Burns Supper 2020

Last night was the annual Burns Supper hosted by two friends of ours who live in West Knoxville but were born in Scotland. Every January on the weekend closest to Burns’s birthday (January 25th) they invite 35 or 40 of us to their home for a Scottish meal and celebration of the life and works of the poet.

As in past years, it was a fine evening. We saw friends we hadn’t seen in a while (some not since the last Burns Supper), there was pleasant conversation, toasts, a Burns trivia game, but the centerpiece of the evening was the meal.

We had salad, lamb au jus, chicken in whisky sauce, Brussel sprouts, carrots, clapschott (mashed potatoes and rutabagas), and of course haggis. For those who aren’t familiar with this most Scottish of dishes, haggis is made of, well, a variety of ingredients. Traditionally haggis was made from a sheep’s heart, liver, and lungs minced with onions, oatmeal, spices, and salt, and cooked in a sheep’ stomach. Janice made this year’s haggis from lamb meat instead of sheep’s organs and cooked it in an artificial casing instead of a stomach. It was very tasty, as was the rest of the meal. She’s an excellent cook. The meal was finished off with a variety of desserts, including a sherry trifle, oat cakes, and coffee.

No Burns Supper would be complete without the presentation of the haggis, and our only departure from previous years was that the room was too crowded for us to stand as a rousing bagpipe tune was played and Jack brought the haggis to Robert for the presentation. When the haggis was placed in front of him Robert raised his knife and recited the Burns poem, “Address to a Haggis.” He still has his Scottish accent, and his brogue gets a little thicker when he performs this part of the Burns Supper. Extolling the virtues of the dish, it includes this stanza which follows a contemptuous description of a member of the elite class and his meal:

But mark the Rustic, haggis fed,

The trembling earth resounds his tread,

Clap in his wale nieve a blade,

He’ll make it whissle;

An’ legs, an’ arms, an’ heads will sned,

Like taps o’ thrissle.

You don’t have to know what all the words mean to get the picture. I know more than a few good old East Tennessee boys, raised on country cookin’, that are not to be messed with; “the trembling earth resounds his tread,” indeed.

Burns was a champion of the common man, and the world lost a treasure when he died at the age of 37 in 1796. He is considered the national poet of Scotland, and rightly so. I’m very glad we’re on the guest list for this local yearly celebration.

Garbage

I’ve been thinking recently about the old acronym GIGO; for those of you not old enough or nerdy enough to remember, it stands for “garbage in, garbage out.” It served as an admonition to computer programmers to be sure they were putting in good data, since the computer could only work with what it was given. Garbage in always resulted in garbage out, and that kind of output was useless. This certainly applies to more than computer programming.

A list of my own input sources would look something like this: an album side with my morning tea, a daily email from the New York Times with headlines and a couple of sentences to give some idea of what the article was about, Seth Godin’s daily blog post, an email similar to the NYT from my local paper the News-Sentinel, another from the LA Times, a collection of posts on Facebook, regular conversations with my wife, weekly attendance at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, more or less regular conversations with friends, a DVR assisted dash through the evening news both local and national (one of the major networks), a nightly dose of Jeopardy, various TV offerings, and a little Stephen Colbert in the evening. I read in a variety of genres, both fiction and non-fiction, and occasionally (but not regularly) listen to a podcast like RadioLab or On Being. There are certainly more, but that’s the regular list.

Some of that is entertainment, some is information, and some is commentary on information. I need to keep reminding myself of that, because the distinctions get blurred, sometimes on purpose. The probability of GIGO goes up significantly if commentary is presented as information, and different types of entertainment present dramatically different world views as a working premise. It would be possible, without too much difficulty, to create a bundle of entertainment that would present the world as a dark and dangerous place, where evil lurks around every corner and almost no one can be trusted. The same is true of commentary as well as information. Conversely, there are information, commentary, and entertainment sources available that convey an image of the world as a place of beauty and hope. And so on.

There are layers and layers beneath the surface of this concept, and I couldn’t possibly work my way through all of them. I think too much anyway, or so I’ve been told. For me, the important idea is that I need to regularly check my sources of information and entertainment to evaluate the garbage factor. This is not easy; like most people, I look for input sources that reinforce the world view I already have, and realizing that one of my sources is at best mistaken or at worst deliberately misleading is as much a comment on me as it is on them. In addition to pointing out my own fallability, that should be a reminder that it’s important to periodically cast a critical eye on my sources.

The poet Jane Hirschfield’s summary of Zen Buddhism in seven words reads like a haiku and, for me, is something to keep in mind at all times: 

Everything changes

Everything is connected

Pay attention

I think her words, especially that last line, help me reduce the risk of GIGO in my own life.

Student Art at KMA

Yesterday I went downtown to look around once more before Christmas and ended up at the Knoxville Museum of Art. They have a small gift shop with some interesting stuff, and I hadn’t been there yet to see what was available this season. It took me a while to get to the shop on the second floor because of the exhibit taking up the whole first floor. Both rooms were filled with art from local students: public school, private school, and home-schooled. There was some three-dimensional art, ceramics mostly, but the majority was on the walls. The exhibit runs through January 12th, and if you can make it by you should see what these young people are doing.

I have maintained for a long time that art is vitally important to the health of a society, and that artists see things the rest of us don’t and view what we do see from a different perspective. This glimpse into how the young artists in our midst see the world we inhabit together is well worth your time. While it’s true that most of them will not make a career of art, all of them have the ability to not only see the world in unique and interesting ways, but to translate it into a medium that allows them to share their vision with us. 

The cost of admission to KMA is telling the person at the front desk your zip code (I assume they are keeping track of where their visitors come from). It’s one of the best deals in town, and when you finish with the students, there is another floor of more established artists, plus Richard Jolley’s glass creation Cycle of Life, which takes up the entire Ann and Steve Bailey Hall (the sculpture is 105 feet long and 12 to 22 feet high, made up of thousands of component pieces). 

I recommend setting aside some time when you visit the museum. It’s food for the soul, and you know you shouldn’t rush a good meal.

Thanks for Stopping By

My thanks to everyone who came out to the Ijams Winter Market yesterday, and especially those who dropped by my table. It was good to see old friends (some unexpected!) and I enjoyed talking to the new folks who stopped to chat. The weather was great, the crowds were steady, the conversations were pleasant, I sold a few books . . .  all in all, a really good day.

That’s it for me this year as far as shows and festivals; I’ll be posting the 2020 dates/places as they become definite. You can still get Pushing Back at Union Avenue Books here in Knoxville, all of my books are available online, and if you absolutely have to have a signed copy of something before Christmas I might be able to arrange a clandestine meeting.

I have friends who celebrate in a variety of ways, so Happy Holidays works well for me.

Happy Holiday Season, everyone, and stay in touch!

My Children’s Books in Translation

When I was at the Children’s Festival of Reading last summer, a young woman approached our booth with a child on her hip. She looked through the books, bought one of my children’s books, and commented that it was very difficult to find children’s books in Spanish (at that time all of my books were in English).

A couple of months later I was chatting with the husband and wife who do occasional landscaping for us. When I mentioned the encounter with the young mother and said I was thinking about having my books translated, Maria told me that when they moved to the US from Mexico, she used children’s fairy tales to help teach their daughter English. The child was already familiar with the story in Spanish, which made the tales a good teaching tool. She also said that I should take care to get a good translator; I asked if she would be interested and she immediately said yes. The result of our collaboration is now available, and all of us involved (author, illustrator, translator) are pleased with how things turned out. 

The notion of helping young children to begin to learn the language of their new country was part of the reason I chose to do this. That idea has a lot of appeal to me for a number of reasons: although I am not bilingual myself, I recognize the value of that skill; also, I believe there is great strength in diversity and any small thing I can do to make new arrivals welcome is a plus as far as I’m concerned; and finally, I believe it is vitally important for parents to read to their children. That last point applies to much more than bilingual education, of course. One of my goals in writing children’s books is to help spark conversations between young children and adults; both sides can learn something from that kind of exchange.

The catalog page on my website (housemountainviews.com) lists all my books, including the new Spanish translations. 

Everyone Can Do Something

When I was at the Children’s Festival of Reading last summer, a young woman approached the booth with a child on her hip. She looked through the books, bought one of my children’s books, and commented that it was very difficult to find children’s books in Spanish (at that time all of my books were in English).

A couple of months later I was chatting with the husband and wife who do occasional landscaping for us. When I mentioned the encounter with the young mother and said I was thinking about having my books translated, Maria told me that when they moved to the US from Mexico, she used children’s fairy tales to help teach their daughter English. The child was already familiar with the story in Spanish, which made the tales a good teaching tool. She also said that I should take care to get a good translator; I asked if she would be interested and she immediately said yes. The result of our collaboration is now available on the website and directly from Amazon. I only have one more show this calendar year, but I plan to have copies available there as well.

The notion of helping young children to begin to learn the language of their new country was part of the reason I chose to do this. That idea has a lot of appeal to me for a number of reasons: although I am not bilingual myself, I recognize the value of that skill; also, I believe there is great strength in diversity and any small thing I can do to make new arrivals welcome is a plus as far as I’m concerned; and finally, I believe it is vitally important for parents to read to their children. That last point applies to much more than bilingual education, of course. One of my goals in writing children’s books is to help spark conversations between young children and adults; both sides can learn something from that kind of exchange.

It goes without saying that I would also like to increase the audience for my works. Since Amazon is an international company I would love to have parents in Spanish-speaking countries worldwide own all three books in their Spanish version. That may be a little optimistic, but you never know.

The catalog page on my website (housemountainviews.com) lists all my books, including the new Spanish translations. 

Thanks, Everyone!

Yesterday was a full, rich day. National Authors Day, celebrated for the first time here in Knoxville, was an all day event, starting at 10:30 AM and ending at 8:30 PM. Eight featured authors (a group I was pleased to be among; lots of talent in a wide variety of genres) gave readings and backstories at Union Avenue Books, one member of the team that brought this about along with the Authors Guild of Tennessee and the Knoxville Writers Guild. The noon program at WDVX, Wordstream, featured two poets in the first of a series honoring our veterans, leading up to Veterans Day. Difficult, powerful, and spellbinding. 

The reception following Wordstream for the featured authors was relaxed, casual, and very pleasant. Back at Union Ave, I was slated to read at 5:20 and made it through without falling down or forgetting to talk. My thanks to my friends who made it out through the biting downtown winds to listen in, and all the other guests as well. It was great to see such a good turnout.

Robert Gipe finished the day off in style at the East Tennessee History Center with a talk and a reading that had us alternately nodding in recognition of the authenticity of his writing and laughing out loud at some of the passages.

My thanks to the sponsors, the judges, the creative team, my fellow authors, and everyone who turned out for making this such a fine day.