Monday, May 31, 2010

The "Happyday"

I made a quick pit stop today at a favorite Mexican restaurant of mine. I always make it a point to engage the lovely senora who runs the place in a little conversation.

She knows a little English and I know a little Spanish. We get by. As Carl Childers might say "I like the way she talks, and she likes the way I talk."

I asked how business was. She said it was "a little slow due to the happy day." Of course I knew she meant "holiday", but like I said, I struggle with my Spanish, so I was tolerant of her slight mistake. I'm sure my Spanish transgressions are much worse. Besides, I knew what she intended. We communicated.

I think I might even like "happy day" better.

I am being careful here not to disclose the location of said restaurant and senora. These are troubled times in Alabama and the U.S.

Everybody working there looks sort of "foreigny." And we are on the eve of an election here in Alabama.

If you don't know what I mean, check out the Red Head's blog:

By the way, the photo I used above is of Honduras and not Mexico. Doesn't matter, though. Isn't it all the same south of Texas?

Saturday, May 29, 2010

What's in a Name?

I live in the "Heart of Dixie" which also happens to be the heart of the "Bible Belt." As such, there are churches on nearly every corner in the towns, as well as those scattered throughout the countryside. So many churches require a lot of names.

I have always found this interesting. I often wonder if the name can provide clues as to what goes on there--what people believe, what they are, or what they hope to be.

There are only a few Catholic churches, always in town. Usually named "Saint something" or "Our Lady of something." Can't discern much from that.

There are those names based on timing: First Baptist, First Methodist, First Presbyterian. First on the scene and oldest in the settlement.

There are those that are based on location or description of the landscape: Ridge Road, Pine Grove, Tenth Street. This spot is where we gather.

There are those based on some doctrinal tenet: Freewill, Grace, Seventh Day Adventists, Gifts of the Holy Spirit, and my personal favorite "Church of the Five Signs Following," taken from Mark 16:17-18.

Out in the country there are a lot of congregations with Biblical names: Sardis, Bethel, Shiloh, Macedonia, Philadelphia, Mt. Nebo, Corinth, Ephesus, and Smyrna. Many of these are taken from the churches mentioned in Revelation chapters two and three. I've never run across a Laodicea, but I suspect a lot churches might be better suited to that name than the one they have.

And then there's the one in the photograph above, which I have seen in several places across the Alabama countryside. It always makes me laugh, and then I get a little sad.

I suspect that "New Harmony" means the harmony at Harmony turned into something less than harmony, prompting a portion of the flock to seek harmony elsewhere.

I am left to ponder what caused the disharmony at Harmony. Was it a doctrinal issue? Or was it something more trivial, like the color of the new choir robes, the style of music, or the "dress code"? Having attended various churches across many locations most of my life, I suspect the latter.

And that is a shame and a hindrance to the "Good News" proclaimed by Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Thousand Word Thursday

Sometimes you just need to relax.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Happy Birthday Bob

Bob Dylan is 69 years old today.

That is unbelievable, considering he still plays and sings around the world on what he calls "the endless tour."

Bob Dylan is an iconic American figure. For a Jewish kid from the Iron Range of Minnesota, I'd say he's had a pretty remarkable impact on American music. Even those who don't particularly care for his voice (and my Red Head is among these)will have to admit that he has written some great songs that have been made and remade by countless other artists.

One of the most interesting aspects of Dylan's life is his ability to seemingly re-invent himself every few years. I believe this is his strategy to keep the public from defining him or his music. Over his life he has been labelled as: the great-American folk singer (in reality all music is "folk" music); the poster-boy spokesman for the Left (although he claims he is not political); a born-again Christian (two great Gospel albums); a country singer; an orthodox Jew (based on some visits to Israel); and a rock and roll icon (although he writes and plays many styles of music). I believe he sees himself as a singer-songwriter, and nothing more.

I have mentioned Dylan's book ("Chronicles") in a previous post. It is a good read if you are interested in the man and his music.

Happy Birthday, Bob--and many more.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Thousand Word Thursday

Street vendor in New Orleans

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Runner's Story

"And just like that--my running days was over." Forrest Gump

For about twenty years of my life, I was a runner. You know, one of those people you drive by every day, rain or shine, blazing heat, bitter cold, or pouring rain. The guy shuffling along the side of the road in shorts and a t-shirt, eating up miles like a fat kid eats potato chips, eyes always looking down the road ahead. The guy you ease your car around and mumble to yourself, maybe out loud, "that guy's nuts to be jogging in weather like this."

And you may have a point. Most runners are a little crazy. Actually, they are addicted. They run because they need to, like a smoker needs another puff and an alcoholic needs one more drink.

It took me about six months to become an addict. I was twenty-nine. I had lost my dad to a massive heart attack (at age 50) four years before. A doctor told me I had mild high blood pressure and was "a little" overweight. He suggested that I begin some sort of exercise program. And then he uttered the phrase that I have heard at every annual medical exam since: "You know, with your family history..."

So I bought a pair of running shoes and hit the local high school track. I could only run a mile or two without stopping at first, but I did it pretty much every day. After about a month, I was up to three miles. I bought a watch with a stop watch feature and began to time myself. I set little goals for myself each day and tried to get a little faster.

And I began to change.

Within six months, I was running five to seven miles a day, five or six times a week. What the doctor described as "a little overweight" became a thirty-five pound weight loss. The Red Head began to complain that I was beginning to look like I had been recently released from a concentration camp. But I was already hooked--I couldn't stop. If I missed my run more than two days in a row, I had trouble sleeping; didn't feel "myself." I learned that the major benefit of the daily run was that it allowed me to "de-stress", get rid of all the day's frustrations and relax my mind.

Over the next five years, I kept the same routine. I began to run little races. In the South, there is always a race of some type nearly every weekend: 5K, 10k, half-marathon. They were usually fun and gave me a way to gauge my progress. I think I only won one award in these races (third place in my "age class"), but I never expected to win. I was never going to be really fast. Besides, as every amateur runner knows, you are not really racing others. You are only racing yourself. Every few seconds improvement over previous runs is a personal victory.

After a few more years, I quit the weekend race scene, but I kept putting in the miles each week. I had never run the "big one", a 26.2 mile marathon, but I always kept it in the back of my mind. One day I'd run one. It was something every runner must do at least once. It is the runner's equivalent of the Moslem's trip to Mecca, the Jew's visit to Jerusalem. A pilgrimage every runner must complete to be fulfilled.

I gradually put some weight back on so I didn't have that emaciated look anymore. My daily run was a part of my life, like eating three meals a day and going to work. It was just something I did. Annual doctor visits were always good--weight normal for my height, body fat low, cholesterol 125.

And then one day I began to notice some soreness in my left heal. I tried some self-treatment (new shoes, ice packs, etc.), but it gradually got worse. I went to an orthopaedist and got the bad news--bone spur on my heel, which was causing an inflammation of my Achilles tendon. "Don't want to rupture that Achilles," he said. "That's not fun--long recovery." I asked him what I could do. "Get a new hobby," he said.

Like the addict that I was, I decided to cut back instead. For the next three years, I only ran three or four times a week, and cut back on the mileage. The pain was always there, but it was manageable for a while. Then it began to get worse. It eventually hurt most of the time, not just when I was running.

I went to a different orthopaedist. He suggested surgery to remove the spur. Not a bad operation, six to eight weeks recovery. That seemed to be a good plan--it would allow me to resume my running schedule. I told the Red Head that I'd get my stride back, train hard, run that elusive marathon, then "semi-retire"--just run enough to keep the weight off and stay healthy.

It was a good plan. It really was. But the surgery was a nightmare. The six to eight weeks turned into six to eight months. I'll spare you the gorier details--but let's just say the incision from the surgery didn't heal properly. And the pain was much worse. After everything more or less returned to normal, I went for my final doctor visit to be "released." I asked him if it was O.K. to resume running. He said "I think you need to get a new hobby."

So I stopped. It was a difficult process, but I became reconciled with the fact that my running days were over. My foot no longer hurt, and I eventually kicked the habit. A year of no running finally broke the addiction.

And then my favorite cousin, a runner himself, came to Alabama for a visit. He had just run his first marathon. "You've got to run one with me," he said. "There's nothing like it. When you cross that finish line, it's like no feeling you've ever had." It was not a hard sell--didn't have to be. After all, one drink can relapse a recovering alcoholic. One challenge can relapse a running addict.

So I laced up my running shoes again. There was a marathon in Birmingham in six months, and I believed I could be ready by then. I began to eat miles again, and it felt good. My heel seemed to be holding up. I'd put in four or five miles a day, then take a "long run" of ten to twelve miles on the weekend. I was going to finally achieve a long-held goal. I'd run my marathon.

Two weeks before the big day, I decided to try a twenty-mile run. All the running books say you simply MUST do this before attempting a marathon. I was running 15 miles with ease, but the books say that "15 is not 20." They argue that if you don't run 20 plus miles before race day, you're not likely to finish. The logic seemed reasonable. The body becomes almost totally depleted at about 18-20 miles (runners call it "hitting the wall"); the last few miles is run on shear "will power." The books say that you need to experience this sensation so you can deal with it on race day.

I ran the twenty miles. It was not a problem--until two days later when my right foot went numb. It wasn't really painful, just a weird sensation, similar to that you experience when your foot "goes to sleep." A quick trip to another orthopaedist was bad news: tarsal tunnel syndrome, a swelling in the sheath that contains the main nerve to the toes. It might go eventually away with drugs and rest, but surgery was probably necessary to be cured. I asked about the marathon. "Run it if you can," he said. "The damage is already done."

I went to Birmingham and ran my marathon. It was as my cousin had promised--a feeling of total exhaustion and accomplishment.

Some runners collapse at a marathon finish line; some are giddy; some cry uncontrollably. I was melancholy.

Like Forrest, I knew "my running days was over."

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Buffalo, AL

I have always been intrigued with the names of towns and places. I guess that stands to reason, having been born in a town whose name means "buzzard roost."

This little town in Chambers County, Alabama is not really a town at all. It's more of a bend in the road on US 431 a couple of miles north of the county seat of Lafayette.

I have a neat little book (Place Names in Alabama, by Virginia O. Foscue) that tells me that there was a post office here in 1872. The original settlement was known as "Buffalo Wallow", supposedly referring to a large bald spot on the ground that was in the shape of a buffalo.

That's kind of a let down to me. I had envisioned a time when buffalo might have roamed the rolling hills of Chambers County, pursued by wild-eyed Creek Indians on Spanish ponies.

After all, the next town sign up the road reads "White Plains."

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Monroeville (Part III)

In my previous post, I talked about the uniqueness of Monroeville as the setting of so much great writing. My focus was on the landscape: the buildings, the businesses, and the educational institutions that line her streets. But no town exists separately from it's people. People are shaped and formed from the landscape they inhabit, whether that be the edge of a river, the top of a mountain, or a broad treeless plane. And conversely, no inhabited landscape exists without the influence and mark of her people. They form and shape the landscape; their intellect and personalities are displayed on the land, the buildings, and the very layout and naming of the streets. The people are as much a part of setting or "the muse of location" as is the physical world that contains it. It is the stage on which they act their parts--but also the stage they themselves have built on which to act these parts.

I have two very broad observations concerning the people of Monroeville.

The townspeople that I have encountered over the last two years are among the friendliest I have met anywhere in Alabama. In fact, I've yet to meet an unfriendly person--whether in a hotel, convenience store, or in a parking lot. Surliness, rudeness, or apathy have become all-too-common, even in the mannered South. Yet everywhere I've been in Monroeville, I was asked "Y'all here for the play?", followed by "Where you visiting from?" It is almost as if they had a town meeting, Mayberry style, and instructed all the good citizens on how to treat strangers. Everyone from the young pretty waitress at the Huddle House to the two old men talking gardening and swapping lies on a bench in front a convenience store--all were friendly and helpful.

The other group of people I am so impressed with are the men, women, and children who comprise the cast of the "Mockingbird Players"--those who perform a two-act stage adaptation of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird that is now in it's twentieth year. The production is so well-done that it would be easy to overlook the fact that these people are all amateurs. This obviously means that they give up a great deal of their time to make the play a memorable experience for those of us who have been fortunate enough to make the pilgrimage to Monroeville to experience it.

Although each part is well-played, I'd like to mention three actors specifically:

Atticus, played by Harvey Gaston. Mr. Gaston plays Atticus in the spirit of the novel, as a humble, thoughtful attorney. This is no easy role, especially since most of us probably will forever associate Gregory Peck with the character. Mr. Gaston's real job is as CEO of a local bank. I'm sure that our faltering economy and the woes in the banking industry make him a very busy man. I'm appreciative that he was willing to share his time in what is likely countless hours of preparation for visitors to relive Miss Lee's story.

Scout, played by Carly Jo Martens. Carly is, quite simply, a "show stealer." This is her second year in the part, and I'm somewhat saddened to realize that she is growing up and may likely be too mature to play Scout again after this season's production. When I think of all the things a twelve year old school girl could do with her time, I am again appreciative that she chose to share it with people like me.

Sheriff Heck Tate, played by Pete Coates. Pete plays Heck Tate with the country sheriff's mix of authority and sensibility. His real job is as a forester and real estate broker, so I feel somewhat of a kinship with him, since that is also my real job. I know his time is valuable too, and believe me, if his business has been as slow as mine in this economy, he has a lot on his mind. I'm glad he chose to share that time with us.

Consider taking a short trip to see "To Kill a Mockingbird." I'm sure you'll be impressed with the town and the people of Monroeville, Alabama.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Monroeville (Part II)

I attended the Alabama Writers' Conference last week in Monroeville. The theme of this year's event was "Literature on Location: The Muse of Place." The program was crafted such that various writers from many different genres discussed the effect of location on their stories and writing.

I can't think of a better venue to have such a discussion than Monroeville, the undisputed literary capital of Alabama. And yet, for the life of me I can't exactly figure out why this came to be.

There is something special about this little south Alabama town, something indefinable and unique. It's an intangible quality you can't quite put your finger on, like walking into a familiar room and feeling that something is out of place. A feeling that someone has been in this room before you and moved something--although you can't quite say what has been moved or where it has been moved to.

It is s a uniqueness certainly not readily observed in the landscape of the town itself.

Monroeville is the epitome of the small-town county seat. The state highway leads to the inevitable square, the courthouse prominent in the center of town. The structure is old and beautiful, but no more or less so than similar courthouses in other Alabama towns, like the Clay County courthouse in Ashland or the Macon County courthouse in Tuskegee. The small shops on the square surrounding the old edifice are probably a little more prosperous than in some of these other places, and there seems to be less vacancy and neglect than is the case elsewhere. You will find the requisite cafe, a Christian bookstore, and a coffee shop, along with a smattering of attorneys' offices and mom-and-pop variety stores. None appear wildly prosperous, but nothing is in a state of neglect or rank disrepair either.

The rest of the town could be any small town in Alabama. It is a characterless New South mix of old homes and new; a business district of struggling old shops fighting for survival against the evil empire that is Super Walmart. There are still a few substantial employers, like a business that manufactures concrete road barriers, and a nearby paper mill. But there is also noticeable vacancy and emptiness where jobs once existed, like the Vanity Fair plant that I assume has relocated to more southern climes across the Rio Grande. There are the inevitable fast food franchises and convenience stores, juxtaposed with a few local cafes and locally-owned motels (one of which appeared to have rooms that could be rented by the hour). Near the intersection of two state highways is more modern lodging, a couple of standard franchise hotels offering reasonable rates for the bone-weary traveler who might only stop there because he is too heavy-lidded to continue the journey. All-in-all, there is really nothing particularly remarkable in any way. Like most small southern towns, it is all a jumbled mix of old and new that has robbed away the uniqueness and charm, the kind of character that once separated one town from another.

Monroeville does have a modern and attractive community college. Still I am left to wonder what these young scholars will do upon graduation. With so little employment opportunity to allow them to stay home, I assume that most will leave to find their way in places like Mobile, Pensacola, Atlanta, or Birmingham. Perhaps a few with old family connections will join their fathers and grandfathers in some enterprise that will allow them to make a living in the place of their birth. Others with an entrepreneurial spirit and a little luck may be able to create a place for themselves without leaving--at least I'd like to think this is still possible in small-town Alabama.

None of this accounts for Monroeville's unchallenged position as the literary Mecca of Alabama. A place where pulpwood coexists with great-American novels--cows with great columns.

The number of great writers with connection to Monroeville is astonishing, like the number of great baseball players from the Dominican Republic. There is, of course, Harper Lee, whose To Kill a Mockingbird is required reading in most public schools in the U.S. as well as internationally. Once part-time resident Truman Capote, cousin of Miss Lee, was a man who could craft a sentence and turn a phrase as well as any American author. Others who spent time in Monroeville include legendary singer/songwriter Hank Williams; columnist and writer extraordinaire Rheta Grimsley Johnson; author Mark Childress; columnist Cynthia Tucker; and probably a few others that I am not well-read enough to recall.

So what is it about this place that has lead or contributed to such great writing? Writing is, after all, a very solitary and lonely pursuit. Almost any quiet place should do for the task at hand. The writer's real setting consists of a blank page (or these days, more likely a blank screen) and the overwhelming task of filling the empty spaces with something that he or she deems worthy of occupying the emptiness. It is snatching thoughts and feelings from the ether of the mind and somehow converting them into words and phrases that, hopefully, someone somewhere will want to read and appreciate.

Perhaps it's something in the water. The enterprising local community college has bottled the local water and is selling it under the brand name of "Inspiration." I wish I'd brought a few bottles home to Opelika. I need all the help I can get.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Monday, May 3, 2010

Monroeville, Alabama (Part I)

"It was a gala occasion. There was no room at the public hitching rail for another animal, mules and wagons were parked under every available tree. The courthouse square was covered with picnic parties sitting on newspapers, washing down biscuits and syrup with warm milk from fruit jars. Some people were gnawing on cold chicken and cold fried pork chops. The more affluent chased their food with drugstore Coca-Cola in bulb-shaped soda glasses. Greasy-faced children popped-the-whip through the crowd, and babies lunched at their mothers' breasts.

In a far corner of the square, the Negroes sat quietly in the sun, dining on sardines, crackers, and the more vivid flavors of Nehi Cola."

--from the pre-trial scene of "To Kill A Mockingbird," by Harper Lee.

Last Friday night in Monroeville, this scene was recreated with a few notable differences. The crowd was comprised of the attendees of the 13th Annual Alabama Writers Symposium. Famous and not-so-famous writers were gathered on the courthouse square, along with aspiring wannabes like myself. We dined a little better--a catered meal of catfish, hush puppies, potato salad, and several kinds of dessert, all washed down with fresh lemonade or good south Alabama sweet tea. Negroes and whites not only sat together, but laughed and talked about the day's events. Like the crowd in the famous novel, we were assembled to witness a spectacle.

This was my second visit to Monroeville in as many years to watch one of the best kept secrets in Alabama: a two-act play adaptation of Harper Lee's famous book, performed by a local group of amateur actors who are called "The Mockingbird Players."

On my first visit I had low expectations. A long way to drive to watch a bunch of local-yokels butcher one of the greatest novels in American literature.

Was I ever wrong. I've never been as happy to be wrong.

The annual presentation is as good as any theater production you will see anywhere in the South, amateur or otherwise. The adaptation of Miss Lee's famous book is presented in two acts: the first on the old courthouse lawn, with a set consisting of four small houses where the background of the story takes place. After a brief intermission, the second act is presented in the old courtroom, a set which was painstakingly copied on a lot in Hollywood where the classic movie was filmed.

The actors are all local folks. Jem, Scout, and Dill are all grade-school children (the actress who plays Scout is in her second year at the part. She is so good--it is a shame she is growing up and will likely be too mature for the part next year). The others are from various backgrounds in the community: Atticus is played by the local bank CEO; Sheriff Heck Tate is a local forester and real estate broker; Robert Ewell, played convincingly as the epitome of white trash, ironically happens to be a District Attorney. Some of the actors are new to their parts each year, while others are veterans who have played their roles many times over the twenty year run of the production. Members of the "jury" are chosen from the audience. This year I was honored to be selected to serve. I even received a subpoena, which I will mount in a frame as a treasured keepsake.

Harper Lee was not among the audience. She continues to live a life of seclusion in Monroeville. I wonder if she has ever seen the production that so lovingly honors her famous work? I think she would be pleased.

The production will continue to run throughout the month of May. Information and tickets may be obtained from the Monroeville Chamber of Commerce. Make the drive to Monroeville--you'll be glad you did.

I have some more things I want to write about Monroeville. Please visit me again in a day or two.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Politics of Division

I recently heard a very wise writer (Rick Bragg) say that there are three subjects that every writer or speaker should avoid in Alabama. These are, in order of their importance to Alabamians: football, religion, and politics. Mr. Bragg, I know I should listen to a Pulitzer Prize winner, but I can't help myself. And I'm about to make some folks mad.

I do not write about politics as a general rule because I do not like politics. My personal opinion is that most of the people on the Left think they are smarter than everyone else, while most people on the Right think they are better than everyone else. The majority of the folks who occupy the middle ground don't care too much one way or another, as long as both sides stay out of their wallets.

The typical political dialogue in the U.S. is a malicious rhetoric designed to sway those folks in the middle to one side or the other. It attempts to do this by divisiveness, by pitting one group against another. It is aimed at creating envy or mistrust of your fellow man. Instead of "love your neighbor" it is "watch your neighbor." After all, your neighbor can't be trusted and is probably trying to get something that you are entitled to. Both sides engage in this, Democrat and Republican.

A current example is the T.V. ad campaign for Tim James, Republican candidate for Governor in the election this Fall. The ad, which I understand has been picked up by news outlets nationwide (because it just happens to dovetail so nicely with the immigration debate), says in part "This is Alabama. We speak English. If you want to live here, learn it."

The ad goes on to say that Alabama Driver's License exams are currently administered in twelve different languages. This is an unnecessary cost to the good citizens of Alabama that Mr. James, a self-described "common sense business man" would eliminate if we'll only vote for him.

In actuality, Mr. James could do nothing of the kind if elected. The multi-language driver's license test is federally mandated. Alabama would lose millions in federal highway funds if the exam became "English only." That's not going to happen in a State with so many crumbling roads and bridges.

James surely knows this. He also knows that such a minor cost-savings would do little to solve the State's financial woes--woes so severe that I believe Alabama will join the list of states that are insolvent by the end of this year.

It seems pretty transparent to me that the ad isn't about cost-cutting. It's really about trying to broaden his political base. If middle-class Alabamians aren't buying what he has been selling (as polls indicate), perhaps he can create some racial/cultural division. An easy way is to attack the immigrants and pick up the good 'ole boy and hillbilly vote. After all, all those "Mexicans" (the typical term for all Hispanics in the U.S.) are here illegally, and they aren't going to vote for him anyway, right?

Well Mr. James, here's one hillbilly that ain't going to vote for you.

I have a friend who is deep thinker--a university professor and a gifted poet. I recently read a blurb he wrote on Facebook in which he he made the following statement: "...I am always reminded of the time I was asked if you could be a Christian and vote for a Democrat. My response was that I don't understand how anyone who considers himself/herself a Christian could be a Republican."

Well Rob, I'm beginning to wonder how anyone who is a Christian could be either.