Mom’s Birthday

My mother was born 75 years ago today. She endured more than many people do in our society, and while some of those things bent and scarred her — as life bends and scars us all — they never broke her.

Family early 90s

Early 1990s. I’m standing one step down on the staircase, as there wouldn’t have been room for all three of us behind the chair.

Mom was one to take in strays: critters when she was young, and friends of mine or my brother’s as we grew older. For example, the Mad Dog spent a lot of nights on our downstairs sofa during our college years. (Sorry for waking you with my drum kit that one time — but it was pretty funny.) Indeed, there were periods when neither Michael nor I were living at home. . . but other young people were living there.

She hated to see people hungry or hurting. We joked that if the Wehrmacht had rolled through Union, Kentucky, Mom still would have made sure there was cake. Later, I learned that on a lot of nights, she’d have to warn Dad — privately — that we’d need smaller helpings at dinner because of unexpected visitors.

As she grew older, her illnesses (and, I believe, the drugs used as a sort of holding action against those illnesses) took their toll on her personality. From the mid-80s until she and Dad were killed, she was essentially a shut-in, dependent on others for transportation, and that took a toll as well. She became quicker to anger, more suspicious, and (understandably, I think) bitter about more things. But even though she lived the last thirty years of her 65 in greater or lesser degrees of pain, she was always worried about the pain of others.

Sometimes, this manifested in unwholesome ways; when my brother (who had moved back in with them while his third divorce was in progress — he lived there for the final year of their lives) claimed debilitating back pain (which may have been genuine, but which also may have been what folks call DSB — drug-seeking behavior), she would give him her high-octane pain meds, both fueling his addiction and denying herself the relief she needed. But if he was in pain — and I can’t say he wasn’t — she couldn’t bear seeing him suffer. This remained true even after Mike stopped asking for her meds and began to steal them.

One of the last times I spoke to my mother, perhaps a couple of weeks before the murders, she had said something that gave me pause. I don’t remember precisely what it was — likely something about Dad growing weary of seeing her going without her meds because she had “given” them to my brother. I told her that it might be necessary for them to turn Mike out. “Smitty, we can’t just put him on the streets,” she said.

And they didn’t; she took in strays, even — especially — when they were our own.

She’ll have been gone for ten years in June, and as I said, there were difficulties in the years before that. Looking at it logically, there’s a better-than-even chance that she wouldn’t have made it this far even if Michael hadn’t intervened. She was declining, physically and mentally, as the MS played hell with her nervous system, including the cognitive functions. But. . .

Several years before she died, she told me that she had a contingency plan for suicide if things became utterly intolerable. She had done her research, knew which and how many of her pills she would need, and said she would do it herself because she didn’t think Dad would have the heart to do it, nor would she want to saddle someone else with that action.

As I’ve noted, things got bad, and they were worse in the years between when she told me about this and her life’s end. But she never took that option, and that has meant — and means — a great deal to me as well.

Happy birthday, Mom. We miss you.


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Friday Potpourri: Rental Cars, Fictioneering, and Mrs. M Has a Birthday

So it’s early Friday evening, on the cusp of Gradeapalooza, which begins in earnest this coming week. But that doesn’t mean there’s been a lull…


As I had mentioned recently, I was scheduled to read at last night’s Noir at the Bar in Hillsborough, NC. The department was gracious enough to cover my tab, so I had booked a rental car from the local outpost of a national chain in order to make the four-hour drive. Note: I made the reservation back in March.

As it happens, I was discussing awful poetry with my creative writers (No, really — it was the McGonagall Memorial Bad Poetry Festival, my effort toward the carnivalesque after having spent the semester trying to help my kids get better) when my cell phone went off. It was the rental agency calling to inform me that they didn’t have a car available.

You see, this is Masters Weekend, and Mondoville is about 60 miles from Amen Corner. So for this weekend each year, hotels and yes, rental cars within about 100 miles of Augusta are overbooked at premium rates. I get it — supply and demand and all that. Still, I had made a reservation weeks in advance. But no matter. They didn’t have a car, but they might have one that afternoon. (The call came around 10:15 in the morning.)

“Um, I’m supposed to be in the Raleigh/Durham area by 6:30 or so this evening.”

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll have one by then.” (Unless it came with a teleporter, I’m not sure that would have helped, but never mind.) “Tell you what, Mr. Moore — can you call us back in a little bit? I may have more information by then.”

Fine. I finish the class, print out the story I’m supposed to read, warn Eryk Pruitt (host of this particular N@tB) that I may be running late, pack my gear, and head home, where my bags are already packed, lacking only reliable transport to the gig. So I ring them back. No, they still don’t have any cars. No, they don’t really know when they’ll have any, but the manager has gone to Real City, in the hope of bringing the necessary rolling stock to Mondoville. The operative word there is hope — it’s Masters Weekend, you know.

So I call the other major chain with a Mondoville location and ask if they have anything available. Why yes, the person on the phone tells me. You need to pick it up at noon? No problem. So I call Rental Agency A and cancel the reservation, which they do with the customary protestations of sorrow.

I say goodbye to the Spawn, tell the N@tB gang that things are copacetic, throw my stuff in the drum hauler and boogie on over to Agency B. “Hi, I have a reservation for noon?”

“Why yes — it’s right here on my computer. But we don’t have any cars.”

“But the person to whom I spoke 30 minutes ago said that there were cars at this location.”

“I’m sure he did, but you were talking to someone at the call center in Ulan Bator. Here in Mondoville, we got bupkis. After all, it’s –”

“Masters Weekend. Right. Are you expecting any to come in today?”

“Well, we might have one around 3:30, but that won’t work for you, will it?”

“Not really, no.”

So the clerk checks with a location in Real City that’s about a 45-minute drive from Mondoville, and would take me farther away from my goal to boot. But it doesn’t matter. Masters Weekend. Bupkis.

By this point, I’m sweating like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News, but as I’m beginning to wonder how large a bite I could take out of Agency B’s reception desk, the clerk says, “You know, there is a mom-and-pop rental agency on the outskirts of Mondoville. Would you like me to see if they have anything?”

Why yes, yes I would. So she looks them up and calls. And discovers…

One car that had just been turned in. They haven’t gotten it all cleaned up and such but —

“Does it have four wheels, an engine, and air conditioning? Sold.” A ten-minute drive later (Because Mondoville is a small town, the outskirts are pretty accessible. Call them out-miniskirts, I guess.), I’m there, and a few minutes later (and about an hour-to-90-minutes behind schedule), I’m behind the wheel of a Jeep Patriot with 4 drops of gas in the tank (“Under the circumstances, you don’t have to bring it back full.”) and I’m heading for North Carolina. I get to Hillsborough with enough time to throw my stuff into my hotel room and hustle to the King Street Pub — the venue for the night’s reading. Turns out I’m the second one there. Go figure. I even had time to say hello to two log-time friends — Cheryl Ryle, a high school classmate of mine now living in Durham; and Leah Quinlivan, a college classmate who interrupted a visit with a friend in nearby Greensboro to come out for the evening. 

So here’s to both the mom-and-pop agency and the resourceful clerk at Agency B. All the same, if I’m ever in Ulan Bator, I’m looking for the Agency B call center, and I’m bringing a 2×4. And I may also napalm Augusta National.


As for the reading itself, it was a really good time. Tracy Reynolds showed up in full femme fatale regalia and did her usual stellar job as MC. David Terrenoire led things off with a suitably dark scene somewhere south of the border, involving a local caudillo, some teen revolutionaries, and a narrator from the US Department of State. J.D. Allen then gave us a quick thriller pitting a heroine against an overconfident hitman, with a nicely delivered twist at the end. Next up we had Scott Blackburn, with a scene at a murder victim’s funeral, narrated by the victim’s somewhat alienated son.

S.A. Cosby closed the first set with a hilarious story called “The Tao of BBC.” The narrator is an African American male exotic dancer and occasional professional cuckolder, so the BBC had nothing to do with British Broadcasting. And honestly, a story in which the hero clubs the bad guy into submission with a large… um… marital aid seemed perfectly in the spirit of the evening’s occasion. (Mr. Cosby also recently inked a two-book deal with a major publisher for a nice advance, so you may want to keep an eye out for him.) Meanwhile, I swapped him a copy of BGW  for his new one, My Darkest Prayer.

After a brief intermission, Eryk led off the second set with “The Deplorables,” one of the stories from his recent collection. It’s a little bit of East Texas/Rough South domestic tranquility, complete with a happy ending… of sorts. We then got to hear from J.G. Hetherton, with the story of a somewhat unprepossessing cop who is left with his girlfriend’s dying grandfather. And it gets worse. Again, this was a terrifically funny story, and I look forward to more of Mr. Hetherton’s work.

I was the penultimate reader on the night, which was probably just as well. You see, during the rental car shuffle I mentioned above, I left the print copy of my story in the drum hauler, a fact that I realized about the time I crossed the North Carolina state line. Now, I’ve noticed that lots of readers these days go on stage with an iPad or similar tablet, and I’ve seen more than a few who read their work from the screen of their smart phones. But this wouldn’t really work for me. First off, I don’t have a tablet. Secondly, while I do have a phone, my hands are big enough that trying to manipulate text on the screen is just asking for a cerebral hemorrhage. So here’s what I did:

Me at NatB11April

My signature is nowhere near this tidy, and had the bar with the hashtag actually been there, I would likely have tripped over it. (Photo illustration via Eryk Pruitt.)

The story I read was “Rough Mix,” and you can find it in Lawrence Block’s latest anthology. The audience seemed to like it — I hope you will as well.

Dolores “Doley” (Rhymes with “cannoli”) Chandler closed the evening with a semi-autobiographical story about a six-year-old’s unusual relationship with her much older sister. After that, it was time for the traditional group pics and gladhanding before my return to the hotel. It was also a bit warm in my room for a while, and I woke up in a sweat once or twice before the AC got things down to my preferred cryogenic conditions. And apparently between the warmth of the room , my time in the spotlight, and my earlier rental car panic, I must have lost a fair amount of fluids, because even later in the evening, I was awakened by cramps in my calves and (a new first!) my ankles. So I’ve been pounding down beverages all day today, both during my trip back to Mondoville this afternoon and…


This evening’s big event (and a reason I hurried as best I could to get home today), which was a dinner celebrating Mrs. M’s birthday. She, the Spawn, and I went about twenty miles up the road to Clinton, SC’s Blue Ocean restaurant. Longtime readers may recall that Mrs. M and I discovered the place for our anniversary last year, and the experience was sufficiently pleasant that Mrs. M didn’t hesitate at all in choosing it for tonight’s meal.

Once again, we were more than satisfied. Mrs. M had grilled salmon and shrimp, while I went for fried Alaskan Whitefish fillets and the Spawn played it safe with a 1-lb.(!) chopped sirloin. (When you have a history of severe food allergies, as the Spawn does, you tend to order conservatively.) By the time we were done, Mrs. M was unable to finish the slice of strawberry cheesecake she had awaited for days. Fortunately, a family member was able to knock back the leftovers. Even more fortunately, I was that family member.

So now we’re back home and relaxing a bit, which isn’t a bad way to spend a Friday evening. But wait! There’s more!


I woke up this morning (Da DAHH Da DAH Dum) and discovered that over at Out of the Gutter, Kevin Lear has debuted a column listing “Bad-Ass Books.” I was delighted to discover that Broken Glass Waltzes found a place on his inaugural list. Read the whole article here, and if you still haven’t picked up a copy of BGW yet, you can remedy that as well.


So since I read one of my rock and roll stories last night, and since Mr. Lear was good enough to offer kind words for BGW, I think I’ll bust out a little music to wrap things up. The Emperors were a sextet from Long Beach in the mid-60s, with occasional lineup changes due to military commitments and the like. Early in their career, they specialized in pre-Beatles-style frat rock, and were noted for their rather dramatic tonsorial statement:


No, it isn’t a negative. I can only assume their shows were sponsored by Clorox.

The above is the sleeve for a single the band released on the Wickwire label in 1964. We’re going to hear the A-side, a cover of Australian Tony Parker’s “Blue Day.” The band continued in one form or another until the late 70s, when they put out an album on the Private Stock label as Emperor (not to be confused with the Scandinavian black metal band.) But here’s the song that got my attention this evening.

See you soon!

Posted in Culture, Family, Literature, Music, Why I Do What I Do | 2 Comments

Lenten Devotion — 11 April 19

Here at Newberry, various members of the campus community are invited to contribute to devotional series during Advent and Lent. The format is simple: There is a passage from Scripture, a consideration of the text, and a brief prayer. I contributed the entries for yesterday and today. Here’s the one for today.

Hebrews 9:11-14 King James Version (KJV)

11 But Christ being come an high priest of good things to come, by a greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this building;

12 Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us.

13 For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh:

14 How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?


When I was young, my family frequently couldn’t afford name-brand items. The “store-brand” or economy products, from groceries to tennis shoes to the other necessities of life, were what furnished much of my childhood. And we got along fine during those years; what we had might not have been fancy, but as my parents frequently noted, it was “good enough.” Still, I would sometimes hear my parents talk about the things they wished they could give my brother and me – after all, they loved us, and they did the best they could.

When Paul writes to the Hebrews, he talks about the offerings they had traditionally made for the remission of sins, for atonement with God. And for generations of Hebrews, the sacrifice of bulls and goats, doves and lambs had been “good enough.”

But unlike my parents’ household budget, God’s grace was and is unlimited. And through His sacrifice on Calvary, He offers us forgiveness, peace, and ultimately unity with him on ways we can’t even imagine. They are all ours for the asking, all by His generosity.

In this Lenten season, we mark that generosity and that sacrifice, and remember that we need not settle for “good enough.” When it comes to the love of God, we can accept no substitutes.

Heavenly Father, thank You for having given us the best, even when we are slow to recognize it. Thank You for giving us better than we can deserve, and for giving us Your love. In the name of Your Son we pray, Amen.


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Lenten Devotional — 10 April 19

Here at Newberry, various members of the campus community are invited to contribute to devotional series during Advent and Lent. The format is simple: There is a passage from Scripture, a consideration of the text, and a brief prayer. I contributed the entries for today and tomorrow. Here’s the one for today.

Joel 2:12-13 King James Version (KJV)

12 Therefore also now, saith the Lord, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning:

13 And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.


One of our era’s catchphrases is “Perception is reality.” If we act a certain way, if we can be perceived a certain way, the theory goes, the world will assume us to be what we portray. It’s a sort of method acting of the soul, a fake-it-til-you-make-it approach to the world. Why bother actually being kind, or gentle, or noble, or wise, when you can reap the social benefits with the mere appearance of those virtues? Kindness, nobility, and wisdom are hard, and often hard earned. But we know how to pretend almost as soon as we are born.

But that approach relies on an audience that suspends disbelief, either intentionally (as when we see a movie or a play) or because we have fooled them. And that becomes a problem when the audience is not – cannot be – fooled.

That brings us to today’s passage from the prophet Joel. Joel is speaking to us on behalf of One Who cannot be fooled. While our outer appearance may seem attractive, even admirable, God sees and knows the actor playing the role. Because of that, God is the toughest possible audience. He demands not merely performance, but commitment to the role.

But wonderfully enough, God is also the kindest, most forgiving audience, forgiving enough to come to us and suffer the pains that we have earned by our sins. He doesn’t want us tearing our clothes in flashy, artificial grief – hamming it up like that won’t impress him. But if we stop acting like people of God and instead become people of God, He will be satisfied, and our reality will surpass any mere play of shadows on a stage.

Heavenly father, thank You for Your call to us, for Your refusal to accept falsehood and sham. Thank You for coming to us and showing not how to act, but how to live, even at the cost of death. We pray this in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.

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For Your Consideration

I think I’ve said before that one of my favorite quotes from literature is the famous passage from Nelson Algren‘s A Walk on the Wild Side: “Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.” I heard the passage before I knew it was Algren’s, indeed before I knew there was such a person as Algren. I certainly didn’t know about his career as a writer, and the first time I heard of The Man with the Golden Arm, I confused it with a James Bond movie. (In fairness, I was nine when the Bond flick came out, while Algren’s book and the subsequent movie were before my time.)


Nelson Algren

But even if I didn’t know the man or the work, I heard something in those sentences and that voice that resonated, and if someone asked me the difference between hard-boiled and noir (which I hope doesn’t happen, as folks have talked the issue to death — to no one’s satisfaction), I think I’d point to that passage as an example of the latter.

What called all this to mind was that Norton has published Colin Asher’s new bio of Algren, Never A Lovely So Real. At the New Yorker, Jonathan Dee (a novelist and prof at Syracuse) offers a review that makes me think the bio is worth checking out.

Meanwhile, as I begin to think of my summer reading, I find myself interested in reading some of the writers who influenced my influences. Specifically, I think I may try diving into John O’Hara (Mr. Block is a fan) and Irwin Shaw (cited frequently by William Goldman, including in the semi-autobiographical The Color of Light.) (Side note: Shaw and Algren were apparently both more-or-less blacklisted during the Red Scare era.) And maybe it’s time to re-read Algren as well.


John O’Hara


Irwin Shaw

That’s one of the nice things about my line of work — whether I’m teaching or writing, there’s always a reason to read something cool.

Posted in Education, Literature | 2 Comments

In Which the Spawn Collects Some Hardware

This afternoon was the Mondoville Humanities Department’s celebration of our students, with awards going to outstanding students in History, Spanish, and English. Regrettably, we have more amazing students than we have awards, so some of our kids wind up getting overlooked.

This year was a little different for me, as the Spawn was eligible for departmental honors. In order to avoid nepotism charges, I recused myself from the selection process (although I did offer a quarter to the department chair, suggesting that “Mr. Washington’s endorsement might carry some weight.”)

As it happened, it fell to me to present the Dale Brown Award (named for the now-emerita who hired me back in 2003), which recognizes special achievement in writing. There were several strong contenders from both the academic and creative realms, but my colleagues chose to recognize the Spawn with this particular honor. Here she is with her mom:

Deb and Em Awards 2

This left me in the somewhat odd position of giving an award to my kid, but I was happy to do so, and made a point of not revealing the winner until the last possible moment.

“I was so nervous,” the Spawn told me afterward. “I’ve wanted that award since I first heard of it, but I just didn’t know, and you didn’t even hint. Jerk.”

“I love you, too.” And I do. Good job, kid.

Posted in Education, Family, Why I Do What I Do | 3 Comments

The Inside of My Head Is Random-Access

Today on Twitter, a former student of mine who teaches in a high school reported that she heard a student singing, “I’ve got twelve pounds of crack up my asshoooooole.”

Unfortunately for me, my brain works the way it does, so for the last half hour I’ve been hearing that sentence sung to the tune of this song’s first line:

What’s next? “Oh, the junkie and the dealer can be friends?” “Surrey with syringe on top?”

Thank you for your attention.


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