Shut up and read

Harper Lee could have written What I Ate Today, and we would be scampering to the nearest bookstore to get our hands on a hardback copy. Lee has a knack for doing this to us.

She is two for two.

Go Set a Watchman was a rough draft that underwent more than two years of revision and editing so severe that the entire plot had to be rewound 20something years in order for a younger Scout, a more tolerant Atticus, and To Kill a Mockingbird even to come to life. (Pay attention here, composition students: Revision is always a good idea.)

I boarded the Harper Lee train like the rest of America and pre-ordered a copy, knowing good and well there would be no shortage of copies today, which is the much anticipated release date that has made an entire country temporarily forget about ISIS, Donald Trump, and the Confederate flag gay marriage.

Here’s why: reclusiveness is attractive. Not attractive in the physically appealing, romantic sense, but in the curious, mysterious sense. Harper Lee has exhibited a reclusiveness so acute that she makes Emily Dickinson seem like a Kardashian. This is why we love her. This is why everyone in the South claims TKAM to be their favorite book of all time and why everyone outside the South claims their hometown really is Southern, even if not geographically, or declares herself a history buff or has had an incurable crush on Gregory Peck or whatever it is that Katie Couric went on and on about last week that somehow qualified her as a TKAM expert. But this is not my point.

My point is that much of TKAM’s 55-year appeal, which has clearly transferred to Go Set a Watchman, is Harper Lee’s self-imposed exile from the public eye. We love that stuff. When a famous person decides, “That’s it, I’ve done something pretty cool here, and now I’m going inside for the next 55 years,” we line up on the sidewalk and wait for a shadow in the window while we rummage through her trash.

The Austin Phelps quote, “Wear the old coat, and buy the new book” hangs above my desk. It serves not as a reminder that I should accumulate books and books and books like a person with a disorder, but as a reminder that some things last and others do not. Books themselves do not last—I know that. I’m not an idiot, usually. But what we take from them certainly does. And while that sounds awfully poetic and preachy, well … whatever. TKAM lasts.

While riding that previously mentioned Harper Lee train on the eve of today’s release, I sat at the popular kids’ table to read TKAM along with everyone else because that’s what the media suggested we should do: read or reread the novel on Monday. The problem was, I couldn’t find my copy anywhere. Some kid who lives here has misplaced it. But after the yelling and the unshelving and the accusing, I realized, “Why do I need to read this again anyway?” A conservative estimate is that I have read TKAM 27 times in this life, beginning in sixth grade, and I have seen the movie at least twice that number. I sort of know the story. So I went to bed and waited for the prequel.

If Watchman poses any threat of undoing everything we know and love about Atticus, Jem, Scout or any other character, then we have ourselves to blame. We approach a story with our own experiences, our own views, our own assumptions, and we block out the nice folks on TV who are hell bent on telling us why this is good or bad or why the author did this or that. We hold on to the innocence and imagination of TKAM and whatever it is that draws us to this story, and we take the best next step, which is to shut up and read.

I like to believe Harper Lee would say the same thing.

Valentine’s Day field trip idea: a girl and a boy go to a movie

See that previous post about how the new year held all sorts of promise for rehabilitating this wheezing excuse for a blog? Clearly, words don’t mean much in 2014.

In fact, until this very morning, the header image remained a vintage sepia photo of two Auburn men holding a golden eagle by its wings. This was no accident; a cool picture deserves to stay in public view for more than a month, especially in a region where football season never ends. But I have to tell you, it was time. It was time for football season to end, it was time for recruiting season to end, it was (and is) time to Move. On. In these parts (and in this household), I think I may have just engaged in some level of blasphemy. Regardless, that particular picture has been removed, and a creepy Valentine image has taken its place.

Despite the rapid approach of Valentine’s Day, the real focus today is the weather and how, frankly, we need to push past this prolonged state of wait-and-see and upended schedules that February has dumped on us. This isn’t healthy. It can’t be.

Recognizing that the residents of this house were in real danger of re-enacting scenes from The Shining, we loaded up the four-wheel-drive–it was raining, after all–Tuesday night to take in a movie. Agreeing on a movie is akin to hosting a NATO summit. All the strategies and alliances, reviews and debates. It’s exhausting, really. (If NATO summits can be won and lost, I certainly lost the last round and was forced to suffer through American Hustle. I was not about to lose again.) Continue reading

A new year, a new blog…

…but not really. This is not a new blog. It is a very old blog. A very old blog that has been sorely neglected.

In light of New Year’s resolutions and the hope and promise of a new semester, it makes (some) sense to practice what I preach and make writing a regular habit. And by “regular,” I mean “more often than every 2 1/2 years.” True, I may physically write something almost every day, but that comes with the territory of teaching college English. Blogging, on the other hand, is another animal — in this case, a malnourished and nearly lifeless animal that may be better off running around a farm somewhere.

The beauty and downside of blogging is no pay, no assignments, no deadlines, no expectations. Sounds like a few relatives we have known and loved. Still, it seems a shame to let this thing just lie around, gasping for air. So I have blown the dust off the blog and given some thought to its purpose and content, and here is what I have come up with. This is not an academic blog. This is not a teacher’s blog. This is not a mom blog. So everybody just calm down.

But what IS it, Amy? Oh, I have no idea. It will be whatever it will be on any given day. I make no promises, I make no plans.grab bag

This will be like one of those paper grab bags that drugstore managers would staple shut, discount to a rock-bottom price, and sell to customers as a “mystery” or “surprise.” My hope is that you don’t open it, read along, and feel completely ripped off, holding a figurative bag of Lisa Frank memo pads and a cheap kaleidoscope.

But I make no promises.

“Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong”

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here in this forum or not, but I suffered a textbook case of near-fatal food poisoning in Boston, thanks to an unhealthy steelhead trout so ripe with neurotoxins that if the DMV learns about the experience, I will probably lose my driver’s license. Upon hearing about this misfortune, the nice people who nearly killed me served me this fish mailed me a $100 gift card for my troubles. For three months, the gift card remained on my desk next to other important things, like expired coupons and a funny picture that I found on the shelf at the thrift store. (I didn’t buy the picture. It wasn’t for sale. It was likely discarded from somebody’s wallet. So, yes, technically, I stole it.)

So the gift card mocked and taunted me for more than 90 days. And then I decided enough was enough and it was time to cash in. We went to Atlanta Saturday to eat $100 worth of seafood. The food was incredible, service was extraordinary, forgiveness was palpable, and perhaps of greater importance, I am alive to tell you this riveting tale. But this is not a fish tale, nor is it about the restaurant, nor is it about redemption.

Considering the seafood lunch might be my last on this earth, I wanted at least one good experience from the day. Before eating, then, we stopped in Atlanta’s West End at the Wren’s Nest, home of Joel Chandler Harris, creator of Uncle Remus.

The Wren’s Nest is one of those large rambling houses that makes you do ugly things, like covet.

"Buy me this house," I said.

Now, a museum tour isn’t a museum tour unless you have at least one blowhard in your group. These are especially prevalent on school field trips, but know that they worm their way into the general public, too. Our blowhard was a gentleman in a mock turtleneck who insisted on sharing with the group his theories about why Song of the South is not available on home video (he blames Bill Cosby and/or Michael Jackson for gobbling up the rights), while his friend? wife? twin sister? raised her hand and inquired about the height of the ceilings. Sometimes, people just want to talk. Even when they have nothing to say. (Good people like us had the decency to whisper quietly as we argued about how the Roosevelt presidents were related, and nobody had to know. That’s a sign of good raisin’ right there.)

The point of visiting the Wren’s Nest–or any house museum, really–is to shut up and listen so that you can better understand its importance and not announce to the world what a blowhard you are. Our guide was Jeri (read about her here by scrolling halfway down the page). She is as gracious and knowledgeable as any docent you will find.

The newsprint guide to Harris and his Wren's Nest should be required reading.

If we could have gotten away with it, we would have put this display in the back of our car and brought it home to our porch.

Titled “Everything You’ve Heard About Uncle Remus Is Wrong,” the newsprint guide (pictured above) to the Wren’s Nest explores Harris’s legacy and methodically and gracefully shuts down any suspicion of his motives. An excerpt:

“By faithfully recording the tales in their original dialect, [Harris] introduced America and the world to a rich tapestry of folklore passed down through generations of enslaved Americans [. . .] Here at the Wren’s Nest, the place Harris called home for so many years, we’re interested in telling the whole story about Joel Chandler Harris. We believe he deserves a fair shake. His story may be just as important as those he recorded so long ago.”

If you can’t visit the Wren’s Nest personally (it would be a shame not to, really), at least treat yourself to a virtual visit here.

A Few Words About Style

Go ahead--weep a little. It's a thing to behold.

OK, everybody. Put away your phones and tiny keyboards for a few minutes. We are going to enjoy a refresher course in writing, mixed with some simple reminders about style.

Stop your whining. And no, you can’t go to the bathroom.

You are looking at Ted Sorensen’s copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, the go-to guide for concise and eloquent writing that should be glued to the hands of every high school and college student enrolled in any sort of course that isn’t math. It is also a handy tool for non-students to have beside the computer to prevent the escape of poorly written e-mails. Really. Try it some time. Works like a charm.

Long, long ago (in March), we learned the pivotal role Strunk and White played in JFK’s speech writing staff. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that I grew a little teary-eyed as I stood before this encased copy in Boston–that same city where I nearly died from eating an apparently not-so-healthy steelhead trout. Seriously.

E.B. White himself said, “Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” White was commissioned to take up where William Strunk’s “little book” from decades earlier left off, to revise and repackage it so that people would have some decency about themselves and have some standards, don’t you know. He didn’t reflect and interpret. He bossed us around with his informing and shaping ways. That was in 1957. Four years later, Sorensen–JFK ‘s chief speechwriter–turned to a copy of that book to help pen the inaugural address. JFK probably best summarizes White’s “Elementary Principles of Composition” in this directive:

Thanks to Strunk and White, the omission of needless words and the use of concrete language characterized the Kennedy presidency.

"Soon after the election, Kennedy turned to one of his closest advisors to help him craft the inaugural address." Sorensen had a trick up his sleeve, in the form of Strunk and White. I prefer "adviser" to "advisor." AP says I should, and Webster says I can.

As Jackie chats it up with Robert Frost, JFK keeps conversation with Pearl Buck light and breezy, with an ear to proper tense and clarity, thanks to good breeding ... and (no doubt) Strunk and White.

For those interested in Strunk and White — put your hands down, please — check out the ILLUSTRATED version. (These are exciting times.) Mine is six years old and delivers more fun than a grammar book should. Possible beach read? I think so.

Class dismissed.

About That Five-Month Hiatus…

January 17 seems like just yesterday . . . if you live in a time warp. Who am I kidding. I don’t really know how time warps are supposed to work. And apparently,  I seem to have forgotten how blogs are supposed to work. Something to do with writing regularly.

My last post was dated Jan. 17. But I’ve somehow managed to attract a few new subscribers since that date, and that makes me sad for those people who suffer the delusion that I am a regular blogger. Maybe they found this space by Googling “Winnie the Pooh” or “I Hate Texting” or some other hot topic. In any case, they somehow encouraged me to post again. Motivation works in weird ways, and I suppose this is one of them.

It seems I have some catching up to do. I will summarize the past five months with a few bullet points, a really cheapo way to summarize anything:

* I was nearly killed by a foodborne illness, courtesy of a steelhead trout in Boston in March. For legal reasons, I cannot expound on this experience, but know that it was bad. I can’t apologize enough to the guests in Room 364, just on the other side of our hotel room wall.

* My Louisiana native neighbor convinced me that watching “Swamp People” would be a good use of my time. I am now so addicted that I call her my co-dependent. Because of this show, I don’t answer the phone at night. When “Swamp People” isn’t airing on the History Channel, Netflix saves the day. How many times can I watch Troy pull an alligator into his boat, you ask? You tell me. I can’t count that high. Troy is a superhero. And like all those wonderful things that make a superhero a superhero, Troy knows how  to dress the part. The man never changes his shirt.

* Less than one year ago, I returned to school to finish what I thought I had started. Unfortunately, the years took their toll on my graduate credits, and the hours had spoiled. They molded. They went bad. So it was back to Square One. I was told, “Whoa. You’re not finishing. You’re starting over.” And that’s OK. That just meant more fun in the classroom and a little more time to write this thesis. I will graduate in May and begin my second career because print journalism seems to be going the way of the dodo bird, and I am one cranky old-schooler who is forever loyal to print and doesn’t have a heap of interest in digital media. (See photo above.) This part of my life has consumed much of the past five months.

There’s more, but it teeters on being on the boastful side — serving as a chaperone on a middle school choir trip, cutting my own bangs, vacationing in Biloxi, Miss., mastering an electric sander, and negotiating the local Publix only an hour after having Dilaudid administered intravenously in the ER. (Apologies to everyone whose path took them past my prone body lying in the beach chair borrowed from the Pepsi display. I was not in this world.)

And about that lady in the header picture above: No, this is not me. I’ve never looked that happy while talking on a car phone. Imagine how she would look with bangs…

Letters to the Editor

Within three days, I received the following two e-mails….

January 17, 2011

Dear Ms. Cates:

Do you write any more? I cannot find a blog entry that has been posted within the past year. (Editor’s Note: Stop exaggerating. The last post was dated September something.)
I certainly expected some in-depth writing this month on just what winning a national championship means to a graduate. (Editor’s Note: The hype was exhausting, not to mention all the plugging of holes in the woodwork. Suddenly, Auburn fans are EVERYwhere. Where were these people during the Barfield years? Or during those occasional and unfortunate stretches of probation? Oh, the fair-weatheredness of it all can make a girl so territorial.)
Nothing. Not that it means nothing, but that there was nothing posted. What exactly are we paying you for? Do we EVEN pay you? (Editor’s Note: I’ve yet to see a paycheck from this thing.)
I know that life in the big city can certainly be hectic and can lead you astray, but what about those of us in Hicksville who so look forward to your insight on life in all walks of life – big city or small town. So this is your notice: You are missed.

So this sort of made my day. And a few days earlier, this one made me sit up a little straighter:

January 15, 2011
Hi, Ms.Cates.
The result of my Bing search this morning on my subject line, Does Anyone Else Hate Texting?, pulled up your blog. All I can say is ROFL, which for me, a former English teacher, is about as far as I will go with the new lingo. Thanks so much for that. I am sharing it with my BFF’s (sorry!) who all text. I am the only holdout in our group.
I plan to return again and again to your site. You are indeed a breath of fresh air.

Thanks to both of these fine readers for lighting a fire under me; I miss writing here and am trying to work it into a schedule that is very different than the one I had only months ago. Yet I don’t want to generate the same ol’ blog rants that everyone else does–and that I am guilty of posting in the past. Without making this a totally self-serving site, I am working to come up with something a little more genuine and personal. And I don’t mean pictures of my kids. That gets old, too–even if they are more quick-witted and enjoyable than everyone else’s kids. (Somebody was bound to say it.)

Know that I am trying to climb back in this saddle, which has grown miserably cold and unfamiliar. I simply need to ensure it’s not strapped to a dead horse that has been beaten beyond recognition, so please bear with me.