The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

June 29, 2015

The Open Chiffarobe: The Uncloseted Closet of the South

Down the street from my house in Vicksburg, Mississippi, when I would take walks at 5 am in July before the day got really hot, I would often see a couple of elderly gentleman on a stroll together.  These men lived down the street from me, and they looked like any other pair of men one might see at a VFW barbecue — golf caps, t-shirts with brand names on them that might endorse a NASCAR car, jorts, sneakers with gym socks.  But these men strolled close to one another, not holding hands, but close enough to murmur secrets to one another in hushed voices.  They had lived together for decades in a house down the street from mine, only theirs had an impeccably manicured garden that they lovingly tended together.  They would often sit on the front porch together, talking.  They waved at neighbors who had known them for years.  Everyone was polite, though the men generally kept their own close counsel.

No one ever referred to these men as a gay couple in my presence, though I have trouble imagining that their relationship could have ever been construed as anything else.  Without benefit of the right to marry legally, they had nevertheless constructed a permanent relationship together that had a quiet warmth, the way I hope my husband and I share a warmth in our golden years, only nobody ever officially acknowledged this couple’s relationship out loud.

In Vicksburg, it was entirely possible to imagine someone shouting the word “faggot” at someone else, with all the bitterness and hatred the word contains.  There wasn’t a pulpit in town from which one might not hear a sermon that decried same-sex relationships as unnatural.  And yet, in a town of about sixty thousand people, there were a number of such couples.  At Shonee’s, I would often see a younger pair of men, stylishly dressed quietly enjoying a meal together.  I would on occasion see a pair of women with matching short haircuts and tattoos at Kroger’s buying organic vegetables.  But nobody quite acknowledged the presence of these relationships before their eyes.  One lesbian couple I know would go home for Christmas every year, and under the tree would be two presents waiting for them, one labeled “Teresa,” the daughter of the family, and another one labeled “Teresa’s friend,” although Teresa had brought home for Christmas the same “friend” for over fifteen years.  The gifts were carefully chosen for both specific recipients in mind, but the family, who knew these women slept in the same bed, needed to live with a pretense that this relationship was the same as if one’s college roommate invited one to visit home over holiday break because one had no other fixed plans.

This is the strange system by which the South can exist in a schizophrenic denial and in a deep division regarding their own LGBTQ communities.  In Southern red states, a great many people honestly believe they have no personal acquaintances who are non-heterosexual because they have accepted a form of omerta regarding these entirely visible relationships around them.  As a result, they are able to believe the idea that Christian marriage is specifically under attack from radical Yankee queers in a manner that would limit their own civil rights.  The civil right that many heterosexual conservatives seem to cling to in this instance is the ability to deny what is in fact really none of their business.  I think only a few people in the South still think that gay is contagious, that proximity to someone who loves people from his or her own sex will make others do the same.  Most people have understood that it would be a wider-spread phenomenon were that true.  But they feel that openness and officially acknowledging these relationships would destabilize their basic ideas about how relationships work.  This in fact may be true, but they have willfully missed the obvious for so long now they have been living a longstanding  lie.

Let's get real.  There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

Let’s get real. There is so much queer life in the South, they have a postage stamp that commemorates it!

The irony is that the South not only has a longstanding public LGBTQ populaiton, although its communities tend, as they do in the North, to concentrate in urban areas, the South has produced the most notable gay and lesbian writers in American literature.  What are the seminal works of queer literature in America?  The first ones that come to my mind are Music for Chameleons by Truman Capote, Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown, Every single Tennessee Williams play, so rich in queer subtext, the novel The Color Purple by Alice Walker — and all of these works are by Southern writers. Being queer is not only a thing that happens in the South; it may be that the South actually has more people born here who want to have sex with same-sex partners than people born in the North, given the literary production of the South on the topic is so rich and diverse. It’s hard to know, though, as this firm commitment by the South to silence on this topic masks the real statistics.

Gay Southern writer Allan Gurganus once remarked that one reason why many Southerners used to be so blind to the sons and daughters of Dixie who were gay and lesbian was that a lot of those people left town the second they could.  The story people told at the church picnic about these absent relatives was that George had moved to Chicago because he got a fantastic career and loved his life as a playboy bachelor surrounded by pretty ladies. Harriet went North to teach at a girl’s school in New Hampshire, and bless her heart, she just couldn’t seem to meet the right man.  The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s made many Southern families confront the reality of certain male relatives’ lives because cousins and brothers came home to die from the disease, and this meant beyond any doubt that confirmed bachelors were not out looking to meet ladies in bars, though they might have met gentlemen in bars quite regularly.  The suffering and death of these men brought many instances of acknowledgement in private and forgiveness of past offenses, but few families declared the reasons for these deaths in public forums.  Things went along in communities the same as if these successful, beautiful sons had died of cancer, not a disease spread by sex.

I think that one of the reasons the South has resisted a closer examination in all frankness of its LGBTQ community is that the straight community would also be up for scrutiny if this ever happened.  Southern straight men cheat with comparative impunity (think of Bill Clinton’s rather prolific track record, and I am not just talking about Monica Lewinsky and Jennifer Flowers), and Southern women, while not all as committed to promiscuity as Rosemary Daniell is in her still-astonishingly-honest memoir Sleeping with Soldiers, nevertheless have a lot more extramarital sex than the Junior League is ready to announce in its monthly newsletter.  There’s a reason why STD rates are so high in Mississippi, and it’s not just because people don’t use condoms as often as they ought; people in Mississippi screw around at least as much, possibly more, than people in the North do.  But after the debauchery of Saturday night, people around here go to church on Sunday morning, where the pastor tells them that Christians don’t act like they actually did the night before.

This lack of openness about people’s actual choices in the South has led to a mismeasurement of Southern life as it is actually lived.  This mismeasurement has led sinners to feel isolated rather than forgiven. It has led to many Billy Joe McAllisters jumping off of many Tallahatchie Bridges. It leads certain others, almost as an overcompensation for their own transgressions, to vote for people who condemn their own behavior during election cycles. The rhetoric of the South does not match the life of the South, and as a result, a kind of Blanche-DuBois-like unwillingness to stand under direct light for examination can explain some of the Southern politics that Northerners find so confounding. It’s the whole South’s sex life that is really in the closet, not just the non-heterosexual sex, but any sex that isn’t fully sanctioned by marriage within the limits set by old anti-sodomy statutes.  The South wants to pretend there are more virgins on wedding nights than there really are.  The South wants to pretend that marriages are more faithful than they really are.  They want to pretend there are fewer sluts, male and female, than there really are.  And they want to pretend they don’t know any queers, unless you mean Georgia queer — a guy who likes women better than football.

I acknowledge that my Stanley-Kowalski-like desire to rip the paper lantern off the light bulb here in the South and expose the raw truths of its existence is a Yankee impulse if ever there were one.  I admit this very blog would like to wrap its arms around the South, smother its neck with kisses, and say to it, “I pulled you down off them columns, and how you loved it having them colored lights going.”  Given my many Southern readers, I have to believe that like Stanley does for Stella and Blanche, my frankness at once horrifies and fascinates.  All I can say to the South, as I lift it up in my brutal, sensual arms, is that we’ve had this date from the beginning.

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June 25, 2015

Welcome to Alabama the Beautiful — and Why Taking Down the Confederate Flag Constitutes Substantive Change

Southerners have so much about which they might be proud.  I adore the South, truly, and I appreciate Southerners.

I started this blog having moved from Brooklyn to marry my husband in Mississippi.  We consummated our marriage on a bed that was slept in by Ulysses S. Grant in his antebellum mansion headquarters during the Siege of Vicksburg.  That means our wedding night was practically a historical reenactment of a Confederate surge against Yankee defenses.  So with a sense of Southern heritage, my sojourn here began, and with respect for Southern traditions, my sojourn continues.

Welcome to the dawning of the post-Confederate era of the South

Welcome to the dawning of the post-Confederate era of the South

But what Southern traditions do today’s Southerners really want to embrace?  Is the average Southerner thinking that slave auctions ought to be brought back?  Do today’s Southerners believe in lynchings?  No!  The vast majority of Southerners are against what William T. Thompson, the creator of the Confederate Battle Flag, said about his stars and bars, namely, that his flag represents the struggle to “maintain the heaven-ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race.”  The majority of Southerners have intellectually accepted the idea of equality for all races under the law, and as for heaven, I am fond of the words that one Southern preacher, Kenneth Copeland, said: “If someone says he loves the Lord but hates another race, question his salvation, as the Word says he who says he loves God but hates his neighbor is a liar.”  Southerners are capable of prejudice and of racial bias, but intellectually, the vast majority of Southerners don’t want institutionalized racism and violence.  They want things to be fair, though i wonder how clearly they imagine an equitable South.

When I talk to many white people here in the South, I sense they are hesitant to talk about race because it feels like a topic off-limits, though the racists in their midst are not at all timid.  Most white people I meet are not ugly racists, though their contact with people of color is limited by a de facto system of segregation that persists in many parts of America, even though the de jure system is officially abolished.  However, they all have at least one racist relative.  They often love that racist relative.  And in the South, it is considered very, very rude to contradict someone over the Thanksgiving turkey, especially if that someone is older than you are.

That said, it needs to be done. White Northerners are more likely, I think, to tell that racist relative that his or her comments are offensive.  I am definitely going to open my mouth when such a thing happens.  In fact, here’s a story of how I did one afternoon, and it will demonstrate how I have come to certain views about the quiet beliefs of Southern white people on the whole:

****

I had backed my car into a pole in the Ole Miss stadium parking lot, and I needed a new bumper.  I found myself an exceedingly honest auto body shop, Kenny’s auto body shop on University Avenue on the outskirts of Oxford, Mississippi.  Kenny told me I could wait while the work on my car was done by him and his several junior mechanics.  His is the kind of shop that attracts a number of middle-aged or older men who hang around and comment on the work being done, give unsolicited advice, or on the day I was there, stare at a Yankee woman’s chest and try to flirt with her in unctuous and illiterate ways.

The older man kept staring at my chest as he told me about how big his car was, and I ignored him as best I could until he told me in some manner I only half remember that he was better than those “n” -s (not using the word he used because it is so offensive.)

That’s when I turned to him and asked him how he knew I wasn’t an “N.”  He looked a little surprised.  He said, “With yer blonde hair and blue eyes, you caint be one.”

I told him I was a white “n,” and so was my husband — he, too, is a white “n,” and I told him that we liked souped up cadillacs, watermelon and fried chicken, and he’d better stop using that “n” word to stereotype us and insult us.

“Hey!” He protested, “I didn’t say all that!”

“Sure you did,” I said, “What else could you have meant by using a disgusting word like the N-word?  You brought it up, so let’s talk about it!”

He felt challenged in a way he was clearly unused to, and he left in a huff.

As the door shut behind him, I realized that all work by the men in this body shop had stopped some time ago.  All these guys were white, looking more than a little like Larry the Cable Guy, the kind of guys who chew tobacco and hunt on weekends, all Southerners, all white — and I admit I wasn’t sure what would happen next.  Would they send me away?  How would I get back to campus without my car?  Was I potentially in danger?

After a moment where you could have heard a Teitlist cap fall to the ground out of a blue jumpsuit back pocket, they came up one by one and shook my hand, congratulating me on finally serving up what this creepy man had been dishing out in their presence for many years, while they had stood silently and put up with what they, too, found offensive language.

“Why didn’t anybody say anything to this guy before, if everybody seems to feel the same way about him?” I asked.

They didn’t have a clear answer.  The man wasn’t a customer in their shop, just a guy who came to hang around and talk like that, they said, so it wasn’t exactly about customer service.

One finally offered, “Well, it’s a small town, and everybody knows everybody else, and nobody wants to be rude, because it will stick around as a story forever.”

This may be so, but the story that wasn’t sticking around forever was that this guy was a massive racist creep who deserved to be shunned.

Southern manners seems to allow the few truly rude Southerners to stay rude.  Southerners might live happier lives if they decided to stand up to jerks more often.

*****

So finally, Governor Bentley of Alabama decided to quietly take down the flag without a debate, and everybody is still who they were before — or are they?  Is this a cosmetic change?  Or is this a change that materially changes the discourse of the South?

The reasoning behind the decision to take down the flag is perhaps best expressed by AL.com writer Kyle Whitmire, who writes, explaining to other Southerners, “For the South, the Confederate flag has been what a face tattoo in a job interview is for everybody else. Ultimately, it didn’t matter what it meant for us if it scared the hell out of everybody else.”

A lot of people in the South will tell Northerners and each other that the Confederate flag only represents pride in one’s heritage — but this symbol got hung over State capitols again during the period of the inception of the civil rights movement, some time shortly after Brown v. Board of Education in most instances. The pride expressed was in a segregated South.  The symbol has been used as recently as last year in the lynching of the statue of James Meredith at the University of Mississippi.  Meredith, who was the first African-American admitted to the university, whose presence caused a race riot at the time instigated by white supremacists, had his image defaced last year by some racist frat boys who left a noose around his neck with a Stars-and-Bars-emblazoned flag hanging from it.  What was the nature of the pride expressed there?  And more importantly, do most Southern white people want a share of that pride?

While writers like Nicholas Kristof of The New York TImes are right to exhort the South to make material changes, it is easy for outsiders to the South and its manners to miss the enormity of this change.  Maybe the Southerners haven’t told their racist grandmothers to stop insulting people of other races at Christmas dinner yet, but this gesture is a step in that direction.  It says that Southerners realize that wrongs have been done recently using a symbol of the past, and the South most Southerners want to live in isn’t violent toward people of color, and it’s fair, though the parameters of that fairness have yet to be defined by most people.

So I rejoice at this news.  When I heard that Governor Bentley had taken down that hate flag, I turned on the Lynard Skynard and danced, thinking about where the skies are blue, singing songs about the Southland — and does your conscience bother you?  If you are from Alabama, your state has taken a weight off its collective conscience.  Congratulations, Alabama!  I agree with your sign — Alabama is the beautiful, and your banner is one of United States, not divided states and divided people.

May 6, 2015

Let Them Eat Cake: Why, with God and Scarlett O’Hara as My Witness, I’ll Never Go Hungry Again

My pastor in Oxford, Brother Williams, told me that at our church here in Mississippi, we spell fellowship F-O-O-D.  I write this as a witness.  I have tasted, and I have seen that the LORD is good, and his mercies, as well as his appetizers, endureth forever.

I love the people at Christ the Rock.  They are kind and unpretentious.  If you look earlier in this blog, you can see my previous post about them.  Whenever we get together, with the slightest of excuses, there is a buffet laden with home-made macaroni and cheese, biscuits out of the oven, cole slaw, sandwiches, muffins, cookies, and desserts — oh, the desserts!  Isaiah 61:8 says that the Lord loves justice, and I have received my just desserts at Christ the Rock, thanks be to God.  My cup runneth over with unsweet tea they make especially for me, out of pity for my Yankee proclivities, for no natural-born Southerner would willingly drink iced tea that hasn’t been sweetened.  They have handed me a napkin.  As it says in Psalm 81:10 — I have opened my mouth wide, and fellowship at Christ the Rock has filled it.

Courtney Love taught me to be the girl with the most cake.  Marie Antoinette taught me to share it like a good Southern hostess ought.

Courtney Love taught me to be the girl with the most cake. Marie Antoinette taught me to share it like a good Southern hostess ought.

But this past Tuesday really took the cake, or rather it gave it.  I have been volunteering to teach high school English for the teenagers at Christ the Rock’s Church School, a part of Oxford Christian Academy.  We are writing poetry, fiction and essays together.  We have been reading the play Measure for Measure and contemplating whether Shakespeare felt that the State could legislate morality — an interesting question for young Christians to ponder.

Meanwhile, I had been getting ready for my prospectus defense.  I had been very stressed out about it, too.  I asked the church for prayer on Sunday, and pray they did.  Then, on Thursday last week, the morning before my defense, my students, seven lovely and well-behaved teenagers (yes, they still make some of those), asked Brother Williams to lead them all in prayer for my successful defense.  I was very moved by how personally they took my fortunes at this defense.  They seemed to feel if I succeeded, then they, too, had some share in that success.  If I failed — perish the thought — God, our merciful and mighty God, would surely not let that happen.  They prayed individually for me to persuade the room of committee members.  They prayed in earnest.

These fine, young Southerners got me a cake with Ole Miss colors in the frosting.

These fine, young Southerners got me a cake with Ole Miss colors in the frosting.

My defense turned out (by the skin of its academic teeth) to be a success.  I told the church this on Sunday, and on Tuesday, the next time my class met, they shouted “surprise!” when I opened the door.  They had gotten me, in the spirit of fellowship, a cake.  Above is a picture of it.  Brother Williams told me, “What we cannot pay you in money,” (The school keeps its costs very affordable for people without two nickels to rub together) “we can show you in appreciation and hospitality.”

I would rather teach the children of the church than the children of Babylon, even if Babylon is gilded.  At the Lycee Francais in New York City, were I to teach high school there, I would barely make a living wage, anyway, while only the richest of the rich could afford to attend.  Here, I help young people in my spare time, as I pursue writing and my doctorate, find their own unique voices without apology.  I help them discern Shakespeare’s skepticism about government-mandated morality, with hopes that future voting will reflect this discussion’s debate later on.  I help them understand that our God creates with words, potent words.  Their words contain potency as well.

And it is a blessing to belong to a fellowship that spells itself F-O-O-D, that celebrates with those who advance, and considers itself set apart from the mean spirit of much of the world, even as it draws those who have been downtrodden by the vicissitudes of its cruelty to its table.

So pull up a chair.  Don’t be shy.  Let me slice you off a piece with extra piped-on gooey goodness.

April 11, 2015

Y’All Are Cordially Invited, All Y’All!

Calling all fans of this blog,of cultural assonance and dissonance between North and South — Monday, April 20, 7 pm, at the Powerhouse Theater in Oxford, Mississippi, on the corner of University Avenue and Fourteenth Street, I am inviting you all to a word party.

My book, The White Trash Pantheon, which sets the ancient Greek myths in the Deep South, decries  idolatry and excesses of white privilege, and is above all, filled with fun and humor, with prosody and twang, is being released by Vox Press.

My book is having a party on Monday, April 20, 7 pm!  Come on down!

My book is having a party on Monday, April 20, 7 pm! Come on down!

The party is being called “A Moonshine Cotillion.”  I will neither confirm nor deny the presence of actual moonshine, but the moon will be shining, I can guarantee that.

If you attend, there will be refreshments, bonhomie, and a dash of ribaldry.  There will be reasons to laugh, hopefully not at me but with me.  I have written these poems with a heart for the heartland.  I promise that my intention is to enjoy the South, to slap the snooty off classical literature while retaining its edifying qualities, and to uplift an American vernacular, all in the tradition of Mark Twain, who like me, had an existence both above and below the Mason-Dixon Line.  His Huckleberry Finn is an edifying book, but it also found light-handed ways of telling the truth about people’s hypocrisies, about injustice, about Southern paradox.

I hope The White Trash Pantheon approaches Southern living in a parallel way.  There are times where I am making fun of somebody’s momma, but it isn’t your momma.  It is Oedipus’ momma, though she talks with a drawl when she interrupts her own funeral like Tom Sawyer did.

I promise to bring the funny.  I promise to bring the delight I take in this magnolia-strewn landscape.  I hold the people I have met down South in high esteem, I promise you.  I have listened to — well, to be completely honest, I have eaves-dropped on — salient conversations down here, and I have found in them the cadence of Tennessee Williams divas in the church hall kitchen, the gritty twang of Faulknerian figures in the garages on the county roads.

The South is too beautiful to burn.

The South is too beautiful to burn.

I have seen what Ulysses S. Grant saw in Port Gibson, Mississippi, a town between Vicksburg and the bayoux, a town he encountered on his march to conquer the Confederacy, but in the midst of his scorched Earth policy, destroying all sorts of settlements in his army’s wake, he came upon this sleepy, white-boarded, colonnaded oasis between cornfields and cotton, and when his colonels asked him if they should torch the place, he looked at the church steeple — the one in the photo here, with a golden hand atop it pointing an index finger heavenward, and he declared, “No, don’t burn it.  It’s too beautiful to burn.”

I, the Carpetbagger de tutti Carpetbaggers, I, too, declare that the South is too beautiful to burn.  I am in this world of twang and Tabasco, but I am not of it.  That said, when I look at the springtime trees in bloom, at the gilded glove pointed heavenward, I, too, may stand to admire this landscape.  I would change injustice.  I would open eyes.  But I am not a practitioner of scorched Earth.  I have gone native, as native as a non-native can in the New South.

I am not of the South, but I am in the South.  I am making my official debut Monday, April 20th, as a Southern writer, not of Mark Twain, but after Mark Twain.

Come have a slice of corn bread and some bacon-wrapped sugar sausages. Come have a glass of a substance I will neither confirm nor deny.  All y’all, y’all are cordially invited.  The inestimable honour of your presence is requested.

December 20, 2009

Crossing the line

The Mason-Dixon Line is the line, historically, between two ways of American life, between personhood and non-personhood.  For slaves, to cross this line from South to North was the difference between becoming a man or a fraction of one.  How then is it that I in crossing in the other direction find myself more complete?

The place of my transgression

I crossed the line just a little bit South of Gettysburg this week, while listening to the song, “Where I Come From” by Alan Jackson on my radio:

“…Where I come from,

it’s corn bread and chicken.

Where I come from,

a lot of front porch sittin’…”

Oddly enough, this Brooklyn girl is now from the land of corn bread and chicken — not vodka martinis and tapas.

I’m at home, a property owner for the first time in my life, and I am turning a house in a small town, as best I can, into a Monticello-like island of Jeffersonian culture, but more about that later.

Crossing the line between personhood and non-personhood in the reverse direction was astonishingly liberating.  I thought of Caesar and his Rubicon and Washington and his Potomac.  The line, it seems, is the unpatrolled border between two nations, one where I am an infiltrator of another way of life, here to do battle for truth as I understand it but also to accept a hometown welcome, too.

I’m coming home to where my hostess skills and my prayer life are a sort of gold standard.  Eccentricity combined with a certain kind of sociability in the South is no sin.  I am hopeful I will adapt, too, not just cause an adaptation.

The hills turned greener as I entered the land beneath the line, and in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, it seemed that Fall had barely taken hold, but the ruggedness of the terrain was due to a permanent state of non-ambitious relaxation, the opposite of skyscrapers preening their necks.

An old farmhouse in the Smoky Mountains

I have crossed into a new way of living, to be sure.  The time zone is different.  The seasons are different.  People want to set a spell, share a word with me, and I am going to discover.

I am marrying into a new culture, even as I marry into my own.  You see, I have lived my adult life almost entirely on an island off the coast of my own country, and this, well, at one time, this was not my own country — it had left my country behind and only returned after being utterly brought to its weatherbeaten timbers and its empty stretches of uncultivated wilderness.

For years, I have claimed to write about the American experience, and so I have, fictionally.  I see it is time for some creative non-fiction in a prosaic land where, crossing a line into a sort of no-return denim-friendliness, I have been set free into a kind of a personhood devoid of the pretensions of my previous home.

Where I come from, Alan Jackson tells me at the crossroads where the blues player met the devil, where Oedipus met his father, where slave met free, where I am now, this is not a land like any other I have known before.

May God have mercy on me as I step into the unknown and yet uncannily familiar mud of my new back yard.

December 6, 2009

Packing

In this picture, note her balletic foot position and her determined expression.

No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper…” — Isaiah 54:17

Watch out, New York — I am packing.

I am loading up boxes, I admit, rather than loading my Winchester rifle,  but a woman could do worse for a role model than plucky show-girl-with-a-gun Annie Oakley.  She was a pioneer in her field, if not a true Western pioneer.  She — well, she aimed high.  Sorry, I just couldn’t resist the pun.

Even putting her picture on my blog feels like a delicious rebellion against the values with which I was raised.  My mother is turning over in her grave.

I was not raised with what Jerry Fallwell would have called family values, but my family had values.  My parents were earnest on several topics — they supported civil rights, they opposed, without protesting, the Vietnam War, and they thought guns should not be privately owned.

Although my parents were not hippies, they sent me and my brother to a school run by hippies, to a socially conscious day camp, and there were certain family rules.  My cousin Doug, for instance, could upset his mother by saying loudly he wanted to be a policeman when he grew up, because after all cops were all fascists.  My mother would not allow me to own a baton because I was supposed to be in the game, not the sidelines.  And my mother made my brother write a conscientious objection letter when he was in Elementary School so he could get out of any future draft by demonstrating he was against violence and guns.  The idea that I might own a gun ever– even if it was used, say, to free draft dodgers from jail — that would make me a family pariah, in my mother’s way of thinking.

I was always on the edge — one step away from pariah purdah — for things like my spiky leather punk bracelets and spiky hair, for any number of artistic expressions not in keeping with the family party line, for resisting attending yet more Joan Baez concerts — we tended to go to three per year, more often than we saw grandparents, and finally, what made me utterly untouchable — I became a Christian.

Gun ownership would have launched an Amish shunning from the group, but that ship has sailed.

My fiance, concerned for my safety on my new job, which will involve teaching night classes and driving home alone late at night, said, “Hon, when you’re down here, I think we’d better think about getting you a firearm.”

I was at once shocked and utterly tantalized.  A gun is either the final step toward family excommunication or the first step toward my eventual red neck perdition, a perdition about which some of my New York cohort are already taking bets, I’ll warrant.  I think the odds are running in that pool toward my turning Daisy Ducal in less than three years, perhaps, because of my age, with nether-cheeks covered, but nonetheless, with an overly broad smile and derriere, leaning over a table with two long-necks in hand in some honky tonk, a gun rack in my truck.

Not known for my half-measures, I say bring it on.  I’m too intellectual for that picture, and I’m frankly more likely to turn into Eudora Welty than Daisy Duke, but guns — I am curious yellow.  I am pro-Second Amendment, pro-gun control bi-curious about guns.

When I was living as a club kid in Paris (and not yet saved), I once made out in a restaurant hallway with a man I had met earlier that evening.  He was packing.  I discovered mid-kiss the heavy steel handle tucked in the small of his back, and I found myself grabbing him tighter, kissing him harder.  I took him home that evening.  Living in a city as a young woman, not even old enough to order a drink in America, with no family on the entire continent, felt dangerous, and having a guy in my apartment who could shoot at the door if something went down — it didn’t matter that the firearm was illegal and that I had no known enemies — felt like the safest thing I could do.   I did not fall in love with him, this international man of mystery, but I did find myself passionately entangled.  I imagined him enacting all my unladylike rages, personifying the angry part of me.  It never once occurred to me that I should own a gun personally.  My mother had told me that women who own firearms find themselves overpowered by their attackers and find the weapon meant for their protection used against them.  I didn’t mind the overpowered part, not with my sexy, gun-toting man, but the weapon — would it always be pointed the other way?  And I was so angry — angry at unfairness I would later come to understand as feminist issues — I had already been attacked and excluded from things boys took for granted — could I trust myself not to go postal?

I joined the women’s movement, wrote speeches and organized demonstrations for them — I also did stand-up comedy.  I had a whole routine about Thelma and Louise blocking a Senate hearing and demanding an apology at gunpoint from the committee.  I found legitimate outlets for my decidedly unladylike anger — there’s nothing like screaming at the White House and doing what they said we could never do.  I largely forgot about guns until I saw this:

Some mother-daughter time

Understand I don’t agree with Ms. Palin about anything, but here was this marvelous image of a woman doing something we were surely told we could never do, although any honest historian will tell us that women have had to pick up guns and use them since the beginning of this country to defend and to feed their families.  I began to wonder — where are these moose-hunting women congregating?  Not Manhattan, I can  tell you that much.  Could I fill up a flask with some Jack Daniels, find a lonesome mountainside with them, and could we get buzzed, laughing softly as we crouched in the snow, fire off a few, and bag a buck?  Could I in my wildest dreams convince three other city-dwelling amateurs like me — think of it as a bridge party — to rent a SUV in some remote location, borrow some rifles, and try to get some venison?

Understand I’ve never had a problem with the morality of hunting anything one eats or wears, endangered species excepted, of course.  I’m roasting a chicken as I type this blog, and while I’m delighted it wasn’t my responsibility to kill it, I assume that as an eater of meat, I am just as liable for that Chicken’s blood-spattered execution as if I had bitten its neck at some PLO terrorist training camp.  Hence, hunting seems natural and right to me.

My city girlfriends smiled at my request that we form a hunting party, and while they thought it was an awfully good joke, full of spirit, they had no more real interest in going out in the woods with a shotgun than they did in chasing a bat out of an attic.  Besides, coupled with my small-p-pentacostal leanings and my unframed, square-shaped glasses I used to have, I was suspiciously Palinesque and might have caused a stir in certain circles had I not had a leftist literary track record.

I still want to go hunting,  at least for the drinking part of the hunting.

However, my fiance wants to get me a gun to protect me from attackers, not to get dinner.   One of my colleagues asked me if I could ever shoot someone.  In self-defense, I could.  However, I am not convinced — yet — that a gun would really protect me.

One time in Paris, shortly before I met the man who was packing, I was walking home in spindly high heels at 4 am — something I loved to do.  Paris is largely a safe city, and the streets are only really empty then but for the fishmongers pouring ice into their cases and the occasional couple kissing against a wall.  I loved to feel I was alone in all the beautiful architecture, to hear the water lapping against the quais as I crossed the Seine on the Pont des Arts.  I loved the smell of bread baking as I passed small bakeries.  However, one night, I was walking home in my clubbing dress, covered in sequins, my absurd heels, my hair sweaty from too much dancing, and a man started to follow me down the Boulevard Saint Michel.  I took note of him, heard him cursing under his breath, and as I turned down narrower and narrower streets toward my apartment, he still followed me more and more closely.  I lived on a block where there were only old people, no cops, and I realized that if I ignored him, he would likely follow me up to my apartment door and hurt me.  He was stammering insults about bitches and whores.  He seemed twitchy, such as I could hear him behind me.

I decided that I would risk confronting him before he cornered me.

I turned and walked forcefully up to him, shouting, “You!  Stop following me!  Why are you bothering me?”

The guy, who was even more twitchy to the view than I had imagined while listening to him, pulled out a knife.

“You looked at me funny!”  He mumbled as he unbuttoned his clothes.

He clearly had intended to corner me and rape me, possibly to slit my throat.

I took two steps back, and even though my heart was pounding, I changed my tone to a conversational and utterly calm one.

“You know,” I said with an actual smile on my face, “a girl could get the wrong impression from you.  I mean, here you are following me, and I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

How would I hurt him — with a heel to the eye?  with a spiky bracelet to the nuts?  I had no game.

“I don’t want to have to hurt you,” I repeated authoritatively — where this air of confidence came from, I had no idea, “but you need to leave me alone.”

Twitchy man looked confused.  He had counted on my fear — maybe that was the thrill.

“You shouldn’t look at people funny like that!” He shouted, sounding frightened himself, “do you need me to cut you up to teach you a lesson?”

As calmly as a mother talking to a baby in a crib, although my eyeballs were pulsating from the adrenaline, I intoned, “No.  I don’t need to be taught a lesson.  Here’s what’s going to happen.  I am going to walk that way, and you are going to turn around in the opposite direction and leave me alone, because I don’t want to have to hurt you, because if I have to hurt you, I will.”

I started down a steep cobblestone street backwards in stillettos.

“Here I go.  Don’t make me hurt you.  I’m going now.”

I walked about twenty yards backwards downhill, and then I turned around walking calmly but more quickly.   I did not hear footsteps, but I wanted to know if he had followed me.   I turned to see where he was.

“What did I tell you?  Do I need to cut you up?”

“No,” I repeated calmly, “I’m going now.”

When I turned the corner, I ran home.

Horrified as I was, I realized that if I held a hairbrush with enough attitude in a shadowy place, an attacker would think it was a nuclear weapon.

So do I need a gun?  I haven’t decided.  I like the idea of shooting a tin can, of being competent with a piece of cold steel, of defying yet another stereotype.  I am of two minds on the subject, and anyway, I don’t have to decide today.  Today I’m only packing one way, the way with the cardboard boxes, the way that might include chasing a bat out of my attic apartment, although that’s more the cat’s job than mine.  I have so much to pack, so much baggage from the past, I am tempted to blow it away.

November 20, 2009

My second act

“There are no second acts in American Lives.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

Every Jane Austen novel ends at the marriage altar.  Dissatisfied wives in literature end up dead — like Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary.  Satisfied wives end up obscured in fiction, without their own narrative, accessories to the real plot.  Unmarried women barely exist at all.  When things go wrong in literary plots, women end up strangling themselves with their own bridal veils, like Antigone, or they end up obliterated some other way.

A couple of years ago, when my life fell apart, I wondered which dramatic death I was destined for.  I did not want to die, understand, but where did I have an example of a woman who picks herself up, dusts herself off in her forties, and starts all over again?  I had a couple of television-world examples, less than half an inch thick.  I had CJ Craig from The West Wing

Aaron Sorkin imagines a second act for one woman

, who becomes the White House Press Secretary after a failed Hollywood career in PR.  I had Samantha Jones from Sex and the City, who at a perpetual 39 seems to have no regrets.

Sex And The City imagines a second act that ressembles act one precisely, only with the possibiliy of Botox.

In fiction — well, I had Scarlett O’Hara, shaking her fist at heaven, swearing that as God as her witness, she would never go hungry again.

After marriage #2, Margaret Mitchell imagines a still-feisty Scarlett getting engulfed by Rhett Butler's embrace.

I did a great deal of soul-searching, of Internet searching, of job searching, of PhD searching, but I dare say I have drummed up a second act in this American life, no matter what Fitzgerald thought:

  • I’m getting remarried
  • I’m becoming a not-so-wicked stepmother
  • I’m getting my PhD
  • I’m working part-time while I do so and my future husband pays the bills.

The one thing, though.  Perhaps Fitzgerald could have said, “In New York lives, there are no second acts.”  However, in other places, I find that I can have one.  Scarlett gets hers in Georgia.  Mine, it turns out, is in Mississippi.

Yes, I’m moving from Brooklyn to Mississippi.

Horrified?  So are my New York friends.  They imagine Klansmen.  They imagine a total lack of Sushi — which, I admit is a legitimate consideration.  They know that Mississippi is the number one  state for teen pregnancy, illiteracy and  obesity.

Don’t they get it?  Down there, I’m skinny.  What dieter wouldn’t want to go?

Seriously, here is a photo of my second act:

That smiling woman is me. That cute man is my fiance.

I corresponded with my old writing teacher from my Freshman year in college — Allan Gurganus, author of The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All — a Southern writer if there ever were one.  He told me that he thought my adjustment from New York to life on the Mississippi would be more dramatic than my adjustment were I to move to the Belgian Congo.

He may have a point.

This blog, which will document my adjustment weekly, will examine just that.  Those of you  who like Jeff Foxworthy jokes, or  remember fondly The Beverly Hillbillies, feel free to watch in  morbid fascination as I document all that I find to love about the South, all that I find cumbersome or odd.

Intermission is over.  The house lights dim. Enter our heroine, stage left.  We see a ranch-style house in Vicksburg, Mississippi.  There is a small dog yapping.  There is a man seated outside, sipping a can of beer, smiling.  The woman is carrying an armful of books,  and she is  dressed in black.

The second act, written by my hand and the improbable divine hand, begins.

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