… not such a bad place to die: A Memory of August

Starting at Sunset Point, the Navajo Loop trail in Utah’s Bryce Canyon is a moderately difficult 1.4-miles. A series of dramatic switchbacks leads to the canyon floor before the trail moves back up through the hoodoo-laced canyon to the rim. On reaching the floor, one looks up at the dots of people looking into the canyon from various observation points and thinks Was I up there? Back at the top, looking down into the vast reach, one wonders Was I really down there?

Bryce Canyon is one of the most memorable natural sites in the United States with its multitude of hoodoos rising from the red rocks of southwest Utah’s high desert. No matter how many photos one has seen, nothing quite prepares you for the first actual view from the rim. The hoodoos are the product of millennia of erosion. Indigenous people were likely aware of the place 12,000 years ago but human habitation of the foreboding area is only documented as recently as 200 A.D. Mormons settled in the general area in the late 19th Century, but its remote location made Bryce Canyon a relative late-comer to the tourist trade. That is probably a blessing.

The Bryce Canyon hoodoos provide a noble and majestic presence, silently watching over the landscape. Hoodoos are found around the world, but Bryce Canyon is the planet’s largest concentration of the eerie, often human-seeming, forms.

A reward of living among the Mormon throngs in St. George, in southwestern Utah, in 1995 was its proximity to amazing scenery. St. George was three hours from the north rim of the Grand Canyon; Zion National Park was less than an hour away in the other direction; and Bryce Canyon was an hour and change drive from Zion. If I ever got weary of natural wonders, Las Vegas was a couple of hours away during my more superficially-inclined days off.

I first saw Bryce Canyon and hiked Navajo Loop during that summer of 1995. I was with friends, we took our time, and the hike was peaceful, contemplative, and stunning from top to bottom and back. The trail includes some of Bryce’s signature locations like Wall Street and Thor’s Hammer. After hiking Navajo Loop, we had time and energy to explore some of the adjoining, picturesque, and less challenging Queen’s Garden trail.

Seven summers later, in August 2002, I was back in southwestern Utah, conducting auditions at a theatre in Cedar City. I added an extra day to the trip just to renew my acquaintance with Bryce Canyon. I picked up the rental car early in the morning so that there would be time to make stops along the way, especially at Cedar Breaks National Monument, another spectacular hoodoo-filled amphitheatre between Cedar City and Bryce.

On the dusty outskirts of Bryce Canyon National Park, I made sure to stock up on water and supplies at the general store at Ruby’s Inn, and to get extra sunscreen for what was already a sizzling day. Teeming crowds were along the rim road at several overlooks. I stopped at a few to view the grandeur of the Bryce Canyon amphitheatre before diving in.

With fond memories of my previous leisurely hike on the Navajo Loop, I decided to start my hiking there. With hiking boots securely tied and backpack sensibly packed, I embarked on the beckoning switchbacks that initiate the trail. There were far fewer hikers than gawkers and only a few hikers were above and below me as I entered the trail and began the descent to the canyon floor.

Taking regular short breaks to hydrate and savor the scenery, I reached the bottom of the trail as refreshed and enthusiastically as I had seven years earlier. To be honest, I was proud of my vigorous endurance.

Eventually, it was time to start my ascent and plot out the next hike to end the day. Pleased with my progress so far, I set off up the trail. Looking at the dots of people at the top, I thought I’ve got this.

The more I climbed, the more my legs ached to the bone. As I trudged, I felt the sweat dripping from every pore in my body – even the more inconvenient ones. I kept looking up to the blasted rim that never seemed to get any closer. I was guzzling water by this point, but it didn’t help.

The book of Proverbs cautions that “pride goeth before the fall” and I kept hearing that in my throbbing, sweating, miserable head.

Near the halfway point of my ascent, I flopped onto a convenient boulder and sat in a puddle of my own perspiration, trying to look like anything but a damp dishrag. Children stared as they passed with their parents; they sidled up to a mother or father, obviously asking about the desperate looking man on the rock. The parents, placing a firm hand on their back, urged them to keep moving.

A couple of times, hikers — either solo or in a pair — would ask, “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” I’d reply. “Just relaxing, enjoying the view.”

I was thinking This is not such a bad place to die.

I’m sure some of those early Mormon settlers thought the same thing, but probably with a more optimistic frame of mind. Although Ebenezer Bryce, one of those settlers, is quoted as saying “It’s a helluva place to lose a cow.”

Eventually, somehow, I rallied, got back up, and slowly climbed on. When I reached the connector to the Queen’s Garden trail, I mustered a wan smile, thought not today, and  got back to Sunrise Point and my rental car.

After sitting at the overlook for a spell and looking back at the depth from which I came, I drove away from Bryce, eagerly vowing to tackle it once again at some future time.

Eighteen Augusts later, I still look forward to it.

Ascetic August 2020

Local tomatoes are prolific in this mid-summer early August as I gratefully accept all offers from friends and neighbors. There may be a glut of home-grown tomatoes right now; they will – like the summer – disappear soon enough, and much too soon for my tastes.

Not long ago, not having a fresh tomato on hand, and sort of craving tomatoes, I made the mistake of buying one on a whim at the grocery store. It has been years since I purchased a supermarket tomato and I was shocked anew at the lack of taste and the plastic consistency; I was reminded why I swore off supermarket tomatoes in the first place. After a couple of bites, I threw the pretender out and waited for a farmers’ market or a kind friend to come through. I never had much luck growing tomatoes on my own.

Fortunately, tomatoes have been coming from all directions in the past few weeks and I haven’t wasted a single one. Salads, tomato sandwiches, and sharp acidic sauces are the order of the day and, for many meals, a tomato sandwich or two suffice.

After the first frost, I may use good canned tomatoes – preferably Italian San Marzano, as needed, for recipes and sauces, but the authentic taste of a fresh locally grown summer tomato, still warm from the plant, is the epitome of summer southern comfort.

In the ascetic summer of 2020, simple home-based pleasures like fresh tomatoes take on added significance. I’m grateful for my retirement; this fraught fall semester of teaching would surely have done me in.

I recently read a piece about Ernie Pyle, the iconic World War II war correspondent who was a casualty of the war in Japan in 1945. In a dispatch during the war, he wrote: “Someday when peace has returned to this odd world, I want to come to London again and stand on a certain balcony on a moonlit night and look down upon the peaceful silver curve of the Thames with its dark bridges.”

Tonight, a full moon is just appearing through the trees over Green Mountain and I understand Pyle’s longing — a longing that is in most of us, I suspect. Pyle expresses the opportunity to return to something loved, something missed, something yearned for. The idea of “normal” is toppled, but we try to make amends.

In 1989, Norman Rene’s Longtime Companion, with a script by Craig Lucas, was the first theatrical film to address the AIDS crisis. In the final scene, three friends who have survived the initial onslaught of the virus – before it was quite understood – are walking along a lonely Fire Island beach. They are musing about what it will be like when a cure is found.

Willy, Campbell Scott’s character, says, “I just want to be there,” cuing a fantasy sequence in which hundreds jubilantly flock to and party on their beach. The three stalwarts are reunited with their old friends who have succumbed to the (then) mysterious virus. As abruptly as it began, the fantasy ends, and the three figures are left once again on the beach, alone.

Ronald Reagan’s denial of the AIDS outbreak during his presidency, in the early years of that particular pandemic, calls to mind the current self-serving denial of the Oval Office’s current occupant. I cannot change the world, so I will try to nurture myself with its bounty and trust the doctors to see us through. And I will vote come election day.

I just want to be there.

Pecan Peccadillo

I-65, exit 289; Alabama

In this overly contentious and troubling time, it’s refreshing to see people take to LinkedIn to quibble over the pronunciation of a simple word.

Stuckey’s, the iconic roadside chain of highway stops (www.stuckeys.com), was a constant in my family travels growing up, especially on trips to the Gulf coast. It was a true roadside attraction, offering pecan-based treats, fast food and sodas, souvenirs, gasoline, and convenient (and usually clean) restrooms.

While the chain is best known for its exceptional pecan products, I was always partial to the sweet “fruit slice” candies that could usually be found. The last time I was in a Stuckey’s store, I was amused that the souvenirs seemed to be from every state – not just the state I was in.

W.S. and Ethel Stuckey of Eastman, Georgia, founded the brand in the 1930s. Their first location was a way to sell the Stuckey pecan crop. Soon, Mrs. Stuckey began to add to the offerings with things like divinity and pralines and, most notably, her special creation – the pecan log roll.

W.S. and Ethel’s granddaughter, Stephanie Stuckey, is the new CEO of Stuckey’s. Ms. Stuckey has launched an effort to locate and reclaim old Stuckey locations and rejuvenate the brand. As part of that effort, she has posted memories and details of her project. She has captured many imaginations along the way.

Among my favorite posts is the one in which she tells how her grandfather would fuel up with coffee and start driving the highways. When he had to stop for a restroom break, he would decide that was a good spot for another Stuckey’s store.

Recently, Ms. Stuckey posted what appears to be a vintage Stuckey’s ad with beautiful shiny pecans and the caption “It’s ‘PEE-CAN’.”

Cue the floodgates. People began to post reactions and support their side of the pecan pronunciation debate – a conflict that will never go away in the South. A commentary from a North Carolina man declared fervently that “PEE-CAN is the correct pronunciation!” and went on to say that any Southerner ought to know that and that those of us who say it any other way sound like Thurston Howell III on “Gilligan’s Island.”

I try not to jump into any fray these days, but I had to respond: “My Alabama family says ‘puh-KAHN’ and none of us sound like Thurston Howell. Also, Georgian Jimmy Carter, the epitome of a native Southerner, says ‘puh-KAHN.’ I bet you put peanuts in Pepsi — a sacrilege! Peanuts must go in Coca-Cola.”

I was enjoying the entertaining thread and had to stoke the fire by making reference to the old tradition – presumably Southern – of emptying part of a sleeve of salty peanuts into a bottle of soda, specifically Coca-Cola. Theories abound that the tradition was a convenient fast snack for blue collar workers or workers in the field in the early 20th Century. I had never known, until I saw it on a cooking show, that some people – North Carolinians, in particular – traditionally used Pepsi Cola instead of Coke for that down-home snack which I used to enjoy as a child. I guess it might work with Pepsi instead of Coke, but I will stick to Coca-Cola.

Still, the crux of the responses to the Stuckey ad was the acceptable pronunciation of “pecan.” Southern Living magazine has listed six variations on the pronunciation:

pah-KAHN; puh-CAN; PEE-can; PEE-kahn; pee-KAHN; and pee-CAN

I will be gracious and say that none of those are wrong, although I grew up hearing that a “pee-can” was something one kept in the car for emergencies on long trips. Or alongside the slop jar under the bed.

Most Georgians I know say “pee-CAN.” The aforementioned President Carter is a notable exception. I can’t think of any Alabamians I know who say anything other than “puh-KAHN,” and that includes some farmers who harvest and sell the nut. Priester’s Pecans in Fort Deposit, my favorite Alabama purveyor of pecan products (www.priesters.com), endorses the “puh-KAHN” pronunciation.

Pre-Pandemic, when I taught Voice and Diction classes, I would use “pecan” as an example of one of those words that has a variety of acceptable pronunciations. It isn’t necessarily even a detail of geography; I think it just has to do with who raised you. Like individual tastes in barbecue and cornbread, it has more to do with what one is familiar with and what one grew up with, and questions of relative quality become superficial.

For the record, though: I don’t accept the notion of sugar in cornbread; my barbecue tastes lean toward pork with vinegar-based sauces; I am still opposed to white barbecue sauce; and the old “peanut and soda” routine only works with a Coca-Cola.

I’m grateful to Stephanie Stuckey for giving me a pleasant distraction in difficult times. I am fully behind her ongoing crusade to reclaim and refurbish former Stuckey’s. Since I discovered her posts, I have been on the lookout for abandoned or rebranded Stuckey’s locations. I captured two as I travelled north on I-65 in Alabama this afternoon.

I-65, exit 318; Alabama

Stuckey’s is authentic, real-deal Americana. Its resurgence is a welcome antidote to the manufactured fake nostalgia of places like Cracker Barrel. I want a pecan log roll with a side of sugary “fruit slices,” and I want them now!

Shadows and Light


There is a large quasi-Palladian window in the bedroom where I sleep at my parents’ house. Draperies cover the main window but the top arch is open. From the bed, I can see the stars, the clouds, and, frequently, the moon as it appears above Shades Mountain through the arch.

Just outside the window, a crape myrtle with rich burgundy blooms stands sentinel in the front yard. As I was going to sleep a couple of nights ago, I was struck by a silhouette on the bedroom wall opposite the window. A bright moon had cast a delicate shadow of the top branches of the crape myrtle. A gentle summer breeze was slightly blowing the branches and there was a lacy arched silhouette swaying against the bedroom wall. It relaxed me as I fell asleep.

Strangely enough, I started contemplating “Plato’s Cave.”

Plato’s “Republic,” from 380 B.C., includes an allegory about prisoners who have lived most of their lives in a cave, facing in only one direction toward the cave wall. Behind the prisoners is a fire and shadows of objects cast from the fire onto the cave wall are their only concept of “reality.” If they are ever able to escape from their cave of ignorance and see the true light, they tend to be distrustful and frightened of the true “reality” beyond their illusions.

It’s more complex than that, but that’s the gist. My political science degree must have kicked in one late night. I may just be excessively contemplative these days because I’m quarantined awaiting COVID test results. However, my night vision made me think about how we may be plagued just now with too many delusional cave dwellers in “leadership” positions and not enough seekers of enlightenment …

Mainly, though, I was struck by the beauty of a shadow on the wall as I sank into slumber a couple of nights ago.


Dropping Deep: A Memory of July

In my years in Indiana in the mid-1990s, I worked a couple of summers as stage manager for two musicals running in rep at Lincoln Amphitheatre in Lincoln State Park, about forty miles east of Evansville.

I have found that summer theatre gigs – especially at outdoor theatres – have much in common with military boot camp. A crew of people living in close quarters, working hard, and unwinding when and if ever the opportunity arises.

Our “dark day” – the day on which we had no shows or rehearsals – was Monday. That was the day for resting a little, laundry, paying bills, shopping, car maintenance, and occasional impromptu parties or a nice dinner out.

Our technical director, Bud, would occasionally arrange group outings for Mondays. A “Christmas in July” event happened on a July Monday near the end of the season. It was held, naturally, in Santa Claus, Indiana, which was just a few miles from the state park.

My favorite Bud-organized event was the annual canoe trip on the Blue River near Milltown, Indiana. It was always held on the Monday closest to Independence Day. Most everybody in the company participated. After the Sunday night performance, we’d hit Schnuck’s and buy food and beverages to pack into coolers. My friend Randy always packed a large supply of chicken wings. Now that I’m thinking of it, I’m pretty sure I left my Blue River cooler to Randy when I moved to Texas.

On Monday morning, we’d leave Evansville early in cars and travel to Milltown (www.cavecountrycanoes.com). After grabbing our gear at the Milltown base, a school bus took our group of two dozen or more to the launch ramp seven miles upriver.

Even though our group started at the same ramp, it didn’t take long for everybody to spread out and the canoes travelled through quiet and solitude, passing an occasional angler or other canoers and kayakers along the way.

The Blue River is a scenic river with a series of Class 1 rapids passing through Indiana cave country on the way to the Ohio River. The bulk of the trip is through peaceful waters and verdant forests with the rapids comfortably spaced. Longer trips are available, but our 7-mile excursion – estimated at 2-4 hours length – was easily stretched longer with frequent pauses for breaks, lunch, and swimming at sandbars along the way.

It’s a perfect summer day that I looked forward to in my Indiana years.

Before you read on, you need to know this: … When I was a boy, I took swimming lessons at Midfield pool. The instructor was good and I learned to swim. On the final day of the two-week session, the swimming instructor wore street clothes and let all of the students just play in the pool, enjoying our newly-developed skills. That water play included a dive from the high diving board.

We had diving lessons earlier in the week and, while it was not my specialty, I was okay with it. On that final day, I eagerly climbed the ladder to the high dive to take my turn. When my turn came, I walked out to the edge of the board and looked down at the deep end of the municipal pool.

And I froze.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but it feels like a really long time. I wouldn’t jump, and I wouldn’t turn around and go back down the ladder. I was mortified. And petrified.

The other kids were urging me on, as were the adults at poolside. I still didn’t budge.

Finally, the poor swim instructor stripped down to his trunks and got in the pool. He assured me that if I would just jump, he’d be there if I had a problem.

Finally, I jumped and swam to the side. No problem. I still don’t know what happened to me up there on the high dive but, ever since, I am skittish in water over my head – especially if I’m not sure how deep it is.

Over time, however, when I do take the plunge, I have a habit of letting the fall continue after I hit the water until the downward momentum ends. Occasionally, I touch the bottom; usually, the fall stops before I get there. Then, I begin to swim back up to the surface. Nobody ever told me that isn’t the way it’s done …

Near the end of the Blue River canoe trip take-out point, the old Milltown Bridge crosses the river. It had been a tradition for some of the veterans of our group to jump off the bridge to close out the trip.

On my first Blue River adventure, my buddies in the group asked me if I would join them for the jump. Some were old hands at the ritual and others were first-timers like me. Given my trepidation with unknown depths, I was hesitant, but I finally decided to go for it. Five of us climbed up to the middle truss of the bridge and, after a short count, jumped in together.

The water was cool, deep, and pleasant and I allowed myself to drop until I wasn’t dropping anymore. It was freeing, a calming sensation that I still recall.

I slowly began my swim back to the surface of the flowing river. As soon as I surfaced, I heard shouts of “We’ve got him!” and three of my friends began grabbing at me to help me back to shore.

I had stayed under too long. I was being “saved,” it seems.

I kept insisting that I was fine to swim on my own, but my friends wouldn’t let me go until they had pulled me to the riverbank and forced me to lie on the ground, despite all my assurances that I was okay.

And oh, yes, we had drawn a crowd to watch my “rescue.”

I appreciate the concern. Now, all these years later, I still know I wasn’t in danger and would have successfully finished the swim on my own. I made a “note to self” to not allow the long drop to continue next time I plunged into deep water. It makes people anxious and causes all kinds of commotion.

Slightly embarrassed, I made my way to the showers, cleaned up, and changed clothes.

1971 news photo of Milltown Bridge by Berney Cowherd, Evansville Courier & Press

A subgroup of our canoers had made plans to travel over to Leavenworth, Indiana, for dinner at the Overlook, a restaurant on a bluff overlooking a gentle bend in the Ohio River. As we dined on home-style meals, the sun set across the Ohio. A nearly ideal Summer day – despite a brief setback – was drawing to its end with the evening drive back to Evansville in the direction of the setting sun.

Saharan Sunset | Moveable Feast

The fact that our lives in the Southeast United States this weekend were significantly influenced by an infusion of dust from the African Sahara is a reminder of how small our world is and how close we all are.

There is a quality of light on this early summer late afternoon that is striking. It’s hard to determine, really, how much is cloudiness as a front settles in and how much is the dust. I just finished re-reading Faulkner’s Light in August and, as a firm believer in the Faulkner claim that his title refers to an actual natural phenomenon, I prefer to attribute the odd quality of the sky today to natural occurrences from across the Atlantic.

Driving down a two-lane highway into Oxford, Mississippi, on an August afternoon some decades ago, I was sure that the specific light through the long-leaf pines was what Faulkner, and his wife, Estelle, who suggested the title Light in August, surely meant. It was a special and translucent light that is hard to describe. When you encounter it, you will surely recognize it.

It has been raining off and on all day in north Alabama, and the pre-dusk light has taken on an intensely bright quality. The sunset last night was splendid, but tonight’s dusk tends to be leaning toward a chalky mundane.

Lifestyle changes have been the order of the day – every day – in this year of the pandemic. Much of my social activity for years centered around meals and an effort to satisfy my interest in foodways — in social as well as historical terms.

The last time I ate a meal in a restaurant was March. As restrictions have begun to be loosened – prematurely, I think – I still have no real desire to “dine in” for a while. I want to support my local eateries and I have ordered take-out from some of my favorite places in an effort to do so. Even as the restaurants do their part to ensure safety, there are just too many people who don’t seem to be taking this crisis seriously. Currently, I know of about eight people who are diagnosed with COVID.

I know many of the restaurants are open on a more restricted basis and I wish them well. I was amused to read that The Inn at Little Washington (www.theinnatlittlewashington.com), the much-acclaimed Virginia restaurant outside D.C., had plans to seat costumed mannequins in its dining rooms upon reopening so that the place would not feel so empty. It’s an amusing solution, but a little depressing, too.

Among the things I’m missing most are the Friends of the Café dinners in Florence at the factory/atelier of designer Natalie Chanin’s Alabama Chanin brand (www.alabamachanin.com).  These dinners began about five years ago and were my introduction to many chefs whose work was only previously known to me by their reputations and awards. I have met people from all over the world at these events and formed friendships along the way.

Four Friends of the Café dinner events were scheduled for 2020 and I had tickets to the whole series. The first two were postponed. The rest are up in the air for now. I am a little pessimistic about the likelihood that there will be any trips to Florence for Friends of the Café this year. The dinners also served as fundraisers for notable causes like Southern Foodways Alliance  and Chanin’s Project Threadways.

I have frequently written about these dinners in the past. The ambiance and sense of community they inspire always impressed me. Each featured chef has been on some part of the James Beard Award spectrum and the dinners have become a treasured part of my year.

American Public Television’s “Create” affiliate has aired the PBS show “Moveable Feast with Fine Cooking” (www.finecooking.com/moveablefeast) for a few years now. That program comes as close as anything I’ve found to capturing the spirit of those magical Florence meals. During the pandemic, “Moveable Feast” has become a brief escape for me, reminiscent of a more social time of the recent past.

The show’s title is inspired by a Hemingway title and quote about Paris in the 1920s. Each episode features a different location – sometimes American, sometimes international. The program host introduces the location and a couple of chefs from the area. They visit local purveyors to choose what to prepare for that evening’s “feast.”

Then it’s off to the kitchen where the host and guest chefs prepare their recipes for a pop-up communal meal. The show has always been appealing; nowadays, the sight of convivial guests gathering, hugging, shaking hands, toasting, and sitting down to have a meal together evokes bittersweet nostalgia.

“Create” showcased hours-long blocks of “Moveable Feast” episodes over the weekend and I found myself drawn to them – even though I had already viewed most of them. I was most pleased to revisit a charming episode in which host Michelle Bernstein visits and cooks with Jeremiah Tower, a godfather of California cuisine, in his current hometown of Merrida, Mexico. The occasionally prickly Tower, whose memoir California Dish is among my favorite books on food, exudes immaculate charm and wit as he shows Bernstein around the town and introduces her to a wealth of local ingredients and their knowledgeable purveyors.

In another favorite, host Pete Evans attends an event of “Outstanding in the Field” (www.outstandinginthefield.com), a roving pop-up restaurant event founded by artist Jim Denevan. The guest chef is Ravi Kapur and the site is Secret Sea Cove on the California coast. Guests at the table closest to the ocean get a gentle foot soaking as the tide moves in during the magical feast.

I was interested in what “Outstanding in the Field” is up to during the pandemic and found a moving letter from Jim Denevan on the website. He explains that the project is on hiatus until 2021 and concludes, “The table will be set. It will have been a long time coming. We are looking forward.”

In the milky sunset of a Saharan-influenced dusk, I will only add “Amen.”

Summer Solstice 2020

Near the start of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway says, “I had the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” This year, one hopes for more truth than usual in that statement as we count down a dismal year. As the sun begins its slow six-month drift south, perhaps some of the disease, divisiveness, and turmoil will ebb.

I would feel remiss if I did not acknowledge the Summer Solstice – the longest day of light of the year – and my annual re-reading of The Great Gatsby. I found time to attend to the plants in my yard as the frequent rains of Spring seem to once again be yielding to a Summer threat of drought. There was frequent enough rain through the last several months. I don’t think we’re in danger yet, but it hasn’t rained in several days and I was dripping sweat after only a half hour of yard work earlier.

I managed to make my second trip to Harrison Farms in Chilton County a few days ago and got peaches for myself, and for friends and family who have standing orders. Lynn, one of the Harrison sons, indicated that this might be an abbreviated peach season, but Mrs. Harrison said this week that their cantaloupes and watermelons aren’t ready yet and that gives me hope for a little longer season of opportunities to make the relaxing drive to Chilton County. The okra was coming in and I got a basket of perfect baby okra to bread and fry.

The peaches at the Harrisons’ acres of orchards near Maplesville are my summer touchstone, and were a sideways inspiration for “Professional Southerner.” In 2012, I spent every other Saturday of peach season traveling to Chilton County with a videographer to collect footage and interviews for a documentary about Chilton County peaches with a focus on Harrison Fruit Farm.

We collected several hours’ worth of video over a really pleasant summer. I remember an August afternoon when we set up in the parking lot of Fat Girls’ Barbecue in Billingsley and spent an hour shooting the setting sun over rolling hills of central Alabama. We spent one entire Saturday shooting the Peach Festival parade and related events in downtown Clanton. When we finally got into the editing process, the videographer’s husband decided she was spending too much time on the project for too little compensation and she abandoned me.

A filmmaker colleague at the university looked over the footage, decided that we needed to re-shoot a lot of things, and offered to help to finish the project. Before we could make that happen, my colleague got sick and died and I was never able to track down the missing footage. When I gathered my belongings from my office for retirement last month, I came across a mysterious external hard drive in the far reaches of my book shelf. Maybe … I will have to find time to check.

The film is still vivid in my head – I even got permission to use a Pat Metheny track I really like for underscoring. Whenever I make a peach run to Harrison Farms, I feel guilty that the family was so generous with their time – they all sat for interviews – and the documentary never happened.

But the experience inspired an essay that subsequently inspired me to start the “Professional Southerner” journal. That essay, “The Peach Highway and Jimmie’s Peach Stand,” continues to be one of the most popular posts of the journal over the years. The peach stand and I are about the same age and trips down there always lift my spirits, even during the uncertainty of Summer 2020.

“… borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

A tropical storm is swirling to the west of us right now, bringing intermittent winds and rain to my part of Alabama. Unless I am in the brunt of a tropical storm – and I have been on a few occasions – I am drawn to the energy of that peripheral circuit of occasional storms moving ever onward with their wind-driven rain and distant thunder. Those tropical rains always seem, to me, more cleansing than other weather events.

Fittingly, the “Peggy Martin” heirloom rose that I ordered a couple of months ago was delivered to my front door today between brief showers. The Peggy Martin was bred from a rose in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, that survived for two weeks under twenty feet of water in Mrs. Martin’s yard after Hurricane Katrina. Neighbors in my parents’ Birmingham neighborhood have trained one over their garage and the blooms are magnificent. Once I heard the history of the plant, I had to have it for myself and was able to order it from Petals from the Past in Jemison, Alabama (www.petalsfromthepast.com).

When people learn of my retirement, which was official on June 1, they ask me how I plan to “celebrate.” This is not a celebratory time; I can think of no appropriate celebration. A trip is out of the question and I’m not anxious to go sit in a restaurant just yet. I enjoy being outside and think it will be enough for now to take walks, work in the yard, and find some place quiet to think and reflect.

The traditional gift for retirement was a gold watch or some other sort of commemorative timepiece. It symbolized that one’s time was finally one’s own, no longer owed to an employer.

It’s a nice idea, but metal watches and I have a bad history. I can wear watches with leather or synthetic bands, but it is proven that some people’s body chemistry stops watches and I must be one of those people. Every metal-banded watch I have ever owned has died prematurely. Whenever I adjust the time or date on my father’s gold watch, I limit my contact lest my curse cause consequences.

Today, I think, a timepiece would mostly symbolize counting down the remaining days and hours of the annus horribilis that is 2020.

Nevertheless, I am fond of ritual and, to commemorate this particular milestone, I have been writing short thank you notes to people who were influential in my career and education over the years. It is a peaceful and positive step, interrupted by the news that another friend from my Tuscaloosa years has died – the fourth such friend I have heard about since New Year’s Day. Notes of thanks give way to an expression of sympathy and loss.

On a more positive note, I can truly celebrate that, after close to two years, I have finally finished reading every single word of Marcel Proust’s seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past. At times, it seemed like a burden, but I enjoyed the task overall. Throughout a lifetime of reading, I have found that I will often tackle a book at just the right time, and the past two years seemed the right time to conquer Mount Proust. It’s a masterful novel, full of digressions and rife with human foibles, not the least of which are those of the Narrator himself. His paranoiac jealousy and obsessive nature are often irritating and I occasionally tossed the novel aside in disgust. Yet I always returned.

Proust’s catty social satire, which often made me laugh out loud, is a clever indictment of a milieu I’ll never know firsthand. I was often startled to realize that the society he describes in the final volumes is barely a century past. Each time he evokes an airplane or automobile, I felt myself jolted into the modern era.

Hundreds of characters come and go through the 3300 plus pages. Some leave and never return; some leave, only to reappear volumes later. Some die.

On a more prosaic note, I ventured out for some necessities this afternoon and, as I walked past a clothing store geared to big and stout women, a woman walked past me wearing a tee-shirt that proclaimed “In the South We Say ‘Hey Y’All’.” I have no problem, really, with “Hey Y’All” and I might have said it on occasion; I can’t remember when, and it would have been ironic, no doubt, but still, I don’t find it offensive. I was actually relieved that the tee-shirt manufacturer had punctuated “y’all” correctly. Still, what kind of person would feel a need to proclaim such a thing on a tee-shirt at the big and stout store?

Baseball great Willie Mays, from the Birmingham suburb of Fairfield, has been known as the “Say Hey Kid” throughout his storied life. And, of course, the Gomer Pyle character, created by actor Jim Nabors, made “hey” a sort of mantra. Even now, whenever somebody tells me that somebody sent me a “hey,” I will usually reply, “’Hey to Goober.”

I say “y’all” whenever it feels right, but I must admit that Southern cook Paula Deen sort of ruined “y’all” for me forever.

Recently, I was talking to a pregnant friend. She was healthy and upbeat and our conversation shifted to current events. I commented that it is amazing, really, how well we are all functioning – all things considered. “It’s really horrible,” I said, “what the world is going through. And yet, we are dealing with it; we’re still functional.”

“Yeah,” she said, “we just need some certainty, some direction. Everything is so fluid now.”

My Peggy Martin rose doesn’t look like much right now, as it basks in the rains of the remnants of a tropical storm. I think, though, that I may look to it for a great deal of symbolism in the months and years to come.

Notes from a Pensioner

On June 1, I will officially become a pensioner. Others might prefer to be called “retiree” or some other designation, but “pensioner” has an almost Dickensian flair and I think that will become my designation of choice.

My target date for retirement was always May 15, 2022. The incentive to bring it forward was the obvious – the pandemic and remote teaching. I pulled the trigger when there began to be intimations that we might continue remote teaching through the end of the year. On principle alone, I refuse to try to educate students and future artists in a manner that I feel is ineffective.

Mr. McKee, one of my neighbors, told me at the mailbox today that he was striving to be the person “who lived the longest on retirement.” “I plan to stretch it,” he said with a grin, “as far as I possibly can.” As far as I can determine, he has been retired for over thirty years now. I wish him success in his goal.

On a recent new episode of SNL, Kate McKinnon, playing the high school principal at a Zoom graduation, said, “The bad news is you’re about to pay full price for fancy colleges when they are all just University of Phoenix online with worse tech support.” That sums up my feelings exactly.

An entire generation of students, through no fault of their own, are becoming victims of home schooling and a tepid national response from a dangerous and delusional President, made worse by clueless governors desperate to jumpstart an economy regardless of the risks to citizens.

My favorite memory of actor/comedian Jerry Stiller, who passed away recently, is his enervated shrieking of “SERENITY NOW!” on a “Seinfeld” episode. Around that time, as the managing director of a beleaguered theatre, I had SERENITY NOW!!! posted at the top of my computer screen. It helped calm me, somehow. Or at least it made me laugh every morning.

A recent stream of “Hearts of Space” (https://v4.hos.com/home) – a program that is still, to my mind, the most brilliantly curated collection of contemplative music ever – was called “Deep Serenity.” I listened to it three times in one night. That helped, too.

Here’s what I did in my solitude after submitting some last-minute paperwork for the job:

This afternoon, I walked out to survey my front yard with plans to finally go to a garden center and jump start my long-delayed spring planting. As I walked back in the front door, I rang the doorbell to make sure it still works.

I made some watercress pesto. I’ve developed a pesto recipe featuring Alabama products including watercress, pecans, garlic and spring onions, peanut oil, and local goat cheese.

I saw an online headline that asked “Are you washing your sheets often enough?” and when I heard myself answer No out loud, I decided I should wash my sheets.

While my sheets were washing, I listened to American Fashion Podcasts featuring Florence, Alabama-based designers Natalie Chanin (https://omny.fm/shows/american-fashion-podcast/the-alabama-chanin-story) and Billy Reid (https://omny.fm/shows/american-fashion-podcast/229-billy-reid-an-icon-of-the-slow-fashion-movemen).

I am training myself to be satisfied with streaming movies, although I find that experience far from satisfactory. So far, I’m mostly watching documentaries. Two of my pet film festivals, Sidewalk in Birmingham (https://www.sidewalkfest.com) and the New Orleans Film Festival (https://neworleansfilmsociety.org/festival), are offering streaming films during the pandemic. When you stream one of their offerings, a portion of the fee goes back to the festival. I’m sure other film festivals are offering similar services. So far, I’ve watched documentaries about film critic Pauline Kael, fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, and New York Times street and fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, and a few others, but those biographic profiles stand out.

I watched photographer Matthew Beck’s “Shelter in Place” (https://http://www.newyorker.com/…/watch-neighbors-connect-in-shelterin-place), a New Yorker documentary short. He shoots his neighbors from his apartment as they sit or stand in the windows of their own apartments and share their feelings about our current crisis. It is a loving and poignant summary of this current moment in human history.

During a large part of my adult life I have been alone but I have rarely felt lonely. As much as I want things to return to normal (and as much as I detest the phrase “new normal”!), I have been able to find peace in a stoic and patient solitude.

I suspect that I can wait this thing out without too much trauma. I hope more of us find that they can, too. The relief of being a “pensioner” is, in fact, bringing some serenity, now.

Roman Street Wednesdays

During this period of staying at home and changing habits, new habits emerge. For example, on Wednesday morning for the past few weeks, I have awakened with the song “Rio San Juan” from the Roman Street album, Caravan, playing in my head (http://www.romanstreet.com). Roman Street, the Mobile Bay-based jazz guitar duo of brothers Josh and Noah Thompson, has commenced a series of “Quarantine Jams” from Josh’s dining room every Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. CDT on their Facebook page (www.facebook.com/Roman-Street).

I have followed Roman Street for several years now. I first learned about the band through a chance meeting in the Quiet Room at the Grand Hotel spa in Point Clear. When Noah went back for his spa treatment, Josh and I struck up a conversation in which he told me that they were locally-based musicians. He had an infectious enthusiasm and I was inspired to check out the band.

Later that day, I looked up Roman Street’s website and discography and realized that Roman Street has performed around the world, got part of their musical training in Europe, and have had singles on the Billboard charts over the years. The next night, at a dinner party in Fairhope, I asked a local musician about Roman Street and he assured me that they are “the real deal.” I was embarrassed that I was just learning about them.

Since then, I have seen the band in concert a couple of times and have followed their progression through guitar-based albums with an impressive cast of guest and semi-regular musicians. Roman Street is comfortable in a variety of styles and defies categories, although ‘smooth jazz” and “jazz fusion” often come to mind. Their music is dominated by original compositions along with an occasional cover. Like most performers, their live performance schedule is currently on hold due to the pandemic.

I have caught most of the “Quarantine Jams.” So far, Roman Street has devoted each program to playing through their albums in order, commenting as they go and bantering with the comments of their audience on texts and the Facebook page. This week (May 13), they completed their discography tour with the freshly released album Balcony of the World. Even though they have caught up with their albums, the jams will continue over the next several weeks with a session of audience-requested cover arrangements scheduled for Wednesday, May 20.

I plan to be watching and listening.

The weekly Wednesday jams have become appointment listening for me. Roman Street’s brand of music that is both energetic and mellow has become my companion on frequent drives between north Alabama and Birmingham.

They are, indeed, the “real deal.”