distilled vinegar, red pepper, salt

Well, I was looking for something to download for my new Kindle, and a bottle of Tabasco sauce in the kitchen prompted me to see if there was a book about its history. There was; even better, it was on sale for 99 cents, and since I had a credit on my account I didn’t have to pay a thing.

McIlhenny’s Gold by Jeffrey Rothfeder is not an unduly long book, and I finished it quickly.  But it was definitely a good purchase – an illuminating (and unauthorized) look at the McIlhenny family and how it built a hot sauce empire. The book is fair, but it’s a warts-and-all picture of the company’s history. Rothfeder does seem to have strong negative opinions about Paul McIlhenny, who was running the company — badly, Rothfeder believed — at the time of the book’s release in 2007. (McIlhenny died in 2013.) Paul McIlhenny got the post by ousting the only person from outside the McIlhenny family to hold it, an Australian named Vince Pierse. Rothfeder makes no secret of believing Pierse should have been given more time to pursue his aggressive marketing ideas, which might have increased sales without compromising the product itself. By contrast, the options Paul McIlhenny pursued for expanding sales were to introduce other flavors of Tabasco sauce – flavors without the flagship brand’s reputation for long aging and high quality.

The McIlhennys still on Avery Island running the company did not talk to him, although he talked to other members of the extended family, who for the most part did not want to be specifically identified.

The story is a fascinating one – Edmund McIlhenny, a former banker, found himself unable to resume his former success after the Civil War, and so he started a hot sauce business. There was a well-told tale about how he came up with the idea after a Civil War veteran gave him some seeds, but that story appears to have been baloney – another, apparently similar, hot sauce made with peppers from Tabasco, Mexico, was sold prior to the war, and seems to have been McIlhenny’s true inspiration.

Still, McIlhenny came up with a near-perfect three-ingredient recipe of peppers, vinegar and salt. The peppers are aged three years and then combined with vinegar. Since the late 1800s, the pepper mash has been aged in barrels provided to it by the Jack Daniel Distillery a few minutes’ drive south of me. The barrels are used to age whiskey, then sent to Louisiana and used to age the pepper mash.

Edmund McIlhenny’s immediate successor, his son John, was less successful. When John left to join Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, his brother Edward “E.A.” McIlhenny took over, and it’s his story that is really the heart of the book. Edward McIlhenny was a fascinating character and a study in contradictions. He naturalist who nevertheless imagined some dubious ways of cashing in on nature. He was in some ways a product of southern attitudes about race, and there was a definite caste system within the company, and yet on Avery Island he forbade segregated restrooms or other facilities. He created a “company town” on Avery Island which was a mix of good and bad ideas. He was a man of power and influence whose last years were marred by a corruption scandal.

A group from my church goes each year to the United Methodist Committee On Relief (UMCOR) facility in Sager Brown, Louisiana, to do volunteer work, and their schedule usually gives them the chance to go and tour the Tabasco facility on Avery Island, a half hour’s drive away. I would love to do both those things, and will one of these years.

Anyway, this was a fascinating book. It’s a good parallel to another book about the history of a family-owned company, The Search for God and Guinness: A Biography of the Beer that Changed the World, in that it shows the difficulty of maintaining a family-owned business and its core principles as the generations pass, the world changes, and the ever-expanding circle of heirs demands profits from a company it has no working involvement with.

Highly recommended if, like me, you’re a Tabasco fan, and worth reading even if you’re not.

Happy Prime Day, or, Kindle me this

I am an accidental subscriber to Amazon Prime. When I reviewed Amazon’s Fire Phone for the newspaper a year ago this month, simply signing in to the phone with my Amazon account triggered the free year of Prime that Amazon offers as a benefit to purchasers of the phone. Even though I had not bought the phone — and, in fact, it was just a review model which I had to send back to the carrier after a week of testing — the Prime subscription remained.
It’s been fun to have free shipping and some of the other benefits, although I haven’t watched as many Prime Video offerings as I thought I would.
Fortunately for me, my expiration date isn’t until next week, so I was able to look in on the Black-Friday-like savings for “Prime Day” today.
Three and a half years ago, I bought the entry-level, $79 Kindle e-reader. I’ve gotten a lot of use out of it. I’ve read books — more books than I’d have read in that time without the Kindle — and I also have a couple of simple games on it for when I’m crashed on the couch. I just got through teaching Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality in my Sunday School class, and I had the book on my Kindle. I have several Bibles on my Kindle. I borrow Kindle books through the local library. The Kindle has been showing some signs of wear and tear — nothing bad, and nothing that really gets in the way of book reading, but it’s scuffed up some and the down part of the four-way rocker switch is now difficult to press.

So when I checked Amazon very early this morning (I had to be at the paper at 6 a.m., so this would have been about 5:45) and I saw the current entry-level Kindle on sale for $49, I jumped on it without hesitation. The current entry-level model is nicer than mine. It has touch-screen (something that wasn’t offered on the basic model three years ago), it has more storage, and I think it has higher resolution. Because of the touchscreen, it doesn’t even have or need a four-way rocker button.
Tablets are fine, and I can read books on my big new smartphone using the Kindle app if I need to, but a non-backlit e-ink e-reader is much better on your eyes and feels much more like an actual book. It’s better if you read outside (it doesn’t wash out) and it’s better if you read right before bed (there’s research indicating that backlit screens too close to bedtime can help keep you from falling asleep as quickly). It’s just better for reading all around.
Maybe I shouldn’t have spent the money, but being able to buy a $79 e-reader for $49 was too good a deal to pass up. Who knows when or if they’ll offer it again?

don’t drink the water

Attention, Middle Tennessee friends: I will be playing the part of Walter Hollander in a production of Woody Allen’s play “Don’t Drink The Water” Sept. 18-20 and 25-26 at the Fly Arts Center in Shelbyville.

The play will be directed by Martin Jones, a press operator at the Times-Gazette with whom I’ve appeared on stage several times in several different venues. Since this is Martin’s first time directing, Sue Thelen, who directed both Martin and me last year in “Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got The Will?” is assisting him.

It’s a very funny play, and I love my part – a role that was played by Lou Jacobi on Broadway, Jackie Gleason in the 1960s movie version, and by Woody Allen himself in the 1990s TV movie (which Woody also directed – he wasn’t involved with the theatrical movie and never cared for it, so the TV movie gave him a chance to remake the story his own way).

dontdrinkThe story is set in the 1960s in a mythical Communist country in Europe. The Hollander family – Walter, Marion and their daughter Susan – are “ugly American” tourists who cause an international incident when Walter innocently takes photos of something that turns out to be a military installation. He is accused by the local secret police of being a spy.

The family takes refuge in the U.S. embassy, but the ambassador is on his way back to the states and has left things in the hands of his incompetent son Axel (played by Michael J. Fox in the TV movie version). Between Walter’s bluster and Axel’s bumbling, things get worse and worse, and there’s some question whether anyone will make it out of the embassy in one piece.

Meanwhile, Axel and Susan (played by Mayim Bialik in the TV movie) find romance.

Father Drobney, a Catholic priest who’s been a refugee living in the embassy for years now, serves as a narrator, talking directly to the audience about the plot.

It’s all a lot of fun, I think we have a good cast (a few supporting roles still need filling),  and I can’t wait to get into the plot. I would love for any of you to come and see the production. You’ll be hearing more from me about it in the weeks to come.

in the interest of ministry

Well, this afternoon I drove to Murfreesboro for my first meeting as a member of a particular church committee. I was kind of nervous about it, frankly, but it turned out fine.

I can’t really tell you anything at all about what we discussed, because of the confidential nature of it, but I’ll tell you where I was and how I got there.

Several months ago, I got a phone call one evening from the Rev. Chris Haynes. When a United Methodist minister – familiar or unfamiliar – calls me on a weeknight, my first thought is that I’m being called on to fill the pulpit in my role as a certified lay speaker. I don’t believe I’d met Chris before, but I had no reason to think any different that night.

But Chris wasn’t sick or getting ready to travel; he was calling me for another reason entirely.

“I’m calling to ask if you’ll serve on the district committee on ordained ministry,” he said.

Then, I jumped to another conclusion.

“Oh, I understand. You didn’t mean to call me; you meant to call my father, Rev. Jack Carney. His number is ….”

But that was just as mistaken as my first thought. It turns out the committee, known to clergy and Murfreesboro District officials as “D-COM,” has both ordained clergy and lay people as members.

The committee talks to candidates for ordained ministry at various points in the process and makes recommendations related to whether they should proceed. We’re only making recommendations, not the final decision, but still, it’s a pretty important matter. I wondered whether I’d have anything to add.

So I drove to the Murfreesboro District office in Murfreesboro this evening.

But – again, without any details at all – I thought the meeting went OK tonight, and I felt comfortable. I’m sure we’ll have tougher interviews, and tougher decisions, in the months ahead, but I feel a lot better about it now.

It helped that the first person I saw on the committee was my pal Ruthan Patient, director of lay servant ministries for the Murfreesboro District. Ruthan always puts me at ease, and she did so tonight. She even had a certificate for me – something she’d been meaning to give me since last November but didn’t want to mail, saying that I was grandfathered in under the old rules for certified lay speakers.

I’m looking forward to getting to know the other committee members and seeing where this heads going forward. Hopefully, my experience as a preacher’s kid will come in handy at some points as well.

Can I speak to Lily? Lily could probably have helped me

The most ironic words in the English language are “customer service,” a phrase many companies seem to reserve for the department which is designed to do anything but serve the customer.
I have my mobile phone service with a company which, to avoid them any embarrassment, I will call “BT&T.” My old smartphone has been acting up, and I felt like it was about time to get a new one. There was a brand new model about to be released, right in my price range, and with features I wanted, so I waited eagerly for the opportunity to purchase.
Finally, the day came. I got online at the BT&T website and placed my order.
Now, a smartphone is an expensive purchase, the type of thing that you normally have to sign for, and so I wanted it delivered to my office instead of my apartment. Fortunately, the BT&T website had a way to specify a shipping address during the order process. I thought I had done what I needed to do, but perhaps I missed clicking some final button — because, when I got my order confirmation, it specified that the phone would be delivered to my apartment, exactly what I didn’t want to happen.
I fired up the online chat feature of the site, and the first woman I chatted with insisted that I could change the shipping address from the website. But she kept directing me to the place where one would change their billing address. I didn’t want to change my billing address; this is a personal phone, not a work phone, and I want the bill to come to my home address, not my work address. I finally got through to her, and she transferred me to a higher-level chat person. That person was unable to help me, so they got permission to have someone call me on my (old) smartphone to discuss the situation. Again, the first person I talked to didn’t seem to have any of the answers, so she transferred me to an “order specialist.”
At this point, I’d been on chat and the phone a total of half an hour or more. I was at the office, and didn’t want my co-workers to think I was spending all day on personal business.
Now, here’s the funny part. The person on the phone transferred me to the order specialist, whom I could barely hear. I got up and moved to a quieter part of the building, but I could still not quite make out what the person was saying. I turned the volume on my phone up to the maximum, but still, nothing. I’d been able to hear the first lady fine, at a normal volume, but this person was just barely audible enough for me to know there was someone there, but not enough for me to carry on a conversation.
That’s right – BT&T, one of the biggest mobile and landline telephone service providers in the world, couldn’t give me an audible connection to their customer service rep — the fourth person with whom they had connected me (two on chat, two on voice). I finally had to just hang up.
I’m now resigned to getting an attempted delivery notice on my door from FedEx or UPS. At that point, I can call them and have them deliver the package to the office the next day. It will add a day to the process, but at this point an extra day’s wait is preferable to another 45 minutes on the phone with BT&T.

hail, hail freedonia

“Duck Soup” (1933) airs tonight at 7 p.m. Central on Turner Classic Movies, as this week’s installment of the family-friendly summer series “TCM Movie Camp.”

Marx Brothers fans – and I’m definitely one – know their work can be divided into two distinct eras. From 1929 through 1933, Paramount released films featuring four Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo. “Duck Soup” was the last of the movies the boys made for Paramount. Now, many people – and I’m definitely one – consider it their best, but at the time it was a flop, and Paramount dropped the Marx Brothers like a hot potato.

On stage, though never in the movies, there had been a fifth Marx Brother, Gummo (real name Milton). In the interim after the boys were fired by Paramount, Zeppo (real name Herbert) left the act and joined Gummo in starting a successful talent agency. Zeppo didn’t really have much of a comic persona anyway; he primarily played straight man to the others.

MGM, where boy wonder Irving Thalberg was still in a leading role, hired the three remaining Marx Brothers – Groucho, Chico, and Harpo – and their first MGM movie was 1935’s “A Night At The Opera.”

Zeppo isn’t the only difference between the Paramount Marx Brothers and the MGM Marx Brothers. At Paramount, the boys were more anarchic. But Thalberg – and those who followed him – put more of a story to the brothers’ comedy, and usually had them helping someone out. They were trying to help out young lovers in “A Night At The Opera,” trying to raise money to keep a hospital open in “A Day At The Races,” and so on. In some ways, this undermines the anarchy – part of the fun of the Paramount Marx Brothers is that lunacy is their first priority, and the plot is an afterthought.

Granted, “A Night At The Opera,” their first MGM movie, is one of their funniest – probably because of Thalberg’s craft as a producer. But Thalberg died during the making of “A Day At The Races,” and fans are in general agreement that the MGM Marx Brothers movies go downhill fast from there.

The trouble, of course, is that TCM’s parent company owns the MGM library, so TCM can show the MGM Marx Brothers movies as often as it likes. It has to pay for the rights to the Paramount Marx Brothers movies (strangely enough, it has to pay Universal, which at some point bought the rights to much of Paramount’s classic-era library). TCM shows “Duck Soup” fairly regularly, as well as “Horse Feathers,” and occasionally “Monkey Business,” but hardly ever shows “Cocoanuts” or “Animal Crackers.”

Enough of my quibbling. “Duck Soup” is on tonight, and as I said earlier I think it’s the all-time best Marx Brothers movie. The movie takes place in the fictitious country of Freedonia. The country is badly in debt, and its wealthiest citizen, Mrs. Teasdale, won’t loan it any more money unless Rufus T. Firelfly (Groucho) is appointed leader. Meanwhile, the ambassador for neighboring Sylvania is up to no good and hires Chico and Harpo as spies.

DISCUSSION QUESTION: Whose faith is more misplaced – Mrs. Teasdale, who for some unexplained reason thinks Groucho can run a country, or the ambassador, who thinks Chico and Harpo can overcome their ADD long enough to collect any useful information?

Anyway, this is a Paramount Marx Brothers movie, so as I indicated earlier the plot isn’t really that important. The movie is loaded with all sorts of humor – from verbal jousting to the famous (and completely silent) mirror scene between Groucho and Harpo. It’s just funny, at so many levels.

the rest of the year

It’s one of the curses of my life in recent years that three of the things I look forward to the most each year – the Nashville Symphony concert in Shelbyville, for which I’m co-chair of the organizing committee; the American Cancer Society Relay For Life in Bedford County, for which I’m publicity and online chair (and was just named volunteer of the year); and my annual week at Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry all fall within about a six or seven week period in May and June. This sets me up for a huge letdown once they’re all over with. I want it to be Relay night again. I want to be pulling into Cumberland Pines again (especially since there were a few aspects of this year’s AIM experience where I’d like a do-over). But now I have 11 months until Relay next year (and I’m not even sure if we’ll have a symphony concert next year).

I have no time to mope, however. Ever since April 8, I’d been on loan to the Times-Gazette’s sister paper in Lewisburg. I was still writing a few things for the Times-Gazette – county government stories, plus a few features – but my day-to-day work was at the Marshall County Tribune.

I found out while I was at Mountain T.O.P. that my sojourn is over and I will show up for work on Monday at the Times-Gazette. I will hit the ground running; we have some hot county budget issues, and we’ll soon start (if they haven’t already) working on stories for our annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration supplement.

I also plan to try out for a play next month. Martin Jones is a pressman at the T-G with whom I’ve appeared in several productions. (I played his father in “Come Blow Your Horn”; he played my father in “Daddy’s Dyin’ … Who’s Got The Will?” We’ve also appeared together in other things.) He’ll be directing a production of “Don’t Drink The Water,” with auditions next month and the actual production in September.

And I plan to continue work on the self-published book of sermons and devotionals that I keep talking about. I have been making some progress, but now that Relay and all that is behind me, I can get even more serious.

On a related note, I am already included in a new book of devotionals. In honor of its 40th anniversary, Mountain T.O.P. has published “Walk Down This Mountain,” a collection of devotions collected throughout the ministry’s history, broken down into sections by decade.

I knew they were talking about it and had even given them some of my self-publishing experience and pointed them towards CreateSpace, the firm I used for my Bad Self-Published Novel. I did not realize until I flipped through a copy last month that my “cast-iron skillet sermon,” which I adapted for use as a Holy Time Out several years back, was included. The Kindle edition of the book is now listed on Amazon, but the paperback still has a placeholder page. And I don’t have the direct link to the CreateSpace page. I will post all of that to social media once I get it.

So maybe I’ll be busy enough this summer to avoid the post-Relay, post-Mountain T.O.P. letdown.


One of the last times I had any contact with Chris Shofner – I thought it was on Facebook messenger, but I can’t find it there – he asked when we were going to have lunch again. I don’t know why we didn’t set something up then and there; it was probably my fault.

We’d had lunch just a few months before. I happened to have the day off from work, but when I went out to my car to go and meet Chris, it wouldn’t turn over. I called Chris, and he good-naturedly came over, gave me a jump start, and followed me to AutoZone, where I bought a new battery I hadn’t planned on buying. Chris ended up buying my lunch.

In 1985, when I returned to Bedford County, tail between my legs, after my first career plan hadn’t quite worked out, I decided to go and put in an application at the hometown newspaper. I’d taken some newspaper classes as part of my mass communications major, and I’d spent a lot of time at the campus paper my senior year – mostly because I had a crush on a woman who worked there. But I hadn’t taken as many newspaper courses as I might have if I’d known I was going to spend 30 years-and-counting in the business.

Anyway, when I got to the T-G, the first person I talked to was Chris. He had not officially been named editor yet – that would come a few weeks later – but had been doing the job. He told me how much he liked my resume and how much he needed a reporter. He then took me in to see Mr. Franklin Yates, the publisher who’d merged the Times and the Gazette in 1948. Mr. Yates, who had a gruff exterior but a big heart, originally told me he ha nothing open – which I knew, from my conversation with Chris, was not the case. I figured I’d offended him somehow and gave up on working at the Times-Gazette. But it was just Mr. Yates being Mr. Yates.

After I’d left, Mr. Yates called Marvin Whitaker – who’d been my high school principal and who was, at that time, layleader of one of the churches at which my father was preaching. I’m sure Mr. Whitaker told Mr. Yates that I’d hung the moon and several of the stars. In any case, Mr. Yates called me in a day or two later and offered me the job.

I had a great relationship with Chris during the time he was my editor. He was kind, considerate, empathetic. We always felt like friends, not just co-workers, and he always made me feel like he appreciated what I did.

I loved that Chris was a musician on the side. When I first met him, he was in a band called Jet Set. They often introduced themselves as “Maxell recording artists Jet Set,” Maxell not being a record label but rather a brand of blank recording tape. Later, he and his friend Scott Pallot would put a lot of love and care into a children’s album.

Chris went on to work in marketing for a company in Memphis, but then – after a health scare – came back here to Middle Tennessee, where he was the press spokesman for the City of Murfreesboro for a number of years. More recent health concerns forced him to give that up, too.

Now that he’s gone, of course, I wish not only that I’d had lunch with him the last time we talked, but a lot more times. He was right here in town, and I didn’t take the time.

Chris was 61. He died less than a week after his mother, Betty, and I can’t imagine what that must be like for the family.

I hate that I’m going to miss visitation and the funeral. I know Chris will understand that I’ll be in ministry up on the Cumberland Plateau; I leave tomorrow morning for a week at Mountain T.O.P. But I’m sorry I won’t get to speak to his wife, attorney Ginger Shofner, or to his daughter Willa Kate. Please join me in keeping them in your prayers.

(NOTE: In the old days when news stories were typed on paper, ‘’-30-“ was typographer’s code for the end of a story.)

The Spoils Before Dying

If you missed “Eric Jonrosh’s ‘The Spoils of Babylon'” last summer, I feel sorry for you. But the good news is, “The Spoils Before Dying” starts next month on IFC.

“The Spoils of Babylon” was, supposedly, the magnum opus of novelist-turned-producer Eric Jonrosh, filmed at the height of the miniseries craze in the late 70s or early 80s (think “Rich Man, Poor Man,” or “The Thorn Birds,” or “The Winds of War”). Jonrosh adapted his biggest novel for the screen. But the network wouldn’t air it, and so it sat in a vault for years until last summer, when it was broadcast for the very first time, with each episode personally introduced by the bloated, bearded Jonrosh, along with his personal remembrances of the cast and the challenges faced during production.

Only that’s not it at all. There is no “Eric Jonrosh”; the fellow who introduced the miniseries last year was actually Will Ferrell wearing a fat suit and a fake beard and doing his best impression of latter-day, past-his-prime Orson Welles. “The Spoils of Babylon” actually starred Tobey Maguire, Kristin Wiig, Tim Robbins and Haley Joel Osment, although they were given fake actor names in the opening credits of the first episode, to tie in with the pretense that this whole thing was shot in the 1970s. It was a hilarious parody of the potboiler miniseries genre, with brilliant performances by the four leads and various guest stars including Val Kilmer, David Spade, Jessica Alba, Michael Sheen and Molly Shannon.

Well, “The Spoils Before Dying” will be the same thing — not a sequel to “Babylon” but supposedly a “fully restored” adaptation of a different (and just as non-existent) Eric Jonrosh novel, this one with more of a film noir feel:

I cannot wait.

Break out the taboo cards

When I first signed up for Mountain T.O.P. Adults In Ministry (AIM) in 1993, it was because I thought it would be fun teaching creative writing to teenagers as part of the “Summer Plus” program. I had no teaching experience; my only experience was as a writer.

I didn’t actually get to teach the class that first year, but I’ve taught it many times since. Some have been more successful than others. Creative writing is the type of workshop where the teens have to want to be there. If they don’t – maybe they got their first choice of workshop in the morning but were arbitrarily assigned to creative writing in the afternoon – it seems an awful lot like school. I try hard not to make it seem like school, but I don’t have all of the tools in my toolkit that a professional educator would have.

Anyway, the past couple of years, for reasons I won’t go into, I haven’t been able to make plans in advance to go to AIM. In both 2013 and 2014, I got the chance to go at the last minute – which was great, but what it meant was that the lineup of Summer Plus workshops was already in place and they didn’t need to add another one. So I participated in Summer Plus solely as an assistant in someone else’s workshops. Last year, for example, I helped out in a cooking workshop taught by Jean Nulle and in a photography workshop taught by Bobby and Robert Matthews. That was fun – I enjoy helping in a workshop, especially in crafty sorts of workshops where it works out for the helpers to jump in and do the project alongside the teens.

But I still missed teaching my own workshop. And so, this year, when I was able to get my AIM application in well in advance, I looked forward to creative writing. I waited patiently to hear something. In the past, some of the preliminary arrangements for Summer Plus would sometimes be made by the year-round staff, and so you’d get a call a month or two before camp confirming what you wanted to teach and so on. But now, all of that is handled by the summer staff – who’ve only been on duty a few weeks and who’ve been busy this past week running the first AIM event of the summer. So I’ve been on pins and needles waiting to hear from somebody and confirm that I would, in fact, be teaching creative writing.

I got my courtesy call today, and everything is “go” for me to teach creative writing. I will only have one session (which is my preference, although I’d have done two sessions if they’d needed me to). The other half of the day I will be helping out with someone else’s workshop.

I generally start out by having the students (along with any helpers) pair up and interview each other and write a simple paragraph which they can use to introduce each other to the group. Then we talk about the importance of good description. At this point, I generally break out the party game “Taboo.” In this game, a player must describe a word or concept to his or her teammates – but can’t use the five most-obvious clues, which are taboo. For example, you might have to describe “Superman” without using “hero,” “Clark Kent,” “Lois Lane,” “fly” or “Krypton.” A member of the opposing team stands over your shoulder with a buzzer, ready to penalize you if you say one of the “taboo” words. There’s an egg timer, and you try to get your team to guess as many cards as possible before time runs out and the other team takes a turn.

We use the game to make a point about colorful description, but it’s also just fun to play. Later in the week, I’ll use it at the end of the session if we have time to kill or the natives are getting restless.

I’m on my second Taboo game, and I really need a new one – the buzzer is made of parts from the first game and the second game put together, and some of the cards have out-of-date cultural references that I suspect have been changed in the latest edition.

How far we go with storytelling depends on who’s in the class and what level they’re at. Some years, we’ve worked on a short and simple group story, short enough to be read aloud during our presentation for parents and family members at the end of the week.

One year, Diana Simmons Woodlock, the daughter of Mountain T.O.P. executive director Ed Simmons, was my helper in the class – a bit intimidating, since Diana really is a teacher. She told me at the end of the week that she’d been skeptical about the group story idea but was amazed at how far we’d gotten with it. That made me feel good.

I talk to the teens about the importance of journaling – as always with Summer Plus, we’ll have teens from a variety of home situations, good and bad, and some of them would no doubt benefit from an outlet. (One year, a girl actually told me that her counselor had encouraged her to journal.) I give them blank journals at the end of the week as a gift. Most of the journals I have were donated to me some years back, but in 2013 or 2014 – during a brief window when I thought I might still be teaching the class – I realized that most of the remaining journals were very girly in appearance. As it happens, most of my students over the years have been girls, but there have been boys, too, and so I rushed out that year and bought two or three gender-neutral looking journals just to be on the safe side.

I can’t wait to see how things go this year.