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

August 23, 2016

What to Do When the Waters Rise: Southeastern Louisiana University’s Heroic Response to Crisis

Yesterday was the first day of classes at Southeastern Louisiana University, although classes were supposed to begin last week.  The flash floods that destroyed so many homes in the region caused the shift in schedule, along with many other emergency management strategies that were put in place by the state of Louisiana.  People have talked about the flood down here in the media as if it were happening to somebody else, a bunch of hicks, perhaps — not people who get much news coverage at all, unless there are reports of Klan activity in the region. It happened, though, to my colleagues and my students, not to a group in white sheets but young people and their parents, people of every background, and my heart is full as I write about their courage and commitment to what John Henry Newman famously described as “the idea of a university.” I am inspired by their undaunted optimism.

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Southeastern Louisiana underwater — Photo by Southeastern Louisiana University English Instructor Chris Genre of what it looks like outside his house.

One of my colleagues came in for our meeting late last week laughing about how she had had to carry her cat in her purse when the rescue boat reached her flooded house.  Another colleague told me that she was lucky — only her bedroom floor was destroyed, no other part of her house was ruined. The photo you see here was taken by another colleague right outside his house; he had to direct traffic away from near his property, as when cars sped by, they caused waves of water to enter through his front door.  One of my colleagues, a guardsman, rescued his neighbors with a helicopter, and he was in a fine mood as well. Coming as I do from New York City, where complaining is actually competitive — “You think you have problems? Well, let me tell you” or “All your life, you should have such problems as this man” — I was struck by the stoicism of my new colleagues at Southeastern in the face of such tragedy.  They told me over and over again that it wasn’t as bad a problem as Katrina — but truly, if only 20,000 homes were destroyed, compared to the over 800,000 homes destroyed by that disaster, can one call the floods of last week a minor episode?

The English department faculty meeting I attended to prepare for this week was unlike any other I have ever been to. While I wouldn’t call other departments where I have worked heartless, I got the impression from certain institutions where I have worked that while I wasn’t outright forbidden from serving the personal needs, rather than the academic needs, of my students, there was no encouragement to do so. One department head where I adjuncted lamented that so many students wanted the professors to be “Jesus to them.” For me, that remark was problematic, largely because I am called by my faith to be Jesus to anyone in my midst and beyond who needs an ambassador from Jesus. The Southeastern Louisiana University English department has a philosophy of holistic problem-solving with the student body.  After all, how can one expect good academic results from students who have overwhelming crises in their personal lives?

The chair of the department encouraged us to reach out to students and tell them the resources the university was prepared to put at their disposal. Students who couldn’t make it to class would be excused for the first month if necessary for flood-recovery-related reasons. Students who couldn’t get textbooks or whose textbooks were destroyed could have electronic copies where necessary.  Students without computers because of the flood could check out laptops from the university. Psychological counseling was available for trauma. And he said that he felt that our discipline was particularly well placed to help people answer the question of how one overcomes obstacles and remains hopeful in the face of tragedy. What else, after all, is literature for?

Indeed, my students were more subdued than other nervous first-day-of-school undergraduates. I asked how many people had either lost a home or knew someone who did, how many of them knew someone in emotional crisis — about a quarter of them raised their hands.

I was prepared for that response.  Out of 16,000 students at Southeastern Louisiana University, about 7,000 live in parishes where the flooding destroyed many homes.  I had already gotten emails from a number of students explaining that they had lost everything in the flood, but their parents were determined to get them to school. I congratulated them on making it to campus in a manner I would not have normally done had they not left melted plaster, murky carpets, and dangerous electrical boxes to get to campus.

I told them about the resources available on campus and saw a sea of grim faces, none of the typical feigned nonchalance of freshmen who want to appear cool but are still scared children.  I decided to tell them about the opportunities that surviving a grown-up community problem presents. I talked about September 11th, which like so many other New Yorkers I did not watch on television but through a window, my friends who nearly died, the people the city lost, the sense of shallow mirth and false security the city lost in those days.  I told them that I had learned in that crisis that a disaster like that allows an individual to prioritize — what really matters? It allows one to better become the person one intends to become, if one is willing to face the grief of the situation bravely. I could tell they were listening really intently to these words.  They are, after all, already in the process of discovering who they will become as mature adults.

With that, I told them that I knew it was important for them to learn the subjects we would cover, as words are a form of power.  Words may not control the weather, but they frame how we respond to storms of every kind. Would Britain have survived the  Blitz without Churchill’s speeches? We will never know, but it would be impossible to imagine the crisis without the balm of his resolve. We need never know, thank God. Words are power.  We build with them.  Three holy book religions tell us the King of the universe creates with them, not with hammers and bulldozers — with words well-placed, and the material tools follow.

When I drove back to New Orleans, I saw that the receding flood waters had moved into Tangipahoa Parish near Manchac, making houses already on stilts look unstilted. There was an enormous rainbow in the sky over Lake Pontchartrain, vivid against a gray sky, and I was reminded of Genesis 6:13-16 — “I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”

Indeed, Southeastern Louisiana University’s community is not destroyed.  Some there lost houses but not hope.  Others there are gaining purpose in lieu of trivia. Others still are taking up the call to serve others without complaint.

 

 

June 10, 2016

The Southern Concept of “Fixing to,” and What I am Fixing to Do Tomorrow Night

Southern supermodel and ex-wife to Mick Jagger Jerry Hall told reporters about her looks, “My momma always used to say, ‘honey, there are no ugly women, only lazy ones.'”

Jerry Hall

“Momma always said there are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” — Southern model Jerry Hall

Southern women are not lazy; after all, look how carefully groomed they usually are!  No Sarah Lawrence College bohemian tousled bobs on their heads — Southern hair is always intentional. Neither are Southern men lazy, though they are less carefully groomed on the whole than their sisters and wives.  However one might say all those well-groomed Southerners are in much less of a hurry than Yankees tend to be.

When I moved from Brooklyn down South, the hardest thing for me to absorb was the Southern concept of timing.  I itched for the whole first year down here for a New York minute, and honey, while there are no ugly minutes down South, there are plenty of lazy ones.  That New York minute never came; it wasn’t even unimaginably delayed coming on the Northbound F Train because of extensive trackwork; it never existed and never would. I mourned the New York minute the way I mourned the chopped liver bagel from the Second Avenue Deli.  Both New York phenomena are hard to explain to outsiders as charming.  You have to take a bite of one to know how good they are.  I am at an Irish wake in permanence for the New York minute.  As anyone who has attended an Irish wake can tell you, such events involve tears, off-color tales, prayer, and a little bit of whiskey while nobody else is looking.  New York minute, we hardly knew ye, at least down South.

resting Southern men

These men are fixing to get up and go back to work.

Instead, down South, we don’t bound out of seats to do things as much as we are “fixing to” do things. For those uninitiated to that grammatical structure, “fixing to” do something means one really may get around to it eventually.  If one is “fixing to” pick up his friend at Memphis International Airport, for instance, that means one is watching the last five minutes of an episode of Designing Women on DVR, wondering if the shirt one is wearing has a stain on it requiring a change of clothing, and looking under the coffee table for one’s other flip-flop.  Maybe in fifteen minutes, the one who was fixing to go to the airport will have fixed himself, applied a little designer impostor cologne under the armpits of the shirt with the stain on it, which one has decided to wear despite the small splotch of barbecue sauce, found the flip-flops, and sauntered over to the car to open the driver-side door.

To their credit, Southern cardiac surgeons are usually never “fixing to” perform a balloon angioplasty; they operate as emergency requires with a brisker pace. But the cardiologist usually nods understandingly when the patient says he is “fixing to” start an exercise regimen, no riot act read.  It’s just the way things eventually get done around here.

Anyway, I am fixing to do something myself tomorrow. I am fixing to give a reading of new poetry as part of an important New Southern literary event.

There is a marvelous avant garde literary journal called Salt down South; they are as experimental as anything coming out of literary Brooklyn in recent memory.  They are so avant garde they have rejected old paradigms and rebooted themselves.  They are now Salted 2.0, and they have published a work of fiction I wrote about Irish-American identity and cultural expectations within that community, to which I belong.  They have asked me to read at a literary reading, art show, and harmonica and steel guitar folk extravaganza tomorrow night in Oxford, Mississippi.  The event is fixing  to go from six-ish to ten-ish tomorrow evening at the Shelter on Van Buren, directly adjacent to Oxford Square and across the street from Off Square Books.  There will be beverages and snacks for sale.  There will be bonhomie.  There will be me reading poetry commemorating the smashed glass ceiling of Tuesday night, another Irish  wake with off-color tales of the highest literary caliber.  The editors of this journal are not just good editors; they throw a wonderful Southern beaux-arts party (or bozart party, as H. L. Mencken would have it). Prepare to feel happier and hipper leaving than when you arrive.

This is also the launch party of the rebooted avant garde journal. The honour of your presence is respectfully requested.  Again, that’s Saturday, June 11, 6-10 pm, at The Shelter on Van Buren, 1221 Van Buren, Oxford, Mississippi.  I sincerely hope you are fixing to attend.

May 23, 2016

The Ninth Ward and 9/11: American Grief Tourism in New Orleans and New York

A few months after the destruction of the World Trade Center, an event that I did not watch on television but out the window at work as it happened, then walked through, then got laid off about, then wrote poetry about (see my short collection Counterterrorist Poems (Pudding House Press, 2002), Americans lost their abject fear of New York City. That fear had been a long-standing terror predating Osama Bin Laden, previously consisting of fear of muggers, rapists, people with punk-rock hair and piercings, and rude men in expensive suits shoving others out of the way  to grab a cab.  They decided for reasons that I fail to comprehend to come in droves to the fenced-in Ground Zero, still slightly smoldering its asbestos cauldron of carcinogens, to gape and to lament.

I understood the Billy Graham Ministries red-vested prayer teams that stood in subway stations praying for the grieving New Yorkers, the fire fighters who, bless them, filled the sudden hundreds of vacancies on a temporary basis that the FDNY experienced when so many brave men were crushed by rubble.  I am grateful to this day to those who came to lend a hand to my hurting city, whether they understood our needs or not.  I am not baffled by the charity of those good people.

ground zero tourists

These people aren’t in New York in early 2002 to help the shell-shocked Manhattanites. They are there to take pictures and gawk at a gaping hole where thousands of people they don’t really care about died.

I am rather baffled by the people who came to see our wounds and stare without offering a hand.  What might motivate them?  Some of them cried.  If they were there because they lost a cousin or childhood friend who moved to the big city from their small town, I understand perfectly, but those who had no body in the  rubble?  Those who had never much cared for New York, except possibly for a couple of shows and shopping, who wanted to see a hermaphrodite or a woman and a donkey, then return to their safe suburbs and decry us?  Why were they there?  Why were they crying?  How DARE they take what happened to us, not them, personally?

I had an estranged step-mother who had the nerve to write me in a note two months after September Eleventh, “Thank God we didn’t lose anybody that day!”  In the same note, she enclosed a book that was supposed to be self-help but which showed a woman on the cover who looked crazier than anybody who could be of assistance to anyone else, and she told me I needed to reconcile with my father, the implication being that I might die at any minute from another terrorist attack, and then how would it be for me to go to  my grave if I hadn’t apologized  to my father for wrongs she perceived I had committed against him?  Indeed, I owed no apology, and she would offer none for the obvious offense.  I sent the book back, told her how unimaginably insensitive it was to send such a note to a New Yorker in November 2001 who had actually been there, and that she needn’t ever contact me again.

I marvel to this day at the temerity and the total lack of human compassion that allows some suburban gum-chewers to consider the tragedy of another as an occasion to pack a suitcase, to board a discounted flight, and to take a tour bus.  I know that Ground Zero was filled with the ashes of thousands, but I fear that Hell awaits the torment of the tens of thousands who did not come to help but only to gawk and to personalize selfishly somebody else’s pain for something like a personal catharsis of no benefit to anybody else.

This didn’t just happen to New York, of course.  The same thing happened to my new city, the Crescent City, New Orleans.  After Katrina, thousands of Americans, many in church groups, came to help clear away debris, offer food and water to those rendered homeless, to comfort, to hold, to hammer, to pour concrete, to roof, to wire, to plumb.  Those people, I imagine, retain the immense gratitude of those who were assisted by them.  But what about the Katrina Tourists?

Tourist_sign

A sign in the Ninth Ward, 2006.

I cannot imagine boarding a tour bus to rubberneck at the condemned buildings while frantic people try to reconstruct their lives. I cannot imagine staring and not getting out of the bus (even if had been drunk on Bourbon Street when I had boarded the bus), not running over to hug, to pray, to help, to get my hands dirty, to give out money, to apologize, even though it all was not my fault.  What kind of brain-dead habitual sodomizer of livestock, what kind of certifiable sociopath, can imagine making a family vacation out of a community’s devastation?  This happened.  Americans in particular did this to Americans.  9/11 didn’t just happen on TV. Neither did Katrina. Are Americans indifferent spectators to the sorrows of other Americans?  Has reality TV done this to us?  Or is this the same crowd who used to be in regular attendance at public hangings and the burning of witches?  Are human beings just so very awful?

We are all our brothers’ keeper.  God is watching.  You shouldn’t watch impassively from front row seats the next time a national tragedy happens.  If you must go see it for yourselves, bring blankets and coffee for the freezing, lumber and copper pipes for the homeless, prayers for the hopeless.  Pray for America while you are praying, because some ugly element of our national character shows in this phenomenon.

October 5, 2015

Down Home Homes — The Flamboyant Cowboy Vernacular of Chip and Joanna Gaines

Why do we go home?  I mean, why do we bother?  In New York City, given the price of an apartment, most of us live in confined spaces with the purpose of being able to fall out of bed and hit the clubs, the trendiest restaurants, and most importantly work.  We live in New York to work.  Home is an afterthought ,a place one arrives late at night and which one leaves early in the morning.  Life is at the gym.  Life is in the office.  Life is at the amazing cultural event where we saw the cultural icon and actually said hello to her, and she nodded in a vague recognition — yes, she nodded at us!  Home is a closet with a bed that pulls out.  It is a refrigerator more for wine than for food.  It is a window that shows a brick wall in front of it but which lets the light in.  If we are wealthy enough to own a space in New York where others might be invited for a gathering, the chief purpose of the space is to impress others, not to be a great comfort.

The rest of America, particularly the South, understands home quite differently.  When Southerners go home, they go to a place that comforts.  Home is a place where food falls off the fork into the mouth of the laughing family.  Home is a place where the couch gives a hug to the potato. Home embodies a set of values that work could not contain, however worthy that work is.  Home is the place in the South where facades come down, where real conversations happen, where some powerful truth is lived.  It is not a hangar for a plane itching to take off and away.  The adventure of life happens in the Southern home, not outside of it.

This mixed-race, non-sexist couple are design stars of the New South.

This mixed-race, non-sexist couple are design stars of the New South.

Into this philosophy we see inserted the design discourse of Chip and Joanna Gaines, renovators and decorators unapologetically from Waco, Texas, not New York.  They have restored a lovely farm for their growing family in a style that embraces the American ranch house traditions of Texas, the celebration of cowboy and Rodeo, of football elevated to sacrament, of Lone Star and encouraging scripture rendered into logo as well as sentiment.  They understand the black light velvet posters of Elvis and Jesus that somebody’s granddaddy put above his work bench out back.  They understand the room turned into a shrine for a team.  They understand Indian rugs, bull heads on walls, wagon wheels, and saddles as art pieces.  That said — they reject all that is tacky in the aforementioned design choices.  They understand that all those choices, while idiosyncratically Texan, rendered the home-owners provincial and narrow-minded.  They reject the stereotypes of architectural Texan sprawl and interior design that looks like the owners of the home are insular hicks.

A vintage sign, cabinet doors unhinged, and a modern feel to an old concept.

A vintage sign, cabinet doors unhinged, and a modern feel to an old concept.

Instead they remove popcorn from the ceilings in Waco.  They expose brick and original beams.  They do the thing that Willie Nelson famously sang in an anti-litter campaign long ago — they treat Texas like someone they love, all the houses in Texas that they touch like a place of love. Instead of being a cautionary tale of tastelessness — remember that Willie Nelson warned mommas not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys — they transform people’s homes into welcome embraces of Texan personality without any of the Texan stereotypes.   Instead of bull heads mounted on walls, we see antlers transformed into chandeliers.  Instead of a wagon wheel coffee table, we see a kitchen that uses a vintage tin sign over a farmhouse sink.  Everything is big in Texas, and the Gaines keep it that way — all the sofas are ample, the chairs wide-armed and overstuffed, and yet the rooms feel airy and uncrowded because in their Texas, less is more. ranch-house long tables become family dining room statements under farm lamps.

elegance without pretense

elegance without pretense

This decor is not ostentatious in the way that a New York townhouse can be ostentatious, and neither is it a Bauhaus-inflected austerity, as a penthouse may be in the City.  Rather, the Gaines’ welcome us home at the end of every episode of their HGTV Show Fixer Upper, and the design has the aspiration of a New South that keeps the comfortable but eliminates the ignorant, that keeps the hay but makes nobody a hayseed.   When they fix up, they repair our broken American dreams.  They somehow eliminate bigotry along with rotting floorboards (the Gaines’ are a mixed-race couple with a non-sexist-yet-traditional marriage partnership).  They make home a place a modern person can go to without being painted into a corner.

They are why I like living in the South, why apartment life, though exciting, can not easily tempt me back again, and why I want to curl up with a good book on a large couch and pet the cat while I look out into a warm space filled with light. Let us aspire as their design aspires, to be chic without pretense. May we all be so fixed up and so rehabilitated as the old ranch houses they gut and remodel.

January 6, 2015

On Literary Ambition North and South — or Why My Cat is Smarter than I am

I write this on the Feast of Epiphany, having had an epiphany at 3 am, while my cat, very sensibly, is curled up in a basket of my clean socks in my bedroom, sleeping.

The greater genius is purring on the lap of the great author,

The greater genius is purring on the lap of the great author,

My epiphany: I am eating my heart out.

My other epiphany: I can read all the Eudora Welty I want to read.  It won’t make me think like a Southern lady when it comes to my personal ambitions.  This lady wrote brilliant, redolent fiction, made a dent in the American language with her words.  She said, “To write honestly and with all our power is the least we can do, and the most.”

That is awfully modest of her.  She was somewhat reclusive.  Me — I write still because at some level, I want to be a rock star at it.

I knew from the time I was young that I was okay looking but nobody’s casting choice for Bay Watch.  I could get invited to parties in Paris where there were supermodels present, but i was the funny one, not the cute one.  I was unlikely to invent something to replace the automobile, to find a sustainable energy source, to form a company that could dominate Wall Street, or to marry a viscount.  But i could write fairly well, and with some practice, and a slew of self-promotional stunts (like this blog), I figured I could make some kind of a name for myself.

Pray for me.  I have issues.  I have always had issues.

“I am called to write,” I still tell myself.  Because I am called, why am i not yet a household word?  Why is there furor over somebody’s twerking and not over my writing?

Furthermore, I cut my teeth in Manhattan, the island of the elevator pitch, the self-promoting capital of the universe, where ladylike modesty is a cover for some kind of Stepford wifery or a sign of mental illness.  Everybody, everybody — even the hot dog vendor and the man sweeping the floor in the barbershop — blows his own horn.  To brag is to breathe.  As a result, it is only the already phenomenally successful people who affect an air of modesty.  This way, people hate them less for winning at the game we are all playing.

But in the South, blowing one’s own horn is considered rude.  Star athletes only half-manage it.  The proper gesture is to look down at one’s toes, then look up, and shrug while saying something like, “Well, I do my best.”

The first time I went to a literary reading in the South, it was the author’s first novel, and he was in a room of unpublished people.  He shook our hands one by one and inquired of us who we were and what we did, then began his reading with an apology, saying he was sorry to interrupt our getting to know one another so he could share a few pages of his work.

Apologize?  Getting to know us?  That’s lunacy to the New York writer!

A possible, maybe typical, stance of a New York writer at a public reading of her first published novel looks like this:

“Good evening.  I congratulate you all on being discerning enough to understand the great occasion of my first novel, and you are ahead of the curve in hipness, better than your neighbors, for realizing my impending greatness.  Without any more delay, let me dazzle you with my prose.”

And yes — that IS why half the people in the audience came to the reading — to feel hipper than the people in the apartment next door.  That is the commerce of status in New York.

The South resists such a commerce.  Perhaps it is like the lack of snooty wine shops, the intolerance of the maitre d with an attitude at a trendy restaurant.  Perhaps it is a sense that if words matter, they matter without authorial rank.

I have adapted to this sensibility, taking cues from Bill Clinton, who when campaigning thanked everyone in the room where he was stumping, to the greatest degree possible on an individual basis, before beginning his speech.  I may seem stuck up to you.  However, I can promise you I am infinitely less stuck up than I would be in New York, where my jaw-dropping self-assurance and swagger would make (and once actually did make) Rudolph Giuliani shut his mouth.  The South has not made me a Harper Lee recluse of a writer, but it has made me understand that I was inadvertently offensive when I was just acting like writers do below Fourteenth Street and above the Wonder Wheel at Coney Island.

But another writer I know, wholly deserving of recognition, both brilliant and beautiful, gracious and personable, just got a moment of fame, and I am jealous.  I have sunk to the level of dissipation that makes me paraphrase a passage from the screen play for the movie The Interview: I am sitting at home, sulking, eating a peanut butter and jealous sandwich.  I have been swimming off the coast of Coney Island, and I have gotten stung by a jealous fish.  I am looking lady Bey in the eye, and I am singing to her, “I don’t think you’re ready for this jealous.”

I hate myself for being jealous.  Instead of being jealous, I should be winning.  I should be world-frigging-wide.  I should be beating you at breathing.  i should have groupies.  But I am sitting on my bed in the middle of the night, typing this.  Pray for me.  I have issues, big issues.  I make you look perfectly sane.

I moan to myself, “But I am CALLED to this!  Why has my career not been one Michael Jackson moon walk at the Motown Music Awards after another?”

And it is now, on cue, that my cat comes and curls up in my lap, purring.  She is so much better adjusted to her existence than I am to mine.  She is called to be a cat.  She is called to chase things like grasshoppers and the occasional bird.  She is called to stretch on the sunny spot on the floor.  Yet, she has no ambition to be the best birder on the block.  She is content to lie on the thighs of her neurotic mistress.  She will eventually go downstairs and drink from the toilet if she gets bored.  Right now, though, it is enough to rub her face against my leg, to flex her claws gently so she does not hurt me.  Why can’t i be more like her?  What kind of adulation do I think I might get?  I was a disappointment to my parents.  Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature would be awesome, but i would still have other issues.  Pray for me.

The only comfort I have this evening is that I am quite a lot like one Southern writer, a man so ambitious that he wrote much of his Southern literature up North — Mark Twain.  He made up that funny name for himself because it was more rock-star-ish than Samuel Clemens, which, let’s admit, is kind of blah as names go, kind of gaze-downward, foot-shuffling, aw-shucksing.  But “Mark Twain” is something a steamboat pilot shouts.  He was wildly ambitious, albeit in a rather discreet, Connecticut sort of way, too ambitious for a Southern man to comfortably be known to be by his neighbors down South.

Perhaps if I wore a white suit and bolo tie… Perhaps if I changed the spelling of “Babson” to “Baubson” like Faulkner changed his Falkner.  I found a picture of Twain with a pet cat.  I dare say that little cat on his lap was at greater peace than the man who imagined Tom Sawyer conning the neighborhood boys into whitewashing his fence.  I am looking around here for things to whitewash now.

This woman could write without needing to make a spectacle of herself.

This woman could write without needing to make a spectacle of herself.

February 8, 2012

On Going Native

I may look relatively sophisticated, but like Kudzu, the redneck is creeping up on me.

In this photo, I believe I have a certain air of sophistication.  That scarf is Hermes, or at least the Canal Street knock-off version of Hermes.  I bought that coat on the Internet from a respectable retailer to women of taste.

However, and I say this cringing, knowing that some of my old friends in New York will get wind of this, I have developed some red neck habits.

Let me be clear.  I am deeply committed to a life of the mind.  As I type this, I am staring at a book in Middle English, a fourteenth-century play about Cain and Abel.  However, it is worth noting that this play has a reference to carnal sheep violation.  As I type this, I am listening to Buddha Bar tracks on my i-pod, but those are shuffled with Band Perry songs about lying like a rug and being buried in satin, stuff about which a gal might sob into a honky-tonk beer.  When I drink it’s either fine wine or Rebel Yell bourbon.

Two years into this life change, I seem to be straddling the Mason Dixon line in so many ways.  Let me show you:

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just got invited to give a reading of my poetry at Middlebury College‘s gender studies program.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I read from my poetry collection entitled The White Trash Pantheon.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just bought a new pair of shoes.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“I needed new ones because the old ones got covered with animal manure and mud.”

NEW YORK ME SAYS,

“I just won a quiz prize at the University.”

MISSISSIPPI ME SAYS,

“It was for knowing that Florida State had penalties imposed upon them for NCAA violations, affecting their Big-10 football program.”

It’s stuff like that that makes me think warily of how all those Jeff Foxworthy jokes, the ones that seemed so alien when I lived in my Russian-mafia-negotiated-apartment-with-access-to-a-private-beach-in-Brooklyn-for-almost-no-money, are beginning to apply to me.

Moi?  Mais oui!

Here is a list of signs that I am beginning go native down here:

  • I wake up most mornings at 5 am, walk through mud, and chain up the hound dogs so that they don’t spook the neighbor ladies.
  • I find myself liking Elvis more and more with each passing month.
  • Grits don’t taste gritty.
  • Ham is the sixth food group for me these days.
  • It seems odd NOT to call people “ma’am” and “sir” every other sentence.
  • If Terry McMillan doubted I could, I am no longer waiting to exhale — I’ve exhaled.  Life down here operates at a slackened pace.
  • If I wore black every day, it would seem as if I were in mourning, not just hip in day-to-evening wear.
  • Even though I read mostly British literature (see reference to Chaucer’s era above), Faulkner and Twain make more and more sense to me.
  • I have said “y’all” and not felt self-conscious about it, y’all.

For those of you in New York who miss me, if you want to stem the tide of this, I recommend sending me emergency care packages from The Second Avenue Deli or from any Indian restaurant on Sixth Street.  Send me something of which New York Magazine’s “Approval Matrix” approves.

I am going native.  Next comes the drinking of pre-sweetened iced tea.  After that, there’s a whole slew of floral prints yawning their maws at me.

Help!  I’ve gone South and I can’t get up!

December 22, 2011

Yes, Bubba, there is a Santa Claus

There is the perfectly tasteful Dixie Christmas (see above)....

There is Christmas, and then there’s Dixie Christmas.  There are entire towns whose displays are utterly tasteful.  I think particularly of Oxford, Mississippi, where the decorations are classic, and the carefully appointed historic homes are utterly elegant — lots of red velvet ribbons, evergreen branches and tasteful white lights.  Vicksburg has a lovely tradition, where they place candles along a number of roads in bags (think Martha Stewart craft project, not a fraternity practical joke), and people drive down the streets without their lights on at five miles an hour, following the path of these bags of light.  That is far better than any Far Rockaway household’s dancing santa doll.  However, there is the other Dixie Christmas, the one that is fraught with reasons that Jesus cannot be held responsible for the season.

Understand that there were plenty of tacky iterations of Dominic the Christmas Donkey in New York City, but there is a kind of a boundless high-end rococo kitsch that is entirely unironic and completely unconscious expressions of tastelessness that cost money in the South.

These are best typified (look for reruns) by HGTV’s astonishing special Donna Decorates Dallas.  If the title of this show reminds us of that 1970s porn flick Debbie Does Dallas, so much the better, as it really is a triple penetration of bad taste over at Donna’s high-end Dallas clients’ houses.

I suppose I am a taste class bigot.  I have no problem understanding the person who has limited choices because of limited income and decorates as best they can with the Dollar Store tchotchkes they can afford, but when the rich, and the smug, and the altogether Republican, display a phenomenal lack of good judgment in design choices when they are willing to spend enough money on their expensive abominations to feed a dozen hungry children in the Ozarks for a year, and these are the same people who will probably vote for candidates who will cut the school lunch programs in their area, I am morally as well as aesthetically offended.

In a season where we should be remembering the homeless — no room at the inn for the Holy Family — when people turn to Donna, she offers the gilding of the lily in so many iterations.  Why not hang animal print ornaments on your two-story Christmas tree?  I am not kidding.  Why not have a  nativity scene where Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are decked out as if they were headed for Mardi Gras?

...and then there's Dixie Christmas with animal print ornaments, for which this woman will charge you an arm and a leg.

Donna and her two daughters look like ex-Cowboy Cheerleaders.  Each is blonde and pretty in that particularly expensive Texas way that is lovely without being elegant.  One of the daughters had trouble identifying the figures in the nativity scene — and Donna said they should go back to church.  I agree.  Donna and her daughters decorate a peacock colored Christmas tree.  Donna seems to decorate everything in peacock colors, including herself. See her photo here.  The tree reminds one of nothing more than Priscilla Presley‘s bad taste in decorating Graceland — there is a peacock room there, and the tree is as bad as the one in Memphis, with nothing to do with the lovely preening bird but a plastic imitation.

People pay her a lot of money at her Dallas Boutique called That’s Haute to do this kind of thing for them, and they think they have bought something that makes them look refined.  Admittedly she hasn’t used false advertising in  the name of the boutique.  What is haute, after all?  Is it haute couture or haute vulgarite?  She doesn’t tell us, and people who have clearly never learned that bedazzling doesn’t make a person look wealthier, only more desperate, can’t tell.  Donna is convincingly former homecoming queenly in her sales pitch, so I guess the real housewives of Dallas don’t know that they are getting a sequin tiara instead of a diadem for an imprimatur in taste.

During the rest of the year, this is just part of the conspicuous consumption of the filthy rich — the Enron executives who cashed in before the fallout, the Halliburton shareholders who have profited from the blood of G.I.s — you know, the American dream, Republican Texan style.  It seems crueler, however, when this same esthetic and  philosophy is applied at Christmas to the veneration of the man whose first words of ministry indicated that he had come to bring good news to the poor.  Instead of the soup kitchen, this money went toward things to be torn down in a month, and they don’t even confer the nobility that the buyers hoped they would to onlookers.  They remind me of the homeless, the hungry, and the underserved in our country and how utterly contemptible the attitudes of Donna Moss and her clients are to these honest people.

There is an old Latin maxim:  “De gustibus, non est disputandum” which means, “There is no disputing matters of taste.”  However, in Christmas decorations, it occurs to me one might say, “De gustibus, non est habenandum.”  The translation roughly would be, “There is no having good taste,” at least around here.  I want to embroider this sentiment in peacock colors on throw pillows and put these words on the sofas of all of  Donna’s clients.  I’ll tell them that the phrase comes from the Bible, and they won’t question this or look it up.

Again, this is not everyone’s Christmas taste down South.  Some people are tasteful and remember the poor.  I find that these two qualities tend to go together, too.  Tacky is as tacky does, it seems, down here.

Let’s remember the poor this season.  Let’s be grateful for things that cannot be made with a glue gun — friendships, relationships.  Peace on Earth, even in the gun-toting South.  Goodwill toward men, even toward women.  God rest ye, preferably in a tastefully appointed room, but God rest ye, wherever you are.

March 26, 2011

Because of Geraldine

In times of mourning, prose seems flaccid.  I offer poetry instead.  This poem of mine originally appeared in Lummox Journal:

GERALDINE FERRARO HAS BLOOD CANCER

It would be impossible to overstate this imperfect woman's importance to women in the United States

While I blot my eyes, I tell her, “Geraldine Ferraro

Has blood cancer.”  She blinks twice, wets her lips,

And asks, “Who is Geraldine Ferraro?  Oh, yeah.”

For her, it’s a lesson memorized for a final exam

That has blood cancer.  She blinks twice, wets her lips.

I am odd, old, and now crying in front of her.  Whatever.

For her, it’s a lesson memorized for a final exam,

Not a rock star tragedy, not the last scene of the movie.

I am odd, old, and now crying in front of her.  Whatever.

She has no inkling, none, what it was like —

Not a rock star tragedy, not the last scene of the movie —

When they wouldn’t have made me boss, and she —

She has no inkling, none, what it was like

Before, when I waited tables in pinch-toe pumps, no degree,

When they wouldn’t have made me boss, and she —

She would have been a waitress, too, or a stenographer.

Before, when I waited tables in pinch-toe pumps, no degree,

Maybe I would have wondered, “Who is Susan B. Anthony?”

She would have been a waitress, too, or a stenographer,

Another sitcom mom, pearl necklace and a chrome blender.

Maybe I would have wondered, “Who is Susan B. Anthony?”

But I switched on the televised convention and got switched on,

Another sitcom mom, pearl necklace and a chrome blender

In the commercial before the crowd went wild weeping.

I switched on the televised convention and got switched on,

Living my whole life packaged in a low-ceiling flat

In the commercial before the crowd went wild weeping,

And I wept, too, gasping the fresh air, but not even liking her,

Living my whole life packaged in a low-ceiling flat,

since she was New York, mafia entourage, and some nerve,

And I wept, too, gasping the fresh air, but not even liking her,

Because the cage cupping my whole ambition swung open at last.

She was New York, mafia entourage, and some nerve —

My mother had scolded, “Cross your legs.  Sit like a lady,”

But the cage cupping my whole ambition swung open at last —

She had a narrow, nasal voice, said nothing I remembered.

My mother had scolded, “Cross your legs.  Sit like a lady.

Don’t let him know you are smarter than he is.  Quiet.”

She had a narrow, nasal voice, said nothing I remembered

Without wincing, but a black battalion of cameras shuttered,

“Don’t let him know you are smarter than he is.  Quiet,”

At the nominee, but she seemed as nonplussed as a future postage stamp,

Without wincing, but a black battalion of cameras shuttered,

And I was screaming, then howling into the sofa cushions in relief

At the nominee, but she seemed as nonplussed as a future postage stamp

By my reaction half the country away from her.  I was ransomed,

And I was screaming, then howling into the sofa cushions in relief.

At least somebody showed them I could do it; a girl could do it.

My reaction half the country away from her: I was ransomed;

I went back to school, moved into the city, told nobody why.

At least somebody showed them I could do it.  A girl could do it.

I got this job, got promoted.  I became boss, and then the news.

“…I went back to school, moved into the city, told nobody why,”

While I blot my eyes,  I tell her.  “Geraldine Ferraro…

I got this job, got promoted.  I became boss, and then the news.”

She asks, “Who is Geraldine Ferraro?  Oh, yeah.”

I met Geraldine Ferraro once at a rally in New York City.  She was surrounded by scary-looking advance men, as advance campaign staff invariably at the time was male.  She was running for governor.  Her advance staff looked scary precisely because they did not  appear to come from the typical advance staff stock — college-educated guys who majored in political science with aspirations of their own, not idealists — the guys who other guys would have called dickish.  Gerry Ferraro‘s advance men were head-crackers that looked like they were only graduates of what first-Irish-and-totally-mobbed-up governor of New York Al Smith called “The Institute of FFM — the Fulton Fish Market” (For those of you who don’t know New York crime blotter sheets from re-runs of Law and Order, the Fulton Fish Market, now closed, was THE mob spot since it opened.

She was not an idealist.  She was infinitely pragmatic.  But if it’s not a  mobbed-up woman who gets to be the first female president, I sincerely wonder who has the muscle to pull off the final boring through the glass ceiling.  Gerry Ferraro gave it a swift kick, and the fissures she left in it are still being chipped away at by women of my generation and younger.

Because of Geraldine, we have abandoned the idea that leadership requires the ability to pee standing up.

I owe her, knuckle-headed advance staff, nasal voice and all — I owe her so much.  If you’re a woman and you like your job, your rights, your possibilities, you owe her, too.

Rest in peace, mother Geraldine.  Rest in peace.

January 27, 2011

Entering the Jungle Room — Why a Visit to Graceland is a Requirement for American Citizenship

Americans may not like the decor, but we somehow all meet here

Elvis Presley was the embodiment of the public social experiment which demonstrates what happens when someone without education or what Europeans would call “refinement” gets a lot of money and wins a social position that puts him above the kind of ordinary criticism that most of us endure daily.

Good friends will tell us when our clothes are too gaudy that they don’t flatter us.  That happens because we’re not iconic rock stars.  No one told Elvis that it was absurd to wear jewel-studded suits and enough bling to make Liberace blush.  No one even whispered that in so heavy a regalia he might come off gay — perhaps because Elvis carried himself with an unmistakable heterosexual cruising swagger, procreated with Priscilla, and never, ever lost screaming female fans.  That said, if your average straight man, even if he were handsome in the way Elvis Presley was undeniably handsome, were to show up at a party rattling, jangling with jewelry the way Elvis’ daughter Lisa Marie remembers him from her early childhood, he would be met by the howling laughter of his best friends.

Nobody ever laughed at Elvis, at least not to his face.  They also didn’t stop his pill-popping, question his excuses for not attending church but only watching Rex Humbard on television.Perhaps if someone had said to him that loving thing, so common in New York City, so rare in Memphis, apparently — “What are you, stupid?  What’s wrong with you?  Have you lost your mind?”  — He might have survived his uncensored excesses.

People who knew him really did love Elvis.  Over and over again, in documentary after documentary, colleagues remember a soft-spoken, almost-shy man who had the fortune and the misfortune of a great musical range, a handsome face, a smoldering sex appeal, and an uncanny ability to phrase a song so that an audience would never want to hear it any other way again — this gift of his, the thing that made Elvis Elvis and nobody else — without a genius for money, for negotiation, for contextualizing his fame and success in a larger picture of a more complex world.  As a result, he made dumb decisions, and nobody somehow dared tell him that despite the jumpsuits studded with semi-precious stones, the emperor often had no clothes.

He took his money, overspent for a medium-sized house, and with the ministrations of a wife with no decorating sense at all, overspent for some of the tackiest furnishings the world has ever seen, bar none.  The living room with its wall-length mirrors and incongruous peacock stained glass panels screams a dollar amount without even the sense one gets at Versailles — that the rococo gilding has produced a unified effect.  Here, in Graceland, where the shiny things are  disjunctive, the living room announces as one enters the house  that the occupants are nouveau riche, uncultured, and somewhat spiritually adrift.

I was at Graceland a few days before Elvis’ birthday, an anniversary still celebrated by an unyielding group of faithful fans, painting a hagiographic picture of the man buried out by the kidney-shaped swimming pool, complete with miraculous sightings of “The King.”  In his tacky living room, there was one of those all-white tinsel Christmas trees with blue balls on it — something from which I doubt Elvis ever suffered, given these hysterical fans throwing themselves at him non-stop.  To his credit, Elvis would not allow his fans to call him “The King” to his face, even once refusing to sing when a group of them held up a large sign that proclaimed him king.

Despite rumors to the contrary, this is not Jesus.

“Jesus is the King,” He said, to his credit.

The fans, though, never stopped trying to grab off a piece of him in every sense of the expression, as if he were the Cross, a type of shroud, a holy relic of an unnamed mystery.

The worst by far of all the rooms on public display at this shrine to the uncanonized Southern Baptist saint is the Jungle Room.

Both the ceilings and the floors are carpeted in avocado green.  The expensive furniture is artificially wrought to look rustic — think of Marie Antoinette’s hameau, only less quaint, more horribly, unspeakably tacky.

Elvis used to entertain here, and apparently, nobody dared stage an intervention for him in it, neither for the drugs, nor for the style.  He recorded a later song in the room.  His voice might have bounced off the walls of this monstrosity, but it is a shame now, and shame on us, all of us, for not stepping in and dissuading him on any count of his over-reaching.

A man with gifts without genius, a man with money without sense of how best to create a lovely home for himself or to clothe himself in dignity with it — this man is a perfect allegorical figure for the prosperous but often lost United States of America.  We are still too much of a superpower for those close to us to dare tell us to stop with the fries and the pills that affect our serotonin levels.  Our flashy guns and our flashy war planes — no one told us in a way we have listened to or obeyed that we should buy an education for ourselves instead.

Elvis owned three large televisions — one for each major network — but not one book, not one.

We have gifts, we citizens of Graceland, but we are not as good at everything as we think we are or that we wish we were.  We love God, but we don’t act like penitents.  We are inventive, but more often than not, we are just plain tacky.

Because I have visited Graceland, entered the Jungle Room, and because I, too, remained silent in the wake of its evidence of one bad decision after another, I am an American now, like any other.  Like Peter betrayed Christ, I, too, have betrayed Elvis in that I secretly thrill as much at his emptiness as at his whole, rich voice, a voice that made every song into a hymn, a private confession of adoration, even though the lines were out the door at the tacky house on Elvis Presley Boulevard and the merchandising was always in season, even at a time when penitents remember the poor, not the wealthy.

This is not Elvis’ fault.  It is ours.  With our culture, we crucified him, and we are hypocrites, all, who visit to gawk or even just to hear the unending plea to love him tender.  His death is the consequence of our excesses and indifference to those who need the truth from us.  In an era of global warming, of war, of closed American factories and foreclosed American houses decorated in better taste than this one, he is the symbolic but ineffective expiation of our wrong-doing.

Elvis has stopped singing.  Jesus is the King.  May He have mercy on America.

November 26, 2010

Talk to me, Harry Winston — My Golem-like, and Completely UnSouthern, Obsession with Certain Bling

My precious....

I know that in Vicksburg, Mississippi, a Lorelei-Lee-like obsession with ice, square-cut and pear-shaped, is not all that useful.  I mean, if a gal wants to bake biscuits, she might just get dough stuck between the platinum claws that hold the stone in place.  When I’m sweeping leaves off the table outside, nobody is going to care what’s glistening on my finger.

That said, when William gave his momma’s ring to that girl he’s been seeing, I got covetous.  Pray for me.

Understand, I have no desire to marry into that Windsor clan.  They keep marrying their cousins so often they are starting to get goofy-looking, and they are none too bright, for the most part.  I like a smart man who is burly enough to tackle the quarterback, and I’m married to one of those — no desire to change dance partners.

But just look at that thing, glowing, beckoning — I’m the Golem of that ring!  What’s a gal to do?

As a New Yorker, I admit, if I saw that skinny British bee-hatch walking into an uncrowded street, I would think about ways to yank it off her finger and run as fast as I can.  In this photo, the ring looks loose enough on her that if I were determined and completely willing to get kick-boxed in the process, I could probably, even at my age, manage to elbow her in the guts and whang it off of her.  Pray for me!  I’m a sinner.  I’m weakened by the blue glow of that exquisite sapphire.  I think about this ring, just billions of finger-widths away from me in the UK, way, way too much

My friend Maegan took pity on me yesterday — I guess it was her Thanksgiving good deed — and sent me a URL where I could get information about replicas of this thing.  A place called The Natural Sapphire company is offering similarly cut and diamond-encircled jewelry.  I looked, and I’m sorry — it is just not the same.  That blue, the color of the anorexic sorrows of Lady Diana, cut with the princely precision of her posing on a bench alone with the Taj Mahal in the background while her cheating man back home sleeps with that other woman she called “The Rottweiler” — the pain that the ring contained is not in the knock-offs.  The pain makes it luminous.  The blue of the sapphire howls, “Help me!  I’m beautiful and destined to die young!  I’m loveless, but I have this ring to mark me, like a multi-millionaire Cain, destined to roam East of the Eden where I wanted to remain.”

Okay — I’m reading a little too much Yeats lately, and the falcon cannot hear the falconer right about now.  Pray for me!  I’m obsessed — with rings, with royal pains, with Irish quatrains.

I should go finish cleaning the Thanksgiving messes in my house, but it just seems so much nicer to imagine my finger refracting blue light in the kitchen sink.

I have an absolutely gorgeous young friend named Lylah, who is Egyptian, and I took her about two years ago to Harry Winston‘s boutique on Fifth Avenue, the one where they display rocks that make Tiffany & Co. look like they are the Walmart jewelry counter.  They had necklaces with egg-sized emeralds, rubies the contours of a cat’s brain, and sapphires that would make a smuggler choke if he tried to swallow them to hide them at the border crossing.

I pointed to a very nice emerald necklace and earring set and asked Lylah, when she married an oil sheik, to send these to me.

These days, I cannot even imagine where I could wear such things.  In Mississippi, there is no cotillion where one could wear a stone worth more than the historic antebellum mansion in which it was hosted.  Anyway, I’m a Yankee, and we don’t get invited to such things, besiege them as we might.  Why hasn’t the native lack of pretensions — I mean, my new community is all about hound dogs, shot guns, grits, and carefully worded laments against mendacity — oh, and many people around here like to drink — why hasn’t the red-neckiness of this locality gotten my neck out of the mindset of the noose of a Harry Winston necklace?

The truth is that nobody gets big rocks like that without somebody suffering a great deal.  In Tolkein’s work, all of Middle Earth gets in a war over a frigging ring.

Pray for me!  Remind me of the atrocities committed to collect conflict diamonds, of the hegemony of the DeBeers family!  Pray for me!

Why isn’t it working?  I read in the red letters of my bible, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

I mean — those are the RED letters, people!  Why am I not putting my treasures in better places?

That ring I’m obsessing over sealed a curse over the life of the woman who wore it.  Am I not better off with my perfectly lovely wedding and engagement rings that are not ostentatious and do not invite the paparazzi to my window?  Am I not much better off now?  I might be less sparkly, but why can’t I take comfort in the Shaker hymn’s idea –’tis a gift to be simple, a gift to be free, a gift to live in a land where pick-up trucks have rattlesnake flags saying “Don’t Tread On Me?”

Seriously, pray for me.  Either send me a gift certificate for serious Harry Winston bling or pray for me to find a healthier obsession.  Amen.

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