Moving walkway at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

from We Learn Nothing

“‘Is it not a shame to make two chapters of what passed in going down one pair of stairs?’ [novelist Laurence Sterne] sighs after [characters] Walter Shandy and his brother Toby have in fact spent a whole chapter getting down one flight. ‘For we are got no farther yet than to the first landing, and there are fifteen more steps down to the bottom and for aught I know, there may be as many chapters as steps.’

In the next chapter, Walter takes a single step down the next staircase, which almost makes you want to cheer, but he hesitates there and starts another conversation—and then, agonizingly, he actually backtracks, withdrawing his foot from the stair and walking all the way back across the landing to lean against the wall. You can’t help but laugh at this, even if it’s with that grudging admiration that says: Aah, you bastard.

But the conversation that Walter and Toby have on the landing is one of my favorites in the book. It’s as if Sterne were saying, Now wasn’t that worth waiting for? And you were in such a rush. … Sterne’s telling us, this bullshit is the good part. … All those digressions were the story.”

—Tim Kreidler, We Learn Nothing


Pineapple soaked in homemade caramel syrup awaiting transfer to a baking dish. There are many words for describing helping your 12 y/o cook in your in-law’s kitchen. “Relaxing” is not one of them.

Where Tiny met Lula, pt. 2

In the fall of 2013, I was walking across the campus where I’d worked for a little more than a year when an inscription on a concrete bench caught my eye. It said simply that a man and woman named Tiny & Lula had met on this spot in 1915 and married in 1917. Curious, I looked them up and found that their youngest son, Jim, was still alive. I called him up.

A month later, I sat on a bench by a fountain with Jim and his wife Theresa, both now in their 80s. Jim was slowed by Parkinson’s, so Theresa held his arm to be sure he made it safely over the uneven bricks. We looked at old photos and talked for an hour, and then I wrote a column about the love stories they told. There was more than one.

I spoke with Theresa again by phone this morning. Jim died a few months ago, so she’s been going through his things and came across some memorabilia she thinks the university might want. And then she told me that the column meant the world to Jim when it came in the magazine. And then she told me something that I don’t deserve to hear but will never forget.

As Jim’s health continued to fail, she told me, he often pulled out the column to read it. When his eyesight went, she started reading it to him. Over and over, she said. She couldn’t say how many times.

Ask me sometime about my best days as a writer, and this will be one.

Here’s the column, from the Winter 2014 issue of University of Richmond Magazine:

Where Tiny met Lula

One day in 1915, four-sport athlete “Tiny” Wicker was cutting class when he canoed right up to Lula Puckett, a Westhampton student sitting on the bridge that stood where Tyler Haynes Commons is today.

Family lore offers variations of what followed. Tiny may have tapped the bridge with his paddle. He certainly called Lula either “cutie” or “sweetie.” Equally certain, Lula turned down the corners of her mouth and let him know that such a fresh young man would never get anywhere with her.

They told that story to their children and grandchildren for decades.

I learned its vague outlines before I ever met any of them. They are inscribed on a cement bench near where the bridge once stood: “J. Caldwell ‘Tiny’ Wicker RC’17 and Lula Jones Puckett WC’17 met nearby in 1915 and were married in 1917.”

I’ve been noticing benches on my walks all over campus. They preserve with elegant brevity the names of alumni and celebrate entire graduating classes. It’s hard to find a bench that doesn’t mark someone in whose footsteps we walk, not just metaphorically but physically. A campus with a tradition and community like ours is like that.

A few weeks after I first noticed Lula and Tiny’s bench, I called up their youngest son, Jim. Now in his 80s and slowed by Parkinson’s, he brought his bride, Theresa, to campus to share family photos and stories with me at the fountain in front of Puryear Hall. I learned that all the grandkids had come to call Tiny “Gaggy” when one couldn’t say “Grandaddy.” I heard about the old-time car Tiny and Lula rode around in to celebrate their 50th anniversary with family and friends.

I heard that Lula kept turning down the trademark corners of her mouth all her life. Jim, his sister, and his brother all followed Tiny and Lula to UR. So far, at least one of the next generation has, too.

The story behind their bench begins with Theresa’s open-heart surgery 20 or so years ago. As she recovered, the couple started gingerly walking around Westhampton Lake. On one of those walks, a memorial bench with a friend’s name caught Jim’s eye and made him recall a pledge his father had made many years before. Jim helped him keep it.

“One day,” Tiny had said, “I’m going to put on the bridge a bronze plaque with the words: ‘I met her here.’” •


“We had the experience but missed the meaning.” —T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages

Grass not green

Riddle: considered acre-for-acre, what is the most pesticide-, herbicide-, water-, labor-, and cash-intensive crop grown in the U.S.? Right. Your lawn.

Full piece here.

A snippet of wisdom from almost a century ago

No. People do not go to war for abstract theories of government. They fight for property and privilege and that was what Virginia fought for in the Civil War. And Lee followed Virginia. He followed Virginia not because he particularly loved slavery (although he certainly did not hate it), but because he did not have the moral courage to stand against his family and his clan. Lee hesitated and hung his head in shame because he was asked to lead armies against human progress and Christian decency and did not dare refuse. …

It is the punishment of the South that its Robert Lees and Jefferson Davises will always be tall, handsome and well-born. That their courage will be physical and not moral. That their leadership will be weak compliance with public opinion and never costly and unswerving revolt for justice and right. It is ridiculous to seek to excuse Robert Lee as the most formidable agency this nation ever raised to make 4 million human beings goods instead of men. Either he knew what slavery meant when he helped maim and murder thousands in its defense, or he did not. If he did not he was a fool. If he did, Robert Lee was a traitor and a rebel — not indeed to his country, but to humanity and humanity’s God.

That’s W.E.B. DuBois in 1928. He also had this to say in his magazine in 1931:

Screen Shot 2017-08-25 at 8.58.07 AM

You have to hand it to the man. He could write with clarity.

[Both of these I came across in the excellent Civil War Memory blog kept by an alumnus of the university where I work.]

Things I didn’t tweet you during our team’s daylong strategic retreat

  • “You up?”
  • “1/2 Interesting puzzle would be can you comprehend the presentation slides if you replace ‘brand’ with ‘Brad’ and flash”
  • “2/2 … subliminal stills of Brad Pitt shirtless in Thelma and Louise.”
  • Quote attributed to Proust that’s really Pitbull paraphrased
  • “wine (red), papaya, two baguettes, shaving cream, whatever else you think we need”
  • A question about how your departmental budget works over there
  • Cartoon Ann Telnaes tweeted earlier, RT’d with #hrmph
  • Photo of tone-on-tone leaf pattern in the carpet, run through an Instagram black-and-white filter with hashtag #bored
  • “We’re at lunch. Is it bad to order the coconut shrimp? Will that draw attention?”
  • “We’re curling. Seriously.” W/photo
  • A cry for help

New story: North of Eden

Not gonna lie. This was not an easy story to write. The sources were great and the editor perceptive, but the subject matter itself was challenging: a decades-old architectural controversy that few wanted to go on record speaking about negatively.

But there was another tension at the heart of the piece, the fact that at the University of Virginia nothing escapes the gravitational pull of the ideas of its founder, Thomas Jefferson. That force — constraining or inspiring, probably always both — is inescapable. As I wrote, “University leaders and planners can push toward, pull from, and have a thousand splintered attitudes about this reference, but UVA will never know what it is like not to have it.”