Thursday, December 11, 2014

Wildcat Memories: a Review

As the NCAA men's basketball season roars into our winter consciousness, I have a confession to make:  I am from Kentucky, have always lived in Kentucky, yet, I was not born into the Big Blue Nation of UK basketball. As a child, I sat with my sisters and father on Saturdays in front of the TV and dutifully rooted for the UC Bearcats. My dad was not really much of a sports fan, but he did enjoy college basketball, the Cincinnati Reds, and Big Time Wrestling. So, when those events were televised, we often gathered together in front of our black and white television, equipped with our own Jiffy Pop popcorn. We had no idea that nearly all of our rural neighbors were listening to Cawood Ledford on transistor radios, or standing on their rooftops to get their antennae to pick up the faint and faraway signals from Lexington.

I married into the phenomenon known now as The Big Blue Nation. You could not enter my father-in-law's house without the big console TV tuned in to the Wildcats. And forget about listening to whatever the network color commentators might have to say about the game. True blue fans of UK basketball--at that time--had their radios cranked up to hear the play-by-play from Cawood Ledford.  Never mind that the sound seldom matched the picture. We sometimes heard that the Wildcats had scored way before the basketball on the screen circled the rim and dropped through the net.  "This is the way true fans experience the game," explained my husband, "unless they are lucky enough to get tickets."

Because I know and love many members of the Big Blue Nation, I found Doug Brunk's Wildcat Memories : Inside Stories from Kentucky Basketball Greats, both informative and inspiring. Published in August by University Press of Kentucky, the narrative informs because Brunk organizes his material chronologically, tracing the development of the UK program to the very roots of basketball itself through the mentoring of storied coach, Adolph Rupp by his own coach at Kansas, Dr. Forrest C. Allen and Dr.James Naismith, the inventor of the game. But what sets this book apart from others on UK's winning program is the emphasis on inspiration.  Each interview subject reveals the people who influenced them the most while they played, coached, or worked for Kentucky basketball.  Some credited coaches, other players, secretaries, business leaders, pastors, equipment managers, governors, and coaches' wives. But all of them discussed the influence of the fans and the personal connection those UK fans have to the team. 

All-SEC forward MIke Pratt tries to sum up why UK fans travel the globe, selling out arenas and cheering their team wherever they play with this statement,  "Kentucky is a small state. It doesn't have  a professional baseball team or a professional  football team." Pratt  then continues to emphasize the devotion of the fans with this story, "The first time I realized how important basketball was to Kentuckians was during my freshman year when we traveled to Louisville to play at Freedom Hall. The varsity team went out and practiced, and then our freshman team went out and practiced--a shoot around  There were twelve thousand people there to watch that day's shoot around."

Says former coach, Joe B. Hall of the fans, "Kentucky is the Commonwealth's team, and the support goes from border to border."

"They're very knowledgeable, passionate fans," adds Kevin Grevey.

"The fans refer to themselves as 'we.' They say things like 'We're not rebounding the ball enough,'" says Jeff Sheppard. "They may live in Pikeville and have nothing to do with rebounding during a game going on at Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington, but they consider themselves a part of the program. They are." 

Each chapter of Wildcat Memories begins with important statistics to satisfy the serious basketball aficionado, but continues with first person stories of character, triumph, and connection that will draw in those readers who care more about the human factors that create this special basketball program.  Says Dan Issel in the foreword, "Once Doug emphasized that he was after stories about the people who impacted me during my time playing at UK, that got my interest. I know of no other book that has taken this approach and presented it in a format of firsthand reflections. We are all shaped and influenced by others in some way."

I personally enjoyed all the stories about equipment manager, Bill Keightly, also known as Mr. Wildcat, who served the program for 48 years. And I totally love that I can now put faces and stories to names like Cotton Nash, Jack "Goose" Givens, and Johnny Cox of the Johnny Cox All-Star Highway.

Heart-wrenching, yet inspiring is Derek Anderson's story about being on his own from age 11. He credits the UK program as being the first real family he ever had.

As a newbie UK fan, I often sat around the Schultz table at the holidays and heard epic stories about "Rupp's Runts," Larry Conley, and Pat Riley. I joined the club somewhere around Joe B. Hall and have been a serious fan all through the days of Eddie Sutton, Billy Gillispie, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and Coach Cal.  Every season we start anew with high hopes to make new memories.  We won't be in Rupp Arena working on rebounding, but we will be parked in front of our TVs and possibly our laptops and phones, tuning in our team. Or, we'll make a trip to one of their road games part of our family vacation. So, love us. Understand us. Forgive us. We adore our Wildcats. We cherish our Wildcat Memories. Christmas is coming. A fan near you could really appreciate Doug Brunk's fine book.

(Listen to the review at this link)
This review aired on on November28, 2014.

Kentucky Agate: a Review from Earlier in 2014

I have to confess to an early fascination with rocks. Maybe all kids go through a passion for classification some time during their early schooling, but I think my interest became a little pathological. It began with a tiny junior geologist box from the Cincinnati Natural History Museum that contained 12 small samples labeled carefully: slate, micah, rose quartz, granite, marble, feldspar are some of the names I remember from that box. Soon after acquiring this template, I began to notice hints of quartz, glints of micah in all rocks on the school playground. In time, I had filled my Valentine box--which I kept under careful guard from my younger sisters at the foot of my bunk bed--with what I believed to be valuable rocks and minerals.

Even as an adult, I have to confess to bringing back pieces of the places I have vacationed and depositing the foreign strata in my garden here and there. So, there  might be geodes among the tiger lilies and Maine beach pebbles in flower boxes. But I will assure you that none of my samples came from areas that forbid such collecting, like National Parks or endangered beaches.

So, I was delighted to come across Kentucky Agate: State Rock and Mineral Treasure of the Commonwealth by Roland L. McIntosh and Warren Anderson. Published in November by University Press of Kentucky, the book compiles hundreds of professional color photographs of agates taken by Lee Thomas along with geological maps of the areas of Kentucky most plentiful with these colorfully banded variety of chalcedony.

On page 5, the authors define agate simply as " a concretion or nodule of quartz of the variety of chalcedony. which is silicon dioxide."  While the authors are well-schooled in agates(McIntosh won an award for a video documentary on them and Anderson is a geologist at University of Kentucky,) the book never becomes incomprehensible to the casual rock collector or enthusiast. The text serves to classify agates, explore their collecting history in Kentucky, outline the geographical landscape where they have been collected, and then briefly explain their formation. The rest of the book is devoted to displaying the colorful variations of Kentucky's state rock as rendered by Thomas' vivid photography. There are even full color examples of the exquisite jewelry that can be created from slicing the agates into thin layers and buffing them into cabochon gems for silver-rimmed pendants, tie clasps.and belt buckles. The designs included come from Rachel Savane´of Savane´ Silver.

The geodes containing agates are not easy to find, and according to the authors, have probably been over-collected in the past 40 years or so.  However, a determined hiker in the scenic byways of Kentucky's Knobs region could be rewarded with a prized specimen by knowing the history of agate formation and where to look. While the authors acknowledge that over-collecting has made agate discovery rare, they still tell the reader when and where to look in the counties most likely to have examples of nature's artwork.  So, if you study the pages of Kentucky Agates: State Rock and Mineral Treasure of the Commonwealth and plan an early spring hike along the stream beds of Estill, Powell, Jackson, Menifee, Madison or Lee County, will you find a rough geode that will reveal banded red, orange, purple and yellow designs inside?  Maybe. Maybe not.  But if you're like me, sometimes the quest is just as tantalizing as the prize.

This review aired in 2014 on Around Cincinnati,  Listen to the audio at this link.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Happy Birthday, Kurt Vonnegut!

Every year I search for a link to this quote from Breakfast of Champions to commemorate November 11th, which is my mom's and Kurt Vonnegut's birthday.  I want to thank them both for their service to humanity. Then it came to me--duh--I have my own blog that has somehow lain dormant for almost a year. I have probably written more this year than usual, but have somehow failed to repost my reviews or anything else here. So now, I have a very "braver self worthy" day to commemorate. And I choose to do so with this quote:

"I will come to a time in my backwards trip when November eleventh, accidentally my birthday, was a sacred day called Armistice Day. When I was a boy, and when Dwayne Hoover was a boy, all the people of all the nations which had fought in the First World War were silent during the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of Armistice Day, which was the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
It was during that minute in nineteen hundred and eighteen, that millions upon millions of human beings stopped butchering one another. I have talked to old men who were on battlefields during that minute. They have told me in one way or another that the sudden silence was the Voice of God. So we still have among us some men who can remember when God spoke clearly to mankind.
Armistice Day has become Veterans’ Day. Armistice Day was sacred. Veterans’ Day is not."

God Bless you, Mr. Rosewater.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Many Storied House

In Many-Storied House, George Ella Lyon's latest poetry collection from University Press of Kentucky, the poet uses her own "floor plan" prompt as the organizing device for this volume of inviting poems. The effect is magical. Poet, Naomi Shihab Nye agrees, as she offers this praise for the back cover, "George Ella Lyon writes the most transporting, intuitive, inviting poems, their doors feel wide open." And North Carolina's Poet Laureate, Joseph Bathanti offers his tribute to Lyon's craft with this comment, "Each room, each curio, each haunted nail and joist is cataloged, named and invested with chiseled language."

George Ella Lyon, is an award-winning author of books for readers of all ages. I first became acquainted with her work when I taught high school English and my friend Lee Howard came to do a writing residency with my sophomores. She shared with me a prompt from George Ella that began with "I am from…"  For the first time, my students were able to produce stories about themselves rich in personal memories of place. In subsequent writing workshops, I ran into other prompts generated by George Ella until I was finally lucky enough to attend a workshop at Grailville taught by the poet herself.

In that workshop, the participants all drew floor plans of a childhood home, labeling the rooms and listing memories of important events that occurred in each room. From one of these diagrams and a later songwriting prompt, I was eventually able to write a song about a family story my Grandma Babe told me about her father. The diagram enabled me to fill the story with sensory details from Grandma's house, including a stern portrait of my grandpa and the praying hands of Jesus, a print my Grandma had encased in a lighted frame over her bed, The portrait and the print became witnesses to Grandma's story.

George Ella Lyon uses the floor plans of Many-Storied House to move the reader through the space by story, metaphorical and actual. We begin our journey at the entry of the first floor, and work our way through the various rooms, basement and garage before confronting a new story entitled "Flood."  From "Flood," the reader moves to "Upstairs,"  to "Yard," and finally to "All of It,"  a section that seems to challenge the poet to stand apart from the house, to take it in as a whole. I really enjoyed meeting the inhabitants of this house through their many stories, out of timeline.  By arranging the poems in the way that memory works--jumping our way through related synapses, following the firing neurons --Lyon brings us into her world. We feel these people and their stories rather than perceive them.

In a poem called "Smithereens,"  Lyon shares her first inkling about the power of the atom to destroy.  The poem is part of the "Upstairs" section, where revelations about life and her family seem to appear to the poet. While watching the president on TV in the library, Lyon recalls a science lesson:

On the dusty blackboard last year
Mr. Smith looped the invisible 
solar system of the atom. "The
energy that holds everything together
can be reversed." he said. "And blow it all

Near the end of the poem, the 8th grader posits her understanding of the way things work:

…This is what 
the world is.  Great forces must stick to
their orbits or unleash the rush that will
blow us all to smithereens.

In another revelation on the upstairs level, a young girl tries to tell her mother that something bad happened to her at the neighbor's house. Her mother continues to sort laundry and responds.

You know that's not true
she says.
These are our neighbors
These are our friends
Nothing happened

The next few poems on that story follow the neural trace of fear for that young girl. Fear of the linen closet, fear of going to the neighbor's again, and fear of the kind of "doll mother" the young girl has become.  Then, the shame of not knowing about menstruation and where that synapse takes her: to her brother's room and the smells of boys and the ways it is off limits.

Because my own memories jump leap frog fashion across lily pads of category, I find Lyon's organization of her amazing collection of poems accessible and completely without judgment. The family in the many-storied house is revealed to us with all its faults.  Human, exposed and loved outright.

In one poem, she wonders how her mother can keep the criticizing image of the poet's grandma so near to her through her life.

Why she faces 
that face
every morning
I cannot comprehend
unless it's to say
Even you
could not
stop me

In a poem entitled "With a Song in His Heart," Lyon pays tribute to her departed father with their shared love of music.  I can barely read this poem without crying, but the final lines say it all:

"O Daddy, I am leaning
on those everlasting arms."

Many-Storied House is a master work from George Ella Lyon.  She wields her own teaching tool of the floor plan with the craft of an architect.

***This review aired on WVXU's Around Cincinnati in October, 2013.  You can listen to it here.

Kentucky Hauntings

While the interest in ghost stories seems to spike around Halloween, story telling couple, Roberta Simpson Brown and Lonnie E. Brown claim that they heard many of their family stories while huddled around the hearth during the winter. Their just released collection from University Press of Kentucky entitled Kentucky Hauntings: Homespun Ghost Stories & Unexplained History is somewhat scholarly in that it gives more than a nod to the sources of each story. The Browns categorize their collection into three types of tales:  those learned from history, those learned from headlines, and those heard through homefolks.

I was able to read the entire collection in one afternoon, but know that I will go back and reread some of the ones that I found most fascinating. Where was this book when my niece and nephew demanded scary stories around the campfire and all I had in my arsenal was a re-telling of  Poe short stories?  Many of the stories in this collection will delight those who crave a good scare.

In the history section, "A Chivaree Gone Bad"  explains an old country custom while terrifying the reader with its unexpected outcome.  Another story based on history and custom is "Telling the Bees," which owes much of its structure to an old custom of telling the bees if their keeper dies so that the bees will not abandon their hive. I enjoyed learning about the old customs almost as much as I chilled from the eerie details of these stories.  Other interesting customs no longer practiced in rural life like turkey drives, the burning of tobacco beds, whittling, and the initiation of a new hunter involving a creature called a Swamp Booger provide the basis for some of the more frightening plots.

In the headlines section, the Browns explore stories from the newspapers.  One I had heard before while visiting Mammoth Cave investigates the ghost of Floyd Collins, an explorer who was trapped in the cave and died in 1925.  I had also heard about the Lover's Leap at Cumberland Falls, but had no idea that there was an actual accident at the park that resulted in that popular reference for one of the cliffs. An amusing story about the ghost who haunts the Paramount Art Center, a tale of a politician who did not want a grave stone, and the eerie goings-on at Waverly Hills Sanatorium are also entertaining and noteworthy.

I found myself most interested in the section entitled "Stories from Homefolks."  In these tellings, the authors seem to find their most authentic voices since the tales  were passed on to them personally.  In fact, I read a couple of them aloud to my husband--mainly because he'd followed me down to my reading spot next to the lake and I thought it only polite to share.  There is a story about a bathtub ghost who saves a man's life, a story about how killing a forbidden bird, the dove, makes a permanent circle in the ground that snow cannot cover, a tale about a shadow boy helping a young girl find her way home in a storm, a heartwarming yarn about a devoted neighbor who completes his mission to bring medicine to those in need, even though he's dead.  But my favorite from this section, "The Red Thing"  has some elements of the tall tale to it that my husband and I discussed and laughed about afterwards.  Was great-great uncle Lightel Simpson pulling some legs, or did some horrible creature really come to his cabin one night to devour his newly shot deer and frighten his hounds?

I'll leave that for future readers to decide.  Roberta Simpson Brown and Lonnie E. Brown are part of the Corn Island Storytelling Festival Community, so it makes perfect sense that the last story in their book recounts the final days of their dear friend, Joy Pennington, and her grace at facing the ravages of cancer. According to the Browns, "storytelling brings us together as a culture. We are close to our families and our neighbors when we sit together, tell stories, and then discuss our feelings about them."  I enjoyed reading Kentucky Hauntings: Homespun Ghost Stories & Unexplained History, both by myself at the edge of the lake and with my husband when we shared our theories about "The Red Thing." In fact, I think I finally quit looking over my shoulder at that point.

***This review originally aired on WVXU 91.7 during October.  You can listen to the review here.

Kentucky's Frontier Highway

While reading Kentucky's Frontier HIghway: Historical Landscapes Along the Maysville Road by geographer, Karl Raitz and anthropologist, Nancy O' Malley, I was confronted by the nemesis of every avid reader, an unknown word skulking in the shadows of my consciousness.  You know what kind of word I'm talking about.  I passed it by many times before without looking it up because the context in which I first encountered the word "palimpsest" allowed me to continue reading without losing any comprehension. Thus, I never really learned its meaning.

But not this time.  When  Raitz and O'Malley introduce the stretch of road examined in this November, 2012 publication from University Press of Kentucky, they characterize the road that stretches between Maysville and Lexington as both "a palimpsest and a puzzle."  After reading Part I--which explores modes of traveling the Maysville Road from pioneer times to the present and Part II--which delineates the evolution of the road from a trace to a modern highway-- I still hadn't figured out the meaning of "palimpsest" from context clues. For those of you who know the definition of this word, I apologize for my stubbornness. For when I finally looked up the definition of "palimpsest"-- after meeting it twice in the narrative--I had to agree from the accounts presented, that the Maysville Road--known in various time periods as Smith's Waggon Road, the Limestone Trace, The Maysville, Washington, Paris, and Lexington Turnpike, and U.S. Highways 68, 62, and 27--is indeed a palimpsest, both literally and figuratively.

Part I of this book explains how modes of travel affected the road's physical aspects over time.  So literally, the road becomes an archeological site with many layers to be examined, one meaning of a palimpsest. Some 12,000 years ago, mega fauna shuffled wide paths from salt lick to salt lick, carving out the traces that pioneers would later follow after stepping off their flatboats from the Ohio River. Once they landed at Limestone(now called Maysville) and made the one-day journey up the steep incline to Old Washington, pioneer travelers would spend the night at an inn while their horses rested.  Then, early travelers often spent another eight days traveling the 64 miles to Lexington along treacherous terrain which required them to ford rivers. Once wagons and stagecoaches took to the roads, there was demand for better surfacing  while bridges and accommodations sprung up along the way.  Lexington and Washington became early population centers because the Limestone Trace was the major route to the rich bluegrass region for those seeking land, or those moving goods into these new population centers in the early 1800s.  Once steamboat travel became prevalent in the 1820s and 30s, river cities like Louisville and Cincinnati also gained economic prominence and increased population.  

Part II of this book examines the evolution of the road from trace to pioneer road to turnpike to parkway and finally to state and federal highway.  With each iteration, the road reveals another meaning of palimpsest, that of a parchment scraped away of its older writings to make way for new.  Part II discusses the social and economic complexities of rebuilding a road that will withstand the demands of each century.  Responsibility for building and maintaining roads in Kentucky lagged far behind engineering advances in Europe largely because of a shortsighted tendency to see roads as a local convenience and not as a state or national conduit for a growing economy.  There are interesting stories about Andrew Jackson's refusal to aid state governments in building roads and vignettes about how roads were engineered from broken stone, or macadam, named for the Scottish engineer, John McAdam. Plus, there are many first-hand accounts of travelers who used the road during each stage of its evolution.

For me, the most interesting part of Kentucky's Frontier Highway is Part III, which is a mile by mile cataloguing of the Maysville Road from Lexington to Maysville.  The cataloguing includes historic locations, photos of present day sites, neighborhood diagrams, and maps.  If someone wanted to take a Sunday driving tour of the Maysville Road, Raitz and O'Malley have provided an information-packed tour guide of this palimpsest.  You can get a sense of the road's history  by locating surviving landmarks along the mile markers and read about what was "written" on older layers of this metaphorical parchment.  There is even a chapter on the importance of the Maysville Road to the Underground Railroad.

Raitz and O'Malley close their discussion of the Maysville Road with a short section, Part IV, which takes a look at the relationship between roads and American culture in general.  This passage sums up why the study of old roads proves fascinating to the authors:

"…roads are windows into past aspirations, technologies, politics and economies. Transportation, in turn is the linchpin of America's economy and social life--freedom and ubiquity of movement lie at the very core of America's national culture."

Before this summer is over, I plan to take a ride down the Maysville road guided by my copy of Kentucky's Frontier Highway.  Don't worry. I'll plan this ride with a responsible Sunday driver, so I can ride shotgun and read about  the mile-by-mile points of interest.

***This review aired originally on WVXU's Around Cincinnati.  Listen to it here.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Appalachian Toys and Games from A to Z

New in March from University Press of Kentucky comes Appalachian Toys and Games from A to Z , the second collaboration between children's literature educator Linda Hager Pack and master water colorist, Pat Banks.  While their first children's book, A is for Appalachia!  The Alphabet Book of Appalachian Heritage explored the culture of the mountains, this useful and appealing volume focuses on toys and games prevalent in the region during the mid to late 19th Century. While both books would be welcome resources for any library or museum program on Appalachian culture, Appalachian Toys and Games offers a hands-on component to any classroom exploration through detailed descriptions of how to actually play the various games and how to create simple toys.

Moving alphabetically, the book begins with the letter "A" for apple doll. Pack describes the process of preparing a Rome Beauty apple to become the craggy face of an apple doll, complete with directions on how to carve the face and preserve the apple. Banks illustrates a finished doll, it's wizened face framed in curls and juxtaposed against a backdrop of the juicy red Rome beauties from which it was sculpted..

The letter "C," stands for corn shuck doll. For this toy, Pack forgoes the how-to approach for a more historical perspective, highlighting instead the Native American origin of these dolls. She includes the Iroquois legend of the corn husk doll as an example of story related to the toy. Banks' illustration pictures a tiny doll clasped in someone's hands against a muted background of green and gold, suggesting the outdoor playground favored by Appalachian children during this time period.

There are many descriptions of group games included in the volume such as "D" is for drop the handkerchief, "F" is for fox and hound,  "G" is for game of graces, and "H" is for hoop and stick.  Each game includes rules for how to play along with a Banks watercolor illustrating the  activity in a beautiful, impressionistic outdoor setting.

While those of us born in the 20th Century might be familiar with some of the games and toys described like hopscotch, marbles, jump rope, pick up sticks, Red Rover, and Hide and Seek, some of the games and toys are not as well known to city dwellers or even to suburbanites. For example, "W" is for whammy diddle describes a hand-carved toy that will respond to the commands "gee" and "haw." Farm folk will recognize these commands for cattle, horses, and mules to turn right and left, respectively.

Three of my favorite sections of the book involve the letters, "E," "I," and "O." For most children, eerie stories hold a fascination. Recognizing the rich oral tradition of Appalachian storytelling, Pack includes a complete eerie tale in this collection entitled, "Never Mind Them Watermelons." Banks accompanies the eerie story with a colorful illustration depicting a story teller holding her young audience rapt while in the background, a full moon holds court over a woods filled with haints, boogers, and eyes that glow red in the hollow of a nearby tree.

Near and dear to my inner child's heart are the sections entitled "I" is for imagination and "O" is for outside. Who hasn't floated hickory nut shells down the creek as sailboats? Or created little villages in the tree roots where fairy princesses could sleep on beds of moss? Or cut little pieces from their mama's clothesline to make little people with long flowing hair?  Exactly. In these sections, Pack extols the childhood ability to turn moss, rocks, sticks, creeks, and flowers into playhouses, tables, forts, castles, seas, jewelry or any fantastic world of whimsy that might be conjured by a child's imagination in the natural world. 

Next to Banks' serene rendering of a barefoot young girl crossing a creek over smooth stones, Pack summarizes "O" is for outside with a list poem filled with images of outdoor play.  Here is a brief excerpt from page 23:

"Outside is where toes were dipped,
Rocks were skipped,
And laughing children dropped from ropes
at favorite water holes."

"Childhood has always beckoned me," says Linda Hager Pack in her author's note to Appalachian Toys and Games from A to Z.  "I had no sooner stepped beyond its borders than it flirted with me to come back. 'Come play," it whispered."

In a skillful blend of how-to, history, story and verse, Pack beckons the reader to experience 19th Century playtime in Appalachia from A to Z.  It's a journey masterfully punctuated  by the illustrations of Pat Banks, who captures the visual essence of each toy and game, inviting us to play along.  Sharing this book with your favorite child, grandchild, niece, nephew, classroom teacher or librarian might just take you all on an imaginative journey outside where your inner child so longs to play.

(This review aired on WVXU's Around Cincinnati on May 12, 2013. Listen to the review at this link:  Listen!