Sisters in Shadowland

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“We are sisters in more ways than you know.” The words ran through Liz’s mind as she walked along the city streets of midnight, hurried from one pool of light to another fearing the darkened stretches in-between.

What could Jen possibly mean? She was always so ridiculous with her oracular pronouncements. It was something in the way that she looked Liz straight in the eyes and leaned in, arching her eyebrows. It was as if she had access to all the secrets of the cosmos. It was a little trying, but Liz had always found Jen’s mannerisms tolerable because she had known her, at least distantly, since childhood.

They were from the same small town in the coal country of West Virginia but had not been close. Liz remembered sitting near Jen in third grade and how weird she had thought it was that Jen drew pentagrams, goblins and monsters all over her notebook.

Years later, they had met again in this distant city. Liz had just finished art school and was in a post-college malaise of under-employment, unsure of what direction her life was taking. She had bumped into Jen at a mutual friend’s party, and there had been an immediate connection because of their shared roots, Liz supposed.

Liz pulled her black, wool cape tighter around her shoulders to keep the brisk fall air out. It had been a gift from Jen last Christmas. Jen had bought it for her after Liz had complemented her on the one she was wearing. It was an exact match, right down to its silver buttons. It was a thoughtful gift, really. Totally unexpected. It had become Liz’s favorite. They liked to joke about their appearance when they found themselves both wearing the capes at the same time.

Somehow, Jen had managed to get a college degree and a law degree in just five years–and was now working for one of the major firms in the city. It was a revelation because as children Liz had always assumed, like the other girls in her school, that Jen was not particularly smart or gifted in anything. Jen had been a loner, sometimes subject to taunting by the other children. Liz remembered her own indifference to Jen, more afraid of being taunted herself than willing to speak up against the class’s injustice to the sullen, quiet girl. Children are so mean, sometimes, Liz thought. That goes for me too.

And now, Liz was going to apply to law school. She had spent many an evening with Jen discussing if it was the right fit. If she got in, it would be expensive, but Jen had already offered to let her rent a room at her row house, just blocks from the university.

So Jen tried to not let it bother her too much when Liz intimated that she had supernatural powers and insights. Jen would fix weird concoctions that she would serve her, while reciting a list of their magical properties. OK, so Jen has swallowed this new age crap hook, line and sinker, thought Liz. It’s just herbal tea for God’s sake, and Liz is a good friend. And indeed, the concoctions while strange and unrecognizable were always delicious.

Tonight, it had been a concoction that would summon the “wraiths of the underworld.” It was always unsettling when Jen said things like that. And her smile seemed vaguely menacing, as if she knew more than she would say.

Liz tensed now as she turned the corner onto Shadowland Avenue. This part of her walk always made her uneasy and led her to curse herself for not taking a cab at this time of night. Yet she had walked it a thousand times without incident. It was just that the street seemed somehow darker, more cramped and without the occasional traffic found on the other streets. Then there was the story of the art student who had been murdered on this street many years ago while walking home. It creeped her out, though she didn’t even know if it was true.

The wraiths of the underworld. Now, it was that phrase she found herself mulling over. She quickened her steps as she thought she saw a figure of a man in the shadows at the mouth of an alley. Had she imagined it? As she walked on, her peripheral vision told her he was real and now walking along behind her.

Just two blocks to go, she reminded herself as she chided her paranoia. On the other side of the street, another man appeared out of nowhere and was walking along on the other side of the street at the same pace. It was unusual to see so many people out this late, but we were after all near the college–and college students were likely to be out anytime of night, she told herself.

At last she was in her block, still reciting in her mind the phrase, the wraiths of the underworld. Was it her imagination that the men had been drawing slowly closer? Her shoes rang out as they struck the sidewalk.

Just as she reached her porch, a third man stepped out of the darkness. She realized the danger around her was very real. She could feel that the other two men were now standing very close behind her. Without saying a word, the man in front of her drew out a knife.

What happened next became sort of a blur. Later she would remember how the wind suddenly kicked up with a mighty gust. Streams of fog that somehow looked like galloping horses with cloaked figures riding them seemed to fly in from all directions. Her cape filled with the wind and seemed to lift her off the ground.

Then, she found herself standing in the bay window of her apartment looking down at her street. The fog swirled for a moment below her like a tiny swirling galaxy, going faster and faster. When the fog cleared suddenly, the men were all gone.

Liz continued to look out the window for a long-time at the spot were she might have died at the hands of the men. It was a good thing to be alive, but how had it happened?

“We are sisters in more ways than you know.” Liz’s heart beat fast as she realized the meaning of the words. How had it happened that she had become a witch? She didn’t know. She needed to calm down and think. A cup of herbal tea from the mixture Jen gave me just the other day, she thought, will soothe my nerves and help me make sense of my new-found powers.

–Mark Caskie

Note: The closed captioning on my television occasionally freezes on a random line. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to use these lines as writing prompts. The rule for my writing game is that I must write a short-short story in a single sitting.

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River Bluffs Trail, Hanging Rock State Park

While the newest addition to the trail system at Hanging Rock State Park isn’t a long trail (1.3 miles), it does add an entirely new river experience for hikers. Branching off of the Indian Creek Trail, just a few hundred feet from the park’s Dan River access, the trail makes a loop that features about a half-mile stretch along the river. (Turn right and you’ll be at the Dan in less than five minutes.) The river section is especially scenic because of the rock bluffs that are visible on the opposite shore. It’s a rugged and picturesque area. Near the end of the trail’s river section, a rapids runs just beneath the cliffs. Take the side-trail here down to a sizable beach for a closer look at the rockface, the rapids and the colorful river rocks. This is a great spot for a picnic.

A cliff along the Dan River

Crevice in the cliff

Tree growing in the rockface

Line of rocks in the river

Colorful rocks

A cairn along the river

–Mark Caskie

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The Untimely Death of Mr. Quizzical

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“We should offer our condolences, right?” she asked.

It was a harder question than you might think. When a person dies, certainly condolences, flowers, casseroles are all expected. The social rules are prescribed. But what to do or say in the case of an animal? Longtime pets often require a kind word or a moment of reflection with the understanding that the animals were indeed a part of the family. But graveside services are rare.

It’s mammals mostly that get the attention. Then what to do in the case of a parrot? What was Mr. Quizzical to his owner Sly? Something more than a pet. More of an alter-ego. The way Sly carried him around on his shoulder everywhere, and the way that the bird always said the most inappropriate things.

We all knew Sly was coaching the bird on his pronouncements, although he played innocent, pretended that the bird came up with his comments on his own. But it was easy to forget that.

That’s how the tragic events of that day were set in motion. It happened down by the lake where a bunch of our friends had gathered to picnic, ski and play guitars. Sly never worried about Mr Quizzical flying away because he kept his wings clipped. In retrospect, that move probably cost Mr. Quizzical his life.

The gang was all there, including a few others who also have exotic pets of their own. Wanda the snake lady with her pet boa draped around her neck; she always loves to dress up like a performer in a circus. Winston with his snow leopard, walking in a black chain collar behind him. To this day, I don’t know where he got such a rare and endangered animal. Winston claimed he was harmless because he always kept him on a heavy dose of sedatives. Indeed, the animal had a kind of torpor about him, but it might have just been depression at being in captivity. Finally, there was Daniel with his dingo Darwin. While most people were satisfied to own dogs, Daniel had to import a wild dingo from Australia just to be different.

While the animals on past meetings had always regarded each other with guarded respect, on this occasion Mr. Quizzical managed to insult all three of them. No doubt Sly had put in long hours to teach him these comments, which for the first time were directed at the other animals rather than the people who were his usual targets for biting barbs.

Upon encountering Darwin, Mr. Quizzical tilted his head and eyed the Dingo the way he does. (That’s how he got his name.) “A dingo ate my baby,” he cried over and over again, picking up on Pauline Kael’s long-ago movie review of A Cry in the Dark or an ancient episode of Seinfeld, I don’t know which. Everyone laughed except Daniel who turned red and seemed perturbed. “That parrot’s got a big mouth,” he said.

Mr. Quizzical’s next victim was the snow leopard. Upon seeing the leopard he broke into a rousing rendition of “Born Free,” which didn’t stop for 10 minutes. “I’d like to stuff that parrot and mount him on the wall so it will finally stop talking,” said Winston.

When Mr. Quizzical encountered the snake he made a surprising literary reference to the snake’s role in the garden of Eden.

All three insults went over well with everyone except the three pet owners. Mr. Quizzical had really outdone himself this time. Everyone said how witty Mr. Quizzical was, though of course they knew it was really Sly, who was playing dumb about the whole thing.

So the day went on, with the usual dogs and burgers from the grill and potato salad, which I love.

Later, we all decided to go skiing and swimming in the middle of the lake. Sly put Mr. Quizzical on a branch about shoulder height. The boa was returned to his cage; the leopard chained to a tree and the dingo was put in the back of a pickup on a short lease.

We all jumped in the speedboats and went out to the middle of the lake. At least, I thought everyone had come along. There was a lot of celebrating and comings and goings, and frankly I wasn’t really keeping track of who was on the lake and who wasn’t. So it was that when my speedboat returned a couple of hours’ later, we had a genuine murder mystery on our hands.

We found beneath the tree where Mr. Quizzical had sat a few of his feathers.There were also a few of his blood-soaked feathers stuck to the branch. Nothing else. Turns out, someone had released all the animals, but none of them had gone far. The snake was curled up like a smooth, thick rope, the kind you might use on a three-mast schooner. Darwin had jumped through an open window of the pickup’s cab and was sleeping on the seat. The leopard was sleeping in some tall grass.

Frankly we were shocked–and stumped. Who had let all the animals go free? Which one had eaten Mr. Quizzical? Which insult had been the final straw?

We didn’t know, but the recriminations were thick and heavy. And we could all imagine Mr. Quizzical saying in his best detective voice, “Elementary, my good doctor.” It was one of his favorite sayings.

So yes, let’s send a condolence card and have everyone who was there sign it. Maybe, a handwriting expert can tell us who released the animals–the very action that led to the untimely death of Mr. Quizzical.

To this day, we don’t have a clue who the murderer was. Do you?

–Mark Caskie

Note: The closed captioning on my television occasionally freezes on a random line. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to use these lines as writing prompts. The rules of my writing game are that I must write a short-short story in a single sitting.

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Photos: Holden Beach, N.C.’s Intracoastal Waterway

Just a short distance from the beachfront vacation homes at Holden Beach, N.C., you can find the different, colorful world of the Intracoastal Waterway. Along its shores you’ll find a working class experience of the beach. From the boat landing beneath the towering bridge to working fish houses where the shrimp and commercial fishermen still bring their catch daily to a boatyard filled with large boats in dry dock, you quickly get the sense of local life apart from the throngs of beach-goers who happily crowd the beach with their bright towels and umbrellas.

Intracoastal Waterway at Holden Beach, N.C.

Intracoastal Waterway at Holden Beach, N.C.

Beneath the bridge at Holden Beach

Beneath the bridge at Holden Beach

Sign at fishouse

Sign at fishouse

Hook at fishouse

Hook at fishouse

Boat in drydock

Boat in drydock

The massive hull of a boat in drydock

The massive hull of a boat in drydock

The drydock fleet

The drydock fleet

A pirate ship. Aaaargh!

A pirate ship. Aaaargh!

–Mark Caskie

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Photos: Driftwood as a Rising Phoenix

I found this piece of driftwood a few years ago, and I was impressed enough with it to bring it home. In addition to its textured surface, I noticed that it also has a bird-like appearance. I recently set up these photos with the phoenix—a mythical bird who rises from the ashes again and again—in mind. In the final photo, I added a dead flower blossom as a symbolic stand-in for the sun.

Driftwood

Driftwood

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—Mark Caskie

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Re-reading Great Books

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While my teaching career is far behind me now, I can still recite sections of Macbeth and Hamlet off the cuff. That’s what happens when you read and teach a great work of literature over and over. If I had to guess I would say that I’ve read Macbeth in the neighborhood of 50 times and seen two or three different movie versions on a dozen or so occasions. I’ve read Hamlet less, because I taught that fewer times. Still, I would estimate that I read the play at least 15 times. I’ve also seen three different movie versions (compare Mel Gibson’s Hamlet with Kenneth Branaugh’s reprisal of the same role to see how different interpretations of this play can be.) I’ve also seen the play on the stage three times, including one performance that had a polar motif with white backdrops and all the characters clad in white fur with the exception of Hamlet who wore black (subtle, don’t you think?)

But, of course, I read both of these plays multiple times because I was a teacher. I’m reminded that Karl Marx read the entire collection of Shakespeare plays every year by choice because he thought that they contained so much wisdom and poetry, a fact that seems at odds with the reductionism of dialectic materialism. Still, it makes me think about the books we choose to re-read. I have friends who re-read certain titles again and again, but I’ve had very few books that I’ve chosen to read more than once. I’ve always said it’s because, as the old saying goes, “so many books, so little time.”

Still, there are a few books that I have chosen to re-read, often in very different periods of my life. What I find is you learn almost as much about myself as you do about the narrative. As a college student, I read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles for the first time. I have re-read the book twice since then. Upon third reading in mid-life, I eagerly anticipated the section of the book that takes place on the dairy farm when Tess and Angel Clare are first falling in love. Even now, it is my favorite section of the book. My third reading showed me that part of the appeal of the book as a young man had been its romantic depiction of country life. It fit perfectly with my ideas about the countryside and love. Of course, this idyllic section of the novel soon falls apart, but it was enough that it was there at all. From a middle age point of view, I could see my younger self, believing in a romanticized view of country life with a uncomplicated certainty. Suddenly, I had double the pleasure in re-reading this book, contemplating both the sheer physical heft of its sensory detail and my younger, idealistic self.

I still love going to a bookstore after having finished one good book to search for my next read. (Since I spend most of my working days on a computer, I like good old paper when it comes to leisure reading.) The idea that I could read anything I choose is a delightful possibility. Since my reading tends toward the eclectic, I rarely know if I will come home with a novel, a volume of poetry, or a history or science book. When I peruse the home library, I usually remember the precise circumstances of where and when I read a book. At the beach, a Christmas holiday, while I lived in another city, etc. (In college, I read one Dostevesky novel ever summer.) Then, too, the day comes when I’m reminded of one and I pull it down to look something up—or lend it to a friend. Every once in a great while, I decide to re-read a cherished, but long unread book.

Except for those of us with photographic memories, I suspect the impressions we take away from books, whether fiction or non-fiction, are all that remains after awhile. At least in my own experience, I tend to recall especially poignant scenes or telling details and forget the rest. I remember a book as a good read, can tell you roughly what it’s about, but usually can only recall a few disconnected scenes once a few months or years have elapsed. And you never know what these might be. Just as children’s greatest memories may be the most ordinary of occurrences quickly forgotten by parents, we tend to recall details according to some unknown internal algorithm. I suppose these too could tell us something about ourselves, if we could only recognize the larger patterns of thought.

—Mark Caskie

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Photo: Savannah Street Scene

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I took this photo in the early-morning. The combination of Spanish moss and old brick buildings is part of what makes the city’s expansive historic district so charming.

—Mark Caskie

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10 Garden Songs

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Gardens are, of course, one of the most powerful metaphors going, so it’s natural that they would make their way into songs. The foundational story of the Garden of Eden alone with its theme of a paradise lost is enough to ensure its lasting cultural relevance, but its metaphorical potency is further reinforced by its place halfway between nature and culture, the nurturing quality of gardening, its associations with beauty, and more.

Just for fun I’ve been putting together a list of garden songs and my thoughts about them. Here’s my list:

“Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”: This anti-war song equates the young men who die in war with flowers cut down too soon.
“Rose Garden”: I beg your pardon, I know this one is cheesy: But love ain’t a rose garden.
“Barbara Allen”: This old English folk ballad explains how the rose got its thorns, and love its sometimes bitter-sweet quality.
“Garden Party”: Ricky Nelson uses the “garden party” to set up the superficiality of most social interaction, especially among celebrities.
“Johnny’s Garden”: This Stephen Stills’ song projects a sense of tranquility within the confines of a friend’s garden. It’s show the garden as a kind of sanctuary.
“Octopus’ Garden”: The Beatles’ song gives a rare lead vocal to Ringo along with a lot of fantastical imagery of a garden beneath the sea.
“Sally Gardens”: This plaintive old Irish folk tune picks up a heartache theme with a haunting melody.
“Garden Song”: This tune, originally by David Mallet, is the rarest of garden songs—one that is about gardening and nothing else!
“The Anti-Garden Song”: Perhaps because the “Garden Song” is so literal it left itself open to parody in this Eric Kilburn song: “Slug by slug, weed by weed,/ My garden’s got me really teed.”
In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”: According to legend, the original title for this song was “In the Garden of Eden.”

And that’s just the beginning. These are just the songs I happen to know well. If you check out the Guardian‘s blog entry of this topic, you will find a crowd-sourced list of 100-plus garden songs—and you can also listen to them as well.

—Mark Caskie

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Photo: Postcard Graffiti

Art on Bathroom Wall

—Mark Caskie

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Late Bloomers: New Talents in Later Life

Grandma-Moses-The-Pond

Less well-known than the wunderkinds at the other end of the age spectrum, late bloomers’ accomplishments don’t usually grab the public’s attention in quite the same way. (After all, who could compete with a 5-year-old child prodigy playing flawless violin concertos?) I suspect one reason for this more blunted response is that people usually assume that their accomplishments are simply the result of a lifetime of work rather than the emergence of some inborn talent.

Perhaps that’s often the case, but I also think it’s possible for someone in middle age or old age to suddenly discover a new, untapped ability. Years ago, by chance, I shared a breakfast table at a business conference with a man who for most of his working life was a hard-driven, smoking-two-packs-a-day attorney in Chicago. He had no time for exercise so like many of us, he didn’t. But after retiring, he moved to Colorado, bought a business, quit smoking, and—casually at first—took up running. What a shock it must of been for his former colleagues to learn he had become an elite level runner in his age group. Unknown even to himself during all those years of sedentary living, he had discovered in his sixties that he was in fact a world-class athlete, blessed with all the right physical attributes to excel at an activity he had never even considered in his earlier years. It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic about face, or a talent more hidden by lifestyle choices.

In a similar story of late-blooming athletic accomplishments, “Grandma” Emma Gatewood became the first woman to walk the length of the Appalachian Trail at the age of 67. She was a pioneer of ultra-light hiking, wearing her Keds tennis shoes and carrying only an army blanket, raincoat and a plastic shower curtain that she used as a bag. She hiked the trail twice more (once in sections) and held the record for the oldest woman to hike the trail until Nancy Gowler hiked it in 2007 at the age of 71. The oldest man was 81 when he broke Earl Shaffer’s record in 2004. Earl Shaffer, the first man to hike the length of the AT in 1948, was also one of the oldest when he hiked it for the third time at the age of 79 in 1998.

Of course, one of the best known stories of this kind is that of Grandma Moses who took up painting at the age of 75 when, according to some accounts, her arthritis made it difficult for her to embroider. (Just as unlikely as her emergence as an artist was the discovery of her work in a drug store window by a prominent collector.) Fortunately, Moses had plenty of time to pursue her new passion as she lived past 100 years of age, producing more than 3,600 paintings during that time. One of her paintings, Sugaring Off, sold for $1.2 million in 2006.

Older still, Harry Bernstein didn’t begin work on his first book until the age of 93 after his wife of 67 years passed away. Published when he was 96, it told of the story of his growing-up years in a Cheshire mill town, including the struggles of his mother to feed her six children, his alcoholic father and the anti-semitism of the era. Bernstein went on to write three more books (one published posthumously) before he died in 2011.

Perhaps more common than the emergence of hidden artistic or athletic prowess, business people sometimes make their mark late in life. Ray Kroc, the man behind McDonalds, and Harlen David Saunders, the Kentucky Fried Chicken Colonel himself, both made their fortunes by franchising food operations. When you look at some of the occupations they did when younger you see little sign of their future business success. Kroc: paper cup salesman, pianist, jazz musician, radio DJ. Saunders: farmer, steamboat captain, insurance salesman, gas station owner.

While these stories are all fairly dramatic, I think they illustrate the simple truth that “an old dog can teach itself new tricks.” But how do you find abilities that you don’t even know that you have? According to Barbara Straugh’s article “How to Train the Aging Brain,” which appeared in the New York Times in 2009, the brain in middle age and later is more likely to grow and develop when we challenge our well-established assumptions. That sounds like a good first step. To discover a new source of experience, a new lens through which to view reality, a new inspiration to fuel our passion is a goal well worth pursuing.

—Mark Caskie

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