“You are not going out with that boy unless his parents are driving and that's that. I'm not just Spitting Grits here, young lady!”

. . . My father, John Thomas Cravey, USAF, to me in 1956.

A Christmas Confessional

Ok. We caved.

In June, Joanna Leigh found it in a flyer. I admit, I used her wish to get her to go to bed, to make potty training progress, to inspire good behavior. It was the Pink Car.


By October, I knew it was serious. Maybe I had overused it or maybe she’s just persistent. Whatever. She would not let go of or forget about the Pink Car, a Barbie Ford Mustang convertible, no less. I knew I had to act fast. I jumped in our car – the real one – and headed for Wal-Mart, where she had seen it in person.

Oh, ma Gawd, they didn’t have one. They told me it was last season’s thingy, and said if I could find it, it would be on sale. This year’s thingy was a off-road jeep-type thing, totally no good for a princess.

I got home and called every Wal-Mart in central Alabama. No deal. By now my pulse had quickened.

I went on-line. There it was. But full price. I whipped out my MasterCard and read off the number. It would be shipped to the local store for no additional cost but at full price. When it got here, I had until the end of October to pick it up; it has been in our unfinished basement covered by a tarp for two months.

My husband is putting it together as I type. Two hours ago he said, “It’s not going to take too much to get this together.”

He’s cursing. “There’s no battery indicator light like it shows in the book,” he screamed up the stairs.

We have three days to get it together. Now he can’t find all the stickers that go on it. Bah Humbug.

I don’t regret the excess. Joanna Leigh is so sweet and anxious to have gifts for everyone. The night I was cutting up fruit for her school party and putting it all in storage bags, she came in the kitchen when I wasn’t looking, got handfuls of plastic bags, put a bunch of her toys and trinkets in them, zipped them up, and said they were for her friends at school.

There will be plenty of photos to come.

The Early Period: Photos by Joanna Leigh

No, the photos aren’t 3-1/2 years old, she is. Joanna Leigh got my point-and-shoot camera and took them herself. I can’t resist posting them. Catching me brushing my teeth made her howl with laughter.

I really can’t believe I’m putting all these on the Web. For posterior. Or is it posterity?

Merry Christmas. I’ll be on holiday for a week or so. Please come back to Spittin’ Grits.

Butterflies Free-for-All

Butterflies of Alabama, a new book from the Gosse Nature Guides series of The University of Alabama Press will be of interest way beyond the borders of Alabama -- to butterfly lovers, nature aficionados, conservationists and environmentalists, photographers, and outdoors people.


All photos copy-righted by Sara Bright






For added sweetness, the book’s scrumptious beauty will make it a wonderful gift in most places on the globe for most ages.

The butterflies of this state, all 84 known species, migrate, some far and wide, like the magnificent Monarch; some are highly localized and seen infrequently out of their area, like the West Virginia White.


West Virginia White ©

As luck would have it, it flutters into the northeast part of Alabama. One species has only recently been documented anywhere – the Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail – but like the West Virginia White, was spotted (in 2008) in Alabama’s Appalachian foothills.


Appalachian Tiger Swallowtail ©

To see several localized species, you’ll have to go to the beach – in Alabama, to Baldwin and Mobile counties – including the Great Southern White, Queen, and the Eastern Pygmy-Blue.

These creatures are all beautiful enough to lure you to their sites.

Butterflies of Alabama is not, however, just another pretty book. It’s an education, thanks to the fastidious work of photographer Sara Bright and writer Paulette Haywood Ogard. Each species entry includes photos and text (in non-technical language) revealing the whole life cycle in its natural habitat, from larva to caterpillar to beautiful adult.

Zebra_0005Zebra Longwing ©


Nature Journal

The first in the Gosse series (published earlier this year), Nature Journal, by L. J. Davenport, also goes beyond its intended use as a nature study guide for observing Alabama’s flora and fauna species in their habitat. Each chapter begins with a photograph, some lovely, some silly (like the ocellated flounder flatfish), and some gross (like the yukky Cedar apple rust galls).

Nature Journal

The photos are followed by an always witty and detailed essay about the species in the photo:

One drizzly spring day, while wriggling through a thicket in Franklin County, Alabama, I came face-to-face with a most horrible sight: an entire cedar tree “eat up” with orange oozes, dripping dew like a thousand noisome noses. But – intrepid biologist that I am – I felt no fear, for I only faced the teliohorns of cedar apple rust (CAR).










Cedar Apple Rust galls © L. J. Davenport

The refreshing voice and style of the essays are followed by several lined pages for your own creative observations and descriptions. Or poems. Or character studies. Or personal essays. Or whatever you’d like to write. Davenport’s essays have also, by the way, instructed you as to how to observe and detail your subject.

The Naturalist’s Art

The Gosse Nature Guides series pays homage to Philip Henry Gosse, English naturalist, watercolorist, and inventor of the marine aquarium who spent nearly a year on what was then, in 1838, the Alabama frontier teaching planters’ children in Dallas County. His original watercolors of Alabama insects are housed in the British Library in London. but can be seen and admired in the UA Press book that rounds out this trio of value-added natural history publications: Philip Henry Gosse: Science and Art in Letters from Alabama and Entomologia Alabamensis, by Gary R. Mullen and Taylor D. Littleton.


The book presents, for the first time, Gosse’s full-color art, as well as a concise biography of Gosse.

The Gosse series will continue with publications by naturalists and experts. The book on Alabama ferns is almost ready for publication, and books on mammals, birds, wildflowers, and mushrooms are in the works.

These books have made a promise: that each succeeding work in the Gosse Field Guides series will continue to offer high quality art and expertise for the general reader.

Thanksgiving 2010: Resuscitation

As Thanksgiving memories recede, letting in the tidal wave of Christmas that swallows America, I have to express my thanks for two things: Teddy’s resuscitation and Joanna Leigh’s good report.

Teddy getting a bath

The Teddy thing is HUGE. He not only lives, he lives successfully washed. I was seriously concerned for his life. I thought he had coded.

I introduced Teddy about a year ago, here. He is what our counselor/child psychiatrist describes as a TO, a transitional object, important especially when a child is experiencing psychological separation anxiety.

He is important enough that Joanna Leigh would not allow me to keep him long enough to send him through the washer, and I became more and more frightened that he might be carrying the Bubonic Plague. At the least, I believed he was implicated in Joanna Leigh’s bouts with strep throat.

Teddy getting a bath

But the other day, she had on a new dress in several shades of pink, a purple plastic necklace, and a new bobbed haircut. Distracted by all this, she forgot and left him at home when she left for pre-school. I ran to the den to watch them actually leave the driveway. I gave them enough time to return for Teddy, but they didn’t. I hauled it upstairs and grabbed him with some throw pillows that needed washing, thinking they might cushion the blows from the agitator.

Teddy after his bath and dry

I checked him several times during the cycle to see if his guts were still intact.

He dries and lives.

Teddy sunning after his bath

And we have an appointment with our counselor this week – a good thing, as Joanna Leigh continues to suffer from this sorrowful grief from the loss of her mommy. And, by the way, I ain’t doing so hot either.

This weekend she had a rough time. Saturday morning she woke up fussy and whiny. Then she said, “I want my mommy.” She came over and got in my lap and I just held her for a while (and secretly cried).

Later we were driving through Holt, a partly scuddzy area known for drugs, when she said, “This is where my Mommy’s house is.” I said, “Honey, it’s not there anymore; your mommy had to move far away.” Then she said, “Then we have to go find her. I want to find her.”

We were on the way to a friend’s house, who invited her over to make a gingerbread house. What a treat! She invites some children over every year for their own special event for a few hours. She has some of the “building” done according to the child’s age and abilities. Joanna Leigh did well in decorating her house.

She wanted to adorn the gingerbread figure to be her mommy, rather than do two as Mamma Jo and Papa. As “mature” (HA!) as I am, it hurts my feelings, as well as makes me hurt for her.

That evening, I fussed at her for something, and she started crying. Then she started saying, “Mommy. Mommy,” through the tears. I said, “Your mommy is not here. You live with Mamma Jo and Papa, and you have to follow our rules. Mamma Jo is taking care of you because your mommy is far away.”

Yet the report last month from her counselor/psychiatrist was welcome news:

“Well, I’m giving you about as good news as I ever have. Joanna Leigh is doing well. Her development is on target and she’s bright,” said Dr. Margaret.

Enough said. There’s plenty of collateral damage with drug addiction.

An Internet Purse

I’m not in the business of pushing products, but I’m making an exception. Understand that I am not getting anything from this product. I just think it’s a really useful and FREE internet service. It almost shut down, and I had a conniption fit. Not that my conniption had anything to do with saving it.
It’s kind of like a purse. Or accordion file folder.
And let me say, I’m picky about my purse. I loathe digging around in a bottomless pit passing itself off as a purse. I have to know where stuff is when I start fishing around for something without being able to look inside, like when I’m driving.
Ooooops. It’s not like texting!
Digging around and fishing for Web sites and blogs: You know the drill. You’ve got find the internet URL address, maybe in your Favorites or history; then you have to either register or sign in; then you can get e-mail from them or sign up for an RSS feed; then you’ve got 153 e-mails to sort through, which leaves no time for checking out your favorite sites and blogs.
Help in the Bottomless Pit
There’s help. It’s Bloglines, at http://www.bloglines.com/. You can stash all the stuff you want to skim or to read from the Web in one place, like in a purse with lots of compartments or in an accordion file folder, including most of your RSS feeds, Web addresses, and blogs.
You don’t download anything. You just go there and register. Then you set up your site by “subscribing” to your chosen Web sites, blogs, and RSS feeds; then they magically show up in the left file-folder column.
No fishing around for Web addresses. They’re located in one place. Alphabetically.
It looks like this:
I’m way into made up words, so a New York Times blog called Shott’s Vocab,  is a favorite. I went to my Bloglines account and simply clicked on Shott’s Vocab, rather than do it the GSFCSC way:
Go to the New York Times site, click on Today’s Paper, sign in, go over to their left column, findBlogs” and click on it, scroll down through the blogs, and FINALLY, click on Shott’s Vocab. A process I call GSFCSC! Which I just made up. Aaaarrrrghhh.
Today’s (11-18-10) word is one I want to use: sofalising. Really funny. So I went up to the Blogline tabs at the top of the left column and clicked on “Clippings,” where I put that sofalising piece from Shott’s. Aaaaahhhhh!
Some of my favorite blogs and sites, like SpaceWeather.com and Refdesk.com, don’t have RSS feeds and cannot be added to my Bloglines list. I got on their e-mail subscription lists, which lets me decide whether to go to the actual site to see something of interest. But more and more internet and Web sites have RSS feeds and can be added to your Bloglines list. The Pew Research Center, for example, often has interesting news and information and has an RSS feed, which means I can add it to my Bloglines list. I did, in fact, add it.
Try it out. If you like it, how about adding http://www.spittingrits.blogspot.com. Thanks.

A Message from Henry’s Story

As most of you know, I began following Katie Allison Granju’s very popular blog, Mamapundit, last April after she came forward with her story of being the parent of a drug addict. Her son, Henry Granju, was admitted to a hospital in Knoxville, TN, after suffering a drug overdose and massive head injuries. He remained in the hospital until his tragic death at the end of May.
Since then, Katie has faithfully chronicled the grief, trials, and tribulations that followed and continue to follow. While she took some criticism for being public about her private heartaches, the vast, vast majority of readers applauded and appreciated her courage, as well as her ability to present drug addiction in personal, very human terms.
I believe that we have also seen through her story the Internet functioning at its very best.
Last month, WBIR in Knoxville aired a video, Henry’s Story, as told through his mother’s, eyes. “This is what a drug addict looks like,” she says.
Indeed what you see is a young, handsome, healthy looking kid, which, I believe, is one of the most important messages in the video. Drug addicts most often begin as pure potential -- very young, regular kids with their lives before them.
If you haven’t seen the video, I would urge you to watch. As you watch, I would ask you to remember what the most common trajectory of a drug addict’s life is: First, like most kids’ lives, upwards, towards the clouds and dreams; second, the sharp and fast descent; and last, toward jail or prison or a coffin.

What can re-direct this trajectory? Treatment, education, and research.

Setting Traps, Playing Possum, Living Like Dogs and Cats

Maggie, my white yellow Lab, is fast catching up with me. She’ll be nine next month or 63 next month, depending whether you’re a dog or a human. It means that Patty Cake, who was attacked by a coyote last year and nearly killed, will also be 63 in a year.

1M P

above: Maggie and Patty Cake in 2003

But right now she’s a lot younger than I am, and here’s what she’s doing for entertainment these days: Laying traps for the raccoons that come up to the patio. Because I feed them. Sometimes leftover muffins. On a good night, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Raccoon looking for food


Here’s how I know that she had malice of forethought: At first she would just run barking toward the patio table where I put the food when she smelled the raccoons. No luck.

Then she started lying still on the portico, hoping she’d be able to sneak up on them while they were distracted by food. That didn’t work. Raccoons aren’t that stupid.

Then she started hiding just around the corner in the garage. By now I’ve noticed that she actually has tactics and strategies, but who’d believe that one?

This next one sealed it: She got UNDER the park bench on the portico to hide, thinking, I guess, that no one would see her. Trouble is, she’s a bit overweight and at 56-1/2, she could no more bolt out from under that bench than I could.

But this next one freed me up to tell someone, so I’m telling you. She left food in her pan. Food. Food she didn’t eat in hopes the raccoons would be desperate enough to come up on the portico where she could catch them red-handed.

Or just catch them? Suddenly I wondered what she’d do if she really got one.

The other night I kind of got the answer. All this barking and noise on the patio signaled that I’d better get out there. Joanna Leigh was right behind me. I threw on the lights and looked over at the food table. She had one trapped. I looked more closely. No, it wasn’t a raccoon; nevertheless, Maggie was just standing there, sort of pointing, even though she’s a retriever. Barking.

Joanna Leigh said, “Is that a raccoon?”

I looked again. “No. It’s a possum. Yuk. A possum.”

“We don’t like possums,” said Joanna Leigh flatly, commandingly.

“No, we don’t,” I said.

“They’re YUK,” she said.

“Yeh, they are.”

The ugly thing looked like his tail had gotten wedged in an opening in the brick wall, leaving him hanging upside down and trapped, Maggie barking and barking. What was I going to do? I went inside for a while, trying to think how to get the thing off the wall.

I went back out with the broom, thinking I’d just use it to flip him up and off the wall. But he was gone and Maggie was just standing there.

So, I doubt Maggie would do anything if she actually caught a raccoon. So, I’ll go on feeding them.


above: Maggie and Patty Cake 2010

In a year, Maggie and Patty Cake will be 70. I’ll be 68. Joanna Leigh will be 4-1/2. I think people learn too late that time passes as quickly as dogs and cats reach 70.

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I’m not sure “Priss Pot” is in this Pink Universe except as a Southern slang term, but Joanna Leigh is a Pink Priss Pot. I’ve also decided that it’s inborn. She sure as heck doesn’t get it from me.

The other day in the car, she said, “I’m a Princess.

I said, “Yes, of course you are.”

She said, “I have pretty clothes.”

I said, “Yes, you do.” I thought, “Thanks to my Visa card.”

She said, “You don’t have pretty clothes.”

I was speechless. Yes, I go around looking like a bag lady, but somewhere deep in my closet, I do have passable clothes.

She said, “You get pretty clothes at the store. You can go to the store.

Except that my Visa card is smoking right now.

Pink-a-licious. Pink-a-thon. Pink-o-Mania. PinkFest. Pink-o-Rama. P is for Pink. Add some glitter and watch Pink morph into Princess. You are a Princess. Everything worth anything is Pink and Glitter. I’m Pink; therefore, I am a Princess.

Happy Pink Birthday

This past weekend, she and I drove to North Alabama for my other granddaughter’s birthday party, at the Pinkalicious Party Palace. Yes, you read that right. It boasts that it’s “The ultimate birthday experience for your little princess.”

By the way, my other granddaughter recently broke her arm on her school’s playground, but that trauma was overcome with a pink cast.


I had put on decent clothes and wore some jewelry, including my diamond engagement ring and my grandmother’s reset diamond. Joanna Leigh was overcome. She said, “Mama Jo, those are beautiful. Can I have those when I get big and you get little?

I said, “Oh, honey, you can have them looooong before I get little.

At Pinkalicious, you walk into pink rooms, get dressed up in glitzy princess clothes, go to the make-up station, where the young attendants put on lipstick, paint your fingernails, and spray lots-o-glitter into your hair. Then you can priss around on the stage and sing karaoke. Then, advance to the cake room where all the cupcakes have pink icing.

I took lots of video, which I’m going to start editing ASAP. Maybe I’ll put it on YouTube. I’ll certainly let you know.

From Pink to White

Pink Mania, Pink-sessive. Pink, Pink, You Stink.

So what is the illogical conclusion to all this Disney Princesses Pink Fantasy? Why, Disney's White Wedding Gown Fantasy, of course! It’s unbelievable. It’s enough to make you run out and buy Disney stock today.


I just don’t know what to think about all this. The Feminist me says, “$#%&*&%$!!!”

The Little Girl in me, also embedded deep in my closet somewhere, remembers believing, really believing, in Cinderella and Snow White. I’ll never get over seeing those movies on a big screen.

The Today Woman in me, at age 67 and a parenting grandparent of a 3-1/2-year-old, says, “If my Prince Charming were to rush toward me on his trusty steed to scoop me up in his arms, I’d shoot the creep.

One, Only One: The Last Stat Standing

Take on the facts and history of drug and alcohol use, misuse, addiction, and America’s 40-year Drug War; then prepare to be overwhelmed. At least I was until a few days ago when I ran across a statistic I had not seen before.

I am an information hound. I sniff out answers however I can because I have long believed that knowledge can lead to understanding something and to changing it if it’s needed.

When I began to figure out some 20 years ago that what was “wrong” with my daughter was drugs and alcohol use and addiction, I was determined to look for answers. I hoped that understanding could help my husband and me pull our daughter back from this awful abyss called the Drug Life and ultimately save her. We couldn’t. We didn’t really understand what we were looking at in the early- and mid-1980s. I also needed desperately to know if I or we had done this terrible thing to our daughter. We didn’t.

But along the way, I kept chasing information and research; I just had to understand. Tackling it helped me not to give up.

Wanting to share what I’ve learned also motivated me to start this blog, Spittin’ Grits. And now I want to help our granddaughter in understanding that despite her mother’s love for her, a terrible disease did exactly what it was supposed to do: steal it all away.

Here’s the short version of what I learned along the way: There are zillions of numbers out there and tons of facts and myths about drugs, drug and alcohol use and addiction; there are many books, reports, individual stories, personal beliefs, and misconceptions; and there’s a growing body of science showing what drugs and alcohol are and how they affect us. Yet progress in our knowledge of treatments for drug use and abuse in the U.S continues to lag to a shocking degree. Our Drug War has eroded too many of the resources.

Collective Denial

I’ve often wondered what it would take to change the course of this Drug War, one of the longest wars in history, a shocking fact I uncovered somewhere, and expensive beyond reason.

Maybe we have it now, if we can shed our collective denial and use it. It’s the stand-alone stat.

First, few people in the U.S. have not been affected by America’s insatiable thirst for drugs. Too many are users and addicts; many are parents of addicts. Our extended families and close friends have suffered with us through the nightmare. Many of us know people who have died of their addictions or disappeared into a long and sick relationship with the criminal justice system. Many of us have beaten our heads against the brick walls of departments of human resources, the foster care system, and other systems within the 50 states.

President Richard M. Nixon made this 40-year-old Drug War official in 1970, saying the following year that drug abuse was “public enemy No. 1 in the United States.” I can’t help but wonder if announcing the Drug War was a political diversionary tactic to keep American eyes off the Vietnam travesty.

Now, several generations later, it is clear that America’s drug use, including abuse of and addiction to alcohol and to both licit and illicit drugs, has finally extended its poisonous tendrils to every demographic group from the top of the Boomers to the newest group that hasn’t yet been categorized.

So, it isn’t even the $1 trillion price tag, according to a recent Associated Press investigative report, of this War, most of which was throwing good money after bad.

It’s not even the hundreds of thousands lives lost to drugs and violence. It’s not even the jillions who have spent most of their hapless lives in jails and prisons, which is paid for every minute of every day by taxpayers.

It isn’t even the 2.6 million-plus grandparents who are raising nearly 3 million kids in America, as recently reported by the Pew Research Center, most of whom were victims of drug use and abuse.

Here’s the statistic that should finally begin to fix our attention on this Drug War:

Combined data from 2002 to 2007 indicate that over 8.3 million children under 18 years of age (11.9 percent) lived with at least one parent who was dependent on or abused alcohol or an illicit drug during the past year.

That’s the population of New York City, according to 2009 figures. Or the combined populations of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston combined. That’s almost the entire populations of Missouri and Kansas combined.

Here's more:

l That's more than 1 in 10 children in the U.S.

l 13.9% of those children are YOUNGER THAN 3-YEARS-OLD

l Another 13.6% are 3- to 5-years-old

And those figures don’t include 2008 and 2009. If drug use figure have gone up, likely so have the numbers of children in the U.S. living with drug and alcohol abusing or dependent parents.

Yes, Albert Einstein did define INSANITY as “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

America MUST re-direct this Drug War.

Citation for the NSDUH report:

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies. (April 16, 2009). The NSDUH Report: Children Living with Substance-Dependent or Substance-Abusing Parents: 2002 to 2007. Rockville, MD.


Cooking up Discussion and Education

Traditionally, the dinner table is a place for community, debates, discussion, sharing information, even arguments – among family, friends, opponents, neighbors, and near strangers.

A new cookbook that can foster discussions about methamphetamines and other drugs while around the dinner table is available for ordering. Back Around the Table is for good eating and for good talk.

small product photo

Notable Alabamians, like U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, and citizens involved in drug abuse treatment, education, and prevention from around the state are offering their best recipes in a variety of categories. Senator Shelby offers Dove on the Grill, an old family recipe that he and his wife, Annette, still use:

Dove (allow at least 2 per person)

Worcestershire Sauce to taste

Salt and pepper to taste

Bacon (1/2 slice per bird)

Sprinkle dove with salt, pepper and Worcestershire sauce. Wrap each dove with bacon. Secure with toothpick if necessary. Cook over a medium fire until done, about 20-30 minutes. Turn occasionally. **Variation: Wrap ½ strip bacon around a water chestnut and a boneless dove breast. Season lemon butter with Worcestershire sauce and baste frequently. Cook on grill.

Part of the proceeds of the sale of Back Around the Table will support Alabama’s ZEROMETH ad campaign.

Anti-drug campaigns have come and gone. Mostly gone. Drugs have kept on coming and haven’t gone. The ZEROMETH campaign is different: it is specific to methamphetamines; it is targeted at young people instead of parents (Parents – The Anti-Drug) or no one in particular (Just Say No) or at users in general, but with no force behind it (This is your brain on drugs); it is based on what is known from users and from science; and it is tough.

Here's some science behind how meth words, from National Geographic:

One Alabama District Attorney who was involved with the campaign from the ground up, Jimmie Harp, Jr., Etowah County, describes the ZEROMETH campaign this way:

ZEROMETH is a hard hitting and gritty campaign. . . .The television ads, print ads, and other supporting media are designed to create a dialog between our youth and their parents, teachers, coaches about the life-threatening and dangerous consequences of trying meth even one time.

Here is Part 1 of the campaign:

He had the idea for Back Around the Table. “The book’s purpose is to create awareness, but in this instance also celebrate those who have been addicted to illegal drugs, been alienated from their families, sought help, and have recovered or are fighting to recover ever day.”

He approached Dr. Barbara Bryant, a retired college administrator and professor, consultant, cookbook publisher, and business owner in Gadsden, Alabama, who agreed to publish it and oversee sales.

To order Back Around the Table:

Mail Check or Money Order to:

“Back Around the Table”

Post Office Box 1603

Gadsden, AL 35902

  • Include number of books requested @ $25.00 ea
  • The amount enclosed
  • Your name and address including the Zip
  • Phone including area code
  • E-mail address

If you encounter problems ordering online, please e-mail me at: jchutt@gmail.com. I will forward your e-mail address to the appropriate contact who will send a PDF attachment.

I published a post to Spittin’ Grits last year that recounted my experience with my daughter’s meth addiction here.

More videos from the ZEROMETH campaign:

Part 2:

Part 3:

The Longest Steepest Fast Train

Tuscaloosa has this train that cuts east-west right smack dab through the middle of town from one end to the other. Over the decades it has carried tons of people and freight; it has also carried a big fat truth that never occurred to me until recently.

tuscaloosa2-platform Tuscaloosa Train Station Platform: Photos from www.trainweb.com

I have to cross these tracks at some crossing up and down the line, just to get, well, anywhere, say, to the grocery store or the hospital or the library or my granddaughter’s school or Edelweiss to meet my writing group for lunch.

tuscaloosa5-to east

Tracks heading east toward the VA hospital and out of Tuscaloosa


This train parallels one of the main thoroughfares, 15th St. There’s just about the same amount of city acreage north of 15th St. to the Black Warrior River as there is south to Memorial Hills Garden Cemetery on Skyland Blvd.

Amtrak’s 1,377- mile Crescent ride, from New Orleans through Washington D.C. to Penn Station in New York City barrels through here on these tracks – Big Easy to Big Apple. In the old days, when I was an undergraduate here and the Crimson Tide played Tulane in football match-ups, we’d get the Crescent heading to NO, carry on a lot of oranges, fill up the oranges with vodka, and drink the oranges. Ghhaaaa.

The freight these tracks carry every day is probably loaded up in the Louisiana or Mobile ports. I’ve often sat there for what seemed like an interminable length of time – before I could read my e-mail on an iPhone – grousing and screaming as boxcar after boxcar after freight car after freight car chugged by toward Birmingham.

One time a box car came into view with lots of nicely colored, fat-lettered graffiti saying, “George Bush is Gay.” I started laughing at this political statement in this unlikely place. I said out loud, “Why not use that talent to write, ‘The World is Coming to an End’ or something? Or just your initials and a heart?” No one was there to answer.

For decades and decades and decades, residents haven’t had to use the excuse “The dog ate my homework.” They just say, “I got caught by the train.”

A Click of the Light Bulb

Now I check my smart-phone e-mail as Hyundai boxcar after Hyundai boxcar after Hyundai boxcar rattle by en route probably to Montgomery, Alabama, where a plant is located.

My husband and I were sitting at the crossing one day, and he was parked way WAY back from the crossing as the train whizzed by going south. I said, “Why do you park so far back?”

He said, “You know this is the steepest longest railroad grade in the U.S.”

“Whaaaat?” I said in disbelief.

He said, “If the train de-rails, I’ll be ok.”

That pithy piece of info itched and itched my mind. How can it be the longest steepest U.S. railroad grade in the U.S. when we have Glacier National Park up in Montana?

So I started scratching around for the answer, and lo and behold, I found out the answer and then realized something really truthy:

This train is a metaphor for life.

Making the Grade

Looking for the answer naturally took me to the Internet, where I found out about the Saluda line in North Carolina. It’s the steepest grade in the U.S. but not the longest steepest. It’s a three-mile track that rises more than 600 feet in elevation “with a 4.7% but reaching 5.1% between the towns of Melrose and Saluda” in Polk County. Whatever that means. There were so many accidents with runaway downhill trains that they finally had to shut it down.

Then the Aha Moment: I’ll ask a civil engineer friend of mine. I e-mailed him, told him what my husband said, and asked if he knew anything about this longest steepest train line.

Bingo, he did: “I believe that Joe Lee is correct. I remember hearing one of my UA professors say that the railroad grade that goes north past the Veterans Administration hospital [at the far eastern end of 15th St.] is the longest and steepest in the US.

“During the design stage for widening 15th street from a two lane road to a six lane urban street, my job was to prepare a topographical map of the area from US 11 to the middle of the VA property. The map was used to select the final location of the big curve that 15th street makes over the railroad tracks right to the side of the VA. Our biggest danger was that trains from Birmingham would coast down that grade at high speed. There was no engine noise but there were plenty of times that a high speed train showed up from nowhere and scared the bejesus out of us.”

Wow, I thought. Then I e-mailed back: “Dan, This is such a neat little fact to know Now every time I see the train headed south toward the big curve, I'm ducking! Now I have to ask: If it's the steepest and the LONGEST, I wonder where it ends. On the other side of the Appalachians somewhere I guess. Washington D.C.? Thanks, Joanna

He replied: “Surely you know better than to ever ask an engineer a question like where a certain grade ends! You just invited a 15 minute explanation on the friction between the rail and the steel wheels, the torque to overcome the grade and... eventually the answer you desired. Short answer - I don't have a clue where it ends. So have a great week on me!”

But I persisted: “Oh, too hilarious! I’m laughing, laughing, laughing. You tell me about torque and I'll tell you about the nominative absolute construction. Joanna”

He said: “I call for a truce and a great week for you.”

I got the last word: “Deal. And thanks. Joanna”

So here’s LIFE as told by a train.

You get on down at the Gulf waters, maybe the NO docks. It stops along the way at all these fun places and blows its whistle at all the crossings. Maybe you get off and hang out for a while. Buy oranges and vodka. But you have to get back on and keep going or be frozen in Time. To pass Your Time you can look at all the people stymied at crossings all the way to Penn Station.

Then the tough part starts somewhere in town around the VA hospital. It’s a long and steep uphill ride from then on. Some people were taken off way too early, and you look back; you probably cry. Maybe you get distracted and end up in say, Montgomery.

It keeps on chugging. It gets really torquey. You’ve gotta hang on, because somewhere up the tracks it will be your turn to de-train.

Somewhere on the tracks, it’s the last part of the ride. The end of the line. I don’t really have that part worked out yet. In this political climate, maybe being dumped at Union Station in Washington D.C. is the closest thing to The Flames you can imagine. It will probably be my luck to be shoved out somewhere north of Baltimore, maybe in New Jersey somewhere.

It’s all a real shame. In the last part of the ride, you get smart about a lot of things. You try to scream loud enough about living the train ride for those behind you to hear, but the wheels’ screeching, clicking, and throwing sparks are too much to overcome.

The next time you’re at a crossing, park way back from the tracks, breathe deeply, and try to catch a glimpse of the people in the Crescent’s dining car. Just remember, you’re on that fast train.

Here's the scoop on elevations and locations:

New Orleans: 6 ft. @ 29.95 N 90.08 W

Tuscaloosa: 190 ft. @ 33.19 N 87.56 W

My house, east of VA hospital: 400+ ft.

B’ham: 600 ft. @ 33.51 N 86.81 W

Anniston: 675 ft

Atlanta: 910 ft.

elevations drop from here, except at High Point, NC, at 940 ft.

Union Station: 50 ft. @ 38.90 N 77.01 W

Penn Station: 40 ft. @ 40.75 N 73.99 W


Spittin’ Grits on The Stir

I want to thank featured blogger K. Emily Bond at The Stir for her interest in Spittin’ Grits and her post last week of the interview with me about being a parenting grandparent. Our hour-long conversation covered many topics and details, and I’m pleased at the ones she picked to include in the post.

The Stir is part of the parenting site CafeMom, which offers its huge community of readers support, friendship, information and advice on a wide range of topics of interest to parents, particularly moms.

The Stir is a place on CafeMom for the featured bloggers to post topics that readers can respond to with comments that begin a conversation where everyone can join in.

The Numbers

My guess is that when all the Census 2010 figures shake out and are digested, those numbers Bond cited will be higher. (You can read the Pew Research Center publication here.) As Bond said, Spittin’ Grits deals primarily (but not exclusively) with drug addiction and being a parenting grandparent. My next guess is that as drug addiction numbers increase, so will the number of parenting grand- and great-grandparents.

Way Up the Mountain

Her insight that my most visible approach to parenting our granddaughter is finding practical solutions is correct. It’s part of getting real about the circumstances.

For example, when I recognized our granddaughter’s suffering and grief for the loss of her “mommy,” even at her very young age, I knew I needed help and guidance.

I am very clear that we are fortunate in being able to get the help we need. My 65-year-old husband recently accepted an offer of full-time employment (not easy to find these days) to ensure we could continue to give our granddaughter what she needs, plus all the extras.

The caveat, however, is that significant steps in the process of finding ways to care for grandchildren whose parents are drug addicts, criminals, imprisoned, mentally ill, or abusive/neglectful can be extremely difficult or impossible: getting the children away from bad parents, getting custody, getting the parent(s) to consent to adoption, finding financial or physical or emotional support – it’s all an uphill battle, and the system is not kind or supportive in most of it.


A grandparents parenting site I didn’t know about contacted me because of The Stir’s post: GrandsPlace. The Legal Resources link includes a post on a law needed to facilitate adoption and other solutions:

New laws covering the rights of children whom neither live with their parents nor are under the umbrella of the foster care system is needed. We need a law that will protect the rights of children being well cared for by relatives who are not able to adopt them while enabling the grandparents and other relatives to adopt if they choose and are qualified to adopt. Children being cared for by relatives should be accorded the same rights as foster children. If a grandparent or other relative wishes to and is qualified to adopt, the same time limits should apply. If the parents fail to rehabilitate themselves within a reasonable amount of time the rights of those parents must be terminated and allow a qualified grandparent or other relative who have been caring for the children in their absence to adopt those children. Only then can children, grandparents and the special others who are caring for the children depend on the promise of FOREVER.

Another very helpful grandparents parenting site is http://www.grandparentingblog.com/.

Somber Realities

One of my gravest concerns that the Pew Research Center reported in its on-line publication about parenting grandparents is the number who are close to or below the poverty level. Going through any or all of the steps cited above costs money, and some steps are more expensive than others: hiring attorneys, getting professional counseling, paying for medical care, sending the kids to pre-school or schools that require tuition, clothing the kids, seeing to the nutritional needs, and much, much more.

“Nearly one-in-five (18%) are living below the poverty line, while 47% have household incomes that fall between one- and three-times the poverty line. In comparison, among the population ages 50 and older, 8% are below the poverty line, and 32% are living on an income that is between one- and three-times the poverty rate,” according to the Pew Report.

This story is about the children. And the facts are abominable.

America has to find the will and the resources to help these children, starting with the growing numbers of drug, alcohol, and pill addicts among young people and moving on to those who are caring for the children of these addicts.

Once again, I thank K. Emily Bond in helping to bring these issues into the light.

The Birdiest

It’s a word! It’s a word actually being used, and I’m not kidding. Words being used are best, even if they aren’t in a dictionary. Birdiest is SO being used that being named one of the birdiest places is governed by rules.


Undaunted by even the BP oil disaster, millions and millions of birds are making their annual migration over the Gulf of Mexico, and lots and lots of them are flying over the Alabama Gulf Coast. Right now, the birds are flying south for the winter. And right now is one of the best times to go birding in Mobile and Fairhope, Alabama. To add lots of value to your birding experience, sign up for the 7th Annual John L. Borom Alabama Coastal BirdFest, Oct. 14 – 17.

mudlakes1 Photos: Lisa Comer. Above: Black-bellied Whistling Ducks, taken at the BirdFest
Below: Great White, Snowy, and Cattle Egrets, taken at the BirdFest



Places in this area, specifically the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries and Sea Lab, have been named one of the birdiest in America. You’ll see all kinds of shapes, colors, and species; you’ll hear warbles, songs, and experts talking about the sights and sounds. And you can walk, walk, walk.

According to John Borom, currently director of Faulkner State Community College and president of the Mobile Bay Audubon Society, birding is not only a special pleasure, it is “big business in Alabama.”

“It is eco-tourism, and the emphasis is on conservation of habitat,” he said. “Proceeds from the BirdFest go toward support of the Dauphin Island Bird Sanctuaries. Over the years we have been able to donate $65,000.”


American Avocet The opening night reception will feature BirdFest and other photos by Lisa Comer. Above, American Avocet.

Faulkner State will host a free event that promises to delight the whole family: the Bird and Conservation Expo is scheduled for Oct. 16, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Faulkner State and the Fairhope public library.

clip_image001Becky Collier and raptor friend will be at the Expo again this year.



Borom also suggests the 240-mile long Alabama Coastal Trail. “It is a hot birding area,” says Borom.


Birders on trail copy Birders on the trail




He also notes that the BP disaster has raised awareness about the critical importance of conserving habitat, as the marshes and breeding grounds for all kinds of bird and sea life have been adversely affected by the catastrophe. “We don’t yet know how it has affected the food chain. We’re going to be watching closely. Only time will tell,” he said.

He emphasizes that the migratory birds are unaffected, and this year’s BirdFest promises to be as good as ever.

For updated information on the oil spill and how it affects travel in the Mobile Bay area, visit these websites: http://www.mobilebaytravelupdates.com, www.eschamber.com, or www.gulfshores.com. For more information about the BirdFest, call Fran Morley at 251-928-0987.

blue heron Lisa Comer: Above: Blue Herron. Below: airborne raptors.


For one of 2010's birdiest experiences, put the Alabama Coastal BirdFest on your to-do list.


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