May, 2015

In Town.  

There have been both summer-type days and spring-type days.  My favorite days, some of my most favorite of the year, are the spring-type days, when the temperatures are up to the mid-70’s and the humidity is low.  Full summer green and temperatures are in force by mid-month.

May is the month of Mary.  It’s also  the month of rabbits.  They are everywhere.  They are fearless.  Walking to Red Car to go on errands in the late afternoon, I beheld a rabbit stretched out under a crepe myrtle tree and munching some vegetation.  It did not move as I approached, just lay there and watched as as I got into the car and drove away.

On a late afternoon walk in mid-May, I noticed uniformly sweet-smelling air.  Not many people were outside enjoying the day.  I walked until sunset blazed a hot-looking red and orange, brilliantly colored.

A Carolina wren has built a nest under the front porch.  One day I spent an hour pulling weeds in the border in front of the wren’s entry.  “Chirrip!  Chirrip!” from the tree behind me. It flew to the crepe myrtle tree beside me.  “Chirrip!  Chirrip! ”  Then from the tree behind me; again from the tree beside me.  Back and forth, again and again.  Suddenly it took courage and went to the nest, but watched me carefully.  Was it necessity for the bird, or a trust developed?

Visiting the Eudora Welty House in Jackson, Mississippi.

The highlight of the tour was an introductory, short film on Welty’s life, works and accomplishments.  The rest of the tour tried my patience, made me grumpy.  The docent read from notes, and two women gushed about bedspreads, furniture, rugs, toiletries from the ’40’s, and had many questions about Welty’s nieces.  Here are eight things I learned:

(1) Welty, on receiving rejection letters for her story “The Petrified Man,” threw her only copies into the fire.  When a publisher reconsidered and asked for it, she re-wrote the entire piece from memory.

(2) Welty did not like electric typewriters.  The humming made her feel pressured to get something done.

(3) She did not like air conditioning.

(4) She typed by the front window of her bedroom.  She liked to know what was going on in the street as she wrote.

(5) She edited carefully, often using straight pins and scissors to move paragraphs.

(6) The house is filled with books, a majority of which look new, unread.  They cover parts of floors, tables, bookcases, beds, dressers.

(7) She loved to eat pralines.

(8) Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote the song “Halley Came to Jackson” about the comet and the Welty family.

Driving Down the Natchez Trace Parkway from Jackson, Mississippi, to Natchez, Mississippi.

Natchez Trace Parkway is a two-lane parkway that follows the Natchez Trace, a trading route from olden times.  When I left Jackson, I programmed Jack, my GPS device, to Natchez Trace, and it took me to the site of the old path.  When it came into view, Jack said, “Turn off the road.”  I reset the direction, and Jack took me right to the Parkway.

The parkway is well-maintained; in fact, there were several areas of repair work along the way.  There are no billboards.  Connections to main highways and towns along the way are marked by small signs at intervals.  There are mature hardwood forests on both side of the road.  Wildflowers were blooming on the land between the road and the forest.

I exited to find lunch at Utica, Mississippi.  As I drove the seven miles into town, I noticed a concrete-block grill by the roadside, BURGER STOP, but I did not stop.  I should have, for Utica is a town with mostly defunct businesses and garages.  One garage had “PRAISE JESUS” painted on the wall facing the town street.  I could not see any reason that Jesus be praised there.  There is one antique and restoration place that seemed to be doing good business, and I noticed three churches on one block, all together, facing one another across a street.  I drove through the residential areas.  There were some nice houses, and I saw a sign I had not seen in a long time. It’s a warning sign with the image of a boy running with his hands and legs as if in a position of a leap.  “SLOW.  CHILDREN AT PLAY.”  I like the phrase “AT PLAY.”  “Where are Sue and Tim?”  “They’re outside.  At play.”

I stopped at Burger Stop on the way back to the parkway.  A limited menu of burgers, hot dogs, and other sandwiches was written on a marker board.  I ordered a hot dog combination.  “You want fries with that, or home cuts?  The home cuts are cut daily.”  “Home cuts,” I said.  “What can drink do you want with that?” the woman taking the order asked.  The cook looked at me and said, “What do you want on the hot dog?”  I answered, “Everything you can put on it.”  He laughed as said, “All right!  You’re my kind of man!”   The hot dog was excellent, boiled and then grilled.  Toppings were only mustard, mayonnaise, ketchup, onions, and slaw.   The fried home cuts were meaty, good and hot.  The can drink was, well, a can drink.  (I kept thinking, a can drink?)  I will remember the friendly,  large,  brown-haired woman in the clean apron and the tall,  laughing,  red-haired cook in baseball cap and short pants.  As I drove away, I noted again BURGER STOP, written on an octagonal sign.

Two Places in Natchez.

Because Natchez surrendered during the Civil War, there are several antebellum mansions, three of which are open all year.  There are two times of the year, in the fall and in the spring, that many more are open, some private residents.  I decided to visit only one, Rosalie.  Rosalie has an interesting history, told competently by docent Hillary.  There was a couple with me on the tour, only three of us, so we could ask and receive good answers for every question.  I remember a question from the couple, “What does antebellum mean?”  She answered, “The time before the War.”  After a pause, she said, “The War Between the States, of course.”  They looked puzzled.  “The Civil War!” she said.  I asked about the large fireplaces in each room.  Since it was early May and the weather felt July-humid and hot, I asked how often they were used.  She added a personal note, “At home, when the temperatures gets down to about 77, I turn on the heat!”  A native of the area, yes.

It was sweltering hot, but I walked several blocks from Rosalie to the William Johnson House, run by the National Park Service, for a self-guided tour of Johnson’s house.  Johnson was a freed slave before the War, a businessman who was highly respected by the community.  There were interesting displays on his businesses and his life as a freed slave in the 1840’s.

Notes on Reading.  Fiction.

Eudora Welty, A Curtain of Green and Other Stories (1941) in The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty.  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980.

There are seventeen short stories, varied in subjects and settings.  Characters are often physically, psychologically, or spiritually hurt by events in their lives.

Favorites:  the warm and humorous “Lilly Daw and the Three Ladies,” the hilarious “Why I Live at the P.O.,” the memorable and horrific Southern Gothic “Clytie,” the portrait of a musician and his band “Powerhouse,” and the poignant story of a woman with quiet dignity and devotion, “A Worn Path.

Welty shows a mastery of detail in setting, character, and dialogue and impressive use of point of view.

Marty Smith, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Blotter Books, 2013.

“Hell.  You know what hell fucking is.  It’s not where God doesn’t give a fuck.  It’s where He doesn’t exist and there’s nobody to give a fuck.  One good guy dies from a stupid needless accident trying to save another good guy who’s finally lost his shit because his life has been more hell than anybody should have to face.”

Spoken at the climax of this well-written novel, these words accurately and powerfully describe the climax of the book.  The novel gives us a look into the lives of those who make the live music scene in Durham and Chapel Hill and follow the complexities of their relationships.  Chuck, Billy, and Penny are my favorite characters, and the most fully drawn characters.  The author makes skillful, memorable physical descriptions of the characters when they are introduced and provides for deeper understanding of the major characters in sections called “Back Catalogue.”  The author makes interesting and appropriate use of song lyrics as section headings.

Notes on Reading.  Nonfiction.

Andrew Levy, Huck Finn’s America: Mark Twain and the Era That Shaped His Masterpiece.  Simon & Schuster, 2015.

This well-researched (196 pages of text, 95 pages of notes, and 32 pages of bibliography) and well-written book focuses on the ideas of childhood and race relationships of Twain’s time that become the focus of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Levy shows how the reading tour of Twain and George Washington Cable, the structure of minstrel shows (Levy shows that the structure of the novel is the same as the structure of a show), newspaper headlines of the time, Twain’s parenthood and travels, and contemporary political events serve as influences in the writing of the book.

I had never understood the ending chapters of the book in which Tom and Huck make an adventure of freeing Jim.  Levy’s explanation of how and why Twain loved the ending and how it fits into the context of the novel is a convincing explanation for me.

Also convincing is Levy’s explanation of Twain’s idea that we do not learn from history.  We repeat it.  Levy says that the topics of newspaper articles in the 1870s are the same topics about which we are concerned today.  Levy writes, “This work is a cultural biography of Twain in his era, one that shows how Huck Finn is the great book about American forgetfulness, and how our misjudgments of the book’s message about race and children reveal the architecture of our forgetting.”

Noah Adams, Piano Lessons, Delacorte Press, 1966

When he was 52 years old, the author decided to learn to play piano.  His goal: to play Schumann’s “Traumerei” at the end of the year.  He buys a piano, invests in an instructional computer program, participates in a variety of types of instruction with teachers.  He explores a variety of styles in addition to classical: boogie woogie,  jazz, pop.  He includes interviews with Leon Fleisher and Tori Amos as well as stories about such artists as Glenn Gould and Dr. John.  A concluding value: “Stay with the piano, I tell myself.  It can get tough, stumbling on through life; it’s nice to have something that’s secure and rewarding and risky only to your ego.”

Thank you for reading.  I hope your days in June will be good.

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About billwednesdayblog

Retired high school English and French teacher.
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