the ferry crossing toward us from the east bank, slow as a tortoise on vacation. It was carrying its maximum, just nine cars. On our side, the Corvair was seventh in line and, because the ferry did not operate after dark, ours would be the final crossing of the day.

As the ferry maneuvered toward the slip, drivers ahead of us started their cars. I turned the key in the ignition, the engine immediately fired up. Bang! What was that? Red lights on the control panel lit up like a Christmas display. I got out and opened the hatch over the engine. The Corvair had thrown its fan belt. Late on a Sunday afternoon. Miles from nowhere. We were stuck.

The fan is essential to an air-cooled engine, and its belt also runs the generator and the power steering. I was thinking maybe we could coast down the incline and onto the ferry, then, after the crossing, get help pushing the car up the ramp onto the Illinois shore. Where we’d probably have to sleep in the car. Not a bright prospect.

“Can I help you, buddy?” It was the guy in the truck behind us. Who happened to be a Chevy mechanic. Who also owned a Corvair. And had a Corvair fan belt in the back of his truck. What were the odds? Our miracle mechanic installed the new belt so quickly that we were ready to roll just when it was our turn to board. My wife and I were two very thankful people.

Years later, I was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, driving a different vehicle with an air-cooled rear-mount engine: a Volkswagen bus, the vehicle of choice for happy hippies, van campers and large families on a budget. By then, I had learned how to install a fan belt, change the plugs, adjust the timing, and other rudiments of amateur automobile maintenance. A quarter mile ahead, a red VW bug sat sadly on the shoulder of the road, its open engine hatch gaping at three perplexed women. Their bug had thrown its fan belt. I got out my tools and spare belt and in 15 minutes had those very thankful people back on the road. And I, too, was grateful for the opportunity to return the gift of a fan belt bestowed by that miraculous Samaritan so long ago.  OH

Harry Roach and his wife, Liz, live in downtown Greensboro, where they spend a lot of their time dancing.

Simple Life

Simple Life

When Losing is Winning

Seeing the world through missing glasses

By Jim Dodson

“Oh I have been to Ludlow Fair. And left my necktie God knows where.” – A.E. Houseman

The other day, I lost my latest pair of expensive eyeglasses. Sadly, I seem to lose my spectacles on a regular basis. My wife, Wendy, jokes that she keeps a running account with Warby Parker.

Just for fun, I made a rough count of eyeglasses I’ve lost over the past 23 years of our marriage. I gave up the count after six, which happens to be this year’s total alone. At least one of those pricey pairs of specs was never found. It vanished into the magical Land of Lost Things without a trace. Of the remaining missing five, Wendy found two pairs in the pockets of old work shirts and a third in a sports coat I haven’t worn since Christmas. The fourth pair turned up in a rose bush where I was doing some early spring pruning. The fifth and final missing pair — my hip, whiskey-hued tortoiseshell sunglasses — finally revealed themselves in my golf bag, where I left them two weeks ago.

Dame Wendy’s theory to explain my penchant for losing my glasses is that I have so much on my mind — i.e. deadlines, books to read, garden stuff, my aging golf swing, the general state of the world, etc. In short, there’s little room remaining to remember where I leave things that I don’t particularly deem essential.

My explanation for this perpetual problem comes from my being nearsighted and only needing glasses to see objects in the distance, including, but not limited to, golf balls, birds at the feeder in the yard, street numbers, the fine print on billboards, UFOs and interesting cloud formations. When I’m reading, writing or examining something up close, I typically remove them and — apparently — forget where I put them down. Out of sight, out of mind.

All of this invariably has me pondering lost things in this world, including people.

We Americans are obsessed with winning and losing. The worlds of politics and sports are the most obvious examples. One presidential candidate calls people “losers” and insists that America will cease to exist if he isn’t re-elected Commander in Chief next November; while the other declares that democracy is doomed if his opponent somehow wins. Meanwhile, billions of dollars from wealthy team supporters flood our college sports, where winning is the only name of the game.

Up on Wall Street, meanwhile, where predicting winners and losers is the holy writ of American commerce, we watch the record Dow rise as if we’re running with the bulls, staying one step ahead with the nettlesome awareness that what goes up inevitably comes down. As the gap between the haves and have-nots ever widens, we associate wealth with winning and poverty as a stubborn inconvenient truth. Jesus, after all, said the poor will always be with us. He also asked what profit it is for a man to gain the whole world, but lose his soul?

Sometimes being lost or losing is the best thing that can happen to you.

Last year, I lost 40 pounds and have never felt physically better. I’ve even managed to give up (mostly) my gifted baker wife’s unearthly delicious cookies, pies and cakes, though I draw the line at giving up her lemon-ginger scones and a daily large chai tea latte.

More than once I have been lost on America’s country back roads in some of the most beautiful cities in the world, only to discover wonderful people, places and things I would never would have encountered otherwise. One of the sad truths of our GPS-equipped smart phones is that we can never truly be lost anywhere in the world these days unless the juice runs out.

Losing one’s fear of those who don’t share our opinions, tastes, gender, lifestyle, religion, race or brand of politics can be a courageous and very healthy thing, quite possibly the first step toward regaining the kind of social civility that could heal this divided country and bring us all a step closer together as Americans.

Many years ago, due to my  work and strengthening faith, I even lost my fear of dying by choosing to believe that each day is actually a reason to feel grateful for being alive — even on so-called “bad” days when nothing seems to go right.

Losing a loved one to disease or tragedy, on the other hand, exists in a category all its own, though the passage of time and memories can often be an unexpected path to healing and awakening. I lost both of my parents more than two decades ago, yet today I seem to hear their wonderful voices and wise words clearer than ever.

My mom was the one who stressed the importance of losing one’s fear and judgment of others in a multi-hued world where everyone is different, a value system I saw her live every day of her life. It’s something I aspire to but admittedly still struggle with at times. Forever a work in progress, I suppose.

My dad was a fine baseball player in his youth and, later in life, became a terrific golfer. Following in his wake, I was something of a hotheaded kid who hated to lose at either of those games. It was he, however, who pointed out that my boyhood sports hero, the great amateur golfer Bobby Jones, said he never learned anything from winning a golf tournament.

In truth, it took me many years — and no shortage of lost games and golf matches — to appreciate my old man’s belief that being a good loser is, in fact, the road to someday being a gracious winner. When I was about 10 years old, he placed a framed copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” on my bedroom wall. I can still recite my favorite passages by memory.

And I don’t even need glasses to see the timeless vision of these words.

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

And — which is more — you’ll be a Man, my son!  OH

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Tea Leaf Astrologer

Tea Leaf Astrologer

Gemini

(May 21 – June 20)

They say the longest trek a soul can take is the one between the head and heart. While this is doubly true for you, Gemini, suffice it to say that the Venus Cazimi on June 4 is going to expedite your journey. While you’re used to staying camped out in the frenzied chambers of your own mind, get ready for a month that’s all about feeling. Despite past experiences, being vulnerable with others is not, in fact, your kryptonite. Bon voyage!

Tea leaf “fortunes” for the rest of you:

Cancer (June 21 – July 22)

Easy does it.

Leo (July 23 – August 22)

Two words: airplane mode.

Virgo (August 23 – September 22)

Take your vitamins.

Libra (September 23 – October 22)

Don’t pick the scab.

Scorpio (October 23 – November 21)

There’s treasure to be found.

Sagittarius (November 22 – December 21)

Listen for what’s behind the words.

Capricorn (December 22 – January 19)

Give yourself some grace.

Aquarius (January 20 – February 18)

Breathe into your belly.

Pisces (February 19 – March 20)

It’s going to be dicey.

Aries (March 21 – April 19) 

Hit the pause button.

Taurus (April 20 – May 20)

Just walk away.  OH

Zora Stellanova has been divining with tea leaves since Game of Thrones’ Starbucks cup mishap of 2019. While she’s not exactly a medium, she’s far from average. She lives in the N.C. foothills with her Sphynx cat, Lyla.

Sazerac July 2024

Sazerac July 2024

Unsolicited Advice

According to Simon & Garfunkel, June will change her tune. And according to the Gregorian calendar, she’ll change her season from spring to summer. Typical Gemini. So take your fae-thful friends and family to the arboretum and celebrate at the Greensboro Summer Solstice Festival from 2–10 p.m., Saturday, June 22. We’ve got some tips to help you make the most of this magic moment. Fairy thee well!

Make like a mermaid and scale up on the water intake or you’ll be one parched pixie. Don’t worry — porta-potties abound. As do adult beverages — you know, for hydration.

Speaking of sweat, three words: waterproof body paint.

Show a little elf control? Not here. Let your inner fairy fly for the day — glitter, wings and all!

The evening culminates in an outstanding fire show, where the lawn at Lindley Park turns into gnome man’s land. Set your derriere on your fairy chair on the early side for a stellar view.

 


 

Photograph © Greensboro History Museum Collection

Window to the Past

Ready oar not, summer is arriving later this month. Lake Brandt has been welcoming water lovers since 1925.

Sage Gardener

We hope you’re sitting down, because according to The New York Times, “2024 is going to be a really exciting year in cabbage.” Celebrity chefs are stir-frying it, banking it into beds of hot coals and, in Asheville’s Good Hot Fish restaurant, adding it to pancakes served with sorghum hot sauce.

My momma used to braise it in bacon grease, a technique I’ve since discovered seals in the mustard compound that cabbage shares with horseradish, onions and mustard greens — the very compound that, according to the Times, “can make your house smell like a 19th century tenement” but has become “the darling of the culinary crowd.”

Mom, you always did know what was hot and what was not — and that everything tastes better with bacon.

Mark Twain observed that “cabbage is nothing but cauliflower with a college degree.” Cauliflower and Brussels sprouts — in the same family as kale, broccoli and bok choy — have both recently had their moment in the superfood spotlight. Now, it’s cabbage that’s taking center stage on white tablecloths in New York and L.A.’s elite boîtes, going for $18–20 as an appetizer paired with the likes of anchovy breadcrumbs and brown-butter hollandaise. Try serving one of those instead of corned beef and cabbage next St Paddy’s Day.

Brassica oleracea, aka wild cabbage, though not mentioned in the Bible and apparently unknown to early Jewish cuisine, is “a plant that has accompanied mankind throughout the ages,” according to The Oxford Companion to Food. Prized by the Egyptians and Romans, it was sacred to the Greeks, purportedly springing full-grown from no less than Zeus’ own sweat — perhaps because of how it smells?

I’ve grown it only once or twice. I’ve never had well-drained, sandy loam, which it prefers. And being an organic gardener, by the time my cabbage begins to head, aphids, flea beetles, cabbage loopers, diamond-back moths and cabbage maggots get a lot more of it than I do. Besides, cabbage is incredibly cheap, organic or not, even when purchased in a farmers market. (I find N.C. mountain cabbage particularly tasty and it makes terrific sauerkraut. North Carolina, by the way, grows something like 12,000 acres of cabbage a year.)

So remember, you heard it here first (unless you read The New York Times story): “Among the food-forward, cabbage fever is rising.”

        David Claude Bailey

Growing Goodwill

Survey four of the Triad’s youngest residents and one of them will tell you they face food insecurity. Share the Harvest board president Linda Anderson, a retired educator, does her best to improve that grim statistic. Sometimes, she says, it’s as simple as grabbing a hoe or driving a truck.

“There are times during the growing season when our gardens are overflowing with vegetables and we don’t know what to do with the excess. This is when Share the Harvest can help both the gardener and the individuals in need,” says Anderson.

Anderson says donations have grown since 2012 from a few community and church gardens donating food to local nonprofits into an expanding program benefitting organizations, collecting and distributing food to the needy via various programs offering meals and food pantries. For its 10 core volunteers, the need has motivated them to collect, coordinate and distribute donations from groceries, restaurants, gardens, farmers markets and even N.C. State A&T University’s farm.

From May through October, the growing season, they collect, aggregate, then store fresh products at a central collection site for distribution.

“In the beginning, the first year, we had 1,200 pounds of veggies. Last year it was 15,241 pounds received.” See sharetheharvestguilfordcounty.org for more information. 

                                              By Cynthia Adams

Letters

Dear Editor,

OK, I look a little grumpy, I admit. How would you feel after eating dirt in the dark for 17 years?

If you find my surreal red eyes deeply disturbing, I say, “Good!” It’s not like anybody asked me how I wanted my DNA arranged. You think your kids are so cute. They don’t even have exoskeletons! No wonder you’re running them to the ER every other day.

A cicada’s life isn’t much when you think about it. In 30 days’ time above ground, the most dramatic thing that can happen is having a cat or dog eat enough of us to spew up a blob of legs and wings on somebody’s living room carpet. Or having kids trap us in Mason jars to amplify the sound. Like that’s really a science experiment. Stick to the fireflies and leave us alone!

This spring, all you heard was “Total Eclipse! Won’t be another until 2044!” Everybody bought special eyeglasses and threw a party.

Well, this summer, not only are we 17-year cicadas emerging, but our 13-year cousins are, too. Guess the last time that happened. 1803, when Thomas Jefferson was president. You know, author of the Declaration of Independence. How about throwing a cicada celebration, we, the people?

And who’s this Harry Blair joker, anyway? When in our conversation did I grant him permission to reproduce my likeness? Please spare me the public figure argument. I’m a bug!

You’ll be receiving a letter from my attorney.

    Sincerely,

    A. Cicada, Esq.

Just One Thing

During a residency at Charlotte’s Village at Commonwealth, muralist and fine artist Liz Haywood decided it was time to try “something totally different, something to inspire me to branch out of my comfort zone.” Her focus up until then had been on the “many different faces” of diversity, she says. And that something different? Space exploration. The twist? A series she’s calling “Alien Worlds”: “By using a palette of warm pinks, purples and sunset hues, I bring an updated feel to a subject often seen through a masculine lens.” No surprise. Haywood is constantly doing her own dive into the unknown through film and literature. “I’ve basically read every science fiction novel available,” she notes with a laugh. Her canvas offers her a way to imagine the world beyond and bring it back to this planet through a feminist lens. Just as space is full of unanswered questions, Long Walk Home, seen here, is also open to interpretation, she says. “She’s walking into the distance. You don’t know — is she walking back to her ship? Or is she leaving and going somewhere else?” Haywood encourages her viewers to use their own imaginations. This painting is part of her second iteration of “Alien Worlds,” on display at GreenHill Center for NC Art’s “LEAP: Artists Imagine Outer Space” exhibition. “Space is the next frontier,” she muses. “I hope we venture out with open hearts and curious minds.” And does she hope to explore space one day? “I need to be around people ,” she says. “If my dog and my boyfriend and other people could go, then yes!” Info: lizhaywood.com

Chaos Theory

Chaos Theory

Curb Alert

Freedom, fear and fahrvergnügen

By Cassie Bustamante

The first car I ever bought myself — with funds matched by my parents — was a brand-new 1997 little black Jetta, purchased right after I finished my freshman year at Wake Forest. One of my close friends, Krista, had a similar car she called LBJ; so I dubbed mine LBJ Jr.

“Junior” was my ticket to freedom. Far from my Massachusetts home, that car and I made many scenic drives to Pilot Mountain, an area that reminded me of the rolling New England countryside. Cruising, windows open and mix CD blasting, was all the escape I needed when undergrad life felt overwhelming.

Over 20 years later, with kids who are just shy of my age then, it’s time to pass my current car, a 13-year-old cherry-red Ford Flex, aka station wagon on steroids, onto my son, Sawyer, and get myself a new ride. Neither of my eligible children has a license yet, but both Sawyer and his younger sister, Emmy, are permitted.

Fondly recalling my travels with Junior, I book an appointment at the Flow VW dealership. My only rule? No bold colors. I’ve had enough of people telling me they spotted me in my bright-red bus. Let that be Sawyer’s problem soon, God willing.

Behind the wheel of a dark gray 2021 Touareg, I’m smitten. It seems — at least compared to the 2011 clunker I’ve been schlepping around in — to have all the bells and whistles. Seat warmers and steering wheel warmer? It might be June, but my cold winter hands will thank me in December. But practical Chris, along for this car-shopping ride, wants to visit another dealership before going home to confer.

“What’s there to discuss?” I ask in our kitchen that evening. “I liked the first one. Sold!”

“This is a big decision,” he replies, hoping I’ll put a little more thought into my choice. Where he likes to take time to assess all angles, I go with my gut.

“The moment I sat in it, I knew. It’s got everything — even a sun roof!” I exclaim. “Plus, loads of people drive gray cars — no one will know it’s me!”

Later that week, we sign on the many dotted lines and make it official. In the parking lot, keys in hand, my heart races, giddy with excitement. Chris zips off, homebound, while I take time to adjust mirrors and seats.

I start the ignition, open the sun roof and cruise home, wind whipping strands of silver hair every which way. I pull into the driveway behind Chris’ car and open the door to the anxious faces of my three children and Chris all asking, “How was it?”

Glorious.

Fourteen hours after completing our purchase, Chris offers to take 16-year-old Emmy on a driving lesson. My recommendation? Grimsley parking lot, perfect for pulling into and backing out of spaces, a skill she needs to practice.

“Do you wand to play car Tetris, or do you think it’s safe parking in the street?” I ask, apprehensive about passing drivers accidentally scraping it.

“It’ll be OK for a little while,” Chris assures me, knowing I am headed to the office shortly.

Brand-new car now nestled into the side of the street, I turn my attention back to my open laptop, waving as Emmy and Chris exit.

A moment later, I hear it. A light thud. Not a crash, but strange and alarming. My gaze follows the sound to outside, where Chris’ small white SUV is angled directly into the left rear of my VW.

“Are you even kidding right now!” I shout to no one. Breathe. Maybe they’ve just hit the bumper.

Chris marches from the passenger to the driver side. Even from my vantage point, I can see Chris’ clenched jaw, fighting back a stream of frustration. Red-faced, Emmy bolts inside in a blur. Her bedroom door slams, followed by the click of her lock.

Meanwhile, Chris reverses his car, and my own drops about a foot back down to the ground. Nope, definitely not just a little love tap.

I feel the rage bubbling up and there’s no shoving it back down as Chris walks in the front door. “What were you thinking?!” I scream. “She’s not ready to back out of our driveway! And my car, my new car, was right there!!!!”

Chris does not rise to meet my level of emotions and calmly says, “She did great backing up. She put it into drive and then saw a car coming behind her and panicked.” Like a deer in headlights, she froze, foot off the brake, and rolled right into my car.

Exasperated, I leave him to deal with the insurance filing for not one, but two cars — his is in even worse shape than mine — and turn my focus to the real damage control.

I stand outside Emmy’s door. “Can I come in?”

“No!” she says between sobs.

“I’m not mad, Emmy. I just want to talk.”

A click. I’ve been granted entrance.

“I told Dad I wasn’t ready,” she hiccups. “I didn’t want to pull out of the driveway!”

“I know,” I reply, rubbing her back. “Look, you’re OK. The car will be OK. And on the bright side, you — and my car — have had your first fender bender. It has to happen at some point and why leave home to do it!”

She’s calming down. “I’m just really sorry.”

“This is not your fault, Emmy. They’re called accidents for a reason,” I say calmly. Then, with fire behind my voice, “It’s 100 percent Dad’s fault!”

That coaxes a laugh out of her. And I know in time, we’ll all be laughing about it.

A year later, we all see the humor in it. A core family memory for sure. We’re still slowly chipping away at having two more licensed drivers in our household, but, one day, we’ll get there. And those new-driver nerves? They’ll be replaced by the exhilarating thrill that comes with facing the open road, outstretched before you, beckoning you to enjoy the ride.  OH

Cassie Bustamante is editor of O.Henry magazine.

Life’s Funny

Life’s Funny

Just Doo It

The long way around a colonoscopy

By Maria Johnson

One of the pleasures of writing for O.Henry is hearing from readers who say, “That’s such a classy publication.”

Well, nothing lasts forever.

To be fair, the magazine remains a classy book. But this space, this month, might soil that reputation a tad.

So if you’re one of those people who likes to pretend you never doo, and even if you do doo, it doesn’t stink, please skip this column. But if you’re like the rest of us, and you’d try anything to avoid a colonoscopy, read on.

I’ll start with gratitude: I’m one of the lucky ones, intestinally speaking.

I have no family history of colon cancer, and therefore it was an option for my physician’s assistant to prescribe a noninvasive screening kit called Cologuard.

I had used earlier versions, and lemme just say that poo technology has come a long way since those first at-home tests, which were basically a few sheets of gift-wrapping tissue and some popsicle sticks.

Other advances — in cellular communication, point-to-point shipping and pharmaceutical-based musical theater — have made the process a true reflection of our times.

Recently, for example, I saw a television commercial that featured an animated box bearing the stylized letters “CG,” a sort of modern-day Kool-Aid Man, skipping through scenes where random adults, who all seem to know each other, converge in a park and sing the Cologuard song joyfully.

The chorus: “I did it my way.”

Somehow, I don’t think this is what Frank Sinatra had in mind.

But back to my tale.

My PA tells me she will have a test sent to my home.

About a week later, I get a text announcing that my kit is being shipped. Save the date!

Another text informs me when it’s delivered to my doorstep. For once, I’m not worried about porch pirates.

The next text reminds me to do what needs to be done.

Yet another text leans on me even harder. It says my provider is awaiting my test. I envision my bright and busy PA wondering — maybe over lunch— “Where is Maria’s poop sample?”

I am not moved.

The CG people know it. A brochure titled “Let’s Get Going” arrives in the mail, complete with diagrams and step-by-step instructions.

I flip through the brochure, which, I must say, editorially and graphically, is very well done.

I even open the Cologuard box, which rests on my bathroom counter, and unpack the contents.

First, I encounter a heavy-duty plastic bracket that I mistake for packing material. It’s so sturdy — and seemingly multipurpose, with a large hole in the middle — that I make a mental note to save it and hang it on the pegboard above my husband’s workbench. Never mind the stamped instruction to “Place Under Seat.”

Next layer: a sheaf of paper with 30-plus pages of instructions and inserts with the latest updates.

I start reading and get so nervous I have to go immediately. The test will have to wait for another day.

In the meantime, coincidentally, I see my OB-GYN for an annual exam.

She asks if I’ve done a Cologuard test recently.

“Funny you should ask,” I say. “It’s in progress.”

“In progress?” she probes.

“On my bathroom counter.”

“Oh yes, that’s where I put mine,” she says. “For about a year.”

My kinda doctor.

“The instructions stopped me,” I confess. “So much to read.”

She waves her hand.

“Just follow the diagrams. Like putting together a piece of furniture.”

“There are a lot of pieces in the kit,” I continue. “And when you’re done, you have to drop off the box at UPS.”

“And you know that they know what’s in there,” she said, barely suppressing a smile.

“And you know there have been mishaps!” I add.

So now, we’re laughing, my doc and I, about the potentially leaky life of Cologuard returns. And suddenly, there and then, I resolve to do it. The test, I mean. At home.

A couple of days — and a couple of cups of coffee — later, the time seems right. I go straight to the diagrams, referring to them as I quickly assemble a small plastic chamberpot over the toilet bowl.

I feel increasing pressure about hitting the target. I read on and hit another stressor: The volume of my contribution can be no greater than the liquid preservative that I’m supposed to pour over it.

Great. A mathematical word problem.

Dancing in place, I pick up the bottle of preservative, which says it contains 290 milliliters.

This really helps.

The instructions also warn against drinking from the bottle, which tells me that some poor souls have done this, hoping, I suppose, to shortcut the preservation process.

Obviously, Cologuard has heeded the advice of lawyers rather than, say, Charles Darwin, in writing these instructions.

I have dallied long enough. I dive in, hitting the brakes at an estimated 290 milliliters of relief, and add the liquid preservative.

At this point, I wonder why the kit doesn’t include a test for stomach cancer, because I nearly hurl at what I’m shipping to some poor unfortunate soul at Exact Sciences Laboratories on Badger Road in Madison, Wisconsin.

I apologize silently and seal the container tightly.

Not one hour later, I receive another text:

“Urgent reminder: Complete and ship your Cologuard kit ASAP.

Was there a camera in the box, too?

I hustle to the UPS store, chuck the box onto the scale, snatch a shipping receipt with eyes averted, and drive off in search of my tribe who, I’ve been led to believe, have done it their way, and are joyfully singing in a park somewhere.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry magazine. Email her at
ohenrymaria@gmail.com.