Flowers with Fruit

Quirky weather agrees with my camellias, "Kramer's Surprise" (red) and "Sea Foam." Click to magnify. (Photo by Susan Taylor Block. Camellias varieties identified by Matt Hunter.)

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Ode to the Tool Bar

by Susan Taylor Block


Thou stripe of empowerment, at my touch,

Making the writing much more of a game,

Fonts and alignments, a bit of design —

Printing companies used to do the same.

I can make things vanish, then reappear,

Publish them bold as Prurock walking the beach,

Or slant an entire book with just two clicks.

This italicizing I find most dear:

When a mind is angled to its best reach,

It can spot humor lurking out in the sticks.


Published in Wrightsville Beach Magazine, February 2012. 


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Always Fresh: Boswell’s “Life of Johnson”

by Susan Taylor Block


Dr. Samuel Johnson (Painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, National Portrait Gallery)

I was mesmerized when I first read James Boswell’s famous Life of Johnson in 1971. Biographer Boswell followed the words and movements of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) like a hungry dog watches his master prepare to feed him. Johnson, who was created from a different sort of recipe, gave Boswell plenty to write about. Today, the book still fascinates me, but in different ways. After making  my own modest attempts with biographies of local interest, I know how difficult it is.

In 1971, I took notes on all the Johnson quotes that most interested me, and it was fun to read through the list again just a few days ago.  Here’s a small sampling:

“Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.

“Prejudice, not being founded on reason cannot be removed by argument.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.

“Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure and truth.

“Read over your compositions and, when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

I added a few more Johnson quotes that are recent favorites:

“A man should keep his friendships in constant repair.

“it is better to suffer wrong that to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.

“A cucumber should be well-sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out.

“…for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.”

In 1974, I went on the first of my only two trips to England. Like hordes of tourists, Boswell’s work and Johnson’s being made me want to see a place in which the latter lived. I enjoyed touring Dr. Johnson’s house at 17 Gough Square and the Cheshire Cheese pub nearby, where he was thought to have spent many happy hours. “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern,” said he.

“The guide at Dr. Johnson’s house was a delightful little lady who was way past American retirement age. She had encyclopedic knowledge of Johnson  – whether delivering her usual speech, or answering tourists’ questions. Much of what she said came straight from James Boswell’s extraordinary biography. Without it, Dr. Johnson would still be known as creator of the astounding lexicon, A Dictionary of the English Language; writer of plays, biographies, critiques, and poems; and author of the amazing travelogue, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, but he would not be loved as a person we felt we almost knew  – and few tourists would bother to track down his home.

James Boswell (Painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, National Portrait Gallery)

Over time, I’ve come to appreciate James Boswell more and more. He made it look so easy. His particular manner of questioning, hasty scribblings, careful inscriptions, and exhaustive visual studies of another human being combined to  allow him to paint a portrait in words that is so complete that it has no rival in secular writings.  It spares little, including Dr. Johnson’s many eccentricities, and his quirky movements, now considered the earliest, best description of the medical condition labeled later as Tourette’s Syndrome. Other biographers continue to tackle Samuel Johnson, and I have enjoyed reading some of those books, too, but the electricity is not there. The congenial situation of the men’s trip through the Hebrides; the combination of their intellects, wit, and curiosities; and Boswell’s unabashed fascination with Johnson keep the book alive.

Then, after all of that – after unleashing a great waterfall of words concerning Samuel Johnson –  Boswell still had enough inexpressible impressions left over to write, “Every man feels for himself, and knows how he is affected by particular qualities in the person he admires, the impressions of which are too minute and delicate to be substantiated in language.” The biographer said so well what cannot be said. The spirit of some personality interrelations just speaks of things we cannot yet know.

I think I’ll read that book again.




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Morning at the Farm

(Photo by Susan Taylor Block)

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Home, home with a Screen

by Susan Taylor Block

(Sung to the tune of “Home on the Range”)


1.Oh, give me some NEWS that’s not your own views

Of candidates striving to win;

I’d just like to see reports that are free

Of negative broadcaster spin.



Home, home with a Screen

That gives us some bait and some switch;

One leader will fall, another will stall,

And networks get even more rich.


2. Oh, could it just be that one day we see

A saint as Commander-in-Chief;

Perfection in charge, a halo so large

He’d give us no shame, but much grief.



Home, home with a Screen

That gives us some bait and some switch;

One leader will fall, another will stall,

And networks get even more rich.


3. So, give me a Prez who does what he says

And plays not for polls or for greed;

Who Loves our home land, and takes a strong stand

To build it, protect it – and LEAD.



Home, home with a Screen

That gives us some bait and some switch;

One leader will fall, another will stall,

And networks get even more rich.


(With apologies and credit to poet Dr. Brewster M. Higley, who wrote the original lyrics; Daniel E. Kelley, who wrote the music; John A. Lomax, who edited Dr. Higley’s words; and David Guion, who arranged Kelley’s music.  “Home on the Range” was adopted as the state song of Kansas in 1947, decades after cowboys first sang it loudly on the open plains.)

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Third and Market, Northeast: The Colonial Inn

by Susan Taylor Block

The Colonial Inn (Photo courtesy of Cape Fear Museum)

The Colonial Inn, owned by Oscar Pearsall, occupied one of the best corners in town. Mr. Pearsall, his brother, Philander, and their partner, Benjamin Franklin Hall, owned Hall and Pearsall, a bustling wholesale grocery and guano products business. It was located on the corner of Nutt and Grace streets. Over time, the business grew and became known simply as Pearsall and Company. At the mixing plant, “where any grade of manipulated guano” could be manufactured, they created and stamped products with their own brand name. Ships and trains transported staples, hay, grain, and guano products to large markets in various parts of the U.S., especially New York and New England. Slower trains wound through the Wilmington area, too, delivering heavy loads of groceries, grain, and hay.

Oscar Pearsall (Bill Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library)

Newspaper image from the Bill Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library.

Bill Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library.

Oscar Pearsall had already made real estate news in 1894, when he transported his Carolina Beach cottage “through the sounds on floats, to Wrightsville,” where it was rebuilt on Wrightsville Sound. Then, in the Spring of 1903, Oscar moved a two-story frame residence, built by A. J. deRosset, from the northeast corner of Third and Market streets. He replaced it in 1903 with the Colonial Apartments building, pictured here about 1920.

The interior was elegant. Residents took their meals in a beautiful dining room, that doubled as a tea room in the afternoon. Ladies wore white gloves to tea, and were served from sterling pitchers.

In 1913, Mr. Pearsall took on another building project, but this time it was a church, Pearsall Memorial Presbyterian. Ironically, the church’s most famous minister, Dr. B. Frank Hall, was a grandson of Pearsall’s old business partner, Civil War veteran Benjamin Franklin Hall. The two families shared strong ties outside of work. All contributed generously to faith-based efforts, especially those linked to Presbyterian churches. Oscar supported church education work, and apparently gave the land and underwrote the entire cost of building Pearsall Memorial Presbyterian Church. Philander Pearsall fully supported a foreign missionary and was superintendent of an African American mission. Benjamin Franklin Hall, brother of Mrs. James Sprunt, gave generously to First Presbyterian Church and a Presbyterian medical missionary station in China.

The Colonial Inn burned, April 25, 1962. The building pictured on the right is the YMCA, constructed in 1912-13 to replace a smaller building at 305 North Front Street. D. H. Penton, president, and J. B. Huntington, general secretary, were champions of the move. The new YMCA boasted many welcome features, including a basketball court with ample space for spectators – and a large swimming pool – one of the chilliest imaginable.

In stark contrast to the graceful Colonial Inn, YMCA’s rental spaces were utilitarian in decor. They were leased to most guests by the month, with the exception of visiting seamen, who were allowed to rent by the day. The YMCA building was destroyed July 20, 1970.

(Basis of article from the book, Cape Fear Lost, copyright 1999, by the author. Copies are available at All proceeds benefit Cape Fear Museum.)

Sources: James Sprunt, Chronicles of the Cape Fear River; Bill Reaves files: Wilmington Star (New Hanover County Public Library); conversation with Betsy Pearsall; Family files, Historical Society of the Lower Cape Fear; Cape Fear Museum.

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Snakes ‘n Grapes

by Susan Taylor Block

(Cover design by A. B. Moore)

How to Gossip Nicely, a tongue-in-cheek commentary, is now available on kindle.

Gossip, “people news” transmitted casually, follows random paths and moves quickly. It has the power to help, harm, misinform, or clarify. Drawing the line is tough, and we’ve all crossed it at some time or another, but toeing the line still leaves room for plenty of connections, and some fun.

Though initially macabre, the following gossip story always amused my grandmother. It’s a good illustration of “Gossip Game,” or “Telephone Game” gossip. When she was about twenty years old, she was bedridden with an illness that lasted a week or two. Telephone service was primitive then, about 1910, and often two or more households shared the same phone line. Just when someone was sharing news of Nana’s illness on one line, another person was relating the story of someone’s death on another. The next day, my grandmother woke up to read her own obituary! As it turned out, Nana lived until 1984, so that bit of casually co-transmitted news was unreliable to the extreme.

This readable book, written by a native North Carolinian, is a Southern product with a Southern flair. Great art was supplied by A. B. Moore, an exciting young artist from Charlotte. Betty Baird Rusher, raised in bucolic Oxford, NC, contributed recipes for delectable grape dishes. Robert Hill Camp, a descendant of Jamestown’s earliest settlers, served as copy editor.

I was tickled to read publisher Bernie Reeves’ review of the book in Metro Magazine: “Block is to gossip as Marie Curie is to plutonium, investigating each molecule. Very entertaining, well written, and true.” – Bernie Reeves

To hear a Internet-radio discussion about How to Gossip Nicely, go to  -then scroll down and click on the correct line:  2011-Dec-21.

(Coming soon: The old Northrop Cottage at Wrightsville Beach, and the mysterious photo.)



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Christmas Lullabye at the Nursing Home

by Susan Taylor Block


My mother lives in the memory care wing of a local retirement center – a handsome and well-run facility. Though each patient has serious, documented memory loss, there is so much left of their former selves to celebrate. General manners plus wit and wisdom seem to survive. So does spelling, as evidenced in an old fashioned and rather difficult “spelling bee” I attended there recently. Also, the interesting  interplay of lifelong personalities doubtless mimics their specific place in groups from years past. Each individual seems to fall vaguely into customary roles such as cut-up, comforter, boss, critic, follower, or cheerleader.

In general, the ladies who frequent the unit’s living room are less advanced in disease than some others in the Alzheimer’s and dementia wing. Their faces are well-known to me now, like distant relatives grown familiar through reunions. Candid photographs of most would reveal their advanced senior citizen status, but would offer scant evidence of cognitive impairment. They have character in their faces, and they have presence. Some exhibit off-the-cuff humor. One or two of them are still masters of sarcasm, and still know how to deliver much information by facial expression alone.

The majority had been housewives during their younger days. A couple were teachers. By vocation, my mother was a business woman and, by avocation, a serious student of the starry sky. Often, Mother cited the story of the Three Wise Men as reason enough for her pursuit.

Mother seems to be a perfect example of patients who can retain startling clarity in certain ways, and strong consistency of personality amid dementia. I offer two of many possible examples:

She managed a local family-owned business for 25 years, a job that involved much typing. After someone donated a typewriter to the Memory Care unit, Mother sat down and without any prompting pounded out the words, “There will be no down time for employees today. Work through lunch.”

On another occasion, she asked me, “How long is the longest book you’ve written?”

“388 pages,” I answered.

“That’s too long. Don’t you have advisors? Why didn’t someone tell you to shorten it?” she responded.

“It didn’t need shortening,” I answered. “In fact, quite a few people said they read it twice.”

“They had to, Susan. By the time they reached the end of it, they had forgotten the beginning.”

As for the stars, Mother is still amazingly accurate. I enjoy bringing news of what I hear of planets, orbits, comets, and eclipses. She corrects me when I don’t use language that’s technically correct and requests that I keep bringing her bulletins of changes in the heavens, a subject about which she published articles in her younger days. Mother had studied business at WC, now UNCG, but one day, about 1968, decided she needed to know more math to better understand the heavens. I was a teenager taking trigonometry at Hoggard High School at the time, and, switching roles, she asked me to teach her what I learned. She mastered it quickly. I think her mind-challenging hobby from the past, and her relentless dedication to walking in recent years have helped keep some negative mental and physical processes at bay.

The Memory Care living room sports a pretty raised-hearth fireplace, and an array of sofas and chairs that accommodate about twelve people. Eight seats were filled when I visited last Sunday, December 11. That day, most of the ladies were staring at a new 5-foot tall Christmas tree, sitting atop a table. Its white lights blinked uneven patterns and the speed of it accelerated through sequences that went from no glows, to many.

The busy lights caused much comment from the different ladies. Here’s a sampling:

“Someone needs to come in here and fix that tree.”

“We need an electrician.”

“Look!  There it goes again. It’s weird.”

“It’s just plain spooky.”

“I like it.”

“I wish they would haul it away.”

“No, just take the lights off.”

“I’m scared.”

No matter what their opinion, they couldn’t stop looking at the tree. Though annoying, the lights’ staccato rhythms stimulated their minds and arrested their attention. I wondered if there wasn’t a catalogue somewhere from which nursing homes order products with such purposes.

In the midst of the blink-a-blink, a well-dressed North Carolina native who is a new resident walked into the living room and asked the attending nursing assistant for a listening ear. The assistant replied that she had lots of time to listen.

“I just want to know where all the people of my life have gone. One day I had many friends that I had known for years, and now I am here and I don’t know a soul. I had a house and a church and they are all gone now. How did I get here? Can you help me find my friends?” She spoke slowly, well, and with great dignity. It was heartbreaking.

Wisely, the pretty, young assistant answered, “It might help me to find your friends if you would you tell me about your life earlier.” That led to a recounting of the woman’s youth, civic activities, and her responsible position with a statewide organization. She seemed to feel better. All the while, the tree blinked and the other ladies continued their disjointed commentary.

Suddenly, the assistant had another good idea that helped all the ladies: She rebooted the unit’s CD player. Soon, symphonic strains of “Away in a Manger,” filled the room and they all began to sing. There was no hesitation or grappling for words. Most, including Mother, finished the first two verses. The sound of her singing warmed me, and “Away in a Manger” took on new layers of meaning.

I looked around the circle of faces and saw no great joy or sorrow, just peace. Many of them looked straight ahead, as if gazing deep into space. For that short melodic time, blinking tree lights were immaterial. The ladies were unified in spirit and blessed recollection.

Their eyes were dry. Mine were not.


Away in a Manger

by James R. Murray (1841-1905), subtitled Luther’s Cradle Hymn. Third verse by John T. McFarland, 1904.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes;
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle ’til morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And take us to Heaven to live with Thee there.

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Given a Quiet Moment with The Boss

Susan Taylor Block

"Legos would be nice, but I'd rather have some help with my 401k."



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Merry Christmas, 2011

(Collage and verse by Susan Taylor Block)

The Baby came

To pay the cost,

So all that’s good

Is never lost.

(Copyright 2011)

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