You Is Kind. You Is Smart. You Is Important.

I’m writing this a couple of days late, but better late than never. I recently returned from the Southern Writers/Southern Writing Conference at the University of Mississippi (endearingly referred to as “Ole Miss”) in Oxford. Southern writing’s Mecca. As with every conference, there was a lot to take in. It’s like drinking from a fire hose. Panel after panel, one hour and twenty minutes each of constant talking, with only fifteen minutes in between to process everything you’ve just heard. All the arguments that have been made. All the discussions. I may not be the only one to admit that I could walk away from a two-day conference and really only retain one thing from it that sticks with me forever. But that one thing really makes a difference to your academic career. And that’s what matters, right? More on that in a moment!

Seeing as Oxford is only a three-hour drive from Huntsville, I chose to spend my entire graduate travel stipend on one thing: a damn nice hotel. A previous conference I attended, which took place in Gainesville, Florida, required both air travel and hotel accommodations. So I bought the cheapest plane ticket straight out of Huntsville and stayed at a janky motel just outside UF campus. Down the road was an equally janky Winn Dixie, where I purchased some light snacks and some tea. Always nice to keep your hotel room stocked with snacks and tea for when you just want to relax and read or watch some Netflix after a long day at a conference. It was not terribly uncomfortable, but my locale was obviously subpar and the table lamp was adorned with a spattering that looked suspiciously like old blood. Just normal average janky motel things. Anyway, this is not about the UF conference, but about the Ole Miss conference. Since I would be driving, I figured spending all my money on a hotel was well worth it. I chose a hotel called The Graduate, which was located right on the corner of Jefferson and Lamar. It is within walking distance from historic Oxford Square, the old Oxford cemetery, and technically within walking distance from campus. More on that in a moment, too. This hotel was fantastic! It comes alive with the college lifestyle. The rooms are modestly furnished with 1960s style wooden furnishings that reflect an old college dorm room. There are paintings and photographs on the walls that reflect southern culture and the key cards are designed to look like library cards on one side with a student identification card on the other. The student IDs are usually of some famous person that went to Ole Miss. Mine had Eli Manning. Did he even go to Ole Miss? Did he play for them? I don’t even know. This is not my forte. Anyway, the key cards were really very cute. The hotel staff were all very polite and accommodating. It was generally a nice place to be. The location was pretty convenient too.

On the first day, I had a lot of time to kill. It was registration day and no panels were going on. I checked into my hotel and spent the afternoon exploring Oxford until registration time. Before I even explored historic Oxford Square, I made a beeline for the cemetery. I knew exactly where I wanted to go. The grave sites. Faulkner himself is buried there, as well as many members of his immediate family. All in different plots. It was half the reason I wanted to attend this conference so badly. I wanted to explore this historic cemetery and find everybody’s grave. Especially Mammy Callie. As a colored woman with no other family in Oxford to be buried with, her grave would be the hardest one to find. It was blazing hot outside and the humidity was beyond oppressive, but I made for it anyway. Up the hill I went, three blocks and I was there. The corner of Jefferson and 16th Street. The cemetery is pretty enormous. I didn’t even know where to begin. There were no markers at the entrance to point me in Faulkner’s direction so I went straight in. I began by climbing up to small hill-like vantage points to look down at the rolling sea of gravestones in hopes that I would see Faulkner’s from afar. I know what it looks like, after all. It took a lot of searching before I made my way back to the entrance and decided to start with the edges. I walked down 16th Street, climbed a steep hill, and trotted back down again. At the bottom of the hill on 16th Street, I finally saw a marker that proudly informed me that William C.  Faulkner, creator of Yoknapatawpha County, was buried just 20 paces from that sign. I didn’t count my paces but I didn’t need to. Faulkner’s grave is bigger than the others and I could see it from where I was standing. Happy as a clam but sweating something fierce from the 100-degree heat index, I made my way to Faulkner’s burial site, which was situated under the welcome shade of a tree. There he was. Buried by the side of Estelle Oldham Faulkner. I sat at the edge of the great marble slabs and surveyed the pennies that littered the entire area. A penny for every visit, to let the deceased know that you were there and you appreciate what they did for the world. I didn’t have any whiskey on my person for the old man and I didn’t know where the nearest liquor store was. In fact, a liquor store just a block south of that location could have made a killer living from the people looking to leave offerings for the patron saint of southern literature. I dug around in my purse and located an old tarnished penny. I placed it at the top of his grave, just above the middle of the “Cuthbert” part of his name. That’s where I imagined his head would be. I told him thanks for all he’s done, sat there for a while enjoying the peace, and eventually got back up again to search for Mammy Callie’s grave. She was important to me because my paper was inspired by Dilsey from The Sound and the Fury, who was inspired by Mammy Callie. Faulkner adored his mammy. She was more of a mother to him than his own mother. He organized her funeral, ordered her plot in the cemetery, and commissioned the etching on her headstone: “Callie Barr Clark: Mammy. ‘Her white children bless her.'” He knew her given name was Caroline, but he ordered the etching read “Callie.” When Faulkner was a young boy if you can imagine that, he was unable to say her name correctly. He always called her “Cah-lin.” Eventually, it stuck and Caroline Barr was always and forever “Mammy Callie.” As a colored woman and a former slave, she would have been buried in the old “colored” section of the cemetery and her tiny modest grave with the smudged headstone would be very difficult to locate among the hundreds of people buried alongside her. I walked up and down what felt like the entire cemetery, focusing on the oldest part. I was sweating so profusely and it was getting close to time for me to figure out how I was going to get onto campus for registration, so I headed back to the hotel to dry off. I could always try again. My clothes were drenched but I didn’t change out of them. I had a feeling my next walk would ruin my clothes again. I only had three sets. May as well only ruin one since I don’t have a washer. I looked up the conference center and it was only a 1.3-mile walk away. How bad can it be?

As it turns out, pretty bad. It was 1.3 miles of uphill and downhill walking and shade was scarce. The sun beat down on me, the heat swallowed me up, the humidity stuck to me like hot leeches, and I walked straight through a construction site that covered my disgusting sweaty body with a nice thin film of red clay dust that was billowing in the wind. That’s how I walked into registration. After registering and picking up my goods (a t-shirt, a pin, and a lanyard with an identification tag) I realized I would have to make the trek all the way back. I had no desire to walk back through the construction site, so I found an alternate route. Equally hot, equally long, equally terrible. Two or three miles of solid walking is normally a piece of cake. But normally, I’m wearing comfortable workout clothes, a hat, I take care to walk in the shade, and I try to avoid walking during the hottest part of a heat wave in the deep south. This was not the same thing as my usual morning walk. If you can imagine, I love the heat. I turn the A/C off in my house during the day because I like it when it feels like summer. This, though…this was too goddamn hot. There was so much sweat, I truly felt like I was melting into a puddle. Oh well. At least I only ruined one outfit. I promptly decided to try a bus route for my trip back to the conference center the next day.

As I expected, the bus routes were terribly confusing. I’ve been on public transportation plenty of times in my life but somehow the Oxford Transit System confused the fuck out of me. There were no maps of the bus network, no list of stops on any of the signs. The website provided me with a bus schedule, but it didn’t help much. It did help me narrow my options down to the blue line bus that passes right through Oxford Square and takes you to campus. But the buses were directional. If you wanted to take the shortest route, you had to make sure it was going in the right direction. Otherwise, you could be on that bus for a long time or find yourself in a place that is totally the opposite of your destination. The buses do not tell you which direction they go. You have to ask the driver. Well, this would be fun! I waited down at the square by the courthouse for a blue bus, in hopes that the driver would be nice enough to help me. A blue bus came by, right on schedule, and I asked the driver if she was heading to campus. She was! I dropped a dollar in the box and happily made my way to the conference center. The first ride was a success!

The conference went on for several hours. They served us lunch. I presented my paper, and the panels were very productive. There’s not much to say about the conference itself, but I will talk about the one thing that stuck with me even after the conference was over. The first panel was a roundtable discussion (roundtables are a type of open discussion between the panelists that take place at rectangular tables) on a podcast called “S-Town.” I didn’t previously know about this seven-part podcast nor that it would be eligible for discussion on southern writing. Boy, was it. The podcast is produced by the same people who work on “Serial” and “This American Life,” which you may be familiar with if you listen to NPR. The podcast is hosted by Brian Reed, who is invited to a podunk town in Alabama between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa called Woodstock by a fellow named John B. McLemore (pronounced just like “Macklemore”) . John B. endearingly refers to Woodstock as “Shit Town, Alabama.” He claims the brutal murder of a young man occurred and since the suspected murderer involved is the son of a respected family, an elaborate police cover-up ensued. The podcast is called “S-Town” because calling it “Shit Town” would have been a little too profane for a title. Don’t be fooled. This podcast includes recordings straight from the townspeople so it’s rife with bad language, some of it very racially insensitive. Don’t read the Wikipedia entry. It’s super spoilery. Just go listen to the podcast from the link I included. It’s fascinating. Brian Reed, an obvious New Yorker who doesn’t really fit into Shit Town, gets to know and love the residents of the town of Woodstock. He does get to the bottom of the mystery (this is not a spoiler) and learns a lot about Shit Town Alabama’s social structure in the process. There is no character in this world quite like John B. McLemore. If you have ever been in or lived near a place you yourself would call “Shit Town,” especially in Alabama, then this is definitely the podcast for you. Go listen to it right now. It’s on Apple’s podcast app as well and it’s free (because that’s important, too).

After the conference, I decided to take a chance on the bus route again. I waited at a stop that evidently serviced blue, yellow, and orange buses. I hoped for a blue one soon because it was very hot and very sunny and I was wearing conference clothes. Several yellows went by, and a blue one zipped past on the corner (not quite at the bus stop) without stopping. I hoped maybe it was just turning around. It didn’t. Finally, a blue bus came by and I hopped on to ask the gray-haired mustachioed bus driver if he was heading for Oxford Square. No, he said, he was not heading for the square. I would need to flag down a different blue bus but I had to make sure and stand on the corner and wave for it to stop because it doesn’t stop. I got off the bus and looked bleakly at the blazing sunny corner away from the shade that I suspected would be my new home. I saw a blue bus that didn’t stop at that corner and I didn’t flag it down because I didn’t know that was my bus. Why do university transit systems have to be so confusing? I stood on the corner, determined to wait for the next blue bus, no matter how long it took. The sun took its toll on me so I took out my trusty Japanese fan. I always carry one with me. I desperately wished I had also brought my parasol. Yes, I have a parasol. It is rose colored and it matches my fan. I thought it would be overkill, but right then it seemed more appropriate than anything else in the world. There I stood for what felt like hours. Buses came and buses went. Eventually a yellow bus came by, loaded up some people, started to leave, stopped again in front of me, and gave me a gentle honk. Snapped out of my heat delirium, I went up the steps to see what the driver wished to ask me. He was a kind, African American fellow with nothing but concern in his face. It was a very welcome sentiment. The conversation went exactly as follows:

“Where are you headed, little one?”

“Downtown square. I’m just waiting on a blue bus to get to there.”

“You be waiting on a blue bus a long time, girl. You know, the red line will take you there.”

“I don’t know my way around here. Where is the nearest red line stop?”

“Hop on this bus, I’ll take you to the red bus. You tell the lady on that bus, you tell her Low-Down said to take you all the way to the square, anywhere you want to go, and you tell her Low-Down said to make sure you was okay.”

Realizing this was almost certainly the most Mississippi thing that has ever happened to me, I thanked the driver profusely and hopped on for a ride to the nearest red station. I tried to drop a dollar in the payment box but he wouldn’t have it. He told me to spend it on the red bus. What a kind sir he was. My dollar bills really were in very limited supply. I had only two left. He took me straight to a red bus and I did as I was told. I told the African American lady bus driver that Low-Down said to take me to the square and that Low-Down specifically requested that she see to my welfare. She cackled with laughter and told me to take a seat. The driver known as Low-Down pulled up beside her and they had a short chat before she drove away. That air conditioned bus and those two generous and kind drivers saved me from certain heatstroke. I don’t know if they even realize how grateful I was but I uttered as many thanks as I could and offered to pay extra. They would not have any of it. It was that moment I swore to return to the cemetery and find Mammy Callie’s grave because if I didn’t know any better, Callie was watching out for me that day. Her white children bless her. I’m not the least bit spiritual, but I know when I need to pay my respects.

I went to the cemetery straight away and began my second hunt for Caroline Barr Clark. No such luck. The heat began to take its toll again and I returned to my hotel to rest after a very eventful afternoon.

The next day, day three of my search, I returned to the cemetery with a plan. I looked up Caroline Barr’s burial record and found only that she was buried in “Section 5” of the cemetery. I had no idea how the cemetery was sectioned so I scoured the internet for a blueprint. I eventually came upon a very rough pencil sketch of the cemetery layout that indicated each section. I saved the picture to my phone. My efforts to find the image again, just so I can provide a link, have proved futile. The image came to me when I needed it most and then disappeared. It’s still saved to my phone. I pulled up the image and rotated it so that it best matched my direction. I then used my handy dandy compass directions to stay in and around what was marked as Section 5. On the third day of searching and after a lot of climbing hills and treading graves, I finally found the headstone of Caroline Barr Clark. The feeling was more rewarding than finding Faulkner’s grave or finding anything really. Her grave had no historical markers. No fancy headstones. No pennies. No flowers. Nothing to indicate she was the most important person in William C. Faulkner’s life, creator of Yoknapatawpha County, and one of the most inspirational people in his writing. Just a small, modest stone inscription that had become so dark and weathered that it was barely legible anymore. I dug another penny out of my purse and knelt down to leave it on the otherwise barren grave. Somehow, this penny mattered more than the penny I left on Faulkner’s grave. Faulkner’s grave had at least $3.00 worth of pennies on it. Pennies littered his grave from head to foot. They littered Estelle’s grave. They littered the headstone and the concrete pavilion around it. Pennies that had been there for who knows how long, through the wind and the rain. My penny was a proverbial drop in the bucket. But Callie’s grave had no pennies. It had nothing. No shade. No concrete pavilion. It was bare. Untouched, except for the elements. Much like Dilsey’s character in The Sound and the Fury, there was no love for Mammy Callie. Nothing to show me that people took the time to find her. To leave her a token of their appreciation. She served with genuine affection in her heart for the children she cared for. She worked like a slave, she was bound to the family she served by force, but she loved those children like a mother. She was their figure of authority. Their support system. Their warm cradle. She treated them like she would treat her own children. Because children are blameless. Faulkner really was a goddamn genius.

To Mammy
Caroline Barr
Mississippi
[1840-1940]
Who was born in slavery and who gave to my family a fidelity without stint or calculation of recompense and to my childhood an immeasurable devotion and love.
— Go Down Moses, Dedication

Song(s) of Ice and Fire

Game of Thrones Season 7 premiered last night much to the delight of pretty much everybody who has ever watched television. If you have not yet seen or even heard of Game of Thrones or the Song of Ice and Fire book series, I urge you to climb out from under your undoubtedly comfortable rock and join us. Don’t mind the incest, it only marginally affects the plot.

I won’t talk too much about S7:E1 as I would rather discuss the series as a whole. I have long nursed a desire to write a scholarly piece on Game of Thrones (or its corresponding literature) but I’ve always been so immersed in the storyline that I’ve had little motivation to study it from a research-oriented angle. Instead, I sit around and binge the series over and over again. Without a doubt, studying Game of Thrones gender politics, religious implications, symbolism, metaphysics, etc. as a serious academic would put you on a collision course with medieval romances, Bible study, Freudian psychology…among other things. I think it’s about time for me to use all that time watching and dissecting episodes to make a contribution to the scholarship of George R. R. Martin’s brilliant work.

Psych, it’s not happening today. I’m still on vacation. I will talk about Game of Thrones though. I want to talk about an aspect of the series that I don’t think gets quite enough attention. Namely, the soundtrack. I think a show or movie’s success has much more to do with the soundtrack than people believe. I also strongly believe the reason for that is it’s all subconscious. You don’t realize that the music is what elicits the emotional response. The music is the proverbial chisel that etches the scene, the emotion, in your memory. When you hear the music out of context, you feel it all over again. You can visualize the scene in your mind more clearly than if you had just sat down to think about it. Every Frame a Painting covers this quite eloquently in a piece about the Marvel Symphonic Universe. I urge you to watch the video, but here’s the main thesis to draw from it: Marvel movies do not have a memorable soundtrack, to the detriment of their importance as cinematic masterpieces. Do what Tony says and try to hum a song from a Marvel movie, literally any Marvel movie, without looking it up. Now think about all those soundtracks you know and love. The songs that you can hum the first few notes to and your friends will all instantly join in until you have a perfect acapella rendition of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Game of Thrones, fucking Pokemon. You know all the words to “Gotta Catch ‘Em All,” don’t even pretend you don’t. Disney did a really good job of this back in the day, but Disney movies are basically animated musicals. I don’t want to include musicals because if your musical doesn’t have memorable music, you’ve done something terribly wrong. Not just Marvel Universe wrong. Like. Birdemic wrong. So how about all those movies and shows with music that becomes a part of our very souls. How about Game of Thrones, then? The music for entire series has been composed by one guy, Ramin Djawadi. That can be both a good thing and a bad thing, mainly because we’ve seen what can happen to good art when you’ve got one guy calling all the shots. In this case, it’s good because it’s consistent but he has enough sense and creative agency to change it up so it’s never boring. The title theme is the obvious place to start. Strong. Imposing. Catchy. You know what’s on as soon as you hear that first drum beat. Not just that, though. The song takes you on a journey. The song travels, just as you do. The map of Westeros and Essos is not just there to look pretty and the music is not just there to sound good. That opening sequence tells you everything you need to know about the episode before you watch the episode. The locations featured are the same ones you visit in that particular episode. Like well-oiled machines, the structures shift and gyrate to mimic the persistence of mankind in a turbulent atmosphere. Their banners rise and fall with new insignia. The camera pans. The scenery changes. And the music is your guide. It’s more than an opening sequence, it’s a non-spoilery introduction to the story that’s about to be told.

So, the title sequence is catchy and memorable. Does the music in the rest of the series hold up? Quick, hum “The Rains of Castamere!” Can you? Wow, I’m impressed. Even if you can’t, I’ll bet that if you’re a fan of the series, you will recognize that deep cello riff as soon as you hear it and chime in immediately. It’s a Lannister song. It’s mournful and dark. Dead children. Dead fathers and mothers. Cersei standing over yet another grave. The imagery is tragic. An inevitable prophecy fulfilled. All that from a song that Tyrion only briefly whistles in Season 2.

Now, listen to this song and don’t look at the title or image if possible. Just close your eyes and listen. By about a minute in, what do you see? Daenerys riding a dragon? Daenerys stepping out of the flames naked and unscathed yet again? Daenerys doing something epic like sailing a thousand ships across the Narrow Sea? The song is called “Khaleesi” and a lot of Daenerys’ music is based on it. If you heard it on the radio, you would know it’s from Game of Thrones. It doesn’t even have to be “Daenerys’ song.” You know what series it represents and that’s enough.

Here’s my personal favorite. It’s called “The Winds of Winter” and it’s commonly referred to as the “armada theme” because it’s played at the finale of the sixth season when Daenerys and the Greyjoy children sail their combined fleets out of Slaver’s Bay (ahem…I mean The Bay of Dragons). This song gives me fucking goosebumps. There’s something special about this song because it’s a mashup of at least five themes that already exist. Five that we can count anyway. Avid listeners will hear Daenerys’ theme, the dragons’ theme, the Unsullied theme, Theon’s theme (or the theme of the Greyjoys in general), and the main title theme. It’s successful because it not only sets the epic tone of the final scene, but it sets you up for the next season. Greyjoys teaming up with Targaryen, an army of Unsullied sailing into the unknown, the unsuspecting Westeros that is about to have a Targaryen piss in its Cheerios again. You know the series is about the take a very dramatic turn. Daenerys crossing the Narrow Sea is a big fucking deal and “The Winds of Winter” spares nobody of that emotion. I could listen to it for hours.

Here’s another favorite: The Light of the Seven. You all know this song. The trial setup. Men and women slowly filtering into the Sept of Baelor, unbeknownst to the fact that they’re about to have their shit blown seven ways ’til Sunday if Westeros had a Sunday and anybody used a watch or a calendar in this damn place. This song catches your ear because it starts as a very solemn solo piano piece. You don’t get a lot of that in Game of Thrones, so it gets your attention. Something is about to happen. The cuts to different characters in the sept and back to Cersei are ominous. She is remarkably unconcerned. The song picks up. A choir sings. Something terrible is going on. A cello joins the fun. The oozing green wildfire. Cersei pours some wine. A pipe organ sounds. Margaery suddenly knows.

Have you got chills yet? This song was so dramatic, suspenseful, and tragic. It was different from the rest of the songs in the series, and rightfully so. Cersei really outdid herself this time. She’s conniving. Fucking evil. She’s about to do something that we will never forget and this song will be the catalyst. Brilliant.

Never underestimate the power of a good soundtrack. There’s a reason songs from good movies are memorable: The song is part of the reason the movie was good. Do yourself a favor and take yourself on a date to the symphony more often. Go see a John Williams concert. Go see Video Games Live. Buy an actual film soundtrack. Try that on for size! Bet you’ve never done that before. Take some time to appreciate the importance of quality music. It’s very much a part of your experience and a part of you. 

“I’m just trying to create something magical.” -Ramin Djawadi

The Past Is Never Dead

It’s been a while since my last post not because I have writer’s block but because I have so many things occupying my mind, I don’t know where to begin. It’s almost as bad as writer’s block. I would liken it to writer’s static. Lots of noise but not enough coherent thoughts to form a discussion. The only way I can even begin to comb things out is by jumping in with both feet. I usually prefer to keep things well organized but this is a blog and blogs are for writing. Let’s start with the first contributor to my hopeless case of writer’s static. William Cuthbert Faulkner. He’s most relevant to me now because I was accepted as a presenter at the Southern Writers/Southern Writing Conference in Oxford, Mississippi. I will be there at the end of July, reading my paper to an audience, rubbing elbows with scholars of southern American texts, and hopefully enjoying iced mint juleps on a white rocking chair. I can only hope. The paper I submitted was on The Sound and the Fury, a book I am hopelessly attached to and consider to be Faulkner’s flagship masterpiece. There are a lot of those. Many people ascribe that honor to As I Lay Dying, but I insist on the former. Now here is somewhere I fully did not expect to be two semesters ago.

I expected to hate Faulkner. My reasoning? A lot of people hate Faulkner. I registered for a graduate section of a course fully dedicated to the life and work of William Faulkner anyway. I like to live dangerously. At the time, I was fully absorbed in British Literature, namely that which falls in the Early Modern era. The Early Modern era is not “modern” at all, so don’t get a crazy idea like that based on the naming convention alone. Early Modern is fancy literature-speak for “basically around the Renaissance-ish.” Well, I had been picking Shakespeare apart long enough, and it was time to step outside my comfort zone. After all, if I was going to pursue graduate school, I really needed to get a taste of other types of literature before settling on something for fucking life. That’s a little melodramatic but not a terrible exaggeration when it comes to academia. Sure, there’s always room to play around in another sandbox. At some point in your graduate career, though, you can’t be too loosey-goosey about what you plan to study. Graduate application review boards don’t care for free spirits and worldly nomads. You have to decide on a focus. Then you marry that focus, have lots of publication babies with that focus, and die holding its tender hand. I digress.

I chose Faulkner because I had little to no experience studying his work and I needed to see for myself what all the fuss is about. A graduate-level course is a great opportunity to do so under the watchful eye of an experienced professor who can guide me through all the muck. It started as I expected it to start. With a great deal of frustration. I defy anyone who can pick up a Faulkner novel for the first time, perhaps with the exception of Sanctuary, read it just once, and fully understand what the hell is going on in those pages. Over time, however, I formed an unlikely attachment to Faulkner. I gave him a solid chance and damn it, it was worth it. I concluded that a lot of people hate Faulkner, indeed they do, but for all the wrong reasons. You simply cannot read a Faulkner novel casually…unless of course, you’re already an avid reader of Faulkner. It’s not exactly To Kill a Mockingbird. Not that Harper Lee isn’t great, but at least her novels can be followed by just about anyone. Faulkner’s writing style is too eccentric, too disjointed, too dense with information and yet lacking in information altogether. I’ll use The Sound and the Fury as an example. Not only is it my favorite, but it’s also pretty well-known and I think most people have read it, attempted to read it, or come upon it at some point in their student career. The first time I picked up The Sound and the Fury and read part one, I was instantly taken.  If you’ve read The Sound and the Fury, you’ll know this as “Benjy’s section.” The whole novel is a cycling first person narrative told from the point of view of the Compson children, but this particular narrator is commonly referred to as “the idiot,” namely Benjamin Compson. It’s a pun, you see. It starts with Shakespeare and ends with the title of the book. The Sound and the Fury. Harken back to a famous monologue in Scene V. of Macbeth, if you will: “…it is a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” There you have it. A tale told by an idiot. But Benjy is not an idiot. Benjy is nonverbal. Benjy has intense anxiety. Benjy cannot control his moods. Benjy’s many social deficits manifest in infantile behavior. But I insist Benjy is not an idiot. You’re confusing mental retardation with autism spectrum disorder. I suspect Faulkner is no stranger to that fact. I suspect Faulkner employed the crude term “idiot” because society in the 1920s was not terribly sympathetic to the complex nature of mental health and tended to group handicapped individuals into one category. I like to think he knew the difference between an “idiot” and a cognizant nonverbal autistic, and that really shines through in his writing.

But hell, it’s Faulkner’s character! Who am I to diagnose Benjy? That’s not the point, is it? Autism spectrum wasn’t even a twinkle in Hans Asperger’s eye in 1929. The first man to be diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome was diagnosed in 1938 and the experts were still a long way away from understanding the nuances of such a condition. How the hell would Faulkner know the difference between low IQ and a social deficit? Why does it even matter? Well, it matters to me because it’s just one reason Faulkner is a god damn genius. Now, before I get carried away, let it go on record that I did not write my paper on Benjamin Compson or formally examine his condition. I wrote my paper on Dilsey and I made several arguments regarding the effect her race, gender, and maternal personality had on Faulkner’s writing. I’m focusing on Benjamin Compson in this casual blog post because I’m painting you a picture of my introductory experience with Faulkner’s novels. I’m trying to show you how his curious writing style stole my heart. So, this is not necessarily formal, arguable claim here, but it is open for argument to anybody. A diagnosis of Benjy’s mental condition based on his thoughts would likely make a terrible thesis anyway. Onward.

From the narration of the first few pages alone, it’s obvious that Benjy is developmentally deficient in some way. The narration is unreliable. Broken. Simple. He’s the youngest son of the family, but he’s in his thirties in the present time. Yet he doesn’t sound thirty. People don’t treat him like he’s thirty. By the way, don’t get too attached to the present because time does all sorts of somersaults in this narrative. Its one of the reasons I think people get so frustrated with this book. Benjy has a hard time differentiating past and present, so everything runs together. Small triggers send him to events in the past and he stays there, the narrative swimming between the past and present with absolutely nothing to help you, as a reader, keep that shit organized. So, Benjy doesn’t do much except wander around his family’s stately home with his negro servant buddy, Luster (Dilsey’s son). Dilsey is the family mammy. It was Mississippi. It was 1929. Things weren’t so politically correct back then. Anyway, Benjy is listening to the golfers yelling for their “caddies.” This is where things get interesting. Benjy hears “caddie” and he associates it with his long lost sister Caddy. You can’t blame him. They sound exactly the same. He’s not stupid. He’s drawing connections, if confusing ones. So, hearing the golfers yelling “caddie” sends Benjy into a throwback time warp again and again. Caddy was the only maternal figure in his life (besides Dilsey, who was busy enough damn it) so upon remembering her name, he tumbles into the past and thinks about all the times that life was great and Caddy was there to provide stability, love, and understanding. Repetition. Linguistic confusion. Obsessive compulsive behavior. It’s like Faulkner was peering into the future of psychology. Like he was reading straight from the DSM-5 entry for autism spectrum disorder. Is it just my imagination? Did he understand more about autism than most men of his time? I like to think he did.

When you consider the pun on Macbeth, it makes even more sense. A tale told by an idiot. Who’s the idiot here? Interestingly, with the exception of Dilsey’s section (which is told in the third person, unlike the other sectionsanother rabbit hole of literary exploration), Benjy’s section is the most reliable narrative of the same story. Or maybe it’s the least unreliable narrative. All three of the Compson children that narrate a part of the story (which is really just the story of how Caddy falls from grace and the whole family goes to shit) dictate the events from their own uniquely biased, disjointed, first person perspective. You have to root through a lot of bitterness to get to the bare bones story. When you do, you realize that Benjy lacks the mental intricacies required to actually feel bitterness. He can’t really be resentful because he can barely express his simplest thoughts in words, much less a feeling as complicated as social bias towards his sister, the only source of familial love he ever received. Benjy tells it like it is, albeit in a nonverbal way. Faulkner has to go into his mind and write it as a stream of consciousness. Observe:

“I opened the gate and they stopped, turning. I was trying to say, and I caught her, trying to say, and she screamed and I was trying to say and trying and the bright shapes began to stop and I tried to get out. I tried to get it off of my face, but the bright shapes were going again. They were going up the hill to where it fell away and I tried to cry. But when I breathed in, I couldn’t breathe out again to cry, and I tried to keep from falling off the hill and I fell off the hill into the bright, whirling shapes.” (1.700)

That was a lot to wade through, wasn’t it? It’s supposed to be. Benjy can’t communicate his thoughts because they’re all tossing around in his mind like clothes in the dryer. He wants to say something to explain himself to the girls at the gate but he can’t. It’s not coming out and he gets frustrated and suffers a panic attack. He isn’t oblivious. He’s painfully aware of his condition and he desperately wants to overcome it, to fight it. It comes off as an assault on the girls because he’s just the “crazy man” at the Compson house. How, I ask you, did Faulkner manage to document the innermost thoughts of an autistic person so damn accurately at a time when “autism” wasn’t even a word in the dictionary? Let me tell you about Eugene Hoskins. Eugene was an autistic savant and a black man living in Oxford, Mississippi in the 1920s. A professor at the University of Mississippi named Hiram Byrd took interest in Eugene’s eccentric behavior and wrote a brief report on him. Another resident of Oxford, Mississippi that Eugene likely had more than one brief encounter with is our very own William C. Faulkner. While there isn’t enough scholarly evidence to suggest Eugene had any effect on Benjamin Compson’s character (I’ve looked, but perhaps not hard enough) it’s hard to believe that it’s all just a coincidence and Faulkner just happens to be really good at writing autism. This ambiguity is what makes Faulkner so special to me. You never know just what’s going through his mind, but something seems to twinkle between the lines of his writing. Deep in the text, it’s almost as if there resides a remarkably progressive man that was much smarter and much more aware of the human condition than we give him credit for. Readers of Faulkner still argue to this day: Was he racist? Was he sympathetic to the plight of Negros in 1920? Did he secretly resent the Southern tradition or did he strive to immortalize it? What kind of man was he, really? Biographies tell us he was a misfit. He was obscure. He didn’t much like to talk about himself or explain his work. He dabbled in alcoholism, like any respectable author. He’s an enigma. I love that about him. I continue to see sparks of genius in all his work, not just The Sound and the Fury. He was the guy who wasn’t afraid to go there. Unlike George R. R. Martin, another guy unafraid to go there, Faulkner was a little more discreet. His work peels like an onion. And sometimes you read a particular incestuous paragraph from Quentin Compson’s section in The Sound and the Fury and wonder, did he just do that? Did he go there? Oh yeah, he went there. But he did it with style.

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”

-William Faulkner, 1950 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech

Endure, my man. Can’t wait to meet you for a shot of Jameson in your final resting place.

Yours In Murder

Today, I’m going to talk about something uncomfortable! It’s not politics. As more and more people discover this, it’s about time I come clean to the public about my slightly disturbing if 100% scholarly fascination with people who kill other people. Specifically, people who kill more than a sum total of three or more individuals. I’m talking about serial killers.

I’m not alone. If I was alone, there wouldn’t be countless documentaries, biographies, television shows, thrillers…all based on true crime. There are real life monsters who committed atrocities more terrible than anything you find in fiction and we are positively fascinated by their characters, motivations, modus operandi, and psychological anomalies. If I hadn’t been such an academic klutz in my early years and buckled down in college, I may have pursued criminology, criminal psychology, or forensics. It isn’t enough for me to watch a re-enactment or a movie. In fact, I am oddly enough completely disinterested in slasher films and thrillers. Except for Dexter, but is that really a slasher or a thriller? More like a dark comedy/drama. I think I liked Dexter because it told the story in the first person. The villain is the hero. How Miltonian. That’s what I like. I prefer to get to know the real thing. I want to see interviews. I want to hear what the criminal psychologist has to say about them. I want to read their biographies. I want to read their literature. Their notes, diaries, and journals. I want to read about the details of their crimes, no matter how gruesome. Hoo boy, are some of them positively heinous. Those with a weak stomach can keep reading. I won’t go into the details of horrific murders. That’s not what this post is really about. This is about understanding why we seemingly glorify people who have demonstrated no regard for life, human or animal.

I don’t like using the word “glorify” to describe my interest in serial killers. I’m not worshipping them. I’m not going around and preaching that Charles Manson was right all along. I’m not repeating their crimes. I don’t have a copy of the Unabomber’s Manifesto on a pedestal. To claim that biographies and television specials are a form of glorification is ignoring the most important thing about serial killers. We cannot even begin to catch a killer until we understand them. It’s crucial that we write these biographies and air these specials. We have to get their names out there, even if it means we will inevitably remember the name of a monster for decades to come. There is no way to prevent a killer from killing. What we can do is understand how they think and prevent them from taking more lives than necessary. People will always kill other people. They will maim, torture, and rape. It’s inevitable. It’s history. Human beings are animals. But what if instead of letting thirty people die during an investigation, we catch a serial killer after only five or six murders? What if there’s a pattern? Almost every infamous serial killer has demonstrated an obvious pattern.

Take Ted Bundy, for instance. Everybody knows Ted. He was smart, handsome, and well-to-do. Murdered over thirty women and defiled their bodies in unspeakable ways.

Huh?

No, he wasn’t some wild-eyed, slack-jawed beast with a chainsaw. He was calm and calculating. He mastered the art of changing his appearance. He committed crimes in multiple jurisdictions. He was frustratingly difficult to catch. Now, we know his entire family history and his motives. Criminologists studied him like they would study a wild animal. We know he went after women. Nothing extraordinary. Most male serial killers go after women. But Ted Bundy had a system. He often faked injuries to subdue his victims and gain their trust. He pursued attractive, college-aged women with long hair parted down the middle. He took advantage of kind-hearted girls. He mutilated corpses and practiced necrophilia, essentially leaving a trail of horrific bread crumbs. Most importantly of all, he had a family history that suggested serious unresolved issues with maternal acceptance. He got away with at least thirty murders that we know of. The real body count could be much higher. We’ll probably never know for sure because he was executed on January 24, 1989. Luckily, he was interviewed so many times before his execution that criminologists probably know Ted Bundy better than Ted Bundy knows himself. That’s important. We have to know them better than they know themselves. That’s the best way to outsmart a killer. To get ahead of them. To anticipate their next move. If a killer can’t grasp what it is that makes “the power of the sickness build within him,” then it’s important that somebody who studies the human mind for a living works it all out for him. It won’t cure Ted Bundy. It’s unlikely anything could have cured Ted Bundy or any other Ted Bundies that follow his example. There is no cure for being completely devoid of human empathy. Could he be rehabilitated? Could he learn to contain his sickness? To take out his perversions in some alternative, healthier, non-murderous way? Could he take up a trade from the security of a federal penitentiary that actually benefits society? Who can and can’t be rehabilitated? Who should and shouldn’t be eligible for parole in fifty years? That’s the real question, isn’t it? How will we know if we try to stifle the learning process? Remember the victims. Honor the victims. They are the ones who truly suffered. Make sure nobody forgets what they went through and how important they were to the people who loved them. But in that process, remember who took their lives. Know them well. You can’t cure, treat, or even detect cancer just by eulogizing the dead.

That being said, a lot of people have asked me the question that anybody with a fascination in anything will eventually be asked: Who’s your favorite serial killer? I always respond with another question. Favorite in what way? The one I find most brilliant? (Zodiac, duh.) The one with the most brutal crimes? (Ugh, probably Bob Berdella.) The creepiest one? (Gacy. The clown thing. Shudder.) It’s a hard question, but not without an answer. I won’t disappoint you or give you the runaround. I want to give an obvious answer like Charles Manson, oh bore. The Godhead of serial killers. You just need to say the word “serial killer” and his wild face comes to mind. Yeah, he was interesting. Interesting in that he never actually killed anyone. No less guilty as far as the scales of justice are concerned, but his hands are virtually free of blood. Now that’s fucking interesting. Still, is he my favorite? Eh. He’s a little conventional.

No, my favorite serial killer is probably David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz. He’s an interesting hodgepodge of serial killer tendencies and non-tendencies. Low self-esteem, but not unattractive. Taunted police with notes a la Zodiac Killer. Unlike Zodiac, Berkowitz was ultimately caught. He had his own unique symbol—a signature. He terrorized the entire city of New York, but only amounted to a body count of six, although he wounded another seven. Six, or even thirteen, people dead is a tragedy, but hardly a record worth bringing a city like New York to its trembling knees. In 1975, one year before the Berkowitz murders, the homicide count for the city of New York was 1,996. So why did the Berkowitz spree attract so much infamy? Was it because there was a pattern? Was it because they all happened in the same borough? Within the same few blocks? Was it the creepy, threatening letters? Interesting how a pattern will attract attention, isn’t it? I actually find his impersonal methods most interesting. Serial killers typically like to get intimate with their victims. They hunt them, stab them, strangle them, torture them, take mementos, violate their corpses…I’ll stop. These violent methods prolong the experience. It makes the taking of human life that much more savory for someone with that perversion. David Berkowitz did no such thing. He killed with a single 0.44 caliber revolver. He was bad at it. He wounded more people than he killed. It was generally accepted that he went after female victims, but he actually shot at five males and killed one of them. Why, though? He claimed a number of reasons for his murderous rampage, from demonic possession to a general bitterness towards society and feelings of rejection, especially from women. He even claimed that he wished to stop couples from copulating in vehicles to prevent another illegitimate child like him. Still, he never acted out his hatred in anything more than a shooting. He never kidnapped or maimed. He wasn’t a rapist. He tried to stab two women, failed, and never tried it again. He didn’t have the drive to learn how to stab or strangle. To do it again and again until he got good at it. His fear of failure—of getting caught—was much stronger. He just wanted to take their lives as quickly and as impersonally as possible. That was it. Plain and simple. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he was proactive lazy. He revised his confession to make it sound like he was the leader of a cult, like Manson. He claimed he killed only three people, while the other killings and the failed attempts were carried out by cult members. He didn’t regret killing. He regretted being bad at it.

So, where is he now? Dead? Executed? Murdered by an inmate? Nay. He’s still in prison. Alive. He’s a born-again Christian now, working for the prison ministry. He counsels troubled minds and assists inmates with special needs. He helps them eat, dress, and bathe. Is it faux? Is he playing nice so they let him out? That would be the obvious suspicion, except that he denied himself parole in 2002 and has repeatedly refused to go to all subsequent parole hearings. He claims he “deserve[s] to be in prison for the rest of [his] life.” Doesn’t seem he wants to be let out at all. Sounds like he knows himself—his illness. He sounds, I daresay, rehabilitated.

Interesting.

Two If By Sea

It’s hard not to love the beach. It’s everybody’s favorite destination. As soon as schools let out, families load up the station wagon until the shocks start to creak and the kids complain about leg room. They flock to the beach like their ass is on fire and the only extinguisher is beautiful blue seawater. They block up the highways and drive like it’s their first time operating a vehicle in the civilized world. After all, when you’re on vacation, you ‘re also on vacation from traffic laws and common roadway courtesy. I am no exception to that stereotype. The flocking to the beach thing, not the driving like an asshole thing.

Having spent a good deal of my life in Greece, the beach was commonplace. Mundane, even. I don’t think I appreciated it enough when I had it because when I moved back to the mainland southeastern United States, I felt like a very important part of me was suddenly missing. No amount of Lake Lanier or Tennessee River could fill that gaping void. The ocean isn’t just a body of water, it’s a lifestyle. That sounds like a cheesy bumper sticker or something you find painted on a seafoam green rustic-style wooden plank decoration you might find at Bed Bath & Beyond for $19.99. (You see? I was pretty close.) It’s true though. I don’t blame people for loving that sweet beachy lifestyle. I don’t judge the coastal artwork or the cutesie rhymes because my bedroom (which can be found in remarkably mainland Madison, Alabama) is basically a sacred shrine to all things oceanic. Everything from my quilt to the artwork is sky blue and belongs in a Tommy Bahama magazine advertisement.

Still, it’s funny to come out to Orange Beach every year and marvel at the tourism. I know the oceanfront isn’t my home anymore but somehow tourists are still tourists in my eyes. Somehow they’re different from me, even though I myself am no more than tourist to Orange Beach. Maybe it’s all the men and women wearing brightly colored hibiscus-patterned clothing and seashell necklaces, even though they would never wear something that flamboyant at home. Wearing something out of character is oddly common in popular vacation destinations. People like to dress the part, especially since they may never see their fellow vacationers again. When in Vegas, you wear the sequined mini dress and the costume jewelry. When at Coachella, you wear the flower crown and the high-rise denim cutoffs. When on the beach, you wear anything with flowers and palm trees. Maybe it’s the strong smell of Banana Boat SPF 75 sunscreen every time I pass someone on the street. Maybe it’s the massive coolers and canopy setups they insist on dragging through the sand because it’s impossible to enjoy a day at the beach without setting up your own personal cabana. I’ll add here that I’ve seen more than my fair share of canopies get utterly leveled by improper setup and unforeseen wind conditions. A little schadenfreude is part of the fun. I’m a pretty simple beachcomber, though. When I was living in Greece, a day at the beach meant throwing on a swimsuit, slinging a towel over my shoulder, and hoofing it in my flip flops. Sure, it was a little more complicated in Athens. The beach was not within walking distance from the suburbs so I would have to take the train. That may have required a better pair of shoes and a small shoulder bag for my essentials (phone, wallet, keys). Naturally, it was a little strange to finally visit a beach in the U.S. and see that people pack for a day at the beach as though they were packing for a weekend camping trip. It’s fun to watch actually. Adorable, even.

This year, though, we did something less traditional for our beach trip. Over the last few years, we’ve gone with a large group and rented a small house on the beach with lots of bedrooms, a gated community lot, and a walkable path to the ocean. It was beautiful, convenient, and a little chaotic at times. Last year, though, we were exploring the inland region of Orange Beach, also known as uncharted territory for most vacationers here, and found a whole new microcosm of fun things to do. The inland region of Orange beach is home to the Perdido Bay, a small inlet that leads straight into the Gulf of Mexico. Incidentally, it’s home to a lot of fishing docks, yacht clubs, and less expensive living arrangements for people who like the ocean but don’t need to be within walking distance from it. We were mainly on the lookout for a fun shopping district and came across just that when we found The Wharf. This place was fantastic! An outdoor shopping mall filled with small businesses (you won’t find an Alvin’s Island or a Surf Style anywhere near here) where I could shop for unique art, jewelry, and other such useless trinkets that I love. It has a ferris wheel, a great little coffee shop, and an adorable yacht club and marina where I could sit around and watch boats from the restaurants. It was an absolute dream and it reminded me of being back in Greece even more than the house on Perdido Beach Boulevard did. At the end of the shopping center, we spotted a grand building that looked like either a resort or an apartment building, many stories high. We wondered if the rooms were available for rental and decided to think about it for next year. The Wharf may not be on the beach, but it’s something different, you know? I’m all about trying something different. We took the plunge, did some research, and rented a modest little one-bedroom apartment for next year. It was less than half the cost of renting a house on the beach and twice as interesting. By the beard of Poseidon, it was the best decision we ever made.

As soon as we took the elevator to the seventh floor and I saw the view just from our front door, I knew we couldn’t have gone wrong. The entire shopping center sprawled beneath us and I could see all the way to the familiar resorts along the beach. They decorated the horizon like a small cityscape. It was delightfully eerie. Like being there and not being there all at the same time. When we got inside the apartment, I was even more delighted. The apartment is modest but so beautifully laid out and decorated. It’s actually pretty cozy! It has everything you need. Stainless steel appliances, a washer and dryer, a balcony with a view…oh, that balcony. I could live just on the balcony. When I walked outside, it as obvious to me where the money went. The balcony overlooks the marina filled with yachts below, the waterway passes right in front so I could watch boats come and go to my heart’s satisfaction, and it features a damn near perfect view of the sunset. The beach house did not feature a view of the sunset. It didn’t even feature a view of the ocean. It featured a view of the rest of the housing complex. You could see the ocean if you leaned far enough, but it was only a glimpse of the blue water. This little resort out in the middle of the inlet is like our buried treasure. It’s just far enough from the Gulf to avoid the beach resort chaos and vacation traffic but close enough that the beach is only a short drive away. Nobody bothers to come out here but they have no idea what they’re missing. In fact, they can stay right where they are. This place is freaking great and I need it every year.

We’ve spent several days here and I’ve already decided that I need to buy an apartment in this building and a boat. Obviously. I mean the marina is right there. Everybody else has a boat. They are surprisingly inexpensive but completely intangible to someone who cannot find work in Orange Beach, Alabama (i.e. Terryn and myself). With graduate school coming up and Terryn already balls-deep in a software engineering career, it’s unlikely that we can drop everything and move to the beach to open a bakery or fish for a living. Still, I reserve the right to occasionally put my head up my own ass and browse Zillow for affordable apartments in Orange Beach.

We did take a day trip to Pensacola for a slight change of scenery. Pensacola surprised me. It’s a much older city, so the overall atmosphere was wildly different from that in Orange Beach. Everything was more historical, the city was a little less well-maintained (owed in part to the fact that it’s older in general), and oddly enough we ran out of things to do after we decided not to spend the whole day on the beach and explore the inner city instead. That may have worked in Orange Beach, but it didn’t work so well in Pensacola. The main attraction in Pensacola is the beach. We had made a reservation at the Grand Marlin, a well-loved seafood restaurant that sits right on the water, but it was for 5:00pm. We had brunch at Another Broken Egg so that I could buy a mug—I collect them in every city—and made for Gulf Breeze. Gulf Breeze isn’t quite Pensacola, but strangely it is where Pensacola Beach is located (also alien abductions, but I cannot confirm that). We spent a lot of time walking up and down the piers, watching people fish, and spotting sea life down in the water below. We didn’t bring swimming attire so we couldn’t take advantage of the wonderfully shallow and warm water. We figured we would have plenty else to do in the city. When we made our way inland, we found that Pensacola proper had a lot of construction going on, which made navigation difficult. The city itself had surprisingly few attractions. The Seville Quarter featured some historical buildings and small businesses. We savored a crepe at a truly quaint bakery and coffee shop. We explored a few shops and walked several blocks just to take in the environment. Soon, though, we decided to return to the beach in Gulf Breeze as there was little else to do in the city that we knew of. Maybe we hadn’t done enough research or maybe there just isn’t that much to do in a city where the main attraction is the beach. We had a lot of fun, regardless. You won’t always find gold when you go prospecting, but you can still enjoy the scenery. The Grand Marlin was everything we hoped it would be. Our table was right on the railing, so we had an immediate view of the ocean below. The menu at the Grand Marlin changes daily, as it often corresponds to what kind of fresh fish the restaurant manages to source on that day and its market price. I ordered the market snapper with whipped potatoes and a buttery caper sauce. Terryn ordered the seared yellowfin tuna with wasabi potatoes and bok choy. We both sampled one another’s dishes and collectively decided that both were positively delicious but we were also both glad we ordered the one that we ordered and not vice versa. I love a good ruby red tuna, but I don’t get enough snapper and grouper at home. When I’m on the Gulf I go nuts with ordering fish that I don’t have easy and fresh access to at home.

Speaking of fish, did I mention that we actually did not visit many seafood restaurants while we were here? It’s amazing what can be accomplished if you have a room with gas grill and an excellent view of the water and the sunset. It was obvious. Why go to a restaurant with a view half as good and fish twice as expensive when we could go down to Blalock Seafood, buy a pound of fresh market fish for $15 to $20 a pound, and cook it on the grill at the apartment with a $4.00 bottle of Beringer Chardonnay while we watch boats? That we did, and it was just perfect. On one night, we grilled a filet of grouper, a filet of mahi-mahi, zucchini, and corn on the cob. I opted to use as few herbs and spices as possible because the last thing I want to do is cover up the flavor of a fresh fish with aromatics and spices. I used only olive oil, salt, and a little bit of cracked black pepper. Just enough to enhance the flavor, without masking it. The fish cooked really nicely on the grill so I supplemented the cooked fish with a drizzle made with onion, fresh dill, and olive oil. This is the same recipe my parents always used when they cooked fish on the grill and it is absolutely foolproof no matter what kind of fish you have. The finished product was so delicious, we returned to Blalock for more. The second time, they had red snapper. I jumped on it right away because snapper always sells out the fastest. We cooked it the same way and once again it turned out perfectly. Flaky, flavorful, and fresh. It was truly some of the best grilled fish I’ve ever had and I quickly decided that going to a restaurant for the same product wouldn’t have been worth it. It was a good decision.

The rest of the time I spent at the beach was mostly spent watching the boats with my chair pulled all the way up to the railing and a cup of coffee/beer/sparkling water in my hand. There is something about watching boats that’s ridiculously therapeutic to me. Everything from one-man paddleboats to huge fuel barges will float by on the waterway and I can’t help but watch them float along until they disappear on the other end of the canal. I love listening to the low rumble of the larger engines and the startling sound of the horn. I love watching the wake of a massive barge gently rock the comparatively tiny yachts in the marina. I never expected our “alternative” plan to be soo much more satisfying than the “traditional” plan, but it just goes to show how important it is to try new things and explore new areas. You could go somewhere every year and still not fully realize what’s really there. I can already tell you that when we come back to Orange Beach for vacation again, we’re coming right the hell back to The Wharf. I’ve decided the beauty of the beach isn’t necessarily the sea or the sand. Damn it, it’s the boats. 

The Bird You Cannot Change

Some of you may already know this. I work part-time as a mother bird now. I got the job about a week ago, although I wasn’t given the choice. I suppose one could say I was assigned to the job. Appointed, even. It’s a little weird because the job is illegal in the state of Alabama. I probably shouldn’t even be writing about all this, but if anybody reading this honestly feels the need to turn me in for respecting life and attempting to do so as legally as possible while still technically breaking the law, then they’ll be too late anyway because tomorrow the birds will no longer be in my care. Come at me.

It all started when a chipper little brown bird chose to build a nest and lay her four tiny eggs on my doorstep. I don’t mean in a tree in my front yard or in my shrub beds. I mean she literally built her nest on the wreath that was hanging on my front door. The first bird hatched on or around April 23rd and the last one hatched about a week later. Three little birds to make Bob Marley proud and one more to grow on. Fresh out of the nest, they looked like miserable fleshy insects. Baby birds, much like newborn humans, are positively hideous but in an adorable way that you can’t help but croon over. Their eyes are dark bulbous tumors that grow awkwardly on the sides of their tiny faces. They’re wrinkled and veiny. Their heads are too heavy for their wormy necks. They writhe around the nest like something that should have died weeks ago. Damn, they’re cute.

Momma bird was a good, loving bird. She kept the nest always neat and tidy. I barely got to see a bird hatch before she showed up to clean up the shells. She was always there at night to tuck them in and keep them warm. Best of all, she never dive-bombed me or tried to peck my eyes out when I would pay the little hatchlings a visit. I had faith in momma bird. She sat in a tree and called at me until I eventually learned what her particular call sounded like. A bit of light research and few Youtube videos of various bird calls would eventually reveal that momma bird was a common house finch. I thought she would always be there for them. Hell, even poppa bird stuck around for a while, which is unusual in the animal kingdom. I was witnessing the miracle of a loving family fit for a Disney movie. Then, tragedy struck.

May 5th (Cinco de Mayo, yo) was a cold and rainy day unfit for the season. It had been raining all evening. The air was chilly. I didn’t bother the birds all morning because the last thing I wanted was to spook momma bird away from the nest on a day like this. I was always diligent about making sure they were left alone when they needed to stay warm. Around 3:00 pm, the rain stopped and I opened the door to receive a package. There were no hungry cheep cheep cheeps coming from the nest, which was unusual as the birds had all developed noisy chirps and could be heard from my bedroom by then. I peeked in on the nest and found four wet, struggling little birds. One of them, the biggest one, was entirely too still. I had never touched them before, so I thought long and hard about what I would do next. I looked over at the tree. Momma bird never called. Apprehensively, I stuck a finger into the nest and stroked their heads. The oldest was dead. Rigor mortis had already set in. He was long gone and there was nothing I could do to help. The other three were icy cold and struggling to take breaths. It took me about thirty seconds to shut the door and say “she’ll be back soon, I shouldn’t intervene” before I realized a bird as tidy as the bird I knew would never leave a dead baby in the nest for so long. Momma bird wasn’t coming back.

It’s time for a pop quiz! What would you do in my situation?

A) Nature is brutal. Leave them to die in peace.

B) Spring into action and try to save the remaining birds with what little time and few resources you have available.

C) Call an animal rehabilitation center and hope that they’ll be there in time.

If you know me at all, you know very well that I went with option B. Those birds were fighters. They were still alive with a dead brother in the nest, wet, and frozen. They deserved a better chance. I don’t even want to talk about option A. Option A is for idle bystanders who can sleep at night knowing they could have done something to help and didn’t. I admire that quality, but I don’t have it. Why didn’t I go with option C? Well, it seems like a sensible option if you have any faith in the promptness of animal rescue services. It’s not their fault they’re underfunded and understaffed. I don’t blame them at all. But I’ve called Madison Animal Control more times than I can remember. Not only are they not prompt when you need them, but half the time the phone will go unanswered. This was not the time to be a law-abiding citizen. The law sucks.

I plucked the nest from the wreath, which was a surprisingly laborious task seeing as momma bird was an expert weaver and had done everything short of cement it to the door. I carefully removed each live, floundering little chick from the nest, but left the dead baby inside. That nest would be his grave. The rest went into a fleece lined shoebox under which I had finagled a space-heater. It was not easy and I hadn’t even the most basic supplies to make this rescue possible, but I was determined. Maybe I’m a little batshit crazy, but you can’t say I’m not resourceful or resolute. I watched them curl up in a desperate attempt to get warm. They were pathetic, scrawny little things and severely dehydrated. I googled about 400 different things about caring for infant birds, all of which insisted the first step was “Don’t do it, it’s illegal.” Eventually, I found some genuinely helpful forums frequented by licensed breeders and was able to come to a conclusion. Pedialyte and Gatorade are both perfectly safe to administer to hatchlings in an emergency. So I warmed up a couple of ounces of blue Gatorade, filled an eyedropper, and dripped some into each bird’s wrinkled beak. Drop. By. Painstaking. Drop. It took forever, but soon the birds were beginning to actively lap at the drops of Gatorade. It was a goddamn miracle. They began to move and chirp again. Whatever I was doing, it was actually working. What now!?

I made for the nearest PetSmart in a terrible hurry. I hadn’t showered and my clothes were unfit for being seen in public. I was stressed and desperate. Is this what motherhood is like? Inside PetSmart, I perused the bird aisle, hoping it had all the answers. I wondered if it would be wise to ask for help, seeing as I was already midway through committing a rather ridiculous crime. I found a large jar of what looked like protein smoothie powder but was labeled “baby bird food formula.” Bingo. I read the label. In bright red letters, I was greeted with a most disheartening message. [DO NOT FEED TO WILD BIRDS.] Well, shit. I looked at the associate. I looked at all the bird seed packages labeled “For Finches and Canaries.” How bad can this formula be if the bird seed packages are perfectly safe for caged birds that would otherwise be wild? I took the leap and asked her if this formula was fit for finches. Affirmative. I asked her if all I need to do is mix it with water. Also affirmative. That was all the information I needed. Wild or not, a bird with some form of nutritional sustenance is better than a bird starving to death. I bought the formula and a syringe and headed home in hopes that the chicks were still alive. They were.

Over the next several days, I fed those birds every three hours religiously. I made sure their shoebox was warm and toasty. I cleaned their poop and gave them Q-tip baths when their faces got dirty. I even went out and bought a dedicated carrying box and a heating pad as an upgrade from their living conditions. They began to sprout feathers and wings. Overall, their condition was improving. I was doing a pretty good job. I could tell them apart now, and even gave them silly little names. I went with Atticus, Scout, and Boo Radley. They’re finches, you see. You understand the reference. (I know Boo Radley is not officially a Finch, but that’s the name that stuck. For some reason, Jem didn’t occur to me.) These birds were my pride and joy. Then, more tragedy struck.

I lost one. Atticus. The oldest of the three remaining. How fitting for the character. Did I curse him with a bad name? Did I set him up for failure? He died so quickly and so randomly. It’s absurd. I was just feeding him one day. He was a brawny bird. Eager and motivated. He was already beginning to fledge. His wings were coming in strong. I don’t know how it happened. He thrashed about for several seconds, keeled over, and died. Just like that. He fell limp. His eyes closed. For the rest of the day, I felt as if the loss of one bird represented my utter failure in everything. Incidentally, it was my graduation day. I should have felt proud, but I felt downtrodden. I should have been celebrating, but I wasn’t. I wept all day. Like a big, blubbering idiot. An idiot who cared. A lot.

I decided to pour all my energy into saving the little ones. I called every animal rehabilitation center in north Alabama, hoping to give them a chance at a normal life. They were full. They didn’t take birds. They didn’t take songbirds, only raptor species. Failed attempt, after failed attempt I began to think I would raise these birds to adulthood. What would I do with a week-long beach trip coming up? Would I take them with me? Would I have to feed them in the sun and sand, every two hours? Would I even be able to enjoy my trip? It didn’t matter to me. This was my responsibility now. I made that choice days ago. Then it hit me. We’re driving across the entire state of Alabama. Surely there must be a wildlife center somewhere between Huntsville and Orange Beach with room enough for two barely-fledged finches. I made a list and began making phone calls once again. Sure enough and to my utter relief, Oak Mountain State Park called me back. They would take the babies and raise them. They would be happy there. It’s a state park. The land is protected. They’re located far from the city, where the birds could live and thrive just as nature intended. Without missing a beat, I told them I would be there on Saturday.

So here I am today. Still caring for the same little birds that appeared on my doorstep, singing sweet songs of melodies pure and true. Their wings have come in beautifully. They flap instinctively when they get excited. Soon, they’ll want to fly. It’s Friday, and tomorrow I’ll be packing up all my things and leaving them with the people who were made to do this. I don’t want to give them up anymore. I’ve grown attached, but it would be even more selfish of me to keep them. They’re wild. As wild as the warning on the baby bird food formula. If my goal when I rescued them was to give them the opportunity to live their lives, then keeping them in a cage would be hypocrisy. It’s time for the birds to be birds.

The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.
— Maya Angelou

The Polyester Rite of Passage

It finally happened. I graduated. I can officially say it now. I’ve got the paper and everything. So, why don’t I feel any different?

You know what? That’s a lie. I do feel different. I feel as though I’ve been hit by a train. It’s something about big glamorized ceremonies that makes my hair curl and not in the cute way. I completely understand how important graduation (or “commencement” I guess) ceremonies are. It’s a tremendous accomplishment that not everybody has the privilege to achieve. I firmly hold that anybody who manages to meet the extraordinarily arduous (and sometimes legitimately challenging) requirements for any diploma should be recognized and presented proudly to their friends and family. I don’t intend to belittle the importance of graduation. I intend to explain why I never felt particularly inclined to bask in all its glory.

First of all, it took me eight fucking years (including a three year hiatus) to complete what is normally determined to take four years. Now, I know that’s a superficial reason to reject pride. Most people don’t complete a four year degree in four years. But at this point, I’m nearly 28 years old. I’m not personally proud of changing my major three times before deciding that what I really need is a Bachelor of Arts in English. I respect the English major and I know a lot of people who also respect the English major. That being said, I know more people who don’t respect the English major. You know the stereotype because you’ve heard it a million times. The tale of the English major who spent four years studying Charles Dickens so they can properly craft a Grande White Chocolate Mocha in their professional life. It doesn’t offend me because I get it. In an STEM world, the humanities are cast aside to make room for more useful things like vaccines and renewable energy. It makes sense, doesn’t it? What people don’t realize is the humanities are responsible for getting us where we are technologically. I won’t get into all that boring history today, but I will find the time to tell you all about it. We’ve got all the blogging time in the world. My point is, not many people care about a BA in English. Why should I celebrate my triumph with a bunch of people who don’t give a shit? The answer is, because there is a handful of people who do give a shit. The aforementioned family and friends? The graduation ceremony is for them, not for me. It took a surprisingly long time for me to come to terms with that, but I eventually found inner peace.

Okay. It took me forever to graduate. So what? Well. That’s the other thing. Graduation doesn’t mean much to me because I’m already over 1/3 of the way finished with my Master’s degree and I’m pretty much barreling straight into the rest of it after this. The BA is a checkpoint. Checkpoints are cause for a little celebratory jig, but do I really need a whole musical number? What if Sonic the Hedgehog came to a screeching halt every time he hit one of those checkpoint diddlybobs because Tails and Knuckles strongly believe it warrants a fucking coronation? I know it’s not the same thing, but that’s how it feels. Even if I tragically drown trying to retrieve golden rings from the bottom of a lake, I don’t get to go back to my graduation and try again. I’ll just stay dead. In that regard, graduation isn’t so much a checkpoint as much as it is a very loud and brightly lit roundabout.

In all seriousness though, I honestly hoped to do the ceremonial walk once and for all when I complete the requirements for my MA. I felt that it would be pretty redundant to go through all that hassle for something that I can do in just one more year with far more dignity and self-importance if people were willing to wait. If I’m extremely fortunate and receive an enthusiastic acceptance into a reputable Ph.D. program, I will even do it again! Ph.D. graduation is far more interesting than regular graduation anyway. Each Ph.D. recipient is individually recognized and presented to the audience (none of this marching onto the stage like a herd of cattle and having names hurriedly called out from a long list bullshit) and an elaborate hooding ritual takes place. Now that’s a tassel worth the hassle. Even if you don’t get a job in academia, people have to call you “Doctor” and you have the express license to be as much of an ass about it as you’d like. In a perfect world, that would be my one and only graduation.

It’s not a perfect world, though. We have cancer, poverty, and dog fighting rings. And I have to attend my commencement ceremony, even though the only thing commencing is the other half of my other more important degree. Que sera sera.

So. How was the ceremony anyway? I’ve been a such a diva about it all this time, I’m sure you’re ready at last to hear me admit that it really wasn’t that bad and that I regret making such a fuss about it.

I couldn’t tell you how it was because I was barely cognizant. I haven’t the foggiest idea who our speaker was or what he/she spoke about because beneath my 100% polyester graduation gown was a small purse containing my phone with a freshly downloaded audiobook, a portable battery charger, and a can of Red Bull. Once I sat down in my seat under the oppressive glare of the arena lights and threaded my earbuds through the neck of my gown, I could close my eyes and imagine I was back on my patio, listening to the the gentle voice of a carefully selected narrator and working on my bomb ass tan. The only thing missing was a little gin and a nice smoke, which I’m honestly surprised I didn’t bring. I admittedly detected a slight hitch in my brilliant plan when I realized too late that I was still listening to my book when my name was called to the stage. Did my graduation photos all feature me shaking the hand of the elderly president with a pair of white Apple earbuds jammed in my ears like I’m in a poorly choreographed iPod commercial? They certainly did. Was it worth it? Of course it was. I would have been bored to death without my provisions. If the trade off is a tacky graduation photo, then at least I’ve got a good story.