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

May 17, 2011

Apres Moi le Deluge — why the news coverage of the flooding of Vicksburg is an exaggeration

See that hill that the Yankees are taking? That's where I live -- Vicksburg. Go Yanks!

I don’t mean to demean the troubles of the small number of families in the Vicksburg who have been flooded out of  their homes.  However, the national news coverage of my post-New-York home town of Vicksburg of late has worried a number of people I know.  They imagine me wading through muck trying to salvage my DVD player.    But the reason why Vicksburg was a crucial part of the Civil War was that it was placed on a high bluff ABOVE the Mississippi River.

If I watched Fox News, and I don’t, I might think I was gathering the animals two by two to repopulate the Earth after the water recedes.  CNN has filmed the train depot more than half underwater — and it is indeed more than half underwater right now.  However, what the news doesn’t show you is that the entire town is up a very tall,  steep hill from this place.  The illustration from the Civil War to the left shows the geography of  the town.  Where most of us live is where the flag is planted in the distance.  The casinos are at the riverbank — so is a defunct railway station that the town has been planning to make into a museum.  So are some vacant lots and a very few houses.

But the news media is making it look like the Johnstown Flood.  In fact, it is nothing of the kind.  Things are far worse in Memphis, in Louisiana, and in other places outside of town.  Not only are the Army Corps of Engineers working to keep the water back from the  casinos — the Army Corps of Engineers lives here — the Waterways Center of the Army Corps of Engineers is up here, and these engineers are defending their own houses from the deluge.  They couldn’t be more personally motivated to get it right, and they are truly doing their very best work despite very difficult circumstances.

We in Vicksburg are mostly doing alright.  My husband volunteered to help move the four families at our church that might have their houses flooded, but he has not been called off the bench because they have not been victims of any high waters.

Ironically, parts of the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? were filmed in Vicksburg, and that film climaxes with a large flood.  Admittedly, this narrative is not yet ended, but the water is supposed to crest in three days.   There are no rain storms in the forecast.  The media should cover the people who are really suffering.  Most of  them don’t live in this town.

September 19, 2010

Don’t MAKE me come up there, New York City!

So here I am, New York, one of your expatriates,  now living in Mississippi, forever assuming that  I had left the place of ultimate tolerance for a place still wrestling with civil rights issues.  While I’m off minding my business down here, I find out from Farah Akbar of The Gotham Gazette and others — the sweet elderly couple down the street at CNN, those crazy neighbors of ours at Fox News, and basically everybody else — that you’ve gone and pulled a switcheroo on me, New York City.  Down here, I’ve yet to witness a hate crime or hear about one recently committed in my environs, but up there, you’ve gone all Klannish on me!

Farah Akbar wrote the following:

“A 37-year-old Queens resident, who does not want his name used, thinks that he may have been the victim of a hate crime. On a warm August evening, he was taking the routine four-block walk home from the Jamaica Muslim Center after completing his prayers. He was wearing a traditional outfit from his native Bangladesh, which consists of a long overflowing shirt that reaches the knees and baggy pants. Two blocks shy of his home, five men surrounded him began punching him.

‘I kept saying, ‘Don’t hit me. Take what you want, but don’t hit me,’ he said. The men did not ask for money or for his watch. In fact, they did not say a word to him throughout the entire ordeal. The victim, an information technology professional, had to take two days off from work to recover from his injuries.

Officials from the Jamaica Muslim Center believe that this was a hate crime. ‘He was wearing Muslim garb, he was not robbed and he was only two blocks away from the mosque,” said Junnun Choudhury, general secretary of the center.'” — The Gotham Gazette, September 2010

And then there’s the guy who drunkenly took a whizz on prayer rugs in a mosque in a different part of Queens, a part of Queens where I organized a pro-diversity literary reading within a year of 9/11 that was well attended!

Why are the people of Astoria, Queens, in what must be the most diverse portion of the most diverse county in the whole world, seemingly more angry at Islam today than  they were in January, 2002?

Is this what you do, New York, when I leave you alone in the house like a grown-up?  If I had discovered you had thrown a wild party with a lot of friends over who broke stuff, that would have just been business as usual for you, and we wouldn’t be having this talk right now.  This is a sad surprise, to say the least.

And then, let’s take a look at this winner, who celebrated September 11th by protesting the Islamic center they want to build at Park 51:

Wait -- I'm in Mississippi and THIS GUY is in New York?

When I was contemplating my move down here, New York City, didn’t you warn me that if I went to Mississippi, I would run into a pack of half-wit racist scumbags with horrible taste in men’s hats?

Is this your idea of a joke, New York?

New York, it’s not just the ninth anniversary of September 11th when this guy was walking around like this — it was during FASHION WEEK that he was looking like this, too. Have you no shame?

New York, my Irish great-great-great-grandmother would have said the following to you:

  1. You’ve gone “beyond the beyonds” — which means pack your bags, no Carmelite nun’s prayer can save you — this is the kind of behavior that lands you straight in Hell.
  2. She would remind you of the controversy that existed during her lifetime about the building of  Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, as one wouldn’t want to encourage all that anti-American papist hooliganism supposedly inherent in the worship practices of that upstart immigrant group, the Irish Catholics.  I refer you to Martin Scorcese’s film, The Gangs of New York, for a reenactment of another jingoist protest against an immigrant group’s house of worship being built.
  3. You have abandoned your wonderful principles.
  4. Osama Bin Laden wins if we become hateful or even distrust our own ideal of a diverse society.
  5. Given that this man has “Guinness” written on his tacky cap, there’s a pretty good chance the guy in the photo is Irish-American.  What would  his Irish great-great-great grandmother have to say to him?  Irish eyes would not be smiling.

New York, what’s going on  up there?  Are you just acting out because you miss me so much?  Have I really  moved to a place of greater tolerance for difference and individual choice than your overcrowded streets?

Don’t make me come up there, New York City!  If I come up there, and I don’t see things back the way they were when I left — a reasonable attitude between all groups of people, a total rejection of the attitudes that inspire hate crimes, and — don’t forget — the best-dressed men in North America, you will have to answer to me.  I remind you of the many demonstrations I organized when I lived there.  I remind you of the several makeovers I performed.  You don’t want to get me started again, do you?  Don’t make me come up there.

August 8, 2010

Dixie Fat — and the fight against it

I'm losing the weight, and so is the rest of Vicksburg.

Mississippi has been the fattest State in the Union for six years in a row, and I am a science experiment that proves  it is not genetic.

I was horrified a few weeks ago at my doctor’s office to learn that I had gained twenty pounds in the seven months since I moved here.  I was no twiggy to begin with, but this was a shock.  Furthermore, for the first time in my life, to my horror, I learned my cholesterol was slightly elevated.  Before this, I had always had low cholesterol.

My husband has not had health problems related to his diet.  Neither has a woman  I met today, June, who explained to me that her husband’s cholesterol must be down because, “he puts so much grease in his body, all the cholesterol slides out of him.”

That somehow did not work for me.

I know why.  I won’t blame the state for putting food in my mouth, but it is easy to slide into bad habits.

Here are the bad habits around here that became my own insidiously, until I decided to change them:

  1. Mounds of Meat — in New York ,  I ate a lot less meat.  My husband is a real carnivore — a dead animal at every meal.  I can’t eat like that without consequences.
  2. Gallons of Grease — in Mississippi, the salad bars are almost all ice berg lettuce and shredded cheese.  There are no arugula salads tossed in a light vinaigrette at most restaurants.  Vegetables are cooked in bacon fat, where they are served at all.
  3. Sacks of Sugar — Southerners like things  sweet.  There are a million sugary treats,  and I (call it research) tried them all.
  4. Insidious Inertia — for the firsts two months of summer, I had a non-stop sinus headache.  The heat makes any activity at all sweaty and exhausting.  I was never much of an exerciser before, but as  it was,  after eating dead animals, greasy vegetables, and cake, I  would not want to lift a finger.
  5. Shock and Stress — this was not specific to Mississippi but to me.  I am in culture shock.  Everything in my life has changed.  This blog is  a product of stress.  So were some of my fat cells.

They warn college students against the “freshman fifteen.”  Let me warn all people moving south against the “Southern seventeen.”

The good news — I have lost eight of those twenty pounds, and the rest are coming off, too.  I am steaming my own veggies, eating rice, avoiding foods from restaurants.  I am not yet cool enough to go out training for a marathon.  I am, however, increasing my physical activity.

This past week, CNN ran a story on local hero Linda Fondren, who decided, after her sister’s obesity-related death, to make weight loss a community issue.  Here is the CNN report from August 5th:

“…Fondren, 54, wants to move her state from the fattest to the fittest. For the last four years, she has led her hometown of Vicksburg in its battle with the bulge.

Being the fattest state ‘is not a good heavyweight title to hold,” she said. “I felt that people needed to be challenged.’

Fondren remembered how her sister had been too embarrassed to exercise in a gym with men. So in June 2006, she opened an all-female workout facility, Shape Up Sisters.



// //



The gym was a success — it now has more than 600 members — but Fondren eventually realized that she needed to expand her reach if she wanted to slim down her community.

She says part of the problem in Vicksburg is that being overweight is so commonplace it is often considered the norm.

‘Most people … they do not know that they have a weight problem because we live in an environment where everyone almost looks the same,’ she said.

So in October 2009, Fondren kicked off Shape Up Vicksburg. The initiative challenged residents to lose weight while giving them the tools they needed to reach their goal….”

Ms. Fondren has opened her gym for free one day a week, started fitness groups  in churches, including my own, and she is committed to getting the high-high-high fat foods from restaurants in town changed to more moderate-calorie dishes.

CNN may choose to give Shape Up Vicksburg a cash award to continue its work, and it’s no wonder.  Linda Fondren is inspiring.

However, it takes this kind of  concerted effort in a place where the culture is  conducive to unhealthy behavior to make better choices.  I’m fighting the  Dixie Fat, and I’m winning, but  in, say, Okinawa, after seven months of steamed fish and rice, I think I would be sliding, like the cholesterol out of June’s husband’s body, out of my oversized clothes.

That’s it.  I should have moved to Okinawa.  The culture shock would have been about the same.

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