For the March issue of In Touch Magazine, I take a closer look at the elements of the crucifixion and what we miss when we don’t study them intentionally.
For the March issue of In Touch Magazine, I take a closer look at the elements of the crucifixion and what we miss when we don’t study them intentionally.
My piece in the November issue of In Touch Magazine is a profile piece I’ve been eagerly anticipating sharing with our readers. Ralph Doudera’s story was fascinating to me the first time I heard it, and I knew I had to write it down. To me, it is a great example of true thankfulness, and I’m humbled it was included in this month’s issue.
Remember, a subscription to our magazine is free and can be gotten if you visit our online store and give us some basic information. Also, you can read the article when it’s posted on line here on November 1. God never stops amazing me with His goodness and willingness to protect us from everything that means to do us harm….including ourselves.
There are times when I both love and hate writing. It’s hard, and sometimes, it compels you to scratch something out that you’d rather not. This is one of those pieces. For the last assignment in my Personal Essay Writing class, each student has to edit a piece he or she has written and resubmit it. After reading over the comments and feedback I got from my classmates and instructor, I decided to rework the essay I wrote about baseball that was originally an entry on this blog.
They wanted it to be less about baseball and more about something personal, and during the critique session, the idea you see below popped in my head. It has changed forms completely and is now an attempt to wrestle with memory much more than time. I still have a few days to get it polished up and perfected, so I sure would appreciate feedback on this one. Where are there still gaps? Do the symbols I use work? Does it hold together top to bottom? No one in my family is going to want to read this one because it’s just too hard, so I need some help from you folks who aren’t so close to the issue. Thanks in advance.
For the Record
I have come to terms with the fact my grandfather will forget my name one day. Already, he struggles to find it as he gropes through the jumbled memories in his brain, sifting for it the same way we once did for sharks’ teeth on Jupiter Beach. Sometimes, he calls me “James,” the moniker I share with my great uncle and great grandfather, probably because he’s known it longer. It’s engraved more deeply into the gray grooves of his brain, and the disease gaining ground there will have a harder time eroding it. I like to imagine James is a stubborn root that refuses to be pulled out or a well-supplied soldier at the beginning of a lengthy siege. James is a fighter, and its defeat will be a Pyrrhic victory at best.
To salvage as much of him as she can, my grandmother, who I’ve always called Nonnie, asks Papaw our names at least thirty times a day, beginning at breakfast.
“Tell me your daughters’ names again,” she says as she places his morning pills on the napkin next to his plate.
“Sherry and Jamie,” he proudly replies, knowing both are right.
“Jamie’s your granddaughter,” she replies, washing down the lump of misery in her throat with a drink of scalding coffee. “Anita’s your other daughter. Now, tell me your grandsons’ names….”
When she can’t bear to listen, she has him write down our names on a sheet of paper over and over again, like he’s a child being punished after school, forced to scratch out, “I will not forget my homework” one hundred times on the board. His handwriting, never prize worthy, is nearly illegible now, and his brain can’t process letters the same way it once did. There are times when “Sherry” is written “sHErrY” and my name is spelled five different ways. Some days, the names won’t come at all, and his pencil tip breaks under the pressure of his frustration.
There are also times when I’m Amy, Cammie, and Tammy to him, too, and the fact that they rhyme only cracks my heart instead of breaking it outright. It’s close enough to tell me I’m still in there somewhere, like an old photograph just beginning to get grainy and fuzzy around the edges.
“That’s okay, Papaw,” I tell him as we sit out by the pool one Saturday. “It’s in the ballpark.”
The word triggers something in his brain, lashing two memories together like lifeboats in a storm, and he looks at me with such clarity I almost forget that dementia, unlike amnesia, isn’t something you recover from.
“Do you remember going to Busch Stadium?” he asks, smiling broadly.
I can only bite my lip and nod. “What do you remember, Papaw?” I ask. And he tells me his recollections of that afternoon.
I remember it well. I couldn’t have been more than seven the first time he led me through the massive gates at the ballpark with one of my tiny hands in his. In the other sweaty fist, I carried a new St. Louis Cardinals pennant that soon snapped in half because I shook it to pieces in my excitement. While the rest of my family went off to buy hot dogs, Cokes, and pretzels, Papaw and I joined the river of people flowing through the stadium and fought our way through to buy a scorecard.
“If you want to understand the game, you have to have one of these, baby girl,” he said. “It helps you see and remember what happened.”
We reached our seats and, while we waited for everyone to join us, Papaw pulled a pen out of his front shirt pocket and began filling out the lineups. He started with “Smith,” the most common of names, but I knew who it was. Ozzie Smith, A.K.A. “The Wizard of Oz,” was the lead-off man and had long been my favorite player because he always did a back flip the first time he took the field and was so fast that he made seemingly impossible plays look simple. Ozzie didn’t field so much as dance, anticipating the ball’s every movement when it left the batter’s box.
“You put ‘one’ here where it says ‘number,’ and ‘Smith’ under ‘name,’” Papaw said, slowly writing the information on the card and letting me see it. “Then you have to put in their position. Smith is a shortstop, so he’s number….”
I counted the positions on my finger. One was the pitcher, two was the catcher, but I always struggled to remember if the shortstop was five or six. I was about to give up when he reminded me.
“Smith starts with an S just like…”
“Six!” I shouted happily. “He’s position number six.”
For me, most of the game passed in a whir of color and excitement. I was often distracted by the organ music, the box of Cracker Jacks I munched on, or the people around us, but I checked in with Papaw periodically to see how the innings looked on that scorecard. Each player had twelve perfect boxes in line behind his name, and the diamond in the center of each held the results of each at bat. A darkened line with “1B” written to the side meant a single while that same line paired with “WP” or “BB” meant the man reached on a wild pitch or a walk. “K” facing right meant a man struck out swinging while a reversed one meant he stood there and took the final one of an at bat. I learned how to mark a stolen base, a fly out, and even a homerun, and what could have been an impenetrable mess of data made sense because my grandfather served as my very own Rosetta Stone.
There was something appealing about the scorecard to me, and I found myself more drawn to it as the innings passed. I liked the way it told the story of a game in only a few lines and letters, as terse and beautiful as a haiku. When the bottom of the ninth came around, Papaw asked me if I wanted to help, and I eagerly crawled into his lap and took the pen from his hand. Comfortably perched on his knees, I watched and carefully marked down the combination of plays that produced the Cardinals’ winning run (single, sacrifice fly, stolen base, and double) and left the crowd screaming with excitement. The moment, unlike my crooked and wobbly lines, was perfect.
Why can’t our memories be like that? I ask myself as I listen to him talk, furious that the outcome of an inconsequential game can be recorded forever while my grandfather’s memories wash away like sand pulled into time’s dark sea. Maybe it’s because the game is a two-dimensional thing, a mass of data—nothing more runs and outs—while humans are flesh and bone. A baseball scorecard is a simple retelling of facts in the correct order. There’s no need to record a player’s motivation, his thoughts during a given at bat, or even how he felt watching a third strike whiz past or legging a single into a double. But life is made up of so many things that cannot be quantified or accurately described. The only accurate record of it lives on in memory. Beautiful. Complete. Vulnerable.
No matter how many pictures we take or how many journals we fill with our thoughts, we can never capture the essence of what matters in our lives or why. It breaks my heart to think I can never explain to anyone how much I love the crinkles that collect around my husband’s eyes when he smiles or why no broccoli casserole in the world will ever taste as good as my mother’s. I can’t tell anyone exactly what it felt like to become the first person in my family to earn a master’s degree or to stand at the top of the Eiffel Tower at night with the twinkling lights of Paris laid out beneath me like gemstones on black velvet. Those precious things, if I lose them, are gone forever. After all, no one saw, tasted, or felt what I did in those moments—and even if they had, their memories would be uniquely theirs. Not mine.
“…but I couldn’t even keep a scorecard anymore,” Papaw says, his voice pulling me away from the painful thoughts in my head.
“What?” I ask him to repeat, embarrassed for having tuned him out, even for a second.
“I remember teaching you how to keep a scorecard that day,” he repeats. His voice is patient, the way it used to be. “But I doubt I remember how.”
Phrases like “I doubt I could…” are dementia-speak, convenient euphemisms for truths too brutal to face. We both know he could no more keep the system of lines and letters straight in his befuddled brain than I could when I was seven. He wouldn’t even know where to begin.
But I do. I know because he taught me how. The memory of learning it from him is in my head, and I’ve reinforced it by keeping dozens of scorecards since that Elysian afternoon. What is lost to him forever is not lost to me yet. The memory of it is safe for now.
“Hold on just a sec,” I tell him and dash indoors.
Thanks to the Internet, it takes less than a minute to print out a blank scorecard. It’s not the same as the full color ones at the ballpark, those edged with player stats and ads for beer or car dealerships, but it’ll do. I come back out to where he sits, staring at the pool’s placid and glossy surface. Like him, it’s no longer rushing from one place to another, compelled by the irresistible force of gravity to seek lower elevations or by heat and cold to take on other forms. It strikes me then that both of them have reached a place of stillness and will, over time, evaporate away. And there is little I can do about either.
But, for a moment, I see Papaw kneeling by the side of our pool in Arkansas, still wearing his work clothes. His tie is flipped up over his shoulder, and his bright plastic Wal-Mart nametag, the one that reads “Boyce—General Manager” flaps wildly in the summer breeze. In his hand, he holds a bright green garden hose that is happily burbling and spewing a stream of clear water into the pool.
“Whatcha’ doing, B?” I ask him.
“Filling up the pool, baby girl. You and your brother sloshed half the water out of it playing today,” he replies, laughing to tell me he’s not the least bit angry about it. He promises me we’ll swim later and play Marco Polo until it gets dark and we have to watch out for bats drawn down by deep end’s bright light.
I know he’s the same man I knew then, but he’s somehow smaller now. Dimmer. Like a lamp whose oil is running low. I know his lost memories aren’t as easy to replace as those gallons of water once were, but I tell myself refilling him temporarily is well worth the effort.
With my laptop under my arm, I walk toward my grandfather, waving the scorecard as excitedly as I once did that poor, doomed pennant. He smiles. And for a moment, he is so much like his old self that my soul is flooded by a pleasure too sweet to describe. It’s a gossamer thing, as pale and delicate as cotton candy, and I savor it until my jaws clench and my eyes water.
It’s 3:30, and on one network or another, a game will start in less than thirty minutes. That’s just enough time to look up the rosters and put each player’s name, number, and position down for the record.
Okay, it’s been forever since I did a book blog, but I swear I have a good excuse. I’m working to fill two roles at work (Content/Copy Editor and Managing Editor of the magazine), buying a house, and joining The Southern Order of Storytellers. Add health concerns and family issues into the mix, and I’ve been one heckabusy gal!
However, this one sounded like a fun (and comparatively short) book blog, so here we go. The lovely folks at The Broke and the Bookish want to know our shameful little secrets, our private penchants, and our otherwise bizarre bibliophilic behaviors. So, ladies and gents, I give you my Top Ten Bookish Confessions!
1. I sometimes fall asleep while reading in the bathtub and drop my book in the water—This has happened more times than I care to admit (though never with my Kindle thank goodness!) The most memorable victims were my first copy of Dracula, a friend’s copy of Black Beauty (which I replaced), and Moby Dick (which I found deliciously ironic.)
2. Until the fourth book, I scoffed at the Harry Potter series—However, when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire came out, I was in college studying to be an English teacher. I was taking a class in middle school literature and recognized I would have to know something about what my future students were reading. So I checked out the first book from the library and fell promptly in love. So much so, in fact, that I picked up my copy of book seven at midnight wearing my house colors! Ravenclaw rocks!!!
3. I sometimes skip words when I’m reading really exciting scenes just to see what happens—Granted, I always force myself to go back once I recognize that I’m doing it, but it’s still sad to find yourself skimming glorious words. I remember gliding over a certain chapter in The Scarlet Pimpernel just to see if Marguerite would make it to Sir Percy Blakeney in time.
4. I’ve always wanted to name a kid “Atticus”—No lie! I’ve admire the noble protagonist of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird so much that I’ve almost thought about about adopting a boy just to name him Nathaniel Atticus Hughes. The first name, naturally, is borrowed from another great love of my life, Nathaniel Hawthorne.
5. I utterly loathe James Joyce’s Ulysses—I can’t remember if I’ve ever admitted this before, but it’s true. I’m a confirmed connoussuer of literature who loves obscure books and chose to read Anna Karenina at the beach one summer, but I’m at a loss when it comes to why this book qualified as “The Best Book of All Time” in some circles.
6. I sometimes judge books by their covers—At times, when I don’t have a particular book in mind to read (which is rare), I actually roam the hallways of a bookstore just looking at covers. If it looks interesting or does something novel (HA! Pun!), I read the back matter. If that’s worth the cost, I usually buy and read it. That’s how I discovered books like Knick Knack Paddy Whack by Ardal O’Hanlon and Night of the Avenging Blowfish: A Novel of Covert Operations, Love, and Luncheon Meat by John Welter.
7. I get high on “old book smell”—When I travel home to Jacksonville, I try my darndest to stop in and shop at Chamblin Book Mine. The place is a gloriously messy place, a group of buildings and rooms cobbled together and stuffed to the rafters with used, new, and rare books. It’s a beautiful fire hazard I’d take pride in going up in like some nerdy Viking. I’ve gone in there and lost hours at a time as I search through stacks looking for books to fill the shopping bags I just traded in. Seriously, if I had just a little less dignity, I’d roll on the floor like a dog does when he finds something he likes.
8. I buy books I know I will likely never read—There’s something about empty bookshelves that unnerves me. I want them filled with colorful spines galore, titles that just beg people to take them off the shelves and give them a go. Also, I like it when people come into the house and remark about how many books I have. I guess it’s the same way a hunter feels about putting the heads of his kills on the wall over the mantelpiece.
9. I firmly believe the movie is NEVER better than the book—Let me put it to you this way, I was the ONLY person who walked out of the Jim Caviezel version, for lack of a better term, spittin’ mad. Everyone else loved it, and all I could think about was how the ending ruined the overall theme of revenge and made it too “neat.”
10. I once tricked my students into turning on one another like rabid dogs to get them to read literature—Nothing was off limits when I was in the classroom. If it would get “non-readers” to open the book, I was game. To get them interested in The Crucible, I set up a scenario where one half of the class was going to get in trouble for something the other half did. They flipped on each other like mid-level mobsters. I also once filled a cauldron with hot water and dry ice and impersonated a witch to teach Macbeth and made my students write papers entirely in Newspeak to prove that language matters. It was doubleplusgood.
I was honored to share Kristina Haury’s story in the September issue of In Touch Magazine. She is an amazing lady with a ton of personality and an amazing story of grace and provision. Working with her to complete this piece reminded me time and time again that God is sufficient to meet all our needs and that His timing is perfect. I hope you enjoy this piece because I sure had a blast putting it all together.
Also, please consider subscribing to In Touch Magazine. It is and has always been free!
For those of you who read my previous post about storytelling and how my first attempt at it went, I thought I’d show you what I can do with a little more time and a keyboard in front of me. I submitted that blog entry for my creative non-fiction workshop class to get feedback, and now it’s time to re-submit the new and improved version, written for readers rather than listeners. I’d love to know what you think!
I’m from Arkansas, which is something I don’t tell many people. Unlike other states with sexy selling points like Broadway, Hollywood, or Disneyworld, we’re best known for cotton, catfish, and the only diamond producing mine in the United States. We also grow half of the rice consumed in this country each year. Wahoo, right? Granted, being able to lay claim to Johnny Cash, John Grisham, and Maya Angelou is a bit of terrific, but it doesn’t make it any less painful that our state’s unofficial motto is “Thank God for Mississippi.”
Folks from “The Natural State,” we’re a little…different. One only need examine the teeming multitudes at a University of Arkansas Razorbacks football game to see why. It’s the only place in the South where grown men slap plastic Hog Hats on each Saturday and scream, “Woo pig sooie!” without thinking themselves the least bit odd. However, I can honestly say that none of those bleacher warriors can keep up with my great uncle Darrell when it comes to idiosyncrasies. My grandmother’s baby brother was the quintessential Qualls, even more so than his twin brother, Doug.
We Qualls, for those of you who’ve never been blessed to be in our presence, are some of the downright peskiest people on planet earth. I once watched my forty-year-old cousin, Lyndal, lock and unlock an automatic car door twenty times for no other reason than to irritate my great grandmother. He only stopped when she flipped him the bird and he couldn’t catch his breath because he was laughing so hard.
Darrell was a Qualls through and through. Tall, lanky, and long armed, he always made me think of Ichabod Crane, and like his literary look-alike, he took his food seriously. So much so that he brought his own onion to cookouts just to make sure he’d have enough. Always optimistic, he refused to let anything—even losing a finger to diabetes—get him down. “I can’t give you high fives no more, Jamers,” he once told me. “How’s about a high four?”
Though he never enrolled in college, he was highly intelligent and creative, which is a lethal combination in a super villain, but just borderline dangerous in regular folks. He was quick-witted and liked to tell stories he made up on the spot. For instance, I once saw him rubbing his bicep like it was sore and asked, “Uncle Darrell, does your arm hurt?” He replied, “Oh no, baby girl. I just love myself.” Another time, he actually was sick with a terrible case of the flu, and I asked him how he was feeling. His reply?—”Little Sister, I’ll tell you this. I’m not buying any green bananas.”
Like many men in the small town he called home, Darrell worked at the pulp mill. He was put on the night shift but wasn’t one of the men throwing wood chips into machines or hauling away the finished product. He sat up in the control tower watching lights blink and gauges move on a leviathan control panel. Unless there was a blockage somewhere in the machine, the water pressure got too high, or a possum got into the factory (which happened once), he had little to do. It was a job custom made for boredom, which was the last thing Darrell needed.
So he started writing letters to his first cousin, Leroy. Like many members of my family, Leroy was a veteran of a foreign war, but I couldn’t tell you exactly which one. It was likely Vietnam, but it could just have been the American Revolution. I honestly don’t know because the man never seemed to age. Many of my relatives, including Darrell, have gone on to their reward, but Leroy is still alive and bumping around. That’s why I’m convinced he made the same deal as Dick Clark, that or there’s a painting somewhere in his attic that shows his true age. My right hand to Jesus, the man looks the same as he did when I was nine and had a crush on Prince.
Leroy had a bad case of shell shock and was a little off in the head in a way that made him endearing to me when I was a kid. I remember he always wore tattered ball caps, their logos made indecipherable by sun and sweat, and he had small eyes, a large nose, and an overbite, which made him look like a rabbit. He never married and isn’t comfortable around a lot of people, but he had an imaginary friend named Oliver who was always after him for something. He turns the television off during the commercials to save energy and is always on the lookout for pieces of Styrofoam to add to his collection. But one of the oddest things he does happens whenever he comes around to eat a meal with us. He loads up his plate, grabs a napkin and fork, and proceeds to stand in a doorway to eat it.
“Leroy, you wanna sit down?” someone always asks, though we all know he’ll answer, “No’um, I’m just fine right here” and keep on eating. He comes back to refill his plate or glass and then returns to the doorway to continue chowing down. And he can put it away, perhaps because it can go straight down his leg.
One of Darrell’s chief delights was playing elaborate jokes on Leroy, some of which involved a bit of spontaneity. Once, he picked his unsuspecting cousin up at his house and said, “Let’s go for a ride.” Leroy assumed the jaunt might take them as far away as Memphis, less than two hours up the road. But when he saw the sign for Chattanooga, he knew he was doomed. They ended up driving all the way down to Florida to visit us.
Darrell repeated the gag years later and drove Leroy—who didn’t have more than ten bucks in his wallet or a change of underwear to his name—all the way to California. As they crossed the Great Basin and Mojave Deserts, Darrell got the bright idea to turn the on the car’s heater and laughed silently as Leroy tugged at his sweat drenched collar and repeatedly said, “I don’t recollect the desert being this hot.” When he told Doug about it, his brother could only ask, “Son, weren’t you a might bit hot, too?” Even Darrell’s answer was uniquely him—“Hammers, yes, I was hot!” I suppose, even for the prankster, great art is born of suffering, and Darrell was willing to do whatever it took in the practice of his craft.
A four-day practical joke is a fine thing, but Darrell was never one to settle. He once got this strange notion that he would pretend to be a salesman and write letters to Leroy to get him to purchase what he called “countless amazing and esoteric works of fiction and non-fiction written for the discerning reader.” In each handwritten epistle, he’d mention who he was and where he worked, chastise Leroy for not purchasing any of the books listed in the last letter, and proceed to offer him another fifteen or twenty titles. He also told him where to leave the cash and when, using a different drop point each time. Sometimes, it was as simple as leaving the cash under a rock on the corner of the porch, and other times, it involved hiding the money between cans of yams at the corner store.
He made up each and every one of the books that were on these lists. No self-help texts or works of classic fiction for Darrell. After all, his brain always needed something to do, especially at work, so he came up with titles like:
The Care and Maintenance of Your Dromedary Camel
Making Stockings for Lady Caterpillars
The Disagreements Between Longshoremen and Shortshoremen
Mouthwatering Recipes from Southern Ethiopia
How to Grow Yellow Blueberries
and (my personal favorite)— How to Fall from a Ladder with Dignity
Every four or five days, Darrell would write another letter and drop it in the mail, and he kept this up without fail for nearly seven years. Never once did Leroy order anything, and he never knew it was Darrell who was behind it all. Perhaps because it was harder to research a company without the Internet or Leroy wasn’t a naturally inquisitive person, but in all the years this went on, he asked very few questions about the letters. He just kept reading and tucking them away in drawers or throwing them away. Darrell also avoided the subject because he knew he’d burst out laughing if it came up—that and he knew he’d have to write any book Leroy ordered. And the secret sat undiscovered for years like the arrhythmia that would suddenly steal him from us in 2000.
At Darrell’s funeral, we were all sitting around the house after the graveside service. We’d done everything we were supposed to do. We’d read the twenty-third psalm. We’d sung “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” We’d shaken hands with relatives we didn’t know and wedged smiles on our faces. We’d eaten lukewarm food on plastic plates. We’d spent an entire day sitting in uncomfortable folding chairs. But it still didn’t feel right. It wasn’t like Darrell at all. It was stiff, formal, and bland—like a rental house with its white walls and tan carpet.
At the end of a frustratingly long day, the ladies from the church packed up the legion of casseroles, pies, and salads that invariably show up where death comes to visit. As I picked petals off carnations, a flower I’ve long associated with death, we talked about how we’d rather just be chunked in a hole or cremated and scattered on the field at Busch Stadium. Finally, my aunt Nita asked, “What do you think Darrell would’ve said about all this?”
That question sparked a lengthy session of story swapping about the dearly departed over a fresh pot of coffee and slabs of Mary Katherine Schug’s homemade, three-layer coconut cake, the one that involved an entire bottle of Wesson Oil and reduced those who ate it to shameless plate licking. You can guess which story eventually came up. Mind you that up until this moment, Leroy still didn’t know. However, he looked at Doug and said, “Douglas, you mean to tell me it was Darrell Hunter Qualls who was behind them funny letters a way back yonder?”
When Doug (who, having lost a twin, was more heartbroken than he let on) nodded, Leroy did what might have been offensive to some. He laughed. Out loud. It was a joyful, full-bodied chortle replete with knee slapping and head shaking. It was an infectious kind of guffaw that caught us all up in it like a rip tide and pulled us briefly out of the quagmire of our grief.
It was just what we needed and what Darrell had been waiting for, but not because he would have felt he deserved anything special. There were actually two essential things to understand when it came to my great uncle—the sheer genius of his quirkiness and just how fiercely he loved. He could no more have left us brokenhearted than he could have turned down a plate full of fried catfish, and I think that was his reason for writing those letters all along.
Well, feed me peanuts and call me Dumbo…
The July issue of In Touch Magazine hit homes last week, and I was blessed and honored beyond all measure to be one of the feature pieces! You can read the article online and leave comments by visiting here, read it via the pages posted below, or (best of all) sign up here to get In Touch Magazine sent to you free of charge every month!
For this one, I explore the methods of evangelism practiced by the ancient Celtic Christians and how we might be able to apply them (and enjoy the same success they did) today. I hope you enjoy. Please leave comments and let me know if you are already using any of the techniques discussed and what your results were. I’m interested in seeing how it works in different communities.
The title might make this post sound a little more interesting than it really is, but isn’t that the point of a great title?
I did something a little different this Tuesday night—I participated in a live, open mic Southern storytelling event! If you’re in the Atlanta area and are interested, here’s the information you need. I participated in a group called Stories on the Square that meets the second Tuesday of every month at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Georgia. It’s an awesome venue where people go to actually listen to live music, but other groups can use the space.
I’ve done open mic events before, usually poetry slams and readings, so I was expecting a little something like that. I brought an edited and updated version of “Exposure” thinking I could do a fun, dramatic reading from it and get some more feedback. However, the event organizer saw me reading over my text and making cuts and told me that we weren’t allowed to read from a printout or even use any notes! YIKES!
I frantically scanned my document, trying to memorize a basic outline and a few of the better images and jokes, when Wayne (my amazingly intelligent husband) suggested, “Why don’t you just tell the story about Darrell and the letters?”
I jumped on the idea instantly because I’ve told the story so many times I have it nearly memorized. I instantly felt more relaxed and started working to remember the better details and tangents that I could include to make it more interesting. I know it was a million times better because it came out of my head rather than from a page. I could just tell a story organically and let it ride rather than fight to follow a pre-set template.
If you’re interested in joining me next month and want to avoid the same near catastrophe I did, here are the rules. The Facebook site I linked to above is where you can get the month’s prompt or topic. For instance, this month’s choice was “rule breaking,” but many of us didn’t know before the event because we were new. Hence, the stories ranged from musings about buddies lost in Vietnam to urban chicken farming and even crazy people you meet when you work at a law firm. (“I am Rose M. Jones, comma, the I AM, the Superior Goddess of Love.”)
Each participant gets seven minutes. However, if your story is engaging, you can push that a little bit. Also, if fewer people are there to tell stories, you can have a little more time. Just plan accordingly. As I said, you cannot use any notes. You cannot do a “stand up” act, sing (unless it’s relevant to the telling of your story), or go on a political rant. Your story needs an engaging hook, it needs to follow a clear narrative pattern, and it needs to have a definite, punchy ending. It’s all the stuff that a written story requires…plus a theatrical element with regards to presentation. Things like body language and tone of voice enter into it. Some of the tellers were hilarious because of of what they said AND how they said it.
If you’re Southern, you know at least one great storyteller. He or she usually holds court on a front porch and can keep people there well past the time they meant to leave as they ream out one hilarious, poignant, or bizarre story after another. This monthly meeting is an attempt to keep that art form alive, and I think it’s another great way to use storytelling skills and practice my writing. I highly suggest you join us at Eddie’s Attic next month or, if you don’t live in the metro Atlanta area, to find a similar group in a neighborhood near you.
Here I am telling my story, which went a little something like this…
I’m from Arkansas, which is something I don’t tell many people. Would you be enthused about admitting your from a state whose unofficial motto is “Thank God for Mississippi”? (That’s so we don’t have to come in last in everything.) Well, folks from Arkansas, we’re a little…different. None more so than my Great Uncle Darrell. My grandmother’s youngest brother, one half of a set of twin boys, was the quintessential Qualls (their last name). Qualls, for those of you who’ve never been blessed to be in the presence of one, are some of the downright peskiest people on planet earth. I once watched my cousin repeatedly lock and unlock an automatic car door twenty times in rapid succession. He only stopped when my grandmother flipped him the bird, which sent him on a laughing jag.
So Darrell was a Qualls through and through. And he was highly intelligent and creative (though not college educated), which is a lethal combination in a super villain but just borderline dangerous in regular folks. He was quick-witted and liked to tell stories he made up on the spot. I once saw him rubbing his bicep like it was sore and asked, “Uncle Darrell, does your arm hurt?” He replied, “Oh no, baby girl. I just love myself.”
Another time, he actually was sick with a terrible case of the flu, and I asked him how he was feeling. His reply? It was, ”Sister, I’ll tell you this. I’m not buying any green bananas.” (I’ll leave that one up to you to figure out. It’s worth it in the end!)
Well, Darrell once had a job working at a paper mill on the night shift when there wasn’t a whole lot of “pulping” going on. He was up in the control tower watching lights blink on and off on a gigantic board (hopefully in the right order). That made for a lot of staring, and (if you’re Darrell and have more brains than you know what to do with) a whole lot of boredom.
So he started writing letters to a friend named Leroy. This was a guy who hung around with Darrell and spent a lot of time with our family. Leroy had fought in a war. It could have been Vietnam, it could have been the American Revolution. I honestly don’t know because the man never seemed to age. Many of my relatives have gone on to their reward, but Leroy is still alive and kicking. I personally think he made the same deal as Dick Clark.
Well, Leroy had a bad case of shell shock and was a little off in the head in a way that made him endearing rather than scary to me when I was a child. One of the oddest things he did happened whenever he came around to eat a meal with us. He’d load up his plate, grab a napkin and fork, and proceed to stand in a doorway to eat it. “Leroy, you wanna sit down?” someone always asked, though we all knew he’d answer, “No’um, I’m just fine right here” and keep on eating. He’d come back to refill his plate or glass and then return to the doorway to continue eating. And he could put it away, perhaps because it could just go straight down his leg. I dunno.
Well, Darrell got this bright idea that he would write letters to Leroy in which he posed as a bookseller trying to get him to purchase “countless amazing and esoteric works of fiction and non-fiction written for the discerning reader.” In each letter, he’d mention who he was and where he worked, chastise Leroy for not purchasing any of the books listed in the last letter, and proceed to offer him another fifteen or twenty titles.
He also made up each and every one of the books that were on these lists. No self-help texts or works of classic fiction for Darrell. His brain needed something to do. Wouldn’t you like to read:
The Care and Maintenance of Your Dromedary Camel
Making Stockings for Lady Caterpillars
The Disagreements Between Longshoremen and Shortshoremen
Mouthwatering Recipes from Southern Ethiopia
How to Grow Yellow Blueberries
and (my personal favorite) How to Fall from a Ladder with Dignity
Well, every four or five days, Darrell would write another letter and drop it in the mail. For seven years, this happened. And never once did Leroy order a book. Leroy also never knew it was Darrell who was sending the letters.
At Darrell’s funeral many years later, we were all sitting around after the service. We’d done everything we were supposed to do. We’d read the twenty-third psalm. We’d sung “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” We’d shaken hands with relatives we didn’t know and forced smiles onto our faces. We’d eaten lukewarm food on plastic plates. We’d spent an entire day in uncomfortable folding chairs. But it still didn’t feel right. It wasn’t like Darrell at all. It was stiff, formal….boring. Everything Darrell had never been.
Well, we were sitting around after the service picking petals off carnations, a flower I’ve long associated with death, and talking about how odd a funeral actually is when someone mentioned Darrell and asked, “What do you think he thought about it?” Well, as we are wont to do in the South, that question sparked a lengthy session of story swapping about our dearly departed Darrell. And you can guess which story came up. Yep, Leroy and the letters. Mind you, Leroy still didn’t know. However, he looked at Darrell’s brother, Doug, and said, “Douglas, you mean to tell me it was Darrell Hunter Qualls who was responsible for all them funny letters all them years ago?”
When Doug (who was more heartbroken than he let on at the time, what with losing his twin and all) nodded, Leroy did what might have been offensive to some. He laughed. Out loud. It was a loud, full-bodied chortle full of joy and replete with knee slapping and head shaking. It was an infectious kind of laugh that caught us all up in it like a rip tide and pulled us briefly out of the quagmire of our grief.
And I can’t help but think that was Darrell’s reason for writing those letters all along.
Do you dream of being rich and famous? Do you want your name to be known all over the world? Do you want people to hang on your every word and fall at your feet?
Well, writing a book blog is not a way to fulfill all those narcissistic desires. However, it is darned fun to do, and you have the chance to meet with folks who geek out over books as badly as you do. You swap recommendations like you once did Garbage Pail Kid cards, discover authors you might never have had the privilege of reading otherwise, and you’re compelled to spend time even more time in bookstores and combing your own shelves looking for unique books to up your blogging cred.
This week, the geniuses at The Broke & The Bookish thought outside the box and asked us to list our Top Ten Tips For New Book Bloggers. I’ve only been posting book blog posts for a few months, but here are some tips and tricks I’ve picked up in that short stretch of time.
1. Use Goodreads—I had an account on this page for a long time before I really put it to good use. Now, I can’t imagine how I ever kept track of my reading habits without it. If you’re like me, you skim a book in the store but don’t have the money to buy it, so you put it down and promptly forget the author and/or title. With Goodreads, you can put it on your “to read” list (which can be sub-categorized into lists you design). Download the free app, and you can add books instantly using information or by scanning bar codes with your smart phone. When the time comes for a new list or selecting a new read, you’ve got plenty to choose from. There’s also a reading challenge you can enter and a bevy of widgets to use on your blog!
2. Incorporate images, videos, and photos—Books are about words, sure, but when it comes to blogs, sometimes a few visuals can go a long way and help your words be more engaging. For instance, one book list I did recently was about books you’d recommend to people who say they don’t like to read. Rather than pick ten books, I chose one central theme—my husband (who doesn’t like to read). Being a good sport, he was willing to pose for photographs to go along with the blog, which made it fun for me to write and for my readers to see. I highly recommend an account on Photobucket or a similar site to keep your photos and images safe and orderly. Three great blogs that do this almost exclusively with Microsoft Paint are Hyperbole and a Half, Fathertrek and Live, Nerd, Repeat. I laughed so hard at Hyperbole and a Half’s post “The Year Kenny Loggins Ruined Christmas” I almost hyperventilated.
3. With lists, always write a short paragraph about each work—Whenever I do my top ten lists like this one, I always try to give my half dozen readers more than a sentence or two. If you recommend a book and only tell people, “It was really good. I enjoyed it so much!”, you’re not really giving them much to go on. Tell them about the engaging characters, the airtight plot, or the highlights that made it enjoyable (or awful) for you. Authors only make money if folks read their work, so I make sure to tell people about books I stumble across that are worth the read by showing why I enjoyed them.
4. Read book blogs others have written for ideas—Not only do you find great books to read, but you can also can borrow other bloggers’ ideas for your own future book posts. For instance, I’m always inspired by the posts I read over on Never Done It That Way Before and The Warden’s Walk. As a teacher, I lived by the C.A.S.E. model (Copy And Steal Everything). You don’t always have to spend all your energy dreaming up new ideas; use that time to craft your own version of theirs. Trust me, they’ll take yours and return the favor in kind.
5. Write honest reviews for the books you read— When it comes to book reviews, honesty is indeed the best policy. I can say with 99.9999999999999% certainty that no one is paying you for your writing. Therefore, if you didn’t enjoy a book, tell your fellow readers why. You could save them some heartache and cash! For instance, everyone I knew waxed poetic about Eragon, comparing it to Lord of the Rings (not even close) and other fantasy classics. I was sorely disappointed by Mr. Paolini’s work, and I was out the cost of a hardback book because no one was willing to be frank. If more folks who disliked it had come out, and folks who had been on the fence had been more honest, I could have saved myself the time and trouble of reading it.
6. Vary your diet—Writing a book blog is a great way to make you read outside your “comfort zone.” If you tend to read only fiction, use the blog as a reason to explore memoirs or even something like graphic novels. You can choose books that are on the same topic you enjoy but that explore it from a new angle. For instance, if you normally love CSI-type fiction, you could broaden your horizons and go for the classics (Sherlock Holmes) or non-fiction (Stiff: Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach). Biographies about famous criminals, detectives, and mysteries are also great.
7. Explore the edges—You don’t just have to write about books. You can explore anything and everything beautiful and bookish. For instance, maybe you want to talk about great places to sit and enjoy a book in your area. You can do a how-to blog that teaches readers how to make handmade bookmarks. You can write profiles about your favorite local bookshops or even local authors. I highly recommend the blog For the Love of Bookshops if you’re looking for a good place to start. You can even write reviews of films based on books you’ve read.
8. Write consistently—One thing that’s great about The Broke & The Bookish meme “Top Ten Tuesdays” is that it happens each and every week. That means I’m guaranteed a writing topic at least once a week. Typically, I get at least one new follower or reader per book blog, and every little bit of notoriety helps. I don’t have to exhaust my brain thinking of a topic, only the books I want to put on that list. If I can’t think of anything, I do skip that week or make up my own, but doing these posts has compelled me to blog more consistently, and not just about books.
9. Don’t give away too much in your reviews!—Yeah, I know this contradicts what I told you back at number three on this list, but there’s a slight difference. I once had a professor who said that a book is like a virtuous girl; it doesn’t give everything up on the first date. He also advised that an essay (or, in this case, a blog) should be like a girl’s skirt—long enough to fully cover the topic but also short enough to be interesting. (He really isn’t a creeper. These two quotes weren’t so odd when they were in context.) Suffice it to say, you shouldn’t rob your readers of their fun by telling them too much before they read the book. I know how you feel; you’re excited and want someone to talk to about this amazing read. You’ll just have to wait. Telling someone about the plot twist in the middle (even if you don’t tell what it is) robs them of the surprise. Sometimes, the moment when a book slaps you in the face like is the best part.
10. You have a personality. Use it!—Sure, you’re writing about things that other people have penned, but there’s no caveat that says you can exercise your writing chops when you’re talking about books. I try to write in such a way that my voice comes through. What I say is important, but how I say it is also key. People like people who are like them, so finding new word nerd friends and devoted followers means you have to show them the goods. If you’re humorous, let that come through. If you have a great vocab, use it to your advantage. Teach people, engage them on a personal level. You’ll find that you are also a writer who is worth reading. Who knows? Someone may be blogging about one of your books one day!
Because I’m an overachiever who likes making too much work for herself, I volunteered when the instructor of my creative non-fiction writers’ workshop asked for three people to provide material for a feedback session this week. We were asked to chronicle our most embarrassing moment (I assumed in graphic, gut-wrenching detail). Here’s my rough draft. Let me know what you think!
Also, I can always use more writing ideas. Would you care to share your most embarrassing moment below in the comments section? I’d love to hear them!
Black and Blue
I’m crippled by stage fright, but not in the traditional sense. My phobia has nothing to do with bright lights, a sea of unfamiliar faces, or the heart-thumping panic caused by forgotten lines. No, I’m perfectly at home on a stage. The stairs I have to use to ascend to and alight from it are what make my stomach hula hoop around my spine. And like other fears, this one was gained by a moment of phenomenal public humiliation so severe it deserves a Ken Burns documentary.
In 1996, I auditioned for Tri-State Band, a once-a-year instrumental extravaganza held in Tallahassee for teenage ninja music nerds from Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. Each of the three hundred students who attended had been nominated by directors and had had their permanent records (those sinister files written in the blood of truculent ne’er-do-wells) scoured by the committee to check our academic fitness. Once we passed that “smell test,” the last hurdle to leap over was the audition for chair placement.
I had tried out at Florida State University the summer before for their institute, and I had pulled the musical equivalent of a hat trick—earning principal French horn for gold ensemble, first chair for brass choir, and primary horn for the brass quintet selection process. Seriously, if I’d done any better, Tonya Harding might have gotten jealous and had someone bash me in the face with a crowbar. Riding high on the fumes of my previous success, I made a critical miscalculation and assumed I could repeat that trifecta, sans practice.
My previous audition had been with a handsome young teaching assistant who had flirted shamelessly with me, but when I saw a horn player run out of the audition room in tears I knew he was nowhere near the place.
Another player nearby who bore a striking resemblance to Steve Buschemi whispered, “What’s with her?”
“She must have been kapped,” another replied.
It was at this moment that the large bubble of self-assurance I’d been riding suddenly popped.
Kapps…as in Dr. William Kapps, FSU’s Professor of Horn, Fullbright Scholarship winner, and member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, would be judging my audition. I knew the man only by reputation and had heard him described as a buzz saw with a moustache who handed out tongue lashings so severe they made the leaders of the Spanish Inquisition shake their heads in astonishment. No twenty-something libertine with a ponytail and a thumb ring awaited me today because a man I had long imagined as Hermann Gӧring would be sitting there instead.
Auditions, for those of you who have never endured one, are like gaining an audience with the great and terrible Oz. You stand outside the door in your new ruby shoes, your eyes dyed to match your gown and your sweaty palms nervously gripping your instrument as you wait for the bulbous, flaming emerald head to address you. However, more often than not, your adjudicator is like the man behind the curtain, a kind soul, or totally silent.
I’m sorry to say that this was the exception to the rule.
Most of the five minutes we spent together is a blank—a PTSD-induced hole in my memory I’m not keen on piecing back together. Notes danced on the page, elusive and impossible to read, and I forgot every scale I’d ever manage to poke in my gray matter. Needless to say, the Titanic went down with greater grace than I. When the rankings were posted later that afternoon, I wasn’t surprised to see I was on fourth part—at the bottom of the section. But I was a bit taken aback when I saw one poor schmuck had actually endured a worse audition. I’d been spared the indignity of sitting last chair at least. In that moment, I experienced something akin to the relief of a red-shirted ensign sent down to the planet’s surface with Captain Kirk, the one who wasn’t blown to pieces by a Klingon or feasted on by a Gorm.
I sulked silently throughout the three days of rehearsals, plotting ways to give the ten horn players who separated me from first chair the Black Death…or at least a severe case of food poisoning that’d leave their bowels loose and so terrified of high notes they’d beg me to take the part. But alas and alack, they remained as impervious to disease as a platoon of sparkly, cold-chested vampires.
So I decided that if I couldn’t steal the stage with my instrument, I’d rock it with a dynamic fashion statement. This is more difficult than it sounds for a musician because, well, we can wear any color we want—as long as it’s black. Thankfully, I’d packed an entire suitcase of ebony attire that would’ve made Morticia Addams jealous and filled the extra pockets with the best costume jewelry Claire’s had to offer as well as an ample selection of hair gewgaws.
After a whirlwind try-on-a-thon in the dorm room I was sharing with two other participants, I ended up selecting an ensemble as flashy as it was ill-advised—a pair of three-inch heels (something I’d never worn before because I already stood 5’11” flat footed), a clingy side slit skirt, and a long sleeved kimono top. A hair-do held in check with chopsticks and enough spray to erode a large portion of the ozone layer above Florida along with a dramatic dash of make-up completed the look.
It would have been perfect had I not had to walk. Or sit. Or play my horn—all normal tasks rendered impossible because I’d dressed myself like a monochrome, precariously balanced piece of sugar art. I slogged through the evening, grateful for the less challenging part and a seat in the very center of the orchestra because I spent a majority of the concert blowing stray pieces of my coiffure away from my eyes and playing a spirited game of tug-of-war with my skirt.
But that’s not the embarrassing part. Oh, that it was.
After the mass ensemble played, the stage had to be reset for the smaller groups and soloists who had been tapped to perform. That meant we had to gather our horns, sheet music, and anything else we could carry and head for, you guessed it, the stairs. Carrying only my nickel-plated horn, Brigitte (named after the French sex kitten, of course), I wobbled my way to the stumpy staircase located stage left.
Six steps. That’s all it boasted, a half dozen zigzagging plateaus of garnet carpet made shabby in the center by countless feet. It was no gauntlet by any stretch of the imagination, yet, for some reason known only to God, the moment my left foot touched down on the first one, it found the single millimeter of slick space to be had. Gravity handled the rest.
You’ll remember that, at this moment, I’m carrying a French horn, one of the most unwieldy instruments in the civilized world. Seriously, putting two dogs in a burlap sack is less onerous. Carry it by the top and let in hang by your side, and you’re begging for a dent in the bell. Clutch it to your chest, and you have only one arm to negotiate tight spaces and open doors. This is why most horn players choose to carry it under one arm with the bell facing backwards; it keeps it close and frees up the second hand when necessary. This is where Brigitte was nestled when I felt myself begin to fall.
Allow me a brief pause in the action to explain something about musicians and how protective we are of our instruments. I once knew a trombone player who said you could tell how old a trombonist was if someone tried to, as he put it, “kick ‘em in the coin purse.” The rookie protects the nards at all costs while the aged player sacrifices his twig and berries instead of the horn because, once a slide is bent, a person stands a better chance of proving String theory than he does getting it straight again.
Simply put, bones heal. Metal doesn’t.
This is why, rather than try to catch myself and sling my horn around like a kettle bell, I let the fall happen and spent the time between take off and landing shifting the horn to my chest. I was clutching it squarely when I landed on my ample rear in front of a thousand people and, like some macabre Slinky, plopped down the stairs with my teeth knocking together in my head.
Other than a few poorly raised children whose parents apparently never told them it was rude to point…or to laugh uncontrollably at another’s pain, no one reacted to my failed dismount. (In retrospect, I can’t blame them. It’s pretty damned hilarious to watch people fall; millions of YouTube videos attest to this.) It goes without saying I was mortified, but not as much as I would have been if I had sacrificed my instrument to save myself a few bruises or what remained of my dignity. However, when I looked up at the sea of black clad figures around me, all I saw were smiles of approval. Unlike those in the audience, my fellow performers hadn’t noticed me taking a tumble. They only saw a musician executing choreography worthy of Bob Fosse to protect her axe. And I like to think that if they hadn’t been cradling their own, they would’ve applauded my virtuoso performance.