Tag Archives: Alabama

Another 5th of July

When I was taking a shower the other morning, Bob Dylan’s “My Back Pages” started playing in my head. You know, the one with the refrain that goes “Ah, but I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.” (Actually, it was the Byrds’ version of that Dylan song that was playing in my head.) I can’t remember the last time I actually heard that song so it’s strange that it started playing in my head in the shower on a Saturday. I’ve been thinking about it since, though. Many consider the lyric to be a turning point and Dylan’s rejection of sorts of the more strident protest lyrics of his early career.

Pondering “My Back Pages” made me recall Billy Joel’s “Angry Young Man,” a lyric that I once identified with. The title character martyrs himself “With his foot in his mouth and his heart in his hand,” and “he’s fair and he’s true and he’s boring as hell.” The song’s narrator confesses that “I once believed in causes too, / I had my pointless point of view, /
And life went on no matter who was wrong or right.”

In Lanford Wilson’s play Fifth of July, June Talley – a former ‘60s activist, tells her daughter, “You’ve no idea the country we almost made for you. The fact that I think it’s all a crock now does not take away from what we almost achieved.”

Be warned, I need to vent now.

I’m not sure why these thoughts (and songs, and lines) are coming into my head, but I have a hunch: With all of the news about gun violence, a frightening activist conservative Supreme Court wreaking havoc with gun control, the environment, and women’s rights, and the general divisiveness in the country, I wonder what I can do about it and previous history tells me not much. Of course, I can vote, but we are now plagued with a generation of Alabama Republican politicians that would make George Wallace look progressive and I am finally acknowledging – after decades of preaching to students that their vote does count, that my vote in Alabama no longer counts for much. The Republican women running for Alabama state office feel the need to show themselves with firearms in their commercials and to demonstrate regrettable misinterpretation of the second amendment. The concept of separation of church and state is equally misinterpreted by those same people; they don’t seem to realize that its intent was to protect their religious freedom. Even though a known January 6 insurrectionist was defeated in his bid for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate from Alabama, the chirpy, gun-totin’ woman who defeated him managed to seem even worse.

I love Alabama and my family’s roots run deep here. I realize that my politics don’t align with the conservative majority, but I also know a lot of Alabamians whose politics align with my old-fashioned liberalism. What irks me is the way these politicians talk is if they represent all Alabamians; for the record, they don’t represent me. Even more galling, perhaps, is the fact that national progressive and liberal politicians seem to write off Alabama as hopeless to their politics and ability to gain votes. I feel overlooked and ignored from both sides of the spectrum.

I watch the protests on television and usually think bless their hearts. I’m with them in spirit, but I’m not sure I have much confidence in what they’re accomplishing other than looking a little silly with their rote chants and their predictable signs. I’ve seen it all before and, beyond the Civil Rights era, I’m not sure it’s still effective. Maybe it makes the protesters feel better at the end of the day; I certainly understand the desperation that drives them there.

I notice that we Baby Boomers seem to catch the blame for all of the evils in the world today, especially in snarky online posts, and especially among Generation Z types. But I have a different take. The three Supreme Court justices appointed by the previous occupant of the Oval Office, all of whom lied or misled during their confirmation hearings, are all post-Baby Boom (one of them, born in 1965, is on the cusp, actually). My theory is that the current regression of American culture is being fueled by the legacy of Ronald Reagan, who was idolized by many of that post-Baby Boom generation and whose political tenure was the beginning of all the things that so many of us are lamenting right now.

I have always taken comfort in the aspirational phrase “in Order to form a more perfect Union” in the preamble to the U.S. Constitution. It always seemed to mean we’re not perfect yet, but this is what we’re working toward. Throughout my lifetime, progress has been made – slowly but surely – toward that ideal. Today, though, it feels a little like we’re going backward and the conservative unbalance in the Supreme Court is going to plague us for a long while.

As I composed these thoughts, word came across that a seventh victim of the mass shooting at the Highland Park, Illinois, 4th of July parade, has died. Three people were gunned down a few weeks ago at a potluck supper at an Episcopal church just a few miles from my house in Birmingham. There are reports that the white supremacy domestic terrorist group, Patriot Front, is making its presence known in Birmingham on the eve of the opening of the 2022 World Games.

I may have to hit the streets in protest yet.

Of Bricks and Stones

Ensley High School

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.

Tutwiler Hotel

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.

Quinlan Castle, December 2021

The Poetry of Charlie Brown

The Grand Hotel – December 2021

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:

www.podcasts.com/inbetween-the-music-9c45b7b5a/episode/IBM-Music-Dickens-ee75

www.podcasts.com/inbetween-the-music-9c45b7b5a/episode/IBM-Music-Christmas-d31d

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.

“… a promising prospect near Foley”

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.

The Hope Farm

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.

Sunset at the Grand

Happy Holidays.

Van Gogh Is Visiting Birmingham

 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.”

In the final weeks of 2021, at least, Vincent Van Gogh is not dead; he’s visiting Birmingham’s convention center and he’s providing a pleasant and enjoyable hour or so of community and escape.

Book Review: From Preaching to Meddling by Francis X. Walter

See my latest book review for Alabama Writers’ Forum:

https://www.writersforum.org/news_and_reviews/review_archives.html/article/2021/09/02/from-preaching-to-meddling-a-white-minister-in-the-civil-rights-movement

Savoring Sidewalk 2021

REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” blasted through the Alabama Theatre near the start of the Opening Night festivities and screening for the 2021 “Homecoming” chapter of Birmingham’s Sidewalk Film Festival. It was labelled “Homecoming” because the festival was returning to its home in Birmingham’s downtown theatre district after exiling itself to drive-in screenings for the 2020 pandemic version.

When I preordered my pass for the festival, I was not expecting the upsurge in Covid outbreaks and the “break-out” cases of fully-vaccinated people that have plagued the second half of the summer. Also, Alabama – embarrassingly – has one of the lowest rates of vaccination in the country. As my great-grandfather McCarn, who was an old-time country schoolteacher in Cullman County, allegedly said about some of his students, “You just can’t beat sense into these stupid people.” (And Grandpa taught school back in a time when you could try.)

But the good people of Sidewalk have been conscious and responsible throughout the time of Covid and, when screenings resumed at the Sidewalk Cinema + Film Center late last year, I felt safe each time I attended. For this year’s festival, proof of vaccination or a current negative Covid test, diligent masking, and lowered seating capacities made the event feel as safe as it could be in our current moment.

Fittingly, the Opening Night movie was Television Event, a 2020 documentary by Jeff Daniels (not the actor) about the making of the 1983 made-for-television movie, The Day After. Opening Night at Sidewalk is often something frothy and light-hearted – a respite, perhaps, before the usually more serious fare of the festival weekend. This year the programmers chose a heavier appetizer.

The Day After, directed by Nicholas Meyer, is a drama about a nuclear attack and its impact on the town of Topeka, Kansas. Daniels’s documentary explores the fear during the Cold War era and the controversy and politics surrounding the production. Younger audiences can’t comprehend what those years were like for Baby Boomers who grew up when “duck and cover” school drills for nuclear attacks were almost as common as fire drills. The film reminds us that a large portion of the U.S. population expected nuclear war within the decade. I remember seeing spray-painted outlines, representing vaporized bodies, drawn on the sidewalks at the University of Alabama to commemorate the anniversaries of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima.

One hundred million Americans watched the ABC broadcast of The Day After when it premiered in November 1983. Television Event makes much of the fact that such a communal television experience can never happen again. The documentary implies that the film might even have influenced Reagan’s decision to pursue nuclear arms limitations with the Soviets.

The screening was followed by a made-for-Sidewalk panel moderated by AL.com’s Ben Flanagan and including broadcast journalist Ted Koppel and the director, Nicholas Meyer. Among the more urgent comments made during the panel were Meyer’s suggestion that, with the rise of terrorism, the nuclear threat is as bad as it’s ever been and Koppel’s assertion that cyber-attack is an even greater threat than nuclear to national and world security in our present time.

The eye-opening Opening Night screening was also entertaining and lived up to Creative Director Rachel Morgan’s promise to scare the audience. It was good to be back at the Alabama Theatre in an ongoing search for somewhat “normal” experiences in 2021.

I have a tendency to watch mostly documentaries at Sidewalk and 2021 was no exception. Ailey, directed by Jamila Wignot, provides an intimate portrait of the celebrated choreographer and stunning archival footage of performances by the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. Ailey was screened at the Lyric Theatre and, in its introduction, the audience was reminded that we were the first audiences in the Lyric since March 2020. Dancer Germaul Barnes, in a moving and dramatic pre-screening tribute to Ailey, encouraged the audience to look around at the people around us. It was a reminder to be in the moment.

The Capote Tapes, directed by Ebs Burnough, revisits the life of the twentieth-century writer with new audio from George Plimpton’s interviews for his 1997 oral biography of Capote. The film focuses on the many scandals and broken friendships that attended Capote’s final legendary but unfinished novel, Answered Prayers.

The homegrown documentary, Socks on Fire, directed by Bo McGuire, chronicles a family drama. McGuire, whose writing and voiceovers in the film are impressive, directs a vivid and imaginative rendering of the squabble over his beloved grandmother’s estate – centered on homophobic Aunt Sharon, who changes the locks, and drag queen Uncle John, who assumes he will continue to live in his mother’s house.

Socks on Fire takes place in Alabama and earned the best documentary prize at the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival in New York. McGuire tells his family’s story with humor, love, and energy. The film itself is a creative log ride; in case that was not enough, McGuire’s animated introduction included live performances by three drag queens on the Alabama stage (well, two drag queens and a third act, “Saliva Godiva,” whose frenzied performance seems to defy any known label). One performer, Queen Brown Suga Spice, seemed to have a couple of praise dancers as back-up. As the ladies performed, runners passed the hat around the theatre to collect tips from the audience.

In his introduction, McGuire again made the point that seemed to be a theme for this 23rd edition of Sidewalk. He stressed the importance of the communal audience experience that is central to the filmmaker’s art. Being back together in actual theatres in downtown was a reminder of how much has been missed over the past year and a half.

Queen Brown Suga Spice at the Alabama

In earlier years, I would try to see how many screenings I could squeeze in on Sidewalk weekend. Nowadays, I curate carefully and take time to savor the experience. Sidewalk 23 did not disappoint.

Dr. Wilson and the Ants

The University of Alabama, my alma mater, brands itself as “Where Legends Are Made.” I think it’s a good brand, although I am wary of the fact that all institutions of higher education nowadays seem to be more about the branding than about their academic distinction. Even so, I think that one of our university’s truest legends is author / biologist / ecologist / naturalist Edward O. Wilson.

Wilson, a native of Birmingham, grew up around Washington, D.C., and Alabama’s Gulf Coast, has the distinction of being considered the world’s foremost expert in myrmecology – the study of ants, and is frequently called the primary Darwinist of our time. Retired now, but still active, he received his B.S. and M.S. degrees in biology at the University of Alabama and his Ph.D. at Harvard, where he spent most of his professional teaching career. He has been regularly ranked as one of the most important scientists in history.

So, Roll Tide.

One of the few benefits of Pandemic isolation was the opportunity to read more widely, including a more in-depth exploration of Wilson’s award-winning writing. My most recent reading of Wilson was motivated by The Library of America’s Spring 2021 publication of three of his most acclaimed books in a single volume. Included are Biophilia (1984), The Diversity of Life (1992), and Wilson’s autobiography, Naturalist (1994).

In The Library of America compilation, Biophilia is a brief and user-friendly examination of the interdependence and connectedness of human beings and nature. Wilson, a dyed-in-the-wool scientist, has the vision of a poet and his ability to translate his scientific passion to accessible terms for those, like me, who are essentially non-scientific, is an impressive one. After reading Wilson, you will never look at an ant bed the same again. For that matter, you shouldn’t be able to take nature for granted again.

The text of The Diversity of Life is a little more textbook-y at times. The first part of that carefully researched book details the history of evolution. Wilson addresses the five previous periods of extinction on the planet and the millions of years it took for the Earth to repair itself after each. He convincingly asserts that we are now in the midst of the sixth great extinction, caused by human activity, and that there may be no recovery from this one unless we act quickly and with purpose. Wilson is pragmatic in his approach, presenting options for human progress while working with nature rather than against it. The fact that The Diversity of Life was written almost thirty years ago makes it even more compelling, given Wilson’s prescient observations.

I’ll admit that parts of The Diversity of Life were a slog for me and I found myself putting the book down to take a breather for a few days on a few occasions. I was not bored – just overwhelmed by the amount of information. So, it was a pleasure when I moved on to Naturalist, Wilson’s very entertaining autobiography. It is a compulsively readable book that explains the passion the scientist brings to his more scholarly texts. His writing is candid and his detailed description of the flora and fauna of the everyday as well as the exotic are breathtaking.


Finishing Naturalist, I was eager to move on to Wilson’s one novel, Anthill (2010). It is clear, having read the autobiography, that Anthill has many autobiographical elements as it tells the story of Raphael Semmes (Raff) Cody, who grows up in south Alabama and becomes obsessed with a parcel of wild forest near his fictional hometown, Clayville, in Nokobee County. We follow Raff’s childhood explorations and his growing fascination with the ant colonies of the Nokobee forest.

As enticing as the coming-of-age story of Raff may be, the novel becomes singular in its appeal and uniquely E.O. Wilson in its mastery and finesse with “The Anthill Chronicles,” the novel’s centerpiece. The “Chronicles” comprises nine chapters and seventy-one pages. It is a memorable and impactful rendition of the life and death of woodland ant colonies from the perspective of the ants. Margaret Atwood calls it the “Iliad of the ants.” “The Anthill Chronicles” cunningly provides keen science-based parallels into the challenges and evolution of the human species. The action of the battle scenes, when rival ant colonies vie for dominance, are as action-packed and suspenseful as any war story you might have read. It’s hard not to be moved by the death of a colony’s queen and the methodically efficient way in which the duty-bound ants handle the aftermath of that colonial tragedy. I am still surprised at how invested I became in dozens of pages of the lifestyles of the ants. Wilson doesn’t give his ants the human traits that a Disney version might; his ants view the humans who come into their territory as “moving trees.” Wilson’s ants are guided by instinct and genetics.

As the “Chronicles” conclude, the reader is back into Raff’s story as he finishes an undergraduate degree at Florida State and heads to Harvard law school. By this time, Raff has a clear path in mind for his goals to use his law degree to advocate for conservation causes. He makes the conscious but unexpected decision to go into practice with a Mobile development company which does not have a good record on environmental issues. We find a direct correlation between the fate of the ant colonies of the “Chronicles” and the story of the developers.

Wilson masterfully uses his fiction to illuminate his naturalist concerns; the book is rife with twists and turns, colorful and disturbing characters. Raff’s environmental activism attracts the attention of a fundamentalist, violent, and anti-conservation religious sect, leading to an unexpected, violent, and thrilling climax. Wilson’s choice of narrative style, shifting effortlessly from an omniscient narrator to the first-person observations of one of Raff’s ecology professors at Florida State, raises intriguing questions about Raff’s destiny at the book’s closing.

E.O. Wilson is a writer who should appeal to the casual reader as well as the environmentally-committed. He’s a “good read,” as we say.

Homecoming

On the first morning waking up in my new house, I opened the upstairs bedroom shutters to a foggy warm morning. A family of deer grazed on the pine-forested hill just beyond the back yard – at eye level, maybe thirty feet from the window. A solitary cardinal perched on a branch of a mimosa, his bright red plumage dazzling against the frond-like leaves and feathery pink blossoms of the mimosas climbing the abrupt hill toward the pines.

I took it all as a good omen after retirement and a challenging fifteen months of social distancing culminating in an exhausting move. I decided to get my camera and take a picture; by the time I got back, they were all gone.


In the current crazy housing market, my house in north Alabama sold in one day with multiple offers. Then, I became the “buyer” and was quickly schooled on how challenging it is to buy a house these days.

I started out with high hopes of finding a place downtown or on Birmingham’s Southside, where I had last lived in an apartment on Red Mountain overlooking the city. It was a small and inexpensive apartment with a priceless view.


I always answer “Birmingham” when I’m asked the inevitable Southern question, “Where are you from?” Some may argue with my answer since I wasn’t born in Birmingham; I don’t know anybody born on an army base who considers the army base their home town, and we left the army for Birmingham when I was about a month old.

Birmingham is where my grandparents lived and where we spent our holidays when I was growing up. With frequent moves while I was growing up, and even more frequent moves for my career, I have lived away from Birmingham more than I have lived in the city, but this most recent move feels like a homecoming after twenty-seven years living in other places.


My house hunt started in the city and gradually moved farther south. The downtown and Southside places in my price range were usually too small and the ones I liked were gone before I could make up my mind. I looked at a twelfth-floor flat in a historic skyscraper in my idea of a perfect location in the central city; I loved it, but realized that I needed to have at least a balcony close by.

My realtor was patient and, more importantly, he was calm. Our search spread to townhouses south of the city and things began to look up as I found places with manageable and sufficient space for my “stuff” and enough outdoor space to satiate my need to get my hands in the dirt, plant some herbs, and have a place to sit in the sun.

When I found a townhouse looking out onto a tranquil park sloping down to the Cahaba River, my perspective changed and I decided I wanted a place near the river. Another place, with a terrace looking down at the river, shored up my resolve. Both were grabbed up before I could make an offer and my realtor assured me that the right thing would come along at the right time.

We scheduled a tour of the house I bought on the first morning it was on the market and made an offer on the spot. These are things you quickly pick up if you are a buyer in the current housing market. Later that day, I was surprised to learn my offer was accepted (you must also prepare yourself for disappointment if you are a buyer in the current housing market).

This house is not on the Cahaba, but the river is less than a half mile away. And it has those lovely woods behind it. I had told my realtor that I wanted to either be in the middle of things or in relative seclusion. I got the latter. I can hear traffic from an interstate when I’m in the front yard and one billboard pokes up above the trees in the distance. Downtown Birmingham is just a few minutes away, but the place itself seems remote and peaceful and surprisingly secluded.

I hosted my family for Independence Day, so the place has been given a social trial run. One morning I decided to work on plants for the walk leading to the front door. Thumbing through a book on New Orleans gardens with my morning tea, I felt fortified to tackle some pot gardening and headed to a nearby nursery.

There’s still a big “to-do” list to complete, but now that I’m no longer coming in to a stack of unpacked boxes and furniture to be rearranged, and now that my books are all organized neatly on the shelves, coming in has started to feel like coming home.

Last night, as I drove into the neighborhood, five deer stood watching from the side of the road. As I passed, they disappeared behind a house and up into the woods. Once again, there was no camera close by.

Finally, the timing was right … August 4, 2021

Book Review: Fourteenth Colony by Mike Bunn

Here is my latest review for Alabama Writers’ Forum. Fourteenth Colony is a fascinating look at a marginal and mostly forgotten part of the American Revolution.

Alabama Writers’ Forum : News & Reviews : Book Review Archives : Fourteenth Colony: The Forgotten Story of the Gulf South During America’s Revolutionary Era (writersforum.org)

Review: Shaking the Gates of Hell by John Archibald

My latest review for Alabama Writers’ Forum:

Alabama Writers’ Forum : News & Reviews : Book Review Archives : Shaking the Gates of Hell: A Search for Family and Truth in the Wake of the Civil Rights Revolution (writersforum.org)