Martha Berry’s backyard

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In 1998, I almost became a foreign exchange student. I use the word “almost” because real exchange students generally spend an entire year in a foreign country, attending school and speaking the language of the locals. But when I traveled to Germany fifteen years ago with some other students from Model High School, my experience was somewhat different. The trip only lasted three weeks. And I wasn’t officially a “student,” you see. I just sat around in various classrooms, doodling on pieces of paper and wondering what the people around me were saying. (I can speak German, but I’m not exactly fluent.)

For two weeks, I lived with a wonderful family in Heidelberg. (Or was it Weinheim? I can’t remember now.) The family spoke excellent English and took very good care of me. When I wasn’t using up the oxygen at school, they took me to museums, carnivals, restaurants, and castles. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

Since then, we’ve kept in touch.

Wolfgang and Regine, my “German parents,” came to Georgia last week to visit my parents and me. It was their first stop in a long, meandering vacation all over Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. (Their sons, Jochen and Matthias, stayed behind in Germany. They’ve visited before, though. Jochen came here in October, actually. I introduced him to Steak n Shake and all its glorious American cholesterol.)

I’m not a morning person, but I got up early this past Saturday so I could spend the whole day with my German friends. I drove to my parents’ house, half-asleep and barely functioning, and drank coffee with Wolfgang, Regine, and my parents. Then all five of us squeezed into my dad’s car.

If you’re entertaining visitors from another country, you don’t want to bore them to death with Wal-Mart or a neighborhood yard sale. You want to show them a landmark you’re proud of, something grand and noteworthy. So we went to Martha Berry’s house and took a guided tour. It was an incredible place, especially the library, and the gardens outside were mind-bogglingly beautiful. I felt like I had stepped into a Pinterest photo. And the tour guide was witty and charming.

Afterward, we rambled all over the Berry College campus, admiring the elegant stone buildings and almost running over the teenage girls who had flocked there to be photographed in their prom dresses.

From there, we went to my apartment in the backwoods of Chattooga County, so Wolfgang and Regine could see where I live now. Then we headed back to Rome and ate at the Homestead Restaurant (one of the best restaurants on earth) just as a thunderstorm rolled in. After we left the Homestead and went back home, the five of us sat in my parents’ living room for a long time, laughing and telling stories, while the lightning flashed outside and the electricity threatened to sputter out. Around midnight, Wolfgang and Regine told us goodbye and went back to their hotel. I was thrilled to spend the day with them, but I was sad to watch them drive away in the rain.

The next morning, they caught a plane to Florida. They’re in Miami now, I believe.

I apologize if I’ve bored you senseless with all these tedious little details. I’m mainly doing it for my own benefit, so I can remember everything later. I want to preserve this past Saturday, to hold onto it forever, the same way you might press a four-leaf clover between the pages of a book so that you can pull it out and look at it again later.

(I wish I could say I took these photos, but I didn’t. My mother did.)

My novel, Under the Electric Sun, is available on Kindle. It’s a dystopian science fiction story about a boy, a cybernetic raccoon, and a large insect from another planet. You can click here to download it.

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British Invasion

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I was looking for Jack White’s CD Blunderbuss at Wal-Mart the other day. Unfortunately, I didn’t see it — but I had already made up my mind to buy some new music. I can only fit a limited number of CDs inside the armrest console in my car and I’m tired of listening to most of them. And good radio stations are becoming more and more scarce.

After pacing back and forth in front of the shelf, digging through all the CDs that weren’t in alphabetical order, I discovered Mod Hits: 60s British Invasion.

I grew up listening to “oldies” music (mostly British Invasion and Motown, I recall) on a station called Q 102 in Rome, Georgia. The station still exists, but it specializes in Top 40 songs now. It recently occurred to me that there are no oldies stations anymore. (Not in the area where I live, anyway.) Somewhere along the way, the “oldies” stations evolved into “classic rock” stations, playing a lot of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, along with 80s hair bands and a light sprinkling of 90s grunge. I love and respect all of that music. Please don’t think I’m trashing any of it. But I’ve found myself missing the “older oldies” lately, if I can coin such a silly phrase. There’s something more innocent about that music.

When I popped the Mod Hits CD into my dashboard in the Wal-Mart parking lot, it was like sitting down and chatting with an old friend. A warm feeling came over me. My heart fluttered. My eyes twinkled. I nearly crashed into a stray buggy.

There’s a version of Always Something There to Remind Me on the CD, recorded by Sandie Shaw. That one surprised me. All my life, I’ve heard the version Naked Eyes recorded in the early 80s. I had no idea it was a cover. I looked it up on Wikipedia and learned that Sandie Shaw’s version isn’t even the first one — but it’s my favorite.

You can click here to order my novels, Citizens of Purgatory and Under the Electric Sun, from Amazon.

Perspective

I spent most of the weekend in a nearby town called Rome (that’s Rome, Georgia … not Rome, Italy) because my grandmother passed away in a hospital on Saturday afternoon. I’m sad that she’s gone, but I don’t feel comfortable about grieving right here on my computer screen. I do want to mention one strange thing I noticed this weekend, though.

Over the past couple of days, I whiled away many hours in my cousin’s basement, sitting with him and his wife on a worn-out sofa in front of an old gas heater. We told stories and remembered our grandmother while we watched the orange and blue flames dance. My cousin lives in a house that his father built 28 years ago. I remember playing in the house when all the paint was still fresh and leftover pieces of lumber and sheetrock were scattered on the porch. That was a long, long time ago — back when Ronald Reagan was president and “Alf” came on NBC every Monday night.

When I was young (and the HOUSE was young) that basement seemed so much bigger. It was the size of a stadium, I thought. It was so vast. Today, the basement still has the same old concrete walls and the same old wooden staircase in the middle, leading into a passageway lined with pink insulation up above. But it seems so SMALL compared to the way I remember it.

I’ve noticed this same phenomenon in other places too. The cafeteria at Johnson Elementary School, for example, was enormous when I was 10. When I went back to that same cafeteria as a teenager (when my little sister’s class was having a fall festival there) I realized how tiny it really was.

Reality is not what you think it is. Your persception of the world is skewed in ways you don’t even realize. This is something I think about a lot.

I will write more about this tomorrow. I have to go to the store now and find some clothes to wear to the funeral.