Spring!

Spring officially started last month on the calendar, but it was just an arbitrary day. Now, however, the severe weather pattern has begun and everything has actually turned green and bloomed. Now spring is actually here.

Fields of wildflowers. A canopy of green trees. Warm sunshine that burns away the weight on my spirit. Spring is here.

I actually really love winter. So many celebrations and good excuses to curl up under a blanket. It can be stressful, too, but so can a lot of other things throughout the year. But, wow, there is something about spring that makes me feel like I can breathe again–which is ironic considering my seasonal allergies.

Spring also brings with it other things I enjoy. My son started his first season of baseball. This week he played in his first game. He had an absolute blast. I’m always so careful not to push him into things just because I like them, but when he asks to try something new I try not to say no if we can afford it. He gets so excited about every practice and this week, you couldn’t wipe the smile off his face when the game ended. Trying to get him calm enough to go to bed after that was a lost cause, but it was worth it to see the joy exuding from his whole body. I hope it remains just as fun and exciting by the end of the season in June.

Warmer weather–that will be unbearably hot soon enough, but we’ll enjoy it while it lasts–also means more afternoons at the park, trips out to the lake, picnics in the sunshine, grilling out, lightning bugs, and all the gorgeous colors nature has to offer.

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Spring is most definitely here.

Aftermath

Last week the temperatures warmed up and it felt like Spring would come after all. The weekend brought freezing rain, sleet, and tornadoes to the South to reinforce the fact that winter is still upon us. According to the forecast, this rollercoaster ride will continue for another week or so.

My family came through the weekend unscathed. My husband was even able to referee several soccer games at a local tournament before the rain hit, compromising the already saturated fields. At the end of it all, he was tired, but no worse for the wear.

But we live in North Mississippi. Our neighbors in South Alabama were not so lucky. Four tornadoes cut a path across Alabama over the weekend. The one that ravaged Lee County was an EF-4 with winds estimated at 170mph. The death toll continues to rise as search and rescue teams comb through the debris. Tonight, snow flurries are falling in that same county. We often joke about the unpredictable nature of spring weather in our region, but this is no laughing matter.

One school has already shared on social media that the student body is mourning the loss of a grade-school girl lost in the storm. Another family–a father, mother, and young boy–are all in the ICU with no home to return to as they begin to recover (and no medical insurance to cover the costs of said recovery).

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via Alabama NewsCenter
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via Alabama NewsCenter

In the South, we pride ourselves on the “chainsaws and casseroles” brigade. “Neighbors” from states away who escaped the clutches of severe weather and show up bearing food, supplies, and a willingness to help in whatever way they can. Linemen from other parts of the state, and other states, show up and work tirelessly to get electricity back to the devastated areas so the families with homes left to go to at least have heat. Churches often show up with disaster relief teams and truckloads of bottled water, baby supplies, clothes, and tools to fix what they can. This is what people in the southern part of Alabama need right now.

Many of my readers are from far outside the southeastern portion of the United States. You have no connection to these people. Nobody affected is a friend of a friend, or a friend’s cousin. All the same, I ask that you spare a moment to think of those who are in need tonight. If you are the praying type, I ask that you pray for those affected by the severe weather. If you aren’t the praying type, a kind or somber thought would still be appreciated.

The reason the South has to be proud of our chainsaws and casseroles brigade is that much of our region is rural. We don’t warrant news coverage because most people in the U.S. have never heard of places like Lee County, Alabama. The death toll is in the tens not hundreds or thousands. But the loss is still great to those who live there. It’s still a disaster. And even agrarian areas deserve better than to be ignored in their time of need and grief.

If you are able to donate to the Red Cross, they are also a part of recovery efforts. If you aren’t–there is no guilt or shame in that–a thought or a prayer so that the people of Lee County are not forgotten or ignored during this difficult time is appreciated.

Chainsaws and casseroles are optional.

Blind Date Update

My weekend did not go according to plan, but it went awry in all the right ways. Instead of getting to enjoy my blind date with a book, I only got as far as opening the package to reveal the title, author, and book jacket synopsis (more on that later).

I didn’t get to read a book cover-to-cover, but my five-year-old knows how to play Monopoly now. Well, he knows how to play both Star Wars Monopoly and Disney Monopoly. He has no idea what Park Place is. Still. He not only understands the game, but he can also win against adults–provided someone is there to help him add or subtract the “really big numbers”. He’s five. I’m still impressed.

My one-year-old mastered the “crying as you hit your knees in the mud Shawshank Redemption style” level of melodrama, which is also fun. No, really. It’s really hard to be mad at someone who is throwing a tantrum when you’re laughing at their thespian prowess. Not everyone can conjure crocodile tears and channel Marlon Brando screaming “STELLA!” after being told they couldn’t go play “ball ball” (kickball) with the big kids (preteens).

Anyway, the point is that sometimes life is unpredictable. I had a great weekend with my kids even if it didn’t look anything like the weekend I had originally envisioned. I’m still hoping to read my book this week, but I’m not going to stress myself out over it. Yet. The due date is still far enough in the future that I’m optimistic about my levels of free time.

Speaking of my book. Y’all. It’s a modern retelling of Pride & Prejudice. I’m kind of excited because this is either going to be wonderfully delightful, or so awesomely bad that I’ll get several rant posts out of it. I’m hoping for delightful, of course. I love Jane Austen and her sense of humor that pokes fun at frivolity while also making us enjoy it. I have read all of her fully completed published works. I have read several retellings of both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility over the years and enjoy about 80% of them, so I have a good feeling about this. Side Note: Does anybody know of a retelling of Mansfield Park or Northanger Abbey? Even Emma got an update in the 1990s with Clueless, but the Park and the Abbey seem to have been left behind (I’m not complaining, those weren’t my faves by any means).

On a heavier note, over the weekend severe flooding and tornadoes wreaked havoc in parts of my state. If you pray, please keep those affected in your prayers. The Mississippi River will continue to rise for the next two weeks and is expected to crest at its fourth highest level on record (and for that to happen in March before the snow up north melts means we could be in for a dangerously wet summer). That means more flooding for a lot of people, and some in lower elevations have already been evacuated. Some farms have already been lost for the year. Expect the price of corn and soybeans to go up this fall. It also means a more difficult time getting supplies to people who desperately need them after tornadoes tore through towns destroying houses, schools, and anything else in their wake.

I am grateful that I have not personally been affected by the severe weather, but my heart goes out to those who were not so lucky. We will do what we can to help shoulder your burden.

Aspiring to Julia

When I was a little kid, we didn’t get a lot of television channels. More specifically, we got three. Maybe five by the time I was eight. We had one television in the living room that got channels. We had another that was hooked up to the Atari in the “children’s den”–I think this was originally a bedroom of sorts, but we used it as a play area when we had to be out of the way of the adults. In any case, we didn’t watch a lot of TV. I remember a few shows, though. The TGIF line-up stands out. Things like Boy Meets World, Family Matters, Full House, etc.

We didn’t have a remote, so we had to get up to change the channels. This means, as the youngest, I was often told to go change the channel, but rarely had any actual control over what we watched (the exception being when I was allowed to watch Disney movies on VHS). My father and brother preferred the news and sports. My mother and my sisters (pretty much all the women I knew, actually) had a deep devotion to soap operas. General Hospital and All My Children ranked supreme. And both of them had strong, powerful women in the cast. But it was a different show entirely whose strong female lead captivated my attention.

Before I knew what the word politics meant, I was listening to epic political commentary via one Ms. Julia Sugarbaker on Designing Women. I was still young when the show went off the air, but I remember the steel gentility with which Julia would cut down the people who tried to insult or gaslight her. She rarely used anything like a curse word. She could calmly and with great dignity cut someone to the quick with her words. And when she did finally raise her voice, the whole room listened. My father always told me that the art of being Southern was being able to tell someone to go to Hell and make them think they’d enjoy the trip. Julia could do that (looking at you, Ray Don). I loved her for it.

While I haven’t seen the show, except in clips here and there, in years, I’m sure there are problematic aspects of it. I’m certain of it. It was the late 80s and early 90s. Everything was. Most everything still is. But I still feel like I could learn from Julia Sugarbaker.

Someday, I want to be chill enough to be like Sophia Petrillo from Golden Girls. I want to sit around and tell crazy stories, break my friends out of Shady Pines to go to parties at the Senior Center, and laugh at life. But Sophia will have to wait. I still have work to do. Right now, I have to be like Julia. She worked hard, she loved deeply, she held her head high and she put her foot down whenever she had had enough.

On Tuesday I talked about not trying to be like someone else. And I’m not. I’d like to think I have a dash of Julia in me anyway. I think that’s why I loved her. She was a fictional representation of what I had already been taught and what was modeled for me. What I aspire to be.

Someday, Sophia. But today, Julia.

10 Things About The Georgia Aquarium

Yesterday was a momentous day for my family. My oldest turned five. He was so excited all day. It was the kind of excitement that’s infectious. Everything was fun and amazing because it was his birthday.

Instead of a party this year, he wanted to go on a creature adventure for his birthday. What can I say? Wild Kratts and Planet Earth are his favorite shows. Anyway, since we live in the south and have family in Georgia, we negotiated a trip to The Georgia Aquarium. He’s been once before and still raves about it.

So perhaps while you’re reading this, I’ll be traipsing through the world’s second largest aquarium with a look of awe to match my son’s. It doesn’t matter whether you’re five or ninety-five, that place is cool.

Which is why today’s post is 10 Things About The Georgia Aquarium.

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Male whale shark at The Georgia Aquarium
  1. When it opened in 2005 it was the largest aquarium in the world. It was surpassed in 2012 by one in Singapore, though after the expansion currently in progress I’m unsure if it will regain the lead.
  2. It sits on land donated by the Coca-Cola Company. And thanks to corporate and private donations, it opened debt free.
  3. It is the only institution outside of Asia to house whale sharks.
  4. More than 100,000 specimens representing over 700 species reside there. Including a manta ray rescued from a net in South Africa–it is one of only four sites worldwide to showcase such.
  5. Its biggest individual tank is 6.3 million gallons, and combined it has more 10 million gallons of marine and salt-water habitats.
  6. While the aquarium has served as an economic boost for Atlanta, the board also pushes education and conservation as prioritized goals. When the dolphin show fell under controversy, it was redesigned to focus more on education.
  7. The coral used in exhibits is man-made and part of a joint project between Georgia Tech and The University of the South Pacific.
  8. The aquarium partners with universities (eg Georgia Tech, The University of Georgia, Georgia State University, Florida Atlantic University) and the federal government to help save endangered species through research and education.
  9. It has a 4D simulator that can take you on a submarine tour of prehistoric seas.
  10. The aquarium is part of the Smithsonian Affiliations program, and although run as a non-profit, has some of the highest admission charges nationwide.

 

Well, that’s it for November. Maybe next year I’ll give you 10 Things About Veterans’ Day, but for now whale sharks and manta rays are dancing through my head. Just keep swimming!

10 Things About Southern Cocktails

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Drinking in the South is almost an art form. We take our alcohol seriously. Bourbon is a way of life. Moonshine is a point of pride. And not being able to hold your liquor is a mark of poor breeding.

For those of you who aren’t aware of the doctrine of the Southern Baptist Church, drinking is more than frowned upon. It’s prohibited. However, the old joke runs “What’s the difference between Baptists and Methodists? Methodists will say hello to each other in the liquor store.” Because no matter what the church says, most of the congregation imbibes. How do I know? I’m a Baptist. My father also grew up Baptist and was, for a time, part-owner of the local liquor store. Just to paint you a picture.

There are, however, teetotalers within the South. Most of the ones I know are older ladies. Like my great-grandmother, God Rest her soul. When the doctor told her she needed to drink a beer a day for her circulation, she made my grandfather drive to the next county to buy it for her because she was terrified someone in her Sunday School class would see! Never you mind that my grandfather kept a beer fridge on the porch at his home. And if you don’t think I’ve ever written a character based on that gem of a woman, you’re wrong.

For the most part, though, alcohol is deeply ingrained in the Southern culture. It can wash away the pain of a harsh loss of your beloved alma mater’s athletic team. It can blur the jagged edges of a broken heart. It can ease the tension at dysfunctional family gatherings, unless of course part of the dysfunction is an uncle or two with an addiction issue. Also a common Southern tale.

So get out your shakers, your stirrers, and the key to your liquor cabinet. It’s time to booze it up, Southern Style.

  1. The Mint Julep, a drink long associated with bougie white women in big hats who watch horse races and their significant others in seersucker suits, actually started off as a medicinal tonic over a thousand years ago. The mint wasn’t added until the late 1700s, and it has been made with different bases over the years, but it was in the Southeastern United States that the concoction gained real popularity as a recreational drink.
  2. The Sazerac was created in New Orleans. Its specific origin within the city is controversial, but the recipe first called for cognac. Due to crop failures cognac was hard to come by for a while and rye whiskey was the replacement. I’m a tried and true Southerner and I’ll be honest, I’ve actually never had one of these.
  3. There is an official tailgate cocktail for every university in the Southeastern Conference, as published in the Southern Living Official SEC Tailgating Cookbook. My own beloved Mississippi State’s is the Bulldog Bloody Mary (it’s garnished with pickled okra).
  4. The Old-Fashioned. America’s first cocktail was created down south, but as other drinks created in the same style grew in popularity, people continued to order this one–in the “old-fashioned style”. The drink eventually made its way to the Waldorf-Astoria and its place in history was firmly cemented. But it all started south of the Mason-Dixon.
  5. Mississippi Punch, so named because it originated “somewhere along the Mississippi” calls for light brandy, rum, and bourbon along with some bitters, lemon juice, and granulated sugar. Basically, pour a little of all the best stuff in your liquor cabinet and then add a bit of something without alcohol to make it look like you aren’t just trying to get hammered.
  6. Three words: Sweet Tea Vodka. You’re welcome. Also, pace yourself. It’ll get you faster than you think.
  7. The Hurricane, named because it was originally served in glass from a hurricane lamp, was invented by the Pat O’Brien in New Orleans. Several of my friends and acquaintances have lived to regret Pat O’s signature creation.
  8. It’s hotter than the Devil’s backside down here in the summer, so leave it to Southerners to mix ice cream with booze. Mississippi Mudslides are made with chocolate ice cream, coffee ice cream, milk, and–what else–bourbon. You can even top it with marshmallows.
  9. Folks at the University of Alabama have a drink named after the line of one of their most common cheers. The Alabama Yellow Hammer Slammer is made with three different kinds of alcohol, but you’ll only taste the fruit juices in the recipe. Have you ever wondered how Southern women can possibly wear heels to football games where they will stand and cheer for hours? Drinks like this. Your feet won’t hurt if you can’t feel them.
  10. Everybody has their own special tricks to avoid or cure hangovers because showing up to church on Sunday morning in a pair of sunglasses that covers half your face and slumping down in the pew is a dead giveaway that you’re an amateur. But perhaps the most popular is the “hair of the dog that bit you”, followed closely by Gatorade (also created in the South) and painkillers.

The South has an ugly past, but a wonderful history of creativity. Music, theater, literature. So it should be no surprise that the same creative spirit spilled over into our, well, spirits.

So if you’re writing a character with a bit of a Southern flair and you don’t picture them as the kind of person who drinks beer that’s on tap or whiskey neat, then maybe this will inspire you. Though, if you feel the need to “get into character” I would advise you to pace yourself.

Book Review: Leaving Oxford by Janet W. Ferguson

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A year ago, Sarah Beth LeClair was a rising star in her advertising firm in LA, living in Malibu, and living with her doctor boyfriend. But then the accident happened. After that, the freeways, the memories, and the ghosts of LA were too much and Sarah Beth moved back home to Oxford, MS.

Still an advertising prodigy, she’s gainfully employed, but Sarah Beth has a secret. Her anxiety about driving on a highway is so debilitating that she can’t leave Oxford. When she gets outside the city limits, she has a panic attack. So she doesn’t leave.

Oxford is also home to the University of Mississippi, or Ole Miss, and the cutest offensive coordinator of any football team in history. Jess McCoy’s career is on the rise, too. Ever since he decimated his shoulder playing college ball and realized he couldn’t play pro, he’s wanted to coach in the NFL. And the opportunity is right around the corner.

The only problem for Jess is that he meets the beautiful and captivating Sarah Beth and begins to have feelings for her that he’s never experienced before. Suddenly, the thought of leaving Oxford isn’t quite as appealing as it was before…

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Real talk: a year ago I would have loved and adored most of this book (I would have still had a bone to pick, but more on that later). I wanted to love it now. I’m from Mississippi. Ole Miss is the rival to my own alma mater, but I could let that go for the sake of a cute, clean, Christian romance set in my home state. But it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. Sigh.

There are several things it had going for it. It had a fun meet cute. It was clean. It was Christian based fiction, which I know is not a pull for a lot of people, but I’m a Christian and I like it. Football. Mississippi. A ridiculous and adorable dog.

A year ago the only thing that would have gotten on my nerves was some of what she wrote about coaching. My family is heavily involved in college sports. In the acknowledgments, Ferguson thanks former members of the Ole Miss coaching staff, so I know she at least asked a few questions. However, there were some inaccuracies that the average reader might not have noticed. Because college athletics were a part of the livelihood of my home for many years, I noticed.

Still, I could have gotten over that. Most people, even hardcore college football fans in Mississippi would have skimmed over it without much thought. I could swallow that. And a year ago, I might have. But after studying crafting and editing blogs and learning to look beyond my own perspective, there are some other things that don’t quite work for me.

Some of the dialogue feels stilted or in the wrong character voice. It’s a small thing, but it happens in several places and suggests an editing issue. And it’s not the only one.

Oxford, MS has never been this white. Is it possible that Sarah Beth’s social circle and the staff she interacts with at Ole Miss, and her office building in LA are all (except one Latino man) white? Yes, it’s possible. But when she writes about Oxford, she talks about driving through or around different areas of town and never acknowledges any character, and I mean anyone who is Black. That’s hard to swallow. The population of Mississippi is nearly 40% Black. That number gets higher in certain areas of the state. The university staff as a whole is about 30% Black. So to write a book set entirely in Oxford, Mississippi and not have a single Black character is at best incomplete. And neither the author nor anyone in the editing and publishing process seemed to notice.

I don’t have anxiety. Sarah Beth’s reluctance to accept her diagnosis and her struggle regarding using prescribed medications could be true to form. I don’t know. But the author’s treatment of diversity makes me think that a sensitivity reader should probably have been called in for this too.

I’m not trying to rip Ms. Ferguson apart. I’m saying that this book had potential, but fell short. It still has some cute scenes. I loved her line about how Mississippians feel about North Carolina and the return zinger. But I feel like this reads more like a manuscript draft than a polished and published novel.