Sunday, January 30, 2011

Scenes from Roanoke Regional Writers Conference

Conference scholarship winner Elizabeth Markham (left center) surrounded by (from left) Hollins President Nancy Gray, previous winner Elizabeth Jones and Dan Smith.

Elizabeth Markham gave a touching acceptance speech. Keynote speakers Cara Modisett and Keith Ferrell are to the left of her.

Conference scholarship winners Elizabeth Jones, Elizabeth Markham and April Drummond, who taught a class at this year's conference.

Cookbook author Mollie Cox Bryan tells how it's done.

Photographer Stephanie Klein-Davis with her class on photo technique.

Jill Elswick (foreground) asks a question of a panel moderated by FRONT publisher Tom Field (standing) and (from left) Bill Kovarik of Radford University, author Keith Ferrell, weekly newspaper editor Meg Hibbert, Dan Smith, Lizetta Staplefoote of Rackspace in Blacksburg and Darrell Laurant of the News & Advance in Lynchburg.

Founder Dan Smith with Chris Powell of Hollins, the conference's MVP, and Mitzi Hartwell, who helped in a number of ways with her boundless energy.
Roanoke College's Mary Hill teaches her poetry class.

Lizetta Staplefoote of Rackspace teaches her writing class.

Tom Field in front of his full house of a class.

Hollins' Jeanne Larsen was--hands down--the conference's most popular teacher.

Radio essayist Janis Jaquith kept her class laughing.

W&L journalism professor Doug Cumming with his class.

One of the most useful classes is always Gentry Locke Rakes & Moore attorney Dave Cohan's on protecting yourself as a writer.

Dan Smith (baseball cap) and Kurt Rheinheimer (right) taught a class as two old white men who've written for a long time.

Local daily metro columnist Dan Casey told stories for most of his class and the students loved it.

Roanoke College's Cynthia Atkins with her class gives a writing exercise.

Keynote speaker Cara Modisett.

Literary agents Joan Timberlake (with her Come to Jesus gesture) and George Oliver in a heavily-attended double session.

The Roanoke Regional Writers Conference continued on its record pace this year, selling out two days early and actually overbooking before the sellout was noticed.

The popular conference at Hollins presented its $1,500 scholarship to Elizabeth Markham, a Horizon student in a writing discipline and Elizabeth was joined at the conference by previous winners Elizabeth Jones (who made the presentation) and April Drummond, who taught a class. April is finishing her first movie and has had several of her plays produced and she hasn't yet graduated. She was the first scholarship winner. She is the single mother of seven children and is in her early 40s.

The conference featured a wide range of topics of interest to amateur and professional writers.

(Photos by Erin Pope, Mitzi Hartwell, Dan Smith.)

Friday, January 28, 2011

Wiley Drive Greenway Will Close Again

Wiley Drive at the heart of Roanoke's busiest and most popular greenway stretch will close again, this time for nearly six weeks at the end of the winter season.

The frequently-closed stretch has often brought complaints, but bridge work, flood reduction and and maintenance have disrupted the habits of Roanoke's walkers, bikers, hikers and baby-stroller pushers on a number of occasions.

Here is the press release from the City of Roanoke:

The City of Roanoke will be performing bridge maintenance on the Wiley Drive downstream low-water bridge that will require closing the structure to all vehicles, bikers and pedestrians from Monday, Feb. 14, through Thursday, March 31.

Wiley Drive will be closed to vehicular traffic along the one-way section between the upstream low-water bridge near the Wasena Park gates and the River's Edge Sports Complex near Franklin Road. Bikers and pedestrians will be able to access Smith Park from Wasena Park. However, bikers and pedestrians will not be able to access Smith Park from River's Edge Sports Complex due to construction activities on this bridge.

The city's Transportation Division will post message boards indicating this upcoming closure approximately two weeks in advance. To comment, call project manager Jay Witt at 540-853-2734.

(Roanoke News photo.)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Virginia's Best Teacher ... And So Much More

My good and great friend Melanie Almeder, one of the best teachers anybody ever knew, is being recognized for just that. The state Council of Higher Education has picked Mel to receive its 2011 Outstanding Faculty Award. She is a tenured English professor at Roanoke College in Salem.

Below is the official press release, which doesn't tell you who the real Melanie Almeder is, the one who has more courage, strength, commitment, goodness, understanding, intelligence, curiosity and will than just about anybody I have ever known. Mel has spent the last year fighting a life-threatening illness and she has demonstrated every one of those characteristics on a daily basis.

She deserves this award, but there's oh so much more to this miracle of a woman.

"The award, which recognizes superior accomplishments in teaching, research and public service, is Virginia’s highest honor for faculty at the state’s public and private colleges and universities. Almeder joins 11 other award recipients, all faculty members from colleges and universities across Virginia.

“'Dr. Almeder is a wonderful teacher who is dedicated to her students,' Roanoke President Michael Maxey says. 'She is an accomplished poet and scholar as well. We are fortunate to have her on our campus.'

"At Roanoke College, Almeder teaches poetry writing, Native American literature, contemporary novel, and special topics courses, including a contemporary culture and literature course, 'The Writer in Politics.'

Almeder's poems have been widely published in a range of journals, including The Georgia Review, Poetry, Five Points, 32 Poems, Seneca Review, The Comstock Review and American Literary Review. She has been nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. Her first book of poems On Dream Street, won the Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize and was published in February 2007. The book was a finalist in for the Walt Whitman Award.

“'One of the things I love about teaching and learning in the Roanoke College community is the ethic that our learning is not distinct from our community lives, that the two inform each other in vital ways,' Almeder says. Almeder, who received her BA in English from the University of Virginia, MFA in poetry from the University of Massachusetts and PhD in contemporary fiction from the University of Florida, was recognized with the Roanoke College Dean's Council Exemplary Teaching Award in 2003. She also has been honored three times as a finalist in the rising star category of the Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award sponsored by SCHEV.

She and the 11 other recipients will be recognized during a ceremony and luncheon February 17 at the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. Prior to the event, the recipients will be introduced on the floor of the General Assembly.

Writers Conference Sold Out

The Roanoke Regional Writers Conference is sold out for the first time in its four-year history.

The limit was 150 and that was reached three days early. The conference at Hollins University features 24 classes, a reception and lunch for $55.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

In Salem, There Is Rarely Dissent

Neil Harvey, a government writer for the local daily, has a solid piece in today's edition (here) about the near-unanimous voting patterns of Salem City Council, something that is about as old as the city.

I covered Salem City Council something more than 20 years ago and some of my richest memories are of Council passing its consent agenda unanimously (these are items it believes it has total accord) and five minutes later a pack of lawyers would show up ready for battle on one of the issues only to find they'd missed the vote. They'd fume and spit and threaten, but Mayor Jim Taliaferro, as the saying went at the time, ran "a tight meeting." So tight that there was little discussion on most issues.

Taliaferro famously told people speaking on an issue, "We have all night to listen to you as long as you don't repeat yourself or repeat somebody else." That repetition often came far faster than the speaker realized and he'd be gavelled to his seat.

The rumor is old and persistent about council members gathering for lunch on the day of its weekly meetings and making its decisions then. The meetings in my time were at Tarpley's, a jewelry store and lunch counter (which served the best rolls I've ever eaten). The council table was in the right rear corner and nobody dared sit there before council had its gathering.

It was about as open as anything in Salem and as matter-of-fact. The old-line members will deny it today, but anybody who ate at Tarpley's in the 1970s and 1980s will tell you about it. I'm not sure what the legality about lunching was at that time, but today, it can't happen without public notice.

The last time I recall a dust-up of any significance in Salem was when City Council decided to develop land near the Salem Civic Center and put up a large water tower (pictured here) that later earned the nickname honoring the mayor at the time. Cleaning it up a bit, the water tower became "Sonny Tarpley's Penis." But this argument wasn't so much within Salem as it was with a group of "you ain't from around here, are you?" newcomers who were apparently some kind of environmental Nazis, if the rumors were true. The dissidents were branded nut cases, thrown out of council meetings and peace returned to Heaven. Sonny Tarpley's Penis still watches over that end of Salem.

One simple fact remains in all this: Salem voters would have it no other way. These people totally trust their governing body in a way that small towns often do and that larger municipalities never do. And, as the Italians under Mussolini contended: "The trains run on time."

Friday, January 21, 2011

Market Building Likely To Have Expanded Hours

The Market Building Foundation has named Hall Associates as the rental agent for Roanoke's City Market Building and Managing Partner Roger Elkin says one of the primary changes it will initiate will be expanded hours for the building.

Elkin says the plan is to run the building like a profit-making venture instead of a hobby, as it has appeared to be run in recent years.

The Market Building, the anchor of downtown Roanoke's historic district, was closed more hours than it was open for as long as I can remember. It was not open at night or on Sunday and was a distinct impediment to commerce in the area. The renovated building will be better than it was (though not as good as it could have been) and will offer more activities.

Elkin says no vendors have been signed--or re-signed, in the case of those invited back with offers of thousands of dollars in setup fees--but that negotiations with the old-timers will be taking place early in the week. He wouldn't give a price range for rentals ("It depends on the space") but agreed prices would range between $12 and $15 per square foot, about average for the Market. The rental includes a lot more than the space because common seating and cleanup, among other things, are part of the price paid.

The plan is to have the Market Building "teeming with people throughout the day and evening; live musicians and art will be available on the mezzanine with a delicious mix of aromas and sounds filling the senses," says the press release. "The dramatically remodeled event space ... with a maximum capacity of 500 standing or 250 seated and featuring a state of the art audio visual system" will allow the building to be home for concerts, movie nights, lectures, weddings, receptions, dinners, expos, conferences and parties."

Hall will "be seeking additional restaurant and retail tenants" over the next few months, says Leasing Agent Jim Deyerle. Hall will have a staff that monitors "all facets of the Market Building through an on-site building manager assigned to oversee that both tenant relations and customer service are held to the highest standards."

Thursday, January 20, 2011

'Dagenham' Is Sally Hawkins' Movie

The delightful British actress Sally Hawkins (right), whose crooked, big-toothed smile can be arresting, is as good a reason as any to see "Made in Dagenham," playing at the Grandin Theatre in Roanoke. Her Poppy in 2008's "Happy-Go-Lucky" simply stole my heart, but she faced a far different challenge with "Dagenham" and she nailed it, too.

Miss Hawkins, playing a Norma Rae-style labor leader--meaning reluctant, inexperienced, but tough--might have been tempted to go over the top with the portrayal of Rita O'Grady, a "machinist" (meaning sewing machinist) at Ford Motor Company in England in the late 1960s, but she chose to underplay it. And she is just about perfect, shining above a marvelous supporting cast that includes the always-watchable Bob Hoskins.

William Ivory's intelligent and witty screenplay is spot-on, as is the direction of Nigel Cole, who directed the memorable "Calendar Girls" and "Saving Grace." Ivory's credits are mostly on TV.

This is the strike that led to equal pay for women in Britain and in many other countries and, as with Norma Rae, it is led by a line worker, a simple woman with a nice family, living on the edges of the middle class and perfectly content with just about all of it.

The spectre of inequality, however, lights a fire in Rita and she goes to work with a natural organizing ability that leads to a meeting with the British Secretary of State (which is not a parallel to the same post in the U.S., but one handling domestic affairs).

The movie is populated with the proper number and scale of male chauvinist pigs, supportive spouses, infighting within the union and a a smidge of drama that is, frankly, hardly worth the effort, given the predictability of the ending (I mean, would the story have been written if she had failed?).

It is, like "Happy-Go-Lucky," a vehicle for a vastly under-appreciated actress to shine. And Sally Hawkins does just that.

Working With the Kids at Community High

Had a marvelous time this a.m. working with a class of prospective writers at Community High School in downtown Roanoke. Mike Allen (right, above), the arts reporter for the local daily and I shared the teaching stand and the enthusiasm in the room was refreshing. That's us talking in the top picture.

Roanoke Wants Your Countryside Opinion

OK, Countryside residents, get out your tiki torches and pitchforks: Roanoke's government is preparing to tell you what it wants do with the Countryside Golf Course and there's about a 99.5 percent probability you won't be happy about (regardless of what it is, since leaving it alone isn't an option).

Here are the details, according to a city press release:

The City of Roanoke will hold an open house on Thursday, Jan. 27, from 4 to 7 p.m. in the William Fleming High School cafeteria to share information and receive input on concept plans for the development of the Countryside property.Since October, city Planning staff and the Planning Commission have been working on a master plan for the development of the property.

This open house will be an opportunity for citizens and those who own property near Countryside to review and comment on the draft plan concepts. In addition, city staff will be on hand to respond to questions and comments.

The public is invited to drop in between 4 and 7 p.m. It is not necessary to attend the entire session. Various studies of the property can be reviewed at here. For questions or additional information, contact Chris Chittum by phone at 540-853-2356 or by e-mail to

Business Group Criticizes Health Care Action in House

The attempt by Republicans in the House of Representatives yesterday to repeal the new health care act (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act) is a direct smack in the face of small businesses, according to CEO John Arensmeyer of the Small Business Majority, an advocacy group.

During the Bush Administration, small business took a beating from people in control who favored mega-corporations (funneling money from the SBA to them, for example). Many of the Obama Administration's initiatives are small business-friendly and Republicans are scrambling to counter that image.

Many Republicans recently ran on a platform based on repeal of the health care act, whether or not that was a real possibility with this congress (it is not because the Senate won’t have anything to do with it and the president would veto, it in any event), but Arensmeyer says the vote “is political posturing that will do nothing to create jobs and help small businesses thrive. In fact, it will do the opposite.”

He says repeal would send “America’s 28 million small businesses back into a system that drains their coffers and threatens their ability to compete. We released an analysis that shows that without reform small business owners would pay nearly $2.4 trillion in healthcare costs over the next 10 years, and $52.1 billion in small business profits and 178,000 small business jobs would be lost as a result of high premiums … The ACA will lower small business owners’ costs and help them and their employees gain access to high-quality healthcare.

"According to a national opinion survey we released on Jan. 4, one-third of small employers who don’t offer their workers insurance say the tax credits and exchanges will make them more likely to do so. Major insurance companies across the country are reporting significant increases in the number of small businesses providing their employees with benefits because of the tax credits.”

(Graphic from Small Business Trends.)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Response To The Lack of Roanokers Among Market Building Artists

Here is an explanation from my friend Susan Jennings, Roanoke's arts and culture coordinator, about the failure of her group to have a Roanoke artist participating in the Roanoke City Market art displays. Because it's my blog, I'll have a word at the end. Anyhow, here's what Susan has to say:

First, look at the city's public art catalogue on line ( and you will see that the vast majority of the works in the city collection are by regional artists. The city has purchased regional art every year for many years from the annual City Art Show. We could not purchase any works from City Art Show in 2010 because for the first time in over 25 years the Arts Council dropped this show as well as the High School Art Show. You are on The Arts Council board so can perhaps explain that decision. Meanwhile, the Arts Commission Collections Committee is looking at how to fill that gap so we can continue to build the regional collection without City Art Show. (Dan speaking here: This is nice information, but it has nothing to do with what we're talking about. Nothing. The city has a good art program. I like it. I like its director. It is to be commended for the program.)

Second, here are the facts on the market building public art project and public art projects in general. The call for artists was sent to artists throughout the Roanoke region through the Arts Council and other sources. (The response from local artists was extremely low.) The city is prohibited by state purchasing law from giving favoritism to any class of artists, local or otherwise. (Dan's response: Find a way. Local artists responded with little enthusiasm, I'd venture, because they didn't feel any support on this. That state law is probably good for some things, but for art it needs to be changed and my bet is that if Roanoke was committed to having local artwork in the Market Building, it'd be there.)

Selection panels which always include arts professionals choose the best work for the particular site, not the other way around. When we produced our public art plan in 2006 (with lots of community input) the public asked for public art that was diverse and showcase nationally known as well as regional artists. As a writer would you want our public library to only purchase locally written books? Would you want other local museums and attractions to show only locally produced items? Of course not and that is what the public said about the public art program as well. (Me again: We're not talking about museums or libraries; we're talking about a city, which uses tax money from me and represents me. The city should be Roanoke-centric because of what it is. Again, we're off the subject.)

Third, because we have so many talented artists in the area The Arts Commission is working to recruit more local artists to the public art field. Outdoor public art production with all the nuances of materials, fabrication, installation, etc. is a different genre for many of our regional artists. One of the first things we did (before we commissioned the first piece) was hold a workshop for artists on how to become involved in public art. The city received support from the Virginia Commission for the arts to do this. We have had some great results: two bus shelters designed by local artist Ed Dolinger with high schools students, Ann Glover's Trojan Dog now at the fire station on Memorial, Charlie Brouwer's Happy Wanderers back for a second run in AIR. (Not on topic, again. We really need to talk about the Market Building and its artwork, not bus shelters and fire stations. By the way, I love Ann Glover's dog.)

However, we are constantly exploring ways to increase local participation. Last year I offered to host a series of Web workshops produced by the Americans for the Arts Public Art Network for regional artists on this topic and did not have enough takers ( three total) to make it worth the expenditure. I would love to hear from any regional artists who are interested in this type of workshop and would certainly try again. I am also constantly expanding by own e-mail list of artists interested in receiving information about our public art projects. I can be reached at (Good offer, but off topic again.)

OK, now back to me. This is pretty much the explanation I anticipated, but it does not get down to the simple fact that the city is buying art from artists for one of its most historic and most important buildings and none of those artists is from this area. Not a one.

I think it is incumbent on Roanoke to solicit Roanoke artists to make bids here and however it is managed, to make sure somebody from Roanoke is on the walls or floors of the City Market Building. I don't care how many reasons and excuses there are, they are wrong. Roanoke should be represented in this place at this time by Roanokers and I will not be convinced otherwise by a bunch of bureaucratic bullsh ... uh ... rules.

One more thing, lest we forget: I love Susan Jennings and think the job she has done with city art is exemplary. But that doesn't have anything to do with the City Market art.

(Note: My friend Arnette Crocker posted this on Facebook about the above exchange and I think she has nailed the problem: "Same old Roanoke inferiority complex; if it is from Roanoke it can't be all that good. Roanoke has had this kind of complex as long as I can remember, with art, music, writers, all types of talent. I think that is why there are no monuments or statues of leaders. As though "I wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have me as a member". Little acknowledgment is given to Roanoke talent who have left the area and enjoyed national and international acclaim. First example that comes to mind, photographer Peter Harholdt, Smithsonian photographer, internationally respected, and published. Roanoke began attracting artists in the late '60s and '70s because of the beauty of this area. There are plenty here but most area artists must take their art elsewhere for real recognition and financial support.")

Selling 'Saving Homer' on TV

Ursula Dilley (right) and I were just on the "Our Blue Ridge" noontime TV show over at WSLS TV selling our new children's book, Saving Homer. That's host Natalie Faunce on the left interviewing us.

The video of the show is here.

Ursula says she was nervous, but I don't believe it. She was simply superb. Glad she's the illustrator and Homer is, too. If you'd like to look into buying Saving Homer, click on the highlighted title above and it'll take you directly to or you can e-mail me at and get a signed copy (with no shipping cost).

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Still the Question: Why No Roanoke Artists?

(Update: The City Arts Commission members are listed here.)

My buddy Valerie Garner has put together a slide show of the works of the artists who are finalists for their art to be displayed at the renovated Roanoke City Market Building. The show can be seen here.

I'm not an art critic, but one word comes to mind with these pieces: "underwhelming." I don't see any quality here that could not have been achieved through local artists. None at all. So, the question not only remains, but it grows with the lack of a compelling reason to go to California for candidates: Why in the hell are there no Roanoke artists on the list?

(Above is a detail from one of the works, provided by Susan Jennings, arts and culture coordinator for Roanoke.)

'Homer' Makes His TV Debut Tomorrow

Ursula Dilley and I will be hawking our new book, Saving Homer, tomorrow at noon on WSLS-TV's noon talk show, "Our Blue Ridge." That's Homer (the Basset hound title character) and me in the photo above.

Ursula is the illustrator of a story I wrote nearly 20 years ago. I invite you not only to watch, but to buy a book ($15, no shipping charge if you buy direct from moi; just e-mail me at and send your address).

Tech Ranks High Among Writing Programs

Poets & Writers Magazine picked Tech 35th among 527 MFA programs.^

Well, sonofagun, who'd-a thunk it? Virginia Tech a college for writers? Seems to be going that way. Get a load of this press release from Tech:

The Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in creative writing in the Department of English at Virginia Tech is relatively young, admitting its first full class in the fall of 2005. The fledgling program is flexing its poetic muscles, however, swiftly and steadily climbing the national rankings.

Poets & Writers Magazine recently recognized Virginia Tech as 35th among 527 MFA
programs nationally, positioning it in the top seven percent. In addition, the Virginia
Tech program is ranked No. 10 in poetry, and its trend in ranking is “up.”
“All of the programs that rated higher in either case have been established for a
longer time,” noted Carolyn Rude, professor and chair of the Department of

The rankings are based on 16 categories, including poetry, fiction, and nonfiction
ranks as well as annual and total funding, selectivity, teaching loads, cost of
living, and postgraduate placement. All Virginia Tech MFA students in creative
writing are fully funded through graduate teaching assistant-ships with annual
stipends averaging $15,000. The three-year program includes full tuition remission
and subsidized health insurance.

The list of faculty members in the Virginia Tech program reads like a who’s who of
the literary world.
  • Ed Falco, a novelist and short story writer who has won a National Endowmen for the Arts (NEA) Fellowship, directs the MFA program.
  • Bob Hicok, who has published several poems in The New Yorker in the last year is the 2007 winner of the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt Prize from the Library of Congress, and has also been recognized with Guggenheim and NEA Fellowships.
  • Fred D’Aguiar, the Gloria D. Smith Professor of African Studies, is contemporary Caribbean writer of international renown.
The list also includes University Distinguished Professor Nikki Giovanni; Alumni
Distinguished Professor Lucinda Roy; Erica Meitner, whose second book of poetry,
Ideal Cities, a National Poetry Series winner, was just published by HarperCollins;
and Jeff Mann, who has won awards in multiple genres, including fiction, poetry, and
creative nonfiction.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Julia Light, City Market's Iris Lady Dies

Julia Light and some of her flowers on City Market.^

This is the iris I bought from Ms. Light^

When that gorgeous big-headed, peach-colored iris peeks through the ground for the fourth time of its life in a couple of months, it will have a new special meaning. I bought these plants from the Roanoke City Market's Iris Lady, Julia Light, and have simply loved them and their dark purple sisters every spring.

Ms. Light, who was about 82, died yesterday of an unexpected heart attack, leaving us all with a little less spring color. She was a delightful woman who lived over in the Mt. Pleasant area and was a City Market fixture, even as she becme increasingly frail in her old age. Her smile was never less than warm and she lived with such delight in her flowers and the people who bought them and loved them. Among the vendors, my guess is that nobody was more popular.

I'll sure as heck miss her, but I have those irises to remember her. That's special.

My friend Penny Lloyd sent this information:

The family will receive friends at Oakey’s Roanoke Chapel (Downtown – Church Ave) on Tuesday, Jan. 18, from 1-3 p.m. and 5-7 p.m., with a remembrance service at 7 p.m. where everyone will be invited to share their favorite stories and memories of Julia. The internment will be private. Rather than send flowers, Julia’s wish was that those who knew her plant their own flowers, trees or even grass in her memory. Condolences may be sent to 15102 Martin Glen Terrace, Midlothian, VA 23112 or email to

(My colleague and friend Susan Ayers remembers Ms. Light in a tribute here.)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Aren't Roanoke Artists Good Enough for the Market Building Commission?

I don’t want to sound overly provincial about this, but I’m tired of Roanoke City treating its own citizens like hayseed outlanders when it comes to the historic Roanoke City Market Building.

We didn’t have an architectural engineering firm good enough to do the re-design, according to the city, and now we don’t even have an artist capable of presenting public art for the entryways. (I've screamed bloody murder from the beginning about Spectrum not getting the architectural work because its proposal was far superior to the out-of-state company that won it.)

“A citizen selection panel” has selected artists from Maryland, California and Florida as finalists to decorate the four entryways. The finalists were picked from a pool of 35 responders to a “Request for Qualifications issued by the City,” according to a press release. The selection committee, says the release, included “arts professionals, community volunteers and members of the Roanoke Arts Commission.”

At a time when arts organizations would do well to cooperate with each other, the artist selected for this task should have been picked by a professional team from the Taubman Museum and the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge, the premier organizations that deal with art, and the damn artist should have been local.

There is absolutely no reason in the world to go to Los Angeles to find artwork for our crown jewel of a city market. This is a continuation of the shameful attitude that our people aren’t good enough. Our artists and architects are, indeed, good enough. Maybe our city government is the one coming up short.

This casual and cavalier ignoring of our local artists and other local professionals for our best projects simply has to stop.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Simple, Powerful Words from the President

“I believe that for all our imperfections, we are full of decency and goodness, and that the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.”

--Barack Obama, talking yesterday at a memorial service in Arizona.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

'Homer' Is Available Used, But I Don't Have a Copy Yet

I find it intriguing--fascinating--that you can actually buy a used copy of Ursula Dilley's and my new children's book, Saving Homer, on and I don't have my copy yet.

If you want to buy one on, go here. (Read the reviews while you're there; a number of people read the galley proof and it got a 5-star rating.) Better to buy it from me, though. A large box should be on my doorstep by Friday. I ship free and I sign the ones I send ( doesn't).

Preservation Office Finds Home at Roanoke College

Looks like Western Regional Preservation Office of the State Department of Historic Resources, which was headed for so long and so ably in this region by my friend John Kern before his retirement last year, has landed on its feet. It’s Roanoke College to the rescue.

The college will announce Jan. 24 at a reception that it will house the department at Hunley Hall at the Elizabeth Campus and that it will embark on a new Local History Initiative. There will be an open house there 2-4:30 Monday, Jan. 24 and a reception 4-5:30 at the Department of History in the old bank building, third floor at the front of the main campus.

The Preservation Office had been housed at historic Buena Vista in southeast Roanoke for years, but Roanoke, which owned the old home, decided to sell it and it was recently purchased by a private owner. Preservation looked far and wide for a new home—even considering a move to Blacksburg—when Roanoke College apparently stepped in and gave it a home. The new name (it had been the Roanoke Office) reflects the move out of the city and the actual geography of its coverage.

That’s good news for anybody concerned about preserving the past (in buildings, primarily) because the historic resources the Preservation Office brings to the table are substantial.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

'Country Strong' is Weak; Buy an Ed Bruce CD Instead

If you think a country music movie with Gwyneth Paltrow playing a boozy singer from Bristol (Tennessee, not England) is a bit of a stretch, you're right. "Country Strong" has a few nice moments and a decent soundtrack, but it is instantly forgettable becuase there's not much to it.

I was encouraged early in the movie when Ed Bruce, one of my two favorite country singers of all time (Larry Jon Wilson's the other, and you've probably never heard of either; your loss) showed up as the owner of a bar. But Bruce, who once played the sheriff on TV's "Maverick" with James Garner, passed into the night after that scene and a pedestrian movie took over. Bruce has a wonderful baritone voice and wrote songs like "Luckenback, Texas" and "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys" and is one of the most respected producers of music (and commercial jingles) in Nashville.

In any case, after Ed left, the movie was on its own, with Gwenyth in a role containing almost no substance (there was a nice scene midway when she sang to a little boy with cancer, but that was more contrived for tears than essential to anything going on). And speaking of tears, you'll need a few hankies here and there. The contriving doesn't stop and it'll get you eventually.

But Gwyneth Paltrow as a country singer? Casting needs a special award at the Oscars for this unlikely match (that doesn't work).

Friday, January 7, 2011

Taubman Gift: Now Comes the Action

It appears that peace and love have broken out in the Roanoke arts community and it comes on the unexpected wings of the name "Taubman."

Since the opening of the Taubman Museum of Art nearly two years ago, other arts organizations have been quietly suffering (and not so quietly grumbling) about the negative impact of the big, flashy, expensive museum on other arts organizations. Some of them have been on the edge of being history and only through good management have they survived.

A $2.5 million gift from Nick and Jenny Taubman (pictured), benefactors of the museum that bears their name, and the recognition by them that the museum has had a negative impact on sister organizations is a wonderful unilateral gesture that could foster considerable groupthink (a good word here) in the future. There will be 20 grants over two years, ranging from $25,000 to $100,000 each. They'll go to programs within 20 miles of Roanoke. Those are not insignificant numbers in this economy and this sour arts climate.

I have been closely allied with several of these struggling arts organizations for years and I had never seen the atmosphere as clouded as it has been since the Taubman was built. The museum sucked so much of the arts money out of the government and private individuals that there were only crumbs left and everybody was hurt, including the Taubman.

There seems to be a new recognition that a healthy arts community is good for all organizations and if the Taubman is to thrive, then its fellow arts organizations must be healthy, as well. All of that bodes well for the economic development initiative that is the arts in general.

I'm really tickled about the Taubmans' gesture and hope it opens the dialogue fully between the Taubman administration and the officials of the other organizations. The words have been spoken across the board. Now comes the action.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Roanoke Regional Writers Conference Grows Near

I met with Chris Powell of Hollins University, who's working with me on the 2011 Roanoke Regional Writers Conference, yesterday and it looks like we're in good shape to make this a top-notch gathering again. Chris is the brains of the outfit; I'm the decoration. She and Linda Martin, who does the Web site, are simply splendid to work with, efficient, cheerful and dang good people.

The conference is Friday evening and Saturday all day, January 28-29 at Hollins University in Roanoke. Profits from the conference go as a scholarship to a Horizon Program student who is studying writing.

We have made a few changes that will make the flow better and might even make those attending feel like they're getting even more for their $55 than they bargained for. Here's part of a letter I sent to those who attended last year's conference, complete with links to the Web site and to the online registration form. I'm hoping those of you who are attending will register online because it makes the bookkeeping a lot easier. You can, of course, show up on the day of the conference and pay by check or cash, but that could mean you won't get to eat. In any case, here are the details:

For your convenience, we have added lunch this year in the Hollins dining hall on Saturday and simply added $5 to the cost of the conference (the lunch costs us about $7 a head). The total cost remains a reasonable $55. For your $5, you will get a variety of choices in the cafeteria setting and will not be fumbling through boxes to find the right sandwich. The food will be hot, healthy and plentiful.

For Friday's reception, we will have free soft drinks, snacks and water with a cash bar for wine. Coffee will be available from before the start of Saturday's sessions at 9 a.m. until early afternoon and it will be free. I'll try to arrange to have a few nibbles for the breakfast crowd, but be warned: it will be healthy (no doughnuts).

The Web site for the conference is part of the Hollins "Events" menu here www., but this will get you straight to the heart of what you want here.

At the bottom of the main page, you'll find registration, presenters and a schedule. You may register online. You may also register at the conference and pay by cash or check there (no credit cards the day of the event), but we'd much prefer that you register online if possible. You will not need to select your classes until you are at the conference (it is good to attend the reception because each of the teachers is introduced and you'll have an opportunity for a spot evalation).

Cara Modisett, the former editor of Blue Ridge Country magazine, is the keynote speaker Friday and Keith Ferrell will open the conference with a brief address, as well. We have classes all over the board and even have a section on law and finding a literary agent (two agents will tell you). Read the class schedule on the Web site, as well as the short biographies of the teachers/writers.

Those of you needing hotel rooms in the area of Hollins University, site of the conference, will note that the Hotel Roanoke & Conference is the official hotel of the conference. Here is the Web site, on which you may make reservations (here). You can also go here and type in a ZIP code of 24012 to get a rundown on the hotels in the immediate area (about 30) with a wide range of prices and quality.

Worst of the Worst American Companies

And the winner is ... American Airlines! has just compiled and released its list of the worst 15 companies in the USofA and at the top is American Airlines, whose customer service as rated as abysmal. You can find the entire list with details about how it was formed and why the companies made it here. Meanwhile, here are some highlights (and the list):
  1. American Airlines. Bad customer service, bad on-time record.
  2. Nokia. Its Smartphone sucks.
  3. Toyota. Wrecks, recalls, denials of responsibility.
  4. Best Buy. Bad stores, worse Web site.
  5. Charter Communications. Bad billing practices. Poor customer service.
  6. Citigroup. One of THOSE banks.
  7. AT&T. Let us count the ways, starting with being the worst--the very worst--cell phone service provider.
  8. Bank of America. Low customer service satisfaction. Bailout.
  9. Dell. It's laptop ranks last and it sold defective PCs, knowing they were bad.
  10. Dish Network. Surprise fees in your bill. Approval rating of 22 percent among employees.
  11. Johnson & Johnson. Sold bad drugs and resisted recalling them.
  12. McDonald's. Obesity central. "Let's make children fat" corporate policy reminds of cigarette companies hooking kids.
  13. United Airlines. Customer service nightmare. Satisfaction lowest among airlines (and that, kids, is low).
  14. BP. The very letters bring shudders of contempt.
  15. Direct TV. Surprise fees, automatic contract extensions when hardware is added, annoying telemarketing.
The surprise is that there are no cigarette companies on the list, no media companies (including Fox News and Rush Limbaugh's EIB Network, which I would have put near the top or the daily newspaper in Roanoke) and just one oil company--no American oil; BP is British.

I was surprised at the number of communications companies (even though reviled Comcast isn't there): three cable companies and two cell phone companies. There were two airlines and two banks, as well.


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Snip. Snip. Snip. Snip ...

What has become the local daily's weekly Sunday announcement of cuts in product or personnel today takes on the comics section, which has been reduced by 33 percent from six pages to four. Time was when the comics ran into some nice bulk, but time is what it is and that means newsprint is too expensive these days to be frittered away on comics, according to a bog post at the paper. The post didn't mention that comics also bear a certain cost even beyond the paper to print them.

"Beginning today, our Sunday comics section will be published as four pages instead of six to save newsprint costs," said the post. Last week we heard that longtime columnist Ben Beagle was a victim of budget concerns and for quite a while now we've seen the paper make downward adjustments in everything, especially overall quality.

I've never been much of a comics reader (and these days, I'm not much of a newspaper reader, either), but for those who have three or four pieces of the paper's variety that they lean on daily or weekly, this is yet another take-away. Gil Thorpe and Prince Valiant are gone (just when I get my Milford baseball cap) and kids' puzzles are disappearing (I don't suspect you'll hear a great wailing and gnashing teeth from all those kids breathlessly awaiting paper delivery at 6 a.m. so they can do the puzzle; they're probably under the covers texting).

And next week ...

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Best Line from a Bowl Game

I'm almost over Tennessee's loss (?) to North Carolina Thursday night in one of those bowl games that had no business being played. The result--for the second time this season--didn't actually occur until after the game was actually over. I'm not going to get into a peeing contest about all that went wrong on that last regulation play, but the whole thing led to a great line, probably the best of the bowl season:

"Tennessee finished 6-2 in games it won."

I can't attribute it because I don't know who wrote it, but I saw it on Twitter. My guess is it came from one of those Tennessee newspapers.

(Knoxville News-Sentinel photo.)

OK, So Was It Really Miley Cyrus?

OK, so tell me if you know (or if maybe I'm nuts): Why do the lead characters in the Disney animated movie "Tangled" (based on the Rapunzel tale) look so much like Jake Gyllenhaal and Miley Cyrus with the extra added attraction of Rapunzel's mother looking--and sounding--like Lena Horne? (Couldn't have been Lena, since she died in May and even with the opportunity, she was 92 and hardly up for a movie role.)

The animated characters were dead ringers for the trio and I thought all the way through that Cyrus and Gyllenhall had played the part. We sat for far too long to find out who was mimicking Lena Horne only to find out a couple of people named Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi and (Tony Award winner) Donna Murphy, none of whom is familiar to me. Upon examination of their real-life photos, Levi could have modeled for the animated character he plays and Murphy's not a stretch. Don't see much resemblance to Moore, though.

I will say that the animation was marvelous, especially the depictions of the golden hair, which looked just like an exaggerated impression of my granddaughter's ample mane. Animation has become so good that I often have trouble differentiating between it and live action in movies that use both. Anyhow, if anybody else saw Hanna Montana and Jake in the movie let me know. My sanity is at issue.