Wednesday, November 27, 2013


     Since the day they closed the doors of the Mountain Pharmacy in Stone Mountain I never, ever order a milkshake anywhere.  I haven't watched The Tonight Show in a hundred years.  Nothing Jay Leno has to say (or anyone he has to interview) can hold candles to Carson interviewing Don Rickles while Ed sits there trying to remember what planet he's on.   There's no need for anyone to try and make a living calling college football games on television or radio since Keith Jackson retired.  ("And BOY HOWWWWWWDY Nebraska is HUGE along that offensive line!")  And since Furman Bisher spent 94 years writing and living on this planet  (two things that for most of those 94 years happened simultaneously, by the way) no one need try and write a word about Thanksgiving.  His Thanksgiving columns represented all that was good about  the days when the written word was sometimes folded  and lying at the end of the driveway first thing in the morning.   His list of things for which he found himself thankful in those columns were both obvious and subtle.  Good health and the sound of his son's car door in the driveway late at night.  Breath to breathe and  a good cup of coffee.  His wife's smile or the next great racehorse being stretched on a chilly morning in Kentucky.  He was thankful for things we wish we could've experienced and thankful for things for which we, too, should be thankful...we just didn't know it 'til he told us so.  

     I remember a host from a local sports talk show that made a habit of mocking him, sometimes after Furman had made an appearance on his show.  He tried to do an imitation of the sound of Furman's voice, always making  him sound backwoods and senile.  He wasn't from around here and was the same guy that ridiculed people in Atlanta because we were sad when some gorilla named Willie died at Zoo Atlanta.  Had he listened to Furman instead of mocking him he might still have a show to host.  See, people listened to Furman because, even when he was saying something we didn't want to hear, he knew how to say it so that we'd listen.  And listen we did for 59 years.    We got tired of listening to that talk show host much sooner than that.  He's unemployed because he talked to hear himself talk  He's unemployed because he made fun of a world class athlete suffering from a life-sucking disease that has no cure. I think mostly he's unemployed because he  broke rule #1, knowing your audience.  Dumb move to pollute the airwaves of a city making fun of things we hold sacred.  He wasn't just a gorilla.  He  was as much a part of our innocence and childhood as Officer Don or milking Rosebud or the Rich's Christmas tree.  And Furman wasn't just a sportswriter -  he was an artist that had to paint pictures with his words because he didn't live in a social media world where everyone is a photographer.  And we listened whether he was talking about having lunch with Jack Nicklaus or how thankful we should be for a glass of sweet tea.  

     So, as I say, I'm inclined to not say much about this holiday.  I do think it's sad that Thanksgiving is being reduced to Christmas' little brother and we're forgetting why it's here.  And the fact that I use this occasion to write about an old sportswriter probably shows that I'm now full of attitude that used to exasperate me as a youngster.  That is the attitude that ain't much of nothing folks call contemporary is worth a damn, be it music or writing or food or cars or t.v. shows.  Those were the days, indeed...and I'm thankful I was able to live them. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

"A man may die..."

     I could tell you where I was on November 22, 1963 but I wouldn't  have much detail to share.  I was safely in my mother's womb, 11 days away from becoming a citizen of planet earth.  Thus, the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination has mostly served to remind me that I'm very close to celebrating my own milestone.  The avalanche of documentaries, reenactments and docudramas in the last week or so have brought that day back to life for all of us.  I guess it's a day by which one could mark time, much like September 11, 2001 is for my generation.  There's life before that day and life since that day...two separate realities.

     A few weeks ago I was in Washington, D.C. standing and staring in awe at the Lincoln Memorial.  It was a freezing day and a wind that could cut you whipped through there, causing most to make it a very abbreviated visit.  But I couldn't walk away. Not just because it was my first trip to D.C. but because I couldn't quit reading.   If you've been there you've seen the inscriptions on the two opposite walls - one side the Gettysburg Address, the other side his second inaugural address.  I read each one twice.  I got tears in my eyes and not just from that wind.  I told my bride  "My God, leaders used to sound like leaders."

"Ask not what your country can do for you..."

"Let us not seek the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer."

"Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty."

"The cost of freedom is always high, but Americans have always paid it.  And one path we shall never choose and that is the path of surrender..."

     So there is a tragedy that I take away from, not just that day in Dallas, but from each and every day that I watch those who are in power sound less and less powerful.  That is that today we are mourning not just the loss of a great man, but also of a great mindset.  The mindset that we are, by the grace of God, Americans and all that encompasses is something that should be respected, even revered.   I've not seen much to hold in reverence coming from the marbled halls of government lately.  Not here in a year when we saw those halls collectively become a zoo with finger pointing, Dr. Seuss recitals and sophomoric, self-centered gesturing that eventually shut them down.  I hope that sometime before I leave this planet I'll witness individuals leading us by word and example so great that we're once again compelled to start building memorials.

"A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on." 

Friday, November 15, 2013

Lunch With Eudora

Catfish and Collard Greens

     On a hot Sunday in the summer of 1969 (or so?)  Uncle Hank and Aunt Jean were going to pick up me and my mother at the corner of Moreland and Metropolitan at noon, right after church had let out.  I remember that her brother and sister had wanted to leave earlier but Mother wasn't going anywhere until after she'd taught third grade Sunday School and gone to 11:00 church at Martha Brown Methodist there in East Atlanta.  We were going to Thomaston, Georgia.  I had no idea where it was.  I was too young to know if it was a 100 miles or a 1,000 miles away.  I really didn't know who Aunt Clifford and Uncle Ney were - only that they were names often brought up in conversation around our house.   As the baby of the family I'd been required to make many of these visits to folks I didn't know.  I wasn't old enough, you see,  to have other things to do like my sisters.  They always said they were doing homework. And Daddy didn't have to go because I reckon somebody had to take the girls home to work on their homework.  Well, at least this time I was going to get to ride to this Thomaston place in Uncle Hank's big, white, shiny car that had AIR CONDITIONING!  In 1969 we didn't have air conditioning in our house, much less any of our vehicles. This might be a boring trip with the old folks but it was going to be fancy.
     Thomaston wasn't that long of a ride.  I don't remember much about the view from the backseat until we got to Thomaston and went over a little bridge that crossed Potato Creek.  Mother looked at me and said "That's where Uncle Ney caught those catfish I was telling you about..."  I'd heard many stories about the catfish that Uncle Ney caught in Potato Creek.  He'd catch but not kill and clean them right away.  No, he took them home and kept them alive in their bathtub until he was ready to clean and cook them.  Until I laid eyes on Potato Creek it was just another tale of the way things were when the old folks weren't old and endured hardships and ways of life us spoiled young 'uns could only imagine.  But seeing Potato Creek I was, admittedly, intrigued by the whiskered creatures that lived deep in that muddy water.  It would be a sight, I realized, to go take a bath and have them flopping around in the tub.  "Did you have to take a bath while they were in there?" I once asked.  No, I was told, you waited 'til whatever day the fish were dinner and took your bath then.  Seemed to me folks used to bathe less.
     This many years later I can't begin to tell you what Aunt Clifford and Uncle Ney looked like the first time I laid eyes on them.  I seem to remember Uncle Ney being wheelchair bound by that point in his life but I could be wrong.  And I remembering thinking that Aunt Clifford was a loud person.  Those are the only things I can tell you about them.  Details of the way they looked and the things we talked about have long since been swept away.  But there does live in my mind a vivid recollection of one part of our visit  - lunch.
     We'd left Atlanta without lunch but Mother and Aunt Jean said they weren't hungry when Aunt Clifford asked about lunch. She said some one's name and said she was back in the kitchen cooking if we needed to eat.   I didn't really answer but Uncle Hank said he could eat and he took me by the hand and led me into the kitchen in the back of the house. "Come on, this will be good for you."  WHAT WILL BE GOOD FOR ME???? 
     The kitchen seemed like an afterthought, obviously added on to the house some time after the place was built.  It was hot and there was a very large black woman with a fly swatter in one hand and a spatula in the other.  "Well ain't you a handsome one" she said looking down at me.  She had sweet eyes and she was sweating profusely.   God knows how many hours she'd been standing over that hot stove in that hot kitchen. She ordered us to sit on some wooden stools at that kitchen table and said "Sweetie, you want one piece or two?"  I didn't even know what I was being offered much less how many of them I wanted.  Uncle Hank answered for me "Give him two, he's a growing boy...and give me two."  TWO OF WHAT????
     She sat down two tall, cold glasses of sweet tea and a steaming bowl of greens.  "Do you like collard greens baby?"  "Oh yes ma'am," I answered and I wasn't just being polite.  I loved the days when I'd go into my mother's kitchen and the sweet stink of collards had taken over the house.  I don't know if it made me an odd child, but I loved collards and cornbread as much as any candy you could give me.  And the pan of cornbread this black woman with the sweet eyes had just sat out to go with our greens was big enough to feed twelve folks.  "This is the way you do it,"  Uncle Hank said.  He got a bowl from the shelf next to the table, crumbled up his cornbread and spooned collards and pot liquor all over them.  He handed me a bowl and I followed his lead, making extra sure all of my cornbread got wet with the elixir that collards give off when they're cooking.  There was huge chunks of ham hock in the greens and I was in heaven.  I'd completely forgotten there was more coming, the part of the meal Uncle Hank had just said I'd need two of....
     "There ain't no bones in 'em so just eat 'em up!" she said.  And there on my plate were two of the biggest pieces of fish I'd ever seen.  I just stared at them and, again, sort of waited to follow Uncle Hank's lead.  "It's catfish," he said.   I loved fish so I grabbed my fork to dig into these 2 and their perfectly browned cornmeal crust.  But then I slammed on the brakes.  I was suddenly overcome with the image of these creatures swimming in the same tub that the old folks in the living room sat in  and washed their old people body parts.  "What's wrong?"  Uncle Hank asked.  I didn't want to be rude and let the black woman hear my concerns.  So I leaned over and whispered to him "Did these come out of the bathtub?"  He reared back on his stool and let out a loud laugh.  "No, son...I reckon these probably came from the Piggly Wiggly. Uncle Ney hasn't been well enough to fish in a long time."  Relieved, I dug into them.  And, boy, were they perfect.  Sweet, not greasy and perfectly crusted.  I don't remember a thing about the branch of my family tree I met that day but I remember that catfish and those collard greens. 
     A full stomach and a long ride home and soon I was flirting with falling asleep in the back of Uncle Hank's shiny white car.  "You know why you liked that food so much?"   I realized he was talking to me.  "Why?"  "Because you're a good southern boy.  Folks in other parts of the world don't get to eat like're lucky."   And there it was.  For the very first time in my life I realized I had an identity that until that day wasn't anything that set me apart - it was just my life.  I was a southern boy.  So the spot on the earth where my roots are planted determines such things?  Everyone I knew ate like me, talked like me and lived like me.  I reckon I figured the whole planet did.  But now I learn they don't and now I learn I need to be glad of it.   The notion stayed with me - to this day a pot of greens and a pan of cornbread goes beyond sustenance.  I feel the connection to the aforementioned roots and how deep they run.  And I always think that my greens fall well shy of the perfection the black woman with sweet eyes was able to produce that Sunday afternoon so long ago. 
     I say all of that to say this - I had that very same sense of connection the first time I read words that Eudora Welty had put on a piece of paper.  THIS was southern literature.  THIS was a southern writer.  You probably don't need to be from this part of the world to realize the mastery she had over her craft (she had a Pulitzer on the shelf, after all.)   But I bet it helps.  I bet you hear voices that someone from someplace like New York or Illinois or California wouldn't hear - not the way you hear them anyway.  And being of similar background convinces you that you're hearing those voices just the way she wanted you to hear them. 
     It was actually Mary Chapin Carpenter that got me started reading Eudora Welty.  I heard her explaining that "When Haley Came To Jackson" was inspired by Welty's "One Writer's Beginnings."  Seems Eudora's father had held her in his arms when Haley flew by our planet in 1910 and prayed that she'd be alive and well when the comet made it's next visit.  I quickly purchased "One Writer's Beginnings" and was hooked in just a few pages.  I'd never heard her speak at that time but I could certainly hear her voice.  I knew why she wrote the way she did.  Without reading them I knew that any of her other works would feel as much a part of who I am as a plate of catfish and sweet tea.  I quickly got a hold of "The Collected Short Stories of Eudora Welty" and began a daily regimen of reading a story a day, usually while I ate my lunch. I found that I kept a notebook and scribbled ideas about each story.  I usually read the stories two or three times, just to make sure I hadn't missed anything.  I felt more a part of someone else's words than I ever had.  And I was strongly compelled to make the notes I scribbled in that notebook into something I could share with others. 
     So, going forward, this blog will occasionally be interrupted with a "Lunch With Eudora" post.  Perhaps boring for others but something I selfishly feel the need to do.  Agatha Christie once said the only way to write is to read...and read and read and then read some more.  There's an ocean of stories living in my head.  Maybe Eudora's stories will push my own out of my head, out of my soul and onto pages.  I have no illusions that my words will live up to hers but, in whatever voice I have, I need to get 'em out. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

more from the doofus looking at 50...

     "It's just a number."  That's what a lot of folks who will watch me turn 50 in a month or so are telling me.   "It's just a number."   And they're right - a number, by itself, doesn't make you old.  There's plenty of other symptoms  Consider:

     You hear "the guys"  (and "the guys" includes younger neanderthals on sports radio shows, the office, the other end of the bar, the gym etc...) talking up the attributes and assets of a female celebrity.  Because you've become illiterate in pop culture you have no idea who they're talking about.  Later, though,  you're glued to a documentary on the news channel ("Malaria or seasonal allergies?  How knowing the difference could save your life!")   During a commercial they tease their version of "Entertainment Tonight" and - after wondering if Mary Hart is still alive - you hear that they're going to run a story about the actor or singer or model "the guys" were discussing earlier.   You look up from the obituary page and instead of being taken with her attributes and assets you scream at the t.v. "HOLY CRAP!  EAT SOME CHEESECAKE!!"  Then you begin a rant that begins with "In my day..." and references such bastions of feminine pulchritude as Cheryl Tiegs, Lynda Carter and Angie Dickinson.  REAL women that, you know, ATE.  

     You now find it essential to check the weather channel before going to bed.  It's not safe to go to sleep without knowing whether or not a typhoon is going to hit Sugar Hill in the middle of the night.  When asked what your favorite television show is you often respond "Your Local On The 8's"

     "Sleeping late" on the weekends now means 7:00.  You can't lay in bed all day and let somebody else get all the good bales of pine straw at Home Depot!  Besides, the news is coming need to see if there was a typhoon during the night.

     Sometimes you wake up your spouse with a loud grunt or a scream.  She panics "What did you do??"   "Uh, turned over..."   Then when the alarm goes off  her first words from under the covers - "Is it thundering?"  Sadly, what she actually heard was your knees taking their first few steps of the day (OR something far more serious related to the Mexican you had for dinner the night before.)  You lie and say "yeah, I think it's fixing to storm..." 

      Often when leaving the house she tells you your clothes look fine but suggests you get the weedeater out of the garage and do something about hair that's taking over someplace it shouldn't be.  You're not surprised.  While shaving in the morning, you've taken note of the forestation growing from your eyebrows and ears and felt compelled to call Abe Vigoda and apologize for all the jokes you made at his expense.

     Sitting at a red light, you're confused as to why you so want to drag the punk next to you out of his car and throat-punch him.  Is it because he's playing his music so loud?  Is it because his sunglasses probably cost more than your first car (which was held together by duct tape and bondo?)  You're reminded that you were well known for rolling your windows down and blasting the neighborhood with music.  There's a huge difference - the music you blasted was good music, by God!

     You hate it when a show you want to watch doesn't come on 'til 10:00.  You despise all politicians.  You subscribe to an email that lists all the people in your zip code that were booked into the county lockup during the night (in case one of your neighbors is on there and you need to keep an eye on their sorry selves!!)  You can waste 15 minutes of someone's life explaining to them how much better Orange Crush tasted in a brown bottle.  You think video games are going to be death of America.  You watch commercials and wonder "what in the hell were they just advertising?"  The point is I guess they're right - a number, by itself, can't make you old.  There's plenty of whims, quirks and goofiness to advertise that it's been happening for some it's just going to be official because it'll be on your driver's license.