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

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.

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October 1, 2010

Southern Rituals That Mystify Me

Looking at Southern Culture is a little like looking at a UFO for me — I squint at it; should I declare it a sign of intelligent life or a weather balloon?  I am wandering among strangers, hospitable strangers, but strangers nonetheless.

Consider this my X-File reportage, then.  Here’s what I saw about a week ago:

Not little green men, but a little green sorority

The colonnaded antebellum building is called the Lyceum.  It is the administration building of Ole Miss.  When the first African-American students arrived at Ole Miss, apparently violence broke out, and there are, legend would have it, still bullet holes in the facade of this building.  I have yet to see the bullet holes.

The young women in green t-shirts are a sorority.  I’m not sure which one.  I can’t tell the sororities apart, even when they wear t-shirts of different hues to distinguish themselves one from another, which they did this day.

These young women gathered in a cluster.  Near them, a cluster of yellow-t-shirted women gathered as well, near them, a cluster of periwinkle blue-t-shirted women stood.  Near those, a group of young women in salmon-pink t-shirts.  Almost every single one of these women,  like the women in this picture, were white.

There were some clusters also in front of the Lyceum of African-American students as well.  They did not all wear the same t-shirt.  Some of them were in t-shirts, but a few of them were in prom dresses, with hair and make-up done.  These young women belonged to all African-American sororities.

Sororities and fraternities are still largely segregated in Mississippi.  Last year, on the day we got engaged, my husband and I attended a wedding of two African-American friends of his.  They were both out of school well above a decade, but at their wedding,  they had fraternity brothers and sorority sisters sing a song related to said sorority and fraternity.  They still gave each other handshakes related to this custom.  When I saw Spike Lee’s film School Daze about this phenomenon, I did not realize that when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first living breath to your last dying day — well, it’s not Jets and Sharks.  It’s an incomprehensible, even to sorority and fraternity members, series of Greek letters and a complex series of rituals that accompany them.

In this crowd of Ole Miss students, with very few exceptions, blacks and whites stood apart.  So did salmon-pinks, yellows, periwinkles, and greens.  They looked like a large flower bed, one where the gardener had separated the peonies from the pansies and the impatiens.  They were standing in impatiens, or rather, impatience, waiting twitchily.

There were some men scattered throughout the crowd as well, white and black.  They wore stickers on their caps or their back packs, some of them, with the names of certain of the sorority girls.

All these students had gathered to hear the election results of the homecoming vote. Apparently, only people in the Greek community on campus have anything like a shot of winning a title in this election — and by Greek community, I’m not talking about people who say, “Epharistoh para kala” to thank each other or who have a keen appreciation for Spanikopita.  I lived in such a Greek community in Queens for years and felt less like a Xena — foreign woman — than I do in this Greek community.

The young men, some of them, were waiting to hear which of them had won the “honor” of playing Colonel Reb, a white Confederate slaveholder old man — think Colonel Sanders in a tacky bright red suit with a cane.  The college is doing away with the mascot, but apparently, he gets trotted out for the odd ritual of homecoming.

The young women were waiting to hear if one or more of their sorority sisters had won the honor of homecoming queen, homecoming princess, and a dubiously-named, but apparently deeply esteemed title — Miss Ole Miss — which sounds like, “Miss Old Maid” to me.  There were other homecoming honors to be won, titles and distinctions inferior to the ones mentioned above, but their roles mystify me.  I’m not sure what one does at a homecoming game.  Where I went to school as an undergrad, Sarah Lawrence College, we didn’t have homecoming.  We didn’t have much in the way of teams.  We didn’t , at the time, even have a gym, just an “athletics room” not large enough to hold a proper basketball game in.  At The City College of New York, where I got my Masters Degree. there was a football team, but no one knew when they played or whether they won or lost.  Most students were too busy with their complex city lives to have time for a game.

Here, though, in Oxford, Mississippi, I saw several hundred people gather in protest near this colonnaded building, and my first thought was that this must be some kind of a protest.  We had protests in front of buildings on my campus when I was an undergrad.  I participated in one to urge the trustees to divest from holdings in South Africa until Nelson Mandela was freed.  As this was the administrative building, I thought it might be a plea for something like that.

No — they just really, really cared who won Miss Ole Miss and the other titles.

I saw two girls near me look at each other as if it was Christmas morning, tears brimming in their eyes.  As the administrators came out on the steps with the official count, they clasped hands, and one gasped, “Oh, my God!  This is actually happening!”

As each of the Homecoming court and princesses was announced, as a name of a particular sorority sister was called, the whole sorority jumped up and down and gave — not a whoop, but a lady-like hoot.  I’ve only heard this hoot once before, and it was in the movie Gone With the Wind.  When it was announced that there would be an auction to dance with the ladies, the ladies let out this noise.  Is it a lady rebel yell?  I think so.  The teams of Ole Miss are called the rebels.  So they let out that sigh-hoot, high pitched, not in ululation, but something just as exotic and particular to them.

Many of these women hugged each other with real tears running down their faces.  The ones doing the crying did not seem to be the losers, only those who had campaigned for these titles for friends.

Hysteria broke out in one of the colored t-shirt clusters when Miss Ole Miss was announced.  Apparently, that was the loveliest title to have, better, perhaps than Homecoming Queen, but I have no idea why.  Apparently, the next day, someone accused the winner of cheating and demanded a recount.  Again, I have no idea why.

What is this place, and why do they care about the things they care about?  Why don’t  they care about the things I cared about at their age?  Why do they all want to conform to an exclusive group’s standards?  I was desperate to be an individual when I was their age.  Why don’t these sororities integrate more?  Everyone, black and white, is smart and pretty here.

And what am I doing down here among them?  How did this happen?  When I teach my students that Immanuel Kant said that the slogan of the Enlightenment should be, “Don’t be afraid to use your own reason,” do they feel afraid to use it anyway, in case they might offend sorority sisters or fraternity brothers?  Have I entered a culture, like in certain Asian cultures, where the needs of the group are traditionally paramount, valued well above the needs of the individual, and my rugged individualism feels like a fundamental rejection of their values?  Is it odd that these conformists call themselves “The Rebels” and elect a Colonel Rebel?

I left a little confused.  I heard one sorority, the one that had Miss Ole Miss in it, chanting something in unison.  I could not make out the words, quite.  I am Xena in this Greek world.  I am a Goth (perhaps former Goth) invading Rome.  I don’t speak the language, not quite.  Despite careful study of the grammar, something is lost to me in the area of idiom.

Who are these people?  Who am I among them?

I am squinting at them.  It might just be a weather balloon.  I don’t know.  I know it seems to follow a direction other than the wind.  This might be my close encounter of the third kind.

June 4, 2010

Sex and the City in the Country

Yes, that movie, the second one, bombed.  Yes, the characters, so compelling in the series, became sad caricatures instead of  women who had learned something valuable from the variety of hard knocks they had had over the years.

So what?  Women where I come from, New York City, still identify with them, perhaps more than we should.

The girls with whom the country girls don't identify

When I worked in publishing years ago, there was an editorial assistant there who squealed, after I delivered some diatribe in New York irony regarding cocktails, my shoes, and women’s priorities in New York, “Omigod!  You are so Carrie Bradshaw!”

I did not understand.  Who was Carrie Bradshaw?

She made me, absolutely  forced me, to watch season one of  the show, which I had never watched — I wasn’t slutty, and why would I want to watch a show called Sex and the City?  I wasn’t looking for sex in the city — I was married, so I wasn’t stalking men, and what could possibly make me identify with women in such a show?

I sat and watched episode one.  I was sufficiently entertained to watch episode two.  In the middle of episode two, I jumped off the couch and screamed.

Someone had been spying on me.  I really was Carrie Bradshaw, I mean I was not just like her, I WAS her, at least for a few moments on the screen.

Carrie is talking to Charlotte in that episode, and Charlotte says these words:

“Anal sex?  That can’t be!  I went to Smith College!”

A year earlier, I had had tea at the Plaza Hotel’s Palm Court with a girlfriend, and that girl, who really WAS Charlotte for fifteen seconds of episode two, had uttered those words precisely to me.  She had said them loudly enough to be overheard by somebody else.  Writers in New York keep notebooks to jot down what others say to use  such phrases later in other creations.  It most definitely was overheard by one of  those notebook-toting writers.

What’s more, I had a  lot of clothes, too many for my apartment closet.  I had shoes, and in that moment, before 9/11, at the tail end of the dot com bubble, I kept buying them, nice ones.  I had cocktails with girlfriends regularly and networked even more regularly in the art world over cocktails.  I had a friend who was an astonishing nymphomaniac, another friend who was pampered and aristocratic, a number of friends with powerful careers that made them fearful  and cynical — in short, I was, whether I liked it or not, one of the city’s many  Carrie Bradshaws.

My friends and I never discussed the series together.  We apparently all got privately hooked, however, because when the first movie came out, we went to see it together, along with the crowds and crowds of us who had gotten privately hooked.  The theater rang with that breathless recognition, when one’s life was splayed out on the wide screen.  We knew these girls.  We were, all of  us, these girls, whether  we liked it or not.

And it’s not just my generation in New York that has experienced this phenomenon — the one that follows us is more convinced that these women are who they should become, not just who they are but who they are truly meant to be.  Note  the continued paucity of real female role models, even today, Hillary Clinton and Condoleeza Rice notwithstanding.  I was interviewing interns a year ago, and a young woman told  me it was her goal to become Samantha Jones.

She qualified it when my eyebrows rose: “Not that I want to sleep with so many guys, just that I want to own my own PR firm and be in charge of my life.”

Oh.  They are seeing other things about the forty-year-old, fifty-year-old girls than the girls, that is, we who are them despite ourselves, than we generally see, like Samantha’s emotional immaturity and self-centered outlook.  They see independence and strength.  Are we independent and strong?

Other young women in the city love every episode, see it as an Emily Post for a complex world of male-female relationships which is off-road at best and a survivalist nightmare at worst. 

I’m sorry, younger women. To the extent that I am Carrie Bradshaw, I apologize.  We should have been stronger, more moral, more nurturing of  you.  The shoes weren’t as important as your school books.  Big is nobody’s perfect match, and neither is any other man who has that many issues  regarding commitment.  We didn’t teach you  this.  I, as a spokesperson for the generation of Carrie Bradshaws that somehow emerged on the island of Manhattan, I apologize to you.  I wish we had given you something more admirable to admire.  If you think we have it figured out, we  don’t.  If we look confident, we’re not.  We’re boxing shadows everywhere, and while we look marvelous, much better than our own mothers at this age, and we have had many brilliant experiences, do not assume for a minute we know what we are  doing.  We are piloting this plane without training.  It may crash into those looming towers any second.  We have not meant to be terrorists in your lives.  I fear we may be nonetheless.  Please forgive  us.

Because I am to some extent Carrie Bradshaw, I went to see the movie number two, right here in Vicksburg.  The theater, this on the weekend it opened, was entirely empty when  I arrived a few minutes  before show time.  I wandered  down the aisle toward the front.  I was astonished by the cool emptiness.  I parked myself in the sixth row, where I like to sit, where the screen overwhelms one, and I heard a few others behind me shuffle quietly in over the next few minutes.  I nibbled popcorn and could hear myself  chewing.  I heard neither  gasps nor  laughter of recognition.  I know the second movie wasn’t very good.  However, the girls in New York know they are still Carrie Bradshaw, even on a bad trip to Abu Dhabi.

On September 11th, I escorted that editorial assistant down the fire stairs of the building where we worked and had watched in horror as the largest buildings in New York melted down like  fast-burning cigarettes.  I miraculously got a cell phone signal to call her near-hysterical mother,  who  had been sure that her taking a job in Manhattan was a death sentence before the attack.  We walked by the tents in Bryant Park.  They  had canceled fashion  week.  Eventually, I got her to a subway, finally working, and she took the long trip home to the end of the line.

The next day, I lost my job.

This week, after the weekend debut, I got a text message from one of my cocktail-mixing Manhattanite friends.  She wrote: “Am about to see Sex and the City.  Wish you were here.”

I make no more sense  in Mississippi on some days than Samantha  did in Abu Dhabi.  I am alien to this  landscape.  Slowly, I am  making a few friends.  But who am I kidding?  I don’t have designer shoe money as I get my PhD.  I have a home where it is sometimes lovely, but then the air conditioner breaks, my husband breaks the window and thinks that  duct tape  is a perfectly good solution, the dog poops in every room, my hair frizzes past the point of recognition.

Who am I kidding?  I am alien.  Yet, I belong here.  A PhD will be valuable in my career.  Despite the duct tape and the pretzels he  left all over  the carpet last night, I love my husband.  Somehow, this has got to be my  home.

After September 11th, New Yorkers cleaned up and got on with work.  I got a new job, finished my Master’s Degree.  A wonderful cop told Osama Bin Laden at Madison Square Garden, after losing hundreds of colleagues and no sleep, that he could kiss his royal Irish ass.

My ass is Irish.  I’m not sure who to tell to kiss it.  However, I think it is time for me to shout such a thing.  Who is the enemy here?  Where are my towers?  Where are my shoes?

Mississippi?  That can’t be!  I went to Sarah Lawrence College.

Tomorrow I’ll be glad of the beauty that surrounds me.  Tomorrow, I’ll be glad for  the time I have to write.  Tomorrow, I’ll be thrilled again at my big kitchen where I bake and cook whatever pleases me.  Tomorrow, I’ll be glad at the unpretentious way things are done around here.  Tomorrow, I will be thrilled again that this is a place where my  Christian worldview is welcome.

Today, I miss Samantha. and Charlotte. and Miranda.  They are fictional characters, and I am not in fact Carrie Bradshaw, and yet, I met them everywhere.  I mourn for us, we fictional characters, become caricatures of our  former selves.

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