12 months ago

Alabama’s Margaret Renkl, writer for New York Times, launches first book, ‘Late Migrations’

A couple of years ago, Alabama native Margaret Renkl, who had made a career out of writing and editing, was stressed. Really stressed.

Living in Nashville, she had moved her mother up from Birmingham to help take care of her in her final years.

“After my mom died, and my husband’s parents had moved up here, too, it really was unbearable,” she says. “I was dealing with grief and caregiving, and two of my three children were still living at home. It was a lot.”

Then, at the Southern Festival of Books, Renkl ran into an editor from The New York Times. The newspaper was starting a new series, The End, about end-of-life issues, and he urged her to write about her experience.

“I ended up working, first thing in the morning, 15 minutes a day, on an essay about my mother’s death and my mother-in-law dying, and at the end of the month, I sent it in, and they bought it,” Renkl says. “I did another piece, and they bought that, also. By that time, I was feeling a lot more confident.”

Her mother-in-law had also passed away, so Renkl had a bit more time.

“I was still sorting through these issues about grief, but I didn’t think of them as a book,” she says.

But they were a book, at least the beginnings of one, and last month Renkl released “Late Migrations,” a book of essays about two of Renkl’s passions – her family and the natural world.

The book has received rave reviews from celebrities and bibliophiles alike. Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine says Renkl “guides us through a South lush with bluebirds, pecan orchards and glasses of whiskey shared at dusk in this collection of prose in poetry-size bits.” Author Ann Patchett says the book has the makings of “an American classic … beautifully written, masterfully structured and brimming with insight into the natural world.” Actress Reese Witherspoon says Renkl “is the most beautiful writer. I love this book.” “Late Migrations” has been featured on NPR and in Garden & Gun and People magazines, among others.

It’s all a bit surprising to Renkl, who graduated from Auburn University with a degree in English in 1984 and earned her master’s at the University of South Carolina.

“The structure is unusual, and the subject is often sad,” Renkl says. “It’s a meditation on grief some ways, and I think we as a culture aren’t comfortable talking about death and grief. I’ve been surprised and heartened by the response.”

Renkl was born in Andalusia, but she moved to Birmingham while in first grade.

“The world I lived in in Birmingham was completely different from the world I lived in heretofore,” she says. “We went back to lower Alabama all the time, because my grandparents still lived there. That was pretty foundational for the way I think of my growing-up years.”

Renkl’s father was in real estate development, building apartment complexes, and she and her family would move from site to site, wherever her father’s company was building a complex.

“It’s a little ironic that I spent so much time in the outdoors, because we were living in the woods that my father’s company was tearing down,” says Renkl, who graduated from Homewood High School.

She and her brother, Billy, an artist who provided illustrations for “Late Migrations,” forged their collaboration early on with childhood books of poetry and illustrations. Later, Billy would be her art director when she was editor of her high school newspaper and also when she was editor of the Circle literary magazine at Auburn.

After graduate school, Renkl taught high school, but in her 10th year of teaching, she found herself on bed rest while pregnant with her second child, and since she couldn’t teach, she had to “find a way to make some money.”

She launched a 12-year freelancing career with an essay for Glamour magazine and later edited Chapter 16, an online journal for Humanities Tennessee, for 10 years.

After that, The New York Times, a publication she had failed to sell freelance essays to after several tries, came calling, and she began writing for The End. The Times soon hired her to write a regular monthly column, and six months later, they asked her to write weekly.

“I asked for my first contract to be six months instead of a year, because I wasn’t completely convinced I could come up with something every week,” Renkl says. “Then I signed a contract for a year, then another for a year. I’m pretty happy with the arrangement.”

As a regular writer for The Times, Renkl writes about “flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South,” according to the newspaper. She has written about her familyanimals and politics.

In the meantime, Renkl was continuing to write essays about her family – the grief of losing her mother, mother-in-law and, earlier, her father – and, thanks to her disdain for the 2016 political season and its aftermath, nature. “I started writing a little nature blog that had pretty much zero audience, but writing about the natural world reminded me that what was happening in the political arena was only temporary,” she says. “At some point, the other women in my writer’s group said, ‘You know this is a book, right? … This is a book about longing and loss in many different contexts.’”

Milkweed Editions agreed and worked with Renkl on “Late Migrations,” which includes memoir-type essays along with essays on nature and drawings by her brother.

“This was his family, too,” Renkl says. “So it seemed natural to me to have my story of my family include work by him. … Also, Billy’s artwork is very often about birds and insects and stars and flowers and leaves.”

Initially, Renkl paired her work with pieces her brother had already created, but he ended up creating 20 original pieces for “Late Migrations.”

“As I was reading the early drafts of the book, I came to realize that I wanted to use my voice to amplify the beautiful connections between Margaret’s backyard observations of nature and her stories about our family,” Billy Renkl says. “Eventually, I decided to aim for a carefully calibrated relationship between images that seemed to reference the history of wildlife identification guidebooks and family photo albums – images that were equal parts objective observation and idiosyncratic family myth.”

Though some have referred to “Late Migrations” as a memoir, Renkl disagrees.

“To me, that means comprehensive and complete,” she says. “These essays make no pretense to be comprehensive. I’m not telling the story of my life. I consider it primarily to be a meditation on loss and human life and in the natural world. I took great comfort, in writing both sets of essays, in seeing how what happens to us in human life is being played out all around in the natural world.”

Renkl says her parents would have loved “Late Migrations.”

“They were so proud of me, and the book is a love letter to them,” she says. “It’s a love letter to family life, to the natural world. It’s a praise song. They would have loved that.”

Margaret Renkl will be signing “Late Migrations” on Sept. 4 at 6 p.m. at Pebble Hill in Auburn; and Read Herring books, 105 S. Court St. in Montgomery, on Sept. 5. You can find her book tour schedule here.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

14 hours ago

VIDEO: Will Dismukes’ troubles mount, calls for more stimulus may never end, Governor Kay Ivey keeps the masks on and more on Alabama Politics This Week …

Radio talk show host Dale Jackson and Alabama Democratic Executive Committee member Lisa Handback take you through this week’s biggest political stories, including:

— Can State Rep. Will Dismukes (R-Prattville) survive the latest news to come out of the event he appeared at for Nathan Bedford Forrest?

— Will politicians in Washington, D.C. ever be able to stop creating stimulus programs without the economy totally collapsing?

— How much longer will we be wearing masks in public?

Jackson and Handback are joined by Yellowhammer News reporter Henry Thornton to talk about all that is happening in Montgomery in regard to Dismukes, prison reform and more.

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Jackson closes the show with a “parting shot” aimed at people trying to defend Dismukes and those holding a 199th birthday party for Nathan Bedford Forrest.

https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=304131553974923

Dale Jackson is a contributing writer to Yellowhammer News and hosts a talk show from 7-11 AM weekdays on WVNN.

17 hours ago

Should we trust experts?

Experts in public health and epidemiology have driven policymaking during the COVID-19 pandemic. How much should we trust experts? Critics dismiss Republicans who voice distrust of experts as anti-science. Yet even experts know very little about complex economies and societies.

Frustration with experts does cross party lines. New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo recently remarked of experts’ forecasts of hospital usage, “They were all wrong.”

The “Wisdom of Crowds” argument, wonderfully explained by James Suroweicki, provides a first reason for doubt. Numerous seemingly poorly informed opinions can be remarkably wise. Mr. Suroweicki relates a story from British scientist Francis Galton about a contest at a country fair in 1906. Nearly 800 people paid sixpence to guess the weight of an ox (after being slaughtered and dressed); the average was only one pound off.

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The theory of efficient financial markets illustrates another reason for skepticism. An old joke was that darts thrown at the stock page were as reliable as a broker’s recommendations. Why? Stock prices quickly incorporate all available information. With all information priced, a stock price is as likely to go up as down. The market can be consistently beaten only with inside information.

The central planning of socialism represents the most thorough application of expertise to an economy. Proponents thought that “scientific” socialism would replace the chaos and waste of the market with rationally ordered economic activity. Only a handful of economists in the 1930s and 1940s, notably Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, argued coherently that socialism would fail.

Socialism failed in part due to the different nature of truths in the physical and social sciences. Truth in the physical sciences in general and timeless: water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit and boils at 212 degrees. Truth in economics depends on time and place. Are trains the best way to travel between American cities? True in the latter half of the 1800s, but now flying and driving dominate.

Another factor is the subjective value of goods and services, meaning based on the wants, needs and desires of consumers. Goods are valuable because people will pay money for them. People differ greatly in their wants and needs, making it nearly impossible to predict what will be valuable, as pet rocks from the 1970s and the variety of videos on YouTube with millions of views illustrate.

Experts are disadvantaged on economic questions. Truths cannot be learned from a textbook, may not hold everywhere (or anywhere tomorrow), and depend on idiosyncratic consumer preferences.

The other part of the argument against socialism is the miraculous degree of coordination in markets. Thousands of products from around the world are available in a grocery store without preordering a week in advance. The times we can’t get what we want, like the recent toilet paper shortage, stand out.

By contrast, central planning in the former Soviet Union produced empty shelves. People would wait in line for hours to buy goods. Russians would join lines without even asking what people were waiting for.

No one would hold a high school dance without a committee to plan the event. Yet the market economy has no one in charge, no one with the power to command others. Coordination occurs voluntarily and is called spontaneous order. And the market does not merely repeat what was done yesterday, it offers improvements too. No one ordered Mark Zuckerberg to start Facebook, he just decided to try.

Politicians rely on experts to devise policies because America has, in Abraham Lincoln’s words, a government “for the people.” In America, restrictions on our freedom can be justified only if they make us – as opposed to the rulers – better off.

Politicians consequently seek out the experts willing to justify policies. Economists who do not understand economic knowledge, subjective value and spontaneous order will offer unrealistic claims about how government will improve our lives. Such experts exhibit what Professor Hayek called, “The Fatal Conceit.” We should not trust experts who are unaware of the limits of their expertise.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

20 hours ago

Alabama principal’s viral music video Hammers home COVID-19 guidelines

While educators are figuring out how to safely return to school, one principal wants to make sure kids remember to laugh and enjoy life, even during a worldwide pandemic.

Dr. Quentin Lee, principal at Childersburg High School, recently created a video parody of MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” song, complete with dance moves and warnings to sanitize and social distance, all in the name of safety and good, carefree fun.

“Doing silly stuff is something I really enjoy,” Lee said in an interview Thursday with Alabama NewsCenter. “I released a song in May about my feelings toward COVID, and it was just me sitting at my desk screaming. It made national media, and I figured it was time to do something different.”

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Donning a Childersburg Tiger blue facemask and armed with a light blue can of Lysol, Lee in the video dances his way through CDC-recommended guidelines, repeatedly warning unconcerned students that they “can’t touch this.”

The production of the video – from writing of the original lyrics by Lee to production of the music video by local film director Jaylen Mitchell of City Vizualz – took around 24 hours.

“I wrote the lyrics in fifteen minutes,” Lee said. “I called Jaylen and he came to the school to record. I had the video by 10 that night.”

Getting volunteers to star in the video wasn’t too difficult. The student actors are Zay Youngblood, Jaden Robinson and Aniyah Oden. Teacher Jessica Veazey also makes a cameo.

“They were nervous at first, but they knew it was gonna be something fun,” Lee said. “Zay said there was a zero percent chance of him dancing. They played their parts to a T. It was just fun to hang out, and they did phenomenal.”

Lee posted the 2 minute 13 second video to his YouTube channel around 2:20 p.m. Tuesday. By Friday, it had been viewed more than 182,000 times. It doesn’t hurt that a popular Alabama television meteorologist shared the video from his Facebook and Twitter accounts.

“Quite frankly, I think we all could use a good laugh and a smile,” James Spann tweeted.

And unlike, well, almost anything on social media, comments about the video have been completely positive.

“I hope the students at this school realize how lucky they are. I’d have loved to have had a principal like this when I was in school. Loved the video!” – Nobody Home

“We didn’t have cool principals when I was in school. He makes you WANT to come to school.” – AlabamaDad

In thanking God for his creativity, Lee said the response to the video has been overwhelming and exactly what he was hoping for.

“I’ve been reconnected to a lot of people from my past – high school and college friends,” he said. “Parents and teachers are so proud. Having conversations with the kids and Ms. Veazey and all the interviews have been fun.

“We are working tirelessly to make sure school is a place where students can be accepted, loved, and clean,” he continued. “Everybody needs love, regardless of political party or ethnic background. If we can allow people to laugh and forget about their problems, then we’ve accomplished the goal.”

Childersburg is part of the Talladega County School system, which has a hybrid plan for returning to school on Aug. 20.

Group A will attend classes on Monday and Tuesday, Lee said. Group B will attend on Thursday and Friday, and the two groups will alternate on Wednesday. When students are not physically at school, they will participate in distance learning.

“Talladega County is a one-to-one system, so students have access to a device that they take home,” he said. “Most students have internet, and we’re looking for resources to help provide internet for the ones that don’t have wifi at home.”

Lee said at least two or three buses in every community route are equipped with wifi, which can also be used by students in the neighborhoods where those buses are parked overnight.

“There’s no perfect plan, but we have to find plans that best meet the needs of the students,” he said. “The superintendents have a tough job, and I applaud their efforts to educate the students and keep everyone safe.”

Lee said he recently held a “Kickin it with Dr. Lee” virtual meeting and dozens of students attended. The purpose was to begin driving home that point that the school will be enforcing all of the health community’s COVID-related guidelines – washing hands, wearing masks, social distancing, etc.

“It will be uncomfortable,” he said, “but I’d rather be doing that than going to a memorial service because we were negligent.”

The video parody helps reinforce that message. Lee said the dance moves were less a matter of learning the choreography and more about recalling muscle memory from copying MC Hammer’s moves in his 1990 hit song and video, “Can’t Touch This.”

“I love to dance, and I remember trying to mimic all his dance routines,” Lee said. “When I went to Alabama A&M, I did the routine at the battle of the bands.” He said many of his student’s weren’t alive when MC Hammer released the song,”so it’s an opportunity for parents and kids to talk and connect.”

Lee said he’s not looking to challenge any other principals to a dance-off, but he does challenge them to do whatever it takes to reach their students.

“Find out where your kids are and meet that need,” he said. “Find some kind of mode to be connected with our kids.”

Lee said his hope is that those who see the video will get a good laugh while also taking to heart the underlying message of protecting themselves and others from the coronavirus.

“We have got to make safety a cool thing,” he said. “If we don’t see the warning signs, we’ll be doomed for destruction.

“By following these guidelines, we could save someone’s life.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

21 hours ago

Alabama Power volunteers throw final birthday party for closing children’s home

Most birthday parties are happy occasions but one held Thursday afternoon in Mobile was mixed with sadness.

Volunteers from the Plant Barry Chapter of the Alabama Power Service Organization (APSO) held a drive-by birthday parade outside St. Mary’s Home. The parade was organized as a way to safely salute the children before the Archdiocese of Mobile closes the facility later this year.

“I communicated with other volunteers at Plant Barry on how we could do a final birthday celebration considering everything is locked down,” said APSO volunteer Tami Williams. “We brainstormed ideas on what to do and settled on a drive-by celebration.”

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Alabama Power volunteers honor children at St Mary’s Home from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Williams and her husband, Ken, have helped organize monthly birthday parties at the home since the early 1990s. Tami and Ken said they were saddened to halt those parties in March when COVID-19 began to flare, but that sadness pales in comparison to the grief they felt when they learned the home would be closed.

“It’s very emotional for both of us,” Tami said. “We have watched these children grow. We have watched them graduate from high school and move on to be very productive citizens. It’s not even sweet. It’s just bitter.”

St. Mary’s Home was founded in Mobile in 1838 following a yellow fever epidemic. Originally an orphanage, the home evolved into a residential treatment facility for boys and girls rescued by the Alabama Department of Human Resources (DHR) from abusive homes. The Archdiocese of Mobile, in a press release, said it decided to retire the home at the end of September “in the best interest of the youth it serves.”

“New federal standards under the Family First Act are being phased in over the next two years in Alabama and recommend a trend away from institutions and toward more therapies within the home environment,” the release stated. “DHR will determine the best placement for these youth and will determine where they will be relocated.”
Andy Rehm, director of Volunteer Services at St. Mary’s Home, said she has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love from the community since the announcement, especially from APSO volunteers.

“All the people in the community are coming out showing us love and support,” Rehm said. “It’s gratifying to know there are people that love these kids, that get our mission and get the importance of what they do.”

Rehm, who has coordinated volunteer services at the home for more than 20 years, said many of the children experienced love for the first time after arriving at the home, thanks in part to the monthly birthday parties and other events sponsored by Alabama Power volunteers.

“For several children the Alabama Power Plant Barry birthday party has been their first birthday party, and these are teenagers sometimes,” Rehm said. “It gives them a taste of what a real family and real community is.”

Rehm added that the simple act of repeatedly listening to and caring for the children has left a lasting impression on everyone at the home.

“It’s not just a birthday party,” Rehm said. “Just acknowledging their existence and sitting with them where they are, which is exactly what Jesus did – that’s so important. You don’t have to have a bunch of money or a bunch of time, just give of yourself. A little bit of your presence goes a long way.”

Tami and Ken, who are known by the children as “The Birthday Lady” and “Mr. Alabama Power,” said they hope the parade will bookend years of joyful memories.

“A wave to the kids to let them know we support them and love them,” Ken said. “We do wish them all the best in the world. If there’s anything more in the world we could, we would definitely do it.”

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

23 hours ago

Two Alabama cooks competing in World Food Championships finals

The chef and general manager of SAW’s Soul Kitchen in Birmingham and a competitive barbecue cook from Muscle Shoals are two of the 10 finalists competing in the Final Table of the World Food Championships.

Matthew Statham of SAW’s Soul Kitchen and backyard cook Morgan Cheek earned a spot in the WFC finals with wins in their divisions and $10,0000 each at the World Food Championships in Dallas last October.

The Final Table: Indy competition was originally scheduled to take place in May in Indianapolis, but COVID-19 delayed it until Aug. 8-9 with the $100,000 top prize is up for grabs.

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Statham’s work at SAW’s Soul Kitchen was already turning heads in the culinary world when he tied for the top spot at the Made South Slider Showdown a couple of years ago. That win came with a Gold Ticket into the WFCs that were then being held in Orange Beach.

Two Alabama cooks compete in World Food Championships from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

But when Statham was ready to cash in his ticket last year, the WFCs moved to Dallas and almost prevented him from competing.

When it was just a drive from Birmingham to Orange Beach, Statham said he could justify going without an expectation to win.

“Even if it crashes and burns, we’ve got a couple of days at the beach, which is never a bad thing,” he rationalized.

A trip to Dallas meant spending money on airline tickets, hotel stays and the like and raised the stakes.

“My wife wouldn’t let me off that easy,” Statham said.

So they did fundraisers like selling pork butts and a raffle where friends, family and fans helped fund the trip to Dallas.

“I was really overwhelmed by the response,” Statham said.

Once in Dallas, Statham was in the Chef category up against 40 of the best chefs in the world. After two dishes in the preliminaries, Statham was sitting in the top spot with 10 finalists cooking for the win.

“We cooked one more dish and we held on by what I believe was the closest margin they’ve ever had in the category but I think it’s just a testament to how strong the category was,” Statham said.

The dish he prepared for the win? Brunch Tart with Parmesan Herb Tuile, which gave Statham a final overall score of 93.02 out of a possible 100, giving him $10,000 and a trip to Final Table: Indy.

Cheek’s path to the final table was different.

He has spent the past few years with his Sweet Cheeks Pit BBQ team competing in backyard barbecue competitions. When he learned about the AFC and the ancillary competitions that could earn him a spot in, he signed up to compete in the burger ancillaries last year. After winning them all, Cheek had his Golden Ticket to Dallas competing in the Burger division at the WFC.

“Our first year competing at WFC was very intimidating being surrounded by so many accomplished chefs and past World Food Champions,” he said. “Kitchen Arena was like nothing we had ever experienced, and it definitely was an adrenaline rush.”

The Burger category’s opening round was presented by Bo Jackson’s Signature Foods. Competitors were tasked with creating a cowboy burger and a second burger of their choice.

For the second burger, Cheek went old-school with a double patty smash burger with caramelized onions, melted American cheese and BSB- Brown Sugar Bourbon bacon on a toasted brioche bun.

“It’s just an old-school smash burger. Just a good ol’ burger with cheese and sautéed onions, maybe a little special bacon jam,” Cheek said. “I knew it was good, but after looking at all of the other turn-ins … there were some incredible turn-ins, I mean they were beautiful burgers. I didn’t know. I was like, ‘Well, we had fun. It was a great experience. We’ll see what happens.’”

What happened was that “good ol’ burger” earned a perfect score of 100 from the judges and propelled Cheek to a huge lead in the finals, where he did a slight modification of the same burger to create “The Hometown Smashburger” for the $10,000 win and a trip to Final Table: Indy.

“That afternoon on the stage, I can’t explain it,” Cheek said. “It was awesome!”

At Final Table: Indy, Statham and Cheek will go up against the winners in the other eight categories from the WFC in Dallas. The first of three rounds for the Final Table will be a Pork and Parisian Gnocchi dish that will cut the field in half. Those final five will have to recreate a complex Duck dish curated by Chef Greg Hardesty of Studio C. The top three from that round will then have to recreate the Indiana-famous Sugar Cream Pie in the final round.

For Cheek, that as a far cry from barbecue and burgers.

“It’s a completely different world for me,” he said. “I’m so barbecue focused, I don’t know how to cook culinary, if that makes any sense. They started spitting off lingo with pots and pans and different things that I don’t even know what they’re talking about – I’ve got to Google all of this stuff. They talk about cutting stuff in different kinds of things. I don’t know what they’re talking about.”

He’s been practicing cooking duck. Maybe a bit too much practice.

“Oh my gosh, I’m ducked out! My family’s ducked out. My friends are ducked out,” Cheek said. “I don’t want to taste another duck right now.”

Cheek’s strategy going into the Final Table?

“Cook the best product I can without a smoker,” he grinned.

For Statham, he hopes to return to SAW’s Soul Kitchen with a win. One of four locations of the SAW’s collection of barbecue restaurants, the Avondale restaurant has undergone a renovation and Statham said those who have been away due to COVID-19 might not recognize it – though the food is still great.

It was SAW’s Soul Kitchen that brought Sweet Tea Fried Chicken and Pork and Greens to the menu and stood out in a city filled with culinary standouts.

Having two Alabama chefs in the final 10 at the WFC Final Table will add to the reputation coming off Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill being named “Outstanding Restaurant in America” and its pastry chef, Dolester Miles, named “Outstanding Pastry Chef” by the James Beard Foundation two years ago.

“I think the country is maybe taking a little bit of notice to us,” Statham said. “Obviously with (Highlands Executive Chef Frank) Stitt winning James Beard for best restaurant and Dol being the best pastry chef in the country, people are starting to think, ‘Hey, maybe they can cook down there.’ I think this is just kind of another feather in the cap, I guess. Hey, we know what we’re doing down here and we’re trying to show the world that we do. Hopefully we can make some noise up there and make everybody look good.”

Final Table: Indy will take place in Indianapolis at Ivy Tech Community College. It is hosted by Visit Indy and sponsored by Ivy Tech Culinary Center, Maple Leaf Farms, Sysco, Red Gold, The Pork Board, and Culinary Crossroads. The 10 competitors are:

You can follow the competition from the World Food Championships on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)