Walking In Memory of Autumn

A ten-year study conducted by Paul Williams and Paul Thompson published in 2013 concluded that brisk walking several times a week can significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart failure, and dementia. No weightlifting, jumping jacks, or push-ups required – just a fast-paced walk. Furthermore, individuals who do exercise regularly in other ways can still benefit just the same from walking. That magic 10,000-step-a-day threshold that our Fitbits remind us about daily was reinforced by another ten-year study completed in 2015 that demonstrated how meeting that daily goal can lower risk of death by 46%.

Honestly, we all know we need to move to stay healthy. A treadmill will do the job, but strolling five miles on a churning rubber belt is about as exciting as working in a meaningless profession from 9-5 every single day, which is why the treadmill analogy works so well for those circumstances. The good news is, no matter where we live, there are usually at least a few good options outdoors to pack in several miles of vigorous walking when the weather permits. Local nature trails, state and national parks, city and county recreation areas, national forests, greenways, river walks, and so many other options are available to us if we are serious about staying healthy.

What if we live in a big city? Well, there are typically public parks and gardens with paved trails for walking. We can even map out a “trail” in our boroughs, neighborhoods, or suburbs. However, there is another great space for walking that we should always remember – cemeteries. True enough, most of us don’t exactly consider walking among gravestones to be a source of happiness, but take into consideration the design, maintenance, and accessibility of cemeteries. They can be quite beautiful. Most major cities have several of them, and they may be even larger than parks and recreation areas.

Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO
Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO

Obviously, people tend to have an emotional connection to cemeteries where friends and family are buried, which means that they usually support them through political influence, volunteer hours, and donations. In this sense, cemeteries are beneficiaries of charity in much the same way churches and hospitals are. Through their function as spaces of “eternal rest” for the departed and places for contemplation and memories for those left behind, cemeteries have evolved into sanctuaries characterized by creative architecture, landscaping, and gardening.

Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO
Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO

Acre for acre, we are hard-pressed to find more diversity of trees, shrubs, and other plantings in urban areas than what cemeteries contain. Many of them have water features, bridges, statues, prayer gardens, chapels, gazebos, and special monuments and memorials. The older they are, the more character they have developed. They are rich repositories of history and genealogy. Cemeteries speak volumes about a community’s past and the promise of its future.

This autumn I decided to take a walk in one of the cemeteries where we currently live in Springfield, Missouri. Maple Park Cemetery dates to 1876 when a group of local businessmen established it on a 31-acre tract where an old fairground was once located. Some of the city’s most prominent citizens are interred there. One of the most famous people buried in Maple Park is known not by his own merit but by how he met his end. David Tutt was killed on the square in downtown Springfield by Wild Bill Hickok.

Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO
Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO

Maple Park gets its name because of an abundance of the species, which according to early newspaper accounts were growing on the property when the cemetery was first established. Because Maple Park is almost 150 years old, there is an interesting variety of grave markers and mausoleums. There is also a wonderful mixture of mature and young trees of many different species, which put on a spectacular show in autumn months.

Many of us drive for hours to visit mountains and valleys to see fall leaves on a grand scale, but Maple Park Cemetery offers a chance to see those brilliant yellow, orange, and red trees in a setting that is peaceful and even reverent. My walk among the memorial markers under the canopies of color helped me appreciate how wonderful it is to still be moving, how the turning of the seasons is a perfect metaphor for our lives, and how precious beauty is because it is so brief.

Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO
Maple Park Cemetery, Springfield, MO

A Surprising Concurrence of Events

Perci Diaconis and Frederick Mosteller are two mathematicians who published a study in 1989 exploring the science behind coincidence, which they defined as “a surprising concurrence of events, perceived as meaningfully related, with no apparent causal connection.” They observed how coincidences “can alter the course of our lives; where we work and at what, whom we live with, and other basic features of daily existence . . . .” Lately, I have been contemplating the surprising concurrence of events that has led me to where I am now in 2020, at the age of 60, and approaching what I hope will be the final third of my life.

I have happily admitted on many occasions that I am the luckiest man I have ever met. Usually, I am referring to the good fortune of being married to my amazing wife, whom I adore and cherish. I also know that a series of key events and decisions over the last 55 years has determined the path I have taken in my career, and I couldn’t have predicted at an early age how rewarding this journey would be. Of course, there are plenty of people who have had similar experiences and have advanced so much further in their professions than I ever will. I also know that the success I have enjoyed is not completely due to my knowledge, talent, and skills – not by a long shot. Again, I am a lucky guy.

I can almost see my vocational journey as a hiking trail, with switchbacks and long winding stretches, ups and downs, a few chance encounters, forks in the path, even a few rocky sections, all of which have led me to this place. How much is serendipity and how much is deliberate, I can’t say with any certainty. Perhaps the trailhead took the form of a set of The World Book encyclopedia our family purchased in the early 1960s, when I was a young child. I can’t remember how old I was when I started thumbing through the pages to look at the photographs and illustrations, but it was definitely before I started school. The World Book gave me an early appreciation for books and reading, for independent learning, and even for order – the set was arranged alphabetically, as were the articles within each bound volume.

The first marker on the trail was likely my assignment as a library assistant in elementary school. I have no recollection why either my teacher or our school librarian selected me for this responsibility, but I vividly remember removing cards from the pockets of books checked out by my classmates, using a stamp to imprint the due date on the card and the slip in the book, and filing the card in an oblong wooden box (likely with the librarian’s help). At an early age, I was granted opportunities to fall in love with books and reading, which I did. Like many adolescent boys of my generation, I became an enthusiastic fan of science fiction books by writers who defined the genre for the 20th century, such as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Clifford D. Simak.

My love of libraries mirrored my love for reading at an early age, and I visited them as often as I could. I must have had a natural appreciation for language, and the classes in high school where I performed best were in English. I was fortunate to have three outstanding English teachers from 7th through 12th grade. I attended a small high school, and I had each of these teachers for two years. They made grammar interesting for me, and they helped me appreciate the power of the written word. Under their instruction, I discovered the difference between writing that only entertains and that which enlightens, enriches, and provokes the reader.

I also had a true fascination for the natural sciences, probably nurtured by hours of emersion in The World Book. When I started at the local community college, I had big dreams of someday working in the field of medical technology. I knew hardly anything about it. I thought working in a hospital would equate to lots of money and prestige, but I knew I wasn’t ambitious enough to slug through medical school to become a doctor. Turns out I wasn’t even ambitious enough to pass college chemistry – it looked too much like algebra, which to this day baffles me.

With encouragement from advisors and after a careful look at the curriculum requirements, I decided an Associate’s Degree in Journalism would be my best hope of staying in school. This switchback in the trail also prompted me to start writing for the college newspaper, and one of my assignments was to report on a lecture being presented by a woman who had recently edited a collection of letters by a Georgia author. I was painfully immature and had virtually no appreciation for academic scholarship. My first draft of the article reflected my stupidity and shallowness, which my journalism professor was quick to point out to me. I had no idea what an important contribution the visiting scholar, Sally Fitzgerald, had made to the world of American literature nor how her work would impact my own world in the years ahead.

After graduating from the community college, my trail took me on an uphill stretch to a state college located about 45 minutes from my hometown. By then I had decided that a degree in English was a logical choice, although I was clueless about how I was going to find a career after graduating. I can’t imagine how concerned my parents must have been. However, I was becoming more serious about academics and was confident that I was a good writer – foolish boy. A few seasoned students in the English department had warned me about one professor, a woman with a reputation for pounding the ignorance right out of you. I signed up for one of her classes my second term there, having at least enough self-awareness that I needed discipline and a challenge. The first paper she returned to me looked as if she had slit an artery and bled out on the page. Clearly, I wasn’t such a gifted writer after all.

Meeting this professor was one of those life-changing chance encounters. I was not aware when I first arrived at this institution that its most famous graduate was Flannery O’Connor. I also did not know that the library was the steward of her most valuable personal and professional archive. My fellow English majors had informed me that the demanding professor was also the O’Connor scholar on campus and that she taught a course concentrating on the author’s work. She was the editor of the Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, a journal published by the college and the longest running scholarly publication devoted to a female writer in the country. Perhaps as an act of academic penance and atonement, I signed up for the O’Connor course for the summer session, which meant covering the author’s two novels, two collections of short stories, a volume of essays, and the letters edited by Sally Fitzgerald (the scholar I encountered just two years earlier), all in four weeks.

I had no memory of reading O’Connor in high school and didn’t know what to expect. In this class, I quickly realized her fiction was dark, perhaps even demented to my naïve way of thinking. The Catholicism was lost on this Southern Baptist lad, at least in the beginning, but I immediately recognized the backwoods Protestants that populated her stories. They could have been my relatives. The stories were violent and filled with strange and twisted characters – no happy endings, no riding off into the sunset. People sometimes came to gruesome ends. And yet, it was laugh-out-loud funny to me. The best part of all? It was literature. I was unequivocally hooked. This course truly stretched me, and I was proud to get a B when it was over. I requested to change advisors, wanting to be under this professor’s guidance for the remainder of my undergraduate tenure. I could not have known at that time the central role she and her O’Connor course were to play in my professional journey.

I took history courses as electives in the humanities for my major, enough to earn a minor in the field. Knowing I really didn’t want to teach high school English, I decided to stay on at the college and work toward an M.A. in history. I was a much more serious student now, and my grade point average reflected it. On-campus jobs opened up for me too, like working at a small education museum and archive. This college gave M.A. students an option to earn their degrees by either writing a thesis or by taking additional course work. Maybe I wanted to prove to myself, my professors, and my parents who had sacrificed so much to send me to school that I could write something worthy of a graduate degree, even from a small state college. So, I climbed that steep slope by writing about the desegregation of the county school system where my college was located, using a collection of oral history interviews I conducted with local educators, both white and black.

My graduate school adviser and the supervisor of my thesis was a member of the local public library board. Upon my graduation, he was kind enough to get my foot in the door with the library’s director, who was planning to hire a cataloger. After working a year at the public library, the director encouraged me and another employee to apply for library school at Emory University. It was a two-hour drive from where we lived, but our boss was generous and supportive enough to allow us to work four days a week and commute to Atlanta two days a week over the next two years to earn what the university called a Master of Librarianship. I will always be grateful to her for this opportunity, which launched my professional career. I eventually became the assistant director of the library, and after 12 years I was appointed the director when my boss left the position. I have written another post about some of the more memorable and bizarre experiences during my time working at the public library.

I stayed connected with the O’Connor scholar on campus and worked with her on several projects, the most ambitious being the Flannery O’Connor symposium in 1994. This four-day conference featured celebrated scholars, writers, visual artists, and performers, including Joyce Carol Oates, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, Louise Erdrich, Barry Moser, Polly Holliday, Leo Kottke, and once again, Sally Fitzgerald. People from the community who knew me at all were aware that Flannery O’Connor was my favorite writer, including the lawyer for the literary estate of the author, whose wife also happened to work with me as our children’s librarian. In a blog post from 2015, I wrote about another life-altering event – the day this lawyer walked into my office with a proposal for me to work for the executors of the estate to establish the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation. I accepted the offer. This fork in the path allowed me to use my English and history degrees, my library training, and my administrative experience to help preserve and promote the legacy of a great American writer — what a privilege.

My mentor at the state college eventually retired, but she joined the board of directors of the O’Connor foundation, along with the man who followed her in the position. Both people have influenced and enhanced my life in ways I could never express, and I am forever in their debt. One of the grant-funded projects I initiated as the director of the foundation was a book publication, co-edited by the new O’Connor scholar. At Home with Flannery O’Connor is a collection of oral histories of people who knew the author during the time she lived at her family’s farm home, the headquarters for the foundation that we also operated as a historic house museum. Fortunately, I was familiar with oral history as a research tool from my master’s thesis work.

Flannery O’Connor lived at Andalusia for 13 years, which is exactly how long I remained there as the foundation’s director. In 2017, the property was transferred to O’Connor’s alma mater; however, by that time I had moved on to another job because my wife took a vice-president position at a small private college in northeast Georgia. Earlier that year, the president of this college had accepted a gift of property just north of the campus owned by a foundation of relatives and close friends of another Georgia writer named Lillian Smith. The organization was operating the Lillian E. Smith Center as an artist retreat and a literary landmark while also sponsoring programs for students and community members. The college president wanted to continue these activities and expand the center as an educational facility for his students, faculty, and staff. He had no one to manage the center, and I was as close to a perfect fit for the job as he was going to find.

We stayed at our respective jobs with this college for five years. I am still amazed at how much of what I had learned during the previous 30 years prepared me for this position: from property management to programming, from cataloging to curating, from historic research to historic restoration and preservation. I was even able to resurrect some of my early work experience serving as the college archivist for the president and working with the dean of libraries. I have written posts about Lillian Smith and her encounter with Flannery O’Connor – so many surprising connections and convergences that have touched my life.

In 2018, other opportunities took us away from my home state to Missouri. Through a friend of a friend, I met the dean of libraries at a state college in southwest Missouri where we live now. I find myself once again in a place where I can tap into several decades of professional experience to work on meaningful and rewarding projects, and it all just fell in my lap. I am a special projects coordinator working for the dean. I arrange author visits, public readings, and lectures. I also help install exhibits in the library. I conduct interviews for the library’s growing oral history collection. I am moderating a virtual book club for the alumni of the institution. Contrary to popular opinion, librarians do not just sit around a read all day. I always dreamed of a job where I could get paid to read. How lucky am I that part of my responsibilities are to read for a book club? Even better, I am learning new skills involved with editing videos that the library publishes through its YouTube channel, including the oral history interviews.

My father had several common refrains that contribute to the good memories I have about him. For the most part, he was a man of unquestioning faith, instilled and confirmed by a long life of Southern Baptist doctrine. When he recognized a surprising concurrence of events, he rarely wrote it off as coincidence, especially if the events had serious implications. Instead, he would declare, “As far as I’m concerned, the Lord arranges these things.” With pseudo sophistication and agnostic arrogance, many times I just shook my head and said, “I guess so, Dad,” not really agreeing with his assessment of how the universe works. In retrospect, given how my career path has carried me through the years to such wonderful destinations, maybe I need to hold out the possibility that Dad was right.

Packaging Jesus in America

The United States is a country that knows how to sell. The backbone of entrepreneurship here is not necessarily based on providing a product or service that is valuable. The secret to success in business is convincing Americans that they need or want what you’re selling, and we do it well. Where else could you take a smooth stone, nest it in a little clump of straw, place it in a cardboard box with a tiny book of “instructions,” and sell it for $3.95 as a Pet Rock? An ad executive named Gary Dahl did exactly that in the mid-1970s and became a millionaire in just a few months. Other examples include mood rings, Lucky Break plastic wishbones, and HeadOn headache relief wax. We can probably all think of a few “universities” and other nonprofits that are worthy mentions.

We will sell anything in America, and I mean ANY thing. When I was the director at Andalusia, the historic home of American author Flannery O’Connor, we scooped up red clay from the yard, placed it in small plastic pill bottles, and sold it for .75 a bottle in our little gift shop. We did the same with pond water from the property. Adoring fans and generous supporters of our house museum bought them by the dozens. No, I can’t say I’m proud of stooping to such obnoxious commercialistic measures, but it helped keep the lights on. At least we didn’t make any claims about the supernatural qualities of the clay, with all due respect to the folks at El Santuario de Chimayo who offer up mystical holy dirt on a Native American sacred hill in New Mexico.

Speaking of the sacred, I believe that Americans do a better job at marketing religious belief than just about anything else. We borrow myths and customs from various cultures and across the centuries, synthesizing them into a giant brand that we couple with Christianity, making it a lot more attractive. For example, we skillfully package up the entire Advent season in a display that can practically fit in the palm of your hand – a nativity scene that comes complete with Mary, Joseph, some livestock, and a few shepherds gathered snugly in a small stable admiring the baby Jesus. We even throw in three wise men and a guiding star over the structure, although we know these guys didn’t see the holy family until long after everyone had vacated the manger scene. We simply don’t have room for two dioramas on the coffee table. We have to save room for Santa, the reindeer, and the scioto ceramic Christmas village.

There are other practices to further illustrate the point: bunny rabbits and eggs at Easter combined with passion plays that reduce the death of Christ to a one-act skit. I am reminded of the time I was driving through the foothills of Appalachia in rural north Georgia on a Good Friday back in the late 1990s when I passed a small country church. Thankfully, I happened to turn my head in time to see three large crosses on the front lawn of the church, which would be completely expected. What prompted me to slam on brakes and swerve into the entrance of the adjacent parking lot, however, was the fact that there were three men in what appeared to be white bed sheets draped around their wastes “hanging” on the crosses. They were standing on small pedestals attached to the upright beams and holding on to large spikes driven into both ends of the crossbeams. There were several folks standing at a respectful distance in front of the display taking photographs. No banner or marque could have possibly commanded more attention. The man on the middle cross, playing the part of Jesus, I presumed, had a slightly protruding belly and was offering a modest smile for the photo op. As I moved in closer, I noticed he was also chewing gum. Who wouldn’t want to be in THAT church two days later to celebrate the resurrected Savior? What a shame Flannery O’Connor died before this happened.

Even people who love to celebrate the winter holidays with garish decorations have become disgusted with big-box stores that start filling their shelves with the stuff in early September. Now we can walk into our local Walmart before the summer ends, wander over near the garden section, and find all the accessories we could possibly need for Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas with just one trip. All the aforementioned illustrations may cheapen a faith tradition that is almost 2000 years old, but I don’t find them too offensive really. They simply reflect the way Americans think and operate under the encompassing influence of capitalism, which is the true soul of the Republic, morally bankrupt as it may seem at times.

What I do find reprehensible is how people in high places have notoriously attempted to hijack religion and use it to further their personal or institutional agendas, and Christianity has perhaps fallen victim to this evil form of abuse as much or more than any other faith. It happened with the late Roman Empire, the rise of the papacy, the Crusades, the witchcraft trials, the perpetuation of slavery in America, and many other pivotal points in western history. And it’s happening today – right now. The most effective way to pitch a policy package or promote a public figure to a large block of this country’s population is to make sure Jesus is clearly visible on the label.

All your past and present failures, bad decisions, naughty behavior, crude language – all your transgressions can be immediately forgiven and forgotten as long as you claim that Jesus is your co-pilot. He doesn’t even have to be in charge of the flight! In spite of the separations set forth in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution, the United States throughout its history has wedded patriotism to the Christian faith. You can bet that when most Americans read the phrase “In God We Trust” on their money (why is it still there?), they aren’t conjuring images of Zeus, Shiva, or even Allah. They are envisioning the Christian Trinity.

No other demographic is more committed to maintaining the dominance of Christianity in this country, right up to the three branches of government, than strongly conservative evangelicals. They are a powerful lobby and voting bloc, spreading out over multiple denominations and encompassing all races and socio-economic sectors. Their influence has waned slightly in recent decades as the overall population is becoming more secular, but they have a loud and clear voice in public affairs, especially on the national level. Sadly, even the least qualified candidates can overcome a multitude of sins and ineptitude by claiming they are guided by Biblical principles and dedicated to protecting this brand of Christianity from resistance or competition. By focusing on a few essential staples that evangelical Christians hold sacred, these con artists can easily sell them the rest of the merchandise regardless of how cheap, useless, or even dangerous it may be. Jesus is central to the deal, and we Americans can’t pass up a good deal.

The Beautiful Annabel Lee

Visitors to this blog are no doubt aware that one of my passions is landscape gardening. My love for flowering plants, shrubs, ornamentals, and trees has grown for over thirty years as I’ve experimented with many different species and multiple gardening designs. This avocation has given my wife and me countless hours of pleasure, along with way too many sore muscles and aching joints. In previous posts, I have highlighted some of the side benefits of gardening, such as attracting wildlife. I have also discussed pond construction projects at three different homes.

One of my posts featured the technique of stacked container plantings, which combine vertical interest with the opportunity to group many different plants together compactly. Over the years, I have really come to appreciate container gardening, which has several distinct advantages. Containers are a great option where there is no soil for planting, such as decks, patios, porches, baloneys, steps, paved walkways, or pool decking. They also work well integrated with flower or shrub beds, adding vertical and visual interest with a variety of shapes, sizes, textures, and materials. What can be used as a growing container is only limited by the gardener’s imagination.

In our gardens, we have had a plethora of containers of all shapes and sizes: red clay, glazed ceramic, plastic, coconut husk, peat, wood, metal, glass, and more. Some of these came in bright, cheerful colors. Our most substantial containers, not to mention the heaviest, are made of concrete. Their edges are at least an inch thick, and they can withstand temperatures that dip down in the single digits if they are mostly emptied in the winter and don’t hold much moisture. This feature is especially advantageous as they are much too heavy for us to move once they are in place.

Our absolute favorite concrete planter is one made of the gray cement that is typical of most driveways and foundation walls. Sounds about as basic and boring as you can get, right? What makes this offset cup-shaped planter special is how the side is sculpted in the shape of the lower half of a human face, complete with a chin, lips, philtrum, and just a hint of the lower nose. It usually sits atop a short pedestal made of the same concrete that is sculpted into the shape of a stump, but it looks more like a neck for the face planter.

Annabel Lee 2009
Annabel Lee 2009


The first time we saw the planter in 2009 in a garden center in north Georgia, we were smitten. We backed our pickup truck to a retaining wall with the tailgate down, and the woman running the place helped us gently roll the planter from the berm into the bed of the truck. Once we got it home, we carefully rolled it off the tailgate down a 2×12-inch board, strapped the planter to a set of hand trucks, and wheeled it around the house to its place in our patio garden.

Annabel Lee 2011
Annabel Lee 2011


We both observed that the face looked female and had a rather pensive expression, even without eyes. During the next rain shower, as water streamed down her cheeks, we watched the mood turn to melancholy. In all conditions, her face presents a haunting countenance, perhaps because it is lifeless. It is literally and figuratively like stone, which helped us decide on a name for the planter. “Annabel Lee” is the name of Edgar Allan Poe’s final poem, which is about the death of a beautiful woman. Now, we have our very own Annabel Lee, not “in her sepulchre there by the sea,” but in our garden for all to see.

Annabel Lee 2014
Annabel Lee 2014


Over the years, we have changed up the plants that finish off the top part of Annabel Lee’s face and provide her with hair. Sometimes she has locks draping down the side of her face or the back of her head. Some seasons she has a more punk, spiked look. Once or twice she has channeled Medusa, that Gorgon of Greek mythology that turns everyone else to stone! She makes a wonderful lawn decoration for Halloween and is a year-round centerpiece to the hardscape of the garden. But, at night when her very own spotlight illuminates her cheek and casts shadows across her face, Annabel Lee almost comes to life. It’s a vision powerful enough to inspire Edgar Allan Poe to write just one more verse.

Annabel Lee 2016
Annabel Lee 2016
Annabel Lee 2017
Annabel Lee 2017
Annabel Lee 2019
Annabel Lee 2019
Annabel Lee 2019 Halloween
Annabel Lee 2019 Halloween
Annabel Lee 2020
Annabel Lee 2020

Andalusia’s Outdoor Learning Center

When the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation decided it was time in 2002 to make the author’s farm home in Milledgeville, Georgia, available for public tours, we began exploring various ways we could attract visitors to return to the property after they had already seen the house and outbuildings. Of course, the almost-worshipful fans of O’Connor would travel great distances to make the pilgrimage multiple times and never tire of standing at the door of her bedroom/study, strolling around the farm complex, or sitting in the rockers on the wide front porch to read, chat, or simply gaze across the lawn at the line of trees in the distance. I wrote a post about these folks several years back. However, as the director of the organization, I was charged with developing activities, programs, and attractions that would bring less-devoted visitors back to Andalusia, including locals.

During the thirteen years I was at Andalusia, we developed an annual lecture series, brought authors to the farm, hosted an annual Bluegrass concert, and worked with other institutions and organizations to sponsor various programs on site and around town. We also opened a gift shop that would bring local residents out to the farm, especially near the holidays. We welcomed groups to the property for school field trips, college classes, book club meetings, and even a wedding. Our ongoing restoration projects attracted people from around the state interested in historic preservation.

Bluegrass concert at Andalusia
Bluegrass concert at Andalusia

All these efforts paid off and boosted the annual visitation numbers, which also increased revenue through sales, fees, and donations. The most ambitious project we undertook toward this end was designed to attract visitors who may not have much interest in O’Connor or her work at all – hard to imagine. Beginning in 2003, the Foundation applied for and received a series of grants from private organizations to develop an outdoor learning center. This long-term project helped us expand the interpretation of Andalusia by making the natural connection between O’Connor’s work and the landscape that inspired so much of it.

A good portion of Andalusia is covered in trees, with open fields interspersed across the property. In some areas, the forest is dense enough to act as a buffer from the encroaching development that surrounds Andalusia. A common image in many of O’Connor’s stories is a line of trees, which often serves as a metaphorical passageway to revelation. The woods can be an area of sanctuary or the place for terrifying encounters. At other times, trees are personified, like witnesses to the events unfolding in the story.

The first phase of the outdoor learning center was the renovation of a half-acre livestock pond located down the hill and in view from the front porch of the main house. The pond dated back to the 1950s when the farm was operating as a dairy. Understandably, when in 1976 the PBS producers were looking for a location to shoot their film adaptation of O’Connor’s short story, “The Displaced Person,” they selected Andalusia. Both the opening and closing scenes of that movie were filmed from the dam of the pond, looking back up the hill at the main house. We hired a local independent contractor who had retired from the U.S. Soil and Conservation Department. His team drained the old pond and completely rebuilt the dam with a new drainage pipe. It took several months for the spring fed pond to completely fill again. It was beautiful.

Restored pond and main house at Andalusia
Restored pond and main house at Andalusia

All visitors to O’Connor’s home could appreciate this easily accessible water feature, but for her readers, the pond may have taken on even greater significance. As a devout Roman Catholic, Flannery O’Connor understood the symbolic importance of water, especially the Sacrament of Baptism, and incorporated the theme in her fiction. To many of O’Connor’s characters, water represents purity, initiation, sanctuary, and salvation.  Water provides both literal and figurative cleansing. Some of the most climactic scenes in her fiction involve water.

Restored pond at Andalusia
Restored pond at Andalusia

The second phase of the project took several years to fully accomplish and consisted of two nature trails. The first was a short trail around the pond. The second was a much longer trail through the forest taking off on either side of the dam of the pond. Again, we hired our local pond builder to design the trail and cut the eight-foot wide path through the trees. In two places it crossed Tobler Creek, which runs through the middle of the 544-acre property. In the following years after the trail’s completion, we installed bridges over the creek, other foot bridges over wet areas, benches and picnic tables, and interpretive signs. We were fortunate to have plenty of volunteers from the community, from Georgia College in Milledgeville, and from boy scout troops to help with these enhancements to the trail.

Bridge over Tobler Creek at Andalusia
Bridge over Tobler Creek at Andalusia

Again, this feature of the property is attractive to a broad audience, including school groups and locals looking for a place to enjoy the outdoors and perhaps to get a glance at wildlife. Andalusia is home to a variety of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  Natural stands of pine and hardwoods, along with the open field areas, are ideal habitats for deer, songbirds, dove, quail, turkey, and squirrels.  The undergrowth in the forest offers an environment suitable for smaller animals such as rabbits, chipmunks, armadillos, lizards, and snakes.  The waterways and floodplains provide food and shelter for beavers, frogs, turtles, and aquatic birds, including the great blue heron.  Natural predators on the property include foxes, coyotes, and birds of prey such as hawks and owls.

Nature trail at Andalusia
Nature trail at Andalusia

In 2010, the Foundation decided to name the outdoor learning center after Dr. Bernard McHugh Cline, an uncle of Flannery O’Connor. Dr. Cline was a physician who practiced in Atlanta and acquired the Andalusia property in the early 1930s. He enjoyed raising and riding horses on the farm when he came down from Atlanta on the weekends. Dr. Cline also purchased wooded tracts to the north of the farm from other owners, which remained undeveloped for many years as a wildlife preserve.

Nature trail at Andalusia
Nature trail at Andalusia

The development of the outdoor learning center added to the aesthetic value of Andalusia, but it also provided funding opportunities from grants and donations that even extended beyond the outdoor resources. A major organization that supported the nature trail’s construction later made a significant gift toward the restoration of one of the outbuildings at the farm. Professors and students used the pond and trails to conduct various experiments and to identify and catalog the flora and fauna there. The Foundation hosted workshops, lectures, and other programs exploring the natural resources of the center. I was as pleased with the outcome of this project as I was with any of our accomplishments at Andalusia.

 

In Memory of My Good Friend, Joyce

I met Joyce in “The Commuter” office at the junior college where I began my tenure in higher education. “The Commuter” was the student newspaper, aptly named because there were no residential students at the institution. As I recall, the office was just a small interior room in the student union building, which also housed the offices of student services, a short-order grill, and a room with several billiard tables where I spent way too much time as a freshman resulting in a quarter marked with the stigma of scholastic probation.

By the time I met Joyce, I was gaining clarity and getting more serious about academics, learning to accept some of the responsibility that accompanied the freedom of the college experience. I had also given up on the dream of majoring in biology after encountering chemistry at the college level and discovering it was nothing more than higher math hiding behind glass beakers and Bunsen burners. English classes were always my favorite in high school and where I consistently made the best grades. With encouragement from advisors and after a careful look at the curriculum requirements, I decided an Associate’s Degree in Journalism would be my best hope of staying in school. A wonderful benefit from choosing that path was the friendship I developed with Joyce.

Joyce must have been about 40 years old when I met her. She would have been labeled as a non-traditional student by the college faculty. I’m almost certain she was divorced by then and had several sons, probably ranging from teenagers to young adults. I do not recall if she was returning to school or if she had just decided later in life to pursue a college education. I also don’t remember if she were actually seeking a degree in journalism or just liked writing for the newspaper. I don’t know if she ever received a degree. Our friendship started in 1979, so my recollection of details that long ago is foggy.

Joyce was a contemporary of the two professors, a man and a woman, who ran the journalism program. It was a new experience for me to have a classmate who was halfway in age between me and my parents (I was a “late” child). Junior colleges and community colleges tend to attract nontraditional students, and our institution was no exception. I knew several others by name, but I didn’t associate with them outside our mutual classes, nor did I stay in touch with them after graduating. I knew at the time that Joyce’s life was not an easy one, a stark contrast to my own. She had challenges that I simply could not appreciate at the time – a single mother trying to make ends meet while going to college and taking care of the mundane frustrations of adulthood. Honestly, I will never fully comprehend how tough her journey must have been.

After graduating from the junior college, I left my hometown to pursue my education further at another state school about 45 minutes away; however, I continued to come home on the weekends to work at a grocery store, go out with a girlfriend from high school, wash clothes, and attend church. Being raised in a Southern Baptist church, that last part of the routine was expected and not even questioned. When I wasn’t out on a weekend date, I would often visit Joyce, usually after I left work at 9:00 or 10:00 in the evening. She lived in an apartment complex not far from my home. Perhaps she still had a son living with her at that time, but I don’t recall seeing anyone regularly.

When I arrived, Joyce would ask if I wanted her to put on a pot of coffee, and I imagine the answer was “please” most of the time. She typically drank instant iced tea during my visits. Even though I was of legal age by then, I was always under the influence of Baptist temperance and never alcohol. I don’t remember ever seeing Joyce imbibe. We would sit at her kitchen table sipping our drinks and smoking cigarettes. Joyce was practically a professional smoker, never letting more than a few minutes pass without lighting up. By comparison, I was a novice, only picking up smoking while being around it so much at work and with the journalism students. Although I never would smoke around my parents (my father had quit when I was a child), my mother knew I was doing it and was greatly disappointed.

I’m sure there were plenty of times when Joyce would rather have been alone or was too exhausted to spend a late evening with me, but she never failed to open the door. I probably never called in advance – just showed up like the impertinent, clueless guy I was back then. I don’t know how many times I stayed past midnight, but it was more than once or twice. We sat at that kitchen table and had conversations deeper than my green intellect and Bible-saturated head could properly process. We talked about life, death, love, sex, religion, and more. She was widely read and had a sharp, critical mind. She was full of compassion and never judgmental, but she hated injustice and had no time for moral superiority. Although I don’t remember, I must have taken my guitar with me a few times and sang for Joyce – probably to get her opinion on songs I was composing. I shudder to imagine what she thought of my efforts, but I’m certain she smiled and encouraged me just the same.

Sometimes Joyce would tell me about the latest trouble one of her sons had landed in, which usually involved an arrest and charges for violations associated with drug use. Her eldest son was the one who no doubt kept her up at night when I wasn’t around. She spent so much time pleading with law enforcement officers, prosecutors, lawyers, and influential friends, always defending him unconditionally regardless of the circumstances. Her love was true and unwavering.

After earning my B.A. in English, I decided to stay on at the same college and work towards an M.A. in history. I started working on campus and had no reason to return home every weekend, which meant my visits to see Joyce eventually ended. However, we stayed in touch through correspondence after I graduated, got married, and started a family. I can recall getting thick envelopes with multiple pages of hand-written letters from her, filled mostly with her thoughts about current events and books or the latest news, good or bad, about her sons. She was a much better correspondent than I was. I kept her letters in a box for many years, and I painfully regret that at some point I disposed of them, probably during a move to a new house.

In the mid-1990s, Joyce was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that would ultimately take her life. She got in touch with me and asked me to sing two songs at her memorial service that was going to be held at the Unitarian church. I have no idea if Joyce was a member there or ever attended, but Unitarianism would have been about the only brand of Christianity Joyce could have tolerated. Up to that point, death was more of an abstraction to me, manifested primarily in family visitations and funerals. Joyce’s death was perhaps my first real confrontation with mortality. I visited her once while she was in the hospital to talk about the songs. I was woefully unprepared to fathom the finality she was facing, and I remember asking her, “How are you doing?” She could have easily shot back with, “How the hell do you think I’m doing? I am dying for Christ’s sake!” Instead, she told me she was having a lot of anxiety but that the doctor was giving her medication to help. Gracious, as ever.

Her request was that I accompany myself on the guitar and create two medleys of four songs in the following combinations: “Graceland” by Paul Simon and “In Your Time” by Bob Seger along with “Circle” by Harry Chapin and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a popular Christian hymn written by Ada R. Habershon in 1907. I was more nervous singing those songs than I had ever been up to that point. I had to get it right – no mistakes. I suppose I did. I was honored that Joyce had asked this favor of me. But now, 25 years later, I understand clearly that I didn’t do Joyce a favor at all. Like so many times in the past with our late-night conversations, her sage advice, her endless patience, and her enduring friendship, Joyce was giving me one last gift. She was confirming that I mattered to her, and that my modest musical talent was a worthy expression of my love for her. I am forever grateful, and I am a better human being because of Joyce.

 

 

Bird Sanctuaries

For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated with birds. This is not to say that I am a birdwatcher as that term is normally used. I don’t go out into the forests and glades armed with binoculars and a field guide. I might be able to identify a handful of bird calls, but only the most obvious ones that most people recognize. I know the names of a dozen or so species, perhaps more if I give it some serious thought. The point is, I am not by any stretch of the imagination an expert on feathered creatures. I simply enjoy watching them. More specifically, I like seeing them up close but from the comfort of my house, mostly from indoors. For over forty-five years I have been creating environments around the various places I have lived that would be safe and attractive for wildlife, a topic of one of my previous posts. More than any other creature, birds have remained the primary focus of my energy in this endeavor.

Cardinal and Chickadee on a frozen feeder
Cardinal and Chickadee on a frozen feeder

My father was an electrician by trade, but he was also quite a talented carpenter. I don’t recall if I asked him to build me a bird feeder or if he just decided I might like one, but he constructed a masterpiece just outside my bedroom window using two-inch metal pipe that formed a cross-like structure with braces at the top, to which he attached a corrugated metal roof about 2×3 feet in size. At the cross bar, about a foot or so below the roof, he attached two square wooden trays with small rims to hold bird seed. He completed the structure with a sheet-metal baffle cone attached to the pipe just below the wooden trays. It would be more accurate to say that my father had built a bird restaurant, which was typical of his approach to all backyard projects. He once erected a woodshed just behind our house that was better constructed than many of the houses in our town and could store enough firewood for a dozen Minnesota winters. We lived in middle Georgia.

Unfortunately, when Dad secured the feeder in the ground with concrete, the baffle wasn’t high enough to stop squirrels from taking a running leap up the pole, bouncing off the metal, and grabbing the edge of the wooden trays to then gorge themselves on seed. To thwart the rodents’ gluttonous invasions, my father once coated the pole with axle grease. Not to be deterred, the furry critters repeatedly and with astounding diligence would jump on the slick pole, slide to the ground, and repeat the routine until their white bellies were quite black and saturated with grease, thus cleaning the pole to the extent that they could once again raid the seed trays. We eventually gave up and just resigned ourselves to buy enough seed to satisfy the squirrels and feed the birds. Later, I started putting seed on the brick ledge below my window that only the birds could reach, allowing me to be only inches away from them as they pecked away at millet and sunflower seeds.

When I permanently moved away from home, I dug up the homemade feeder and carried it with me to at least two of my homes. Finally, the wooden trays began to rot due to my neglect, and I disposed of the feeder. It also took up too much space in my small yards. Moving forward, I elected to buy more traditional feeders at the big box stores and at boutique bird shops. I have mounted them on deck railings, attached them to tree trunks, and hung them from poles. I have watched them be ravaged by squirrels and raccoons. I have seen one completely destroyed by what must have been a black bear, sightings of which were frequent at our home in north Georgia. I was thrilled when stores began to stock their shelves with safflower seeds, which squirrels tend to dislike and leave alone. Our current backyard in southwest Missouri has only small trees, providing little protection for squirrels but plenty of shelter for the birds. The twin feeders we have are equipped with a well-designed baffle high enough off the ground to prevent the pesky varmints from reaching the bird’s dinner. Victory at last. Let them eat acorns like God intended.

Finches feasting
Finches feasting

In addition to feeders, I have added water features to our gardens. Birds need fresh water for drinking and bathing. They are also attracted to running or moving water, probably because it facilitates bathing and usually indicates freshness. Currently, we only have a store-bought metal bird bath; however, at previous homes I built two garden ponds, each equipped with a cascading waterfall. Songbirds would often splash around in and drink from the small pools formed by the cascade. Even when we lived on a lake, we had one of these ponds in the yard, and ducks became regular visitors. They liked paddling around in the water.

Ducks at our pond
Ducks at our pond

There are certain elements of nature that, for lack of a better expression, are good for my soul. Most of these are grand in scale, such as beaches, high mountains, waterfalls, noisy rivers, public gardens, or sprawling vistas of the desert southwest. I have witnessed all of these many times, and they never disappoint me. But, I also get hours of pleasure by simply sitting in a chair on the deck or peering through the window and watching Cardinals, Chickadees, Bluebirds, Yellow Finches, Grosbeaks, Woodpeckers, and many other birds (yes, even sparrows) as they chirp, flit around, perch, and fill their bellies with seed and suet. They are like flowers that fly. It gives me great joy to help care for them.

Sparrow nesting on the porch
Sparrow nesting on the porch

New Orleans: A City With A Soul

Why do we visit cities when we travel? Are we looking for specific attractions? Does the history of the place intrigue us? Does the city host unique activities or events? All these features and more make certain cities special destinations. The most memorable ones I have visited fit this description, but the ones that stand out have something else that is less tangible but even more appealing. They have a soul. Perhaps there are more appropriate words to express this quality, but I believe most people know it when they experience it. For me, the city that best embodies this kind of magic is New Orleans.

Vegas has its casinos; L.A. has its tinsel; New York has its skyscrapers; well, you get the idea. Admittedly, the sites of New Orleans are not necessarily distinguishable from those of other major cities in the U.S. There is the National World War II Museum, the famed Garden District, the Louisiana State Museum, the Mississippi River, the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, the Audubon Zoo, and the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. These attractions are fine, but the rich history, the clash of cultures, the musical heritage, the religious undercurrent, the culinary delights, and old-world architecture all come together to breathe life into New Orleans.

Canal Street
Canal Street

New Orleans certainly has a soul, but it also has a heart: the French Quarter. Dating from the early 18th century, this neighborhood is one of the oldest in the city. It is famous for its fine restaurants, charming hotels, the French Market, quirky antique stores, and of course, the bars. It is an area steeped in tradition, and millions of visitors to the city each year can’t resist taking advantage of opportunities like a late-night run for mouthwatering, powdery beignets and coffee served at Café Du Monde, an establishment dating back to 1862!

Café Du Monde
Café Du Monde

The heart of New Orleans has a sound, and it is music. As is true with most large cities, almost all musical genres are represented here, from full symphonic to alternative rock and country. However, it is jazz that people from around the world most associate with New Orleans. Although its roots come out of Africa and some areas of Europe, jazz as a formal style was born in New Orleans in the early 20th century. Perhaps the best-known jazz spot in New Orleans is Fritzel’s European Jazz Club, hosting live traditional performances every night of the week. We took my older son to New Orleans in 2010 to see one of his favorite bands, Pearl Jam, perform at an annual weekend festival that offers a wide variety of musical forms but pays tribute to the city’s original creation. The event is officially called New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, but most folks know it as JazzFest.

JazzFest 2010
JazzFest 2010

What keeps the heart of New Orleans beating? Anybody who has ever been there knows, without a doubt, it is Bourbon Street. The street is not named for the whiskey, as many people assume, but for the French royal family ruling at the time this district was established, decades before the birth of America as a nation. Perhaps the most familiar street in the country, this thoroughfare extends thirteen blocks from Canal Street to Esplanade Avenue and is lined with bars, music halls, boutique hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and a menagerie of street performers, artists, musicians, and bohemians. Just about anything goes – if you can’t find it here, you won’t find it anywhere.

Bourbon Street
Bourbon Street

Our sons are grown men now, but we still look for opportunities to all get together whenever possible, especially near the holidays at the end of the year. In 2016, we decided to splurge and enjoy a nontraditional Thanksgiving away from home. We chose New Orleans for the occasion, and it was fabulous. We stayed at Hotel Chateau Lemoyne, a historic property one block off Bourbon operated by Holiday Inn that had its own little jazz bar. What a treat! We had Thanksgiving lunch at Red Fish Grill, which was transformed into a magnificent buffet with various “stations” located throughout the restaurant – the food was amazing. We took in several of the sites near and around the French Quarter mentioned earlier, including a cocktail at the Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone. Mostly, we spent our time meandering down Bourbon Street, “drinking” in the atmosphere of the places, and listening to the heartbeat of this wonderful city.

Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone
Carousel Bar at Hotel Monteleone

 

Toward a Better Understanding of Our Species: A Reading List

Over the last few years, I have been on a binge reading books about the human species — everything from how we got here to where we might be going. These studies have explored topics such as evolutionary biology, immunology, sociology, psychology, futurology, and perhaps a few other ologies I can’t identify. Mostly, these books have been enlightening, informative, and even entertaining at times. I decided to share some of my favorites here.

Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation by Bill Nye (audio version)

It takes a special talent to translate complicated scientific principles to lay readers like me. One of my favorite scientists who excelled at it was Carl Sagan, so it was no surprise to learn that Bill Nye was a student of Sagan. I have read and listened to many books through the years exploring the topic of evolution, and this is certainly one of the most accessible. The inspiration for this book comes from a debate the author had back in 2014 with Ken Ham, founder of the Young Earth creationists. He spends some time in the first part of the book presenting the major points he and Ham made in the debate, and he refers to the event on several occasions in subsequent chapters. In reality, the debate is just a launching point. Nye’s discussions mostly focus on science, leaving creationism in the dust.

Bringing to the table his skills as an entertainer, a television personality, and a fine writer, Bill Nye presents a fine overview of evolution — not just human evolution, but evolution of life on this planet and even speculation on how life may have evolved and may still be evolving elsewhere in the universe. Hearing him read his own book makes the narrative even more compelling, and his quirky sense of humor keeps it from getting dry or boring. Bill Nye is still making science fun! Highly recommended for readers who like popular science and aren’t looking for too much detail or depth.

The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease by Daniel H. Lieberman

Lieberman takes a different approach to evolution and human origins than what I have seen thus far in most books. Using human evolutionary principles to explain the development of environmentally and socially induced medical problems turns out to be astounding, and for the most part, convincing. The author uses the latest fossil evidence to provide a chronicle of the development of modern humans, tracing our origins back to the earliest hominids and even more archaic common ancestors. Perhaps this discussion gets a bit too deep in the weeds for the ultimate purpose of the book, but I have always been interested in the topic and didn’t mind the extensive review. Readers who are short on time can probably skip the first section on human origins and still benefit from the rest of the book.

Lieberman uses terms like “mismatch” and “de-evolution” to explain how human culture, especially in affluent parts of the world, has facilitated ailments or diseases that are partially if not completely avoidable. As humans moved away from being hunters/gatherers to farmers and eventually industrialists, we developed some rather bad habits of excess and self-indulgence that our bodies have not evolved to handle very well. Instead of addressing the root causes of the problems, we have used our well-developed brains to create methods of treating the symptoms with varying degrees of success.

It seems to me that Lieberman’s observations are indisputable when he writes about unhealthy diets and sedentary lifestyles resulting in illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Toward the end of the book he employs more speculation about issues such as overcrowded wisdom teeth, foot problems, and myopia, but even so these chapters are thought-provoking and carefully explored. Lastly, Lieberman is another good writer and joins the league of scientists who can make complex subjects accessible for lay people. Well done.

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

If there were one word to best describe Sapolsky’s book in my mind, it would have to be “thorough.” Okay, “long” would work too, but that would make me sound like a simpleton. Truthfully, there were times during this book that I felt like one. Sapolsky spends a good portion of his book explaining how the various systems of the human body work in concert to shape our behavior: the brain, hormones, sensory organs, nerves, etc. For the lay reader, the detailed descriptions of the brain’s components alone, with their complicated functions and not-so-familiar names, are challenging enough. Then again, we are warned by the subtitle that this is a book of biology. Sapolsky provides more neuroscience than most of us probably need in order to accept his conclusions about how the body, right down to the molecular level, functions with our environment, circumstances, and experiences to make us behave or misbehave. Honestly, at times it gets a bit laborious.

The author’s amount of documentation is staggering. He addresses a host of other scientists and social scientists whose research in human behavior parallels his own, and I think his treatment of them is respectful and fair, even though he may disagree with their findings. He is also never short on evidence and examples to substantiate his own findings, sometimes to a fault. He has a tendency to repeat historical events to support his claims, such as the World War I Christmas truce of 1914 between British and German soldiers or the My Lai Massacre on March 16, 1968 during the Vietnam War.

Getting to the heart of this book is difficult without resorting to cliché and oversimplification. By the time I finished, I had decided that human behavior is complicated and that there are far too many internal and external factors involved to come up with a unified theory on why we do what we do. Evolution, genes, DNA, secretions, and synapses all play their part, but they are no more essential in our actions than upbringing, peer pressure, education, traditions, and a whole host of outside influences. Our behavior is shaped as much by what happened to our hominid ancestors thousands of years ago as it is by what happened to us an hour before we committed some act of compassion or cruelty. On a grand scale, our behavior as a species is somewhat predictable. On an individual level, not so much.

This is a book worth reading, even though it will occupy many hours of your time. Aside from the science and psychology, it’s entertaining. Sapolsky is quite funny, blending in pop culture references, occasional profanity, and good old clever wit. He has a talent for breaking down intricate scientific principles with common, everyday illustrations to which almost anyone can relate. For those who have a serious interest in this area of study, Behave is worth the time. I predict it will be an important addition to the scholarship for years to come.

Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents

It is clear from early on in his book that Lents has a side motive in this study, which is to dispel the myth of intelligent design in biology, specifically human biology. The paraphrased common refrain throughout the book is “if you were an engineer tasked with designing the human body, this is not the most efficient means by which to achieve the goal.” One of the most interesting parts of the book to me is the assortment of problems humans have as a result of not yet fully evolving to upright, bi-pedal locomotion. Many of our joints and bones are subject to easier injury. Our sinuses try to defy gravity by draining upward instead of downward. And then there is the deadliest problem of all — women trying to give birth to infants with big heads through a narrow pelvis.

Although the author focuses on human “errors,” he also mentions when other species do or do not share our evolutionary challenges. Readers are given detailed explanations of issues associated with vision, swallowing and breathing through the same tube, diet, vitamin production, reproduction, immunity, and even cognition and social interaction. He will perhaps lose a few readers toward the end of the book when he explores the prospect of immortality, which delves a bit deeply into the speculative.

As other scientists have observed (like Lieberman above), Lents argues that modern technology and especially modern medical advances have made, and will continue to make, evolutionary adaptations unnecessary, thus altering the “survival of the fittest” model of passing on genes from one generation to the next. I suspect the jury is still out on whether or not that modification will be beneficial to our species in the long run.

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Rowan Hooper

I have read other books about people with extraordinary abilities (memory, strength, musical talent, etc.), but Hooper covers a range of amazing traits and characteristics, some of which are not so mysterious but nevertheless admirable. He includes individuals who have faced incredible injury, disability, and other challenges with remarkable grace and joy. He even explores what it means to be happy. I found the chapter on sleep and dreams the most fascinating of all. It’s an uplifting exploration of humanity and the potential of our species.

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker

Speaking of sleep, here’s a book that received considerable attention in the media. Perhaps a more accurate title would be Why We Must Sleep. Adding “dreams” in the subtitle is almost a ruse to attract more readers, but we can give Walker a break here – he does include a discussion on dreams, but it is not even close to being the main attraction. Nor should it be. This book explores the necessity of sleep while explaining in detail its different phases and their importance. The author freely admits in the opening pages that he loves sleep, and he has obviously devoted his career to the study of it, not just in humans, but many species.

The overwhelming conclusion is that sleep is not an option nor a luxury. It is absolutely essential to survival. Perhaps most of us could have guessed that, but Walker presents us with an ocean of data to prove it and drive the point home convincingly. There are some fascinating stories in this book about sleep research that most of us have never dreamed of (sorry), and again, not just on humans.

The major takeaway from the book is simple. In order to remain healthy and happy, people need to be consistently getting 7-8 hours of sleep a night (9 hours wouldn’t hurt, but don’t go far beyond that threshold). Walker argues, not always convincingly but most of the time, that sleep deprivation can harm us in almost every way we can fathom — physically, mentally, and emotionally. I expected him at any moment to write, “You know that ingrown toenail that’s been bothering you for the last few weeks?”

Anybody who cares anything at all about general health and how to improve it should read this book. Of course, anyone interested in sleep has to read it. I can’t imagine a more thorough study of the subject for a popular audience. Fair warning: Walker is a scientist and a purist. He is laying out the facts to the best of his knowledge, which is extensive. There is no sensible approach or moderation, no wiggle room. If you want the very best sleep, and by extension the best health, you have to give up everything that hinders sleep, including alcohol, caffeine, jobs that interfere with sleep schedules, late-night activities, etc. And don’t even think about sleeping pills! Therapy is the ONLY answer to sleeping disorders. This level of slumber austerity is going to be rejected by most people, but at least we can be better aware of how important sleep is to our well-being and do our best to get a little, or a lot, more shut eye.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari 

I know this book gets dinged by reviewers for some outrageous claims, unsubstantiated conclusions, and superficial treatment of 100,000 years worth of history. Much of the criticism is warranted. For instance, one of Harari’s recurring suppositions is that humans from the past, although they lived in more hostile environments, were no less “happy” than people in modern civilization. This revelation shouldn’t come as a surprise if we consider that humans can only truly appreciate the living conditions of the present, not the future. Most of us are content with our world as it is because it is all we know.

Still, Harari is a good writer with some thought-provoking theories. He charts the process of how our modern species won the evolutionary competition to become the dominant primate and eventually reshape the global environment. At times he pushes the iconoclastic approach a bit too far in order to ramp up the buzz factor, and thus more readers. Based on the sales, his strategy worked. Academic historians are not going to be pleased, and critical readers of history will probably be disappointed. Popular audiences have enjoyed it immensely, and that’s fine. Most readers will take away a few fascinating nuggets from this ambitious survey of human history.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari 

Harari waits until the very end of his book to tell readers that the previous 450 pages of forecasting are not really a prophesy, only an exploration of possibilities. Some of the ideas will sound ridiculous, but many of them are certainly plausible. The discussion of a hybrid creature combining human and machine that could possibly surpass homo sapiens to become the dominant species is not so far fetched. Interestingly, Harari spends an unusual amount of time near the beginning of the book writing about religion and its impact on human evolution and modern society, which may explain the title. It’s almost as if this could be two different books. The only place that the book became tiresome for me was the final chapter on data. If I had to classify it, I would describe Homo Deus as speculative nonfiction. I think his previous book, Sapiens, is more important. If we don’t take it too seriously, Homo Deus is a fun and intriguing read.

Say What? Thoughts on the Absurdities of Speaking and Hearing

I have written about language and communication in previous posts on this blog, mainly because they interest me and because a good portion of my professional life has focused on these topics. The most popular blog post I have published to date is the “Southern Word of the Day” (there are five installments so far), which is a rip-off of Jeff Foxworthy’s hilarious observation of the thick southern accent. I have also taken a more serious approach of examining how sophisticated written language sets humans apart as a species in a post titled “What Separates Us from Dogs and Cabbage.”

We all know that language is sometimes inadequate in expressing thoughts and emotions, illustrated in the common expression that words fail us. At times, this shortcoming is terribly frustrating and even heartbreaking. We are also aware that our brains, along with the mouths and ears they control, are occasionally responsible for epic blunders that can lead to hurt feelings or even catastrophe. Fortunately, most of these miscommunications just end up being incredibly funny, at least after some time has passed.

Whispering
Whispering

The worn-out party icebreaker game of Pass the Message or Chinese Whisper illustrates how anyone can mishear a statement and pass it down a line of listeners, ending up with an absurd distortion of the original message. I think there is a funnier, real-life example. With the advent of the Internet it happens less often now, but who hasn’t had the experience of singing a song for years only to discover that you’ve been singing the wrong words all along? Perhaps the most memorable one is the line from the old Creedence Clearwater Revival song that most people from my generation misheard as “there’s a bathroom on the right.” My favorite personal experience goes back to my teenage years when my father was trying to acclimate himself to pop music. One day, out of the blue, he asked me, “Have you heard that song where they keep singing ‘shake your fool head?’” Of course, he had been listening to KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Shake Your Booty.”

It’s fascinating to me that human beings are so impressionable when it comes to language, especially with accents. Someone who was raised in Minnesota can spend a few years in Alabama, and upon returning to his home state, he finds that his old friends are recognizing a southern twang in his voice. However, sometimes that effect can be more immediate – much more immediate in the case of my mother. She went to the emergency room one time complaining with pains in her upper abdomen. The doctor on duty that evening was most likely from India, and his distinct accent was characteristic for someone raised in the subcontinent. He asked her, “Where does it HUT?” Pointing to her lower chest, my sweet mother replied with no intention whatsoever of mocking her physician, “It HUTS right here.”

When thinking about strong accents, I am always reminded of the nasal magnolia brogue of the Georgia writer Flannery O’Connor. There are recordings of her reading from her own work and being interviewed on television, where we can hear her deep southern pronunciations in words like “wrytah” (writer) and “stawries” (stories). There is the now apocryphal though not unbelievable account of the occasion when O’Connor, as a student at the State University of Iowa, walked into the office of Paul Engle, director of the Writers Workshop. She introduced herself, but her strong accent forced Engle to ask her to repeat herself several times. In a state of exasperation, he finally told her to write down what she was saying so he could understand her. Supposedly, she wrote, “My name is Flannery O’Connor. I am not a journalist.” Apparently, this was her way of communicating to Engle her desire to give up pursuing a journalism degree and to be admitted into the Workshop.

Anecdotes of the breakdown of language are probably endless, but I will close these comical contemplations with one of my favorites of all time. Noisy conditions, bad phone connections, and poor hearing are just a few contributing factors to misunderstandings and even the dissemination of inaccurate information. However, sometimes communication is sabotaged by inexperience, carelessness, or downright stupidity. I won’t attempt to classify one of the best examples of being misunderstood that ever happened to me. I will leave that to the reader’s judgment. I was being interviewed over the phone once by a reporter from a local small-town newspaper. At the end of our conversation, the young woman asked me for my title, to which I replied, “I am the executive director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation.” The story in the newspaper the following week identified me as “the executive decorator of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation.” Some of my friends thought I had gotten a promotion.