My review of Richard Rhodes’s new biography of naturalist Edward O. Wilson, Scientist, is now available on the Alabama Writers’ Forum website.
In the backyard, outside the window where I write, pines rise up a steep hill. The trees and a thick groundcover of amber-red pine straw almost camouflage the deer who frequent the woods; they are usually there when I open the blinds in the morning. Birds chirp and go back and forth among the feeders hanging on the fence and up the hill. Because of the hill, the sun takes its time appearing over the ridge; finally, it appears and emblazons the landscape in a panoply of light and shadow. A feisty squirrel invades the bird feeders, oblivious to the spicy mix that was put there to deter him.
In the front of the house, I open the front door and hear the incessant hum of traffic on the interstate nearby. Trees mostly block the view of the cars in the distance, but the hum is constant. My townhouse’s interior spaces serve as a limbo between these two contrasting worlds; my townhouse functions as my “safe place” in a never-ending pandemic with too many people ignoring the seriousness and consequences it entails.
I have to admit that the word “dystopia” has been creeping into my thoughts lately.
In an undergraduate political theory class, a long time ago, I wrote a paper on “anti-utopian novels” – books which would more commonly be called “dystopian” now. As I recall, I considered 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451, and Player Piano, and included a mention of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon as an outlier that comes close but does not totally fit the category.
I think of dystopia when I go to the grocery store and try to avoid the unmasked people. I look at them with suspicion as they look back at me, often with apparent contempt. I think of dystopia as I follow the investigations into the insurrection of January 6, 2021, and see footage from the invasion of the U.S. Capitol that is, in its own way, every bit as disturbing as the footage of the Twin Towers collapsing on 9/11.
I heard a story on NPR today in which two women were having a serious-sounding discussion about the racial implications of the emoji colors one chooses. On NPR! I didn’t think of dystopia then; I just got depressed. I have never used emojis and, if I ever did, it would be in a whimsical spirit of irony. Now, knowing that my choice of emoji might mark me as racist, I will continue to ignore that option.
I think of dystopia when I hear people who identify as Christian, and whom I used to think of as good and reasonable people, support a dissembling celebrity politician – a wannabe autocrat – whose morals, life, and lifestyle fly in the face of everything they profess to believe. I pray that those people will finally abandon the Big Lie about the 2020 election and those who perpetrated it.
It’s an election year in my home state and I think of dystopia when I see the campaign ads of the incumbent governor, running for reelection, delivering a barely articulate diatribe against the current President and telling Washington that they don’t run our business. Or something like that – it’s hard to know what she says half the time. This woman (a friend of mine calls her “Governor Mee-Maw”) doesn’t hesitate to take and spend every dollar of federal money our state can get while challenging the government that authorized it and refusing to expand healthcare fairly to the population. A known January 6 insurrectionist, running for the U.S. Senate, touts his endorsement and support from the man whose insurrection he supported, while his opponents line up to try to outdo each other in their opposition to vaccinations, mask mandates, and the current President, their support of firearms, and their Christian credentials. One guy, who has never met an election he couldn’t lose, is going to go after the “secular left” that, he says, is destroying our country. One candidate even vows to build the “wall” (have we not moved past the wall?) while another has revealed that he was called by God to run for the U.S. Senate. And, just like the prophet Isaiah, he responded, “Here am I; send me.”
These candidates use the word “socialism” as a scare tactic, with the full knowledge that most of the audience for these ads have no clue what “socialism” actually means. They just know they’ve been told it’s bad by politicians who probably don’t know what it means either.
I guess I should be able to take some slight comfort in knowing that these tactics are national, and not confined to my home state of Alabama. But it concerns me that these politicians are making their statements and accusations as if they speak for all Alabamians and that is so far from the truth.
For the record: I am an independent liberal and support everything that label implies. I understand and can have an intelligent and factual conversation about socialism. I do not believe the 2020 election was “stolen” from anyone. I support universal health care. I do not own guns and I support strict gun restrictions. I don’t condone banning books. I am fully vaccinated and boostered; I have been fortunate in not having COVID yet. I will wear a mask in public until I determine it’s safe to take it off. I trust the science and understand that only we humans can address the threats of climate change. I am an Alabamian, the son and grandson and great-grandson of native Alabamians, the descendant of soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, and am committed to work for progressive change within my home state. I love college football (Roll Tide) and don’t care much for NASCAR. I am not alone in Alabama and will work for change from within — not criticize from without. Any questions?
I think of dystopia when I hear a woman earnestly tell a school board meeting that her children will never wear masks and that she will bring out all of her guns – “loaded” – if anyone tries to mandate masks.
I have tried to remain silent about these things because, frankly, such insipid cluelessness scares me. But these people have no qualms about spewing and supporting these lies to my face, on social media, and on television, so it’s time they begin to know how I feel – I’m not on board with their callous stupidity.
A new book that captures the zeitgeist of our current moment is Noah Hawley’s novel, Anthem. A post-pandemic dystopian novel, Anthem looks at a time in the near future when young people are starting to commit suicide in alarming numbers, leaving a distinctive meme behind. I recently ran across an excerpt from Anthem in which the author, addressing the reader directly, apologizes for the ridiculous world he has created in the novel, explaining that the senseless world in which we currently live is equally ridiculous. He writes:
“Consider this: … 34 percent of his neighbors have gone to war against tiny pieces of fabric worn across the nose and mouth. They believe these tiny pieces of fabric are robbing them of their personal freedom. And so they have declared war against these pieces of fabric, even as scientists present evidence that those same tiny pieces of fabric will protect them from a deadly virus sweeping the globe, killing millions. But for the 34 percent, the fabric, not the virus, is the enemy. And so they lie dying in hospitals from a disease they argue does not exist.”
I am weary of the pandemic, of politics, of all of it. Still, I look for comfort to the artists that are dealing in their own ways with our current moment and Anthem – despite its Tarantino-level violence and most disturbing plotlines – fits the bill. On the other hand, David Byrne’s jubilant stage show, American Utopia, is upbeat and hopeful while acknowledging the challenges all around us. That show existed before the pandemic, but it somehow is perfect for its moment as captured on film by filmmaker Spike Lee. I see new fiction dealing with life during the pandemic in publications like The New Yorker and The Paris Review. Poet Hank Lazer’s 2020 collection of poetry, COVID19 SUTRAS, tackled the situation head-on in its early months.
Somehow, the writing influenced by the pandemic era is more meaningful than the deluge of daily headlines. They are tackling difficult times but provide a balm in its midst. Their efforts show me that, in a still isolated time, I am not alone and can always look to our shared artistic community for comfort and support in times of stress.
When I started this online journal, I did not plan for it to become political. But I didn’t plan for the current crises we are forced to navigate, either.
I think of dystopia when I worry that we are now living in one. Even so, there are silhouettes of deer grazing atop the hill and birds are chirping in the yard. There is peace for a moment.
CEO Stephanie Stuckey, who is doing clever, great, and promising things with her family’s brand, recently shared one of my 2020 essays on the Stuckey’s website. Here’s the link:
Two of my recent book reviews have just been published on the Alabama Writers’ Forum website (www.writersforum.org). Fight Songs by Ed Cotton is particularly appropriate on the day of the NCAA college football championship game.
Hank Lazer’s field recordings of mind in morning is a contemplative book of poems which asserts that “living now / must be / elegiac.” The book is accompanied by music by Holland Hopson.
I got a brick for Christmas. And it was one of the more meaningful presents I received.
It was a brick from the ruins of the demolished Ensley High School, my father’s alma mater, on Birmingham’s west side. The building held its first classes in 1910 and closed at the end of the 2005-2006 academic year. A fire gutted the abandoned school in 2018 and its final demolition began in 2021 to make way for a multi-use complex.
Grover Journey graduated from Ensley in the early 1950s and was student body vice-president in his senior year. Mother and I always marveled that, wherever we might be, Dad could sniff out an Ensley grad from his era.
Listening to Dad’s stories, I always had the impression that their bitterest high school rivals were in Woodlawn, across the city on the east side of town. The Woodlawn community is having a resurgence these days and Ensley, which went into a rapid decline when its steel mills closed in the ‘70s, is now looking forward to its own renaissance. It has a long way to go. Dad’s boyhood home is one of only two houses still standing on the once crowded block where he grew up and met Mother.
Along with the pink-ish tan exterior brick, my special Christmas gift included a well-worn and annotated copy of Shakespeare’s King Henry the Eighth from what was once a voluminous Ensley High School Library. The card in the book has signatures of withdrawals dating from the 1920s to the 1950s. A student named Charles Ingram checked it out seven times in succession in 1956. My mother also received a brick and a Shakespeare volume and I now worry about the fate of all of the other books from the EHS Library. I’m hoping there is an effort to preserve them.
That precious Ensley High School brick now joins another brick from a long-gone Birmingham landmark. The Tutwiler Hotel, opened in 1914 on Twentieth Street downtown, was the grande dame of the city’s hotels until it closed for good in 1972. It was imploded in 1974. The implosion did not go quite as planned; one part of the building crumbled to the ground – I remember watching it live on television – and another part stayed up and was eventually demolished by more conventional methods.
Not long after the demolition, I made my way through an opening in the fence at the construction site and grabbed a brick as a keepsake of the place. It has now been with me spanning six decades and many moves. In fact, I am looking at it as I write these words.
The Ridgely Apartments, near Linn Park and a few blocks from the old Tutwiler, were refurbished and re-christened as the “Tutwiler Hotel” in 1986. The Ridgely building was actually built a year earlier than the original Tutwiler with the involvement of some of the same developers and architects, so I guess it’s a fair enough trade-off if the original had to go. I’ve stayed there a few times, but when somebody tells me they are staying at “the Tutwiler,” I am quick to point out that there was once a grander, “real and original,” Tutwiler.
Preservation efforts in Birmingham have never fully recovered from the loss of Birmingham’s magnificent Terminal Station in a 1969 demolition. The building’s elaborate Beaux-Arts design featured two 130-foot towers and an elaborate dome covered in tile and a decorative glass skylight. Its loss opened eyes, spurred other cities’ preservation efforts, and made Birmingham preservationists more tenacious.
Birmingham’s Southern Research Institute (SR), an affiliate of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), has dealt a blow to Birmingham preservation with its acquisition of and plans to destroy Quinlan Castle, a medieval-inspired, stone-clad former apartment building on a rise in Birmingham’s Southside, built in 1927.
SR’s CEO, in a sketchy, badly-composed justification of the institute’s decision to demolish the building, describes the proposed bland replacement building as a “castle for the 21st Century.” He also has the bad taste and gall to cite the collapse of the Surfside condo in Miami as a motivating factor for the decision to destroy the castle.
Nobody is fooled. It is clear to anyone who knows that building that it could never have become a research laboratory and I’m not sure why Southern Research has to use that ruse as a justification for the demolition of a historic element of local urban architecture. UAB and Southern Research have the clout to do about anything they care to on the Southside. UAB already blighted part of the Southside skyline by erecting an eyesore – an oversized parking shed that they refer to as the football team’s “practice field.” So I think the big question for many of us now is why the SR expansion has to happen on the Quinlan Castle site.
In 1990, when I was moving to Birmingham to take a theatre job, my apartment hunting began with Quinlan Castle. It was already pretty run-down, and closed a few years later, but the charm of the building was intact and it had mighty potential. The small apartments, which would have been quite snazzy in the Roaring ‘20s, opened onto a central courtyard. There were even cannons in a couple of the turrets along the crenellated roof. It would have been perfect for me as a college student, but I had moved on and opted for a more modern abode up the mountain. Still, the castle gave me a smile each day as I passed it on the way to work.
I went to Quinlan Castle around Christmas, just to see if it is still standing. As of a couple of weeks ago, it’s still there. A part of me hopes that cooler heads have prevailed and that SR is considering other sites for its “21st Century castle” of innocuous sterile labs.
If you’re in the area, go over to 2030 9th Avenue South and pay homage to another endangered part of Birmingham architectural history while it still stands.
Point Clear, Alabama. I drive down I-65 this week, renewing my annual holiday trip to the Grand Hotel, the venerable resort at Point Clear, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. It’s my first attempt at a vacation in two years.
On the drive down, somebody on the radio plays an audio clip from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965), the first and best of the animated specials based on Charles Schultz’s “Peanuts” cartoon strip. You know the scene: Charlie Brown, in frustration, asks if anybody knows the true meaning of Christmas. This is Linus’s cue to step into the spotlight and recite the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke.
What strikes me in this listening is the simple, forthright performance of the script by the child actors. Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) asks, “Doesn’t anybody / know / what Christmas / is all about?” and the line has a haiku-like cadence that captures the wistful innocence of youth.
At Point Clear, the massive live oaks seem untouched by pandemic and recent hurricanes; Christmas lights around the lagoon are as profusely tasteful and satisfying as ever and the Civil War cannon is fired in the distance, maintaining a daily ritual. Ancient branches of live oaks drape over the pathways, belighted as natural arches for the season.
This trip – after a longer than usual absence and the factors that delayed it – is more reflective. A CD of George Winston’s classic album, December, found under a stack of CDs in the car, becomes the soundtrack for the trip. In the room, I stream podcasts by my friend, Lily Miceli, who hosts “InBetween the Music” for Wisconsin Public Radio. She recently shared two Christmas-themed programs:
Libby Rich, who ran an amazing garden shop called Plant Odyssey in Birmingham’s Lakeview neighborhood for years, now shares her expertise on Libbyrich’s Blog https://libbyrich.wordpress.com/2021/12/13/a-roll-of-quarters. My gardening inspiration growing up was my Granddaddy Harbison, but it was in Libby’s Lakeview shop that I honed my knowledge of plants and gardens. She is a formidable presence with a kind heart and voluminous knowledge of growing things. Libby’s Christmas-themed essay, “A Roll of Quarters,” is about a customer who always bought his Christmas poinsettias at Plant Odyssey, leaving a roll of quarters for her to treat her staff. My dad collected coins, mainly quarters, in his retirement and often gifted special people with a roll. Libby’s post, read on my balcony overlooking the lagoon and Mobile Bay beyond, is especially poignant in this season of remembrance.
Along for the ride, also, are a well-worn copy of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” and a brand-new copy of the first novel by artist Julyan Davis, whom I have known for many years. Davis’s A History of Saints is a jaunty satire set in Asheville, North Carolina. It reminds me, in ways, of the Alabama author Eugene Walter, who thought parenthetically and found the joy in eccentricity all around him. I won’t quite finish Julyan’s book on this trip, but I’m enjoying the ride https://smpbooks.com/product/a-history-of-saints.
On the first full day here, I go out in search of old churches I haven’t yet photographed in the area. After photographing a promising prospect near the town of Foley, I have car trouble in Summerdale and call AAA for a tow. The first AAA dispatcher I talk to (who I later learned was talking to me from California) is rude when I tell her I am in an unfamiliar place and don’t know where my car should be towed. She tells me that she can’t assist me until I tell her where I want my car to be towed; I respond, “I don’t know – isn’t that your job?” and she disconnects me.
On the next try, I reach a more helpful AAA dispatcher who connects me with a local towing company and auto mechanics in Foley who couldn’t be nicer. The unexpected adventure turns out fine in the end and introduces me to a helpful cab driver, a charming hotel shuttle driver, concerned workers at the Summerdale Civic Complex, and Gelato Joe’s Italian Restaurant and Tiki Bar (www.gelato-joes.com).
My car spent the night in Foley but I can’t be unhappy to be “stranded” at the Grand and enjoy catching up with familiar and new faces among the resort staff, while noting that some favorite faces have moved on in the two years since I was last here.
I usually make the trip alone and enjoy it; occasionally, I am able to rendezvous with old friends, and that is pleasant, too. This trip has been a solo experience, so I have had plenty of opportunity to observe and chat with new people.
On the first night here, while dining at Southern Roots at the resort, I notice a party of four. A couple of nights later, at a restaurant in downtown Fairhope, I spot the same foursome at a table across the room. Back at the hotel, waiting for the elevator, one of the women of the group emerges with a motorized scooter. “Were you just at Camellia Café?” I ask.
“Are you the guy who was eating at the end of the bar?” she responds. “We were talking about you.”
“Why?” I ask. She says that I was an interesting looking person dining alone at the bar and they wondered what my story was.
“My story was that I was having dinner.”
I explain that this trip is my annual pre-Christmas escape and that I usually travel solo. This leads to an interesting conversation and I ask my new acquaintance (who is now on my Christmas card list) if that’s her mother waiting for her at the car. Indeed, the second lady of the foursome, my new acquaintance’s mother, stands patiently in the parking lot, waiting for her transport.
I may have seemed alone to the party of four, but I feel surrounded by friends down here. I have been to the Grand so many times that it feels like a kind of “home” to me (I even manage to stay in the same room each visit). I have caught up with people I see on every trip, had my annual massage in the spa, and grabbed a meal at some favorite places.
I have felt the presence of friends – Lily, Libby, Julyan, and others – as I relax in my room. It’s my final night and I try a place that’s new, that wasn’t here on my last trip, before the world shifted in March 2020. The Hope Farm (www.thehopefarm.com) is a sprawling urban farm complex off Fairhope’s main drag with a restaurant and wine bar and a steadfast commitment to local, fresh, and sustainable nourishment. After failing to find fresh oysters on the half-shell in my first few meals down here, I am pleased to find fresh Murder Point oysters, my favorite from Bayou La Batre across the bay, at The Hope Farm restaurant, which instantly becomes another of my favorite places to eat in Fairhope. I make a note to return often on regular sojourns to Baldwin County.
In the morning, I will drive back home to Birmingham after stopping for relishes at Punta Clara Kitchen, a bag of satsumas at Harrison Farms roadside stand, and pecans for Christmas and New Year’s dinners. I will pick up a Po’Boy at Market by the Bay in Daphne to eat along the way. I have a list of historic churches for photos on detours heading north. Like Charlie Brown and Linus, I will continue to find poetry in the season and remain hopeful for better days in the year ahead.
A favorite memory of the day after Thanksgiving is of my parents taking me to Pizitz department store in downtown Birmingham and taking the escalators to the sixth floor and Santa’s Enchanted Forest. The memory of that tradition that stands out most for me was probably in the mid ‘60s. The line wound through cheerful displays of reindeer, winter scenes, and elves at work in their workshop. At the end of the path, Santa on his throne was there to greet all. After Pizitz, we trekked across the street to check out the holiday windows at Loveman’s and went a few blocks north to see the city’s newly-lit Christmas tree in Woodrow Wilson (now Linn) Park. Finally, my parents took me to a book store on Southside and treated me to a book of my choosing. In this particular memory, it was a Dr. Seuss book.
Pizitz is now a residential building where I go to see indie films at Sidewalk Cinema and to grab a bite in the expansive food hall. Loveman’s long ago became a children’s science museum. But I never go to that part of town without remembering that one special night after Thanksgiving.
I thought of Santa’s Enchanted Forest this week when I took my mother to the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Center for “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience.” People of all ages wandered through the three rooms of the event and I realized, as I watched kids scamper around, that a memorable holiday experience was being created for a lot of people that night.
One of the odd cultural touchstones of this second year of pandemic is the fact that about half a dozen “immersive” shows inspired by the art of Vincent Van Gogh have sprung up and been attended by enthusiastic responses wherever they landed around the world. The iteration playing in Birmingham through January 2 is the creation of French-Canadian Mathieu St-Arnaud and his team at Montreal’s Normal Studio. A Monet immersion is beginning to make the rounds and I understand that a Frida Kahlo event is in the works for 2022.
The art of each of those artists seems ripe for the sort of trippy experience I witnessed in Birmingham. The “Beyond Van Gogh” immersion begins with a line moving through a room that serves as a primer for Van Gogh, with panels providing capsule synopses of the artist’s often tortured life, interspersed with comments that include quotes from letters between Vincent and his brother, Theo. The viewer then enters the “Waterfall Room,” which seems to be there primarily to acclimate the audience to the main room. Vertigo is a real risk as the flowing abstractions move down the wall and across the floor. I realized that I needed to be careful about looking down.
The main room, which the publicity bills as “masterpieces … freed from frames” is the reason for the experience. Scored to instrumental music, with an occasional voiceover, the room has projected images flowing across all walls, on three tall triangular pillars in the middle, and over the floor. Some projections are reproductions of Van Gogh’s work but much of the event is flowing abstractions and layering of images from line to detail to color to a recognizable painting. When we entered the room, almond blossoms covered the walls and floor; some of the flora was static while other petals floated gracefully all around. It was a breathtaking moment to enter.
The audience is free to move around. Several sat on the floor. Some moved constantly, others stayed in one place; cameras and selfies were abundant all around. The experience is truly beautiful and mesmerizing in many ways. As I get older, I am more drawn to contemplative experiences, art that frees the mind to wander and find connections. Several dozen people of all ages were in the room and it seemed that each viewer was having a singular experience.
The musical score is often soothing, often soaring, and generally adds to the grandeur of the experience. There is, for me at least, one jarring exception: A lovely instrumental version of Paul Simon’s “America” plays in conjunction with the almond blossoms and beyond. That song is so familiar, at least to a Boomer like me, that I found myself humming along and distracted. Why I thought is “America” part of a Van Gogh exhibit? I still haven’t figured it out.
There have been snarky reviews and comments about the various Van Gogh immersions by art critics around the country. (I’ve written a fair amount of critical essays and reviews through the years and I know snark when I see it; I have perpetrated it on occasion.) The reviews seem to feel that the public domain status of Van Gogh’s work is being exploited and that the various immersions cheapen the work. They don’t think the works’ complexity is given its due or something like that. They don’t think it educates enough – or something like that.
Mainly, however, the snark seems to be aimed at the audience: They take too many selfies; they miss out on the true experience of viewing the works in a museum. There are children running around. It’s all just too “commercial.” The producers make a bald-faced appeal to the audience, especially the “influencers,” to take photos and spread the word. The gift shop is offensive … Or something like that. I saw one article that even told readers which museums they could go to and see the actual works represented in the immersion. That piece was by a New York writer.
I get their righteous snark. I really do; there were moments during the event when I felt that I was being a little bit suckered. But they miss the point. These enterprises are clearly commercial and are buoyed by the entertainment aspect of a necessary and mostly pleasant escapism inspired by the art of Vincent Van Gogh. All audiences do not necessarily have the access to the authentic art of Van Gogh that a New York audience might. And I suspect that the majority of the audience for an “immersive” art experience already has at least a basic knowledge of the art they’re being immersed in; that’s probably why they bought the ticket to begin with (and it’s not a cheap ticket). Others, who may not know the work but are drawn in by the enthusiastic word-of-mouth, may be inspired to learn more after the experience. As for the children, I was amazed at how well-behaved they were. And I was delighted when something would happen that would stop them – wide-eyed and gaping – in their tracks.
My mother, for one, left the experience “a little sad.” Viewing the work, and watching the audience response, she found it sad that Vincent did not live to experience the acclaim he achieved in his post-mortem.
These immersive experiences are certainly destined for oversaturation and for the waning popularity of audience-pleasers of the past like Cirque du Soleil and Riverdance. But, for now, they are achieving their goals and providing an interesting footnote and diversion for our need to readjust and recalculate in the face of a pandemic that doesn’t seem to fade away gracefully.
In Act Two, scene nine of Sam Shepard’s 1980 play, True West, a mother returns home from her vacation and announces to her son that “Picasso’s in town.” Her son replies that “Picasso’s dead, Mom.” The mother insists, replying, “No, he’s not dead. He’s visiting the museum.”
To all of the kind people who responded to my most recent post about missing books (“Page by Page, Measuring a Life”) — Thank You! The books have been found, but I was so moved by the concern and generosity of many.
Here are links to my most recent reviews for Alabama Writers’ Forum:
WARNING: This essay deals with what has become known as a “first-world” problem, so be aware of that as you read. I am very aware of how privileged I am to be stressed about lost books.
I bought a house in the spring. I like it, I like the location, and I know that I will be happy there. Eventually. I moved in on June 1, unpacked, and had the interior arranged the way I wanted it by Independence Day. On July 20, I came downstairs to find water leaking from upstairs onto my kitchen counters; the plumbers and I discovered a well-disguised leak in an upstairs guest bath that had been missed in the home inspection.
Extensive, mainly hidden, damage was found that resulted in my having to get all new floors upstairs, new stairs, and new ceilings downstairs. I used the opportunity to make some upgrades. The house, upon completion, will be much better than it was when I moved in.
The contractors finished their work a few days ago and I spent Saturday putting my stuff back in place. The books in the upstairs bookshelves had been packed away by the construction crew and left in the garage during the construction.
I am a little OCD about my books. They are always placed in alphabetical order by author or, in the case of biography, subject. Even in my most impoverished days in grad school, living in a squalid four-plex in the student ghetto on 13th Avenue, I always kept my books carefully organized. When a career in professional theatre moved me frequently around the country, I always moved with a trailer filled with my books and shelves to be assembled on arrival. Often, the books, my clothes, and some pots and pans were about all I had to move.
When the work on the house was completed, the construction crew moved my books back up to the bedrooms where my bookshelves waited. I hate moving, but I take pleasure in stocking my bookshelves. On Saturday, as I unpacked and alphabetized my books, I discovered that letters “A” through “F” and part of “G” are missing. I searched everywhere in the house and garage where boxes of books might possibly disappear with no luck. I contacted the contractor and project manager to let them know. The contractor got very defensive and assured me that he didn’t take my books; I never thought he “took” them, but I have a hunch they might have been accidentally hauled out with construction debris. It seems far-fetched, but no other explanation comes to mind.
The contractor washed his hands of the problem, but the project manager says he will have the dumpsters checked at the company site (a horrifying prospect). Somehow, I don’t have a lot of confidence in the success of the dumpster dive.
Over the years, I have occasionally weeded out some books. I donated 250 titles to the library on this last move. Another 150 play scripts and theatre books were donated to my old academic department when I retired. By my rough estimate, another 180+ books have now been potentially lost in this latest development. I have been trying to do a mental inventory of some of the books that have been lost. Here is a by no means complete (and alphabetized) list of authors I have remembered so far:
Achebe. Agee. Amis. Atwood. Avedon’s Portraits (1976). Baldwin. Bangs (Lester). Ann Beattie. Beckett. Bragg. Anthony Burgess. Capote. Jimmy Carter. Raymond Carver. Chabon. Cheever. Mark Childress (a college classmate). Cleage. Cunningham. DeLillo. Dickens. Didion. Norman Dubie (whose “Pastoral” is one of my favorite poems ever). John T. Edge. Eggers. T.S. Eliot. Walker Evans photographs. Percival Everett. Faulkner (everything he ever wrote, plus biographies, and critical materials). Fitzgerald. Richard Ford. Franzen. Gaines – Charles and Ernest. Ginsburg …
Also, critical studies of film director Robert Altman. Dozens of issues of The Black Warrior Review, a literary magazine. Photographic volumes on Birmingham and Alabama history. Personally inscribed and signed first editions. Books I bought in high school. Books I bought a couple of months ago.
As I keep listing, I get increasingly out of sorts, but you get the idea. Other readers will understand. Fortunately, my collections of cook books, books on architecture, gardening books, and art books are housed in other parts of the house so those collections remain intact.
I have been asked on more than one occasion if I have read every book on my shelves. Yes, I have. In fact, a book didn’t go on the shelf until I had finished reading it.
I have been asked why I keep the books if I’ve already read them. If you ask a question like that, I’m afraid you will never understand. Suffice it to say, some books I re-read. Some books I use for reference. Some books I just want to have around.
An example: I read The Great Gatsby every year on the Summer Solstice. A decades-long ritual. Once a copy of Gatsby is worn out, I replace it with a new edition, but keep the worn-out copies on the shelf. It is interesting to see my notations in the text from readings past; I mark my life by the passages that once stood out to me and now mean less, and by the passages that I have never particularly noted before which suddenly take on a significance with age.
In 1990, in a home robbery, my entire sizable collection of vinyl records was stolen, along with my stereo system. That was hard, but I shifted to CDs and moved on. This book loss seems more visceral, somehow, and harder to wrap my head around. My book collection from the middle of “G” to “Z” is intact, but one whole bookcase is completely empty.
Almost empty, I should say. I just finished reviewing a book and had not placed it on the shelves yet. The author’s last name starts with the letter B.
James Braziel, it’s all up to you, man. You’re standing in for a host of good authors.
Fried Green Tomatoes (www.eatfgt.com), a comfort food place in the Birmingham suburb of Hoover, is an offshoot of the Irondale Café across town, which was the inspiration for the Whistle Stop Café in Fannie Flagg’s popular novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. The food at Fried Green Tomatoes is mostly seasonal and locally sourced. It offers dine-in and take-out, has a friendly staff and a casual vibe, and has been a great place to have close-by during the pandemic.
It’s popular with the after-church crowd on Sundays and I was standing in a long line waiting to order take-out on a recent Sunday afternoon. I was masked and trying to stay socially distanced, standing against a wall near the door and leaving enough room to let people pass. There was plenty of room to cross in front of me; even so, a woman got up in my face, rudely saying “Excuse me!” I tried to press myself even tighter against the wall. Moving on, she shrieked “War Eagle!” twice to the couple next in line to me, looking back and snarling at me the whole way out (she wasn’t masked, so I could see the snarl). The two fellas with her followed suit (“Excuse me! War Eagle!”)
These are crazy times indeed.
When they were out the door, I glanced at the couple next to me and saw that the man was wearing an Auburn shirt. I was wearing a houndstooth mask. It all became clear. I had just been figuratively slimed by an Auburn fan. My mask must have been a trigger for the woman’s unpleasant outburst. We’re all on edge these days, I guess.
In 1995, I bought a houndstooth scarf at Lazarus department store in Evansville, Indiana, on a wet and cold day. This purchase was years before houndstooth had become so associated with the attire of my alma mater, the University of Alabama. I liked the scarf, didn’t associate it with the University at the time, and still wear it sometimes when it’s cold enough. I was amused a few years later when the University began to exploit the design. I was a student at Alabama during the “Bear” Bryant era and he didn’t always wear houndstooth hats; there are plenty of images of him wearing checkerboard and plaid patterns, too. Still, if you’re going to adopt a fashion statement for sports iconography, houndstooth is a pretty stylish way to go.
Around the time, in the early 2000s, when Alabama football fans began to flaunt houndstooth, I would get a “Roll Tide” any time I wore the scarf. Since I don’t really mind an exchange of “Roll Tide,” I respond appropriately and move on, not bothering to explain that the scarf was never about football for me. I will admit, however, that the houndstooth face mask was a conscious choice.
I take great and justifiable pride in Alabama’s football legacy and I am aware that on occasion some of our fans step over the line. I have not forgotten the idiot who poisoned the live oaks at Auburn’s Toomer’s Corner (live oaks that were already being slowly killed, unfortunately, by the Auburn tradition of toilet papering them whenever Auburn won a game – and power-washing them to get the paper out the next day). And I am embarrassed by the fact that Alabama sorority rushees’ TikTok posts went viral during the recent Fall Rush. I have long considered Alabama’s greek system of fraternities and sororities to be the biggest blemish on the University’s reputation.
I am reminded of an incident in Pasadena in 2010 when Alabama won its first national championship of the Saban era. On the day of the Rose Bowl, an Alabama fan, who had probably partied too much early in the day, took to an intersection to scream “Roll Tide” to all who passed. A demure Alabama fan left her seat at a sidewalk café and rested her hand on his shoulder. “Honey,” she said, “you need to settle down. We don’t do that sort of thing out in the middle of the street. Save that for the Rose Bowl tonight.”
Which brings me back to my “War Eagle” woman at Fried Green Tomatoes. I am irritated by that huge chip Auburn people seem to have on their shoulders about Alabama’s football dominance. Frankly, I don’t pay much attention to Auburn football until Iron Bowl week – the week of the annual showdown between the intrastate rivals. Beyond that, Auburn football, for me, is like a gnat – an occasional annoyance, but no big deal. I am quick to point out Auburn’s good veterinary medicine and architecture programs, but the football team and its succession of milquetoast coaches don’t occupy much of my attention. Even on the occasions when Auburn beats Alabama on Thanksgiving weekend, the sting is gone by Monday morning.
Auburn won its second national football championship in school history in 2010. Their first was in 1957. Based on that average, they might have their next national championship around 2063.
I’m pretty sure I can take a pass on that. Roll Tide.