Archive for October, 2013

Little Miss T and the Spider

Just in time for Halloween, Little Miss T, one of my Sunday School students, approaches me in class this week. Quietly, so the others wouldn’t hear her, she whispers, “Miss Jody, there was a black spider in the corner during the lesson earlier. It was big and hairy.”spider

I think it takes a different kind of person to like spiders. I don’t have that gift; spiders creep me out. I have noticed, however, that anything smaller than a dime usually doesn’t bother me. At this point in the conversation, though, I’m not so worried about the spider as I am so touched that Little Miss T is whispering so that her classmates don’t hear her and try to launch a crazed attack. (Our church serves donuts before Sunday School. The Second and Third Grade Class gets a little rowdy. Teachers, too.)

I can’t even focus on the spider at the moment, because I’m studying her calm, focused demeanor. She knows I don’t like spiders. She’s delivering her grim message, but in such a solid manner, one-on-one.

“In the corner?” I whisper back. Little Miss T nods. “Did it look like that big one from a couple weeks ago?” I ask. Little Miss T nods again.

“Oh, boy,” I say grimly. “I’m not looking over there. I’m not looking.” I continue helping her glue her pyramid together. “Do you see it now?” I whisper.

Her big kid eyes stealthily look to the right, and, arousing no suspicion from the others, she slowly looks back to me again. “No,” is all she whispers. She’s emphatic about it.

I widen my eyes and look at her squarely to make sure she’s not kidding around. She opens her eyes wide and nods. She’s not kidding. And I’m so fascinated by her delivery of this news that I find I’m really not afraid of this spider at all.

“I’m going to pretend it’s gone,” I whisper. “I’ll look for it after class. Don’t worry. Thank you for telling me.”

She takes her paper pyramid to the next station where Miss Jennifer helps her add sand.

On the drive home after class, I’m still thinking about this conversation, and I decide: if I’m ever in a tough spot, I want to have someone like Little Miss T there with  me—someone thoughtful, steadfast, and brave.

And then I think: Dante had Virgil to lead him through hell.

I’d choose a second grader.


No spider was harmed in the telling of this tale–mostly because we couldn’t find it.

Amazon has my book: Upside Down Kingdom.

Ponding Water

My fellow Pittsburghers will know what I’m talking about…

I got a message a couple days ago from a friend who was traveling the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I wrote back, “Tell all of my people I say hello, and watch out for Ponding Water!”

paOh, the stories I have of that road! There’s the day I hitched a ride with a trucker (indeed!) when my car broke down on a mountainside. Weirdly enough, that was my safest option at the time. And, of course, there’s my family’s invented tradition, the Annual Peach Run, which gained infamy because of that treacherous Turnpike. But those stories will come to this blog later. This story is about Ponding Water.

When I lived in D.C., I habitually drove the Pennsylvania Turnpike West to visit my family in Pittsburgh. I usually entered from about the midway point, Breezewood, and drove through the hills and mountains, twists and turns, the Allegheny Tunnel, and constant construction that is the Original Turnpike route, opened in 1940. (The opposite drive, from Breezewood to the East end is typically flat, straight, and “Please-get-me-out-of-the-car-I’ll-walk-from-here” maddening with hours of the same da-dunk, da-dunk, da-dunk from your tires over the multitude of seams in the road surface. I’ve only had to drive the East portion about a dozen times in my life, and that was plenty enough.)

Constant Turnpike construction on the Original Turnpike toward the Western Expansion (opened in 1951) gives us what we call “Jersey walls”—movable concrete barriers on either side of the road that guide you through lane changes and keep you from driving off hillsides. They’re placed to allow about a foot of clearance from the side of your car. You’ll see them.

IRThe funny thing about Pennsylvania is that it’s typically raining somewhere. (In Pittsburgh, we blame the Great Lakes for this, but I digress.) Along the Turnpike, which stretches from East to West (or, for Pittsburghers, it stretches West to East, from Us to Them), it’s likely raining (or snowing) on this long road at multiple points simultaneously. Weather plus Terrain equals Construction, every Pittsburgh kid knows that. They teach it right after the Immaculate Reception.

The very first time I saw a Ponding Water sign, it was one of those movable construction signs, lit up by light bulbs. I passed it and thought, “I’m already pondering all this water. What a weird sign. Did an English Major program that in?”

And then it dawned on me what the sign had actually said. The Jersey walls were trapping the rain water, making the road a virtual canal. I’m driving on this narrow expanse of concrete, rain is flying, the road surface leaning left then sloping right from the construction, the tractor trailers and cars around me are all trying their best to navigate at top speeds. Ponding Water. They might as well have written, “Death Ahead!”

With about 80 miles left to go, I remember a red Toyota truck that suddenly hydroplaned and did a 360 degree spin about 30 yards ahead of me. Luckily no one was traveling in the lane next to him at the time, so the driver was able to use both West-bound lanes to complete the spin. He narrowly missing one jersey wall with his front end, but his tailgate made contact with the opposite wall. The rest of us gave him room, and the driver and truck shook it off and kept going. Ponding Water.

I remember the irony and outrage of knowing I had to pay the exit toll before this would all end. You read correctly: if and when you reach your destination, you pay to exit the road. Depending on the distance you traveled, you could pay $1 or $30+ for your car (trucks with more than 2 axles pay more). So sharpen your skills and try to enjoy the ride, because this kind of adventure is far from free. I can tell you that no matter how bad it got during the drive, every time I reached the Allegheny Valley Exit, I felt nothing but relief to pay the toll and exit the road. I never had any fight left to argue the system. Not once.

I have very vivid memories of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, so vivid that I wonder if I weren’t more alive then. Let me explain: Sometimes you need a good, white-knuckled shaking-up to put things in perspective and remind you how great life can be. Colors are brighter, food tastes better. Pennsylvanians know this best.


My novel, Upside Down Kingdom, is available on Amazon.

In June, I read for Cracked Walnut at The Salon , and the CW liked my work enough to invite me back. Tomorrow I speak at Black Sheep Coffee in St. Paul, Minnesota, as part of the St. Paul Almanac Literary Festival by Cracked Walnut. I know it’s just coincidence to be invited to speak at a place called Black Sheep, but I can’t help but think it’s perfect: Tomorrow I’m reading two pieces I’ve not performed before. And I can’t wait to meet the other artists. Come if you can; I’ll read to you.

Without further ado, journal entry Part II of Mountain & Sea: Nooks & Crannies: 

412I’m dipping my toes in the Mediterranean this morning. I wish I had some bread and some tea to really hit the spot after the trek down here. I took some side “streets” and pathways and stairs and got down here faster than others that I passed who were going the traditional “road” route. However, the road was graded and not so steep—the route I took was nooks and crannies and stairs! Molte, molte stairs.

414Yesterday we dangled our feet in the Sea in this spot, and there were little black fish swimming near our feet. They’re making their appearances now, but I should get back up the mountainside to breakfast. I figure I’ll time myself so I know how long the traditional route takes…

It takes 10 minutes from bottom to top—that’s with stopping periodically for a quick rest.

I’m getting better with the enthusiasm of my greetings. Everyone says, “Buon Giorno!” and they mean it. It reminds me of my time living in the Southern U.S. when everyone greeted one another as they passed, whether they knew each other or not. It’s the polite, happy greeting of people who live in their own paradise. In Italy, I notice that you say it with enthusiasm and without hesitation. It’s important not to mumble it, but to mean it. (Mumbling lets everyone know you’re a tourist.) Putting a little singsong in it also makes it fun, and is well-received. I practiced on the way up here.

Yesterday I bought a purple sundress to wear over my bathing suit. It’s in this place that one should always be ready to strip off the outer layer and jump into the Sea for refreshment. Or so I think.465


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