Category Archives: original works

original works

Small Gestures

Two weeks into this pandemic with fear and uncertainty persistent, UnderMain reached out to the arts community in an attempt to reconnect. Since then, we have partnered with various organizations to help provide emergency grants to those most in need.  We have encouraged regional leaders and many of our writers to share their views of the world Post-COVID. We have invited various constituents to join our weekly meetings as we revaluate our mission and our role.

Pressed into unbearable corners physically, emotionally, and financially as the landscape continues to tilt, UnderMain supports efforts to enact systemic change to our fragile industry. Balance and sanity also direct us toward the small gestures that seed change in each of us.

This is that.

Near the end of March, we reached out to Jim Betts – a contributor to UnderMain whose words always soothe – and he shared his project, Notecard Essays. The cathartic nature of his pen to paper was clear; so, we thought it might be nice to share. Below is Jim’s methodology for making these notecards – it’s a kind of process that incorporates a ritual and serves to gently reveal personal truths and, for Jim, unlocks something even more universal.


I sit, usually following a walk, with a notecard spread blank before me.  Hopefully on the walk I have come up with a topic, a “through line” which I will pursue. Sometimes I am particularly writing to a person, sometimes he/she is just next on the list. I address the card, date it, address the envelope and, thus committed, I approach the pure white canvas. I try to have a point. I try to broach the subject from a specific example, expanding out to some universal or at least personal truth. I embellish with flowery, poetic, philosophical language depending on topic/reader. I do not write the letter to him/her, but the person receiving it colors the presentation. And that to be presented colors the recipient.  I do not/cannot edit, it is a one shot deal. So like zen calligraphy, I sit down, gather myself, write and emerge somehow transformed from the practice. That is what is known as a good day.

None of this matters. It is how I do it. It really can be revelatory. I am frequently surprised by what comes off my pen. I copy them on my printer, seal the envelope with a wax seal (Why not? It heightens the drama, gift wraps the card and lets me play with fire.  By the way, the dripping and stamping is also part of the zen practice…), stamp them and put them in my home mailbox with the little flag up to announce their merry presence.  All in all it is a good use of an hour.


Photo by Christine Huskisson from the woods above a long bend in the Kentucky River.

Here are a few of Jim’s notecards:


Dearest Mother, 3/11/2018
I watch with some amusement and lots of amazement as the mockingbird patrols the back yard. We have a line of feeders spaced 20-30 feet apart. The mockingbird zooms back and forth from feeder to feeder, flaring his wings and strafing any bird bold enough to transgress. And of course they do. He is only one bird and when his back is turned, they whiz in for a quick seed. He of course cannot allow this, so back he goes, over and over again. I can’t imagine the energy demands on both body and spirit that kind of selfish behavior must exact. The little birds still sneak in and gain a crumb and whatever joy is present in the pastoral life of a bird, seems denied the mockingbird, save that of a bully. And despite his stingy dominion, I don’t see him overrode than anyone else. How much simpler it would be, from my non-avian perspective, to sit in the gathered trees, sing the joys of spring and share in the bounty available to all. I’m sure there is a metaphor for my life glaringly present. Suffice to say, in a land of plenty, sharing with open heart would seem the path towards greater peace.
All my love, Jim.


Dear Kristine,
I’ve discovered the joys of notecards. This little rectangle of open promise provides a perfect warp for the weft of words a moment in time inspires. Not short and thoughtless like a text, not interrupted by “Get Well Soon!,” not endless like a sheet of paper (why stop at the end? Just get another sheet!) this untrammeled snowfield invites a quiet stroll, a thoughtful communion, a short exploration of an idea or occurrence. These cards are the haiku of essays; succinct, evocative, pithy yet playful. They are tailored to an individual and informed by a moment yet, if properly realized, address a broader, deeper examination of topic. Perhaps I am being overly significant, saddling this pretty stock with greater weight than it is comfortable. But I view them as a wonderful conversation with a close friend, say, like after the second glass of wine has been poured. When, while your partner takes a sip, you are free to expound on some matter of great import, to her delight (hopefully) or to the unburdening of mind. They are a short, one-sided exchange which allow me, the writer, to share the process of fleshing out an idea with a kindred soul. This little rectangle frames the thought, shaping beginning and end, allowing for creative middling. Thanks for understanding.


Photo by Christine Huskisson from the woods above a long bend in the Kentucky River.

Dear Alary,
We watched a movie the other night, a lovely, brooding film called “The Hours.” In it, one of the characters, the Poet, says something like “I spent my whole life trying to describe a single day…and I couldn’t do it!” I’ve been waking a lot, reveling in the glories of a Kentucky spring. After a bit of grumbling about the weather, I have adopted a no-expectations mantra, breathed rapturously at the start: “Show me the glories of this day.” And each day is magical. Whether it is the unexpected sighting of a Scarlet Tanager, whose bold red and black mimic the appearance of our typical Cardinal. Or the wind-driven, sun-dappled sway of the spring maples, suffused with an almost holy light. Or the buttery warmth of the sun as it wrestles it’s way through the morning’s clouds. I could brush over all these, paying sensuous tribute, but I could not begin to factor in the manifold years and years of magic sun, crisp crescent moon, summers, fall, hard frozen winters which yield with gracious tenacity to the moment I am breathing in now. And all that everythingness that informs my experience of the world is mine. It shares a passing glance, a moment or two with yours, but the vastness of your life escapes me. I feel an honest embrace of that which moves me, with gracious allowance for what moves you, is a life well lived.


Dear Nicole,
My daily walks have invigorated me such that I regularly take evening walks. And this very familiar landscape takes on an ominous hue with the coming of the gloaming. This is a different space, evoking an implicit threat, a time of stealth and shadow, Dark Magic. The sounds carry further and quicken the heart. This is the time of raccoons, opossums, owls, elves. A time of scheming, quick treachery and surprise. I contrast that with the day’s magic. Light, airy, inviting, joyful. Equally capable of seducing you from your appointed path, but with the tinkling of little bells or the gentle waving of gaily sun-dappled flowers. The birds sing lustily from the tree tops, the wind playfully rustles the gossamer and chenille of the spring wardrobe. This is the time of faeries, a glad sweet time. I find myself loosening my winter’s jacket and lengthening my stride. My spirit soars in communion. At night I huddle more, tucking myself in, still the open perception but this one more wary. During the days wave to fellow travelers as they pass in their cars. At night, I slide behind trees, shy of the headlights but more, husbanding my invisibility. As a creature of sight, I cleave to the day, savoring the visual feast surrounding me. As a creator of adventure, the night pulls in visceral ways, a Siren promising wild beauty but also potential rocks.

Photo by Christine Huskisson from the woods above a long bend in the Kentucky River.


The day broke mottled, cold winter grey punctuated by spring’s golden glory.  The sun-washed the nascent green leaves and caused one to loosen one’s jacket.  I got to the road, preparing to enter the courtly secluded neighborhood next to mine when a car drove by.  My eyes were drawn to the liquid cardinal flights all around me when I heard a sound much like a fast-food cup being run over. I looked and saw a squirrel on the verge of the road, clearly run over.  I stood, shocked, silently hoping the car had run over an already dead squirrel, when I saw it feebly twitch its tail a few times, then nothing. The speed with which spring’s joy was stifled was stunning. A certain luster to the day faded. In this time of unseen rapid death, the peace with which I walk deflated and I was once again afraid and sad. Uttering a prayer for vision and wisdom, I pressed on grimly. Birds sang and chased, squirrels gamboled, the delicate seedpods of the maples swang in the breeze like a flapper girl’s dress. A hawk groomed himself atop a light pole, blossoming like all else around. Yet not from sun and rain but flesh and blood. He was a harbinger of death, beneficiary of such like the vulture or the maggot. The roundness of life emerged, the symbiotic grace of it. From the perspective of the individual, the ego, life begins and ends, has a quality of fairness or not, but from the universal, the aggregate is beautiful.

original works

Ron Isaacs: Shelf Life

What an odd thing a shelf is. A shelf is just a shelf really, right? Put a thing on it, though, and it is immediately transformed into something else. Once we begin to populate our shelves with objects – whether with precious memorabilia, beautiful images, feathers, or found knots – the whole thing becomes something else. We put objects on shelves to somehow honor them or know them better; we may even wonder if time will reveal something more about them. We might also believe that they could withstand the test of time – simply by being placed on a shelf.

On a recent couple of visits to the home and studio of Ron Isaacs and his wife Judy – both avid art collectors – I could not help but wonder if there was some parallel between the object-laden shelves I saw there and the work of the artist himself. Was it the manner in which they were so masterfully composed or something else? Something life-giving? So, I decided to look a little closer and to listen.

The artist Claes Oldenburg once declared that the harder he looked at a thing, the more mysterious it became.  “I know the feeling,” Ron writes in his artist’s statement – quoting the Modern/Pop artist often. “Objects have voiceless, inscrutable physical presences, and memories, as well; these memories are borne on their surfaces as signs of growth or manufacture, use or care, neglect or entropy.”

Ron Isaacs was trained as a painter, receiving a bachelor’s degree in art from Berea College in 1963 and an M.F.A. in painting from Indiana University in 1965. For many years he worked and taught as a painter, and considers the period from 1969 to 1973 as one of rapid development in his artistic career. In the early 1970s, he began collaging elements, attaching three-dimensional objects to his canvases and then painting this and that to combine. They were, in his words, clunky. Then, after a little experimentation, Ron had an epiphany realizing he could make a painting any shape he wanted. He threw out the canvas and discovered instead Finnish birch plywood constructions, what is now his signature medium. For over 45 years, Ron has created nearly 15 works per year in wood.

Enormously prolific, Ron has found a home for his works in many collections across the nation, including the Racine Art Museum, the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center, the Huntsville Museum of Art, the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, the Yeiser Art Center, Berea College, and Chase Manhattan Bank to name only a few.

“My work stakes out a territory almost exactly halfway between painting and sculpture,” Ron explained as we examined an old painting and his first plywood construction. The move from Camel Ride, 1970 to Jigsaw No. 1, 1971 (the first wood construction) to Ron’s Plywood London Fog Freaks Out, 1973 clearly shows the artist’s growth toward his mature style. Where heavy black line once unified disparate elements, considerable finesse and a good deal of sanding are now employed to unite later compositions.

Camel Ride, 1970, acrylic on canvas and wood, 30″ x 22″

Jigsaw No. 1, 1971, Acrylic on fir plywood construction. 28 1/2″ x 26″ x 2 1/2″ Collection of Bert and Cherie Mutersbaugh

Ron’s Plywood London Fog Freaks Out, 1973, acrylic on fir plywood construction and coat hanger, 42″ x 30″ x 6 1/2″

In the end, his goal is to trick the eye, but unlike traditional trompe l’oeil painters, the illusion of real objects is not Ron’s primary concern. “The illusion is an interesting and useful byproduct of my attempt to make a strong image that has the authority of direct observation.  If the illusion fails, which it always ultimately does either sooner or later, you still have an image to respond to, which is pretty much what you get with any painting or sculpture.”

Why would a trompe l’oeil artist want the illusion to fail? This is one of Isaacs’ chief strategies: he sets out to render something ‘real’ and then interrupts our impression with metamorphosis or paradox – turning the final construction to a thing more surreal.

In the series of images below, the process of creating these works is illustrated. Ron moves from the composition of real objects on a grid board, to tracing paper patterns with detailed instructions for the final shapes, to contour line patterns, then transfers these shapes to varying thicknesses of birch plywood, sawing, sanding and the gluing, to compose a final form.

Trained as a formalist, composition is one of Ron’s major concerns, as his works take on freer shapes on the wall. He understands that negative space is as important as the form and shape of each of the objects included. This construction was in its beginning phase on my first visit and completed on my second, one week later. It is titled Just a Thought and is just 8 1/2 inches tall by fifteen wide.

Juxtaposing man-made garments and natural objects in most of his constructions, Ron delves deeper into the mysteries of both; for him this combination reminds us of our relationship with nature – “either being a part of it or apart from it.” Alter Ego (Waterfall), 2008 and Birdies, 2015 bears witness to these dueling realities.

Ron also admits to liking the fact that, “the garment is fixed in time and the leaves are anytime.” Although he rarely works on more than one construction at a time, he will, when necessary, turn to a natural object that will eventually fade or die and recreate it for use in a future work.

The vintage garments, on the other hand, have a more stable shelf life and Ron’s friends like to joke that he has more dresses hanging around than his wife. For Ron, these garments have rich structures, colors, and shapes which lend themselves to endless design possibilities. “They continue the life of the past into the present, and they function in my work as anthropomorphic presences which become effective stand-ins for the human figure.”

Ron Isaacs,"Alter Ego (Waterfall), birch plywood construction prior to painting

Alter Ego (Waterfall) in process, 2008, 44″ x 33 3/4″ x 7 3/4″, collection of John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin

Ron Isaacs, "Alter Ego (Waterfall)"

Alter Ego (Waterfall), 2008, 44″ x 33 3/4″ x 7 3/4″, collection of John Michael Kohler Art Center, Sheboygan, Wisconsin


Birdies, Finnish birch construction, 2015, 22 3/4″ x 18 1/2″ x 2 1/4″

"Birdies," 2015

Birdies, 2015, 22 3/4″ x 18 1/2″ x 2 1/4″

“Trompe l’oeil (‘fool the eye’) could be a gimmick for an artist to show off technical skills, a fairly shallow if entertaining enterprise, but its devices seem an appropriate response to my love of the visual world.  I am still enamored with the old simple discovery of resemblance, the first idea of art after tools and shelter:  It means that an object or image made of one material can share the outward appearance and therefore some of the ‘reality’ of another.”

Sticks are crucial. In design terms, a stick is basically a line for Ron Isaacs; he frequently uses them to draw forms as in Alter Ego and Metaphor.

"Metaphor," 2005

Metaphor, 2005, 24″ x 51 1/4″ x 8″

Ron does not consider himself a conceptual artist, but I couldn’t help but see a bit of ideation playing equal part to the aesthetics in works like Coincidence from 2014. In fact, this composition had more to do with his sense of humor than anything much deeper; he commented, “It was even more fun, when the actual stick – the inspiration for both of my sticks – was still around.” Quoting from American writer and poet Joyce Kilmer’s short poem titled ‘Trees’ from 1913, Ron humbly states:

Maybe, ‘Only God can make a tree’, but I can make a pretty good stick.

"Coincidence," 2014

Coincidence, 2014, 2 parts; 26″ x 9″ x 1 1/2″, overall

Ron considers his job is to make things that are evocative and allow viewers to interpret his works as they will. While not all easily accessible, ‘simplicity’ and ‘directness’ are two terms used by Rick Snyderman, Principle of Snyderman-Works Galleries in Philadelphia, when describing Ron’s works (catalogue essay to accompany Ron Isaacs: A Retrospective in 2 1/2 D). Isaacs connects the viewer in tight constructs, but never requires a specific interpretation. The content is open content.

Muted gray, brown, and off-white are favorites in Isaacs’ palette. Just a Thought is a good example. However, given that all of this is to challenge himself, he will work in bolder colors as in Recurring Dream in Red from 2011. If a particular object requires that he push himself, he turns always to his judgment and artistic licensure. Ron does all of this because he must; he cannot really say in words exactly why. His works are visual poems, frequently quoting American realist painter and printmaker Edward Hopper:

If I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.

Recurring Dream in Red, 2011, 36 1/4″ x 55″ x 3 1/2 Collection of Michael and Christine Huskisson

If only you could say it in words. “I combine imagery, often using paradoxical interruptions and metamorphoses, in hopes of creating visual ‘poems’ of sorts; these suggest metaphors for the relationships of human life and nature, memory, and the passage of time.” In fact, the inspiration for Improve Each Shining Hour from 2010 is a poem by Isaac Watts titled How Doth the Little Busy Bee.

Mediating the artistic experience in words is, we all know, a difficult thing to do. So, thank you, Ron for improving each hour by bringing to us these masterful compositions. May they sit forever on our shelves of life.

"Improve Each Shining Hour," 2010


How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower! How skillfully she builds her cell!
How neat she spreads the wax!
And labors hard to store it well
With the sweet food she makes.

In works of labor or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do

In books, or work, or healthful play,
Let my first years be passed,
That I may give for every day
Some good account at last.

– Isaac Watts (1674-1748)


Ron is represented in Kentucky by Heike Pickett Gallery in Versailles.

The artist’s retrospective Ron Isaacs: A Retrospective in 2 1/2 D was held in the fall of 2011 at the Doris Ulmann Galleries at Berea College.

Related in UnderMain: Other Lexington artists who mix mediums

Patrick Adams: Lights Mystery 

Patrick McNeese in Scene&Heard

original works

Hemp and the Future of Fashion

The Future of Fashion 2020 show is coming to Lexington on the evenings of March 13-14, with a focus on designs incorporating hemp fabrics. In an interview for the March 5 edition of Eastern Standard on WEKU, I spoke with fashion designer, community activist, and organizer Soreyda Benedit Begley. Click on the image below to listen.

Soreyda Benedit Begley | Photo by Chris Begley

Images courtesy of Soreyda Benedit Begley

original works

Hot Cross Buns

Growing up, my family always celebrated Mardi Gras.  We actually always celebrated every holiday: Epiphany, Valentine’s Day, Washington’s birthday and Lincoln’s, back when they were separately noted, cherry pies and log cabin cakes.  St. Patrick’s Day too, but Mardi Gras was a crowning occasion in the year long fetes. My dad would go all out decorating the house in home-grown Carnival style.  Crepe paper and balsa wood construction would be suspended from the ceiling, streamers and noisemakers, tambourines and maracas would be distributed throughout the house and raucous costumes would be designed.  Many of our celebrations were just for the family, but Mardi Gras was an invited guest soiree, costumes expected.

Why am I going on about Mardi Gras as we approach Easter?  Because of the colors.  We would suspend a large flag decorated in the purple, yellow and green of the holiday in our hallway to greet the guests as they arrived.  And I watch each spring as nature unfurls banners in the same colors to greet me on my walks.  Yellow forsythias or daffodils, yellow-rumped warblers and jonquils.  The greenest green of a Kentucky spring morning dotted with purple violets and the magenta of redbuds. The trees, so long stripped to their winter vestments, austere and stark, grow shaggy with bud, then seemingly overnight become misted with the pale greens of newborn leaves.

The smells too, fragrant after the long chill of winter.  The warming air is redolent with the aroma of damp earth and the faint perfume of the flowering trees.  After a rain, worms litter the sidewalks like pine needles.  Robins hop and sing, trilling their pleasure at the abundance of good living that is present.  It is a time when coats are unbuttoned, then abandoned.  Thoughts turn to yard work, then picnics.  It is a time for putting the remains of last year away in compost piles and preparing our space, ourselves for the new growth.

So too it is with baking.  Our focus becomes a lightness befitting the season.  Some of the substantial loaves of winter give way to the airier breads of spring.  Reserved and sensible yields to fun and flippant.  Fruit tarts which seem cold and out of place in our winter’s showcase now glow with the vibrancy of spring.  The warm morning sun streaming in the windows illuminate the danish, making them sparkle like God’s breakfast.  And one of my favorite breads of the year emerges from the recipe cupboard where seasonal products are stored: hot cross buns.  

These light, airy jewels of a bread are a wonderful blend of spice and sweet.  The are “hot” because of the spices in them. We use cloves and nutmeg, spices usually reserved for pies, and the resulting aromatic flavor surprises and delights the palate.  They can be decorated on the top with a cross cut in them, with a cross of short crust pastry dough laid on top at baking time or with a cross of icing applied after they cool.  I prefer the last as it adds just the right amount of sweet.

As bakers, we are given the gift of embellishing the seasons, adding to the moments that brighten our lives.   Whether it be a daily morning slice of crackly crunchy toast, a cookie for a snack, a pie for Thanksgiving or the ultimate, the cake to be sliced at the joyous joining of two lives onto one path, ours is a profession which gets to share in the delights of living.  And products like hot cross buns are once yearly exclamation points.

Hot Cross Buns

This is a soft dough, easily mixed by hand or by stand mixer.  The final dough will be soft, supple and a bit tacky.  When rolling the dough into the bun shape, be stingy with the flour; you want it to stick a bit to the table.

All Purpose Flour 4 cups

Sugar½ cup

Salt 1 tsp.

Instant Dry Yeast 1 packet (2 tsp.)

Ground Nutmeg ½ tsp.

Ground Cloves ¾ tsp.

Unsalted Butter, Melted 1 stick (4 oz.)

Milk, Warmed 1 cup

Eggs, Large 2

Dried Fruits 1 ½ cups (some combination of raisins, chopped apricots, dried     cherries, dates, dried pineapple…)

Add all dry ingredients in mixing bowl, either hand bowl or mixer. 

Add all liquids and begin mixing, either with a wooden spoon or with the hook attachment of the mixer.

Mix until it is a cohesive, somewhat sticky dough, about 10 minutes. If you are mixing by hand, you will want to turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead until it is smooth and supple.

Add the dried fruit and mix just to combine.

Put into greased, covered bowl and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.

Turn out onto lightly floured surface and cut into 18-20 pieces.  

Round into tight balls.  Place on baking tray and cover, let rise till doubled, about one hour.

Place into preheated 350 degree oven and bake 16-18 minutes, until golden brown and firm.

While they are cooling, make the icing:

Two cups powdered sugar

¼ cup milk

Mix until the consistency of firm honey.  If it is too wet, add more powdered sugar, too dry, more milk.

With a pastry bag or spoon, draw a cross on top of each of the cooled buns.  Let the icing set then enjoy!

original works

A Baker’s Almanac: The Moods of March

A surprisingly effective snow fell the other day, wrapping the yellow buds of daffodils and honeysuckle in cotton.  After the tantalizing warmth of the week prior, this cold was not welcomed, though it was beautiful.  We eagerly anticipate the gentle air of spring, full of scent and promise, ready to be done with the chill of winter, but nature seems nonplussed, regardless of conditions.  In winter, when all nature seems tucked up and waiting, a magical growth is occurring. 

If we can pull our faces from out of the burrow of our scarves, we will see the greens of moss and lichens are every bit as lush as the verdant carpet of spring, maybe more so for the paucity of other color.  This is the time they grow, capturing more territory, reveling in just the right clime for their blossoming.  The stone walls and tree trunks seem to glow with a rich spectrum of green, from soft yellow lime to the deep dark of a pine forest.

In spring, the growth is explosive, almost visible.  The lichens’ growth is sedate, slow, befitting the harsher clime.  It is a more somber environment.  I have a mantra which, when I am in my right mind, I live by: If you want extraordinary experiences, you need to put yourself in extraordinary circumstances.  I have a habit of bundling up in inclement weather and stepping out to see what I have not before.  This day, the lichens seemed to glow even more electric green,  a luxuriant counter to the flowing white mist that fell.  The mockingbird that had been announcing the arrival of spring in joyous notes in the morning gloaming sang just as jubilant after the snow, just not as frequently, seeming to need to gather his will between songs.  The air in the neighborhood was thick and muted during the snowfall, like walking into a cathedral.

This is a truculent time, fluctuating between periods of glorious, buttery warmth and gusty, stinging cold.  The festivities of the season also reflect this.  The opulent revelries of Mardi Gras are followed by the austerities of Lent, the emotional swings as dramatic as the weather.  Like the fabled groundhog predicting winter’s fate, Mardi Gras seems to be a moment of exuberance in anticipation of the joys of spring.  But tempered by the cold realities of the slowness of the seasons, the preparation of land and soul for the coming rebirth is measured and slow.  The playful excess of a King’s Cake is succeeded by Lenten sparsity.  Though, to our pleasure, this is somewhat mitigated by a fine and simple bread with the attitude of a pastry.

A tender blending of flour and butter, leavened with soda and buttermilk, with raisins as a kicker, Irish Soda Bread seems the perfect bread for this time of life.  Heavy enough to be substantial, crumbly as a newly furrowed field, it serves equally well as breakfast or dinner fare. And like all simple baked goods, technique is where the magic lies.

As anyone who has taken on pie dough or biscuits knows, a light touch makes the difference.  The butter is cut into the flour, brief mixing leaving pea-sized pieces of butter mottled through the dough.  These jewels of flavor melt down in the oven, creating a honeycombed structure that crumbles deliciously in the mouth.  Whether sliced to accompany a rich Irish stew or cut into wedges to enjoy, scone-like, in the morning, this bread proves the maxim that simple pleasures are the best.

One of the joys of a cold winter’s walk is the return home.  As I arrived at my door, I brushed the boutonniere of snow festooning my lapel and stepped into the house.  I was greeted by a murmuring fire, the purr of my coffee pot and the delicious pleasure of some sweet cream butter melting slowly on a wedge of soda bread.  Like the gradual warming of the world outside, the heat of my house at last penetrated, allowing me to unbundle and relax, preparing me for whatever lay in store.

Irish Soda Bread

All Purpose Flour     4 cups

Baking Soda      1 ½ tsp.

Salt 1 tsp.

Granulated Sugar 3 Tbls.

Unsalted Butter 1 ½ sticks (6 oz.)

Raisins 2 cups

Buttermilk 1 ½ cups

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  This recipe comes together qickly.

Measure all dry ingredients into large mixing bowl. 

Cut chilled butter into ½ inch cubes.

“Massage” the butter into the dry ingredients until it resembles a collection of small peas.

Stir in the raisins.

Make a well in the bowl and add the buttermilk all at once.  Stir until it just comes together.  It will resemble a shaggy mass. 

Place onto lightly floured surface and pat into one large or two smaller discs about an inch thick.

Transfer to cookie sheet.  If you have two sheets, double pan the bread to keep the bottom from over browning

Cut a cross into the top of the loaf (loaves) and place into oven.  One loaf bake for 32 minutes, 2 loaves bake them for 25 minutes.

Remove from oven when golden brown and somewhat firm.  Cool slightly then eat copiously!

original works

Fear of Falling

I watched a White-Throated Sparrow follow his cohorts into a bush this morning.  He flitted in fast, grabbed a branch with too much speed.  He couldn’t stick the landing and so launched himself off to the next bush without hesitation.  It was an innocuous event, something that happens without comment all the time.  In fact, had it occurred otherwise I would have been surprised.  Birds routinely launch themselves from this branch to that wire, land or don’t, stay or don’t, with apparent disregard for any consequence.  And this cavalier attitude they have regarding gravity I find intriguing. I have long wondered about the mindset of birds, what it must be like to have no fear of falling.

As a young man, I had the good fortune to work at a self-empowerment program which had an outdoor ropes course element to it.  One of my duties there was to work at the rappel site, sending people of all ages over an 80 foot cliff.  Many of these people had never done anything like this before; some were terrified of heights.  Yet all had taken this program as a way of conquering their fears.  And the rappel was just the exercise to help them with that.

Everything about rappelling challenges core beliefs.  I would take 50 year old people, out of shape and out of their elements, gear them up in harness and rope, then walk them to the edge of the world.  Frequently we would creep the last few feet together, arm clutched hard to arm.  I would them tell them to turn, put their back to the cliff, their feet on the edge, and lean back.  There is something so fundamentally wrong with that that the mind can’t help but rebel.  It goes against everything your momma ever told you to do.  To properly rappel, you basically walk backwards down the cliff, your back parallel with the ground far below.  The rope keeps you from falling and the interplay between rope, feet and rock keep you from face planting, but only if you lean back nearly horizontal.

All your upbringing and instincts scream that this is the wrong thing to do, that you should hug the rope and nestle up to the rock face.  I’m sure there is even some biological imperative shouting from deep within your DNA that stepping backwards off a cliff is a very bad way to further the species.  Yet over the cliff they went, young and old, scared and bold, to safely arrive, jubilant and accomplished, at the bottom 80 feet away.

I had the cherished job of talking them through the technique, through their fears, allowing them to discover a greater sense of capability and freedom.  Initially what was present was fear.  As I worked with them, slowly my voice would penetrate and what would occur was listening followed by trust followed by relationship finishing with love.  There is something embedded in the act of surrendering to another that opens us up.  Its no surprise that we talk about falling in love.  It is scary.  To trust another with your vulnerable heart is like leaning backwards over a cliff.  What comes from that is a release, a joy, a feeling of floating, making you want to bounce down the cliff, gamboling like a mountain goat.  

We celebrate this with our traditions on St. Valentine’s Day.  Bright and shiny, heart shaped and poetic, we express ourselves with candy and flowers.  There is a sweetness to it, rich and enrobing.  True love, like good chocolate, melts in your mouth.

Bete Noire

This flourless chocolate cake, whose name means Black Beast in French, is sinfully rich, tasting like chocolate butter.  It is baked in a water bath ensuring its creaminess.  Simply assembled, it will score you big points with the love of your life!

!/2 cup water

1 cup sugar

12 oz. dark, semisweet chocolate

8 oz. unsalted butter

5 eggs

3 Tbls sugar

In a saucepan, bring water and sugar to a boil. Reduce heat.

Add chocolate and butter and gently warm to melt.

In a bowl, whisk eggs and remaining sugar to combine.  

Stir into chocolate/butter mixture.

Pour into greased 8 inch cake pan.

Place onto a baking sheet pan and put into preheated 350 degree oven.

Pour water onto sheet pan to come halfway up the cake pan.

Bake for about 40-45 minutes, until cake is firmly set and a paring knife inserted comes out clean.

Remove from heat. Take off pan of water, being extremely careful not to burn yourself.

Let cool 30-60 minutes, until just room temperature.

Run a knife around the edge, invert a dish over the pan, flip it upside down and gently tap to release.

Wrap with plastic and chill. May be done a day ahead.  In fact, it works better.

This cake is super rich.  Serve stingy slices floating on raspberry sauce or serve with whipped cream and fresh raspberries.


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Winter Wheat

Winter in Kentucky is slowly becoming my favorite season. Like most people, I find the cold intrusive, the bulky clothes annoying and the gruff transitions from inside to outside and back again disruptive, but once I commit myself to being out in nature, a walk in a park or even around the neighborhood, I find the starkness revealing.

One of my objections to this land is one of its strongest traits: an almost strangling fecundity. The woods in the summer are so verdant and lush, seeing the forest for the leaves becomes difficult. But in the fall, and especially the winter, the trees reveal their stately countenance. The naked profile of a leafless tree against a snowy backdrop reveals the character of the tree, the story of the tree. In the gaudy greenery of their springtime finery, the trees glow with youthful frippery. But come winter, when the over mantles are cast off, we are left to wonder at the limbs, the heart, the bones.

In the neighborhood next to mine live some trees that are literally hundreds of years old. The architect who purchased the land and first started building houses in the area in the mid-30’s designed the road to wind past the towering Chinquapin Oaks that had settled in that spot long before the coming of us. And they dominate the land even today. Gnarled, broken, they stand in grand testament to perseverance and flexibility. Around them are their newer neighbors: Pin oaks and Sycamores and Tulip Poplars, all stripped to the bone of leaf and flower, all revealing their skeletal structure. I used to feel the trees looked sad, vulnerable in their winter sparsity, but now I see the bold strength, the history, the tenacity of their quest for light, for moisture, for growth. From a distance, the trunk and branch look like the vein pattern of an individual leaf. Up close, the vast strength and solidity of the years is revealed.

So too with the creeks. The record volume of water that has fallen this past year has highlighted their presence, the channels forming on the floor of my leaky basement standing in sodden testament to this. More and more I see how this land is intimately shaped by water. The little and big creeks stitch together the landscape like veins on a leaf, like branches on a winter’s tree. And through the sparse foliage of winter, I am discovering the hidden convolutions of the waterways of the Bluegrass.

On one of the many fine, beautiful country roads which wrap around Lexington, there is a bridge I like to stop at, the intersection of land and water, man and nature being gently revealed. As I step from my car to briefly revel in the gentle glory, I am struck by how accessible the peace of nature is to us here. Today as I walked up to the bridge, at the convergence of two creeks merging to form the Elkhorn, the sun seeped through the clouds and the insistent current seemed to pull the wan sunlight downstream with it. Glassine pillows of water flowed over submerged rocks to fall in a jumble at the bottom of the slope. Heretofore hidden feeder creeks emerged, the gauzy shroud of summer shrubbery dropped to reveal the moist gullies beneath. As I stood there, letting sound and air wash over me, I felt sedation, a slowing of space.

There is a pulling back, a pulling in that comes with winter. The trees stand resolute, their strong, intimate branches revealed in their grand, naked gavotte with gravity. Squirrels shroud themselves in the shawls of their tails. Birds puff up like dandelions, maximizing the insulation of their elegantly efficient feathers. Even our cat is around more, enjoying the warm bath of air from the heater more than his solitude. It is a slower, more languid time; it is a good time for baking bread.

Baking bread at home is one of the most basic and sensuous of pleasures. The smell of the flour and yeast, the sticky texture of the initial mass giving way to the smooth firm ball of properly kneaded dough, the warmth of the oven, the perfume of the baking loaf, all transform a cold winter’s day into a celebration of hearth and home. It is a personal activity which gives richly to all lucky enough to be in the space. And it is easy; with care and patience the alchemical transformation from base ingredients into culinary gold is always achievable, though sometimes with better results than others. And the results keep giving.

The usual recipe for bread gives two to three loaves, allowing for inhalation of the first warm, redolent loaf and the slower consumption of the next over the following days. Like any activity, more practice leads to better results. And in this time of pulling in and nesting, exercising and resolving, it is one which will lead to a greater sense of peace and fulfillment.

Jim’s Recipe for Winter Wheat Bread:

3 cups Whole Wheat Flour

3 cups White Bread Flour

1 packet Instant Yeast

1 tablespoon Salt

2 tablespoons Sorghum or Molasses or Honey

Generous 2 cups room temperature Water.

Combine all dry ingredients into a mixing bowl.

Add sweetener, then water.

Stir with wooden spoon until a shaggy mass is formed.

Turn out onto counter or bread board and knead about 5 minutes, until a smooth, taut ball is formed.

Place ball in oiled mixing bowl, cover loosely with towel and let rise until doubled, about an hour.

Punch down and divide into 2 pieces.

Form into balls and place on cornmeal covered sheet pan, or place into greased bread pans.

Cover loosely with towel and let rise until doubled, 45-60 minutes. (Preheat oven to 375)

Place into oven and bake 30-35 minutes.  When done, the bottom will ring like a drum when thumped.

Remove from oven.  Let cool as long as you can.  Eat with your favorite soup or spread.

When fully cool, wrap other loaf, if you still have it, and store for later use.


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A Baker’s Almanac: Tales of Simple Goodness

I started baking in college, first in a food co-op, then in my off-campus house.  Living with 5 other college-aged kids meant we ate a lot, giving me ample opportunity to experiment; it was common practice to polish off a standard batch of two to three loaves in a couple of days.  My first baking book was The Garden Way Bread Book, though it lives in my memory by its subtitle: A Baker’s Almanac.  I was intrigued by its promise of a yearly guide to the glories of baking.  In it were the recipes which were to be the crucible for the concoction that would become my life: being a baker.

There is a flow to the year, one to which all beings adhere, bakers notwithstanding.  The new year starts with the pop of a champagne cork but quickly settles into a more austere mindset, one which favors hearty, healthy breads.  After a brief fling with chocolate in February, we trundle on, anticipating the lightness of being which is spring, the abundance of delectable fresh produce which is summer, the robust foods of autumn and the arrival of the sumptuous holidays.  All to be rounded by that pop once again which is both start and death knell. 

In a very unsystematic way,  I will be writing a monthly bit of lore and insight I’ve gained over 38 years of baking.  I have seen the smooth transition from hippie-inspired home baking to rock star restaurants touting stunning pastries and desserts to once again a return to what I like to think of as local materials, honestly expressed.  With history and the seasons as my guide, I hope to entertain, inform and inspire, and each essay will conclude with a user friendly recipe.

What follows is the first installment.  I hope you enjoy!


I have long been a fan of fairy tales, simple fables with simple messages, peopled with colorful characters.  These stories entertain and enlighten and I have embraced their gentle teachings since a boy.  One of my favorites is the Elves and the Shoemaker.  This is a tale of simple goodness: a poor shoemaker, unable to produce goods of sufficient quantity or quality to pay for his living, is assisted by a pair of elves.  Unobserved, these mischievously helpful beings produce shoes for him overnight, shoes of surpassing quality which are left to be discovered when he awakens.  There is a gentle goodness, a selflessness, a giving that I find reaffirming.  It is no surprise I run a bakery.

A folklore-ish element suffuses all the goings on of a bakery.  The work of late nights produces wondrous comestibles to be discovered upon awakening.  Watching people come in and grab some something with which to brighten their day is the intangible payment for the long night’s work.  Never is that more clear than during the holidays.  Thanksgiving, with it’s pies and rolls, lays a warm autumnal blanket down upon which Christmas gaudily settles.  Bright, shining, colorful treats of stunning breadth emerge.  The goodies seem to embody the essence of elven work.

I dusted off my copy of The Italian Baker, one of my earliest and favorite baking books.  Filled with lore and culture and regional recipes, I enjoy going to that well again and again, especially when an Italian specialty is called for.  And now it’s Christmas time.  The time above all times when baking is called for, expected, trundled out and anticipated.  Cultures and peoples all over the world pull out their best, to wow and celebrate family and friends.  Long before the coming of Christianity, the end of December had been celebrated.  The Solstice, the shortest day of the year, occurs then.  I suspect if I was going to have a party in the middle of the dark and cold, I’d pick the longest night of the year, figuring we could break into the larder and ransack treasured bits of the bounty of summer, for it would be all about the return of spring from then on.  Fruitcake, jam cake, pies, and preserved meats, all come out to mark the end of the dark and the coming of the light.

And what better way to celebrate than with warm, rich, succulent baked goods?  The English have their Christmas pudding, the southern U.S., their jam cake, the German their stollen (more completely known as Christstollen, the lumpy shape and blanket of powdered sugar said to represent the baby Jesus in swaddling), the French their buche de Noel, the Italian panettone, hence the book I had been holding earlier.  Studded with fruit and spice, it, like its brethren from around the world represent the best in celebration.

Christstollen being assembled: butter, loaf, marzipan, folding and then the final product, covered with powdered sugar.

I view most of these items from the perspective of the professional baker, someone who’s business depends on Jesus Christ, Patron Saint of 4th Quarter Profits.  But the realm of the home baker holds strong through December as well.  I maintain there is hardly a person around who doesn’t remember holiday baking in Granny’s kitchen, even if they never did, so strong is the sentiment surrounding this time.  My mom made cookies and candy.  Wedding cookies, cherry chews (nee cherry winks, dubbed cherry coconut bars), chocolate almond caramel crunch, and butter cookies (see recipe, below.)

Christmas butter cookies

Light, rich, redolent with butter and melt-in-your-mouth tender, these little nothings of pleasure were always my favorite.  The line between perfect and also-ran was fine, the anticipation and reverence while baking, angel food cake like.  When they were made, lightly mixed, squeezed out in just the right shape from some Buck Rogers cookie press, baked to golden tenderness and allowed to cool for only the briefest of time, the experience of that cookie dissolving in your mouth was sublime.  The only time we had these was at Christmas, the rarity increasing the value.  I know we were not alone in this.  There seems to be an endless stream of family favorites and grandma’s specialties.  And for this I give thanks. 


Cora Anna Banta Betts’s Butter Cookie Recipe

As presented to my mother, Jackie Betts, her first wedded Christmas.

1 cup (8 ounces) softened unsalted butter

1/2 cup powdered sugar

2 cups All purpose Flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy.

Sift together the flour and salt, add to butter/sugar mixture.

Stir in vanilla.

Push through cookie press onto a baking sheet, sprinkle colored sugar on top if desired.

Place in preheated 350-degree oven for 10 minutes, until golden brown on bottom, pale white on top.

Let cool, but barely.

Eat voluminously.

Makes about 50 small cookies.

The key to this recipe is a light touch.  Don’t overmix the flour with the butter.  Don’t over bake the cookie.  Gentle the whole way and they will be light and crumbly.  A pleasure in your mouth.

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I Am a Tourist Here

I took a roadtrip down to Levi Jackson State Park on Saturday.  No real agenda, no clear picture of where I was going to spend the night, what I was going to see, where I was going to go.  As I left Lexington, I had a sense of urgency, of needing to get there, heedless of not knowing where “there” was.  That continued until I got to Marksbury Farm Market just outside Lancaster on 27.  I stopped in for a sandwich and a chat and as I sat outside eating, I could feel the rush slip away.  I was a tourist.  I could stay there till dark, turn around and head home.  Or I could head on down to Levi Jackson pronto.  Or I could meander at a sedate pace, letting the beauty and charm of the land permeate. The words to a Bob Seger song kept popping into my head: “I could go left or I could go right; it was all up to me to decide.” I chose the latter and rolled on through the day.

I am not being completely truthful when I say I had no real agenda.  I was going down to see the mill stone museum located at Levi Jackson.  A hundred or so millstones from old Kentucky mills line the walk leading to an old mill.  What I didn’t realize was my original agenda was about to be subsumed by the conversation I was going to have with Bob House, docent and ranger of the rebuilt, fully operational mill located in the park.  I got there around 10.  He had just opened up the cabin and I eagerly pressed him for a tour.  The cabin and much of the furnishings had been built in 1805.  It was moved and rebuilt in it’s current location in the 1930’s, as part of the WPA.  And it had been operating there since.

Photo by author

The joys of simple technology!  When Bob opened the water gate (My favorite bumpersticker from the Nixon era: “Behind every water gate is a mill house.”  Get it?!), the creek was allowed to flow over the turbine (not a side mounted wheel, but a “true turbine,” according to Bob) and the foot-diameter axle began slowly to turn.  Attached to that axle is a wheel, some 4 feet around, and wrapping that is a 10-inch wide belt of leather which goes to the front of the cabin, looping around a much smaller circumferenced wheel and back.  The smaller wheel is attached to two giant stone discs, very heavy (“I don’t know how heavy they are, I ain’t never weighed them.  But I know that 4 grown men can’t pick them up.  We have people come in at night to steal them.  They can stand them up and roll them to the parking lot, but they can’t lift them into their truck.”).  Let’s say 1000 pounds.  The belt which takes it’s languid time circling the big wheel fairly flies around the smaller one, causing the upper most stone to turn at an impressive speed.  Grain, in this case corn, is loaded into the hopper mounted over the mill stone casing (a circular wooden box which keeps the grain from flying out as it is ground by the stones) and is shaken into the opening as needed.  The grain is pulverized into flour and slides down a wooden chute into a wooden trough, where Bob packs it into cloth bags containing two pounds of fresh milled cornmeal.  

Photo by author

The entire machine is made (with extraordinary few exceptions) of wood, stone, hide.  It is incredibly efficient and works in a wondrously harmonious relationship with its surroundings.  Bob said that even the small dam needed for the operation of the mill helps balance the ecosystem.  The backed-up creek environment, favored by birds, turtles, fish used to be supplied by industrious beavers.  But we hunted most of them, so the mill is doing their work.  The sound of the mill while it is in operation is practical, soothing, organic. A hum of the earth, of tree and rock and water moving in harmony.  It probably took 10 minutes for the mill to grind the two pounds of flour, but it could do that all day and night, with very little supervision, forever.  Efficient, serene, perfect technology.  I left there with the same feeling I get walking through the woods.  Of being at peace and feeling at one with the world.  The technology didn’t separate man from nature, it bound the two more tightly.

I rode home with my two pounds of fresh milled, unbolted corn meal.  I had asked many questions and been given a vast array of knowledge: ecology, economics, machine design, politics…  I had gone to look at mill stones and had come away with milling. 

The mantra “I Am A Tourist Here” is one I have been trying on for a few months.  When traveling, I give myself permission to ask ridiculous questions from complete strangers and am usually intrigued and stunned by what I learn, safe in may guise as a tourist.  However, when I’m home I operate as if I should know, as if I shouldn’t be a tourist.  As if I shouldn’t take that untried road, or stop at that new place, or be inquisitive and naive as I am when I am touristing.  Just by reciting the mantra, the fardel of society slips from my shoulder and I am given permission to look at my familiar terrain with fresh eyes, an act which almost always yields delightful insight.

Photo by author

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Eyes to See

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour

 Auguries of Innocence – William Blake

As a young man, I had the good fortune and insight to spend a great deal of time outdoors hiking and backpacking.  I traveled to Alaska and, on one memorable night, sat on a cliffside on Kodiak Island, watching a literal midnight sun disappear beneath the horizon, bathing sea, air, land in a glowing wash.  This was followed, a twilit dusky hour later, by an equally glorious sunrise, the sun that far north traveling not in an arc but in a barely truncated circle about the sky. 

I hiked the Olympic National Rain Forest for a sodden sublime week, sitting on a valley rim, alone in the vastness save for a deer, licking the sweat from my rain jacket I had hung to dry on a branch.  I watched in wonder as a white stag, whose forebears had been imported from Sherwood Forest, emerged from the fog of a Point Reyes morning, him being more interested in lording over the herd of females and fawns who materialized, with a shuffle, out of the whiteness. 

I sang to the glories of the grandeur unfolding as I hiked up the switchbacked cliff face of Yosemite Valley, each turn bringing me higher and deeper into the vast beauty of that hallowed land. 

I guided a raft of friends down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River through the heart of the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho.  We started in a tributary barely wide and deep enough to permit our craft, finishing, after many nights and rapids, in a wide, flat, slow flowing river which could accommodate a cruise liner.  The world was grand and big and I wanted to see it, to taste it, to bite off huge dramatic chunks.

I am not now that young man.  A friend’s t-shirt loudly proclaims my current state: “The older I get, the better I was.”  My hikes are now a morning walk, my vistas the downtown buildings I spy from my perch atop the coach’s tower in my neighborhood park.  Guiding rivers is now staring in wonder at the intricacies of the creek that flows through the next door neighborhood.  And yet, when I stop long enough to see, the grandeur which inhabits these spaces reveals itself.

I watched in amazement as the remains of a spring rain flowed down the creek, simultaneously carving a channel and creating a delta, as the carrying capacity of the swift water diminished with slowing flow.  In a fractal view of the world, I was watching the Mississippi River flow past New Orleans. 

On a neighborhood walk, I spied in astonishment a Cooper’s Hawk diving treacherously at a chipmunk, narrowly missing.  Or equally amazing, a Red Tailed Hawk lumbering skyward, hauling with him a squirrel who must have equaled the bird’s own weight, forced onto a tree limb perch by my insistent approach.  With the additions of a video crew and David Attenborough’s narration, this was life writ large, worthy of National Geographic. 

The other evening I went for a walk, to be greeted by a Rothko sunset: a flat, snow-leadened wall of cloud sat heavy on the sun, squashing an orange smear onto the horizon. 

Another night, I watched as clouds like a sheet of dryer lint dragged in front of a gibbous moon, fat and white, fixed and solid like a peg in the heavens.  That celestial display no less grand than the gauzy curtains of Northern Lights I was entranced by in New Hampshire on the Appalachian Trail. 

I watched a Bradford Pear tree, whose flowers bested 3 snowfalls and a hard frost to sweetly declare this spring’s imminence, at last give way to the greening of the branch.  The fortitude of our trees to persevere in the face of Spring’s grudging warming is as grand as the Redwoods’ or Joshua Trees’.  Caterpillars of snow crawling on the delicate limbs of Eastern White Pines, crashing down in a secondary snowfall as the sun-warmed branches released their burdens, are as wondrous as the calving of icebergs, the process being the same. 

I feel deeply, especially in spring, the glories of the world around. The volunteer Pin Oak in my backyard, 20 years ago a twig, now is rivaling the size of the 100-year-old Burr Oak of my neighbor’s.  The flocks of warblers travel like gaily colored acrobats on their way north, stopping to pick bug and bud from trees seemingly timed for their arrival. 

My legs are hampered by age and responsibility, my hunger for adventure diminished with time, but the wonders of the world surround us even in our backyards if we have eyes to see, an open spirit and the willingness to “waste” time on the slow and the minute.

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Breaking: Robert Mueller to be First Falcon Heavy Live Payload

On the heels of the highly successful launch of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy Launch Vehicle carrying a payload into space of a cherry red Tesla Sportster with a dummy driver, the White House today announced a series of upcoming launches by Elon Musk’s company. The program of launches, dubbed “You’re Out of This World!!”, will include the now-iconic cherry red Tesla Sportster with live humans in the drivers’ seats.

At a press briefing today, White House Press Secretary, Sara Huckabee Sanders identified Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, as the initial human payload. Huckabee Sanders explained that the ability of the SpaceX to accomplish quick turnarounds of launch vehicles made the company a desirable partner in this initiative, approved “at the highest level of government.” She anticipates that the Mueller launch might be “in a matter of weeks, if not days.”

In response to being pressed by Jim Acosta of CNN about the intent of the program, Huckabee Sanders vehemently denied that the program is intended to impede Special Counsel Mueller’s ongoing investigation into possible collusion between the Trump 2016 campaign and Russia. While admitting, in response to a follow-up question by Katy Tur of NBC News, that, “It is not anticipated that any of the human payloads will return to Earth,” she protested the news media’s propensity to frame administration initiatives in a highly negative manner. “I can’t believe that anyone would see the selection of these human payloads as anything but the highest honor that can be given to an American in this or any world,” Huckabee Sanders stated.

During the briefing, the list of subsequent payloads was distributed. Due up next for launch after Robert Mueller is Deputy Attorney General, Rob Rosenstein. That launch will be followed by one with U.S. Representative and ranking minority member on the House Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, as the payload. Pornstar Stormy Daniels will be launched next because “We wanted someone from the world of entertainment.” In a somewhat surprising development, Devin Nunes, Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was listed provisionally as a launch candidate. Huckabee Sanders stated that his possible inclusion on the payload list is pending “how everything turns out.”

Huckabee Sanders also announced that the individuals launched into space would be honored during the military parade later this year, currently being planned at the highest level of the Pentagon. She stated that bringing up the rear of the parade will be a formation of cherry red driverless Tesla Sportsters, honoring “these brave Americans.” Others under consideration for future honors include Hillary Clinton and James Comey.

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News Bulletin: Body Politic in Intensive Care

August 3, 2017
Washington, D.C.

Doctors at the George Washington University Medical Center are reporting that the Body Politic has been admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit after arriving in the medical center’s emergency room in a near-comatose state. In a news briefing at the hospital, Dr. Herschel McLachlan, Medical Chief of Staff, reported that the Body Politic arrived last evening at the hospital’s emergency room in “extreme distress” with “significant, and life threatening systems failures” and “a near total collapse of vital functions”.

Attending emergency room physician, Dr. Sarah Rouseminheir, acknowledged the serious nature of the patient’s condition. Dr. Rouseminheir noted that it was apparent that the Body Politic appeared to be overwhelmed and incapable of responding effectively to the range and multiplicity of pressing issues such as climate change, Korea, economic displacement by automation, healthcare, and political chaos.

As soon as the Body Politic arrived emergency interventions to stabilize its condition were attempted, primarily through intravenous transfusions of multiple units of truth. While at first the treatment appeared to stabilize the patient, Dr. McLachlan reported that in short order violent seizures and rejection of the intravenous truth fluids ensued followed by repeated and uncontrollable attempts by the Body Politic to turn on the television in the emergency room to watch The Bachelorette. The patient was then transferred to the ICU for further diagnosis and treatment.

Attending ICU physician, Dr. Sean Aboujou, indicated that it is anticipated that the treatment of the Body Politic is just beginning but that there will no doubt need to be a course of long-term rehabilitation after the acute care phase. A number of significant specific conditions have been identified. The Body Politic has been diagnosed with Corpus Interruptus, a condition wherein the corpus callosum of the patient appears to be blocked, thus preventing the right and left sides of the Body Politic’s brain from effectively communicating.

Scaramuccimania, a condition named after its discoverer and rarely seen until recently, and characterized by repeated frenetic attempts to perform anatomically impossible acts on oneself, has also been diagnosed. During Dr. Aboujou’s presentation about Scaramuccimania, one physician in the press room was overheard saying, “Looks like the Body Politic has really f___ked itself over, so I don’t know about anatomically impossible”.

The treatment team is also looking into alternative treatments for the Body Politic’s well-known conditions of Empiricalaphobia and Ignorance Profundus.

Political leaders responded quickly to the news of the Body Politic’s hospital admission. Vice President Pence led a congressional delegation in a prayer circle at the hospital. Senator Bernie Sanders issued a statement, “My prayers are with the Body Politic. That is if I believed in prayer. This news brings more urgency to the need for a single brain system”.

The White House issued a brief statement:
“It’s a big problem, the Body Politic. They don’t have it in Russia. Just saying”.

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A Split Second in San Francisco

That particular week in 2016 had started off brilliantly. I was in San Francisco for a work conference, and it was October, which might be the most beautiful time to be in San Francisco.

A friend had traveled with me, so while I conferenced, she explored. On that particular day, I sat among thousands of others inside a giant convention center as Melinda Gates and Robin Roberts discussed leadership and women’s empowerment and chasing our dreams.

Then I decided to look at my phone. Waiting there was a text from one of my best friends: Her melanoma was back. It had been seven years. The word metastasized was there among all the other words.

The sounds around me – the motivating stories, the applause, the laughter from the audience – it all faded to a dull roar and it felt as if no one was in the auditorium but me and that text. The tears wouldn’t stop; I was never more thankful for the darkness. Questions, I had nothing but questions for her. What did the doctor say exactly? Are you alone right now? Should I catch a flight home? Have you been feeling sick and not telling anyone?

Is this it?

In sickness and in health isn’t reserved only for the betrothed. If we’re lucky in life, along the way we connect with other souls whose friendships grow to mean so much to us that even a legal ceremony – the highest form of commitment – could barely scrape the surface of defining the bond. That’s what I have with this woman. She’s beyond sister status. For the past 16 years, since we were freshmen in college, she’s been part of my soul.

This couldn’t be it.

Later that day, in between conference sessions, I paced up and down the city streets, listening to her tell me everything she knew about her situation. She had woken up that day thinking her biggest dilemma was where to have lunch after her doctor’s appointment. Now she was trying to decide what hospital in which city she should trust with her life.

Standing on the corner of Post and Kearny streets, I offered to marry her so she could use my health insurance. She laughed, and so did I, but we both knew.

The next evening, after a rough night’s sleep and a day full of conference sessions, I was headed to yet another dinner and drinks with colleagues, the idea of which sounded just awful. Then the friend I had traveled to San Francisco with called and said she was at the ocean. And that it sure was nice out there.

The sidewalk was filled with rush-hour traffic. I made my way over to the side and stood still. For the first time in my life, I asked myself: If this was your last night on Earth, how would you spend it?

Screw it.

In five minutes, I was sitting on the Geary Street bus headed west. It smelled of sweat and cologne and I was smashed up against the window next to someone talking loudly on their phone.

My heart soared.

A half hour later the bus was nearly empty as we reached the last stop on the route, 48th and Point Lobos avenues.

The smell of the ocean hit my face as I stepped off the bus, and I started to run down the sidewalk. Toward the Pacific, toward the incredible setting sun. Toward where my sweet friend would choose to be if she had that choice.

It would be selfish of me to say that the terrible thing that happened to my friend happened to me. But it did change me. And I haven’t asked myself, “If this was your last night on Earth, how would you spend it?” It comes naturally now. When I stand up for myself, when I say “no,” when I don’t give in to my fear, and when I say “yes.” Hell yes.

My sweet friend, by the way, is okay. Turns out, this isn’t it.

The photos I took that evening still make me cry. And I can still feel that moment when my heart and mind shifted and hear the sounds of the city that were all around me.

But I never told her about any of this. Maybe I’ll take her to San Francisco and just show her.

Abby lives in Lexington with her boyfriend Eric and their poodle Mikey. When she isn’t busy being digital marketing manager at KET, she loves travel, writing, coffee, the ocean, fishing, and biking around Lexington. There is more where this came from. Check out Abby’s blog.

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Interview With A Chocolate Cake

During the recent state visit of Chinese President Xi Jingping, President Trump entertained his state visitor at the fabled, elegant, and romantic Mar-a-Lago Country Club, as described in a State Department travel brochure. During dinner, as the two men were eating dessert, President Trump informed President Xi that he had ordered a cruise missle attack on a Syrian airfield in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad’s forces against unarmed civilians in a rebel-held town.

In an interview with a giggly Fox Business anchor, Maria Bartiromo, Trump recounted the incident, emphasizing the role that “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake” played in this extremely high-level statecraft. Below is the link to that interview excerpt.

UnderMain has obtained exclusive interview rights with Chocolate Cake, and recently sat down for a conversation with the now-famous delectable.

UM: Thanks for agreeing to talk with us, Chocolate Cake.

CC: No problem. This is a yuuge deal for me, maybe the biggest ever for a piece of food.

UM: How did you get involved with the Trump administration?

CC: I’ve known Donny, I mean the president, for a long time. Me and him go way back. When he bought Mar-a-Lago, he told the chef at that time, and we’ve been through many chefs since then. Some of the best, greatest chefs in the world in the years that President Trump has owned the place. And all the chefs wanna be there, they’re all fighting to get into that kitchen. Because they all wanna cook in a classy place, and now for the president. You can’t believe it. That’s why people will pay anything to get into that club.

UM: You started to say how you and the president go way back.

CC: That’s right. When he bought the club he told the chef then, and right from the start the chefs have been the best in the world. He told the chef that he wanted the greatest desserts on the menu, especially a big, moist, elegant chocolate cake that everyone would say is the best piece of chocolate cake they have ever had. They tried lots of recipes and picked me, as I knew they would, because I am so far above all those other cakes it’s not even funny. People eat me and say, “Stop, you’re too delicious. I can’t stand it!”.

UM: Okay, so how did you get involved in our diplomatic efforts?

CC: Well, when the president got into office, one of the first things they did, and who could believe that a chocolate cake would be such an important piece of the whole picture? They got rid of a lot of people at the State Department. I mean, there’s hardly anybody there. Tillerson is hardly there, and when he is he’s talking to his buddies in Russia. Anyway, they started an Edibles Division and gave us a whole floor.

UM: A whole floor of the State Department?

CC: Yeah, don’t sound so suprised! So I have an office, a beautiful office. Has a view of the Lincoln Monument. Meatloaf is next to me. Fried Chicken, Well-Done Steak, Ketchup. We all have offices. And they did a lot of research, some of the biggest researchers on food in the country, to see what the average diet is for a ten-year-old boy. And it lines up perfectly with what President Trump likes. I hear Hamburger’s coming, and Pizza Without The Crust, Diet Soda. We might end up being the biggest division there. And you know, when the president is dining with people he always tells them what to eat, so we gotta be really big.

UM: He orders for them?

CC: Yeah, and of course he even won’t let Christie order a piece of me.

UM: So did he order you for President Xi of China?

CC: Absolutely! Now I have to tell you that Xi is a very serious man. I mean he’s the president of China. I don’t know if you know this but China has the most people in the world. Amazing! So President Trump insists that President Xi have a piece of Chocolate Cake.

UM: So what happened then (giggling)?

CC: They bring pieces of me out of the kitchen to serve to both presidents. And I get this look from President Trump like if I don’t come through he’ll say, “You’re fired!”. Even though I know the guy never fires anybody. Couldn’t even fire Flynn. Anyway I knew it was my big moment, like I said, maybe the biggest moment ever for a piece of food. And I always remember what my grandfather, Chocolate Torte, told me about being served to important people. “Ya gotta grab ’em by the taste buds. And then they’ll let you do anything to them.” Very important lesson when I was just a chocolate muffin.

UM: How did this play out with President Xi?

CC: Well, the FAKE NEWS of course hardly covered this. Because they don’t know what’s really going on. But when Xi tore, and I mean really tore into me, he couldn’t stop eating. It was the greatest thing. Because as he was doing that, Trump tells him about the missles into Iraq…

UM: Syria.

CC: Yeah, Syria. And it all went down smooth as a baby’s tush. And we closed the deal. Not a peep from Xi. He just kept eating. I think it’ll go down as the greatest deal ever closed over dessert. And then it was done. Sayonara, Xi.

UM: That’s Japanese.

CC: Whatever, its all the same.

UM: How did the evening end for you?

CC: So’s after its all over President Trump comes back to the kitchen and tells me I did real good. And he says he’s gonna get me on the Food Channel and he guarantees that I’ll get the highest ratings ever for a show on that channel. Says I’m now bigger than Bobby Flay.

UM: Well, Chocolate Cake, that’s all we have time for.

CC: Really? I was going to tell you about a deal I worked with Trump and some mob guys over dinner at his Jersey club.

UM: Guess we’ll have stuff to talk about the next time. Thanks again.

CC: You treated me real nice, so I’ll be glad to help you out.

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It Came in Over the Bedroom Door

I personally prefer intentional change—change that occurs because you know what needs to be different, and you seek it.  You want it, and you make a place for that change in your life. One might give up an unhealthy habit, leave a job that is no longer appropriate, or find one’s voice and seek positive change out in the world. That kind of change is ideal, and it brings growth and empowerment and opens new doorways.

Then there’s the other kind of change. The kind that happens suddenly and you have to adapt quickly and go with it. It can bring about growth, too.

About six years ago in the wee morning hours of a Saturday, I awoke to a waterfall in our bedroom. It was a torrential storm, and water was cascading over the sliding glass doors next to our bed. I woke my husband, and we immediately ran to get buckets, mops, towels—whatever we could get our hands on to staunch the flow of water quickly covering the floor of our house.

The same thing was happening in the den—a waterfall over our sliding glass doors. Our kitchen was flooded, too. As we frantically worked to do what we could with the water covering the wood floors, I remember saying aloud, “Okay, Universe, we need help to make something good out of this.”

As the storm moved on to soak others elsewhere, the waterfalls cascading into our home soon trickled to a stop. I called a water remediation company, and they arrived without delay that Saturday morning to set up huge fans to begin the drying process.  Later that day we met with a renewal contractor about what was going to have to be done.


The deluge in our home was caused by another contractor who was beginning the framing of a sunroom on the back of our house–cutting out the roof eaves and soffits and leaving Friday night without putting tarping on the roof. All the water flowing down our roof from the heavy storm that night poured right into our house.

We lived in a hotel for over three months while the walls, subfloors and wood floors, trim and cabinets were all replaced, and everything repainted. Our home offices were in the house, and, luckily, they were untouched by the flood. We drove to our home every day to work in our offices while the contractors did awesome work.

Shortly after the flood and the move to a hotel for the duration of the renewal of our home, my beloved father, who lived in the Louisville area, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

My focus became my father most of the time, and I traveled to see him often. We had quality time—time that I will always treasure. I was amazed by my ability to accept what I could not control and embrace “it is what it is,” but still remain hopeful (resisting what I could not change would have been so much harder). I put one foot in front of the other and just took things step by step. I let go of what I could not control and worries over what would come tomorrow. Being focused in the moment was what made me able to keep moving and doing what I needed to do through it all—seeing my father, working with the insurance company and contractor and doing work. I was fully present in those times with my dad and experienced them as very precious.

The Universe made good on my request. The insurance company was very caring and compassionate and got checks to us right away. We stayed in a nice hotel where we didn’t have to worry about our room being cleaned or even preparing meals if I needed to travel to see Dad. The insurance company paid for almost everything.

While my father experienced discomfort with the chemo process, he didn’t experience pain, and that was such a gift to him and to all of us who loved him.

I look back on that time with an awareness of strength that I otherwise would not have known that I had. I also learned the power of now, of being in the present moment—not in the past or worried about the future—but NOW. That is where the power and the love is.


Things that happen in the blink of an eye and leave you all the wiser. Have one of those in your life? Nothing like putting it all down on “paper.” Click here for details on the latest UnderMain Essay Challenge.

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Jeb Bush honored by Nevi’im, The Hebrew Testament Prophets Society

In a ceremony in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall, Nevi’im, The Hebrew Testament Prophets Society, honored Jeb Bush as the Hebrew Calendar Year 5776 Prophet of the Year. Making the presentation on behalf of Nevi’im, the Prophets Samuel, Jeremiah, and Micah acknowledged the single moment of prophetic brilliance of Bush’s losing campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Samuel noted that Bush turned out to be “a loser, not an anointed one”, but that he appeared to be visited by heavenly hosts when he exclaimed during a primary debate about eventual winner, Donald Trump “…But he’s a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.” Micah chimed in that Bush’s dismal campaign certainly was in keeping with the prophet’s admonition to “walk humbly”. “Maybe too much humble walking!”, exclaimed Micah with a wink to the gathered mighty multitudes.

Jeremiah added that it is still not clear whether Bush’s prophecy will make him eligible for major or minor prophet status. An Assembly of the Angels of the Lord gathers every thousand years to determine the final placement of honorees in the pantheon of prophets.

At the ceremony, The Golden Calf Award for False Prophet of the Year was presented to David Plouffe, architect of Barack Obama’s election victories, who in June of 2016 made this prophecy in a widely-read tweet: “The race is not close. And it won’t be on November 8th. 350+ electoral votes for Clinton.”

In presenting the award, the Prophet Samuel, assisted by Satan’s Minions, said that the award was extraordinarily competitive this past year with so many deserving nominees, but that Plouffe’s prophecy stood out for its certainty and utter and complete error. Ordinarily the winner of The Golden Calf award is smitten by the hand of Samuel at the awards ceremony, but this year mercy was dispensed to Plouffe because “…even the Angels of the Lord bet wrong on this one”.

Plouffe, bound in chains, dressed in a sackcloth, and smeared with ashes, looked visibly relieved as he was led off the platform.

Nominations are open for the year 5777 awards. One nomination has been received to date for a dual award for the Prophet of the Year and the False Prophet of the Year, an unheard of celestial event. Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway have been nominated for the prophecy, “And the winner is…La La Land!”.

The awards ceremony ended with the sacrifice on the National Mall of two bulls, a sheep, and a goat.

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It Was Never a Dress

“How was the march?”

It was a simple text message from a friend who knew I had joined the Women’s March in downtown Lexington on Saturday, January 21. It caught me in the midst of a moment. 

So beautiful,” my response started. “So many interesting (because they were interested) and diverse people. The small minority of people that were there because they were angry gave way to the overwhelming majority of people that were hopeful and excited about the future.”

The signs were clever, I noted. “It was inspirational to see so many people empowered and free.  Every conversation I had was around the beauty of the experience, not the anger that was a small part of its impetus.”

After some reflection, I realized that my words to a friend are true.  They are truer than any words I could have purposely thought of.  True in a way that only stream-of-consciousness can be.  What at first was the effusion of an average, mid-thirties, white girl in Lexington proved to be the unadulterated language of the heart.

I’ve been concerned about our world for some time now.  From what I gather, most of us have been. There’s so much anger being spewed, so much hate cultivated and recycled and 24-hour cycled.  The fear in our culture has reached a boiling point and many of us don’t know what to do with it except to channel it into hate and anger.   

I am guilty of it. 

Here’s an example:

A friend of mine recently attended a sporting event with some children.  Her recounting of the event agitated me and I vomited hateful and nasty commentary.   She told the story of angry men, screaming at their crying children and likened the event to what she imagined a dogfight to be. 

I can’t remember my words exactly, but they went something like this: “this whole country is fu*!ed. Those idiots are just guaranteeing that their children turn out to be as backwards as they are.  In an effort to teach their children to be men, they’re scaring the human being out of them and turning them into monsters instead.”

I don’t have children, but if I did, I’d hope they never hear the words, “shut up and stop being a sissy.” I truly hope that I wouldn’t tell a young man to stop acting like a girl in a way, though not directly expressed, directly expresses that girls are less than him, weaker than him and somehow innately inferior. 

The January 21st march, juxtaposed with the account of what happened at that children’s sporting event, mere days apart from each other, paints one picture of the different attitudes we are cultivating in our homes and in our community.   

My favorite snapshot from the event is of a little girl in a Wonder Woman outfit. 


It was most certainly not a costume as it was selected with intention and perfectly appropriate for the occasion. Evey Jarvis’ mother allowed me to photograph her. As she was spinning around and waving her hands, it occurred to me that Wonder Girls turn into Wonder Women and that today, in 2017, that is exactly what she has the opportunity to become. 

The march was a show of solidarity by women and men.  I heard it referred to not as a march for women’s rights but a march for human rights, led by women. Led by moms and supported by dads.  Led by daughters and cheered on by brothers.  Led by Wonder Women and encouraged by Super Men.  I marched with people I love, many of them strangers, some of them pro-life, some of them pro-choice, all of them pro-love. Every single one of them, a Super Hero.   


Although it is often easier to react rather than to respond, to seek to be understood rather than to understand, to sew hate rather than sew love, we need to start thinking about our actions. Now, more than ever, it is important that we remember to put on our Wonder Woman cuffs and our Super Man capes and be brave.  Now, more than ever, we need to lift one another up and stop putting people down.  To fix this situation, we have got to start listening to each other and stop treating people, other humans, like they don’t matter. 

This is a call to action.

This is a time for courage. 


We all have it.  Every single one of us is brave.  We accomplish tremendous feats every day. When we are heartbroken and go to work anyway, when we are tortured by loss and suffering and manage to get through another waking hour, when we do the right thing even if it’s hard, when we listen to someone that annoys us, when we smile at a stranger, when we choose adventure over monotony, when we endeavor to make our monotony an adventure, when we create, when we dare, when we love … God … loving is so brave, when we put others first, when we follow our hearts, when we try … trying is brave, when we recognize another’s effort, when we open our eyes and see each other as equals, when we say ‘I’m sorry,’ when we accept an apology, when we utter an honest ‘no,’ when we heed an authentic ‘yes,’ when we dance, when we sing, when we laugh and when we cry.

Maybe the last remaining indisputable fact in our world is this: we are all human. We are infinite spirits housed in finite flesh and bones. Despite our different experiences, no experience is more bonding than that of our common human one. 

To be human is to be brave. 

That little girl twirling in her Super Woman outfit has all the courage she needs and it can be nourished by experiences like what we saw in Lexington and around the world on the 21st of January.  Her community coming together to stand against hate has all the vital ingredients needed for a spirit to flourish. 

Here is the challenge: let us not allow events like this to come and go.  Let us not forget what we felt and what we saw.  Let us take this opportunity to effect change.  This event deserves our attention and our time.  Patience is brave.  Let us honor what happened on that Saturday by continuing to stand up for each other.  Let’s stand up for everyone, together. Let us go forward and listen to one another. Really listen, ever mindful that if the words we are hearing with our ears scare us and seduce our anger we can listen with our hearts instead. From that tiny, quiet place, we can hand each other a cape and save the world. 

Be brave.


(Photos and video by Lillie Ruschell)

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Breakthrough Announced in Outrage Storage Technology

Officials at the Argonne National Laboratory, the U.S. Department of Energy’s research facility outside of Chicago, announced today a breakthrough in storage technology which will enable the utilization of surplus supplies of individual and mass outrage. The technology was developed in a secret accelerated research and development program over the past year subsequent to the release of a Surgeon General’s report, States of Exhaustion: Outrage Depletion Syndrome (ODS), A Public Health Crisis. The report documented the increasingly widespread occurrence of ODS, especially in the Northeast and West Coast and other isolated population pockets. The spreading syndrome has escalated to epidemic proportions over the past several months, making the research efforts urgent in nature.

Outrage Depletion Syndrome has been found to be most frequently characterized by a prodromal phase lasting weeks to months during which individuals experience massive, serial episodes of outrage, with some reporting as many as ten to twelve episodes a day. The depletion stage of the syndrome which follows is characterized by glassy-eyed apathy, defeatism, over-dependence on sarcasm and rationalization, and heavy use of Jimmy Fallon. Individuals with ODS are at increased risk for substance abuse and Multiple Feline Acquisition Disorder.

Describing the breakthrough, Dr. Bernice Foliedeux, Director of Argonne, reported that special remote sensing technology enables the kinetic energy from an individual’s volatile outrage surges, captured by bracelets, watches, and bite guards the individual wears or uses, to be transferred to newly developed battery storage cells, the Affective Battery Array. The wearable devices then allow the user to access surplus stored outrage when the devices measure the inception of the depletion stage of ODS. In this way the user has access to outrage on a more consistent and usable basis.

Argonne is working with its commercialization partners, Apple and Fitbit, to produce and market the wearable devices, and Tesla will produce the Affective Battery Arrays. The entire system will be branded ODiouS Synergistics. Initially the battery arrays will be produced for individual users, but it is anticipated that mass storage banks will be developed in the near future to aggregate the outrage of millions of individuals in different locations across the country, allowing much wider access to large inventories of stored outrage. Dr. Foliedeux predicted that while use of the new technology might be geographically limited at the initial sales stage, she is confident that within a year it will have established a strong market presence throughout the country.

The Argonne researchers revealed that the outrage storage project is the first step in a much larger alternative energy program, The National Emotional Energy Storage Initiative. Dr. Foliedeux announced that the next target affect state will be dumbfounded. Concluding her remarks, Foliedeux admitted that, “Outrage is easy. It’s much harder to capture the energy in dumbfounded”.

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The Very First Day

Cara Blake Coppola’s contribution to our essay challenge is about a life-altering turning point of great significance.  Her essay is excerpted from her blog  She recalls the day when she learned that her daughter had special needs.  The story unfolds in Lexington.

There is a poem/story that I have become familiar with since meeting Willow Eve.  It is called “Holland” or something like that, and it compares the reality of raising a child with special needs to a misguided vacation that, though promising Venice or some such exotic locale, instead delivered the vacationers to Holland.  “Oops,” the story goes.  “Instead of gondolas and wine and pasta, you get windmills, and tulips.  Maybe some wooden shoes as souvenirs.”  Not quite the relaxing, stimulating vacation you thought you were going to get, but hey, you’re still on vacation, right?

I’m certain that when I first read that story, probably in those fog-filled days of Early Intervention and sleep-deprived delirium, it brought me comfort, and more than a few tears.  After fifteen years, however, I find the metaphor lacking.  Because, really, who goes on vacation for fifteen years?  And does that mean I’m supposed to assume that I was on vacation in Venice for three and a half years before I had Willow, when Sierra was the only human being I was responsible for?  If so, I think I need a refund, because I don’t remember gondolas, or wine, or any kind of vacating in any way.  I remember being tired, and laughing hysterically, and lots of pee, poop, and vomit.  Somehow I think the Venetian Tourist board would be amiss at this comparison, though I’m sure some college students have had Venetian vacation stories such as this.

Willow was a sweet, tiny little baby girl, so loved by her big sister and the dog Maggie, who licked her cheek and wagged her tail in delighted greeting when Willow was brought home from the hospital. We adjusted accordingly, and got back to living our simple life. 


By the time spring burst into the Kentucky countryside, our small bohemian apartment was bursting with color and toys, and spoke of a happy family.  That, however, was the calm before what would become our personal storm, the blissful ignorance we allowed to envelope us before the evidence started piling up. 

Soon, too soon, we would be forced to accept the reality that Willow was not developing as she should, that her frequent crying was indicating more than just colic.  Taking place over a few weeks, totaling one very long month during her fifth month of life, we would return from the hospital once again with Willow, though this time it was very, very different.

There was a day, in Willow’s fifth month, when everything started coming together, like sand shifting its way down a funnel, and that is where our story really begins…

“Now boarding for Holland, please buckle up. It’s gonna be a damn bumpy ride.” Taking off…

It will be a challenge to me to keep this narrative at a decent length, but this particular day was the exact day it all began.  There were hints, or foreshadowing if you will, yet our immersion into the special needs world was primarily condensed into one day on the monthly calendar.  Intense does not begin to describe it.  The difference between Venice and Holland is not sufficient; maybe the difference between living on Frontier America and suddenly being transported to the bar where Han Solo shoots first is a closer comparison. 

It got to the point where, by the end of our weeks’ vacation at the beach that fifth month of her life, Willow would only nurse at night, when she was too exhausted to fight anymore.  But then she would nurse and fill up and sleep well, and she wasn’t losing weight, so we just kept trying to eliminate the variables. 

Driving home was a headache and ibuprofen rich endeavor, and we returned home to our little apartment exhausted and tanned, but not really feeling relaxed from our “vacation”. 

Upon our return, time seemed to speed up and get really scary.  I went to visit a good friend, my midwife and doula who had been there when Willow was born.  She took the baby and immediately lifted her up and down, as if weighing her.  “Is she losing weight?” she asked suggestively, waking a growling dragon of stress and anxiety in the pit of my soul.  “Is she?” I asked, tears immediately coming to my eyes. 

Soon after, I couldn’t get Willow to nurse at all, so we got some soy formula.  At that point, it was an early spring morning in Kentucky, characteristically cold and dreary.  I tried and tried to give Willow the bottle that I hoped would fix everything, but she refused to take it.  She just screamed weakly, and I cried. 

Quickly, we headed downstairs to visit our neighbor, another midwife who owned a glucometer.  She tested Willow’s blood sugar.  I will never forget the look on her face as she read the screen.  “Cara, her blood sugar won’t even register, I think you need to take her to the ER.”

What followed was a day that was so surreal and frightening, I seem to remember it in foggy patches, like a dream that you can’t shake for hours after you wake up.

We went to our local hospital where Willow had been born.  They asked many questions and made many, many false assumptions.  It is a cruel trick of the human mind that we can see things in hindsight so much more clearly than we do at the present.  At that point in her exhaustion and hunger, Willow’s eyes were shifting erratically back and forth.  “Does she always do this?” one doctor asked, pointing to her shifting eyes.  “Um, I don’t know.  She’s really tired I think.  She won’t eat…” I kept saying.  They asked me if she was blind.  Blind??  No, I was sure that she had focused on my eyes while nursing, that she had paid attention to the rainbow paper chains that decorated our living room.  In hindsight, however, that damned gift that comes too little, too late, I realized that she never did stop shifting her eyes.  That goofy, googly eyed-ness that Sierra had had when she was born (when I got scared and made Dad rush her to the nurse, because clearly she was broken) was a phase that Sierra had quickly outgrown.  There was one cute cross-eyed picture of her at Mother’s Day, and that was the last of it.  She was only a month old then.  How could I have forgotten that?  How did I not know Willow’s eyes weren’t behaving normally?

The next assumption was seizures.  Perhaps her shifting eyes indicated seizures? They asked me.  All I knew of seizures at the time was an image of someone shaking violently, drooling and passing out.  No, Willow had definitely never done any of those things.  She just wasn’t thriving anymore, she wasn’t growing anymore, and she cried…all the time. 

Brain damage, they reported before Willow was even out of the CAT-scan.  Retardation.  Epilepsy.  Possible blindness.  The only conclusion of which they were certain, though it didn’t stop them from making guesses that shook me to my core, was that Willow’s case was out of their expertise.  It was time to take a ride up to the big city and see what those doctors might know.

I knew the situation was worse than I might have imagined when they led us to an ambulance, shut the door behind Willow and I, and turned the sirens on full blast.  Dear God, I remember thinking.  Never in my life had I been in an ambulance with the sirens on.  Not with my father’s almost heart attack, not with my mother’s anxiety attack she thought was a stroke.  But here, my tiny, frail baby was strapped to an adult sized gurney, wrapping her weak little hand around my finger, as the sirens bellowed our entire journey towards Lexington.

It was in that ambulance that I met my first angel.  I’m a Catholic by upbringing, Christian by nature, but claim no denomination.  I’m not a terribly religious person; to me it is more of a culture than a spirituality, like my Italian grandmother’s routines of putting rosaries on the bushes outside to ask God for good weather, or putting some of the Christmas hay from the Church’s manger in your wallet for prosperity, and the ornate saint doll that sat on every matriarch’s mantle, robed in velvet and silk and lace.  But I do remember many myths of God or Angel’s posing as some wayward person, a humble beggar or blind man.  These archetypes sometimes pass knowledge, and sometimes propose a challenge for generosity.  Those who pass the challenge are enlightened and praised; those who fail are doomed to suffer their ill choices.

The angel I met that day was one who passed knowledge, and I wish to this day that I remembered his name.  He was one of the EMT’s that travelled in the ambulance with us that day.  He sat in the back with Willow and I as his partner drove, and quickly noting the look of absolute desperation and fear that I’m certain I had plastered all over my face, talked with me calmly the entire grueling ride.  Unlike everyone else we had met at the hospital, who seemed to feel free to hypothesize away about any myriad of ailments that might be afflicting our daughter, this man kept his opinions to himself.  What he did, though, is tell me his story.  He was a father.  His wife had birthed triplets two years ago, and their premature children had met with many struggles along the way.  Maybe it was twins.  I honestly don’t remember, except that it was a multiple birth.  He didn’t tell me what all the challenges were that they were meeting.  He didn’t mention a single medical ailment, or any tests or needles or tubes that may have been involved in their challenges.  What I do remember him talking about was strength; the strength of his wife, who he clearly adored, for carrying those children as long as she could to keep them strong, and the strength of his children, for overcoming any limitations life, or anyone else, may have imposed on them. 

I don’t know, maybe he had been there the whole time in the ER and heard all these diagnoses and terms flying around and saw my instinctual urge surface, the one that tells you to run and hide somewhere dark and close; anywhere far, far away from there.  Maybe he went through the same experiences with his babies.  But he told me exactly what I needed to hear right then, and for that I am so, so very grateful.  To this day, after meeting several more angels along the way, and even more thoughtless, over-diagnosing individuals, I remember him.  Not his name, dammit, but I do remember him.  I still hope someday he will remember me and reintroduce himself, but he was a very cool guy who gave me a bit of comfort on what, at that point, was the worst day of my life.

Willow and I were led from the Ambulance to the ER swiftly and put into a curtained enclosure.  Quickly feeling like an exhibit in a circus, people started coming by.  They would stand, and stare.  Doctor after doctor would look at Willow, touch her without asking permission.  They drilled me with questions, often not waiting for me to finish talking before they began the next question.  This is a phenomenon that I have come to deal with in the medical and special needs world, where experts talk as fast as they think, and social norms of not interrupting are thrown out the window; at the time, however, I was completely floored.  Sierra had been so healthy, not one round of antibiotics her entire three years, and I had no experience with such highly educated specialists.  Their brains are machines of information, something I have come to deeply admire over the years, but the awkwardness of enduring many “conversations” like this soon sapped all my energy.

They asked questions about everything: the pregnancy, my diet, my habits, the birth, nursing, hell, they practically examined me as well.  They touched and prodded Willow all over, turning her head back and forth, shining bright lights in her eyes, tickling her feet.  Willow fussed and cried through the entire procedure, her eyes shifting all over without recognition. 

I don’t know how much time passed that way, I truly remember very little about the UK ER that day.  It was clear that we had to be admitted, that any number of tests had to be run, and we were soon wheeled down many shifting hallways until we emerged into the University of Kentucky Children’s Hospital.

The old Children’s Hospital at UK is a bright and imaginative place, and I immediately enjoyed being in that building.  They have since opened an entirely new Children’s Hospital.  In the old hospital, which we were visiting for the first time that day, the elevator opened to a lobby where an artist had installed a truly remarkable perpetual motion machine.  It was mesmerizing; a continuation of belts, gears, levers, and engines that moved a dozen or so balls around and about a labyrinth of activities.  The balls went upstairs and down wooden blocks painted like fish, where each block made a different note as the balls cascaded downward.  At one point a ball was dropped and bounced off a platform, only to land perfectly into a basket several feet up, where it continued on its course around the machine.  What an amazing thing to create in a place where magic and whimsy were unlikely to be found.

As we proceeded into the hospital, following the nurses who spoke kindly to us both, we rolled past the corners where sculpted trees rose up to a ceiling enchanted with twinkling lights that at night were turned on to make a starry sky.  Rooms in each hallway were filled with books, toys and wagons for play, and a toy cart was wheeled by volunteers from room to room, handing out free toys that had been donated by thoughtful people.  As far as hospitals go, this place was almost as fun as a Children’s Museum.

At some point after we were installed into our own private room, Dad showed up loaded down with clothes, sleeping bags and food.  Willow was put into a medical crib and hooked up to an IV for fluids.  The nurses soon delivered a bottle with soy formula, and I gratefully began to feed Willow her first real bottle.  This was a bittersweet moment for me.  My main thought was to be thrilled as she hungrily swallowed three small bottles in a row and burped happily to be full. 

But in honesty, I felt like a complete failure.  I was a proud breastfeeding mother.  Sierra had thrived beyond measure on the milk I produced for her, and never needed any kind of supplement.  Willow had reacted so strongly against my milk, in hindsight since the beginning of her life, and I felt like I had bombed the most basic of maternal requirements, but Willow had made up her mind.  Bottles were easier and the formula within contained no threat of allergies.  She had made peace with her decision, but it would be years before I finished grieving for our aborted nursing relationship.

As soon as we were officially admitted to the hospital, the doctor visits began.  We were swiftly introduced to a continuously shifting parade of people in white coats, scrubs and dress clothes.  One person would breeze in with a plastic tote filled with vials to draw so much of Willow’s precious blood into the plastic tubes with different colored stoppers.  An IV was hooked up to her tiny little arm, and her elbow had to be splinted so she didn’t pull it out.  Soon her clothes were changed into the yellow and blue ones with koalas that the hospital provided.  She wouldn’t wear her own clothes again for a week.  Her small feet were poked repeatedly for blood samples.  We rolled blankets and put them around the edges of the cold, metal bars of the hospital crib, and soon a kind face wheeled by with toys and books to help break up the monotony of white on white.  On that day, Willow was given a fuzzy, soft flower that tied to the edge of the crib. A bee hung down; when pulled, the bee slowly made its’ way back to the flower, playing a sweet little tune in its journey.  Willow still has this flower.

This was the very first day of our journey together into the world of being Medically Fragile and having Special Needs.  A long tale, that day continues in my memory to be stretched in length way beyond twenty-four hours. It is the first chapter in a story that is almost sixteen years long, and filled with many more hospital visits, doctor visits, therapy, Special Education meetings, Shriner’s, wheelchairs and more. 

We rolled through that door and into that world on this very first day.


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Tell Your Story

Things happen. Things that are out of our control, barging into our lives totally out of the blue. And sometimes, these events are unforgettable. But over time, the details do become hazy, even forgotten.

As Gabriel García Márquez put it in reflecting on his own story, “life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”

“The best of our stories,” notes Brainpickings editor Maria Popova, “are those that transform and redeem us, ones that both ground us in ourselves by reminding us what it means to be human and elevate us by furnishing an instrument of self-transcendence.”

UM invites you to write it up for posterity. Describe some unanticipated, powerful event and, importantly, what you learned as a result of the experience. Send it to us for consideration. We’ll work with you.

For inspiration, read the first in our latest series, Mary Claire O’Neal’s It Came In Over The Bedroom Door.

To tell your story: write it up, attach it as a Word doc along with any related images (not required) and email to: If images are too large to email, DropBox them to same email address.

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The Weight of an Instant

One moment, your life is trundling along under its own momentum. In the next millisecond, so much has changed, including your perspective on that big portion of life containing all of the things you take for granted.

It was the mid-afternoon of a warm September Wednesday at the Northside Lexington coffee shop Broomwagon. My UnderMain partner Art Shechet and I had just wrapped up a conversation with Danny Meyer and Sean Anderson about an interesting video essay they have in mind.

Everybody had that “next thing” to get to on their schedule. We all rose from the shop’s community table and said our goodbyes as I headed for the corner door leading to the sidewalk at the intersection of North Limestone and Loudon.

The thing is, there’s a step down, inside the shop, before you reach that door. And for some reason, I didn’t see it.

In the next instant I was transformed from busy, ever-on-the-go and reasonably healthy to immobilized, in excruciating pain and only just beginning to comprehend the extensive disruption brought on by what happened.

I would soon learn that in that blink of a moment, the quadricep tendon in my right leg had snapped. Ruptured. Within a half-hour I was ever-so-gently lifted by a team of Fayette County first responders to a gurney and took my first ambulance ride as a patient.

Let me just say right here that it could’ve been worse. So much worse. This essay is not an appeal for sympathy – many others have been far more grievously injured in spur-of-the-moment events. This is about that instant when so much changed.

I am writing this ten days after that ride. Ten days of discovery. About myself. About my wife Sheila, who shows exceptional skill in providing the most tender and thoughtful care. About the zillion little tasks we do day in and day out that suddenly have become impossible or, at the very least, a significant challenge. About the wreckage that now is my planned schedule for weeks to come. About cabin fever and being an outdoors type who is suddenly and indefinitely confined indoors on what had to be one of the most beautiful weeks of the year. And about the interrupted routine of a cat named Millie who normally has the run of the house weekdays, but now that one of her humans is on hand and under foot, her feline sense of order is wrecked and confused, so she vacillates between studied aloofness and pouncing affection.

Back to early evening of that fateful Wednesday and gingerly shuffling on crutches out of the UK Medical Center emergency room, leg fully braced straight, a throbbing obstacle to the simple act of sliding into the front passenger seat of Sheila’s car.

Once home I managed to scoot on my butt up three flights of stairs to reach the familiar comfort of my own bed. I then bumped my way down those stairs in the same way in the pre-dawn of the following Friday morning to return with Sheila at my side and behind the wheel to the Medical Center for my first-ever surgery under general anesthesia.

The hospital experience is its own story – mostly positive – and I’ll get around to sharing it some day. But this is about the sudden arrival in life of instant, unanticipated, extensive change. Will I fully recover? How long will that take? How does this impact my work? What becomes of those hobbies or passions, like music, that keep me “sane” that are now suddenly and discouragingly difficult or out of reach?

I’m not yet sure of the long term implications of this injury, but I do know that I will eventually recover. So I do not pretend to fully appreciate the routine daily challenges of the permanently disabled. But, because of that Wednesday afternoon moment, my perspective was changed.  

While I’ve always respected the intent of the Americans for Disabilities Act, the legislation never meant more on a personal level than now.

I certainly don’t recommend injury as a way to more fully appreciate what it means to move about in this world somehow permanently physically compromised. But I do hope I can encourage you to take just a moment to think about the turns your life would take were something like this to happen to you or a loved one in your care. And how would you manage it?

One more thing: my friends have been great. Calls. Cards in the mail. Visits, some bearing lunch. All a reminder of how much genuine thoughtfulness really does matter in a time like this.

Above all, if you have your health, make the absolute most of it. Things can and do change remarkably in the blink of an eye.

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Ode to the Custard Apple

We moved to the Gardenside area of Lexington when I was ten, just before starting fifth grade. Before my mom found the house on Maywick Drive we’d moved pretty much every summer to a slightly bigger house in a slightly better neighborhood with a slightly better school for my sister and me.

We lived on a large corner lot that was barren of trees, although the neighborhood wasn’t new and there were plenty of large old trees in other yards. Mom and Dad love landscaping, and they made our yard into a beautiful garden, complete with koi ponds, butterfly gardens, bird feeders, squirrel feeders, bat houses, and small paths through the landscaping with hidden benches and hammocks where I would sit for hours and read novels while avoiding my homework. They created a beautiful oasis and we all loved spending time in that yard.

The tree in question did not, however, live in our yard. The elderly couple across the street also had a yard that was devoid of the large old trees that populate the rest of the neighborhood. Their backyard contained a single tree, small in comparison to others on the street, but to me this was the most amazing and magical tree I had ever encountered.


As the summer began to wind down and we went back to school, the tree began to bear fruit. I looked forward to the days that I would arrive home from school and on the kitchen counter would be my gift from the neighbors – a bounty of pawpaws.

From my first taste of the pawpaw I was in love. I loved the irregularity of their shape and the flaws and bruises on the green skin. I loved the sweet scent of the soft orange fruit that couldn’t be contained by the bad tasting and undeniably ugly outer layer. I loved cutting one open while standing at the counter, spooning the creamy flesh into my mouth, and spitting the large seeds at my sister, who didn’t share my appreciation of the pawpaw.

That pawpaw tree experienced a lot in the 14 years my family lived in the house across the street. It weathered storms and droughts, and even survived the near miss of my mother’s car sliding out of gear and rolling down the driveway, across the street and through the yard, only to be finally stopped from running into the next house by a very sturdy chain link fence. (As an aside, there’s not much funnier than looking out the kitchen window and saying, “Hey, Mom? Isn’t that your car over there in the neighbor’s yard?” and watching her run. Fast.)

I moved out on my own after graduating from Transylvania University, and when only a year or two later my parents moved from Gardenside to Bell Court, I lost my pawpaw connection. Sometimes I find them at a farmer’s market, but I’ve had few pawpaws in the close to 20 years that have passed since my parents moved away from the tree. Sometimes in the fall I dream about pawpaws and am excited that the pawpaw now gets attention from foodies and craft brewers and ice cream makers alike.

Before long, I hope that the pawpaw can again be a regular part of my autumn experience. In the meantime I keep searching, so if anyone out there has a pawpaw tree with a surplus I’m more than happy to take some off your hands.


Read other essays in this series:

In the walnut grove

By Sharron Williams Smith

The lone oak

By Rosemary Carlson

That tree and me? We made it!

By Brian Powers

So many trees, so many memories

By Amy F. Polk

The windswept pine

By Susan McKaig

Twelve trees

 By Christine Huskisson

There was this tree

By Tom Martin

Have your own favorite tree story to share? Click here 

Save this link to your favorites and follow as the series grows

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Windswept Pine

On a white white sand dune atop a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean in
Pacific Grove, California,  my family enjoyed a tree that literally ran
the length of the dune from one end of our redwood cabin, up the dune,
ending past the end of the cabin.

This tree was truly windswept, with only a few feet between the tree trunk and the sand.

We could climb it, sit on it like a horse, even do a yoga pose as I did to mark my 50th and 60th birthdays.

Every family who visited or rented our cabin has family photos sitting on this tree.

Alas, nature took it’s course and it died.

Then human nature took it’s course and through a family feud, the cabin was sold, bringing to a close our  family’s near 100 year legacy as its occupants. 

Yet the photos of that graceful windswept pine live on in many albums and memories.

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So Many Trees, So Many Memories

I began this essay jotting down a few “favorite tree” thoughts, and soon came to realize how so many different trees have touched and shaped my life and memories. So, unfortunately for this essay, but fortunately for me personally, I don’t have “one favorite tree” – I have so many!

I am grateful to my mother for passing on an appreciation for trees – to warm, cool, comfort, and beautify the body and soul. Thank you, Mother, for insisting on saving every tree possible!

After reading Tom Martin’s UnderMain essay project, I briefly considered what tree in my past was a particular favorite, and my thoughts focused on more recent favorite tree memories connected to my sons’ adventures in them – Empty Nest Mother memories, I guess. However, in addition to some favorites of theirs, I realized my entire life has been enhanced by these wonders of nature – so, a shout-out of gratitude to my Creator, first off!

I guess if I had to pick just one, I would pick “my” lemon tree that lived for 37 years after I planted grocery store lemon seeds as a five-year-old in my Mother’s front porch flower pot.


It was transplanted in larger and larger pots, to a final garbage can (not the most lightweight planter option), traveled across two states and to five or six homes and/or apartments, and bore fruit twice. It was a real “pain” to move and transplant, due to the very large thorns and the weight of it as it grew; my father, and then my husband were troopers for lugging it indoors and out, and from home to home, season after season! It lived a long, full, fragrant life in a climate zone not conducive to citrus trees – thus the reason it was a houseplant much of the year.

An early favorite tree was a beautiful Knoxville, Tennessee mimosa, in a spacious yard with a wonderful house full of family love and memories.


The house was situated beside a cemetery and across the railroad tracks; my brother and I grew up safely playing in the yard unafraid of either – although, they may have led to my lifelong love of the Dark Shadows television show, Stephen King books, and scary movies!

At my grandparent’s farm in Carlisle, KY, was a large shade tree that I spent many summer afternoons under, reading a great book in a lawn chair, after helping with the chores.

OK, I mostly just watched and/or rode the tractor as my hard-working grandparents grew three gardens, and raised tobacco, farm animals, and livestock. We also attended the Saltwell Methodist Church, with its beautiful stained glass windows, and I spent time with my grandmother at the ASCS (Agricultural Stabilization & Conservation Service) office in town, where she worked – she let me file papers and work the “adding machine”.

After a move to Morehead, KY in 1969 as a new 5th grader, the K-12 University Breckinridge School (“Breck”) tree out front, with a circular wooden bench, was a favorite for all students; especially for the girls when we reached high school age and sat under while watching the college guys walk or drive by – one of the many perks of attending a small-town university-owned “training” school on a college campus!

At my Morehead home on North Tolliver Road, near the MSU football stadium, we had a lovely weeping Chinese elm, under which I also read and enjoyed alone time, during my preteen and teen years.


With love and marriage, came the many special trees my husband, Richard and I have planted in our 30 years together; to give us warmth, cooling, comfort and beauty – a Mother’s advice is often so wise. Planting a tree together, and watching it grow, is highly recommended – it’s  a lot like parenting – you have to take care of it early on, then it will reward you for the rest of your life!

And, finally, with the parenthood of boys, came so many “favorite” climbing tree memories and laughter! Our sons, now grown, gave us full hearts – and some intense moments – of joyful memories from climbing trees at home; in Ashland Park, the Henry Clay estate; at Lake Cumberland, including building a treehouse with Dad, climbing a rope tied around a tree trunk to get to a nearby waterfall where they jumped off, and a tree rope that allowed them to swing over the water and fall in; and climbing tall trees at Meemaw & Poppy’s house.


Those “favorite” trees often held John and Daniel safe and gave them years of testing their limits; but also taught them tough life lessons, by letting them fall, and even allowing a swarm of bees give Daniel a particularly “not so favorite tree” life-long memory!

Thank you, UnderMain, for giving me a chance to slow down long enough to realize what a tree really means to me, and the many family and friends I have enjoyed favorite trees with for 50-plus years.

Truly, every tree is my favorite!

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That Tree and Me? We Made It

The first conversation I ever had with my neighbor was about trees. Two specific trees, in fact – giant American Sycamore trees in my front yard, one on each side of the walk leading up to the front door.

I had just bought the house, compounding the mistake of an increasingly disastrous marriage with a mortgage and an address in a city I had no desire to live in.

“They’re dying, you know,” he told me. “Probably already dead. You should just have them removed.”

It was mid-March, and they were still weeks and maybe even a couple months away from regaining their canopy, so it was hard to tell if what he reported was true.

“Besides,” he said, “they’re trash trees. All they do is drop these gigantic leaves all over the place in the fall, and these weird little brushy things in the spring, and then it’s just branches all over the place the rest of the time. They get in everyone’s yards and this place is a complete mess.”


Being polite and trying to gain neighborly friends, I didn’t point out that he was arguing in the alternative – if they were dead, then the leaves and such shouldn’t be a problem, right? Besides, what I don’t think I told him that day was that the trees were the one thing I truly enjoyed about the house. I was ready to settle into my strange marriage in a strange town, but at least I had these two big, beautiful trees in the front yard.

Sometimes I sent myself a mental postcard to be reminded of the platonic ideal of the life I had hoped to form, and the front of that postcard was a charming little house with two big, shady trees in the front yard.

At least, they looked big and shady in the pictures on the realtor’s website.

When summer came around, however, something was off. Neither tree grew a particularly full canopy, and the tree closest to my neighbor looked ghastly, like some sort of skeletal hand reaching toward the sky with occasional patches of green flesh hanging off it, the tips of the fingers spindly, gray and bare. I pondered this tree a lot from the front window of my bedroom, which at the time was officially known as “the guest room.” That was what we called it in front of my parents and other company, but it had been my room since moving in.

Over time, it became clear that things were not as they should be. Both trees took on a patchy look year after year, and both were in the obvious throes of some unknown struggle.

My neighbor did his best to work on me about the trees, but in my stubborn defensiveness, I insisted that they were probably just having issues and could get better at any moment. The fallacy of this was apparent to everyone who cast an eye on my front yard, but I couldn’t yet admit that my perfect picture of two strong, shady, established trees in my front yard was already likely beyond hope. Other growing problems demanded my attention anyway, and so I feigned optimism.

My neighbor was right about one thing, though – these trees shed more leaves, bark, brushy things and branches than any other trees in all of Creation.

Even my parents started dropping less-than-subtle hints, as I relayed to them my neighbor’s latest attempts at inveighing against my hardline stance on the trees.

“Hey, I agree with him,” came the response from my dad. “They just drop crap all over the place. These things are the messiest trees I’ve ever seen, but they aren’t even getting all their leaves in. You’re fighting a losing battle.”

I expected my mom to be more sympathetic, but maybe she had spent too much time cleaning up after messes I had made. A messy, dying tree wasn’t worth it.

In the year leading up to my divorce, the sicker of the two trees and the one closest to my neighbor finally relented, failing even to produce the one branch with four leaves it had the year prior. It stayed there in the yard like a decaying corpse, dropping brittle branches with even the slightest whiff of a breeze. Concerned for what would happen to the integrity of my roof if larger branches started breaking off, I realized that it was time to acknowledge the reality I had been pretending against.

Soon after I filed for divorce, I hired a local tree company to remove the dead sycamore. My parents lent me money for both operations, sweetly stifling any knowing smiles or other signs that my professions to pay them the money back had little, if any, merit. At the time, I was already working a night job of pizza delivery to keep my household alive, so the addition of child support on top of an unreasonable subprime mortgage on an underwater house was enough to nearly break me financially. I came home on the appointed day and in the three minutes between arriving from my day job and throwing on my pizza delivery uniform for my night job, I marveled at the vast empty space where the tree had been and what a difference it had made in the appearance of the yard.

Even with the tree gone, a battle still lay ahead in the ensuing years. The dead tree was gone and the stump was ground down, but the resulting mulch left a scar on the front yard that made it nearly impossible to keep grass growing. I tried seed the first year. I alternated to sod the next. The third year, I used a shovel to slice off a good area around where the tree had been, scraped the area clean and then put down a solid layer of topsoil before planting more sod. Grass at least finally got a foothold there, and even though it still isn’t completely covered yet, that massive scar has gotten a bit smaller every year.

The oddest part, however, is what has taken place on the other side of the main walk.

The other sycamore did recover, gaining strength and a full canopy as the other tree slowly withered and died. My neighbor continued with his attempts to convince me it was still susceptible to disease and would likely die out again and I should just go ahead and remove it and maybe he’d be willing to pay for it and to let him know and maybe there were other trees in my yard that – hint, hint – should be removed and that maple probably won’t survive much longer after it broke in half and it’s a shame about that peach tree but all it ever did was drop leaves and attract squirrels anyway, etc.

Those talks got a little more scarce over time, and I think he finally wrote me off as a lost cause. The final word I gave him was that the next owner of the house would be free to do whatever she or he wished, but as long as I was there, so too would be all of my trees.

Recently, as my family worked in the yard with me to get the house ready for sale, the subject of the remaining platanus occidentalis came up in relation to the amount of leaves being removed from all areas of the yard.

“This is ridiculous,” my mom groaned, hauling another wheelbarrow-full of dead leaves back to the compost heap behind my shed. “These leaves are EVERYWHERE. I’ll tell you what – I’ll never forgive you if you have another house with trees like these.”

Watching her there with my fiancée, raking leaves out of the front beds into piles and complaining about my tree, maybe I got little defensive. After all, I felt I was the one person who still loved that remaining American sycamore, a native tree so susceptible to disease that landscapers now use a heartier cousin instead, and it was my job to make others love it, too.


Later, having to haul a solid ten more wheelbarrows of those leaves myself, I got a better understanding of the continuing consequences on my loving and helpful family of the mess of the tree I insisted upon keeping, and I had to grudgingly admit that maybe I owed them a little more gratitude and a little less stubborn insistence that what I want at any given moment is the right thing.

Still, I love that tree. In the eleven years since we met, we’ve both grown a bit thicker around the trunk, and we’ve both managed to hang on to our canopy. My mental postcard of happiness matches the image with one big sycamore in the front of the house, and I give it the occasional pat of appreciation, although I’ve stopped short of giving it a full-on hug.

In recent years, there’s grown a tall and beautiful volunteer spruce in its shade, and I’ve also added a dogwood, a flowering cherry and assorted other volunteer stragglers to my yard to the point that in ten years there won’t be patch that isn’t shaded. I won’t still be in the house to appreciate it then – I’ll have this house on the market any day now, and I’m looking forward to where my life is headed with it behind me.

I’ll miss that sycamore tremendously, however. We’ve been through a lot together, but we’re both still here. We made it.


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The Lone Oak

I became acquainted with the old bur oak tree near downtown Lexington not as a child, but as a very young adult. It was something of a Lexington landmark and I think it deserves a story. Its own place in history. No doubt, according to the tree specialists, it had at least a couple of centuries of stories to tell since Lexington was settled in June of 1775 and this ancient tree was at least that old.

The bur oak was located right off Lafayette Parkway leading up to Lafayette High School. Barely out of our teens, my husband and I were hunting for our first house and our realtor showed us a rather decrepit small home with this magnificent tree in the backyard. I don’t know if we bought the house because of the house or because of the tree. It was astonishing. Spreading my arms as wide as I could, I still could not embrace its diameter.

I don’t know how tall it was but it was too tall for tree specialists to even contemplate taking it down back in the 1970s. Bur oaks often grow 200-300 feet tall. It was many feet in circumference. It shaded our entire home in the summer with its big, brawny limbs. In the fall, it produced the most interesting acorns and gallons of them. These trees produce the largest acorns of any oak tree and they often were the preferred food for bears, harkening back to another time in the history of the place where Lexington began.

Besides enjoying the fact that this special tree was in our newly-acquired back yard, it provided a conversation starting point with our neighbors on the aptly-named Lone Oak Street. Our neighbors were a couple old enough to be our grandparents and well-known Lexington residents, Fred and Lois Flege. We bonded over that tree. They took to us and we to them and they became like our family.

We lived on that street and under that tree, with the Flege’s as our neighbors for many years. The tree developed dead limbs that we had to prune but we could bear to do no more than that. It was an important touchstone for us and for the Flege’s.

Shortly after we sold our house, the new owner took down the big tree. It had become dangerous. That tree will forever be a part of our memories of our early life in Lexington with our beloved neighbors, the Flege’s.

Years later, we moved back to Morehead and one day, we found a bur oak acorn in our front yard. There are no bur oak trees that we know of in this part of the Daniel Boone National Forest. We planted it. Maybe someday, long after we are gone, there will be another majestic bur oak tree in what used to be our yard.

One of our best memories will always be the big bur oak tree standing in the middle of Lexington.

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In the Walnut Grove

My tree story is not about one tree but a whole grove of walnut trees that were at Morehead Camp.

These trees provided shade and many bushels of black walnuts.  The walnut hulls were a mess to remove and the shells hard to crack, but nothing was better than the nuts for adding to fudge.  They were also great in Waldorf salad and anything else calling for nuts.


My father used to white wash the bottoms of those trees, as was the custom.

Two trees in particular that were special were the two outside the kitchen window. They provided shade for our sand box and support for a swing and hammock.


When I was little my mother put my playpen under them for a nap and I took baths in a tub in the shade.


I remember Herbie Hogan cleaning his fish in the shade of those trees.

After Morehead Camp was sold the Williams children wanted something made of that walnut wood.  The folks at the lumber yard got as much usable wood as they could, bypassing the bullets that were lodged in the trees as a result of target practice. We had special boxes made of the wood for ourselves and our children, and I had a couple of small tables built with an insert of marble salvaged from Fountain Square in Cincinnati.

I would never have dreamed that thinking of trees would have evoked so many memories!


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Twelve Trees

It was a crooked tree with one large limb that bent almost to the ground. It grew alongside the property near my girlhood home in Kentucky in a new subdivision that my mother named ‘Twelve Trees’. The tree stood strong for its age on a bit of yet undeveloped land – unaware of the role it would adopt as my parents laid plans to live out their dream.

The lowest limb on this tree gathered great character as my six siblings and I got older and more daring. It held many adolescent bodies all at once; it took on feathers, scales and fur; it grew the body parts of dragon and panther depending; it grunted and growled and sighed and soared as the first to arrive declared what large creature it would be for the day.

Laughing, joking, and making up rules to welcome newcomers to the neighborhood, we shoved each other off the limb and pulled one another back on again.

For many years, we won and we lost all sorts of imaginary battles and the tree played along: resting when we left, but – I frequently thought to myself  – always longing for our return the next day.

On days when we could not visit the tree, it was still visible from the bay window over our newly varnished hardwood deck. Through the years, the tree grew ears as the varnish on the deck faded. It crouched and leaned in to hear my elder siblings sitting on splintered benches searching for ways to win at a different game, a game my parents seemed to be losing, a game I no longer wanted to play. I know this, because together, the tree and I heard them.

The tree was different when I visited it alone; I was unable to make it move under my tall, thin frame. It did not have a head or a tail. Its bark was just bark. Settling in the crux between trunk and limb, I could only rest on the back of all those daydreams, usually with a journal in hand.

Not even on angry days would the tree pretend to have scales or breathe fire. Even when I held onto the trunk, pushing and shoving on the limb, the tree would still not buck or run or fight back.

One day, I was so determined and jumped so hard and long that I slipped and my bare, upper leg got caught between the trunk and limb of the tree. I knew then how strong we had made that tree: neither part would budge so that I could free my leg. I was not hurt, but I was stuck and alone until my older sister and brother returned from school.

When they did, they helped me push the limb down far enough that I could climb out of that predicament. They laughed. I cried. Through my tears, the tree then did the oddest thing: As they let go of the limb so that it could bounce back up, it bent further downward instead, like a creature taking a knee to lower its back for a rider to mount.

I felt my sister’s hand and then my brother push me up onto the limb. They climbed on too and between them I grabbed tightly onto what felt like thick fur growing under my hands. We stayed for a long time that day and I don’t remember much else, but I do recall the ground moving beneath us, wind on the thin skin of my closed eyelids, and the feeling that this tree knew far more than me.

original works

A tale of the stripmall store and the people within



Like many Kentuckians, my friend Glenn is very generous.  He gave me a car.  His silver Chevy Cavalier belonged to me every time I came to town.  The same was true for other visitors but for the two weeks I was in Lexington every year, it was all mine. 

How to repay such generosity?  I thought hard. 

Sidenote:  Where I live, such acts of kindness must be reciprocated.  It’s actually a law: one must not offer nor receive a gift or gesture without repayment in kind within a certain time to be determined by the giver.  Should that time be exceeded, the recipient will be advised by The Silent Treatment. 

Using my best “I-pretend-to-be-from-Kentucky-even-though-I’m-not” thinking, I came up with the perfect thing – I would repair the trunk!  

Lately, as you were driving along, the latch had taken to randomly releasing the rear hood causing it to catapult forward and threaten to smash the rear window.  In my case, I was often so startled I would slam on the brake causing the trunk lid to stop bolt upright completely obscuring the rear view. Alternately, it would latch so securely that the only way to retrieve one’s belongings was to crawl thru a tiny rear seat opening into a pitch black trunk with a flashlight and screwdriver to search out the offending clasp. Being in the latter position in dressy clothes more than once, I decided that fixing the trunk would be perfect repayment.

Discovering the culprit to be a plastic mechanism that had dislodged from the trunk hood, I headed where anyone living in Versailles would: to Terry’s 5 & 10 cent store.  I was pretty sure I’d find plastic cement, or “see ment” as its sometimes called, among the penny candy, 1950’s housewares and way in the back, my personal favorite, live fish and turtles.  The promise of being greeted by the aroma of roasting cashews alongside the 25 cent mechanical horse with a Western saddle had me on my way. 

From Terry's Facebook page

From Terry’s Facebook page

Now if you have ever been to Terry’s in Versailles, you know it’s a shopping experience like no other, particularly if Terry is in the house.  Wandering the aisles can be like hypnotically clicking link after link of Facebook pages where u find things you were unprepared to come upon.  Over the years, I had stumbled upon everything from a music box that plays My Old Kentucky Home topped with a model of Ashland to every kind of party and Christmas decoration to pink flamingos, ruffled lace by the yard and something resembling saran wrap that was labeled “Adult rain bonnet with visor.”  Young family members were delighted with purchases I could not resist such as the Volcano Making Kit, ant farm, bow and arrow, pirate patch, chattering teeth and a “96 Shot” package for cowboy guns.  Honestly, you can get lost in the place.


From Terry’s Facebook page


But Terry’s is unique in one very important way: the people who work there KNOW WHERE ALL THE STUFF IS!  I was led directly to the shelf of adhesives where I began reading labels.  After the 4th one I was completely confused until I heard a voice close to my ear say ” What’re you lookin’ to fix?”  And from that point on, Terry was in charge.  

I explained about the trunk.  He said “Well let’s see what we’re talking about” and the next thing I know, We’re outside with the rear hood open directly into 90 degree sunshine and Terry is climbing INSIDE the trunk so he can “get a better look”.  Once in there, he sat facing the rear, flashlight in hand.  As he began to lower the lid from inside to get that better look, I had a panicky image of it closing all the way leaving his lower legs dangling outside like those Halloween body-in-the-trunk gags. Luckily that was avoided by the arrival of another smaller man who climbed in next to Terry and turned out to be his son-in-law. 

Between the two of them, they figured out that super glue offered the fastest fix but agreed it probably wouldn’t last.  I followed Terry back inside where he encouraged me to take a 3 tube package that was better AND cheaper than the one I had picked up.  “If I was you,” he said, “I’d head over to the auto parts store for a new latch.  Then you can return this glue.  Good luck and you have yourself a nice day now.”

From Terry's Facebook page

From Terry’s Facebook page

As he walked away, I wasn’t sure what amazed me more: Terry’s willingness to diagnose and repair my car problem himself or his desire to do so with the least possible cost to me.  He all but GAVE me the glue.

And by the way, it did the trick.  

I never had to go anywhere else. 

Now that’s service.  

Editor’s note: On a recent Friday, this sign appeared in Terry’s door. Word is, it won’t be coming down. We wish the best to this good man and his family.


original works

UnderMain Essay: The songs of the caged birds


As with most people who have access to Netflix, I fell in love with the series Orange is the New Black. My dedication to watching the show began with the typical interest in the novelty of prisons, institutions that take people away from society, making them disappear.

The series is about a rich white girl who has to leave her comfortable life and do time in prison for a past offense.  As I continued watching, I fell in love with the stories of each individual character. I became so interested in seeing just how they got to where they were in life. By the third episode, however, I became very sad, not only for the fictional characters in Orange but for women in prison in real life – for those real women in my life.

My experience with visiting women’s prisons began when I was seven. My cousin was arrested and convicted as an accomplice to the murder of two people, one of whom was a child. At the time my cousin was young, the age I am now (20), and in a tumultuous marriage. Needless to say, drugs were involved. She was driving the car the day her husband shot and killed a man and his child in their home.

I can remember feeling scared for her as we drove her mother to the scene of the crime. I remember the court trials and going to visit my cousin in prison.

I remember talking to her, sitting right in front of her but having to use a phone to talk to her. I thought of how lonely it must be to have a glass wall between you and everyone you have ever known, to never have privacy and never to be able to go out in public.

The prison seemed like the inside of a metal lunchbox to me. It was crowded with visitors who were loud. I remember not being able to hear my cousin because the phone had a bad connection. Her mother would always cry whenever we visited her but I was always confused. I didn’t understand what was going on or why she had to be behind a glass wall. I didn’t understand why I had to walk through metal detectors before I was even ten years old. I also didn’t understand how my cousin could behave as though this place was normal. I never understood how she got used to it.

Our entire town saw her as different from other people. She was put away, “disappeared.” She was the subject of gossip for a few months, and then she was forgotten. Everyone felt “safe” and they moved on to something new.

My next experience with women’s correctional facilities involved my older sister. The first incident happened within a few months of our mother’s death of pancreatic cancer. I was fifteen and my sister was thirty-eight. I had known that my sister had been on drugs for years by that point, but the death of our mother caused such emotional trauma that her drug problem became much worse. She was arrested one night for driving under the influence and for having Meth under the passenger’s seat in her car.  Later that year she was arrested again for making and selling it.

I still have all the letters from my sister and my cousin. Little crochet key chains and Precious Moments coloring book pages from my cousin…confessions and apologies from my sister.

I would always receive the letters, with their names and ID numbers on them and become excited. It was like a pen pal, almost. At the beginning of their sentences, I became very excited to get their letters. They would ask me about soccer games, guitar practice and school. They never had much to say about their lives though, except for apologizing about their pasts and telling me about things that they missed. I couldn’t quite understand how they missed certain things. They missed biscuits and sitting on the front porch stringing beans with the family. My cousin even wrote me once explaining how badly she missed showers. As I got older, the letters between us became less frequent. I let myself get caught up with the outside world and forgot about the comfort those letters gave them. When the letters became fewer and fewer they were able to find comfort in other outlets.

I knew about the letters, but what I did not know about was their personal writings.

The women in prisons have to experience personal writings and expression and art in a different way from those of us who are on “the outside.”  Women have been oppressed for generations and limited in their ability to be in the public sphere as easily as men due to society’s judgment of women in writing. But women inmates have an even more difficult time with having their voices heard.

Women inmates have a more difficult time having their voices heard because of the negative stigma of being inmates; they are not only separate from the public sphere physically, but ideologically through the stereotypes and opinions of them. They have important things to say, but it is difficult for their words to get to us on the outside. The separation and stigma prevent women inmates from experiencing the therapeutic experience of being heard.

Just as women in general had been silenced simply as a consequence of their gender, the women in prisons are silenced for that and their inmate status.

Distinguishing between “good vs bad” enhances the negative stigma against the women in prison.  Women have been marginalized just for being women and thus cut out of the public sphere, but female inmates have to carry the labels of both “woman” and “criminal.”

The only access prisoners really have to “the outside” are through letters between themselves and family members, friends and penpals. While the rest of us can call in to news talk shows and chime in with our opinions, write letters to editors and blog about everything that angers us, those incarcerated do not have these options.

In our society, prison is a way of removing from the public eye, those who have committed crimes. They do not Facebook. They cannot have cell phones. They are limited in the amount of time they can use the prison phones and the phone calls they get and their in-person visits are timed and restricted to people on a pre-determined list.

It is easy to think, “Oh well, they are prisoners, they deserve it.” However, they are humans and separating them from society and limiting their resources only creates a cycle of low socioeconomic status and continuation of crime. It is hard to “come back up” when you are being kept down by your past mistakes.

The punishment that society imposes on inmates has the possibility of keeping them down for the rest of their lives, essentially extending their sentences even when they are eventually returned to “the outside.”

When I did a Google search on what people think about women in prison I found all of these terms: Untrustworthy; Trash; Bad; Poor; Unskilled. It is hard to carry all of these stereotypes with you – it can even make you start believing these things about yourself.

These labels lead to people deciding to not listen to what women in prison have to say. The thought of interacting with a prisoner makes people afraid and squeamish, so instead of being open to the idea of listening to an inmate, society pretends they are not there.

Who listens to the women locked in cages? Who listens to the women who are separate from their families, their friends and their jobs? Who listens to the women who are considered “violent” and “angry”?

Inmates have often been perceived as brutal, which is a false perception. In her poem, “Ready to Go”, inmate Tammica L. Summers, incarcerated at Broward Correctional Institution in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, compares the bars of prison to the bars of the zoo:

I wish I was somewhere else

Rather than this zoo

I take a long hard look at myself

And what I’ve been through.

(Women + Prison)

Summers was a college graduate who has been writing short stories and poems since grade school. However, she is not being recited at poetry clubs and appearing at poetry slams because she is incarcerated.

The legitimacy of the expressive writings of female inmates is no less than those lucky enough to receive an education in creative writing. Due to their status as an “inmate,” though, they lose all rhetorical credit and are easily disregarded.

There are many important reasons as to why we should open our eyes and ears and listen to the words of female inmates. They are humans and have the right to be heard. They are human just like all of us, which means we are just as likely to make the same mistakes they made that ended up with their incarceration.

Their words can encourage us to accept one another; to comfort one another; to listen to one another before it is too late; and to think about our actions before we do them. We are all capable of making mistakes and not every criminal is from a “rough background.”

It is easy to think that we are not capable of going to jail, that we are “good people”.

Every “good” person makes mistakes. Every person makes mistakes. We need to listen to female inmates and hear their stories and their pain. If we are unable to learn from them, then we are even more susceptible to incarceration ourselves. It is possible for any of us to also be in situations where we are one day silenced, as we as a society have silenced so many. It is even more possible that we will one day be cast away from society, just as we have cast so many away.

There are more than 200,000 women behind bars. Those are 200,000 voices that could teach us so much..

Maya Angelou, in her famous poem, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings writes,

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings

with a fearful trill

of things unknown

but longed for still

and his tune is heard

on the distant hill

or the caged bird

sings of freedom.

The caged bird may sing, but have you heard her?

To read the writings of female inmates you can:

*Become a penpal

*Go to one of these websites:


The Prison Arts Coalition

Women + Prison

*Read this book by the talented Lexington writer Bianca Spriggs.

Bridgett Howard is in her third year at Transylvania University as a Writing, Rhetoric and Communications major and Studio Art minor.  A native of Whitesburg, KY., Bridgett will graduate in May, 2015. She is UnderMain’s first intern.