Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Writing At Waffle House

This morning, my body is over-trained.  I can feel it.  It's not bad, but I can feel it.  The problem is, I just don't have time for it.  The world is calling for me.  I can hear it, but my body is on a clock.  At fifty-nine years old, I know the usable life of my body is not infinite, so I have to push, but I also have to be careful.

When I was twenty and felt like this, I'd work harder, then get drunk at Scrooges so I would sleep well and forget about whatever was making me work so hard. My relationship with my body is and always was, I would say, strained.  In truth, it's an unhappy but long-lived marriage.  

There is infinitely more written about the relationship between women and their bodies than there is about men and theirs.  Part of that might be that we've hung this millstone around their neck called "physical beauty," a burden rarely shared by men.  If you look at what's going on in Persia today, the idea of feminine beauty is probably the creation of men wanting to contain and limit women.  I'm probably as guilty as any of them, but I do try to at least admit it.

Physical beauty is not something I ever really considered myself a part of.  Overweight with thinning hair and a smile that looked like I was going to kill someone or just had, I always figured the best I could do was to make a useful body, so I learned to move heavy things and climb things I shouldn't.

Lucy Millsaps once assigned us to draw four self-portraits.  Which I did.  In private.  Always in private.  I turned them in, and Lucy said, "the drawings are very good, but you don't look like that.  The likeness is very good, but you've emphasized all the wrong features.  You're better looking than that.  Is there something wrong?"  I love Lucy.  I miss her.  For someone so small, she could see very far.

The over-training isn't bad.  It's just there.  I think if I get proper sleep and get good nutrients, I should be fine.  While I have to train, and I enjoy it, all I really want to do is write.  Just typing it makes the water come to my truth eye.

I think I'm going to treat myself and get a nice leather bag for my laptop.  I think I'm going to be the kind of asshole who writes in cafes.  For forty-five years, I wrote in secret, both the process and the result.   Lately, I've been letting people see what I write, which has gone surprisingly well.  Maybe letting them see the process won't be so bad.  Hearing the sounds and voices of people going about their business helps me concentrate.  I know that sounds crazy, but it works.  Maybe I go into some sort of sensory overload, and my body shuts down that input channel and lets me focus, where less input would otherwise interfere with my thinking.  

When I was married, I would wait till my wife went to sleep, then take a laptop to Waffle House to write.  I told my wife I was going to smoke, which she hated, so she never questioned it.  You could smoke in Wafflehouse then, and nearly everyone did, including the guy on the griddle.  The people at Wafflehouse are usually too busy to notice if you're writing, or sleeping, or overdosing, or stabbing your neighbor, so my activities could be completely anonymous there.  

I loved my wife more than anything, but she had no interest in my writing, or my painting, or my sculpting, drawing, or theater.  I'm pretty sure she thought she was getting my dad.  It's not her fault; I do a pretty good impression of him and almost always do.  Because I would have done anything for her, then or now, when she said she wanted to marry, I did, and that was that.  Knowing that she couldn't really see me wasn't an issue because I never let anyone see me.  My wife is still one of my favorite people in the world.  What happened between us was entirely my fault.  I should have been more honest and open. 

Her dad, that was a different story.  Besides Brent Lefavor, nobody who didn't share genetic material with me ever taught me as much as Cecil Jenkins or see me as clearly.  We continued to talk after the divorce.  I'm sure he never really separated from anyone.  I miss him.  I wish I could talk to him now.

I don't know where this writing thing is going.  I'd love to publish, but if it never happens, I'm satisfied just knowing that even one person read my stuff.  For many years, I didn't allow that many.  Actually working while other people go about their lives around me has a really satisfying ring about it.  If you see me typing in a coffee shop or a pizza joint, check on Facebook in a couple of days, and you'll most likely see whatever I was working on.  My body will heal itself, and the over-training will go away.  I just have to stop being such an asshole to my limbs, and it'll work out.  

Saturday, October 22, 2022

Not Winning

Sometimes my sister worries that I'm too bold in my efforts to become part of the world again.  Somehow she's noticed that I've been stepping in front of cannonballs since the day she was born.

"It's like raising children."  She said.  "You'll try.  You'll push.  You'll put everything you've got into making things turn out well, but you're not gonna win every battle."

Sometimes, she's too clever for me.  Not delivering the goods for the people and things I care about is why I removed myself from society in the first place.  In truth, no matter how much effort and love, and time I put into something, its success or failure isn't dependent on me, even though it sure feels like that.  Knowing that, and feeling it, are two different things.

My theory was that removing myself from the world would remove this feeling of responsibility, and even if someone or something did fail, at least I wouldn't know about it.  Loving people and things that turned out to be, basically, mortal was killing me, and I lacked the perspective to accept the wounds without fear and self-loathing.  I was too close.

My plan wasn't working.  In my cave, I would still hear that so-and-so died, or such-and-this was closing.  The wounds came fresh, and the blood flowed freely, so I dug into the granite more.  Going deeper didn't silence the sounds of the world; it only muffled them.  Muffled cries of pain are still cries of pain.  When the cries come from someone you love, it's brutal.

Coming back out into the world means I have to accept that, no matter how hard I try, not winning is always an option, and no amount of caring or loving can change that.  Baby sister is wise beyond her means.  This will not be easy.  Failing for me, I don't care about.  Failing for the people I love flays the skin from my bones.  To live though, to LIVE, I have to accept this possibility.  There will be times when I do not win, no matter how important it is.

I'm ready to accept that possibility.  Not winning will hurt, probably a lot, but what choice do I have? I will fight.  I may lose, but I will fight.  Living in a cave wasn't protecting me like I thought it might.  If I do not win, I will simply try again.

Because She's A Woman

 There are very few people on earth  I can talk freely at a truth to the gut level with.  My sister is my most valuable and oldest association that way.  Tonight we were both trying to pour whatever energy we could into a Millsaps event, and we started talking about a position that was opening up at a company we've both been associated with for a long, long time.  

"I guess they're gonna move Mary into that position,"  I said.  Naming the most logical, most competent person I could think of, who just happens to already be working at that company.  I really didn't put much thought into it and considered that part of the conversation pretty much done.

"They'll never give Mary that position."  My sister said.  "Because She's a Woman."

I made a face and let my brain process what she had just said.  The weight of it and the truth of it hit me pretty hard.  This woman, who we both knew, who we both had done business with, would be denied an opportunity she earned in life--because she's a woman.

Once upon a time, I took an oath to defend womanhood, but I've always interpreted that differently from how the oath writers intended.  I tend to do things my own way.

I'm old.  Despite my expectations, I've survived until the third age of men.  In those many days, I've romantically loved maybe fifteen women and non-romantically loved maybe five hundred more.  I have two stepdaughters who carry a silent piece of me wherever they go.  I have a niece, who, quite frankly, I would cut you for.  And many millions more who I am honor-bound to care for.  Because she's a woman, is the world I've left for them.  I'm not satisfied.

Before Daddy died, I was having a drink with a lawmaker at Scrooges.  The old Scrooges, when they were still in the same building as the Rogue.  Even though he was on an education committee, this was purely a social call.  I liked the guy genuinely and enjoyed talking to him.  He told me how much he liked my sister.  She had just gotten out of college and just started associating with the fella she would eventually cleave to.  A thousand times, people have said how much they admired my sister, and they meant it.

"It's a shame she'll never get to do the things your daddy did."

Driving home, I regretted not punching him and getting thrown out of Scrooges for the first time ever.  The weight of what he said stunned me, though, and it took a while for the wheels in my head to put that information where it needed to go.  I'm old now.  My beard is mostly white, and that sentence still doesn't have the proper home in my brain.  Maybe it's for the best.  Because she's a woman was putting an unfair cap on my beloved baby sister and closest friend.

My sister could have and, by rights, should have done everything my father did and more.  She's smarter.  She's kinder.  She works harder.  She's a better athlete.  She's better looking.  (My dad had a tragically large nose.)  By rights, her fame should have dwarfed his.  Because she's a woman, got in the way.  I hate it.  

Before I cross over to the new lands, I'd like to do something about Because she's a woman.  I think it's time.  Technically I've already taken an oath to do so.  Maybe it's not what the oath writers intended, but it's what I intended.  I am stubborn, and I am honor-bound.

Friday, October 21, 2022

The Return of Ayers

 It was a long day, and I probably need to sleep, but there was one thing I wanted to get out.

Bennie Thompson has ordered an investigation into racial inequity in how Mississippi distributed federal infrastructure funds, and the NAACP and others are saying they're preparing a civil case with the same claim.  

All of this reminds me of the Ayers case, which Thompson was also involved in.  Like the Ayers case, I believe the plaintiffs are correct, and there was racial inequity in how these funds were distributed.  Like the Ayers case, I believe the state of Mississippi may have followed the letter of the law, but perhaps not the spirit of the law.  Having spoken to some of the players involved, I feel confident that Mississippi did follow the letter of the law, but that doesn't mean they aren't still liable for the plaintiff's claims.

So far, so good.  Here's my problem, though, and it's a pragmatic one.  It took over thirty years for Ayers to reach a conclusion.  While the plaintiffs got some of their demands, they didn't get them all, and there were some very, very lean years for the HBCUs in Mississippi, waiting for a verdict in Ayers.  Jackson can't go thirty years without reliable drinking water.  There won't be anybody left living in the city to rebuild the infrastructure for.  

I don't know the answer.  Racial inequity in the handling of federal funds has to be addressed.  But my city is dying, and while this may help Jackson in the long run, if the long run is thirty years, I very worried about the short run.  Ayers had a very liberal Supreme Court tipping the scale in the plaintiff's favor.  That situation no longer exists.  

Jake Ayers died in 1986.  The Ayers suit didn't close until 2004.  I don't want Jackson to be dead when the water treatment suit finally settles.  

Sunday, October 16, 2022

Men Without Faith

When considering the issue of crime in Jackson and other areas, a lot of people see a lot of things; what I see are young men who don't believe the American dream applies to them, so they take what they can get.  They may not believe they can work hard, obey the rules, and get anywhere in life, but they know they can be a thug and get an iPhone and maybe some gold chains, and it becomes a bird in the hand situation.

Doing the work and making the dream happen is on them, but this country spent generations making sure the American Dream didn't apply to people like them, so now it's our job to somehow make sure they believe things are different.  Making them believe is on us.  Reparations and transfer socialism won't solve anything long term.  If you can't change a man's heart, you won't change anything.  

I'm probably the worst person to be talking about this.  I had every advantage in the world, but I still didn't believe in myself or in the system.  That doesn't mean I'm giving up.  Having been there myself, I know men can change.  A young man can be the most powerful creative force in the world if he believes.  He can be the most destructive if he does not.  

There's nowhere you can run from this.  There's no suburb you can move to, there's no gated community you can hide behind, America is split in two, and one half doesn't believe there's any hope and doesn't believe in themselves or us, the other half believes they can outrun the problem, and it'll go away, so they move further and further away from their home.

The answer to me is quite clear.  We can only take these two broken halves and somehow meld them together.  I don't exactly know how to do that.  I wish I did.  I know they will have to give up a bit of their culture, and we'll have to give up a bit of ours, and together we'll have to forge a new culture, a new history, and a new future.  Two broken cultures must become one whole one.

I hate having this conversation because it always comes out as the same bullshit people have been trying to sell us since the sixties, and however we've been trying to make it happen, it obviously hasn't been working.  I do, though.  I do.  I do.  I do believe.  I just don't know how to do it. 
It is the only way.  I know that.  I don't want to leave this problem to my grandchildren or great-grandchildren or great-great-grandchildren like it was left to me.  

Saturday, October 15, 2022

The World Trees and Vacation Bible School

Before my mother produced a girl-child and we ran out of bedrooms, we lived in a nice little house on Northside Drive.  My mother's childhood friend Betty Wright lived around the corner.  When I was a teenager, she was instrumental in apprising my mother of my adventures and making sure I survived them.  Behind our house was Martha Hammond.  The woman who made me want to read, even though I couldn't.  She was dear enough to me that she became simply "Hammond," not Mrs. Hammond or any other method we're taught to address grown-ups.  Being a stutterer, I sometimes had trouble saying anything at all, so adding supernumerous words like "Mrs" sometimes meant I stayed silent.

My mother's firstborn and Lee Hammond had access to and helped build a treehouse.  Getting up to the treehouse meant reaching and stepping on two boards nailed to the trunk of the tree, then to a limb, then into the forest green painted house.  My brother and my other brother, and Lee Hammond, gained access to the treehouse and moved about it as I imagined monkeys might be in the wild.  Being too small, I couldn't reach that first board nailed into the tree.  Without that first step, all the other steps were irrelevant.  Life in the trees was not meant for me.  Not yet.  The message was clear, though.  Trees meant vantage and perspective.  Trees meant fun, but most of all, trees meant freedom.

Because our house had no more room for another child's bed (and a girl's bed at that), my father bought two acres from Mayor Speed in an area that became known as Eastover.  The recent death of my uncle meant that I would take his name, and my father got a pretty serious promotion to replace him.  It meant the family would have more money.  It also meant that for the next thirty years, I had to be clever if I wanted to spend any time with my father.  He made an attempt to be my companion at Indian Guide's meetings, but I was sent to Indian Guides fatherless often enough that I would start refusing to go.  

Eventually, I would gain the favor of Charlie Deaton and Robert Wingate by learning to fish, which meant my father could take me fishing with them.  I also learned the names and committee assignments of every Mississippi House of Representatives and Senate member and learned to mix drinks.  One made me interesting, and the other made me useful.  Knowing how to fish and clean fish gave me the potential to be both interesting and useful, but only Ross Bass could cook them properly.   It was a sound strategy.  I told you I had to be clever.

Behind our new house, Warren and Elsie Hood bought about a twenty-five-acre lot.  They built a house and manicured about three acres of this lot; the rest they left Mississippi wilderness.  That he earned the money for this purchase with Mississippi timber made it a logical choice.  Warren Hood was a gentle, sometimes quiet creature.  You wouldn't suspect him as the kind of man who rode a helicopter to work.  He would eventually give up the practice.  Too loud and too expensive, he complained.  I believe he kept the helicopter to inspect timber properties, but I don't think he rode it very often.  

Elsie Hood was a powerful country girl with square hips and strong shoulders.  She had kind eyes and a mind like a steel trap.  Eventually, she would acquire a major stake in Mississippi's largest bank and would be instrumental in its sale.  In the sale, the foreign investors (from outside of Mississippi) promised her to keep on the majority of the bank's employees.  A promise they didn't keep.  Elsie took a special interest in my sister and Lee Kroeze, our neighbor.  Sometimes Mrs. Hood had tea parties for the girls and had an interest in them all their lives.  She was there the day we buried Lee before she had the chance to pick a college.  I don't like to talk about that very much.

Sometimes, Mrs. Hood would catch me adventuring in her woods.  

"Hue! Boyd!  What'ya doin'?"

"Jes climbing trees.  I saw a snake over yonder."

"Did ya kill it?"

"No'm.  It were just a king snake."  

Then she'd leave me to my wanderings.  In the middle of the Hood's Woods was a wild southern live oak.  Domestic live oaks were planted generations before and meant your family had been part of Mississippi stretching back to the civil war days.  Their limbs were carefully trimmed and sometimes braced to create the most impressive possible display.  A wild live oak was something different.  It was dark and sinuous.  Some limbs were steady as stone, while others lured you out on them, only to crack and give way if you ventured out far enough.  Fortunately, I was young enough to take a pretty good fall without much event. 

This was Yggdrasil, my world tree.  Adventuring into its limbs made my own young limbs stronger.  It gave me perspective and vantage and fueled my budding imagination.  At its base was Nidhogg, the dragon that chewed at the roots of your resolve and reputation.  Nidhogg would follow for the rest of my life.  We did battle many times in my efforts to find another world tree.

Soon, I was old enough to attend Vacation Bible School.  In those days, what would become known as VBS was held at the McRae farm.  Each class would meet under a different live oak tree for crafts and singing, and fellowship.  Fellowship meant playing with other kids, which was hard for me to do because I stuttered.  At school, I learned that if I said something inappropriate, the other kids would laugh, so it didn't matter if sometimes I couldn't get my words out the way I wanted.  Sunday school was different, though.  That was the domain of my mother, and my grandmother and I had to behave, so I was usually just quiet.  

Vacation Bible School was run by the same people who ran our Sunday School, which were usually mothers of somebody or another, and they were assisted by the members of the United Methodist Youth Fellowship, which meant teenagers and included such notable persons as George Patton, Bill, and Gail Gober and more.  They wore blue jeans and played guitars, and generally ignored us, spending their time together trying to figure out the rules on the young end of the teenage experience.  Soon, they'd be on the far end of the teenage adventure and going off to college and I began my own teenage matriculation.

The live oak trees at the McRae farm weren't like the wild Yggdrasil of Mrs. Hood's Woods.  They were trim and tame, and their limbs were decorated with scampering young methodists learning songs about Jesus.  Unable to speak properly, I was mostly quiet and sought out the higher branches, where I could watch the others learn.  This wasn't my world tree, but it was a good one and a place to grow.

I hadn't yet made the connection that the McRaes who sat near my grandparents at church were the same people that owned the store where my mother bought my clothes.  We shopped in the "husky" section, which was a polite word for fat.   I struggled with fat most of my life.  For a while, fat thought it had me beat, and soon the referee would count me out, but in the last seconds, I pulled a surprise move and vanquished fat forever.  I risked my life in the process, but I wasn't going to die that way.

I would always find a tree to climb in.  They were my refuge and my cave of wonders.  In college, there were two live oak trees beside the KA house and a massive one in front of the Chi-O house.  Many times would find me in their limbs.  Sometimes nobody knew I was there, which was perfect.  I'd been given therapy for my speech impediment, so by college, it was much better, but there were still times when my words wouldn't come out right or wouldn't start at all.  Even now, if you see me quiet, I might be thinking, I might be bored, I might be sleeping, or I might just be frustrated that my words won't come out, so I shut my mouth and let it have a temporary victory.

In college, I met a willowy beauty who was a friend of my sister's.  Her speech patterns matched my own.  Speaking together triggered the speech impediment for each of us, so, of course, we became friends, even if our conversations were unintelligible to others.


".....H.Hey Laryn!"

"Have you s.s.s.een your s.s.sister?"

She would eventually marry a young man who had already impressed me before he met her.  I think of them often.  Sometimes the trees I found refuge in were people.  Eventually, I made a kind of peace with my voice and the trees and the dragons chewing at their roots.  

The last time I drove through my old neighborhood, I noticed somebody had cut down my Yggdrasil and built a house there.  You truly can never go home again.  The tree lives in me, though.  Its roots and limbs are tendrils connecting me to the people and places, and events of history.  The world tree is time itself, and the dragon chewing at its roots, my own mortality.  One day the dragon will win and take me like it took my father, and his father, and his father.  Wherever it takes me, I know I'll have friends; and maybe I'll be able to speak freely.    

Friday, October 14, 2022

The Potato Queens Were Pretty Sweet Actually

 I joined the first St. Patrick's Day Parade because Inez said I could.  You'd be surprised how many of my stories start that way.  She was Merlin, and I was Wart in the peculiar Camelot of Millsaps in the 80s.  At nineteen, I wore a suit to work because I was trying to impress upon my father and grandfather that I could make something of myself, despite myself.  

I didn't change clothes after work because I was in a bad mood.  The plan was to buy twelve beers, kept cold in the ice chest in my trunk that had been there since the ninth grade, for just this purpose, get an Inez Burger and Cheese Fries to go and drink myself into oblivion, listening to U2 on the porch of the KA house.  I was in a bad mood because a pretty blonde girl, with a french name, from the delta told me we couldn't do again what we had done before because her heart belonged to another, and she wanted to be free in case he noticed her.  While I respected her position, I was in a sour mood because I was tired of being confused by women, but burgers and beer and music were never confusing, so I had my agenda set.

Only, when I got to CS's to place my order, it was already packed.  Packed by an unusual crowd and surrounded by cars and trucks and convertibles, who weren't parked, but in line for something.  

"It's a parade, baby.  Get in!"

That's all the invitation I needed.  I suspect Inez meant for me to get in one of the convertibles or pickup trucks lined up for the parade.  I had other ideas.  "Boyd's in the tree, again."  Was a pretty common phrase in those days.  Something about alcohol (and similar devices) inspired a desire in me to rise above the common man, usually by way of a tree, a wall, or a ladder.  It may have been related to my watching King Kong over 100 times by then, but it more likely began with the massive magnolia tree in front of my Bubba's house on St Ann Street.  Sometimes I would take a co-conspirator with me.  William Douglass Mann was the perfect companion on these missions, but he wasn't there that day.

Not having many actual floats or other parade accouterments, Malcolm and Pat arranged for two or three beer delivery trucks to be in the parade.  I'm not sure why they don't have beer delivery trucks in every parade.  It seems like a natural choice.  Inez wanted me to get in one of the convertibles, but I noticed the nice wide, flat roof of the beer truck, then I noticed that its bumper led to some nicely arranged footholds leading to the roof.  I knew what I had to do.

The Roof!  Despite wearing my Allen Edmonds oxfords and my navy, chalk-striped suit, I made short work of ascending the back of the beer truck, and I did it holding a Budwiser long-neck.  Beat that, King Kong.

"Boyd!" My friend Bonehead shouted from below.  "How did you get up there?"  I pointed to the rear bumper, and soon there were two.  "Boyd!"  It was my brother this time.  Somehow he had gotten prior word of the parade and wore appropriate green attire.  I pointed to the bumper, and then there were three.

Whoever designed beer trucks knew that streetlights and powerlines hung at a certain height above the street, and they had to design their trucks to go safely under them.  What they didn't account for was three drunk boys standing on top of the truck.  Fortunately, my brother was alert enough to shout "Duck" in time to prevent Bonehead or me from getting our heads knocked off by a street light as the parade got underway.

A few cars ahead of us were a bunch of girls I knew dressed as floozies, throwing what looked like actual sweet potatoes to the crowd on the sidewalk watching our spectacle.  They would soon realize that throwing quarter-pound sweet potatoes out of a moving car into an unsuspecting audience might carry some danger and liability, so actual sweet potatoes didn't make another appearance in what would become the yearly St. Patricks Day parade.  

The Sweet Potato Queens were always fascinating to me.  In any other capitol city, they would have become an icon of the gay and drag culture, but in Jackson, Mississippi, they became a model for girls on the rubicon of turning thirty, who were Sorority girls and Debutantes, and trying not to become their mother, while becoming their mother.  Having known some of their actual mothers, that wouldn't have been such a bad thing, but these women wanted to have a more unique experience in our culture.  

Some of them were actually the older sisters of boys I knew.  I recognized them from CS's, Poets, Cherokee, and Scrooge's, which pretty much summed up the under-forty social world of Jackson at the time, unless you were wearing cowboy boots.  In those days, there wasn't that much to offer young women besides the Junior League, The Garden Club, and motherhood.  Most of these girls would go on to participate in each of these roles, but every one of them would also make their mark in some new and unusual way that enriched Mississippi and Jackson.  I cannot think of one I do not love and admire.

In the years that followed, I would design and build and paint many St. Paddy's day floats, whether I rode in them or not.  Even in my years in self-prescribed exile, I watched the parade from my window, remembering the parades of the past.  It's not often you get to witness the birth of a cultural touchstone, but I was there the day the Sweet Potato Queens stepped out into the world.  

The parade ended at the parking lot by George Street Grocery.  Having not planned to be in the parade, we hadn't arranged for a ride home, so Bonehead, my Brother, and I hoofed it back down West Street to Millsaps, despite our less-than-sober condition.    "That was cool!  Let's do it again!" And we did.

Thursday, October 13, 2022

I Followed the Moonshadow

"Teaser, I have an idea."

"Yes, Firecat?"

"I want you to give up your plow, your land, and even your hands."

"I don't understand, Firecat."

"Then, I want you to give up your eyes, your legs, and your mouth."

"I don't understand, Firecat; what will this get me?"

"If you do these things, then you won't have to work, or cry, or walk, or even to talk no more."

"What sort of man will I be if I cannot work or walk or talk or cry?"

"You can do these things now, Teaser.  Are you happy?"

"No.  I am very unhappy, Firecat."

"You are my closest companion.  Come with me, child, and we will follow the moon's shadow and leave all these things behind."

And so, I gave up my work, my hands, my legs, my eyes, and my mouth, and I followed Firecat and the shadow of the moon.  We went further and further into the wood of forgets, trying to be happy.

One day, I woke and knew that I couldn't work, I couldn't walk, I couldn't talk, and I couldn't see.

"Firecat!  I have to go back!  This is death!"

"The carpenter's son said, if you go back now, your father will have a feast and serve the fatted calf and welcome you as his lost lamb."

"I don't want a feast.  I don't want a fatted calf.  I just want to be in the world again."  I said.

"I know, child."

"I would like to see my father again, though."

"I know, child."

"Are you my father, Firecat?"

"I am your friend."

"I'm leaving now, Firecat.  I'm going into the world again--Will you go with me?"

"I'm always with you, Teaser.  I've never left you."

"What will people say--when I find the world again?"

"They will say Welcome Home, Teaser.  You are our lamb."

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Working For My Dad

Sometimes people wonder how I could have screwed up working for my dad.  That seems like such an easy and obvious gig.  My job for my dad was to find and hire and work with very talented people to do very creative things and pay them to do these things for Missco.  That was my job, and I was paid well.

That my dad gave me that job told me he was trying pretty hard to hear when I talked about what I wanted from life but that I might be doing a pretty crappy job of explaining what I meant.  I knew what I wanted to say.  Even in those days, words were my weapons, but I felt like I needed to keep that hidden.  It made me too different. 

I was meeting and working with people who knew and understood all the things that were important to me in life, and I was spending a great deal of time with them, but I was getting more and more lonely because I was a bird paying other creatures to fly for me.  I used a twelve thousand dollar computer to arrange and organize and execute other people's work, and occasionally use chatrooms to try and find people who understood me.  

My dad loved me and thought he was offering me a way to be happy, but whatever gifts God gave me were dying from the inside out, and I didn't know how to make it stop.  I was in trouble and I knew it.  He did too.  

"What are we gonna do buddy?" he would ask.

"I don't know pop.  I really don't."

My other problem was that I inherited a trait from Jim Campbell that whenever I heard the cries of anything or anyone in trouble, I'd jump in with both feet to fix it, acting like I was more invincible than Superman.  That I wasn't actually invincible was immaterial.  This was the Campbell way.

The problem is that, when you're twenty-five, there are a lot of people with a lot of problems you can't do a goddamn thing about.  Whatever time, money, or effort I was spending was immaterial because what I wanted to accomplish wasn't happening.  I was failing over and over at something that was very important to me.  To make matters worse, in the eighties and nineties, these voices of people in pain were often ladies, and as a Kappa Alpha, I had literally sworn to protect them with my life just a few years before.  Most were sincere and genuine, nearly all, but there were a rare few who saw this as an opportunity, one I felt like I had no right to deny them.  I felt like companionship wasn't meant for me.  I was a different sort of creature.  Those were difficult days.

I ended up in a situation where many people knew about me, my picture was in the paper, and my name was in print, just everywhere, and I was invited to everything, but there were maybe five people who knew anything about me, and even if they didn't understand why, they knew I was in trouble and sinking fast.  When Dad died, and the control of Missco went berserk, I felt really bad because I knew this was my escape plan.  

Escaping from Missco meant I had to spend a few years in the belly of the whale and a few years wandering the desert after that.   Seeking out wise men, I found Brent Lefavor, who became my Chiron, and he taught me I could slowly break away the plaster covering my own wings.  Now, I'm old, but I'm free, and I CAN FLY.  

Thursday, October 6, 2022

What Happened To My First Three Books

 When "The Secret History" came out in 1992, I read it.  Then, I threw out about a dozen 3M 3.5-inch data disks containing three books I'd been working on for about ten years.  Tartt's work was so clear, powerful, and self-assured that I felt there was no point in trying to make anything of the confused assembled scribbles I was working on.  

I was already a little nervous about Beth Henly being from Jackson and just eleven years older than I was.  Tartt was six months younger than me and from a house just a few streets over from my cousin Robert in Greenwood.  Did the world really want to hear from an over-privileged white boy of my generation when there were so much clearer and more interesting voices to choose from?  Then "The Help" came out from Kathryn Stockett, who's just six years younger than me and from the same neighborhood.  I'd visited her Grandfather often, who mainly only wanted to talk about my namesake, who was his peer.  

After that, this writing thing, I figured, just wasn't for me.  I was surrounded by it.  It was in the air I breathed, but they were so good, and I was barely able to read books with chapters before I was thirteen, and even now, without computers, it's very difficult for me to put a sentence together properly.  

The creative process, I learned, was wrought with self-doubt.  If it's not, you're probably an asshole, and eventually, it will show in your work.  Comparing my work to others isn't fruitful or helpful.  My goal is not to compete with someone else's work but to get these ideas in my head down on paper so they'll leave me alone.  

The ideas I was working on when I threw those disks away are still inside me.  They probably will be until I make something of them.  I don't feel like anything was lost.  I just had a tantrum because I was scared.  That happens sometimes.  It happens to me a lot.  I'm learning that if I tell people I'm working on something, I can't destroy it in secret when I have moments of self-doubt or frustration that my vision hasn't focused itself yet.  It's a little trick to keep me disciplined and hopefully prompt me to keep moving forward, even when the doubts start to creep in.

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Mississippi Women Are More Durable Than I

Everyone called her Babe.  I'm not going to tell you her real name.  I didn't know it myself until her funeral, and I don't remember anyone ever using it.  She was a Brady girl.  Politely called a "maiden aunt" in Mississippi parlance because she was never married, Babe was one of my favorite people in the world.  

Because my uncle became the Boyd Campbell you've heard about, most people in my life told stories about the Campbells and the Boyds up in Attalah county, but I was equally and sometimes more interested in my Mother's family, the Bradys of Learned Mississippi, in Hinds County.

That my Grandmother and her sisters loved me was never in question, but learning to drive increased my utility where they were concerned considerably because they could not.  Having my own car, no matter how old, changed everything in my life and theirs.

"Can you take me and Babe and Edith to lunch at Primos?  I'll buy you a hamburga."  I'm not sure why "hamburger" had no R, but it was common for people of my grandmother's generation.  My grandmother was "Sistah," but we called her "Nanny." Babe was "Babe."  I'm not sure why Edith wasn't assigned a sobriquet.  She was generally considered the more fancy of the three, mainly by the other two.  

My cousin Robert set his mother Edith up in a nice apartment over by Parham Bridges' Park, where I had swimming privileges any time I wanted and was told some pretty girls lived there, but I never saw any.  Nanny lived with us, so she sat in the front seat with me driving the Ford LTD, and we picked up Edith and headed to Babe's.

Babe lived in a duplex apartment behind the laundry on North State Street, what we now call Fondren.  You could tell it had once been a pretty fine home, but at some point, an owner converted it into a duplex, and it was becoming a bit threadbare.  One advantage of a home that old was that the Oak and Magnolia trees in the yard were enormous and mature.  

Once at Babe's apartment, I was asked to move the refrigerator and stove so they could sweep under them, hang two pictures, replace four light bulbs, tack down the carpet in the hall and move some of her livingroom furniture so she could navigate her home with a little more ease.  Besides me having the ability to drive, which none of the three had, it was becoming clear that this adventure had the primary purpose of getting me to help maintain Babe's apartment.  There were advantages to having a nephew with shoulders like mine.  I didn't mind.  Being useful made me feel safe and wanted.  For a shy kid, these are pretty important qualities.  Besides, I loved Babe and would have done anything for her.

With my chores accomplished, it was time for "hamburgahs", so I drove the three sisters north down highway fifty-one to what was then known as the new Primos, but hasn't been called Primos at all in a while now.  Lunch was pleasant.  I told about football, my classes, books I've read and when asked about girls, I had nothing to report, other than that the girls I knew were all very nice and polite, every one.  

Never married, Babe's career was babysitting children, which didn't make very much money, so her sisters made sure she was cared for, which nobody minded because they loved Babe.  I did too.  When I was an infant, she accidentally poked me with a diaper pin, which traumatized her, even when I was sixteen, and had no memory of it besides her telling me about it.  

Dropping Babe off at her place, I headed toward Edith's apartment to drop her off.  I'm not sure why they picked me, but there were times when Edith and Nanny had me alone; they would burden me with family secrets.  A lot of it, I thought, was more like gossip, but some of it was pretty tangible and difficult to hear.  The Brady clan endured some pretty rough times, quite a contrast to my generation.

"Babe sometimes doesn't like to drive with men alone.  When she was thirteen, a man took her on a buggy ride and didn't bring her home."

I was stunned.  It took a moment for my brain to work out what my Nanny was suggesting.

"Pappa and Uncle Joe went to see him and straighten it out,"  Edith added.

Sometimes my brain doesn't know what to do, so the wheels just spin, and I don't say anything.  I didn't say much else after that.  Sensing I didn't want to talk anymore, Edith and Nanny discussed what they saw in people's yards and how it compared to the yards in 1937 until the car trip was over.   

Back home, I went to my room to draw and listen to music.  After supper, when momma had the kitchen to herself, I asked her:

"Did Babe get...Was Babe molested?"

"Something like that."  She said.

"She was just thirteen?"

"Something like that." She said again.

"Pappa was my great grandfather?  What did he and Uncle Joe do?"

"I don't really know.  I never asked.  Handling it their way was better than going through the sheriff they thought."  

I had images of them beating, maybe even lynching the man with the buggy.  I'm almost sixty years old and don't know the full story of what happened and probably never will.  Whatever it was, they saw it as better than going through the sheriff.  I suppose that saved Babe from having to say what happened in court or really ever mention it again.  I doubt if she ever knew I knew.

"Babe's so gentle and sweet.  I can't imagine anything like this ever happening to her."  I said.

"Bad things happen to good people.  You pull together, and you get through it.  Babe's family made sure she was taken care of and had a good life, even though her life ended up being different from her sisters." Mother said.  "I don't know why they told you."  She looked annoyed.

My broad shoulders and ability to move heavy things maybe made my grandmother believe I was stronger than I was and could bear more burdens than perhaps I really could.  I've wept many times over what happened to my Aunt Babe.  Writing about it makes me weep now.  Writing often does.  

Learned Mississippi bred some pretty durable women.  They were little old ladies by the time I knew them, but their stories betray a strength under the powder and lace.  They had a history very different than mine.  It taught me a lesson, though.  Weak doesn't mean weak.  Frail might be strong if you stick together, and pain doesn't matter if you endure.

In three weeks, Aunt Babe would be one hundred twenty-seven years old.  She was born on Halloween.  She survived the end of reconstruction, the beginning and the end of the depression, World Wars one and two, Korea, Viet Nam, the Spanish Flu, Cholera, osteoporosis, Theodore Bilbo, Ross Barnett, Richard Nixon, and a man with a buggy.  She held me as a child and changed my diapers and fed me, and read to me when I couldn't read for myself.  She survived without ever giving you a hint of how much of a survivor she really was.  Knowing her helped make me what I am.


Sunday, October 2, 2022

Breakfast at Millsaps

From the day I was born until the day he died, my dad was intimately involved in the Millsaps College board.  In retrospect, he was probably too young for the responsibilities given him.  He paid a price for it, and so did we kids, but that was a different time, and he felt a genuine calling for it.

Of Millsaps College presidents, I heard about Ellis Finger my entire life (and still do), but I don't remember meeting him.  If I had, I would have been in diapers.  Dr. Graves, I only know by name.  He wasn't there very long, and I don't recall ever meeting him.  Again, I would have been pretty small.  

The president I remember the most in my youth was Eddie Collins.  He and my dad were about the same age, and his kids were about the same age as my brothers and me.  My most constant playmate and classmate was his son, John.  John had similar but less intense learning problems than I had.  That was something we shared, although most of our classmates knew nothing of it.  

Besides Millsaps, Dr. Collins and my dad had a lot of similar interests, so they became close friends.  When my parents had dinner parties, Mr. and Mrs. Collins were there.  Johnny Gore had me running drinks to the grown-ups I knew and breaking up ice bags for him.  

There came a time when the school wasn't doing so well.  In fact, we were in trouble.  The board decided to replace Dr. Collins, and the job fell on my dad to tell him.  It couldn't have been a pleasant task.  We never discussed it, but I never again saw him socialize with somebody he might have to fire one day.  

I don't remember any of their names, but I know there was a parade of guys vying for the open spot at the top of Millsaps.  From early on, George Harmon distinguished himself.  He had an idea to develop a program modeled on the Harvard Business school that would give Millsaps something to offer that no other school in the state offered.   I'm sure, at the time, the idea sounded audacious.  Millsaps, even then, called itself "the Harvard of the South," but everybody knew that was a reach.  Trying to actually do something Harvard was already doing was quite a stretch.  

Now, some forty-five years later, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that every college in Mississippi would eventually copy the success of the Else School of Management.  Just the other day, someone asked me why Millsaps was trying to imitate Belhaven's business school.  I thought, "Brother, you got it all backward."

I don't know if I'd say this if he was still alive, but George Harmon was known for two things: being short and being stone-faced.  I'm not gonna lie.  Just a few inches taller than my Mom, George was pretty short.  He was also one of the best athletes I ever knew.  We both used the Downtown YMCA, and except for a few larger muscle group exercises like squat and deadlift, he could outdo me at just about every exercise.  I used to watch him play handball.  He'd invited me to play with him a few times, but I wasn't that dumb.  He regularly buried men half his age, to the point where it got kind of difficult for him to find somebody to play with.  

As to being stone-faced, he socialized differently from most folks.  Because nobody got up that early, most students never knew that Dr. Harmon ate breakfast every day in the cafeteria at the biggest round table, he could find in hopes that students would come to sit with him, which they almost never did.  

I tried to eat with him fairly regularly because I genuinely liked him and because the KA table was pretty much a ghost town in the morning.  Conversations with Dr. Harmon were pretty formulaic.  "How's your momma?"  "She's fine." In those days, her health almost never changed.  "Where's your daddy?"  "He's in Washington on Chamber business."  "Where's he eat when he goes there?"  "There's a little greek place across the street from The Madison, where he stays."  Inquiring as to one's relatives is a staple of Southern social interactions.  Despite his reputation for coldness, Dr. Harmon was well-versed in our customs and niceties.  That the answers never changed was immaterial; it was the asking that was important.

He had absolutely no interest in the fraternity life that dominated Millsaps.  He recognized I was involved in it, but that's about it.  Every so often, he'd see somebody and say, "Is he one of yall's?"  "No, sir, he plays baseball.  He's a Sig."  In those days, sports were pretty evenly divided by greek-letter affiliation.  The Pikes dominated soccer, The Sigs baseball, and only football was fairly well divided between the greeks.  Unless you counted sports betting and pool, the KAs never really dominated any sports.

The only student who would regularly join us was David Biggers, who was as tight-lipped as Dr. Harmon.  My pledge trainer, David, was one of my favorite KAs.  He would go to Johns Hopkins after Millsaps.  He was that smart.  Another regular breakfast eater was Jack Woodward.  Deeply involved in both Galloway and Millsaps, I can't really remember a time when Dean Woodward wasn't a part of my life.

Dean Woodward and I had a relationship that transcended business, Millsaps or Galloway.  There were a few times when I knew somebody was in trouble, and I'd sneak him some money to apply to their tuition, with the understanding that he'd keep it a secret, both from the student and from my dad.  Anybody who would help me keep secrets from my Dad, even when I was doing the right thing, was in my good book for life.  

His youngest son, John, was socially involved with my sister and distinguished himself from some of her other boyfriends by actually being likable.  John was there the night my sister's best friend and neighbor died.  One of the worst nights of my young life.  That next week, his dad made an effort to spot me on campus a few times, just to make sure I was alright.  I can't tell you if I was or not.  By that time, I had learned to bury my feeling so deeply nobody knew what they were.  

My dad's last major project at Millsaps was constructing the Olin Science building.  He almost lived to see it open. Not many years after that, both George Harmon and Jack Woodward would retire.  I stayed involved for a while, but the school was beginning to falter again, and I couldn't take it, so eventually, I drifted away.  This wasn't by design or by choice, but I felt like I couldn't do a damn thing to stop what was coming, and a lifetime of self-denial was beginning to make pretty serious cracks in my personal foundations.  Soon, I'd go into hiding, where I stayed for many years.

I'm back now, even though I feel like Rip Van Winkle, and Millsaps is again on the front of my mind.  Whatever adventures they have on deck, I'm in one hundred percent.  I might bring some ghosts with me if they're not already there.  

Official Ted Lasso