Yeah. I have cats.
At least that makes me a real writer now, right? You gotta have a pet to be a writer, right?
So here’s the story of how I ended up with cats:
The kids, of course, had mentioned over the years that they would like to have a pet. Considering the oldest is almost a teenager, I figured I ought to get on that whole pet thing. We don’t have a fenced in backyard, so that meant no outside dogs. Also, I didn’t want anyone or anything to wake me up at o’dark thirty wanting to go out into the elements for a bathroom session, SO no inside dogs. The Hobbit has mild allergies to both, so no inside cats. Ryan said ix-nay to birds. I said ix-nay to fish, rodents, or reptiles of any kind. This left our pet possibilities to pet rocks and outside cats.
I started doing a little research, and I had yet to find a place that would let me keep a cat outside. I’m also not big on lying to shelters about it, but I still had more research to go and a couple of leads when Jenni McQuiston caught me at the end of a long day two at the Decatur Book Festival. Here’s how that conversation went:
McQ: Anybody want some cats.
Me: Maybe. [Jenni does serious double take here] Could they be outdoor cats?
McQ: Well, they’re barn cats so I don’t see why not.
Me: Then I think I probably can.
And the next thing I know I’m exchanging emails with the delightful Leah and making arrangements to adopt two cats immediately upon our return from our fall break cruise. Then I find out that my outdoor cats need to be indoor for a little while at least until they learn where they live. Then they are so charming I consider letting them be indoor/outdoor cats. And that’s where we are right now. Rocket and Blix have helped me sort laundry today already. Rocket has inspected both my laptop and this post to declare them good. Once I post this, then I’ll have to do ALL THE CLEANING. Rocket has already explored behind the couches and the top of the pine wardrobe and come out with dust bunny remnants on her whiskers and tail. She is not a fan of my housekeeping skills.
True to my word, though, Leah’s the one who taught them to use the litter box so I still haven’t had to potty train another creature.
P.S. Pray that our allergies don’t get the best of any of us, especially The Hobbit.
P.P.S. Yes, I know you’re thinking I’m going to be a total sucker and let them stay inside. Yes, you are probably right.
P.P.P.S. Anyone want to foster that golden pothos in the background? Apparently it’s poisonous to cats?!
It never ceases to amaze me the things we take for granted that are particular to a certain country, region, or even family. This insular way of looking at life is one reason why I think it’s vitally important that all kids go new places, study in a university that’s not next door, and visit other countries. Am I going to be excited when my birdies leave the nest? Absolutely not, but I think knowledge is the best way to combat ignorance and insensitivity.
*steps off soap box*
I know, I know. What does any of that have to do with Dwelling in Beulah Land? Well, I’ve learned a lot of things over the years. What we always called butter beans? They are actually lima beans. What I’ve always known as butter cups? They’re really daffodils. And songs that I thought everyone knew? Obscure camp meeting tunes from a little brown book popular in the Methodist church. The Cokesbury isn’t even the official Methodist hymnal, but you would’ve never guessed that from where I went to church. A good number of the songs I know by heart–like Dwelling in Beulah Land–aren’t even in the official Methodist hymnal. Imagine my shock when I sent my story to its first contest, the Fire and Ice one up in Chicago, and I get back the comment, “Did you make this hymn up?”
Dwelling in Beulah Land was written in 1911 by Charles A. Miles. He went to school to be a pharmacist but ended up writing hymns. You may know another of his songs, In the Garden. When I went to find out more information about the song, I came up with very, very little. There’s a discourse about what Beulah Land really means (it comes from the Hebrew and is mentioned only once in the English Bible in the Old Testament) and a grainy picture of Mr. Miles. I did find out that the melody of the song is used in the national anthem of Fiji–God Bless Fiji. For some reason this gives me great joy.
Here’s the fun part: Dwelling in Beulah Land is a part of the Cokesbury hymnal. I’m going to attempt to boil down the history of the hymnal, which will tell you a lot about the song.
Basically, the Methodist hymnal of the late 1800s swung back to the religion’s European roots. Meanwhile, camp meetings had taken hold of the nation–particularly in the South–and southerners loved them some gospel and even some African-American spirituals. As the Methodist hymnal continued to eschew these “popular” or “trashy and sentimental” upstarts, the people clamored for them. Add in a dose of southerners not liking the return to traditional and the northerners not liking anything the southerners wanted because…Reconstruction, and you have a little creative war going on as to which songs the church was going to sing. That war played itself out in my own church, albeit in subtle ways, by favoring the “little brown book” over the “big red one.” Fascinated by hymnal history? I gleaned all of this information from Steve West’s blog Musings of a Musical Preacher–and that post is just one of several that I plan to peruse at some point in the future.
The coolest part is looking at the history of one song in one hymn and realizing how it’s affected my work and my life. The Cokesbury is a celebration of the vernacular, a representing a musical style that is uniquely American. When I wrote the novel, I simply had a “What if…?” moment, but, hey, if it’s southern and it’s uniquely American, I’m intrigued by it.
Other than that? There’s not a lot to tell about the song itself. I’ve looked and looked, but what little information I can find goes back to Miles himself. It may not even be one of his favorite hymns and yet it inspired an entire novel from me. I suppose that’s the way it goes. Here’s a link to the lyrics of Dwelling in Beulah Land. If I had a recording of the Whitlock Ramblers, I’d attach that, but here’s a video of the Gaithers instead. (If you use your imagination, it won’t be hard to imagine the song as even jazzier.)
Joyce. Carol. Oates. Y’all.
I didn’t realize I would get to go to the Decatur Book Festival Keynote, but I am so glad I did. It’s not often you get to hear from an author who’s in most of your college textbooks. God bless the Salcedos for letting me crash at their place for the weekend. (BTW they are the hosts with the most. Not only did I have a place to sleep, but Nicki washed my GRW shirt for me, loaned me a hair band AND two pairs of socks because I’m a dork and all of my socks were still in the dryer when I left. But I digress.)
I’m sure someone was chagrined that I was texting while she spoke, sitting there with that eerie iPhone glow about me, but I assure you I was taking down notes because I didn’t have the bars to live-tweet the Keynote. SO here are the highlights from the 2014 Decatur Book Festival Keynote with Joyce Carol Oates:*
1. Joyce Carol Oates spends most of her time at home, writing where it’s quiet and her main companion is her cat. She said, “Sometimes I have interruptions…like this.”
2. JCO (Her abbreviation henceforth) once lived in a high rise and found that conducive to writing because “I never wanted to go down.”
3. Biographer Greg Johnson asked her if she was a window person or a wall person, and she said she was a window person. Johnson then pointed out that she has an essay called “My Corner” all about having a card table facing the wall and writing while looking into the corner. She laughed and said that was the problem with doing an interview with a biographer who could call her on things, that she’d written that essay a long time ago and she could vaguely remember it.
4. Johnson, the straight man in this interview, said that the academic environment had been conducive to her writing. Then he went on to cite her 40 novels, plays, novellas, and almost a 1000 short stories. Wanna see why his statement is funny? Just take a gander at this list of The Books of Joyce Carol Oates: Full List.
5. Talk went on to how JCO felt about being a writing professor. She cited Updike as having felt that young writers sucked the vitality out of him but said that she feels just the opposite and enjoys teaching that “there’s something wonderful about someone who cares deeply about writing. I love reading prose from people I’ve met.”
6. JCO won the National Book Award for Them in 1970, and Johnson asked her why she liked to set her stories against actual events. She said, “Shakespeare, for instance, was always working with some residue of history.” Then she pointed out that Tolstoy liked to write about individuals who represented the sides of a larger conflict. She said she liked to use an “imagined but not invented world.”
7. JCO spoke about how different authors wrote about the real life events that affect them and pointed out how Emily Dickinson only alluded to the Civil War while Walt Whitman jumped right in there and addressed the conflict.
8. Then JCO spoke about form, how as an academic she’s used to “fiddling with form.” She told the story of how Oprah chose We Were the Mulvaneys as a book club selection. What surprised her most about that experience was how the readers of Oprah’s book club responded to her work. As an academic she was used to analyzing works and having her works analyzed with an almost clinical precision, but readers in Oprah’s book club wanted to hug her and to get her to sign the book because they really connected with her characters and her. People would say things like, “If my daughter had read your book then she wouldn’t have committed suicide. (This is in bold because this is one of my favorite things that JCO said)
9. From there, Johnson returned to her almost 1000 short stories and asked her both what she liked about the form and how she went about writing so many. JCO said the first step was to start with a feeling (ex. how someone broke your heart, how much you loved your grandmother, how much your grandmother loved you). The second step was to determine how you would write the story to express that feeling (long or short, poetic or sparse, dialogue or monologue). Step three? Execute.
10. JCO read from Mastiff, and I learned something very important about doing readings for the public: stop where a character is bleeding and potentially dying. Then people will be forced to buy the book to see what happens. Well played, JCO, well played.
11. JCO then spoke of Prison Noir, a collection of short stories from prisoners. She served as the editor. She said that one of the stories was contributed by a woman who was in prison for killing her husband in self-defense. JCO asked why she was in prison if it was self-defense and was told that the woman didn’t have a very good lawyer. JCO mused that life isn’t fair. That it could just as easily been her in prison and the prisoner editing the anthology. (She earned a lot of brownie points from me for this compassion and understanding of how chance can override ability.)
12. JCO has a short story about Robert Frost that caused a stir because he comes across as a lascivious old man who called other poets like e.e. cummings “fakes.” Well, JCO took all of the quotes directly from Frost. (I must get her new short story collection so I can read this story in its entirety) Best thing JCO says in response to the haters? “[Frost] didn’t believe in the New Deal. He didn’t believe in any deal. He wanted people to be poor…so they could write poetry. But it’s all authentic.” (from Lovely, Dark, Deep)
And then we came to the part of the program where folks could ask questions.
13. Dude asks for advice. JCO says, “Oh, you want some advice? The best advice is no advice. I don’t think people actually listen to advice.” She did back up and agree with “Persevere” but only because “You can’t tell people to give up.” (At this point, I’m a little in love with JCO. Not gonna lie.)
14. Another person pointed out that as much as she likes teaching, teachers don’t come across too well in her works. JCO goes back to her discussion of Updike and says it’s all about personalities. She likes to teach, likes to pair older authors like Henry James with newer authors like Lori Moore. She added, “That’s another reason people teach. They learn something by teaching.” and that her older students were such empathetic readers.
15. Apparently, JCO has an essay on running and writing. She spoke of long walks and getting ideas from those walks referring back to folks like Dickens, Wordsworth, and James who would also go on long walks as a part of their writing process. She said that she would run up Bayberry Hill and know there were ideas up there waiting for her. (Among the cattle and the sheep, I might add. Cow reference #FTW)
16. The next question came from a audience member who’d been involved with a play called Recent Tragic Events. Apparently, Joyce Carol Oates is a character in the play but portrayed by a sock puppet. He asked if she’d seen the play, and she said she was afraid to go because people would say, “You’re a sock puppet!” and had previously stated that “If there’s any craziness written about me, it should be my own…it’s not fair.” Then, keeping the upper hand, she said to the man, “I know. You just came tonight to see if I’m a sock puppet. Happens all the time.” (And JCO completely won me over. Because she had such a complete sense of self, such complete control of the audience.)
17. The last question was if JCO believe more in fate or free will, to which she responded, “You sound like one of the demonic characters in my stories.” Once the audience had quit laughing and she had us once again eating from the palm of her hand, she added, “Let us not underplay the role of chance in life…You have to have absorbed your life from models, mentors who exude an air of love, protectiveness, and authority. Those people will always be with you, and you will have them internalized with you forever…Now what if you’re an orphan? I don’t know what happens, but these things come together to form a complex human being.”
And that is how I fell in love with Joyce Carol Oates.
*All of the quotes are taken down as quickly as my little thumbs could type so please don’t quote me as 100% accurate. The English major within does her best, but she isn’t perfect.
Okay, bookworms, tonight is the official start of the Decatur Book Festival. It’s Joyce Carol Oates, so it’s SOLD OUT. Never fear, though, there are all sorts of goodies coming your way on Saturday and Sunday. In fact, my only problems so far are that I can’t see Joshilyn Jackson speak because I’ll be moderating. Then I’m speaking at the same time as both Pearl Cleage and Raymond Atkins. Le sigh. So far, I’m at least clear for Karen Abbott, and I’m crossing my fingers and toes that I’ll make it over to Amanda Kyle Williams.
In case you can’t tell, authors are my rock stars.
Even better? The Decatur Book Festival has a brand spanking new Romance Track. We at Georgia Romance Writers have a shiny new pavilion. For your personal edification, I’m putting a list of ALL the romance events on one handy sheet. Be sure, of course, to check out all of the awesome authors that will be at the Decatur Book Festival. I would be honored if you came to here me speak–even if you’re just there to heckle.
Saturday, August 30
10:00-10:45 Tackling Sensitive Topics in Fiction GRW Pavilion
Marilyn Baron, Melissa Klein, Linda Joyce, Kennedy Ryan
11:15-12:00 Small Towns and Furry Sidekicks GRW Pavilion
Diane Kelly, Larissa Reinhart, Sally Kilpatrick, Tina Whittle
12:30-1:15 Smart Girls Read Romance GRW Paviion
Maggie Worth, Sally Kilpatrick, Jennifer McQuiston
1:45-2:30 Sexy and Intense Decatur Recreation Gym
Rachel Gibson and Jennifer Armentrout writing as J. Lynn
What happens when a New Adult genre author and a romance author team up on a DBF panel? Things heat up.
1:45-2:30 #WeReadDiverseBooks: African-American Popular Fiction GRW Pavilion
Alicia McCalla, Seressia Glass, Piper Huguley, Vanessa Riley, Lauren Kelly
3:00-3:45 Beautiful and Sultry Marriott Conference Center Auditorium
Lindsay Evans and Nicki Salcedo
Tough but fragile heroines and their gorgeous, wealthy, would-be lovers
3:00-3:45 Blurred Lines: Historical Fiction and Romance GRW Pavilion
Jennifer McQuiston, Cathy Maxwell, Lynn Cullen, Ann Hite
4:15-5:00 Athletes and Alpha Men GRW Pavilion
Rachel Gibson, Tracy Solheim
5:30-6:15 Book Club Meet & Greet GRW Pavilion
Readers and authors mingle
Sunday, August 31
12:00-12:45 Young Adult Fiction: Why YA Matters GRW Pavilion
Gillian Summers, Maureen Hardegree, Jana Oliver
1:15-2:00 AWC Erotica Panel Marriott Conference Center Auditorium
Miasha and Shakir Rashaan
The Atlanta Writer’s Club presents a panel of erotica authors with new works.
1:15-2:00 He Said/She Said GRW Pavilion
Charles Martin, Tracy Solheim
2:30-3:15 Triumph of Turbulent Love Marriott Conference Center Ballroom B
Abby Niles and C.L. Wilson
Fantasy romance meets modern day romance
2:30-3:15 50 Shades of Sex GRW Pavilion
Terry Poca, Maggie Worth, Nicki Salcedo
3:45-4:30 It’s Not Just Peachtree Street: Writing Around Atlanta GRW Pavilion
Romily Bernard, Jana Oliver, Nicki Salcedo
5:00-5:45 Your Deepest Desires Marriott Conference Center Auditorium
Sheree Greer and Fiona Zedde
These well-established romance authors will share their sensuously written stories of lesbian love and desire, both set in the sweltering, sultry deep South.
5:00-5:45 Where the Husbands Are Decatur Recreation Center Gym
Cathy Maxwell and Jennifer McQuiston
A conversation about writing historical romances
5:00-5:45 Book Club Meet & Greet GRW Pavilion
Readers and authors mingle
So I go to the Meet and Greet at each school. We meet the teachers, buy the agenda, and see what crazy thing they’ve done with the buses this year. Then I have to face the PTA table.
Stop the Insanity.
I beg of you.
It’s the PTA, not a sports team looking for sponsorships. Nevertheless, we parents have options.
- Membership Level $6–Basically this is meant to be the loser level. This is your basic membership, nothing more–and it’s just good for one person!
- White Level $50–My problem here is you get an unspecified number of memberships and coupons. You do not, however, get the class shirt that you are “required” to buy for field trips and. By the time you pay the $10 for said shirt, you might as well get the next level up. I think that was the insidious intention. (And you can deduct a paltry $47.05 on your taxes.)
- Crimson Level $75–Here you only get a $10 voucher for spirit wear (enough to get your class shirt), all the coupons, and, again, an unspecified number of memberships, a bag and pen and magnet and (And you can deduct $60.31 on your taxes!)
- Platinum Level $100–You get everything in the Crimson level but then you also get a $20 spirit wear voucher AND add a stadium blanket and a frisbee, too! Besides, it’s platinum! This is where everybody who’s anybody is going to be! And did I mention the stadium blanket? (And you can deduct $64.61 on your taxes!!!!!!!!!!!!)
On a scale of one to even, I cannot.
This is a PUBLIC SCHOOL.
What the heck? What are these people doing with all of this money? I was on board for paying $50/family and not having to do a fundraiser. That seemed more than equitable to me. Then one day I turn around and $50 won’t even get me the frickin-frackin class shirt? Are we doing some kind of humanitarian aid with this money? Or, and this is just a thought, are we busy showing off how much we can donate while actually decreasing the number of donations because people like me are about to throw our hands up in the air and pay for “loser” memberships because we’re done? What about those of us who now have kids in two–or heaven forbid–three schools? Are we really expected to cough up $100 per school as well as all the school supplies and a new wardrobe? Apparently, because the middle school has adopted similar levels. At least their third tier is a reasonable $25 and includes entrance to school socials.
But wait…here’s the kicker. When I went to elementary school Open House (Yes, this is different than Meet and Greet. No, I don’t know why we need both of these.) the president of the PTSA touted the membership options and proudly declared there would be no fundraisers. In the next breath he asked people to support….a fundraiser. *face palm* To top it all off? I didn’t even get a copy of the PTA budget at Open House this year. Gee, I wonder why those weren’t readily available….
Now, maybe I’m just a jaded and cynical former high school teacher. (Okay. I am. We all know it.), but this is ridiculous. At the middle school, one teacher said, “And we could really, really use donations of Kleenex. By the time December rolls around, we’re out, and the kids have to use toilet paper!”
Guess what? When we run out of Kleenex in La Casa Kilpatrick, we have to use toilet paper. Oddly enough, we’ve all survived to date. And for 7 of the 8 years I taught high school, my students ALWAYS had to use toilet paper because I wasn’t allowed to ask for Kleenex. Mis angelitos? They, too, survived. (Year 8 I taught on the East Side. I’m pretty sure you can request and will receive just about anything on the East Side.)
Y’all. We gotta stop the insanity. It’s a public school, not a let’s-see-how-much-money-we-can-donate contest. Basics, people, basics.
*steps off soap box*
*blows nose on toilet paper*
So let’s talk about dry towns. First of all, take a look at this handy-dandy map that I borrowed from the Wikipedia page on the subject. Notice anything interesting? Why, yes! We southerners sure do like to have dry towns. I come from a county that still prohibits both liquor sales and selling drinks in restaurants. I think you can get beer at some of the convenience stores but that’s about it.
I found a couple of interesting pieces on Prohibition. Here’s one from PBS on the Unintended Consequences of Prohibition. This rather long and scholarly article on Did Prohibition Work? is a nice counterpoint to what we’ve been taught. As in most things, prohibition can’t be explained in black and white terms. A couple of really bad things came out of prohibition. First and foremost, a bunch of people were suddenly out of a job. Bigger companies like Coors and Anheuser-Busch managed to find alternative products to produce, but many other beer and liquor manufacturers simply closed their doors. Wineries were also out of business, although the first article points out that the laws were a little more lax on wineries so some home manufacturers managed to skate by.
So scholarly article argues that Prohibition did, indeed, work in the sense that alcohol consumption did decrease. Some of the problems, though, were that organized crime did get worse thanks to prohibition. The first article also points out that about a thousand people a year died from improperly made alcohol because….illegal and thus no oversight. Also? There were plenty of folks who supported prohibition but didn’t think it would be as extreme. They drank in moderation in the home but wanted to get rid of public drinking in places like saloons. Well. Prohibition took care of the saloons but not the public drinking. Suddenly women who were drinking on the sly were out at the speakeasies because that, my friends, is where the liquor was. One of the worst consequences of prohibition, though? Inebriate asylums closed because, ostensibly, there was no need for them. People who were drinking to excess, then, had nowhere to go for help. It’s no coincidence that AA was founded in 1935 after the repeal of prohibition.
A couple of other interesting things that came out of prohibition:
- There was a loophole for farmers if their grape juice wasn’t fermented. California farmers made what they called bricks and then sold them with this warning: “After dissolving the brick in a gallon of water, do not place the liquid in a jug away in the cupboard for twenty days, because then it would turn into wine.” (from Wikipedia article on Prohibition) I’m surprised they didn’t go ahead and write wink-wink, nudge-nudge on those warnings.
- Churches were still allowed to have wine for sacraments. Church enrollment increased. Do with that what you will.
- Theaters, amusement parks, and restaurants actually suffered under prohibitions because people didn’t go. (Probably because they were at home drinking that grape juice that they most certainly did not put in a jug in the cupboard for twenty days.)
- The idea of “dirty cops” comes from this period. Many law enforcement officials remained honest, but there were enough federal agents and state/local officers who took the money that the stereotype damaged the people’s trust in law enforcement.
- Alcohol regulation is no longer under the jurisdiction of federal government, rather in the hands of a number of local counties or towns, for the most part.
- More binge drinkers. While most Americans actually followed the law and stopped drinking during prohibition, there were others who started drinking for the first time. And when they started? They were partying not just having a glass of wine with dinner.
Interestingly, The Methodists led the charge for prohibition. Up until recently, the vows of a Methodist minister still included abstinence from alcohol. That’s why you’ll see articles on Bible studies in a bar led by, say, Lutherans, but I haven’t run across a Methodist one yet. I let my preacher, Luke Daniels, be a little avant-garde, I suppose. Oh, and one last thing: Welch’s grape juice? That comes from devout Methodist Thomas Branwell Welch’s development of pasteurization for unfermented grape juice to be used in communion.
And that’s part of the story of how I had a character create a Bible Study in a bar that sat just over the county line from a church. Having a representative of the ultimate teetotalers meet a band of folks who really didn’t care for temperance in anything meant instant conflict. Now, for your amusement, take a look at one of my favorite songs, Miranda Lambert’s “Dry Town:”