Thanksgiving Tradition

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Last year I wrote about our Thanksgiving tradition of reading aloud a passage from a favorite book as we sat down to dinner. As this year The Old Man and I will again be in Mississippi for the holiday, I will go back to one of my most loved book of letters from two of the state’s best writers: The Correspondence of Shelby Foote & Walker Percy edited by Jay Tolson.

While Foote wrote the wonderful novels Love in a Dry Season and Shiloh, he is best remembered today as the author of The Civil War: A Narrative Trilogy. Percy, a physician by training, made a startling fiction debut in 1961 with The Moviegoer which went on to win the National Book award.  The Moviegoer is the novel that not one but two of the people I hold in highest literary regard have excitedly explained to me how reading it changed their lives…a feeling I completely understand.

Foote and Percy grew up together in Greenville, Mississippi, remaining life long friends and literary confidants, often writing of the daily indignities of a literary life.

“But I am in low estate. I have in mind a futuristic novel dealing with the decline and fall of the U.S….Of that and the goodness of God, and of the merriness of living quite anonymously in the suburbs, drinking well, cooking out, attending Mass… the goodness of Brunswick bowling alleys… coming home of an evening with the twin rubies of the TV transmitter in the evening sky, having 4 drinks of good sour mash…” Percy writes to Foote while working on Love in the Ruins.”

And Foote describes a moment while working on his third volume of The Civil War:

“I killed Lincoln last week — Saturday at noon. While I was doing it (he had his chest arched up, holding his last breath to let it out) some halfassed doctor came to the door with vols I and II under his arm, wanting me to autograph them for his sons for Xmas. I was in such a state of shock, I not only let him in; I even signed the goddam books, a thing I seldom do. Then I turned back and killed him and had Stanton say, “Now he belongs to the ages.’…”

Growing up in the Depression era Delta, William Faulkner’s works obviously had great impact on Foote and Percy. So my reading this year will also include Foote’s eulogy to his friend in October of 1990.

“I would state my hope that Walker Percy will be seen in time for what he was in simple and solemn fact — a novelist, not merely an explicator of various philosophers and divines, existentialist or otherwise. He was no more indebted to them or even influenced by them, than was Proust, say to Schopenhauer and Bergson. Proust absorbed them, and so did Walker absorb his preceptors. Like Flannery O’Connor, he found William Faulkner what Henry James called Maupassant, “a lion in the path.” He solved his leonine problem much as Dante did on the outskirts of hell: he took a different path, around him. Their subject, his and Faulkner’s — and all the rest of ours, for that matter — was the same: ‘the human heart in conflict with itself’.”

Motivation: I Meant To Post This Yesterday

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by Pookie

There is just enough room
on the half-made mattress
for a strategic nap,
body curled carefully around
an assortment of books,
clothes, and technology
that have long been separated
from appropriate housing.

There used to be a chair
next to a former desk,
but it is now a shelf
of laundry that might be clean
and a table of used
and forgotten kitchen-ware.

There is a pathway on what
might be hard-wood floor
from the door to the bed
and the bed to the bookcase,
an artfully mapped plan around
high-heels and dusty sneakers.

The piles keep growing
but there is still enough room
to moderately function.
I will deal with it later

Pookie is a poet and proud Ole Miss Alum who is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree.

A Whole Life In Common

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“You don’t have to have anything in common with people you’ve known since you were five. With old friends, you’ve got your whole life in common.” Lyle Lovett

For a fleeting moment it was just like 1984.

Together for the first time in 31 years at another beautiful wedding; although thankfully this time we were there just to help with last minute errands instead of me wearing my Maid of Honor dress or him giving the Best Man toast.

The former Best Man and I were there to celebrate not only the marriage of a beautiful young couple but to honor the bride’s parents, our individual allies from childhood, to whom friendship means so much. The people who are the first ones that you call for reassurance when you are angry at life or to laugh with when you have the most incredible story; to cry with when a child is sick or a parent has passed; and with whom you simply must share your 50th birthday drinking champagne straight from a bottle while on a boat.

Like all weddings, we reminisced about the old days together. The guys have their skiing and golfing adventures, Pam and I have a childhood spent carpooling to school, Miss Jackie’s dance classes, and the Swim Club in one of our mother’s vehicles. The days back before anyone became very successful in business, before I met and married the Old Man, and way before any of us thought about children of our own.

In the 30 years since my own wedding to the Old Man, I have learned that marriage celebrations are so much more than a couple starting their family. It’s also publicly identifying the friends who will become your life champions just when you need them the most.

So as the Old Man and I danced alongside our friends at their daughter’s wedding reception I just couldn’t help but feel just how lucky I am to have found people with whom I truly have my whole life in common.

The Old Man: Burning in the New Year

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Traditions are one of the ways we tell ourselves and each other who we are. And if you live in a small town, you know how sometimes even the smallest of traditions can carry enormous weight. New Year’s Eve is when my little southern town in Central Florida carries on what is apparently a unique tradition in America.

The Bartow Christmas tree burning has been going on for 78 years according to some accounts. Even though the pile of trees collected and stacked around a 35 foot-tall wooden pole on the edge of a soccer field seems to get a little smaller each year, the tradition keeps going.

A decade-and-a-half ago, when we came to witness our first tree burning, we stumbled across the bumpy grass in a darkness that was so complete we wanted to stretch our hands out before us. Finally, we recognized the dim shapes of dozens people gathered at the edge of the field. We made our way there, recognizing voices from our church and neighborhood. We found a place to stand just as a pinpoint of light from a flashlight ignited above a small podium a dozen yards away.

The voice of S. L. Frisbie IV, the editor and publisher of our town’s twice-weekly newspaper, welcomed everyone and began to explain what was about to happen. With the soft-round vowels of our local accent and the gentle humor that is his trademark, he told the story of how a city councilman in the 1930s worried about the fire hazard of having tinder-dry Christmas trees inside wood frame houses more than a week past the holiday.

This councilman began a rumor that it is bad luck to have a tree in your house after the First of the Year. Once he convinced his colleagues on the City Council of this superstition, he succeeded in winning the City’s approval to hold a community bonfire with donated Christmas trees from the citizens. The idea quickly won support. Whether they were concerned about luck or just wanted to know that their own tree was part of the celebration, people eagerly contributed their trees to the effort, and a new tradition was born.

The bonfire was interrupted during the Second World War over concerns that Nazi U-boat navigators might spot the glow on the horizon. Once we were free from the thought of Germans peering through periscopes at a small town 60 miles inland, the tradition was renewed, and S.L. says the Associated Press occasionally lists our town’s tree burning as an example of unusual community events in America.

And so, our town’s tradition has also become our family’s tradition. Ever since we first came here, we have stumbled through the dark with children and friends to the join the small crowd at the edge of the soccer field.

We listen to S.L. deliver the same monologue — with the same jokes and same wonderment over such things as New Year superstitions and enemy submarines. Then we join the voices in the dark singing a Scottish tune most of us don’t understand the words to. And then we applaud and cheer as the stack of trees bursts into a golden blaze that climbs high into the sky, driving the night from around us.

In this moment we know the past is burning away, and its glow is helping us to see clearly everyone around us, smiling, laughing, and gazing at the flames. On New Year’s Eve, we’ll be there again, celebrating the past and looking forward to the future.

Happy New Year!

A Thanksgiving Reading

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By The Old Man and Me

Under an opaque sky and the damp cool air you get in the South before the freezes come, the cedars and magnolias of the old Faulkner mansion regarded us with silent suspicion as we unfolded our little wooden table.

It was Thanksgiving and we had the grounds as well as the holiday to ourselves since it was the first time neither of our children could make it home. We spread the cheery tablecloth, popped the wine cork, and let the smell of bakery pumpkin pie, BBQ joint smoked turkey legs, and homemade stuffing made for us by a friend fill the air of Rowan Oak.

Before we ate, we started a new tradition. We each brought a favorite book and read a passage that meant something to us. Since we were on the sacred grounds of Rowen Oak, we read from “Absalom, Absalom” and “As I Lay Dying.” The next year, as we sat in our own Florida backyard, we read from a variety of writers including Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and Mark Twain.

This year we will again be separated by too many miles when the time comes to sit and give thanks on Thursday. But no matter where we are, whether it is at an extended family gathering in Lake Wales, Florida, a restaurant in Albuquerque, or an Army base in Missouri, we will stop and say a few words. And hopefully some beautifully constructed passages from a favorite book will make each of us feel “at home.”

This year one of the books we will be reading from is Mark Richard’s glorious 2011 memoir “House of Prayer No. 2.” Writing beautifully in the second person, Richard’s memoir is equally funny, heartbreaking and poignant. A good story is definitely something to be thankful for.

Here is a favorite passage:

“You tag along when they go down to Roanoke to pick up Truman Capote at the airport, and the first thing he wants is a drink, and the only place your friend with the limousine knows is the Polynesian restaurant by the airport where they serve birdbath-sized drinks with fruit and parasols, and Mr. Capote says, Perfect! You’re supposed to keep an eye on the time because you still have an hour drive to school, but Mr. Capote keeps ordering scorpions, and you’re all getting drunk listening to him talk about a man who injected rattlesnakes with amphetamines and put them in a car that someone got into and the doors locked once he got in and he was bitten to death, isn’t that something? It’s true, it’s true! He keeps saying in a catlike voice; he says he has the newspaper clippings to prove it.

By the time you get to the school auditorium for the reading, people are leaving, and there are some people really angry with you. Mr. Capote requested a pink spotlight, and even though he’s had as much to drink as you, he goes right to the podium and gives a reading of a Christmas story that makes people cry. Afterward, he signs two books for you; one you give to the father of a girl you are in love with who will die. She will be your first true love. When you would drive out to her gentlemen farmer’s house, you’d take bunches of gardenias cut from your neighbors’ bushes, and while you’d wait for her to get ready, you and her father would sit on the back patio if it wasn’t too buggy; his house was near the river where you could still see trenches from the siege of Suffolk, and the two of you would talk books, Faulkner and Camus. For years after she dies, when you would run into each other, you both try not to cry.”

“Happy Landings”

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Today it lives amongst the marriage license, birth certificates and passports in a special container.

The Plant City Courier envelope is addressed “Happy Landings” to me. Inside is a three-page typed letter on thin, yellowed paper, dated September 6, 1977. It was my going away gift from my first boss and editor, Kathryn Cooke, as I left to study journalism at the University of Florida.

Kathryn Cooke was a legendary columnist and Florida writer from the 1930s until her death in 1985. Her newspaperman husband, A.P. Cooke, purchased the paper during World War II.  He ran the Courier until his death and then Kathryn kept it going.

She sat across from me in the Courier’s one-room newsroom, chain smoking, pounding away on her old manual typewriter and frequently reapplying her bright lipstick. Although she couldn’t have weighed more than 90 pounds, she dominated political and social life in town for years with her barbed weekly columns, great laugh and her preference for gold lame.

She hired me to work at the paper in the afternoons after school and then full-time during the summer writing the obligatory wedding announcements, obituaries and eventually some news and feature stories.

On my last day, she called me over to her desk, handed me the letter and left for her daily lunch ritual. It remains one of the best gifts—and best advice on writing—I have ever received.

Here is the letter:

Dear Becky,

I’ve been trying to find a little ‘going away’ gift for you. And finally I found one I could afford—a bit of advice that might help you in your writing career.

You will hear a lot of high-falluting talk from journalism profs about how to write. Take it with a grain of salt because half of them have never been within smelling distance of a sure-enough newspaper office.

The only way to learn to write well is by writing and re-writing, and writing some more. Aim for perfection. Get your facts and present them in a way that readers will understand—even those readers who haven’t gone beyond the ninth grade.

Write leanly. After you’ve done a news story, read it over, cut out unnecessary words. Say what you have to say—and get off the soap box.

You must learn to use words as an organist does with the keys of his mighty instrument. If it’s a funny tale, use light, airy phrases. If it’s a tragedy, set the mood with grim, tear-jerking phrases.

Make your readers SEE what you’re writing about. Don’t say “He walked down the street.” Describe exactly how he walked with action verbs—“He scurried” or “He ambled” or “He dashed.” Go easy on the adjectives, such as “lovely”, “pretty”, “ugly.” Use verbs instead to make your story come alive.

You will be required to write a variety of stories—straight, news, features, maybe even a column.

When writing a news story, put your lead on the most important fact. Sift your facts carefully; present them succinctly in the order of their importance. Beat your rival newspaper by finding a new twist to a situation.

In a news story, you can jump into the “meat” of the story immediately. Don’t beat around the bush. A feature story permits more lee-way. First, whet the appetite of your readers with a picturesque lead or a provocative lead.

You can back into a feature story; but a news story you should dive in head first.

Try and cover every conceivable question your readers may ask. Be curious; ask a lot of questions when interviewing. Be thorough.

Example: that feature you did on J.Y. Blake retiring. Several questions were left unanswered. For instance, what happens to his drug store? Is he closing or selling? If selling, to whom?

In writing news or featured, remember to keep yourself out. Do not interject your feelings or opinions. Write straight down the middle without bias.

Only in a personal column are you permitted to express your views.

You have chosen one of the most demanding, the most frustrating, the most exasperating careers of all. None of us newspaper people ever get wealthy, if you count wealth by money.

But the true rewards are many—newspapering is fun, satisfying, challenging. There’s something new every day—nothing ho-hum or routine about it.

Perhaps the most interesting facet is the people you will meet—people from all walks of life. You’ll learn to spot the phonies, but don’t ever become bitter. Above all, keep your sense of humor. It will show through your writing and become a delight to your readers.

Finally, keep writing a little each day. Writing is like tennis—it takes practice to keep in shape. Even if you marry and give up a career, keep a diary. Who knows? It may become a best seller?

I’ve really enjoyed working with you this summer, Becky. You’re a great gal and will make a doggone good newspaperwoman. My best wishes go with you in your future and if I can ever be of help, let me know.

Sincerely,
Kathryn Cooke

Any Grove: For This Is An Enchanted Land

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I believe that no writer has more accurately described Florida better than Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Writing from her little Cracker house near an orange grove over 70 years ago, Rawlings was able to perfectly capture this sometimes wacky but always special place:

“Any grove of any wood is a fine thing to see. But the magic here, strangely, is not apparent from the road. It is necessary to leave the impersonal highway, to step inside the rusty gate and close it behind. By this, an act of faith is committed, through which one accepts blindly the communion cup of beauty. One is now inside the grove, out of the world and in the mysterious heart of another. Enchantment lies in different things for each of us. For me, it is in this: to step out of the bright sunlight into the shade of orange tree; to walk under the arched canopy of their jade like leaves; to see the long aisle of lichened trunks stretch ahead in geometric rhythm; to feel the mystery of a seclusion that yet has shafts of light striking through it. This is the essence of an ancient and secret magic. It goes back, perhaps to the fairy tales of childhood, to Hansel and Gretel, to Babes in the Wood, to Alice in Wonderland, to all half-luminous places that pleased the imagination as a child. It may go back still farther, to racial Druid memories, to an atavistic sense of safety and delight in an open forest. And after long years of spiritual homelessness, of nostalgia, here is that mystic loveliness of childhood again. Here is home. An old thread, long tangled, comes straight again.

From Rawlings autobiographic work, Cross Creek, published in 1942 and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

If you’ve never read Cross Creek, or haven’t thought of Rawlings since you read The Yearling in middle school… check it out. The recipes in Cross Creek and subsequent book, Cross Creek Cookery are as outstanding as her prose.

That’s My Book!

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Talk about a jolt back to the past!

Over 20 years ago, a friend and I collaborated on a book about former members of Congress. It got published, received some nice praise and merited a few articles including one in The Washington Post. It seems like a lifetime ago.

But there I was on Sunday morning, blissfully combing through a wonderful private library at a local estate sale.  Although I fully expected to find rare first editions, I did NOT expect to see my own book!  I confess to pangs of an indistinguishable emotion when I saw the product of two years of hard work suddenly appearing from out of the ether in its bright blue cover. I can best describe it as seeing a high school flame years later; what was once of great importance and is now simply a reminder of a time and place.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this book, it truly changed my life from a stay-at-home mom who occasionally did freelance assignments to a working political journalist. Because of the book I had the opportunity to travel across the country, meeting some of the most interesting and occasionally notorious people who had ever served in the U.S. Congress. And it opened the doors to some unbelievable career opportunities for me.

However, I have not opened it in years since the stories inside the book are still fresh in my memory. What took me back when I did scan the pages were the acknowledgements. That is where I thanked friends who are thankfully still in my life, as well as The Old Man, my mother and the kids who had just started elementary school and have now grown into adults with their own careers.  It took me back to a time before we ever even thought of The Old House.

I eventually snapped back to the present at the estate sale.  I added my book to the others I had picked off the shelf in the dead stranger’s house, and proceeded to the checkout. That is where (if The Old Man is telling you the story) I went little nuts. As the young clerk started to tally up my purchases, I proclaimed that “I wrote this book and I’m not going to pay for it.”

“OK,” he responded. “How much is it?”

Whoops, I hadn’t checked on that. “It’s a dollar,” I told him.

“Well, we can let you have it,” he said with a smile.

As we walked down the driveway my moment of victory was short-lived when The Old Man said: “He didn’t check your ID against the book, did he?”

He knew.

Old Man Monday: Three reasons why my old typewriter beats your laptop like it owes me money

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By The Old Man

I have a lingering fixation on old typewriters, and if I am any judge, this hardly qualifies as unique. Scope out any vintage store, hipster hangout or flea market and you are likely to find several cool old manual typewriters, often with price tags over $100.

This is a good thing.

Some of these machines become merely display pieces on someone’s book case. Some, tragically, are dismantled, their keys transformed into cufflinks or some other form of art. But the most fortunate machines continue to serve the noble purpose for which they were originally constructed: pounding words onto paper with decisive snaps.

I think more people need to rediscover the joys of writing on a typewriter, and here is why:

First, typing a note to someone is unique and private, especially in this age of cut and paste opinions and social media exposure. If you type someone a note or a letter and mail it to them, they know you did something specifically for them. You didn’t post if for an audience to see, and even if the ideas or words are not completely original, they passed directly from your fingertips through the keys of that old machine and onto the paper.

Second, I think typing is helpful to the writing process. Taking the electronic pulses of your brain and converting them into something tangible like ink on paper helps to solidify your thinking during the drafting period. Converting those brain pulses simply to some other group of electrons in a computer is too impermanent. You need to commit to your words and your ideas. The declarative striking of metal on paper reinforces that commitment. Take a pencil or pen to this draft and then re-type it into computer. I bet you will be happier with the results.

Third, old typewriters are iconic. Find a famous photograph of any writer from the mid-century or earlier: Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Hunter Thompson, and it will likely be of them and one of their favorite machines. They might be smoking a cigarette or sipping something brown from a glass, but they are also thinking about what’s on that page in front of them. And you can find a machine just like one that your favorite writer used. Of course, having a 1936 Royal doesn’t mean you will start writing like Dorothy Parker, but writing is tough, and you take inspiration where you find it.

Fifty years from now, nobody is going to be fondly typing on a 2014 Mac Air. But my 1940 Underwood will still be going strong, even if I am not.

Here is what to look for in an old typewriter:

1. All typewriters have things that mark their era. For example, pre-World War II machines often have glass-topped typewriter keys. Later ones will usually be plastic.

2. A lot of typewriter collectors have taken the time to create websites with historic information about the various typewriter brands. Some even post old owner’s manuals and serial numbers with manufacturing dates online.

3. If you find a machine you like but are worried about keys that seem sticky, look closely to see if it seems rusty or dusty. Dust you can clean out with compressed air or sometimes with a rag and some isopropyl alcohol (keep this away from plastic and rubber parts, however!). Rust is a much more difficult problem to fix.

4. Be conservative about using oil – it attracts and holds dust, which can make sticking parts eventually stick worse.

5. There are lots of sources online for new and restored ribbons, including advice on how to re-ink your own ribbons.

The Old Man can be found teaching vocabulary to his gun dog in the back yard of the Old House and occasionally typing his ridiculous and profane thoughts on an old Underwood typewriter.

Louise Shivers

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From the Washington Post obituary of Louise Shivers, a “late-blooming” writer:

“When she discovered writing, she found a voice for herself and for other women who didn’t have a chance to speak up on their own.

‘There are so many stories that women have known,’ she said. ‘Every time I pick up a pot, I think of my mother or my grandmother. So much was going on around them, but they never got out of the kitchen to tell about it’.”

I had never heard of Louise Shivers before she died. But now she’s one of my heroes.

Her book, Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail, is still available.

Or just check out her obituary…it might be the best thing you read all day!

http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/louise-shivers-late-blooming-author-of-here-to-get-my-baby-out-of-jail-dies-at-84/2014/07/30/ae909360-17fc-11e4-9349-84d4a85be981_story.html?wpmk=MK0000200