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

November 3, 2015

On Southern China (Not Kowloon, But Plates and Cups)

The Bible Belt is not a place particularly welcoming to astrology, due to scriptural admonitions against witchcraft and all, but there is one cultural equivalent to asking a lady if she is a Leo or a (pardon the presumption) Virgo.  That would be the time-honored practice of discerning personality by selections of wedding china and silver patterns.  Marilynne Schwartz, in her Southern Belle Primer, offers a look at wedding silverware patterns as a map of a bride’s heart.  Allow me to say she is not wrong.  One can tell a lot about a girl based on how she sets a table, more than most Yankees think.

A good crockery criminologist could tell you that the possessor of this plate loves Jane Austen too much to commit murder.

A good crockery criminologist could tell you that the possessor of this plate loves Jane Austen too much to commit murder.

Allow me to confess I am the Yankee exception to the rule — you can tell EVERYTHING about me if you know how to read my china, not the tea leaves in my cup but the tea cup itself.  You can tell my heritage, my erogenous zones, and the probability or the lack thereof that I would commit a crime.  Victorian culture believed that phrenology, the study of the shape of skulls, could tell one whether or not a certain individual had a predisposition for criminality.  The Nazis used this pseudo-science to justify their claims to master-race status.  But the skull men had it all wrong.  You want to tell whether or not I am likely to join Bonnie and Clyde on a shoot-out filmed by Arthur Penn?  Look into my choice of Spode Blue Italian and see a woman capable under wartime conditions of something akin to undercover Mata Hari moves but a total lack of inclination to direct acts of gunpowder-fueled violence.  Some girl who chose Villeroy and Bosch’s Basket Pattern for her wedding china, on the other hand, if pressed by enemy troops, she could lob Molotov cocktails out her dining room window, no prisoners, no quarter.

Other indicators in my china pattern are complicated by my Irish-American heritage.  I come from a family willing to fight over flatware and crockery, not to break dishes but to break heads over dishes.  I inherited my mother’s austere china pattern — a Danish mid-century eggshell-blue silver-rimmed affair, about which I wrote this award-winning poem, which appeared in Grasslands Review:

WEDDING DISHES

Given to you in exchange for the breaking of the saucer between your thighs,

The set of bloodless-blue silver-rimmed mirrors, salad-, bread- and dinner-sized,

Enough for twelve guests, you

stashed them under tea towels and in earthquake-proof canisters,

afraid of what a jury of your peers might do to them,

promising yourself their use for some grand occasion, grander than your wedding,

than the births, the anniversaries, the prize-winnings,

the high holy days, the moveable feasts, the raises, the graduations,

the leave-takings.

You never once set them out.

Don’t touch them, you warned me.

Those are for special days, days impervious to the passing of the hours,

the cycle, then the cessation, the graying of hair, the drooping and wrinkling,

the liver-spotting, for special days, not today, you told me.

Then, you got the news — you were waning,

and still you left them under heavy wraps, cryogenically sealed for some future

where you would not partake in the breaking of bread.

They sit now in my cabinet.

I inherited them all virginal, still uncrossed by a single butter knife.

I set them out like flat full moons every twenty-eight days or so.

Though they are the ice blue for which you registered,

I heap on them my roasted red peppers, my scarlet bruschetta, my berry sorbets,

my purpling beets, my bloody meats, my ripe nectarines, my marinara and my moussaka.

They have finally entered the coursing stream of the family, a place where at last the

good things are fed to the good people who waited so long to be invited to the table.

You see?  My mother’s inherent reticence and distrust of joy is evident in that wedding china, now mine, now repurposed, or rather, purposed to original purposes.

I also inherited my great-grandmother’s dishes, German plates made before World War I in Bavaria, white with Tiffany blue trim and gold rims.  It’s elegant, no longer manufactured, and precious as a symbol of female power in my family.  My mother’s funeral was not attended by one female relative who coveted the plates.  After the funeral was over, she had the temerity to send her son to ask for them for her, claiming they ought to be hers by right, never mind that my mother left them to me.  I told the man to tell his mother that if she wanted those plates, she could come see me about it — translation: come and look me in the eye if you dare; my mother just died, and I am in the mood to cut a b#!(h.  She never came.  The plates are still mine. She is still alive.

I believe I feel about that old china the way that the “best” Southern families take pride in beat-up flatware, which they proudly announce was hidden in the well when Sherman’s troops marched through their plantations.  In those dinged-up forks, they see a big fork-you to enemy looters from their great-great grand-mommas.

While most women in the South don’t inherit plates and spoons hidden from the Yankees, the choice of the pattern of such items is as important a choice to most women as the choice of college they attend.  When one receives a guest, it says everything about the hostess, if one can read.

Of course, divorce happens in the South, alas, as frequently as it does in the North, and then the meaning of the wedding china becomes bittersweet for some belles.  I think that in a society that believes that no matter how many times the bride has been married beforehand, a big, poofy white dress is never in poor taste on a new wedding day,most women of the South find a way to live with the old plates after the marriage ends.  After all, it is usually the woman who has chosen the pattern as a representation of her own proclivities.  However, I know at least one Southern woman who hates the china that reminds her of the broken covenant.

I prefer to see all plates hidden from Yankees, exes, or bitter female relatives as a sign of feminine power, a sign that the bearer of the cup is not so much a Kappa Kappa Gamma as a Cappa de tutte cappe, or as a friend of mine and I once coined, a “chippie de tutti chippies.”  A woman who lets go the man and keeps the bone china has perhaps gotten the best of both worlds in certain cases.  The china pattern then becomes the emblem of the matriarch, the one at whose table one must take Thanksgiving dinner and Easter brunch.  A woman with multiple china patters inherited or remaining after divorces, don’t mess with her.  She will fork you up.

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October 21, 2015

The New Magnolia State in Bloom — Mississippi Wakes Up a Little Freer Today

It is with great delight that I declare a symbolic victory in this blog space, a victory for the New South over the Old.  Symbolic victories are not the same as sea shifts.  Rather, symbolic victories signal a long-fomenting sea shift, one that may have gone unnoticed.  It’s a bit like the blooming of magnolias.

Ancient trees like this one got chewed by brontosaurus jaws.

Ancient trees like this one got chewed by brontosaurus jaws.

Let me explain.  My Vicksburg home was mid-century, not one of those antebellum mansions (alas) for which the city is so rightly famous.  But we had one venerable piece of Mississippi heritage right in our front yard — a large magnolia tree. That tree had probably stood there while non-reenacting Civil War-era beseigers and defenders of Vicksburg sniped at one another through bull rushes and barley fields.  It had probably stood there when Native American tribes trudged through the marshes to gaze over the Mississippi River over the bluff, on the lookout for good places to camp for the night.  It had stood there before North was North and South was South, before slaves arrived in shackles and before cotton got picked in nearby areas.  That tree was a kind of deep-rooted truth about the region even before it was a State, a Mesozoic veracity, something subtle but undeniable.

During winter in Mississippi, things freeze over.  Often farmers burn the cotton plants, already harvested, into cinders so that the crops can get rotated next year.  The earth is partly scorched.  The trees are mostly bare.  The Earth is grey and brown.  Then, as the first harbinger of thaw, one sees buds forming on all the dusty-green-leaved trees, buds that grow the size of outrageous mangoes, already tropical before they even open.  Then one morning, people wake up and find that the entire state’s magnolias have exploded open.  They preen like debutantes making a fine entrance in white ballgowns into an exclusive cotillion.  They waft in the ruffles of their petals a vaguely citrus-y and honeyed smell, gentle except for the enormity and large number of the flowers; one magnolia smells like almost nothing, but an avenue of magnolias? It is a time machine back into our prehistoric selves, the waking of pterodactyls and dragonflies to buzz overhead, the invitation to even volcanic things to return to life and to thrive.  The season has changed, even though the week before it seemed like nothing was going on, nothing, that the dead things were always there, it seemed, and nothing was ever going to change. It turns out, every year, that this is a myth we told ourselves in our gloom. The renewal of the magnolia — this is the true thing we forgot.

Blooms like this are heady.

Blooms like this are heady.

Magnolias announce the start of a new season of growth.  The tree grows slowly but surely.  When the blooms appear, everything starts to buzz.

The University of Mississippi campus has an avenue of magnolia trees planted decades ago by women alumnae. When it blooms, it is heady.  It is a fair walk from the Confederate cemetery on campus, where the only blooms that one sees are in the form of wreaths left to remember very dead soldiers who died defeated.  The magnolias, on the other hand, they win every year, which is (alas) more than the football team of the university can say, despite its fans’ adoration.

The ASB (that’s student council, for you Yankees) of Ole Miss voted last night overwhelmingly to take down the Mississippi State Flag from the campus until there is no trace in that flag of a Confederate symbol, and they urged the state’s legislature (among whom are counted many Ole Miss alumni) to hurry the process by which they alter the flag to reflect the dignity of all Mississippians, black and white.  The pretty young Southerners blooming on that campus today have decided overwhelmingly that they don’t stand with the boy who got expelled for lynching the James Meredith statue a couple of years ago, with the Klan protesters, with old messages of hatred, the dead and killing things that made the South decay for years after the Civil War.

This flag would represent Mississippi heritage without representing Mississippi hatred.

This flag would represent Mississippi heritage without representing Mississippi hatred.

But those dead things, those decaying things, it turns out — those things constituted a myth people told themselves.  The truth of Mississippi is that it is The Magnolia State, a venerable thing that thrives indiscriminately when it blooms.  The truth of Mississippi today is that young Mississippians plan to live an integrated and dignified life.  They respect their ancestors but intend to live together hospitably and equitably in the present, not the past.  They intend to be polite to others, those who share their ethnicity, and those who don’t.  It doesn’t mean they have figured it all out — racism (alas) did not die last night on the Ole Miss campus.  However, a sea shift many did not see happening was happening slowly and surely, like the growth of the magnolia tree, and now we see the blooming, inhale the fragrance of it, and it is heady and invigorating.

I congratulate my colleagues and students at the University of Mississippi for being harbingers of meaningful change.

September 13, 2015

Late Southern Night — Stephen Colbert and his Charlestonian Hospitality

Late night comedy on network television has heretofore been dominated by men from above the Mason-Dixon Line, all with acerbic, often cynical humor, greeting guests in a manner that let them know the host thought the guests were lucky to have a seat on the couch.  While Jack Parr and Johnny Carson came from the Midwest and had therefore something like a folksy air about them at moments, at least in their earlier careers, since the 1980s, Late Night Television has been dominated by men from the Northeast.  Conan O’Brien is from Boston, and Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, and David Letterman are all from New York City.  This has meant that the tone of The Tonight Show, The Late Show and other shows American viewers watch transmit a sense of a sardonic New York State of mind, a mindset that is by now familiar to Americans as part of staying up to watch Jay Walking, Stupid Human Tricks, or other comedy bits which are as much about laughing at people as laughing with them.  New York City would be an unbearable place to live for so many reasons if New Yorkers did not claim the privilege of laughing at the idiotic and pompous, the grating and the lewd, the lunatic and the confused among their neighbors.  It is a strategy that all New Yorkers without exception employ on a bad day to get through a stressful time; I speak from personal experience of living and working in New York for decades.

Son of the South Stephen Colbert in front of the South Carolina State Flag

Son of the South Stephen Colbert in front of the South Carolina State Flag

But publicly and openly laughing at one’s neighbors is not considered good manners in the South, and The Late Show’s new host Stephen Colbert doesn’t do this.  Colbert grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, on James Island, literally at walking distance from the site of the first Civil War battle, Fort Sumter.  In Charleston, even the least well-behaved schoolboy learns not to point and laugh at others in public, and by all accounts Stephen Colbert learned good manners in his devoutly Catholic household, replete with Irish guilt, something I can personally attest to as more damning than any fire-and-brimstone sermon if a school child messes up, because in the Irish concept of propriety, one has the ability to shame one’s ancestors at least four generations back and receive their moral condemnation from their seat in eternity. So Stephen — of the rowdy audience chants, “Stephen! Stephen! Stephen!” — treats people with more respect than a guy like Dave Letterman.

Understand Stephen Colbert loves to ridicule the rich and powerful, but he does so ironically, usually with a rhetorical strategy that the French call “se foutre de la geule de quelqu’un,” a term untranslatable but demonstrable.  The moment he won my heart as a fan was when on his old show The Colbert Report was when he interviewed a Georgia Congressman who was vehemently opposed to gay marriage.  Stephen told the Representative, “I love your strong stand against gay marriage, but it doesn’t go far enough.”  The Congressman was surprised.  Stephen continued, “Why not oppose not only issuing marriage licenses to gay people, but also drivers licences?  I mean, I don’t want those people gay-ing up Americas highways.”  It was a brilliant way to put the man on the defensive while appearing to agree with him.  The Congressman honestly did not seem to know whether Stephen were kidding.  For the record, he was.

2015-09-09-the-late-show-with-stephen-colbert03-gap

Late night television now has a new, dancing hospitality straight out of the South.

Now, in his new role as the host of a more mainstream entertainment show, Colbert has changed the tone from David Letterman’s old tone, which seemed always to be making fun of the institution of the show itself.  Stephen fully participates in the genre of show he hosts, and he and his band leader, Jonathan Batiste, dance to New Orleans jazz at the beginning of the show (Batiste is from Louisiana, as a one-minute listen to his music attests), and then the mood is cordial.  Stephen’s gentle and personal interview with Joe Biden (whom he clearly wants to run for president) about his son’s death is not the kind of interview Letterman could have conducted.  Shortly after September 11, 2001, Dan Rather came on Letterman’s show and burst into tears talking about the tragedy, and while Letterman was not unkind, dropping the sardonic Alfred E. Newman-like grin long enough to say he understood that Rather was crying because “he was human,” Letterman didn’t have a tender bone in his interviewer’s body, not on camera.  Stephen Colbert seems rather incapable of treating a guest as anything other than human.  In fact, his show’s band’s name is “Stay Human,” which he seems to be trying to do.

Apart from the manners and compassion that Stephen Colbert brings from the South to late night television, one sees Charleston in his and Jonathan Batiste’s polished manner of dressing.  Charleston men are often elegant, and while Stephen doesn’t have the navy nautical blazer over a pair of immaculately pressed khakis that one associates with Charleston gentility, he lacks the slouchy air that Letterman gave in every one of his suits, however well-tailored.  We see, too, an honest effort to welcome his guests and to make them feel at ease.  While his encounters with food on the show thus far have only been to stuff his mouth with Oreos while making fun of Donald Trump’s stand against the cookie, it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Colbert serving sweet tea to guests.

Of course, The Late Show is a New York institution and will remain one.  The credits roll with a claymation view of the city emblazoned with guests’ names.  The Ed Sullivan Theater is on Broadway, not Meeting Street in Charleston.  But lots of humorists and figures of American theater moved from the South to make it in New York ,and New York is as glad to see Southerners as they are glad to see anybody, which means only that they grudgingly scoot down the subway bench to make room for them, too.

Having Stephen Colbert as a curator of American culture from his seat on Broadway offers the possibility that late night comedy might become a bit more conciliatory.  His first show ended with a group singalong of “I am Everyday People” with Southern singer Mavis Staples, and perhaps we might be entering an era of American singalong again, with different strokes for different folks.  If that’s true, allow me to be the first to agree, “Ooh, sha sha!  We got to live together!”

May 16, 2015

Extending Extra Hospitality to Close Friends: Why Only Tramps Like Blanche DuBois Regularly Depend on the Kindness of Strangers

Southerners pride themselves on hospitality, you’ve heard.  Sometimes, they practice a kind of teeth-gritted smiling hospitality that thinly masks grudges with graciousness, but honestly, once they get to know a person enough to feel a bit relaxed, Southerners are generally good hosts without guile.  If a person, even a carpetbagger, happens to be not just among them but of them, one of their people, after the other guests have left, the hostess lets that inner circle member see her take off her patent pumps and chandelier earrings, whips out the good bourbon, and they have the real conversation she has been dying to have all evening.

I have decided to learn from my time here in Mississippi the art of such hospitality.  To all of you who are in the outer courts of my love but not on my wishing-you’d-kick-the-bucket-list, and that perhaps means first-time readers of this blog – I hope you and I are already chummy, if not bffs just yet — I bid you a good evening here and offer you a glass of punch, a tea cookie off of the tray where I have artfully arranged desserts in a crescent shape.  But if you are truly my people, then I’m slipping out of these crinolines that itch and mixing us some juleps.  Then I will unlock the vault of my secrets, the totality of my deepest regrets and aspirations.

My friend Cynthia in the South of France before she moved to the South of the USA.  She will document her culture shock here in periodic posts.

My friend Cynthia in the South of France before she moved to the South of the USA. She will document her culture shock here in periodic posts.

So it is with my good friend, truly one of my people, Miz Cynthia Redecker, a gifted writer whom I have known longer than either of us cares to admit.  When Cynthia met me, I had spiky red hair and a white leather bomber jacket, as I was not so much an artist back then as an, “artist, dammit!”  I was bold, but I had plenty of rough edges.  Cynthia, on the other hand, looked like young Grace Kelly, a vision of sophistication, and yet she was not at all pretentious.  She seemed queenly, except that her hair was always a little beachily untamable, and she seemed entirely unaware of her own naturally regal air.  I secretly aspired to be like Cynthia, in that she spoke four languages fluently, read everything, traveled the world, and had the air whenever she arrived somewhere to be always entering with a wind-blown chic as if she had just disembarked from a yacht in the Mediterranean after a pleasure cruise, even if she had only just taken the subway.  Cynthia never saw herself the way I saw her, which was part of her charm.  She told me she saw me as swash-buckling, admittedly proactive and direct in ways that are uncommon in the diplomatic circles in which she traveled, and compared to Cynthia, I at least appeared fearless, even though I was secretly more terrified than she ever was.

Today Cynthia, like me, has abandoned places more sophisticated than Mississippi and has found herself in the South.  She, like I am, is a bit of a fish out of water down here.  I tell you she is my people, a sister carpetbagger, mon semblable, mon frère.

Again, she is of my people, the way they ask in cotillions in a hushed murmur, “but who are her people?” about any newcomer who wishes to debut at their club.  And in that spirit, I offer to the newly arrived sister carpetbagger, who actually has just disembarked in Florida after actually spending time on the French Riviera as a journalist, a place in this blog’s cotillion to impart her canny observations as an outsider looking in.  I hope she will blog like a pleasure cruiser, a woman who finds herself in new tropics, will use her trained journalistic eye to let us know the lay of the land in a manner that takes nothing for granted.

In this spirit, since she is one of mine, I ask my readers to invite her to tea with us in the pavilion as she blogs periodically here.

May 6, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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