What Kay meant to me – June 7, 2017

I knew of Kathryn Stripling Byer long before I ever had a conversation with her. Back in 2001, when I was a freshman at WCU, Kay was something of a superstar to baby English majors and aspiring writers like me. Long before I ever spoke to Kay, I fantasized about impressing her, winning her approval. I had never met a “real” writer before I came to Western, let alone a woman who had been published and honored for writing about the mountains. To me, Appalachia was not a fitting subject for poetry–it was simply the backwards part of the country where my ancestors had settled after the Revolution, that my parents and aunts and uncles had fled in search of better jobs, greater prosperity.

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At Western, naturally, those particular cobwebs got swept from my brain quickly enough. I was exposed to a wider world of literature there, and for the first time my ears were unstopped to the music of my grandmother’s dialect and my father’s accent. And I drew new life and strength from the mountains that surrounded WCU’s campus, connecting for the first time to the natural world that had sheltered my ancestors since they first came to the New World. Alongside all of this, at WCU, I was supported for the first time in my life by people who understood and encouraged my determination to be a writer. When it came time for me to return to my parents’ home in Raleigh at the end of my freshman year, I was sick with dread at leaving it all behind.

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A List of Books That Traumatized Me As A Child, In Chronological Order

1. Title of Book: The Bible

Age I Was Traumatized: 4

I am not saying that the Bible was written by a sexual sadist. I am saying that my 1986 edition children’s Bible was, without question, illustrated by someone who regularly tied their partner to a cave wall and flogged them to ecstasy while in a Hebrew slave-Egyptian overseer roleplaying situation.

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(For a kid whose parents barely let her watch TV, some of my Sunday school lessons were intense.)

2. Title of Book: Little House On the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder

Age I Was Traumatized: 7

The prairie is on fire. A snake is twisting itself around your leg, having mistaken you for a source of safety. Inside the sod house, Ma is making rabbit stew with dumplings, only she has no more meat, only flour and grease. Pa tells you to bring him a drink of water from the dipper. “This is fine,” he says, staring out the window at the burning world. “Everything here is just fine.”

3. Title of Book: The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom

Age I Was Traumatized: 9

Third grade is a normal and developmentally appropriate time in a child’s life for reading vivid first-person memoirs about hiding from Nazis and surviving Ravensbrück for over a year.

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Happy President’s Day, Here Is Some Knowledge About Washington and Lincoln

(George Washington & Abraham Lincoln. You were expecting someone else?)

Lately, I have been paying my rent by ghostwriting history books for a an independent Kindle publisher. I say “ghostwriting”, but, as a friend pointed out, it is technically just authorship without royalties. Once a month, I crank out 35,000 words on a topic set by the publisher, researched for its marketability: the Third Reich, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War. The publisher picks my nom de plume. It’s always a man’s name, by the way, in case you thought sexism was dead.

The publisher pays me more than he pays his other writers—$500 to their $300. This is because the skill level of the average Kindle writer-for-hire hovers somewhere just above blatant illiteracy. I would know, because most of my other gigs involve editing these books. I get paid more than the next slob because, as I pointed out to the publisher, he saves the price of a proofreader on my writing.

Look, it isn’t easy to find freelancing gigs that pay biggish lump sums of cash. The $500 I get for writing a crap history book once a month pays my rent. And it only takes me about half the month to write it, if I hustle, so I have time left over to make money for things that aren’t rent, and to write for my personal projects. I consider my writing these books partly a humanitarian project: when I accepted the offer to write the book on the Third Reich, it was because I was genuinely frightened that it would otherwise get written by a literal neo-Nazi. The direct-to-Kindle publishing world is, like most dark corners of the internet, a dank, humid breeding ground for crazies. I edit a conspiracy theory manual and at least three crank health fad books every month.

So what’s the pay-off for me, apart from being able to pay my rent without having to leave my bedroom and the company of my cat? Well, so far, it involves being able to write off history books on my taxes, and getting to know George Washington and Abraham Lincoln really well. In fact, my due date for the Lincoln book was February 12th—Lincoln’s birthday.

Anyway, since today is President’s Day (for non-Americans, a holiday normally commemorated by mattress sales) I thought I would share my new knowledge about our two most famous presidents. In no particular order, then:

1.) Washington and Lincoln were both ambitious as fuck. They knew exactly how talented they were, and they knew that their states and their countries would be better off with them in charge.

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In the Bleak Midwinter

1. If you’re going to write about Christmas, you have to pick a side: pro or anti. Indicate that you are “meh” about Christmas, or that you can “take it or leave it”, and no one will believe you, not really.

2. The Christmas that you were 6 years old, you had trouble finding your shoes when it was time to leave for the 10 hour drive to your grandmother’s house. You nearly cried because you believed your parents when they said the trip would have to be cancelled because of your shoelessness.

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3. You were 12 when the big annual Christmas trip to Kentucky became something to dread rather than look forward to. There was an overlapping church retreat you wanted to go to instead that year. Presents were less exciting than people for the first time ever.

4. By high school, you were dreading Christmas so much that you gave all your friends your grandmother’s address and made them promise to write during the week you were gone. This was 1997; your grandmother wouldn’t have internet for another decade.

5. The first Christmas after you started college, you got presents for everyone, joined in the cooking, and tried to act like an adult. It lasted until the first time your mother ordered you to do something, and you found out that nothing makes you act like a child as much as being treated like one.

6. The Christmas your uncle was home on a brief leave from Iraq, you gave an Oscar winning performance of a person who was enjoying herself. It was so good, there were moments when you forgot you were faking.

7. When you were 27, your cousin and her friend took you to a bar and a drag revue on Christmas night. You had 6 Irish car bombs and didn’t throw up. It’s still the best Christmas you’ve ever had.

8. The first Christmas you didn’t go see your family, the complex was so deserted you felt like the sole human survivor of the apocalypse. While your roommate was away, a cat came to visit. You ended up naming him Beau and keeping him hidden in your room for the next six months.

9. The next time you went home for Christmas was the last.

10. Last Christmas, you were dating someone, and you got the world’s most amazing Christmas package in the mail, complete with a stuffed stocking. You lied and told her you wouldn’t look in the stocking until Christmas morning, but you were too excited to wait.

11. These days, your Christmas traditions involve dropping roommates off at airports. You make hot buttered rum and watch all the QI Christmas specials in a row. Your favorite part is digging out the ornament collection you’ve been working on since you were six and decorating a tiny tree.

12. The really difficult thing about Christmas is that it’s no longer the time of year when everything stops in its tracks for a week. You don’t go new places or see new people. Your life carries on the way it did the week before and the way it will the week after, unless you make yourself stop. And it’s difficult to stop, or see the point in stopping, when you’re alone. Are you happier alone? Usually, you think so. On the whole, you probably are. But there’s no point pretending it’s a normal day, and anyone who tells themself otherwise is selling something.

The Other Mother

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When I was two years old, my mother became a born-again Christian.

She’d made friends with a married couple in her apartment complex, who invited her to their charismatic Pentecostal church. They believed in powerful supernatural forces that were at work in people’s everyday lives.

At this church, my mother saw people speaking in strange, inhuman languages. Women became ecstatic and fainted when they prayed. Men cast out demons. They taught her that demons and the forces of darkness took human shape to persecute God’s anointed, and that His children were spiritual warriors, attended by angels, to do battle in the world in His name.

As a child, all I knew about religion was that Jesus loved me. Jesus loved everyone. The devil tempted us to do bad things, but we didn’t have to listen. We could just be good instead. The devil seemed like a weak, silly character to me at that age, like a cartoon villain, easily thwarted by children.

The first time I realized that the devil could do bad things to me even though I had Jesus, I was four years old. I was running from my bedroom down the hallway to the living room, where my mother was sitting. There was a wire clothes hanger lying on the slick tile floor, and I slipped on it. I crashed, hard, and got a goose egg on my forehead. It hurt like nothing I could remember hurting before.

“Why did that happen?” I asked my mother, after she picked me up and hugged me.

“The devil made it happen,” she said seriously.

After that, the world was a slightly more dangerous place. I realized that even the love of Jesus wouldn’t protect me from the devil all the time.

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Supersizers Go: The American South

In the last week, I’ve mainlined every episode of Supersizers Go, a British TV program in which restaurant critic Giles Corren and comedian Sue Perkins get medically tested, then dress up in costumes and eat the food they would have eaten during various periods of history, such as ancient Rome or wartime Britain. They get tested again at week’s end to see what damage the foods of bygone eras have done to their health.

Originally, I thought today’s blog post would be about how I learned to cook. (It was in self-defense.) Then I thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if Giles Corren had to eat the food I grew up on? Wouldn’t Sue Perkins make amazing faces?” (Sue Perkins makes the best faces.)

So here I present a loving parody of my newest favorite TV show. I call it Supersizers Go: The American South.

Casting spoiler: I play the chef.

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