Thursday, August 8, 2019

On Grits and Grannies

Every morning I wake Elyse up at 6:55 and say, "It's time to get up, Honey." She mumbles and turns over to face the wall, and I ask, "Do you want me to make you some grits?" She says "Uh-huh" into her pillow, and I ask, "Do you want to stay in bed until they're ready?" Of course she says yes.

So I shuffle off to the kitchen to make her some grits.

I'm quite happy using instant grits, Quaker Instant Grits with Butter Flavor, to be exact. I do wonder how a grits purist would feel—and I'm pretty confident there are grits purists; I'm sure a quick Google search would return many very opinionated grits Web sites—when I recall that scene in My Cousin Vinny when the witness on the stand asserts that "no self-respecting Southerner uses instant grits." Well, maybe I'm not a self-respecting Southerner. In many ways I'm only southern at all by an accident of geography: I love but can't personally relate to the works of true Southern writers like Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. In fact, if I were able to go back in time and have a conversation with any of them, it's possible I wouldn't even be able to understand them through their thick Southern accents.

But about those grits....

When I was little, starting (I believe) when I was five years old and my family was freshly returned from our brief life in Maryland, and lasting at least until I was eight—this I can say for sure, and I'll tell you why in a minute—I would often be left for a morning or a day with my grandmother at her little brick house in Tucker. I suppose my mother needed the time to go to work at a part-time job, or run errands, or maybe do some shopping; I don't know that it ever occurred to me to wonder where Mom was going when she dropped me off at Granny's. In any case, I remember those times with Granny with a great fondness, as something I very much looked forward to. Whether that is exactly what I felt at the time I really can't be sure, but I can tell you that now I miss them terribly; I would give nearly anything to be a kid again on my way to Granny's, where we would read stories, color in coloring books, and, when I got a bit older, sit and watch "Wheel of Fortune" with its original host, Chuck Woolery, on that small rabbit-ear-antennaed color TV that sat on the rolling cart in her living room. (And that is how I know that these times with Granny went on at least until I was eight: in 1974, when I was seven, we couldn't have watched "Wheel of Fortune," for it didn't begin its lengthy run until a year later.)

One of the details I've been remembering the most lately, the thing that makes me wistful as I prepare my breakfast these days, is seeing Granny make grits for me on those mornings more than four decades ago. I was much more interested in eating than in cooking, so I didn't pay close attention to what she did, but I know it involved bowls and pots and measuring cups and water from the tap and grits from a bag she kept under the counter—she probably used quick grits, for I don't think instant grits existed yet, and even if they did, I want to believe that my grandmother wouldn't give in to them, as I have. Finally, when the fixings were all prepared, she would ask me, "Soupy or not?" Some days I would want them soupy: plenty of water for very thin, easily slurped grits. Some days, not: only the proscribed amount of water, or perhaps even a bit less, for thicker, more substantial grits.

So when I fix a bowl of grits for Elyse every morning, I am temporarily taken back to the early seventies, to that small kitchen in that little brick house in the suburbs of Atlanta. It's one way to keep my grandmother alive and with me, and to keep alive within me the memories of people and places who were once so important to me. And in a very real way, it keeps me alive within me; the me that once was, many years ago, and in most important ways is still here. Someday when this story will mean something to Jessica and Elyse, I hope a little of my grandmother—their great-grandmother—may live within them too, and perhaps a bit more of their father than is already there. Someday I hope it will resonate with Elyse if I ask her if she wants her grits soupy or not. (If I asked her that question now, I'm pretty sure she would just wrinkle her nose and say, "Make them like you always make them." Which, by the way, is a little bit soupy; I use five ounces of water for one bowl rather than the four ounces the directions on the box call for.)

The thing about getting older, if you're me, anyway, is that you can look back and see how wonderful, how nearly perfect, many of the pieces of your past have been. But you also realize that you slogged through these near-perfect times largely blind to how truly wonderful they were. Back then, I took it all for granted, as children—as we all—are wont to do. I was clueless. I still am.

I'm not the first person to say this—it is, in fact, something of a cliché—but it helps you understand the importance of appreciating every moment, of realizing how lucky you really are, of trying your hardest to take nothing for granted. The importance of really taking the time to enjoy a good bowl of grits. It's such a simple thing, and yet, as you can see, it's really not.

I'm glad I get to prepare grits for my daughter for breakfast. I'm sorry I didn't realize what a precious thing it was, all those years ago, to have a granny who would make them for me, just the way I wanted them—soupy, or not.

(NB: I started this several months ago—actually, in a different form, several years ago—but am just now getting around the finishing and publishing it. Everything I've written here is still true, except that lately Elyse hasn't been eating grits as often; now she's more given to requesting Pop Tarts or Honeynut Cheerios. Maybe I'll write an essay about my lengthy history with Pop Tarts and breakfast cereals some day.)

Monday, July 1, 2019

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

In Mr. Putter and Tabby Write the Book, one of my favorites of Cynthia Rylant's Mr. Putter and Tabby books, Mr. Putter sets out to write a mystery novel (The Mystery of Lighthouse Cove he intends to call it, and the title is as far as he gets), but instead, after a series of distractions and procrastinations, he writes a book called Good Things which lists, as the title suggest, things that are good. His ever-supportive friend and neighbor Mrs. Teaberry tells him not to worry, because, as she says, the world is full of mystery writers, but writers of good things are few and far between.

Inspired by Mr. Putter's literary efforts, and Elyse's recent (but now waning) fascination with the song "My Favorite Things" from The Sound of Music, I am going to write an annotated list of the Good Things in my life, the things that make me happy (a few of them, anyway). Here they are, in no particular order but the order in which they occur to me:

Napping and Reading

Probably my favorite thing to do lately is to settle down in the reading chair downstairs with a cup of coffee on the end table and a book of short stories, and to read a short story, drink the coffee, and, when the need strikes, put a bookmark in the book, lay all the way back in the recliner, and take a nap.

I try to steal a glance at the clock just before I nod off so I'll know how long I slept; it usually ends up being twenty to thirty minutes, but is occasionally as long as forty-five minutes. (Once I slept a whole hour, but that's pretty rare.) (Also, if I do need to be awake by a certain time, like during the school year when I need to be sure to open the garage door before Elyse's bus comes so she can get in, I set a timer, but I try to start reading early enough so that that won't interfere with my nap.)

Reading and Napping

Reading short stories is one of my favorite things to do, and combining a good short story with a cup of coffee and a nap (as described above) is heavenly. For a long time my favorite short-story writer was the late Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, but I recently finished his The Collected Stories (which is not the same thing as "complete stories," for there are over a hundred of his stories not included in this collection) and I don't have anything else by Singer to read. I've also been reading Flannery O'Connor, Eudora Welty, John Cheever, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Grace Paley, among others. I don't read nearly as much science fiction, fantasy, or mystery as I used to; I seem to have lost most of my old interest in genre fiction. Maybe I'll come back to it one day.

Roaming Around Stone Mountain

Another favorite thing is when we all (me, Anna, Jessica, and Elyse) go to Stone Mountain Park. I especially love it when we take the Summit Skyride up to the top of the mountain (someday I hope to be in good enough shape to walk all the way to the top, but I'm not there now) and walk around, enjoying the wind and the view of Atlanta in the distance.

I also love going to what they now call the Historic Square (formerly the Antebellum Plantation) with Jessica to explore the old houses and take pictures, and riding the train and/or playing miniature golf with Elyse.

Years ago, before we had kids, Anna and I used to go to Stone Mountain to spend a Saturday or Sunday afternoon on the lawn in front of Memorial Hall, mostly reading. Before I met Anna, I used to go there by myself to read on the lawn. Often I would walk up to the top first, back when I was young enough and in good enough shape to make it, and then change clothes and spend a whole afternoon reading on the lawn—I read all What Hearts by Bruce Brooks there one afternoon—and sometimes even writing, on a little Hewlett Packard palmtop computer I used to have.

Watching a Movie and Eating Pizza

I'm also at my most happy when we stay home on a Friday or Saturday night to watch a movie and eat pizza. It's pretty challenging these days to find a movie we all agree on; sometimes we watch what we call a "cooking show" ("Best Baker in America," "Cupcake Wars," "Kids Baking Championship," etc.) or, when there's something available that we haven't seen already, a family-friendly scripted show, like episodes of a new season of "Just Add Magic" on Amazon Prime or "A Series of Unfortunate Events" on Netflix (though I believe both shows are now concluded). Lately we've been watching "The Worst Witch" on Netflix.

We don't always watch TV, but when we do—no, wait, we do always watch TV. Or at least it seems that way sometimes. But a good TV show—or movie, when we can all agree on one, or when Anna and I decide to watch something (Condorman most recently) whether the girls stay with us or not—makes me happy.

Working on a Puzzle and Listening to Podcasts with Annie

Okay, we don't literally always watch TV. In fact, Anna and I don't watch that much television on our own; when we're awake enough to do something after the girls have gone to bed (rather a rarity lately, frankly; we're usually both exhausted by then) we go downstairs and work on a jigsaw puzzle and listen to podcasts. For a long time we listened to "Radiolab" or "The TED Radio Hour," but lately we've been listening to "Planet Money." We've probably done fifteen or twenty puzzles in the past five years, many of them prominently featuring cats (not a surprise) and/or small-town general stores.

* * *

This is hardly an exhaustive list; there are plenty of other times when I'm happy (when we go to Rock City or the zoo; when there's ice cream in the freezer; payday and the following two or three days, until the money's all gone), but this is a pretty good introduction to the kinds of things that I believe make life worth living.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

STAR WARS and "Star Trek" and Jessica and Me

For the last couple of days, Anna and Elyse have been camping at Stone Mountain. While they were gone, Jessica and I watched Star Wars (the real Star Wars, the one that came out in 1977 and blew me away when I saw it at the age of ten, which needs no colon and subtitle or episode number) and four episodes of "Star Trek" (the real "Star Trek," the show that came on the air before I was even born and which I really loved when I was in fifth grade, not long after I first saw Star Wars).

It was quite a triumph to get Jessica to watch them with me. She's been resisting Star Wars for years, though I knew, and assured her, that she would be captivated by it. She liked "Star Trek, " too, though the first episode, "The Man Trap," has that scary salt vampire creature that kind of freaked her out. I warned her, but she wanted to start at the beginning, so we did, scary salt vampire monster or not. That was last night; we watched three more episodes this morning. None of them had scary monsters, but the creepy kid in "Charlie X" has a pretty scary look sometimes.

I had forgotten just how much I was into "Star Trek" back when I was Jessica's age (or actually about a year younger). I had a worn copy of The Star Fleet Technical Manual, which I think I got—possibly stole—from someone at school, and which I used to pore over for hours at a time. I had a copy of David Gerrold's great The World of Star Trek, which I read in pieces (that is, not all at once, from front to back) over the course of a year or so, mostly concentrating on the episode guide which (if I remember correctly) was at the end, and the color pictures, which I believe were in the middle. I'd love to have that specific copy again; I do have the book, a trade-size paperback that came out in the mid-eighties, but the actual copy that I had in fifth grade, which was printed back when the original three-season series was all there was of "Star Trek," is lost to me; I think I loaned it to my friend Skipper and never got it back. I also had several copies of Alan Dean Foster's novelizations of the "Star Trek" cartoon series, but I don't think I actually ever read any of them.

I also started my own science fiction novel, which was a blatant rip-off of "Star Trek" except that I envisioned my ship's captain as looking like Lou Ferrigno, the body-builder actor who played the Incredible Hulk in the popular TV show of the time. Thankfully I never got past the first chapter of that novel.

I loved, and still love, not just the premise and story lines of "Star Trek," but the look of it: the Enterprise, the uniforms, all the reds and blues; the whistles and beeps of the ship's computer, the swish of the doors as they slid open; the style of the captain's chair, which I really wanted in our living room in Lilburn; the phasers and communicators and tricorders; every inside set that looked convincingly like a real starship bridge or sick bay or transporter room, but also like a TV studio set; every outdoor set that looked a little bit like a planet a landing party might be beamed down to, a lot like the planet the landing party was beamed down to last week, and even more like a studio set with props painted to look like boulders and sky and alien ruins.

I hope Jessica wants to watch some more "Star Trek." I do love it.

Friday, February 22, 2019

Nostalgia and T.V. and Me and Jessica

Not everyone is affected by middle age the same way, so I don't know if this is a common experience or not, but one of the things middle age has done to me is to make me pine for things that weren't all that good the first time around.

Earlier tonight I was searching for one thing on the Internet, and, as happens so often and so easily, I got distracted by any number of other things. In the process, I came across a mention on some random guy's blog of the great -- er, "great" may be a bit generous; let's say the factually once existing Vic Tayback. Many years ago, Tayback played the cook and owner of Mel's Diner in the great -- er, again, too generous; in the late-1970's sitcom "Alice."

And, seeing that, I was overcome with a wistful longing to see "Alice" again.

It wasn't that great a show, really; definitely not one that I made sure to always see when it was on back then, and not one that I watched regularly in syndication on Nick at Nite or TV Land; in fact, I probably haven't seen "Alice" in close to forty years. But I did enjoy it when I saw it, which was at least somewhat regularly between 1978 and 1980 or so. If you were around back then, you probably remember the show's breakout star, Polly Holliday, who played waitress Flo on the series, famous for her exasperated cry of "Kiss my grits!" when Mel would get on her last nerve. You may also remember, if your head is as full of as much ancient pop-culture trivia as mine is, that Dave Madden played one of the regular customers at the diner; Madden is perhaps most famous as manager (and Danny's foil) Reuben Kincaid on "The Partridge Family" -- another show I would love to see again, despite its mediocrity.

But what I really want, of course, is not so much to see "Alice" or "The Partridge Family" again -- I feel a similar nostalgia for "The Brady Bunch," and have it in my Hulu watchlist, but I've only actually watched one episode -- as it is to be eight or ten or twelve again, in my childhood home in Lilburn, in the living room (or the den; for a time we had a TV set there, and for some reason I remember watching "Alice" there more than in the living room) with my family, watching...well, whatever happened to be on would do, actually. To be young again, my whole life before me, my parents a full decade and a half younger than I am as I type this, my only real responsibility getting through sixth grade with grades good enough to get me promoted to seventh, my grandmother still alive, my extended family still close enough that I see my cousins every couple of weeks and my cousin Scott, then my best friend, at least once a week, my vague dream of someday being a novelist not yet fully formed, and certainly not dead, as it sometimes feels now.

Without meaning to, I have infected Jessica with a similar nostalgia, though in her case I guess it can't truly be called "nostalgia," since she was not with me forty or more years ago when I originally watched the TV shows she now watches on DVD or streaming from Hulu or Boomerang: "Gilligan's Island," "The Monkees," "The Flintstones," "The Munsters," "The Addams Family"; none of them great shows (though it pains me to admit that "Gilligan's Island" and "The Monkees" are not exceptional TV shows, for I do love them so), but all of them fun and funny and entertaining and basically harmless. I do feel a little guilty sometimes that, in encouraging her fondness for these shows, I am giving her attachments that are totally foreign to just about everyone else her age: when Peter Tork passed away recently at the age of 77, I saw several remembrances of him and the Monkees from my peers on social media, but I'm pretty sure none of Jessica's peers had any idea who Peter Tork was, or that he had even existed.

I don't know if the longing for mediocre elements from your past (even for things you didn't like; sometimes I listen with great enjoyment to songs that I hated when they were first out) is common or not, but I am pretty sure it's a common desire to want to recreate some of your own youth for your children. Jessica, if you read this years from now, perhaps even when you are near my current age, I'm sorry I've done this to you, but I'm really, really glad you like "The Monkees."