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

June 18, 2016

If You Can’t Stand the Heat, Get Out of New Orleans

Not long ago, New Orleans bandleader  Jean Baptiste filmed a Late Show segment with Stephen Colbert, whom he showed around the French Quarter.  Jean stood casually in a long-sleeved shirt and slacks, not breaking a sweat, as he is from Louisiana, his family having lived there and played jazz there for numerous generations.  He was showing Stephen how to “hang” on a street corner, looking casual and cool.  Colbert was neither casual in a summer-weight suit, nor was he cool.  He said just standing there for a few minutes he was sweating so much he was experiencing “swamp ass.” I think “swamp ass” would sound much more elegant in Cajun, as it would translate into, “cul de bayou,” but it is not a phenomenon Cajuns regularly experience, accustomed as they are to the heat down here.  The rest of us, though, who might even be used to Southern heat (Stephen Colbert grew up in the South), are ill-acclimated to avoiding cul de bayou, cuisse de bayou (swamp thigh), or couilles de bayou (swamp testicles).  It’s hot and muggy in New Orleans.

cold drinkThat weather mojo works both ways, by the way.  Yankees are much more able to handle cold.  Every Southern lady I know who doesn’t ski owns only thin jackets, nothing at all from the Northface Catalog, and the second the temperature dips below forty degrees, they shiver as if it were going out of style.  I married my husband in an old antebellum mansion which had served as the Yankee headquarters during the Siege of Vicksburg.  The night before our January wedding, the fountains had frozen over in the garden.  I walked around getting ready in a t-shirt and jeans while the majority of guests on his side of the aisle trembled violently and stomped their feet to keep from getting frostbite.  My years walking between skyscrapers in Manhattan while the wind shot ice pellets at my face made a breezeless thirty-degree chill feel like a cool day hardly worth noticing as cold.

Come June that year, of course, my experience changed radically. I remember when the headache started — three a.m., and it was the middle of June, and it was eighty degrees outside.  Since I couldn’t sleep, I took the dog for a walk, and I saw bats flying overhead, catching the many bugs in the air.  I also saw my neighbors out for a stroll with their dogs, as this was going to be the coolest moment for at least twenty-four more hours.  The headache lasted through July.  I remember the early days of the month, sitting in a gazebo I had set up in our back yard, staring at the ice melting in a big plastic cup of mint tea I had filled to drink out there, my head throbbing so hard because my blood didn’t know what to do with the intensity of the heat that would not quit.  By August, the headache had dissipated with the murky-smelling mist off the Mississippi that had wafted over our back lawn every morning during the hottest summer days.

I have never had a heat headache in any subsequent summers, acclimated as I am to Southern heat.  Still, though, New Orleans heat is not for wimps.

I cannot imagine how slaves harvested rice in this weather.  They almost all died young, it seems, according to a plantation tour I took once.  I don’t know how anybody survived New Orleans heat before air conditioning. It’s impressive to imagine anybody trying to put on a corset in this weather. It would take a particular admiration for martyred saints that a good Catholic homily might inspire, as no Protestants would see the merit in suffering like that just to have a wasp waist. The French doors everywhere in New Orleans are a relic of the era when the only hope anyone had of enough air was to make certain that the house was no stuffier than the outside air, in  the vain hope of some kind of cool breeze emanating from some virgin martyr’s icy breath. Sinful city as New Orleans has always been, the hot-blooded women of the metropolis could offer no icy virginity to pair with martyred sainthood recognizable to the Vatican, so people suffered in this town.

I admit it. I can’t stand the heat.  I have left New Orleans for a few weeks of respite six hours due north in northern Mississippi.  It isn’t hot enough to reduce me to a puddle of sweat here, now with my acclimated sweat glands. I am writing my dissertation, and it is good to sit in a library with the air conditioning on full blast, drink a diet coke, and to think of nothing but knights and Middle French and Middle English works of literature that describe them. I am sweating, but there is no cul de bayou. There is no headache, except from squinting at faded letters in old books. But I admit it.  I am a mauviette de bayou (a swamp wimp),  a faignant de bayou (a swamp weakling loser), and it would take a miracle de bayou (you’ve got this one on your own) to acclimate me to this tropical sauna before next June, when there will be no escape from the impressive humidity and heat.

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March 29, 2011

Going Medieval on You?

That's me on the right.

Writers read much differently than literature professors do.

A writer, you see, is like a bad house guest at a crowded party at a wealthy mansion.

First, she stands in the corner, observes critically, “I don’t like the wall paper in this room.  What was she thinking?”

However, when the other guests are all distracted by somebody showing vacation photos or a cute baby whose nap has just ended, the writer inches close to the credenza, backing into it right where the Faberge egg is displayed, and while everyone is making baby talk in the other part of the room, the writer gently tips the treasure egg into her purse.

Later, when she publishes, the egg has made a reappearance, only this time, it’s in a different setting altogether, stolen and repurposed.

Literature professors are the good house guests.  They remark how the addition of the new wall paper clearly indicates a new trend in the style of the hostess, and he or she writes a lovely explanation for the shift.  The Faberge egg is admired at a distance and cataloged in memory.  When the literature professor attends a cocktail gathering at the kleptomaniac writer’s house, rather than shout “thief!” accusingly, he or she remarks how similar the tastes of this hostess are to the tastes of the other hostess, and the robbery is called a form of homage or pastiche, not a burglary.

I’ve always been a writer when I read, not a lit professor, even though I can write well critically and am able to understand pastiches and homages along with the polite house guests.  I just steal the good stuff so I can use it my own way later.

Just like a cat burglar (think Robie the Cat from Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief), I try to get invited to (to read, that is) every swanky affair I can, to pull of as many heists as I can of stylistic accomplishments. This makes my creative written work originally eclectic.

However, I am admonished here at the University of Mississippi to specialize.  I understand of course — I can’t just keep stealing creatively.  I have to become an expert of analysis in one area.  I have to write a dissertation that is grounded in a period of time and to specialize in that period of time for a good decade or so before even considering branching off in other critical areas.

The only problem is that I honestly love works from different eras and have read with a hungry-girl-at-a-good-smorgasbord voraciousness from every time and place.  To narrow my specialization makes me, well, confused.

I have narrowed it down thus far — I will be an expert in English (with some French) literature, not American literature.  That said, I will continue to read interesting writers from everywhere.

Or is that me holding the teacup? What do you think?

Further, I have narrowed it down to a coin flip between periods — either I will focus on the Victorians and all their various repressions, or I will go Medieval.

Medievalists in the English departments are considered the weirdest of the weirdos, the nerdiest of the nerds.  Medievalists are a little bit crazy.  They believe, often enough, that the world is in a cosmic struggle between good and evil, including over who ought to fill the copy machine with toner and paper.  They can’t quite relate to the debate in the faculty meeting because no one has claimed divine right.  There are twice as many job openings for Medievalists and half as many qualified applicants.  Weird is not the only minimum job requirement — see below for the others — but it helps.

I am certainly weird enough, by a voice vote of all who have met me, to be a Medievalist.

However, it is not just a costume change that is involved.  Going Medieval is serious business.  It is important not only to speak English (which of course I do) and another modern language (fluent French and a smattering of Italian, in my case) but to speak what are called Middle dialects of these languages (I can read Middle English and Middle French, provided they are typeset).  I also ought to learn Latin and Old English, which has a different alphabet than our English and sounds like Vikings snorting when spoken aloud.

It’s like this — there are the Trekkies who go to the conventions — they would be the ones who would be akin to the Victorianists, nerdy enough to impress others with their nerdiness, but still kind of loosely nerdy, possibly capable of socializing at a non-nerdy party.  Then, there are the Trekkies who learn Klingon.  In order to be a Medievalist, I really have to learn the equivalent of Klingon.

Once you go Medieval, there’s no going back.  Other nerds are slightly in awe, because (for instance) I am working on a paper that discusses the allegorical trope of New Jerusalem in a Middle French writer’s works, and I had to spend the week figuring out if the Vulgate Latin translation of the psalms, despite Saint Jerome‘s misogyny, feminized the depiction of Heavenly Jerusalem in any way.  It does, and this is central to my argument regarding Christine de Pizan‘s Le Livre de la Cite des Dames.

With the Victorians, for instance, I’m presenting a paper that looks at The Mikado in light of Oscar Wilde’s declarations regarding Japanese nick-nacks and the blue china/japonaiserie craze of the late 1800s.  Is this most people’s idea of a weekend leisure?  No, but it’s fluffy compared to the work of the Medievalist.  One involves the repressed anxieties of a high-collar society that holds itself back from its true intentions at every turn and requires the mechanics of interjections of literary theory of unlimited pretensions where apt.  The other is buck-wild — think liturgical papers about what a parish should do when a werewolf gets loose in the farmlands — but requires a working knowledge of a defunct whole world’s insanity, and it is almost impossible to say anything with absolute conclusiveness because nobody really knows what it was like to walk around in the days of King Arthur, if in fact  he ever really existed.

Wherever I go and whatever I do, I will always read like a writer.  I’ll be stealing and re-appropriating all the good stuff for my own creative work.  However, regarding this critical work, because I just love books, all kinds of books, bottom line — I’m having trouble deciding between the prim but approachable ladies in the photo or the lovely but ultimately unknowable allegorical women in the illuminated manuscript.

So what do you think I should do?  I am seriously taking a poll here and would welcome all opinions accompanied with reasons why.  Which of these two areas should I pick and why?  Should I go Medieval?  Tell me what you think so that I make the right decision, or as Chaucer would say, so that “I coude wel chesen alderbest.”

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