Friday, June 30, 2006

Edifice Complexes (and Complex Edifices)

June 30

There was actually a story in the paper a few days ago about the possibility of the fund-raising group falling short of their goal to build a $15.5 million performing arts center out near the new high school. You see, the first plan was for a $4 million building, which soon was doubled to be priced at $8 million. As the plans for the building grew, of course the building itself would have to grow, and by now, four years later, construction prices along with redesign for more amenities have bloated the budget so that the low bid of $15.5 million is $2 million more than it was two weeks ago.

The County School Board, never too comfortable with this project, is scheduling meetings to determine whether the cost can be reduced. Everyone is in a quandary.

Why would the school board not be comfortable with the project? For one thing, there is no drama department at Fairhope High School. The new performing arts center would house a 2,000 seat theatre, a number of arts classrooms, a ton of expensive technical equipment – but no resident theater or dance company. To justify the expense of utilities and maintenance, I can see only one way for this to go: A concert space for traveling showbiz acts, like Jeff Foxworthy and the Blue Collar Comedy Tour, that sort of cultural thing.

When communities get excited about getting a new building, a new building gets built. I have little doubt that the extraordinarily talented fundraising members of the Fairhope Educational Enrichment Foundation will be able to come up with money to get the building finished. But as for now, as a city council member told me yesterday, "It's off the table."

In the meantime, all over Fairhope big buildings are springing up. A new library of mammoth proportions for such a small village has risen where the potato shed used to be. It will fill the block, but for a tiny niche that was cut into the property a few years ago for a little historic preservation -- the saving of a shabby old cottage, now known as the Fairhope Center for the Writing Arts. The house is used for a temporary home for local and visiting writers -- I've never been clear on what the mission of that particular project was. It's possible it will be declared a success and the cottage razed for some new addition to the library at some time in the not-so-distant future.

There is hue and cry about the new library, too. The project started when a committee made it clear that the Fairhope library would be inadequate for the coming needs of the growing town, and money began to be raised. An architect came on board. Designs, reflecting the historic period of Spanish revival championed in the 1920's by a couple of local contractors spotted the trend in Florida and decided to build similar abodes in Fairhope. The original Spanish style was applied to boxy little bungalows, including Craftsman details such as built-in bookcases and inglenooks. The new library looks like the City Hall of Madrid, except that it's probably bigger.

All this prompted an extremely ingenious suggestion yesterday in "Sound Off," the local newspaper column that allows a voice to the people. The column runs short, anonymous comments about the local situation. I swear I didn't phone this one in, but I almost wish I had. The suggestion was, since they can't get money to build the new performing arts center at the high school (and new classrooms are needed there, which should be a priority), and everybody hates the new library (and the old one is still functioning quite well), why not revamp the building, before it's finished, and turn it into a performing arts center instead? It is full of meeting rooms, media centers, computer rooms, etc., where all a library basically needs is books.

The idea is so simple, of course, that it will never work. It would require the superimposition of common sense over committee. All that pre-planning would be overruled by the reality that this is a better idea.

It would require facing the fact that you're not going to turn Fairhope High into a School of the Arts by building a huge auditorium next to it -- we're in Baldwin County, in Alabama, and there just isn't a need for a huge performing arts high school. We could, on the other hand, benefit by a multi-use arts facility -- and it would be great to have it right in town instead of out by the highway near the new school.

As for the library, what's wrong with one half the size? How about working with the existing space, or even demolishing that building (a converted supermarket, not a historic structure) and replacing it with a more appropriate structure of a somewhat smaller size than the thing sitting over where the potato shed was?

The performing arts center has enough money to buy out the library building, redesign it into performance spaces, and come out with some pocket change. I wish I knew who called "Sound Off." I'd sign up to be on that committee.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Those Miscellaneous Alpha Males

June 29

Sometimes (but not often) I’m wrong about things. In my comment on the post “In Hopes of Fair Politics,” when I called some of my friends who post comments alpha males, I thought I knew what I was talking about, but I felt I really should go to the Internet and research the alpha male before I expound on the expression. I found out that my take on the expression was quite wrong.

I thought the Alpha male meant the kind of guy who thought of himself as the center of things and wanted to be seen that way. I thought it was something that could transfer into many areas of expertise. You might say I thought that all men are alpha males.

I checked it out on Wikipedia, which told me in our brethren primates, the alpha is the male in the pack whom all the others defer to. He is the acknowledged leader, and as a result, takes all the risks in moving the pack forward.

I went to another site,, which contends that alpha is the guy who gets all the sexual action. The other males defer to him either until he dies of natural causes or one of them knocks him off. The writer went so far as to say, Being the alpha male is all about attitude and projecting the image that you are fun to be with and the woman should want to be with you. The writer’s mission is to help his readers become the alpha by acting the part.

Nothing basically wrong with that, but if that’s what alpha is, I had it wrong. This was not what I was getting at. I was trying to pinpoint the male behavior of trying to change people (women) into their own image of themselves – “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” – through the repeated and hammered suggestions that they do so. Talk about beating your head against the wall! But I’ve known very few men who don’t do that; I can’t think of one, as a matter of fact.

If the alpha is the male whom all the others naturally defer to, then it doesn’t exist in the human male. In the human male there is a constant battle for first place, even when it’s been won. It’s Al Gore hiring a consultant to tell him to let his shirt-tail out once in a while and grow a beard in pursuit of the alpha image. It’s Russell Crowe throwing a telephone at a desk clerk when the connection to Australia fails. It’s Anderson Cooper in Prada sportswear (as alpha-female comedian Kathy Griffin says) up to his ankles in mud from Katrina, confronting the governor of Louisiana. It’s every man doing that guy thing – whether he’s terrified of women, passive-aggressive and proud of it, cerebral and soft spoken, sensitive and sexy, or combative and brutal. I am wracking my brain to think of a situation in which a whole group of males just naturally defers to the leader. I’m sure my readers will help me out here. I just can’t say I’ve ever seen it, except in temporary circumstances as when the election results are just in. To defer just because they’re not alpha and some other guy is is something I’ve never run into.

There’s another thing I noted from my blog comments. The guys, while protesting wildly, clearly like being considered alpha. Who wouldn’t? And I reserve the right to stick to my definition. Either no man is an alpha, or all of them are.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Melatonin and Me

June 28

Over the years I've gone from being the sleepiest child in the neighborhood (the lady next door once found me asleep under a bed in her house in the middle of the day) to having occasional bouts with insomnia, to a regular pattern of waking up at about 3 A.M. and not being able to fall asleep again. Probably the pattern was made worse by having a remote control at my fingertips and the switchable presence of Jay Leno, ABC World News Now, a couple of movies all the time, followed by Dr. Phil and Conan O'Brian, and an official wake-up in the locker room with Don Imus and his gang of Alpha males.

However that was, I learned to take a Benadryl once a week so I'd have one solid night of sleep. I woke up with a feeling of heaviness which was best alleviated with a cup or two of Joe, but had had my 7 1/2 hours, at least once in awhile.

About ten years ago, it was discovered that the hormone melatonin was nature's way of regulating the circadian rhythms, especially for long airplane trips across time lines. Everybody reached for the melatonin supplement as a way to induce sleep. We loved the idea of it, but it didn't work. So eventually we relapsed to the once-a-week Benadryl, at least I did, and occasionally reflected on that sleepy, nap-starved little girl. Where did she go? Where did her melatonin go, and why?

A new study was done recently, a long-range one, on the effects of melatonin. It revealed that it does work, in doses of 3 mg., taken at bedtime. Wanting a quick fix (and a magic pill), I decided to give it another try. I ordered some melatonin from my mail-order vitamin, mineral and magic supplier, and received the order about two weeks ago.

The first night I took a pill it seemed to work. I slept better, waking an hour later than usual, but able to go back to sleep and avoid the late-late tv stuff. My plan was to take it every night until the supply ran out if all went fairly well. Sometimes these things take a while to get in your system. For me, it got more effective in the first week, sometimes allowing an actual full night's sleep, but into the second week it seems to me the body is reverting to its old pattern. I wake up about 3, and am awake for about an hour. The difference is, with the melatonin in place, I can fall asleep again. The difference about that is I'll sleep three or four more hours, getting up about 8 A.M., making a total of about nine hours. I sometimes feel the need of a nap during the day. Melatonin is taking over my life. I live to sleep.

This reminds me of the days when I was in my 30's, before the insomnia became part of my routine, when I used to say that I thought maybe sleep was the natural state, and everything that happened when you were awake was just marking time until the next dream. Maybe I'll get back to that -- but the melatonin dreams are of being lost in airports, being lost in strange cities, seeing loved ones who don't recognize me, being in love with people who in my waking life I can't stand, that sort of thing. I think they're called nightmares.

I'm going to give it a long-term try. I'm sure the bad dreams will be replaced when the life situation settles down a bit and fun things are on the horizon (aren't fun things always on the horizon?). I'll let you know how it works out in a few months.

And by the way, I just made that up about dreaming I was in love with people I can't stand. That is one dream I've never had. Just trying to make this more interesting.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

In Hopes of Fair Politics

June 27

Local questions rage about zoning here in the little woebegone burg that once held fair hopes of fair politics. It seems that in 2001 a comprehensive plan was hammered out that would control growth, and then nobody paid a bit of attention to it until a couple of months ago when Wal-Mart, quite within the limits of the plan, announced it would build a mile or so outside the city limits.

At the time the comprehensive plan was put in place, I was on the then-active Historic Preservation Committee, which got up in arms about there being no consideration of historic buildings within the plan. The basic bones of the plan, as I understood it, was to encourage "a village concept," meaning to zone for mixed residence and business within neighborhoods. I thought at the time it all sounded fine, but it's one thing to zone for a small neighborhood grocery and another thing to find the sweet mom-and-pop willing to sacrifice everything (like an income) in order to operate one. It struck me as doomed to fail from the outset.

What certainly did fail was any attempt at preservation of Fairhope's historic cottages and buildings. They've just about all been replaced now, only five years later, and the town has a sleek, smart look, where it once had a funky charm.

Quoted in the Baldwin County section of the Mobile newspaper yesterday, City Councilman Dan Stankoski -- who has lived here all of five or six years -- said, "Everybody wants it to be 1950, but it can't be. There's going to be change."

I'm here to say I don't want it to be 1950. I want it to be 1920. Fairhope has always been political. There is no reason to duck the question now.

Early settlers were unhappy with the status quo in America. Followers of Henry George, they set out to prove his theory known as the Single Tax by establishing a colony to demonstrate it. They had no doubt that their Utopian dream would be realized as surrounding towns and visitors from all over the U.S. and the world would see how well the Fairhope experiment was working.

Sadly for those political idealists, this never happened, and over the years the town grew indifferent and even sometimes hostile to the noble experiment at its heart. What attracted new residents to Fairhope was its breathtaking natural setting, and the extraordinary little school that was in the forefront of the Progressive Education Movement. The school appealed to both the Left and Right politically. The Liberal element felt that giving freedom and empowerment to children would develop their inherent talent and self-confidence; the Right felt that in such a setting the cream would rise to the top and the best leaders would emerge. All were inspired by the speeches and the persona of Marietta Johnson who loved Fairhope's dream of an ideal world.

Mrs. Johnson and her husband Franklin were both Socialists in a day where it was not considered subversive. Many early Fairhopians were. They were ardent believers in Henry George's theory, and Mrs. Johnson's own sunny view was that her school would pave the way for a new educational tack in the world, one that would bring an end to war. She felt that politicians and other people who sought power over others were cases of "arrested development," which her system of education would eradicate from the face of the earth. If she could only see us now.

Of the Single Taxers in Chicago, Clarence Darrow (sometime visitor to Fairhope, by the way) wrote, "This club met regularly every week for several years. In due time I realized that at every meeting the same faces appeared and reappeared, week after week, and that none of them cared to hear anything but a gospel which they all believed. It did not take long for single Tax to become a religious doctrine necessary to salvation." Darrow said, after a particularly effective speech he made early in his career, "I went to my office earlier than usual...No customers were there. Some of my Single Tax friends and Socialist companions began coming in to congratulate me on my speech. This was pleasing but not profitable. Socialists never come for business; they come to use your telephone and tell you how the world should be organized so that everyone could have his own telephone."

That is one of the anecdotes from the chapter on Darrow in When We Had the Sky, excerpted in the Winter 2006 issue of Alabama Heritage.

In the 1950's in Fairhope, Verda Horne took up the Liberal cause and was one of those teachers at the Marietta Johnson School who made us think about politics, at least a little. We struggled with the moral dilemma of segregation, and, while segregation was in full force in lily-white Fairhope at the time, we teenagers were the ones who knew it would be our generation that confronted the many problems it caused. Just before Mrs. Horne, there was a charge that some of our teachers were Communists -- which, in Joe McCarthy's era, was the cause of some alarm. The political climate was among the issues that prompted a band of Quakers from Fairhope to leave for Costa Rica and establish their own colony. This group included several people I knew and some who are still in my circle.

Today's political conflicts here are weighted for my side to lose. We are talking about proposals for $540 million subdivisions at Point Clear. The City Council is talking about a moratorium while they consider all the options. My friends who urge me to get involved in politics seem almost naive to me. All that old-fashioned-civics-class stuff about "One person can make a difference," is of a different time, a different place, a place where hopes of fairness was enough to build Utopia.

Monday, June 26, 2006

A Fascinating Family

June 26

Wyatt Cooper's book Families/A Memoir and a Celebration is a book I wish I had written. In fact, I thought it was the book I wrote with Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, but I found out that was wrong. Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree was a memoir of Fairhope, which may have been a family to me but is not viewed that way by anybody else. Cooper's book resonates with a broader readership, not only because of its wisdom and its beautiful prose style, but also because, in reflecting on his family of origin, he reaches more profound and more universal conclusions.

In a second book, The Fair Hope of Heaven, I attempt to widen my lens to include more of the background of Fairhope's family, and rather than simply outline my own reaction to certain characters who shaped my own thinking and influenced my life, I write of past citizens of Fairhope and place them in the context of Fairhope today with its penchant for destruction of the the old and its new citizens' determination to ignore its original higher cause of making the world a better (not just a questionably prettier) place. The Fair Hope of Heaven is yet unpublished, but the two publishers who turned it down did so with the grace to say kind things about it, ultimately rejecting the book because they felt it lacked appeal to a audience outside Fairhope.

Families names its mission and nails it in one touching volume. Published in 1975, Cooper's book describes at some length his upbringing in the South, the panoply of characters in his family who formed his life, and his philosophy of life as a result.

He begins by describing a family reunion. He writes, These reunions were of major importance to us. They registered the changes that took place in our lives: the marriages, the births, the moves, the prosperings and the failings to prosper. We watched each other growing up or growing old, and we felt ourselves to be a part of some timeless process, a process the rules of which applied equally to us all.

The reunions did not end when Grandma died, though they had already begun to fade some years before when she, like most of us, left her farm and moved to the town. It would never be the same in the city; there would be other demands on one's attention; one would go as one went to other engagements; it became an event sandwiched in between other events.

One needs land, really, to feel that kind of sense of family, for in those days it was the land that made you, that nourished you, that would, eventually, claim you. The land was home. It was permanent and eternal; it ahd always been there and would always be there; it was made of the bones of millions of years and the dust of centuries; it had known the games of Indian boys, and the battles of unnamed men. You stretched out your body upon it in the early days of spring. You felt it grow warm beneath your belly. You filled your lungs with its clean, rich, and lusty smell. You ran your hungry fingers through the tender green stubble of its surface, you lay and listened to the music of its silence, and gazed through half-closed eyes at the wide, high, pure, blue sky. It belonged to you and you belonged to it...

Wyatt Cooper was a Mississippi farm boy who was to grow up and become an actor and screenwriter, then to marry Gloria Vanderbilt and father two sons for whom he wrote his book. As I wrote this post in early May of 2006, Anderson Cooper, one of those sons, was on C-Span2, talking about his own book, Dispatches from the Edge.

I have written on my blog of my fascination with Anderson and his whole family. Gloria Vanderbilt has endured much human pain in what should have been a life of privilege, and Anderson, under 40, is much more than tv news' latest pretty face. He and his mother have appeared on several television shows discussing their story and the books by and about both of them and the whole fascinating family.

Theirs is a larger-than-life epic that has mysteriously touched my own. I cherish the Southern connection, and the fact that at one point, covering the fashion beat in New York, I was at a reception in the beautiful Vanderbilt mansion where they all lived. It was a business party, to meet Gloria, then designing a line of fabrics, and have the chance to ogle her stuff and report on it. Wyatt and the boys were elsewhere, perhaps on the upper floors. Whatever she was, Gloria Vanderbilt has always worked -- as a movie hopeful, an artist, a hawker of blue jeans and fragrance -- and she has always been accessible to the public. Years later, a friend of mine, having read Families, approached her at a retail promotion in Florida of her new perfume, and found her to be gracious and genuine.

I recently re-read Families for reasons other than information on the family. I parsed it for style and substance, and for inspiration for yet another book. Well, why shouldn't I? I have a family too, and it is more than just Fairhope.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Legends of Bobby Darin

June 25

I had some time to kill and a 10 per cent discount card, and had forgotten to put any CD’s in the player in the car, so I decided to splurge on a $9.99 bargain before leaving Target yesterday.

Browsing the “Jazz and Pop” counter it jumped out at me. “The Legendary Bobby Darin” CD. Sometimes you just know. Had to have it.

Playing it, I got one little thrill after the other. A marginal Bobby Darin fan, I did know this: he was a consummate entertainer with a great voice, an impeccable music sense, and a personality that would come through on every cut. I was not a bit disappointed. Either faking a country accent or singing a smooth ballad straight, or doing what he did best, the “up-tempo” version of such pop classics as “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” and “Oh! Look at Me Now,” Bobby Darin was a voice for his times. The CD was an astonishment.

My first husband and I had seen a forgettable flick called Come September early in our marriage. It featured young Bobby Darin and even younger Sandra Dee, who were soon to be man and wife too. Tommy, my husband, was indifferent to popular music, but a fan of grand opera and Dixieland jazz. Somewhere within the movie Darin was called upon to sing an original song called “Multiplication.” Tommy’s jaw dropped. “That’s a great song! And he wrote it!” he said. He always had great respect for Bobby Darin after that, and so did I.

I decided to read the liner notes when I got home, just to refresh myself. I had seen the movie Beyond the Sea, starring one of my favorites, Kevin Spacey (who surprised me by being able to sing and dance), so I knew some of the biography as spelled out in the the sensitive copy. I read it with great interest – not the usual hagliographical stuff, but straightforward praise for an underpraised singer, long gone from this earth. Darin died in 1973 at the age of 37.

Imagine my second astonishment of the day. The notes were written by my own protégé – my nephew Will Friedwald! I take credit for introducing Will to his life work in his early teens when I played for him the cut from the album A Swingin' Affair (Frank Sinatra) “I Wish I Were in Love Again." I don't claim to have been prescient here; I hoped Will, a lover of puns and clever wordplay, would respond to the Lorenz Hart lyrics.

It was Sinatra, more than the song, that Will fell in love with that momentous afternoon. Yesterday I shouldn’t have been surprised to read Will’s byline, but I’m always somewhat surprised, even after a book about Sinatra (The Song Is You) and many articles about every popular singer from Tony Bennett to Elvis Presley – and my favorite of Will’s books, Stardust Melodies, itself a love song to popular music. Not so much surprised, then, but it’s always nice to run into him.

And this time I got to hear a little good music and renew my acquaintance with a talent I'd almost forgotten. Welcome back, Bobby Darin.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Living in the Past

June 24

My daughter and I have honest-to-God conversations on the phone. We tell each other stories and life situations; we advise, cajole, comfort and gossip for hours at a time. It’s gotten to the point where she’ll open by saying, “Mom. I want to go first this time,” and I accept the ground rules. (What else could I do? I may get to go first next time.)

The last time I was talking with her, it had been my turn for quite a while. I talked about how sad it was that the little house across the street will probably be torn down and replaced by a big house, typical of the “new” Fairhope. I talked about the difficulties in assuring that the Marietta Johnson School will retain its mission of almost 100 years. I talked about how much work it is to inform people, through my books and my blog, of their own heritage. In Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, Bob Bell and I fairly wallow in Fairhope's halcyon days, presenting, if I do say so, a rather attractive picture of it. See my webpage, Finding Fairhope, linked here, for details.

Back to the story at hand. I am talking to Alison, a hip, 43-year-old single mom, about the difficulties of reaching an audience for my historical rambles.

“Mom,” she said, interrupting the exhausting tirade.

“What? You have another call?”

“No. I’ve just got to say something.”

I waited.

“You’re living in the past.”

Of course she’s right. I acknowledge that I spend a great deal of time fretting about how much nicer the past was, what a shame it is that “the new people” don’t know about it, how it’s my duty to inform and enlighten people younger than I about what came before. I accept that this is a sign of aging, and that I’m probably just more comfortable in my miasma of memories than in trying to forge new relationships or lighten old baggage. I think living in the past is not a 100 per cent bad thing.

Do I sound defensive? Do I sound crochety? Do I sound like Gabby Hayes, griping to the young whippersnappers around the chuck wagon about how they don’t know as much as they should? More importantly, dear reader, do you know who Gabby Hayes was?

Well, I’m not going to tell you. I will say this, he is not reported to be the author of the plays of Shakespeare. I’m reading a new book that explains that the Shakespeare plays were written by Christopher Marlowe. I’m not buying it lock, stock, and bodkin, mind you, but History Play, by Rodney Bolt, is an interesting read. Whether it sheds any new light on the de Vere controversy remains to be seen. I relate my reading matter because, although it deals with events in the past, it shows that I am part of a contemporary dialogue. At least, I think it shows that. Sort of.

We can't help carrying our pasts about with us. I have friends who claim to have short memories, who can't recall names or faces unless they stretch their minds with great effort, which they choose not to do. Perhaps they're lucky. But I see my memory as something of a blessing.

I picture my future as one like Grandma Moses, a blossoming in old age, writing novels set in the Fairhope of the past, little anecdotes interwoven in a village founded on the economic principle of Henry George's Single Tax theory, peopled with eccentrics, intellectuals, and, as I say in Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, ordinary people seeking an extraordinary life. I'll be that little old lady over on Bayview Street, the one who refused to sell her house back in ought-eight for a million dollars, writing away her memories, selling her past in small increments, tottering to book-signings and book fairs and C-Span2, where she holds forth about the old lost days in a village that used to be.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Anderson Cooper Revisited

June 23

Okay, I admit it. I have a thing for Anderson Cooper. It’s no recent crush; I’ve been following his career since I discovered him about ten years ago. At that time he helped me with my insomnia on a latenight news show called ABC World News Now which took place in the wee hours and was a combination of irreverent comedy and straight news. The show had a spontaneous, antic quality, complete with weekly appearances by an accordion player and two campy backup singers who burst on the scene playing something they called the “World News Polka.”

The co-anchors were Anderson Cooper and Alison Stewart, who played off each other in a snappy, brother-sister kind of way, and their comments brought off-camera howls of laughter from the crew. At the time I thought this attractive young Anderson Cooper was a dead ringer for James Glassman, the Libertarian columnist and sometime news talking head. I decided Anderson was his son. When Anderson left the show, I hoped he wouldn’t just drift off into obscurity.

Boy, was I wrong. It wasn’t long before he was the head news anchor at CNN and the talk of the airwaves, to say nothing of the cover boy on all the magazines. He covered Katrina and appeared on talk shows, revealing that he was actually the son of Wyatt Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper. I had followed their story and the tragedy of Anderson’s older brother who committed suicide at the age of 14.

Now that I think about it, I’d been reading about this family for years. I read Aram Saroyan’s book Trio, about the glamor-girl-best-friend debutantes Oona O’Neill Chaplin, Carol Saroyan Matthau, and Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper (“Oona, daughter of Eugene O’Neill, married Charlie Chaplin; Carol married William Saroyan and Walter Matthau, and Gloria married everybody else.”) I read Little Gloria, Happy at Last about Anderson’s mother’s wretched childhood as a pawn in a disturbed super-rich family. I read Wyatt Cooper’s tender memoir called Families: A Memoir and a Celebration about growing up in the South. (I even read that it’s one of Anderson’s favorite books, so I looked it up on amazon to see about picking up a copy to re-read it. The going price is $90, and there's one on eBay that's already gone up to $1,500 -- so instead I checked it out from the Fairhope library.)

Anderson has a real story to tell. A recent issue of Vanity Fair includes a chapter from his inevitable book, revealing how his dealing with the coverage of the devastation of Katrina opened him up to his own repressed pain. The early death of his father had been traumatic for both him and his brother, and, until confronted with commensurate personal loss as being experienced by families in the storm-ravaged areas of the Gulf Coast and New Orleans, he had not dealt head-on with his own sense of the loss of his brother. Like his father, he can write; and time will prove whether his real place is as a broadcast newsman or in some loftier field of American life.

The fantasy that our paths might ever cross in this lifetime is remote. It's a stretch even for me, never at a loss for the vivid impossible. In age, he's more appropriate for my ego-extension, my beautiful and brilliant daughter, but for her I had in mind someone more like George Clooney. In fact, I had George Clooney himself in mind. (My favorite son-in-law fantasy! That place in Como -- that flirty smile that would indulge the most obnoxious old lady who happened to be the mother of his wife -- oh, that I could somehow ask the universe for this miracle!)

For now, I'll check out Anderson from time to time on tv, read that book when I get to it, look at those riveting blue eyes almost every evening, and remember, with a faint, "if-only" sigh, what I can of being in love.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Upton Sinclair in Fairhope

June 22

Upton Sinclair moved to a cottage on the beach in Fairhope in 1909. He was a famous novelist at the time, having written The Jungle three years earlier. I have a chapter on Sinclair in my new book The Fair Hope of Heaven, and will relate some of its information here in hopes of capturing some of the attention now being given to Sinclair, a largely overlooked American writer of the 20th Century who was not atypical of the denizens of early Fairhope.

There is a new biography of Sinclair by Anthony Arthur called Radical Innocent, and I was very interested in the author’s presentation of that book on CSPAN 2 over the Memorial Day weekend. At the opening he casually mentioned Sinclair’s time spent in both Arden (Del.) and Fairhope. From time to time there is a flurry of interest, and maybe when When We Had the Sky is published, Sinclair will again receive deserved attention, at least in the area on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay where he once lived.

Most of us remember the name Sinclair Lewis from American Lit classes in college, but this is the other Sinclair. Anthony Arthur said that Upton Sinclair once remarked, “Maybe we should just both take the name Upton Sinclair Lewis.”

Upton Sinclair was a Socialist, an idealist, a food faddist, and a complex and interesting man who wrote books whenever he felt the world’s ills needed correcting, which meant that he wrote books constantly. He lived during a period in which like-minded idealists banded together, often in colonies, not unlike our own Utopian Fairhope. After camping in inadequate shacks since their marriage, with money from The Jungle Sinclair and his wife Meta had bought an old private school building on the Palisades in New Jersey to house the artists’ colony that was his dream. He called the project Helicon Home Colony, after the Greek muse of the arts, Helicon. John Dewey, also a figure in Fairhope, visited his colony and even the young Sinclair Lewis, a Yale student, helped out with janitorial duties.

Helicon Home Colony burned in 1907, and with it went Sinclair’s hopes for his own personal ideal world. From there he traveled with wife and baby David to Carmel, where he experimented with health foods and wrote books and plays intended to convert mankind to his two pet causes: health diets and Socialism. He wrote books about raw food diets, fasting, vegetarianism. He and his family were to spend time in Battle Creek at Kellogg’s and health guru Bernarr MacFadden’s establishments, and other such enclaves, before they moved to Fairhope to try it out.

Raised by a puritan mother and an alcoholic father, Sinclair early on thought of himself as a genius. His personal heroes were Shelley, Hamlet, and Jesus Christ. He was convinced that he was ordained to write the Great American Novel, and he made at least 60 attempts at it, most of which sold very well and had literary merit while succeeding best at presenting his latest propaganda soapbox.

As a Socialist, he would have been well-acquainted with the Single Taxers, and Fairhope had a strong attraction to those who sought a heaven on earth, as many did in those days. Young David, well-read in the books of his parents’ choosing, was getting old enough for school, and the Sinclairs probably saw the need for some life with other children. David Sinclair became one of the first children enrolled in the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education.

In his 1932 autobiography, Sinclair wrote: “For the winter (1909-10) I took my family to the single tax colony at Fairhope, Alabama, on Mobile Bay. Since I couldn’t have a colony of my own, I would try other people’s. Here were two or three hundred assorted reformers, having organized their affairs according to the gospel of Henry George; trying to eke a living from poor soil, and feeling certain they were setting an example to the rest of the world. The climate permitted the outdoor life, and we found a cottage for rent on the bay-front, remote from the village.

“…I was overworking again; and when my recalcitrant stomach made too much trouble, I would take another fast for a day, three days, a week. I was trying the raw food died, and failing, as before. I was now a full-fledged physical culturist, following a Spartan regime. In front of our house ran a long pier, out to the deep water of the bay. Often the boards of this peir were covered with frost, very stimulating to the far feet, and whipped by icy winds, stimulating to the skin; each morning I made a swim in this bay a part of my law.”

For The Fair Hope of Heaven, I have included some lovely diary entries by Maude, the young bride of Sinclair’s secretary – Dave Howatt, also a raw-food advocate – describing the scene in Fairhope of those halcyon, idealistic days. These pages deserve a blog post of their own, offering an enchanting portrait of a young woman in love in another era, in a bayside village that is long gone.

The marriage between Upton and Meta Sinclair, unlike the Howatt's, was not to last much longer. Meta's physical passion had been more than he bargained for, and he sought to quell it in any way he could, at last inviting her to bring her young lover, Alfred Kuttner, to join them in Fairhope, where such liaisons were not unheard of. It was here that he wrote his autobiographical work, Love’s Pilgrimage, allowing Meta to pen the portions concerning Corydon, the female protagonist.

I’ve bitten almost more than I can chew in one post here. I have included only fragments of the chapter from my book. The Fair Hope of Heaven is available on, Barnes &, and from my website,

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

A New Day Dawning

June 21

I just got to thinking...what if this were 100 years ago? This house wouldn't be built yet -- it went up in 1916 -- Marietta Johnson's school was not yet a reality -- it was to begin in the fall of 1907 -- the unpaved streets were full of chickens, goats and other livestock -- and there weren't many trees, since the area had been timbered out in recent years.

A scraggly little town, built on the dream of a few who had relocated from Iowa just 12 years before, Fairhope palpitated with possibilities. But it was probably a warm morning, the first day of summer, 1906, no hope of turning on the air conditioning later in the day, and no idea of where the fair hopes of the original colonists would take the town in its first century.

As I write, the sun has come up and there is a little puff of a pink cloud turning orange against the blue sky. It could have been that kind of dawn a hundred years ago, with sound effects of the cackle of the occasional chicken and bleat of a goat. I can hear an owl myself -- maybe his ancestor was here.

Marietta Johnson was a frequent visitor at this time. She and her husband, a farmer, had bought a pecan farm in Mississippi, and they discovered Fairhope through Socialist friends in St. Paul. They had begun visiting Fairhope in the winter of 1896, and she had become fast friends with Lydia Comings, who urged her to move here and start the school she dreamed of. Mrs. Johnson studied the writings of Rousseau, Frederich Froebel, and the work of her contemporaries, John Dewey, C. Hanford Henderson and Nathan Oppenheim. These latter names are those leaders who were creating the study of early childhood development, and advocated redesigning the school to suit the nature and needs of the child rather than trying to force the child to conform to an arbitrary mold defined by a group of adults. Mrs. Johnson, a lifelong teacher, saw the simple elegance of this notion and advocated nothing less than a retrenching of the whole educational system to make it operate this way. She thought she could achieve this by starting a school based upon that principle. It would be a year more of talking (and she was superb at that) to make her dream of such a school a reality.

The town had a library with books donated by the former bohemian Marie Howland. Mrs. Howland was now a settled old lady in her sixties, having sown her wild oats in the 19th Century among the free thinkers, social reformers, and feminists in New York and in France in a commune that purported to be the wave of the future, with one large house encompassing many families but no kitchen. She left reformist colony in Mexico disenchanted with its Puritan strain which scowled on her tendency to bathe nude in the sea for the revolutionary Single Tax enclave in Fairhope.

There was already a Fairhope Courier, then published weekly and sent around the world to proselytize for the Utopian colony, and Marie Howland had a regular column in it. Her feminist leanings would make her quite at home in Fairhope, where women always had the vote (on local issues) and, according to Paul Gaston in his little book Women of Fair Hope, she stands out in Fairhope history "for her advocacy of cooperative living, kitchenless homes, and scientific child-rearing as means of liberating women from household drudgery and male exploitation." She was to become a great friend to Marietta Johnson.

A hundred years ago there would be no cars driving by. What was at one time the Gaston Motor Company at that time was a livery and harness shop. It is now a trendy restaurant. There have been so many transmutations of the "uptown" area that it is pointless to make note of them now. There was a bluff park, a municipal pier, a grassy knoll just to the east of the bluff, always called "Knoll Park," it stands hardly changed.

There is a genuine log cabin on the other side of Bay View Street (once more felicitously "Bay View Avenue") from me that was built in 1900. That would have been there, among the stumps, stubble and trees of 100 years ago. It is for sale, and will surely be torn down.

As it was 100 years ago, a new day is dawning. There is good news from the Marietta Johnson School, new board members eager to take on the task of helping turn the school back to what it once was. One is the local potter who graduated from our school and will be very helpful in helping restructure our Arts and Crafts department. Another is a City Councilman. Another is a relative newcomer whose wife is a Fairho, and who has taught woodshop and stagecraft and is one of the general all around artisans the like of which used to help out at the school all the time.

I wake up full of ideas, plans, and half-finished grant proposals. I am going to spend the afternoon taking care of things at the Marietta Johnson Museum -- which always affords the opportunity for a little personal research, and is welcome respite in a beloved old Fairhope building that feels like home. Good things will come of all this.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Cache Flow

June 20

Yesterday there was a blackout on this blog. Hours went by when the blog was gone from cyberspace. At first I figured it was just a technical problem at the blog space provider and would be cleared up in minutes, but when two hours went by I thought (wrongly) that there was something I could do.

I don't have good computer instincts. I don't like to multi-task and have long since decided that all the details of making words appear on the screen and in the cybersphere were just not of importance to me. I just fiddle with the keyboard until the screen tells me I have done something; often it tells me what I did was wrong (and sometimes illegal) and I hate when that happens. I adopted a casual attitude about the warnings years ago, to save myself the nervous breakdowns and insecurity complexes resulting from being so wrong so often. When I have to do something difficult, like deal with html, I grit my teeth and try it, but I don't care to enlighten myself in the finer points of how it works. I call it self-protection; what it probably is is recklessness.

When the blackout occurred I decided to deal with it the way that I deal with it when the post I've been working on assiduously just doesn't appear some mornings. I have been to the "Help" department of the blog provider and it tells me that I need to clear the cache. All this time (I've been blogging since February), I thought that meant to delete former posts to make room for new ones.

I didn't know what the "cache" was. Such a pretty word. Lots of opportunities for puns, like the title of this blog. But I was, because of this misunderstanding, deleting some of my best work from the archives of the blogs -- work that would attract new readers through search engines, work that would exemplify my mission here and even sell some books for me.

I did copy the posts onto my hard drive in case I want to use them someday.

Thank God for young friends who fresh brains are a cache for computer information. One of these, Salome, who does a private dance on her own blog to which this one is linked, came on my email last night to chat and I asked her to explain how to deal with the blog blackout situation. She walked me through what the cache actually is, how to clear it -- and explained that I should never have to delete posts from my blog. I promptly cleared the cache. Then I checked the archives and of course everything is gone but a few posts in June and May.

However, friends, the good missing posts are on my hard drive, so I shall re-post them all as we go forward in time. Don't be surprised if you read something familiar here from time to time. Some things should be out there -- the Upton Sinclair in Fairhope stuff, etc. Let me know what you'd like to read again. You'll probably be reading it.

Maybe I should take computer lessons?

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Human Condition

June 19

Yesterday was one of those quiet Sundays with nothing on the agenda and so little happening that I found myself climbing the walls. Usually I look forward to such days and wallow in their unlimited emptiness; yesterday I kept wondering when something was going to happen. I was inside my own mind, and I found it as hollow as could be.

Today I awaken feeling that I have wonderful things to do, an opportunity to change some of the negatives that hatched over the weekend, and time enough on my hands to effect positive results. This is the little swing game we play -- I'm down now, but not for long; I can do this; don't take me out of the game, Coach! -- and simultaneously wonder why we bother. It's kinda the time when we find ourselves making batter for pancakes.

I had worked for weeks on the Father's Day post, and called and emailed people alerting them to read it. But it contributed to my light malaise that nobody did. Let's say I expected a reaction. I thought someone, whether a protègé, grandchild, slight acquaintance, or even someone who never laid eyes on him, would comment something about the post, either on the blog or in email. I tell myself that no comment doesn't mean an uninteresting post. Maybe it was so perfect there is nothing to say.

Be that as it may I spent a lot of time checking the Site Meter that tells who's been on (or at least where they come from). Clearly "benedict s." who has posted about my father on his own blog several times, was out of town on vacation and hasn't read it yet. There was a reader in New York State who may have been my daughter -- who never reads the blog but had been blackmailed the day before by me to do so -- but why would she not have telephoned or sent an email about it, even if she didn't like it? There was one reader who knew my dad who double-clicked on the photo but didn't comment. And Jocko, who was given the message to read my blog (I assume) by his wife yesterday, doesn't seem to have been online at all.

The big question, which I asked myself yesterday and you are surely asking now, is what earthly difference would it make if I had gotten lots of comments? I had clearly done the job, I spent a lot of time on my own, with the objective being to write something about my father that said "All fathers are not alike. My father was not like any other I read about, but I loved him too." Well, I said that -- now, who was I saying it to, and why did I expect to get a pat on the back from anyone? Of course the answer is I wanted a response from the man himself, and I didn't get it. As he would have said, "How the hell do you expect to get it?"

And the answer, lame as it is, is that that need is part of the human condition. We don't know exactly why we do things. The things we do defy logic, and our emotions surrounding them have nothing to do with real expected outcomes. I think I would have enjoyed a good old-fashioned wake, with all the people who ever knew him gathered around to share stories and tears and then to get on with it. The enigmatic figure of a father who is gone is a phantom we wrestle with from time to time; I did my job and cannot expect to receive any reward for it.

This unexpected surge of optimism about a new week is another aspect of the human condition. The art teacher officially turned us down at the school; there wasn't a quorum at the board meeting so I'll reschedule; we've got to scrape up money from somewhere for the ad budget; lots to do, lots to do. No more heavyweight posts on the blog for the nonce. ("For the nonce" was a phrase Daddy like and used sparingly, by the way; maybe it's time for me to let it go) I'll let inspiration hit like a lightning bolt, help get other projects organized, make pancakes, visit the nursing home, and stick to the diet (I've got three weeks til the one-year anniversary, got to have 10 lbs. off). All the little daily tasks, organized for short-term goals, will assume logical proportions, and life will take on a semblance of normalcy as things get accomplished.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

My Favorite Father

June 18

Comparatively small in stature, compact, always neatly turned out – my father was not what you would call handsome. He could be cutting and sarcastic and seemed to be unaware of the power he held over people. He had a sweet, soft speaking voice, a crystalline intellect, and a terse, to-the-point way of speaking. It was not easy to read him.

Morris Timbes was a wordsmith. His career as a journalist began in high school, when he took his first job as a copy boy at the Mobile Press Register. He went on to better jobs at other newspapers and eventually to found his own advertising agency. As a teenager he wore glasses and had bushy, curly black hair that he didn’t know what to do with. The style in those days was sleek, glued-to-the-scalp “sheik” hair, and he knew he would never have it. He needn’t have worried; in later years most of it would be gone and he would wish to have the curls back.

Awkward and self-conscious about his appearance as a young man, he tried to be funny, but in all his life he never really learned to do that. Laughing out loud was difficult for him. Sneezing out loud was impossible. If he learned a joke he would attempt to tell it but would not be able to get to the punch line without a great deal of physical effort to suppress the laugh he knew was coming. His ineptitude at this simple skill was more amusing than the jokes he told; it was oddly endearing watching the attempt.

He would have wanted more than anything in life to be a salesman. He envied the men, less gifted than he by far, who could charm the birds out of the trees, spellbind an audience with apparent ease – and motivate them to buy a product. He tried to write like that, but his solid, workaday prose was almost too good to serve its main purpose – selling products to a consumer. He could write product copy for mundane objects to be published in ads for trade publications; he could write persuasive letters that flowed like great literature. Why he chose to do this as a career is as mysterious as everything else in his life.

He came from the era of the “self-made man.” He prided himself on never having been to college and in being able to out-think those who did. It is almost tragic that he was forced by circumstances of his time to defend this position – to cling to it – or else admit that the emphasis in his life might have been wrong, perhaps even forged by wrong choices for the wrong reasons. Almost tragic, but not quite, because most who met him knew they were in the presence of an extraordinary man – not in wisdom; not in achievement; not in philosophy – but in potential. That he chose to live in an ordinary way, hoping for a financial killing somewhere, barely supporting a family of five in a tiny village because his wife couldn’t abide the life of the nearby city, was a point that would confound many (including me) who expended much energy and spent many years of their lives trying to understand him.

The challenge of writing about him is the challenge of being good enough. I want you to picture him, to know something of what it was like when he was around. He made you want to be better, to be brighter, to rise to his level – but he did this so subtly that even he didn’t know he was doing it. This is the part of my father I carry with me in every endeavor – the transferral of his judgment of me to my own of myself.

He could be brusque and he did not stand on ceremony. When my first cousin drove in for a visit from Meridian, Daddy was doing a crossword puzzle at the kitchen counter. Kevin, in his late teens, was an extrovert and a big puppy dog of a guy. He walked in the door, and, without any acknowledgement of the visitor, Daddy looked up from the puzzle and said, “What’s a five-letter word for ‘contraband’?”

He was not a Hallmark card “dad.” His attitude as a father was old-fashioned; he didn’t claim to know how to do it. It was thought in those days that the mother’s role was crucial in the lives of children, but the father’s role was less defined, and he was uncomfortable with it. He seemed to feel that we would get what we needed from him by osmosis, or by his treating us like flawed adults that he would have to manage into his way of thinking. My sister and brother despised this treatment – to me it was just part of the obstacle course laid before us by adults as we made the transition from childhood to the fringes of their world.

I will say that he and I enjoyed a special relationship and it took me a great deal of soul-searching after the fact to come up with a theory as to why. He was very controlling and demanding of my sister and brother, and, although he could be bossy and judgmental of me, I always felt I had a direct line to him.

Morris Timbes Advertising had a staff of about five. Once in an attempt to expedite the workload and define their talents he hired a psychological consulting firm. Each of the employes was given extensive testing and the evaluations written out. As in the case of most consultants, none of the material was ever used. After his death, Mama and I were going through some of the personal files he had in his office and we came upon those documents. We read some of them, describing members of the office staff who were clearly identifiable. One had us baffled for a few moments. It stated words to the effect that this particular person, while brilliant and capable of succeeding in any field, was suited most for the arts and creative endeavors – and that it was most remarkable that he had ever chosen to go into business. We knew it had to be him.

My father could write business letters that seemed to come from his soul. They were adroit, clever, smooth, succinct, and made their point, sometimes with humor and sometimes with gentle persuasion. He spent a lot of his career writing ad copy for his major client, which happened to be a manufacturer of truck trailers. Year after year he came up with new, clever campaigns for this client, to be placed into trade publications. Only once, his secretary of many years came upon him in his office at the little manual typewriter on which he had hunted and pecked such delightful proposals, campaigns, ads, and letters, and found him staring silently ahead of him.

“I can’t do it,” he said. “I cannot write one more word about truck trailers.”

But the next day he was at it again.

Everybody was a little scared of Daddy. Even the laundry man once told me (years later at Manci’s Antique Club in Daphne), “Everybody was scared of your Daddy – but I never was. He was always nice to me.” As if there were ever any reason for him to be otherwise.

If fatherhood was difficult for him, grandfatherhood was intolerable. As he entered his sixties and his children began to beget more children, he announced that he would not allow the offspring to call him “Grandpa” or any such thing. They were to call him by his first name, “Morris.” This was fine with us, his children, because it opened the door for us to call him that too.

Beginning when she was an infant, I brought my daughter Alison down to Alabama as often as I could. At the age of three or four, it was clear that she had a lot in common with the old man. She was one of those speed-demon babies who learns everything fast. She was very verbal, and she could trade quips with him. There was mutual admiration there. Once at about this age, he had gone out of his way to stop at a produce stand and buy some stalks of sugar cane to show the precocious youngster. He sliced it into bite-sized chunks and presented her with her share as he showed her how to chew and suck on it.

I’ll never forget the sight of them standing there, sucking on sugar cane, when, as she ate, she said, “I love you, Morris.”

There was a pause, more sucking on sugar cane from both of them. When his mouth was clear, and without looking up, he said to her, “Well, honey, you should.”

Mama and I looked at each other and shook our heads.

Back in New York, my shrink said, “That must have come down like the voice of God to your little girl!”

I understood perfectly.

Daddy died suddenly at the age of 64, two months before he would have retired. He was experiencing tightness in his chest and his face had lost color, and he actually missed two days’ work – which he had never done in his life.

Everybody who knew him was stunned. T.J. (“Jocko”) Potts, the Alabama media ace who got his start with Daddy’s agency, made the comment about Daddy’s death that resonated most with me when he heard the news.

“Mr. Timbes died yesterday,” he was told. In a pause worthy of his mentor, he thought the information over.

“I’ll bet he’s pissed off about that,” said Jocko.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Center of the Universe Revisited

June 17

In case you want a look at the center of the universe, that's it as it was when I returned home in the late 1980's. The city had a new horticulturist and there were frequent changes of the floral plantings uptown. The pharmacy had long been covered up by aluminum siding, a move encouraged by a city "beautification" committee.

That's how it looked yesterday morning. Hurricane Ivan completed the beautification year before last by removing the siding, and the horticulturist is now mayor of Fairhope.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The Fairhope Little Theater

June 16

Last night I went with friends to take in the final dress rehearsal of Rumors, the latest offering of the local amateur theater company. Judging by the audience reaction it was a screamingly funny farce; judging by my reaction, I'm not a fan of screamingly funny farces. But it was a nice evening out -- the theatre space is a redesigned Baptist church just a few blocks from my house. I walked over and back in the warm humid air, and thought of the theaters in Fairhope I had known.

When my family moved over the bay from Mobile, my parents were both excited that there was a well-respected amateur theater we could all attend. They were sure it was something we would enjoy as family entertainment, and a way to shoehorn ourselves into our new community. The first play I remember us going to certainly fit that bill. It was a production of Arsenic and Old Lace, directed by Gretchen Riggs, the local theater guru who nurtured many a talent over the years and oversaw the indoctrination of generation after generation into the love of the art.

The two old ladies were played by a very prestigious pair. Florence Scott, our Montrose neighbor (once referred to by a local garden club member as "the queen of Montrose"), played one, and Piney Gaston, wife of James Gaston, whose father had founded the town, played the other. They were both dignified, elegant ladies in their way -- Florence the more patrician, and Piney the earthy, accessible one. Neither would you expect to see on a stage; both were type cast and delightful. Marvin Nichols played their brother who lives with the delusion that he's Teddy Rooseveldt. Jim Merlini, then the principal at Fairhope High, played the Peter Lorre role, Eloise Nichols and Gale Rowe (soon to be married) played the young lovers, and it seemed everybody in town had something to do in the play, if only, like us, to attend and laugh our heads off.

It was our introduction to the fair hope that this town used to provide. My siblings and I all wanted to be in plays, from then on -- and we all went forth to do so on some level or other. My brother is a professional actor who has written film scripts, performed television commercials, and still takes jobs in movies shot on location in this area. My mother and sister were in a play a few years later at the Little Theater, something called Sunday's Child, in which Mama played the wife of a minister and sister Billye played her daughter.

The theatre space then was Comings Hall, on the old Organic School campus. It was a great barn of a place, with a full floor for basketball games and dances, good acoustics, and a nice stage with lots of backstage space. Trouble was it hadn't been well maintained; there were leaks in the ceiling and broken windows. It remained Fairhope's principle community center until it was condemned by the city in the early 1960's, and there has never been an adequate replacement.

The Fairhope Little Theater stopped producing plays for a ten-year period, but Gretchen Riggs, Nancy Head, and a few others kept the flame alive. Gretchen helped direct high school kids with drama clubs, and finally the group began to emerge that would call itself Theater 98, taking the name of the nearest highway. Mobile arts entrepreneur Tom Pocase had run a little amateur group out of the building the Baptist Church left behind when they built their new sanctuary; it was restructured as a three-quarters round. When Tom left the Fairhope area, Theater 98 took over the building and has been operating there ever since. I've been associated with several productions there and find it difficult at best -- the space is too small and there is limited provision for storage of furniture, props and costumes -- and facilities for waiting backstage for an entrance are almost nil. But the audience loves the building -- and apparently so do the management of Theater 98. They have never actively sought a change.

Everything will change in a few years, when the new Performance Center goes up near the high school. This will be a state of the art, 2,000 seat auditorium. There may be a smaller theater space in the complex, I don't know. I haven't heard that. The town is elated to have such a big space, so that major productions will come here and the local performing groups and presumably Fairhope High School will have a place big enough for their ambitions.

Nobody ever tried to replace Comings Hall with a similar, more up-to-date structure, and I've always thought that was a shame. The Civic Center out in what was originally a supermarket has a performing arts space with terrible acoustics and sight lines, and there has been dissatisfaction with that since it was remodeled in the early 70s.

I hope the next building to go up on Organic's campus will be a nice performing arts "barn" structure, designed for multiple uses but with play production a priority.

It's time I got to work on that.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Coffee, Hope, and a Fresh Start

June 15

I woke up in a lackluster mood, no inspiration for a blog post, started anyway but thought better of it. Then I noted a comment on yesterday's blog sending me to this website:,0,901592.story?coll=la-home-health

Looks a little incomplete -- and that link may not take you there -- so I'll tell you the gist of it in case you come up with nothing. It's a Los Angeles Times article about the latest research on coffee, coming up with the conclusion that coffee helps people focus and consequently learn and perform better. This is common knowledge, or conventional wisdom, however you want to say it; yet it has been refuted over the years as other research indicates one thing or the other about coffee. Some studies indicate that coffee may be a factor in the cancer battle, either preventing or causing.

I have been a fan of coffee for years. When my daughter was born 43 years ago, my mother came to visit for that obligatory two-week-with-mother deal for new mothers of the day. At that point I and my then husband adored my mother, who was cute, chipper, and loved babies, particularly little Alison who was born with a full head of hair, just like all her own babies had been. Mama always had a wonderful, obliging nature and a good disposition. She was not one to complain or carp. She had a ready laugh and a childlike sense of fun and adventure. As long as she got her morning coffee.

The baby visit was my first real clue to this. We were meeting as adults; she was a guest in my house. I knew that she and Daddy had a percolator and had coffee first thing every morning, but I was 22 years old and was not indoctrinated into the habit yet.

The first morning she was with us was the first and only time I saw the other side of her -- disgruntled, angry, intolerant, snappish. Finally she said in no uncertain terms: I need a cup of coffee! and I learned a lesson. I learned to make coffee, too. And from then on I too had a cup or two with breakfast every day.

I have quite a history with the brew. From time to time I limit my intake, and had recently gotten it down to two cups for breakfast, two days a week. The L.A. Times piece made me feel today would have to be one of those days. I made a pot of strong stuff, and hoped the brain would do its work with proper lubrication.

I'm here to testify to the researchers: I feel brighter, more alert, ready for the day, and happy with that particular memory of Mama without her coffee and the two weeks of getting to know her better as she made the acquaintance of her granddaughter. You never know what a cup or two of Joe will do for you.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Once Upon a Beach

June 14

I just learned that Curtis Willard died at the age of 80 on Monday. Curtis was a Fairhope character of a sort that we don’t see much of these days – a designer of his own life with the aim of doing the best he could with what he had.

He was a technical guy who had gotten his start as a projectionist at the "Fairhope," the movie house that used to stand at the corner of Fairhope Avenue and Church street, just one long block away from the center of the universe. He was to go on to have a career with WKRG-TV in Mobile, but in Fairhope he will be remembered mostly as the owner of the Beach, the world’s only “walk-in” theater, really four walls with a movie screen at one end, that stood in front of the pines at the southern end of the beach park, in sight of the Big Pier.

Curtis and his partner Steve Riggs had bought the set-up from a man who built it in Crichton, a Mobile neighborhood. It was just after World War II, and drive-in movies were the rage. Curtis and Steve thought the ideal location for such a structure would be on the beach -- and that the notion of a roofless movie house would go over great in Fairhope.

This is part of what I wrote about the experiment in When We Had the Sky:

Just having an open-air theater was a novelty peculiarly adaptable to the Fairhope of its day. Steve had to do a lot of physically taxing work, including installing a septic system in the sand (and having to take the take it up the hill to dump it in the city’s sewer system when full). But he and [his wife] Aline were young and game, and enjoyed the movie business on all levels. They liked choosing the movies, greeting the customers, selling popcorn, and having the movie house under the stars for their own. It was never much of a moneymaker, but they stuck with it for a few years. By 1950 they were ready to sell, and they had a buyer.

Their friend Curtis Willard, projectionist and film technician, was excited at the prospect of making a go of the little outdoor movie house, even though it could by definition only operate in Fairhope’s climate for three months of the year. There were problems built in – low financing for one, which didn’t stop anybody who had grown up during the Depression. There was also the rainfall table for the particularly geographical area; mosquitoes; and competition from the advent of television.

But in its favor was the magical atmosphere of the beach itself. People would sit through light drizzles, endure the occasional bite of a mosquito and the hardness of the benches, sit in front of a movie screen just after the sun went down, hear the tree frogs compete with the actors, and watch Ma and Pa Kettle Down on the Farm or other such innocent fare.

Before the picture, the managementwent through the aisles with one of the pump-style bug spraying apparatuses, wheezing poison into the air and amid the seats to decimate the pests. This did nothing to ameliorate humidity and even little to exterminate the flying bugs. But we had gentle natural breezes to mitigate our discomfort, and the Beach boasted a huge centrifugal fan attempting to blow insects away and acually cool us. Believe it or not, it actually seems almost cool at times…

It was said that if the movie was dull, you could just look up and view the stars for awhile. Years later I was to attend movies at Atlanta’s glorious Fox Theater, where a ceiling held twinkling lights and the illusion of passing clouds to simulate the heavens. In Fairhope in the 1950’s we had done them one better. We had the real sky.

The above is an excerpt from my chapter on Fairhope’s beach, of which the theater was just one part, and a short-lived one at that. Writing it afforded me my only meeting with Curtis Willard, a man with an impish, happy outlook on life. The rainy summer of 1953 had spelled the end of the Beach Theater – or at least the end of his participation in it. He sold it and it was run as an art film house for one or two more seasons.

Curtis seemed a man with a happy, fulfilled life. He lived 54 years with the same loving wife, Joy West, whom he had met when she came to work as a ticket-taker at the Beach. They had a four daughters and four sons, 25 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. He looked to me like a grandpa with many a story to tell. I’m sorry he didn’t get to read about himself in my book, but others will and the Beach Theater will live on for a few years more.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Reviewing Myself

June 12

I used to say I would dedicate this blog to the selling of my book Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, and to getting the new book When We Had the Sky, published. If I've been doing that, the mission hasn't been particularly successful, since my publisher tells me there were no sales of the book in the last recorded month, and my royalty check for the quarter came in last week. It was for $75. As to the sales of When We Had the Sky to a publisher, if that had happened there would have been a great deal of noise about it. From me.

I did get a communication from Alabama Heritage Magazine recently, and that reminded me that I could probably get a hundred dollars or so if I reworked some of the Upton Sinclair chapter for them. It's worth it, after all, as far as I'm concerned a writer is "one who writes," and lordknows that's me.

I shall use today's space to sell the book to those who don't know about it since I've only mentioned it in passing over the past few weeks. First published in 2001, the book was a collaboration between Robert E. Bell, a writer who had lived in Fairhope in the 1950's, and me. Earlier Bob had written a coming of age novel set in the mythical town of Moss Bayou, Alabama, which was his name for Fairhope. From early childhood his family had visited Fairhope, and he always felt there was magic in the town. His book, The Butterfly Tree, concerned a sensitive young man who met a lot of interesting people, each of whom had been influenced by a mysterious stranger to move to Moss Bayou in search of a butterfly tree -- a tree, which, when discovered at the rare moment when it was covered in butterflies, would reveal the secrets of life. Bob Bell lived and died believing that he had found his butterfly tree in Fairhope.

However, the Fairhope I knew intimately was somewhat different. It was a reformist town with a progressive school and a sturdy conviction, if somewhat wrongheaded, that by idealistic political legislation the world could rid itself of greed and -- get this -- real estate development. Oh, I knew some of the intellectuals and eccentrics that Bob had fictionalized, but I was a teenager when his book came out, and they were simply the landscape of my life as I plunged forward, and, like most who grew up in small towns in the 1950's, yearned to get out.

Bob and I struck up a correspondence when I was working on a presentation for Fairhope's Centennial celebration in 1994, and we had a great time writing letters about what we remembered about Fairhope. That's right, letters -- this was before email was the only method of communication. At some point I was convinced we had a book, and I persuaded him to help me pull it together. We had one phone conversation, in which he agreed, but only after he had said, "Mary Lois, I've written my Fairhope book. You go ahead and write yours." I threw myself into the project and began working on essays which would appear in the book. It took a couple of years -- neither of us taking it very seriously -- and Bob died before the book was finished, without our ever having met. I lost heart for the project until I was interviewed in the year 2000 for an Alabama Public TV special about Fairhope, and I thought, "If I'm ever going to write my book about Fairhope, I better get it done before this thing goes on the air."

So I did, and submitted it to a local publisher who liked it, and we printed a thousand copies. It took a couple of years to sell out, and by then the local publisher, Sonny Brewer, was a published author himself (having written a novel about one of the characters in Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree, but never mind that.) His book, The Poet of Tolstoy Park, has been sold to the movies.

When the thousand copies sold out, I dropped the project, but was persuaded to reprint it myself a few years later. Now it's up to you. Go to or to, or, if you're in the Fairhope area, stroll on over to Martin Lanaux's establishment or to the Page and Palette, and buy yourself a copy, or come ring my doorbell and I'll sell you one. Or you can pick one up at the Marietta Johnson Museum or the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education, both of which will benefit the respective causes.

While I'm at it, I'd like to send you to my web page, which you can reach by clicking on the name "Finding Fairhope" link over on the left hand side of the page. I gather there is not much traffic over there, but I think you'll find it amusing. It's an overt pitch for the book, and has lots of pictures of me. Don't stop at the first page.

It's exhausting to a retiring soul like me to spend this much time blowing one's own horn. I think I'll go lie down for awhile. Let me know if you like the book.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Chamber Corner

June 11

When we moved over the bay from Mobile the Fairhope Chamber of Commerce was an office with one person in it. She was a widow named Barbara Gooden, with a daughter a year or so younger than my little brother, who was then four years old. Mrs. Gooden held down the job for about 20 years that I know of, and there was not much help for her.

I saw a column in today's Mobile Press-Register with the headline "Eastern Shore Chamber Coming of Age" describing the growth of the local Chamber of Commerce, with no acknowledgement of where it came from, except that it traces its beginnings to 1924. I don't think Mrs. Gooden was around then.

Growth is the thing -- and growth we have, my friends. No longer the Fairhope Chamber of Commerce, it now encompasses the now hugely populated areas all along the Eastern Shore and its Blueprint for Tomorrow campaign has generated almost $2 million in pledges for chamber use over the next five years. In a community that can afford a new library at over $8 million and a performing arts center for over $10 million, this is just a drop in the bucket -- and probably just the beginning.

With its $2 million, the chamber plans to add staff and resources to address more than 50 specific initiatives in six broad areas of concern, according to the newspaper. These broad areas are: Economic Development, Tourism, Governmental Affairs, Transportation and Environment.

In Barbara Gooden's day, it was a different world, and a very different Fairhope. She worked hard to stage little events in town, including the first Arts and Crafts Festival, which was originally made up of storefront displays produced by local artists and craftspeople. She wrote a weekly column in the Fairhope Courier to record her projects. When it began appearing in the mid-1950's with the name "Chamber Corner," my father, always affecting a cynical attitude about Fairhope, said he remembered in his house as a child there was a place in the bedrooms for necessary human functions, and to the best of his recollection, those were the only "chamber corners" he had ever heard of. However, nobody was bothered by the phrase, and Mrs. Gooden used it for years.

When my late husband and I relocated to Fairhope in 1988, we attended a party with a lot of sweet elderly ladies who were briefing him especially about the joys of living in Fairhope. Jim said, "Everybody here sounds like the Chamber of Commerce!"

The sweet little ladies of Old Fairhope vintage were not pleased. "The Chamber of Commerce?" they said. "Oh, we don't like them!"

But now they have come to accept the town and its modernity and growth mode. Some have made a pile of money on the current twisted spin of the Single Tax function. They don't mind the sale of their cottages to developers who demolish them in order to accommodate what is seen as the current market. Unlike me, they don't seem to miss the old Fairhope at all. I would admit, they remember a lot more of what was wrong with it than I do.

Not to worry. It is time to give the Chamber of Commerce its due. Without it, Fairhope would not be what it is, and might not become what it clearly is due to become.

To clear my head I just walked to the bluff and had a look at the pier, under expensive construction after Katrina's devastation. Then I went over to the statue of Marietta Johnson and felt an unexpected surge of security in grasping the hand of the great lady, and reading the inscription that I wrote six years ago. Bless all the people with money -- and may they soon discover the Organic School again.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Technical Difficulties

June 10

I was frantic from 2 P.M. yesterday until a few minutes ago. Something had happened to my new little laptop, and for the first time since I began working with it (in February) I couldn't get email or get on the Internet. Heaven forfend!

I called the tech service for Mac and had a good conversation for almost an hour, the upshot of which was that the problem was not with the hardware. I was instructed to call my Internet provider and tell them the situation and describe what the techie and I had tested. Of course the Internet provider's telephone availability was through a menu of recorded options. I never got to talk to anyone, but found that service was out in my area. I had to wait.

It was frustrating going online and finding no way to read email or check the blog or take my usual path through Google and the site meter to find out how my blog is doing. I took it as an opportunity not to overfocus on this minor aspect of my life, but like all addictions it is the most important minor aspect of my life at the moment. Pathetic, but true.

Couldn't get on.

Then I noticed one of the icons the techie had showed me was the "wrong" color. I clicked on it, it turned the right color, and displayed the message, "Turn Airport On." I checked that, it activated my Internet connection, and I was saved. End of the story is that, even without a new post on the blog, I have had the normal amount of hits. Not very many, but quite enough for me. Maybe tomorrow I'll have something fun for y'all to read. Thanks for hanging in there.

And for you first-timers, I usually write about what Fairhope means to me, what the Marietta Johnson School of Organic Education means to me, what history means to everybody, and what it's like to carry the baggage of the 20th Century on into the 21st. I think that's about it.

Oh, and if you like Anderson Cooper, Upton Sinclair, Winifred Duncan, Craig Sheldon and people like that, you'll have a lot to read about. Welcome aboard.

Friday, June 09, 2006

The Center of the Universe

June 8

I had planned to go shopping Wednesday. The catalogues had intrigued me for months with their slick pix of gorgeous people in glamorous settings with palm fronds placed strategically in sight. I should know better -- I used to stage those photo shoots. Even then I wished I were the person in the great clothes looking happily off camera to a non-existent, even better looking person of the opposite sex, ready for an adventure, aided immeasurably by the look I had achieved by donning the great clothes. I wasn't close to being that person, but I was a hell of a lot closer than I am now.

Wednesday I spent waiting for a phone call about the situation with the possible teacher, then when the call came 2 hours later than I expected, I had an interview with the teacher and her husband. My day was tense and fraught with responsibility. And I never did get that shopping trip in. So Thursday would be the day.

It's not that I am one of those people who looks at shopping as therapy. I did need some new togs. I decided that rather than take my chances by ordering from a catalogue, waiting for the order to be delivered, then trying on and being disappointed, I would just do what most people around here do and go shopping in Fairhope. I knew what I wanted and decided I would be able to spend $125 for the look, which, according to the catalogue prices, would be about right.

That should be doable, even in pricey Fairhope, now chockablock with chic boutiques that are under no threat of being displaced by the advent of a Wal-Mart three miles out of town. Most of these places are owned by lawyers' wives from Mobile, and they carry upscale fashion with price tags that can be staggering. It's not like me to go at the height of the season and pay full price, but for some reason I thought it was already markdown time. I found out otherwise.

I tried the place I expected would have just what I'd seen in the catalogue, probably already on the 30% discount rack. No luck. Prices were three times what I expected and I could tell the clothes would make me look like somebody's grandmother. Don't remind me I am somebody's grandmother; we're talking about shopping here. The ultimate fantasy land.

The second shop had a sign on the door that said 50% off but when I got in I saw that was only for a few heavy suits and what looked to be winter evening dresses. Didn't need either. A good-looking blouse was $225, a pair of jeans $300. Not my kind of place.

I crossed Section Street diagonally to go into one of the many shops that make up the arcade that used to be the old dry goods store. This is the spot, once called The Center of the Universe by the late Joyce Dickey, who moved here in the 1980's to teach the finer points of English literature and creative writing as part of adult education programs in town. I have stolen the phrase and often apply it to that intersection. The original general store, owned by the original Fairhope Henry Crawford, stood on the spot. The town water tower was once in the middle of the intersection, where the dirt roads intersected.

The little shop is called The Cat's Meow and it had just the kind of thing I was looking for. It seemed to cater to an older clientele with a light heart. Large sizes, bright colors. A white haired couple was in there and she had a few things to pick up for a cruise. Her husband was trying to hustle her out when I got there, but the saleslady (probably the owner) suggested he have a seat in a comfortable chair. She had one of those irrestible Mobile accents, heavy with honeysuckle, and as soon as I heard her talking I knew I was going to buy something. When that accent is applied to gushing comments about how cute and darlin' you look in the clothes, you (or at least I) have no sales resistence at all. I put on one outfit I didn't particularly like, rainbow stripes that looked like a pajama set, and I knew it looked kinda cute on me but that I wouldn't buy it. I proudly paraded it out of the dressing room for the group to see. The white haired man had already given in and was helping sell the clothes.

"That looks wonderful!" he said to me. "Like a teenager!"

I didn't buy the pajamas, but I did buy the bottoms and a couple of other things, and ended up writing a check for $207.07. I had a contemporary Fairhope experience: I heard this cruise-couple saying they were selling their house on the beach when they returned from the cruise. How much, said the saleslady-owner. A million dollars? "Two and a half," they said. Well, it had five bedrooms, and was an old bay house that had never had hurricane damage. It was just too much house for them. That's an odd thing to hear in Fairhope, where empty-nesters are building houses that assure a bedroom and bath for every grandchild.

I left my contemporary Fairhope experience feeling like I had just taken a trip to a foreign land. I guess I had -- an emissary from the the old Fairhope glimpsing the new. The price I paid would have paid for a trip in a time machine.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Doing the Right Thing

June 8

Discussions lately have been intense as the school tries to rebuild enrollment. We have a new director who interviewed the potential arts and First Life (grades 1 & 2) teacher yesterday for two and a half hours. Both of them seemed to be exhilarated by the discussion; the teacher for the thought of having an opportunity to teach a curriculum she could shape, in a way she was comfortable with; the director with the possibility of having an experienced, creative teacher in a position visible enough to help draw the school back into the center of the community, where it belongs.

I've been in the middle of this matter for months. I was instrumental in selecting the director, who is forward-thinking, bright, and fun to be around. She knows her stuff and has great people skills. She has a lot to do in turning the school around from its doldrums of recent years, but, as ever, those of us who believe in the school's mission have high hopes that there is some way we can restore it to its place, no matter how much Fairhope itself has changed. Other members of the Board of Managers and I have confidence that she will be able to make a difference. The teacher was one who attended our puppet workshop, and said at that time that she would give anything to be able to teach at our school, so different from the restrictive and regimented atmosphere in which she now works.

The teacher's remarks had led me to follow up by contacting her and discussing the possibility of us taking her up on her remark. As a public relations person, I had already drafted a news release as if my dream were to come true and she would accept the job. Just associating her name with our school would ensure an increase in enrollment; by the time her ideas were implemented there would be waiting lists of parents who would want to enroll their children.

After the interview yesterday, she called me and asked if I would talk with her and her husband about the job. I knew from her voice she would love to take the job and I hoped I would have the magic words that would help her and her husband see the rightness of her taking it.

I didn't.

Her husband asked a simple and not unreasonable question. How long could I guarantee the salary we promised (which would still be $8,000 per year less than she could get at her current job)? I don't know why I was unprepared for that. A guarantee is a difficult thing in any case, and in the climate of our school it is just not possible. We have been living almost entirely on hope alone since Marietta Johnson died in 1938, even though the school has never closed. We have a trust fund that will keep us alive if we are prudent and diligent in money management. But we have never paid our teachers a wage comparable to what they could get at other institutions. This lady was simply asking that we do that, and we said we would. I have a way of assuming that miracles happen, and they have a way of happening around me. However, this was not what the couple wanted to hear.

When asked point blank for a guarantee, I said six months. One semester. The husband blanched. The teacher looked desparate. I almost thought she wished I had lied. But I could tell I had not said what they wanted to hear. We talked it through for a while and I explained the situations of recent years that had led to our current financial crunch. I said that when I said one semester, I didn't literally think it would be one semester, but if asked for a guarantee, that was all I could actually guarantee. Much is riding on our assumption that our enrollment will be twice as high next year as it was the past year -- and that, with this particularly lady teaching in a high-profile position, and a new director with energy and ideas, I feel that we will do it.

The phrase "I feel" seemed to bother the husband almost more than the phrase "one semester." They are not in a position to change their lives on the chance that this might work out well. All the questions they asked were in the realm of, "But what if it doesn't?" I have trouble thinking that way.

I know there are different behavior styles, and that I fall into the risk-taking category. Clearly this couple doesn't -- and in that case perhaps they shouldn't move into unknown territory.

What bothered me most about the discussion was that she said to me that every single person she had told that she was considering this move said the same thing: "How could you possibly think of doing something like this? How could you give up all you have worked for for this?" What she would be giving up is two things: job security and her place in line for more money and benefits in the public education field. What she would be getting is a similar job, teaching, and a chance to concentrate on working individually with children in an organic way, guiding them without pressure on a learning path in areas in which she was knowledgeable. She would gain a chance to build a department of the arts like none other in the country, a department that developed the impulse of creation in all children equally, even though the talents of the students would be expressed on different levels. She would be giving up the requirement for constant monitoring, measuring, constraining and filling out forms for comparison of child to child. She would be presented with a clean slate of bright, motivated minds that she would need only to inspire and teach. Even though the pay would probably always be less, she would not have to succeed in spite of the system. She would be working within a different system -- one which valued the one thing she did best.

Why does not anybody get this? I am baffled. Why does the world think that she would be giving up more than she would be getting? I don't even see that it's a matter of opinion and that I could be the one who's wrong about it. I know it's right and I know the work and energy I put into it is right. And, discouraging as the work I do voluntarily can be, I know that it is worth doing.

That knowledge is something to get you up in the morning with joy.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Coffee Hope

June 7

When We Had the Sky ends with a chapter of little anecdotes, post scripts to Meet Me at The Butterfly Tree, and brief stories of fair hope from Fairhope in days gone by. The manuscript is still in the hands -- or slush pile, as they say in the publishing trade -- of Randall Williams of New South Press in Montgomery. I just thought of this, and it's probably a bad idea, but I'll pass it along: If that publisher is notified by all loyal readers of this blog that they would love to buy a copy when it is out, maybe it'll prompt his reading and consideration of the book.

Of course the idea wouldn't work unless there were a critical mass of mail. That means all 20 of you would have to write at once. I'd appreciate it.

Just to offer a little incentive, here is an excerpt from the "Lagniappe" chapter.

Coffee Hope

My mother used to attend the requisite number of club meetings and women's get-togethers to which her generation of mothers was obliged. Fairhope was full of those.

It was the custom here more than most places that coffee would be served. Mama hadn't taken particular notice of this practice until, driving with a friend to a morning committee meeting, when the question came up about whether there would be coffee.

I've always thought they should name this town Coffeehope instead of Fairhope!" said the friend.

"Why on earth?"

"Well, every time you're going to a meeting, at least one person says, 'I hope there'll be coffee!' said the lady. "And there always is!"

At all events, church functions, productions of plays, club meetings, political discussions, parties, there was always a huge coffee urn on the bubble. The coffee was often reviewed along with the play.

Today this has evolved to a plethora of coffee shops, cafés, latté havens as well as the ubiquitous morning coffee parties. Our legacy of caffeine addiction is a Fairhope attitude, and one that does not seem to have changed over the years.