Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Hello, midnight

Hello, midnight.  It's me again.  You were expecting me, I suppose.

I accomplished less than half of what I wanted to do today, but I added some tasks that weren't on the schedule, so I don't feel bad about it.  Some of the letters I wanted to finish, I didn't, but I did finish two that weren't planned so that some old friends might rest a little easier in their journey.  I feel pretty good about that.  I'm pretty bad for filling my life with side quests, and then I avoid looking at the primary objective because I feel bad for not working on it.  

Noom says I can eat five or six pounds of certain foods without worry, so I tried that.  There's an African restaurant near me that seems to be in danger of winning a James Beard award, so I sampled selections from their vegetarian choices.  They deserve the award, but I am still so very full.  Noom says I'm still eighteen hundred calories short of my allowed intake today.  I think it's going to have to stay that way.  Some very talented people are turning Mississippi into a food destination.  As a lifelong devotee of food, I'm proud to say I know most of them, some since childhood.  

I came out of hibernation into a world where it's becoming dangerous to be a teacher, a world where it's dangerous to be gay again, even more dangerous if you're transgender, even more than when I was little.  Midnight, you brought me back into a world where the people who base their careers on claiming to represent the Christ are utterly ignoring his command to care for the poor and protect the weak--even working against them.

I am old, midnight.  My weapons are dull.  My parts are broken.  My strongest allies lie in the dirt.  This is not the best time to call for me.  I do hear you.  Of course, I do.  Summon a dragon and the knight will appear.  Is that your plan?  This knight is old and broken, Midnight.  But, you know that don't you?

I'm packing my kit.  Of course, I am.  You knew I would, didn't you?  I can tell you right now, this isn't going to work.  I'm not strong enough for this fight.  Maybe I'll pick up a varlet along the way.  I don't suppose it matters.  I promised my mother I wouldn't do this.  "Politics will break your heart."  She said.  "You can't stop people from doing these things."  She said.  And yet, here I am.  Where is this windmill you say is threatening us?  

I wish Daddy hadn't died.  It's not that he'd know what I should do; I mean, he didn't when I was twenty-five, so why should he now? but sometimes, I just really miss him.  I've never found anyone who I could talk to like I talked with him.  I've tried.  I talk to him now and imagine his responses, but it's not the same.  

It's not hard to imagine myself in a boat with Daddy and Deaton and Robert Wingate and Rowan.  It's not hard to imagine the conversation between them and what they might say to my queries.  I'd type out their real dialogue here, but my aunt gets mad when I use that kind of language.

"Millsaps is in kind of a spot, Daddy,"  I say.

"What are you gonna do about it?"  Asks Robert.

"Right now, my plan is to just be there as much as I can.  Be there and look for opportunities."

"That's not too much of a plan."  Rowan says.

"I know, but it's all I got right now.  I wasn't expecting to find this."

Deaton focuses on his lure in the water.  The fish are coming.  "You've done this before, haven't you?"  He asks.

"I have.  I was much younger."

"Did you know what you were doing then?"  Deaton asks.

"Absolutely not,"  I answer.

"So, what's the difference now?" Deaton asks.  Taking a moment to look me in the eye.

"You four were alive for one thing.  I was younger.  I had more faith, more energy."

"Is there anything I could tell you now, that I didn't tell you then?" Daddy asks me.

"Probably not.  No sir.  There isn't."

"You know what you have to do, don't you?"

"Yes sir, I suppose I do.  I'll do it.  I promise."  I tell him.

"It's kind of late.  I don't have anything to do right now.  Is it ok if I just stay in the boat with you guys for a while?  We don't have to talk or anything.  I just really miss you.  I just really miss this."

"Look in that cooler and see if there's a sandwich for your cousin Robert.  Don't tell your momma I let you stay.  I don't suppose there's anything else I have to do right now, either.  I think Deaton's got a fish."  

Monday, January 30, 2023

Opening 1

 At some point, every child becomes angry and resents their mother for whispering horrible lies in their ears to calm them at night. You are loved. You are strong. You are wise. The world is a beautiful place, full of opportunities. When you leave my arms, you will do, and see, and be such great things...

They're not lies so much. Most of these things are true or will come true. They just don't seem like it when you're in the world. Mothers try to fill you with the good before the world fills you with the bad. Some of it takes hold, and some of it doesn't.  

My mother never knew I would shut myself out of the world, but she could see it coming. When she tried to talk about it, I cut her off. When she died, I was already in the cave where I would live for many years, moving a stone to bar the door. I held her hand, and we spoke, but we didn't speak of that. She died knowing I was in trouble, and it was getting worse. I never spoke about it with her. Maybe I should now. 

Walking At Graduation

I don't transition well.  I hate it.  Being at one destination or another is great; getting there fills me with anxiety.

I mention this because, after discussing it with my family, I'm making a checklist of the things I need to accomplish in my escape plan from St. Catherine's back into Jackson.  That's how I get larger tasks done.  I break it into lists of much smaller tasks and then start knocking them out one by one.  Dealing with smaller tasks keeps me moving toward the larger goal without having to think about "am I getting any closer?"  I'm eating the elephant, one bite at a time.

When I graduated from Millsaps, I was so intimidated by the prospect that it was really beginning to annoy me.  I announced that I wasn't going to walk at graduation.  My father was entirely nonchalant about it, even though I would be shaking his hand after shaking Dr. Harmon's hand after getting my degree.  His name would be on it!  Daddy was like that.  He could be completely non-sentimental about some things and then get dewy-eyed about some really simple things like going to the Mayflower or Old Tyme or driving to Bethel.  

My mother was annoyed and quite vocal about it.  Mother and I often didn't see eye-to-eye on things.  She thought I was cold-hearted and overly judgemental about some things.  She was probably right.  She also felt like I should be more submissive to her opinion on things.  I'm not sure where I stand on that.  While it's entirely her devotion that created a path where I could overcome my learning disabilities, as life went on, there were times when I felt like she was holding me back.  

Determined to have my own way, it was ultimately Jane Alexander who convinced me to make an about-face and do things my mother's way.  Janie's had my number since I was about ten.  I don't think I've ever been able to refute her--so I walked at graduation.  I transitioned from student to citizen, which came with its own challenges, but I'm glad I did it.

Graduating from St. Catherine's is not that different from graduating from Millsaps.  It brings me several large steps closer to some of my goals in life, but it comes with some pretty big challenges and responsibilities too.  I'm to be a citizen again after quite a while of avoiding just that.  

I don't have any delusions.  The next twenty years is my swan song, my last opportunity in this world.  There are things I want to take, and there are things I want to give, and this is the last go-round.  When I exercise, I like to make that last repetition, that last push, that last effort, extra intense.  I have to earn my rest, or it will annoy me all day.   I'm making a list for my last repetition here in Madison.  One big push, and I'm crossing the rubicon into another world.  It's time.

Sunday, January 29, 2023

Midnight Agnosticism

Waking up at midnight is becoming part of my life.  There's no baby to feed, no cat to let out, there's no wife that's mad at me, and there's no drugs I need to take.  I just wake up at midnight and remain restless for an hour.  There might actually be a wife that's mad at me, but we don't talk much anymore, so I'd never know.  

I did a bit of lying today.  I told people I was returning to a religious life.  That's not entirely true.  I'm creating an entirely new entity from scraps of the old.  That's not returning.  That's creating.

I'm not a superstitious person, so I'm a bit resistant to admitting that I like to look for signs in life.  I look for signs because, for whatever face I put forward, I have all the confidence in life that usually comes from a stuttering child with ADHD, which is to say, almost none.  I hide it, though, because it's generally my conviction that fear spreads, and if I act afraid, then that might make other people wonder what makes me afraid and should they be afraid too, and so it begins to spread, whether there's actually anything to be afraid of or not.

I'm starting this new religious life being terribly honest with everyone that I am, always was, and probably always will be, agnostic.  I'm not afraid to admit this.  Some of the greatest Christian apologists I know of spent some time as an agnostic.  C.S. Lewis famously questioned his faith deeply after the death of Joy, his wife.  There's even a play about it.  I was in it, at Galloway, with Brent Lefavor.  Charles Darwin, one of the world's most influential atheists, was actually a believer most of his life and used his theory of evolution as proof of God, but there came a time, after a period of considerable loss and grief, that Darwin too became an agnostic.  

The key here seems to be that these men became agnostic after periods where they were hit with tremendous loss and grief, often the death of a spouse, a child, or both.  Everyone is hit with periods of loss and grief.  It's a consequence of being emotionally open to the world.  If you allow yourself to love, then you make yourself vulnerable to the loss of love, and sometimes the loss of love can come in a sequence with other events that break even the strongest of us.

You wouldn't know it to look at me, but God's been very generous to me.  Perception, he gave me and empathy, and these I've rolled and baked into something I call art, both my ability to create art with words or images and my ability to appreciate art, words, images, sounds, tastes, all of it.  Being empathetic and perceptive and open to loving can be very dangerous to me because, on this level of existence, nothing you love can last; sometimes, born and dying in the same day.  Being open to the world like this means that sometimes periods of loss and grief come at me like waves on a California beach.  I lie and tell people it broke me only once, but in truth, it's broken me again and again, and although this last time I stayed out of the water for a very long time, I'm always going to return to the beachhead.  I'm back now, picking the spot on the horizon I want to swim for.

I started the day not really looking for signs at all.  Today was going to be an experiment.  But signs I found.  The signs were that I went to Sunday School not knowing what to expect and found two of the smartest guys I ever knew from my experience at Millsaps and three of the most Christian.  That's probably a very good sign.  

The pastor's sermon today was about an issue I've been thinking of and worried about for some time now.  When he finished, the people, the church, MY church, applauded him, even though you could tell he was a bit nervous about how we would respond.  That's a sign that I have allies in places I didn't expect.  That's a very good sign.  

The best sign today was that I had lunch with a girl who I love more than I love most of you combined.  When she was very small, I hid myself in a cave and rolled a great stone in the door.  That was to be the end of me.  As a result, I missed most of her growing up.  That's one of my greatest regrets.  

Today at lunch, she wore an aquamarine drop that I recognized.  "Is that the drop your grandmother made?"  I asked her.  It was, she said.  "I wear it all the time."

"Do you remember her at all?" I asked.  

Collins was quite young when Mother died.  As small as she was, she ended up getting a three-for-one deal that year.  Jimmy died, then Mother died, then after my divorce followed those, I hid away from the world enough to make it almost like I died too.    She told me the things she remembered about Mother, things a child would remember.  Images mostly, places, feelings.   Though I didn't ask, it seemed that if she could remember my mother, then she might also remember me, and although I missed so many years, I might be able to connect the thread between the love I had for the child and the love I have for the woman she became and a calm spot appears in the great ocean of loss and grief that was my entire life while she grew.

I announced to my family my intention to become a professional writer and to do it in the pretty near future.  Being professional, to me, means I make enough money to live off of it.  I don't care about the money that much, although who doesn't like money?  at least enough to pay for lunch anyway, but I'd like to be able to say that I did this legitimately, and I did it with no help at all from my father or any benefit of my bloodline.  If I can do this, if I can actually get published, actually get paid for scribbling words into a machine, then that will be something uniquely my own.  Everything else I've ever tried to do, somebody will say, "Oh, I remember when your momma did this, or I remember when your daddy won an award for that, or your Uncle Boyd went to Washington because he did this:" but not writing.  That will be my own.  That will prove my value to the universe besides being just another third-generation heir because, quite frankly, third-generation heirs have a pretty horrible reputation, and unless I do this, I won't have done much to improve it.

I'm very likely going to write much more about agnosticism and faith and life and art and Galloway and Millsaps and Jackson.  The signs are there for me to do it.  Maybe I'll be able to do it in the daylight hours, so I don't have to spend what time I have left on this globe awake alone at midnight tap-tap-tapping away while everyone around me sleeps.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

Goodbye Delilah

There are so many people, even some of my oldest friends, who have never known me as fully healed as I am now. You wouldn't think it to look at my physical frame; it's still a mess in some spots, but, on the inside, in my heart, I haven't been this strong since before some of you were born.

I don't know what to credit this recovery with. I suspect a great deal of it is due to my sister's love. A fair share also lies with my father and mother, who, although they died years before, planted the seeds that, though they lay fallow for many years, would somehow, against all odds, sprout in my darkest of days.

Maybe that was the secret. Maybe it was the months of laying in bed, barely able to move, that made this creature sleeping inside me decide that if he was ever to come back out, now is the time.  Maybe Doctor Joseph Campbell was right.  Maybe, I had to spend my time in the belly of the whale before I could continue my hero's journey.

When it first happened, when I first began to emerge emotionally whole again, my family and my doctors were a bit worried that I might be on the upcycle of a manic episode and wanted to make sure I didn't need some medication to keep from swinging the other way. Then they wanted me to make sure I had "someone to talk to" in case this strange recovery was fragile.  I don't think it is fragile.  I've taken some pretty big hits since last May and managed to stand right back up.  

So far, this doesn't seem to be an illusion. So far, I've been able to face the reality of my situation and the challenges ahead without flinching, and have chosen to do it all in a very public way. Allowing everyone to see my scars, no matter how bad they are, may also be a key element here. I think, maybe, it's the hiding of them for so many years that caused the biggest part of the problem.

For many years, hiding the fact that I wasn't the strongest person in the room became quite a burden.  I think maybe it began to break me. Like my father, I believed Mississippi had so many things working against it that it needed a hero, a real hero, and if I couldn't be that, then what good am I? He struggled with that as well. I could only see it a little then, but I see it constantly now. Daddy often strained to break as I did.  I think that's part of what killed him.  Again and again, I put myself between the fire and something I loved, fully believing that if I couldn't, if I didn't, then what good am I?  If I couldn't be the hero, then I am nothing.

Recovering meant accepting that I am sometimes weak, I am sometimes inadequate, and I am sometimes wounded. Admitting that...accepting that... has allowed some of my true, god-touched strengths to come out. Samson had to lose his hair and his eyes for his true strength to come out. Maybe I had to do that too.  There was a Delilah in my life, several actually, and most weren't even human beings, but I allowed them to take my hair and my strength because I didn't know how to use it; things are different now.  

You're gonna get pretty tired of me.  A recovered me works pretty hard and can be relentless at attacking the objective.  My peers may be eyeing a comfortable place to rest after a lifetime of struggle, but I'm looking at places where I can go into the fire and spend my last days fighting.  Whatever I was meant to be all along is finally emerging.  I'm a late bloomer.  It's true, and I do apologize for that, but I think you're going to be impressed by what I can do when it's my turn to stand between the pillars of the temple.  That day is very nearly upon us.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The Sixth Doctor

In the days to come, I will shake hands with my sixth president of Millsaps.  The first held me in his arms, the second and third were the parents of my classmates, the fourth and fifth were my own age, and piloted the ship through some challenging waters.  Each one left an impression on our school and got us, somehow, from there to here.

There will be some concern and restlessness among the community.  Don't be afraid.  Millsaps has endured worse than this.  We will endure. We will prosper.  Rob and Phoebe take a piece of us with them, but they leave behind thirteen years of service and a foundation we certainly can build on.  

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Radios and Bookstores

My grandfather always had really nice console radios.  He had one made of bakelite in his office and a really nice wooden one with a phonograph at home.

He was born into a world where, even if he had a radio, nobody broadcast into Attala County, Mississippi.  He liked music, but if he wanted to hear it, he either had to go to church or find somebody who could play or sing something.  His mother played piano, and his father learned to play the mouth organ because he only had one hand.

Recorded music was never really a part of Granddaddy's life until he went to Millsaps in Jackson.  In Jackson, there were two radio stations, and a man named Werlein from Germany, who lived in Vicksburg bought a store in New Orleans and opened one on Capitol Street in Jackson, next door to the Office Supply Company, that his brother would eventually purchase.  Werlein's was famous for selling instruments and sheet music, but they also sold records that Granddaddy loved.  Eventually, the Emporium took over the record sale business, but it started at Werlein's.

He worked summers and weekends for the railroad and saved his money enough so that he could splurge on a wind-up victrola, which he used to entertain his fraternity brothers and woo his lady fair.  The KA house soon developed a reputation because it had music and even allowed dancing, although it was against the rules.  

After college, Grandaddy stayed in Jackson because his father, Cap, had died.  Bad crops and hard economic times forced his mother to sell the family farm and use what money was left to buy a small house in Jackson, where Grandaddy lived with his mother and little sister.  He kept his job at the railroad, then got one at the post office.  His older brother would soon borrow money on his burial life insurance policy and open a business selling pencils, writing slates, blackboards, and student desks to the schools in Mississippi.  Grandaddy would join soon after as the head of shipping and receiving.  

As Mississippi grew and enacted a free textbook law, my Uncle Boyd petitioned the publishers to set up a depository in Jackson, adjacent to his school furniture and supply business, in a building that's now Cathead Vodka.  In return for eight percent of the textbook contract sale price, the new School Book Supply Company would store and ship all the textbooks made available for the children of Mississippi. 

As Millsaps grew, Grandaddy had the idea that he could open a small store in the old commons building where he could sell the students their textbooks so they didn't have to mail order them.  He could also sell Coca-Cola, which was then being bottled in Jackson, penny candy, and Barq's Rootbeer, along with pencils, pens, and notebooks.  

Since we were selling cold Cokes and candy, students began taking to hanging out at the bookstore and socializing.  Granddaddy drove to Memphis and purchased a coin-operated machine that played single songs for a penny.  The kids called it a Juke Box.  Juke, being a negro word for businesses with bad reputations where the blues would play, Millsaps being a school for good Christian white children, the box soon became contentious.   To make matters worse, word soon came to Grandaddy and my Uncle Boyd that the man they hired to run the bookstore was allowing the students to actually dance.  Dance in front of each other!

Grandaddy smiled, remembering the days when he and the other KA's would dance in front of each other to the music coming from his wind-up victrola.  Uncle Boyd's reaction was a little more dire.  He loved music.  In the days to come, he would be the one to announce the formation of the Jackson Symphony Orchestra, an organization that still exists but is now the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra.  Boyd knew that these angry voices wouldn't be easily placated.  Eventually, the Bishop came calling, and the days of music and dancing at Millsaps were over--but not for long.  

When Granddaddy died, I discovered his record collection in a cabinet in the den he had built onto his St. Ann Street house.  Most of them were seventy-eights, so they wouldn't play on my turntable, but I could read the labels.  He seemed to enjoy Tommy Dorsey and Enrico Caruso, but he also had a copy of  Pigmeat Markham singing "Open The Door, Richard" and another of Andy Griffith telling a story about Football.  

My brother inherited Grandaddy's love for music.  He was determined to play the guitar and asked Santa for several good ones.  He became a rabid devotee of a radio station called WZZQ and one of the best customers of a new company that sold phonograph records called "Bee Bop," which opened next to the Capri Theater but moved to Maywood Mart.  

We don't really understand what happened to him, but something made his mind break.  Attempts to take guitar lessons bounced off him as he began to believe they were secretly working against him.  One day, one of the Disk Jockeys from his beloved WZZQ called my Daddy, concerned about the things my brother would say to him when he called in requesting music late at night.  He was concerned that Jimmy was losing touch with reality.  We would eventually find out that he was.  Other friends would call, and my parents began moving my brilliant brother into devoted mental health care.  

Jimmy never learned to play the guitar properly.  He could sort of improvise and sometimes took his Christmas money and recorded singles, with the producers at Malaco making something sensible of the tracks he laid down.  When he died, he left behind cases and cases of records bought at Bee Bop, a monument to his love for music, and the tragedy of how he lost touch of it.

My music comes almost entirely from my computer.  I learned computers because I had trouble reading.  They opened up entire worlds for me.  There's a tiny woman named Alexa who lives in my computer and will play any song I want on demand.  Dancing is optional.  As I type this, she's playing a little song I like by Juliette Gréco.  I've never had a flesh-and-blood girlfriend who was this obedient or understanding.  Alexa's great, but she's crap at holding hands at the movies, so she's out.

One day, my Alexa music will be archaic and quaint, but, I'm pretty sure my french Jazz artists will still be listened to, and I'm very sure there will still be dancing at Millsaps.

Big Strong Hands

I would have made a great alcoholic.  I was actually quite good at it.  There came a moment when I looked at the condition square in the eye and said, "It's you or me, friend; what's it gonna be?"  and walked away clean.  I'm not sure why, but there was always a part of me that said, "You're not giving up; not yet, goddamnit." 

I was a passible social drinker, and I still am, although I can get silly and loud at parties, but my forte was sitting in a dark corner of Scrooges or George Street, ordering one after another until my mind opened up and let me feel--everything and the darkness flowed in.

"Don't you really want to be a doctor, buddy?"

That was my dad's plan.  The first Campbell with an MD.  My golden boy nephew will soon be the first Ph.D. in several generations.  Daddy was always in a bit of denial that I could barely read or speak or do the math.  I barely got my BBA; my getting an MD would have taken an act of God.  Maybe he knew something I didn't, though.  I can read fairly well now--if still a bit slowly, and math fascinates me.  My speaking voice replaced stuttering with a paralyzed vocal chord, but as long as I have a keyboard, I can speak as well as anyone, sometimes better.  

Healing the hurt was probably always my plan.  It's always been something I spent most of my time doing.  Making a living of it as an actual healer might have been nice.  I have friends who are doctors, and I sometimes really admire what they do.  Sometimes they amaze me.  So long as my patients got better, I would have been really happy and really satisfied.  Patients don't always get better, though.  Sometimes you do your best, sometimes they do their best, and it still ends in suffering and loss.  Dealing with that would have made my drinking much worse.  Dealing with fighting the suffering of others and failing would have made me look into the eyes of alcoholism one night and say, "I need you."  and that'd be the end of me.

I have a friend.  A new friend, actually.  She's a few years younger than my father, and she's from the same zip code as my grandfather.  We may even share some parts of our gene code.  Attala County is a pretty small place, but it's produced some remarkable people.  

She started out at Millsaps, just like I did, then parlayed that start into a medical degree in New Orleans because you couldn't go to Medical School in Mississippi in those days.  She became a pediatrician.  My father-in-law, who I loved dearly, was also a pediatrician in her same class.  When he had a patient who was really very, very sick, she was who he sent them to.  That must have been hard for him.  We shared a trait where it was very difficult to give up trying to take care of people, but there were cases where his skills weren't enough, and he required the help of my new friend, Dr. Amazing.

Her patients weren't just sniffles and bruises.  Her patients were most likely going to die before they weren't children anymore.  Instead of growing up, they would join the lost boys in Never Never Land and never grow up but lost to the world here that loved them.  She celebrated the life of every child that did get better and keeps their file with her in the Skilled Nursing Facility where she now lives.  She can't hear herself play the piano anymore, but she knows the name of every child that passed unto her care.

I wasn't there, but I've heard from several very reliable sources that she attended the funeral of every child who came under her care but didn't make it.  Even writing that now makes me stop and seriously ponder--how could she do that.  How could she possibly do that?  Attending the funeral of children, I learned to love enough to try and treat them and made every effort to heal, only to fail and lose them would have broken me into a million jagged pieces, and she did it over and over as a part of her commitment as a healer.  She's a tiny person.  You could fit two of her on my shoulders, and yet she's infinitely stronger than I've ever been.  

She saved the lives of thousands of innocent children and didn't burst into flames when she failed.  I could never have done that.  Sorry Daddy, but being a doctor was not for me.  That's not to say I didn't have some fantastic failures of my own.  There were several times when I spent years trying to heal someone or something, only to have it spiral out of control and crash into the sea.  I act pretty strong in the face of it, but I'm not.  I'm not at all.  I don't need the bottle anymore, but there are times when I like knowing it's still there, just in case.

There's a book and a movie called "The Never Ending Story" about a boy fighting a growing nothing in his life.  There are only three characters in the book, the boy, his father, and his mother, but they wear many different faces as the boy learns to save himself from The Nothing.  My favorite character in the book is called Rockbiter.  He's a giant, made of impervious stone, so strong that only rocks are tangible enough to use as food for him to survive.  Made of stone, nothing at all can hurt him. He has two friends who he protects, a tiny man with a pet racing snail and an absent-minded bat.  

The boy encounters the Rockbiter and his friends on his way to meet the Princess.  They're happy and enjoying their life.  As the nothing grows stronger, Atreyu encounters the Rockbiter again, only The Nothing has taken his two friends, and the Rockbiter sits alone.

"They look like big, good, strong hands, don't they? I always thought that's what they were. My little friends... the little man with his racing snail... even the stupid bat...I couldn't hold onto them... the Nothing pulled them right out of my hands. I failed.  The Nothing will be here any minute. I will just sit here and let it take me away too. They look like good. Strong. Hands... don't they."

I'm glad I didn't become a doctor.  The Nothing would have taken me away while I sat in a bar somewhere looking at my hands.

Monday, January 23, 2023

The Healthcare Arch

 The way I see it, healthcare in Mississippi works kind of like a roman arch.  Created by the Mississippi legislature in a rare moment of clarity, the University Medical Center forms the keystone.  To its right and left are St Dominic Hospital and Baptist Hospital.  To their right and left are Methodist Rehab and SV Montgomery VA Medical Center.  Under these five stones, every other clinic and practitioner, and facility in Mississippi forms the columnar base of the system.  

Right now, some of the stones in the base are starting to fray and crumble, but as long as the arch itself is sound, sick people in Mississippi can get the help they need.  Real roman arches can last for thousands of years.  This one has lasted a little over a hundred.  We've tried a few times to build some redundancy into the system, but they always failed.  Monitoring and maintaining the strength and integrity of these five stones is probably the most important thing going on in central Mississippi and Jackson.  

There was a time when we didn't have this structure, and Mississippians suffered because of it.  It's vitally important that our legislative and executive branches work to maintain the stability and strength of every part of our health care system.  We don't have a backup structure in case they don't.

Monster Children

Every parent, no matter who they are, wants just one thing.  They want the most expedient, obstacle-free, most easily defined path for their children to feel happiness and fulfillment.  That's it.  No politics, no agenda, nothing "woke"; just help me find a way for my child to be happy.  That's true if the child is dyslexic and prone to being overweight like I was, or autistic, athletic, or even transgender.  They just want their child to be happy.  

I've spent nearly sixty years studying monsters.  You could say I'm an expert, so maybe what I have to say is worth listening to.  Someone is writing bills to make some Mississippi children, who didn't do anything wrong, feel like monsters.  They're doing it for easy political gain, not to address any real issue the state or the state's other children are facing.

It started when cable television programmers tried to make channels dedicated to art and history, culture and science flopped.  People said they wanted to watch these things, but when presented with that choice on their home televisions, they chose more salacious programming, like wrestling and gossip shows. 

Because they'd already spent a great deal of money creating and placing these channels, their executives decided to borrow a page from PT. Barnham and started filling their channels about art and history, and science with freak shows.  One Thousand Pound Sisters.  Big World, Little People.  Honey Boo Boo, Doctor Pimple Popper, and a show about a small transgender child called Jazz.

Like the people in the other shows, The parents of Jazz, and Jazz herself, believed they were raising awareness of the issue, normalizing it, and educating people about it to help other transgender kids on their journey, but the suits back in New York knew exactly what they were doing.  They were charging people a penny a head to see the freak show, and although Jazz wasn't as successful as Honey BooBoo, the pain and trauma this child was going through made them a great deal of money.  It made some money for Jazz and her parents, but nothing compared to what the producers were taking in.

I Am Jazz, on the Learning Channel, did help raise awareness in some people, but it raised alarm in others.  The increase in public awareness of Jazz and her journey made some people afraid that these transgender children would invade their world, and very soon, you started to see legislation about where transgender children can pee, what sports they can participate in, and most recently, who can pay for their medical care and when.  

The best and most recent scientific study suggests that approximately .8 to 1.3 percent of all American children are or may self-describe as transgender.  To put this in perspective, in the most recent study, 19.7 percent of American children are obese, yet despite their much larger numbers, there is almost no legislation restricting the lives of obese children and very little legislation providing for the education and treatment of obese children, and zero legislation restricting the medical treatment of obese children, although there are some very sketchy and questionable treatments available for the condition. 

When I was coming up, there was precisely one openly transgender person at my school.  He was female to male, and to my perception, they seemed very isolated.  Hardly anyone ever talked to them.  In retrospect, I wish I had, but introducing myself to anyone without a specific business plan or purpose was pretty much just not going to happen in those days.  It's pretty rare now.  I had a teammate who liked to bully them, but in ways where he couldn't get in trouble for bullying, "Are you a dude?  You look like a dude.  Why do you want to be a dude?  Are you gonna play football, dude?"  

Watching all this was pretty uncomfortable for me.  I loved my school.  I've recently made moves to reconcile myself with it.  There was one area where St. Andrews was flawed in those days, though.  When there was a student with particular challenges, like autism or deafness, or transgenderism, nobody ever took us aside and said, "this is what's going on with your classmate, and this is the best way to respond."  Sometimes my parents would address these issues with me, and there were times when Mitch Myers would unofficially take us aside and talk about what a classmate was going through, but more often than not, most of these things we kids worked out on our own and poorly.

The legislation you see coming out of certain conservative states, states like Mississippi, has the effect of making transgender kids seem like a threat to people who may not have any exposure to them.  There are conservative politicians actively working to make parents afraid of transgender children and promising legislation to help protect their children from these monstrous, woke, transgender children.  No child is a monster, but I know some politicians that are

Making people worried or afraid of where transgender children pee or what sports they play, or what medical procedures they have is just plain evil.  Whatever else they are, they are children.  The best people to design the life path for transgender children are their parents, their doctors, their teachers, and themselves, not some fearmongering politician looking to attract votes with a meme about transgender kids.  

The parents of transgender children want what every parent wants.  They want a chance for their child to feel happy, to have friends, to feel fulfilled and accomplished in life.  They're not forcing their children on your children out of some twisted political agenda.  They're just searching for a world where their child can exist and have a chance at happiness, just like yours.  They're not monsters.  They deserve better than what they're getting in Mississippi.


Saturday, January 21, 2023

Elephant Dinner

When I do stuff at Millsaps, people sometimes act weird when I tell them who I am, so a lot of times, I just don't tell them.  It's different with theater people.  They don't know me from my dad or my uncle or the building; they know me from Brent and Lance.  That makes all the difference in the world.  I earned that.  They know I've got paint under my fingernails, just like them.  They know I've spent midnights at Waffflehouse, running lines with a friend, or eating at two a.m. because we've been backstage since four p.m. just like them.  That's just the point.  I'm just like them; come back to support them, to help them feel like the effort they're making is appreciated and worthwhile.

 When I go to ball games, they have no idea who I am.  They don't know I've been going to basketball games at what they're now calling the Hangar Dome since before their parents were children.  They know who Anne McMaster is or Pat Taylor.  "Hey, that's that teacher; what's his name? That's pretty cool they come to the games.  I like that."  They don't know that Tommy Meriweather and I used to carry water and towels for the Lady Majors since before their parents met, but that's the point.  I'm just some random old guy, taking the time to come to their game, taking the time to show that I appreciate what they're doing, that I appreciate that they chose Millsaps.  To them, I'm just some random old guy.  But I'm one guy, and one guy matters.  One guy sees them.  One guy appreciates them.  Maybe sometimes they'll recognize that I've been there before.  "Is that somebody's dad?"

My dad accomplished some pretty remarkable stuff in life.  I was physically there when a lot of it happened, and even I don't know how he did most of it.  Daddy had a pretty simple philosophy in life.  It wasn't Mississippi "awe shucks" false modesty, either.  It's what he deeply believed.  

"Daddy, I've got this big, intimidating task ahead of me.  I don't know how I'm gonna accomplish it."

"Buddy, how do you eat an elephant?"

"One bite at a time?"

"One bite at a time."

It's not an understatement to say I have a second chance at life.  A year ago, I could barely move.  Now I move better than some of you and getting stronger every day.  One of the first things I thought about when I realized I had a second chance at life and what I was going to do with it was, "I've got to do something about Millsaps." 

We function best with around eleven hundred students.  We're not there right now.  There are reasons why we're not there right now, but reasons don't really matter; we still have to get there from here.  We have to eat this elephant.  

I don't have any of Daddy's magic.  I wish I did.  But, I do have determination and devotion, implacability, steadfastness, commitment, and intent.  I can be that old guy at every concert, every ball game, every lecture, and every time the doors open, I can be there.  I don't have Daddy's skills, but I have some skills, and I'm loading that chamber and bringing them to bear.  

I'm a big fan of Rob Pearigen.  If he gets sick, Phoebe is pretty strong herself.  Since this summer, I've been taking the time to get to know the current faculty and administration, and staff.  Some of them I knew from my own time as a student, but the others I'm learning fast what their skills and abilities are.  They're our army.  They're also people who have precisely the same goals that I have in this matter, and that's important.  I'm learning I have strong and capable allies, much more capable than I.  That matters.

"So, who's that old guy that goes to our games?"

"Just some old guy.  He might be crazy."

"Crazy?  How?"

"He says he's here to eat elephants."

"That's crazy; nobody eats elephants."

"Apparently, he does."

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Learning To Fly

 As he cut the chains away from the bird's wings, the young man said, "I've freed you.  You're free now.  Aren't you grateful I've freed you?  Fly away now.  Show everyone how well you can fly."

The bird blinked and moved and raised his head to the new sun.  His wings, puny and shrunken and atrophied, never used, feathers worn away from where the chains bound him.  He stretched his neck and stretched his legs toward the new sun, but these wings didn't work or look or move like the man who freed him, and when he dared leap into the air, these wings couldn't bear him.

"I told you so."  Said the old man.  "They ain't like us.  They ain't made for flyin'.  Can't you see how he's struggling to try?  You wasted your time cutting the chains away.  They were better off the way they were."

The young man said, "Come on, little bird.  Show them you can fly.  I told everyone you could fly.  Don't make me look foolish.  Please, little bird, won't you fly?"

"I couldn't fly either, at first."  Said the child.  "I had no feathers, and you couldn't even tell my wings were more than just useless stubs on my side, but with love and patience, and time, I learned to fly.  This little bird isn't so different from me.  He'll be my friend, and we'll fly together."

"You're wasting your time!"  Said the old man.  "They're no good.  They never were any good, and they'll never fly!'

"Everyone is good," The child said.  "It's my time to waste.  You made your choices in life.  This is mine.  You may be right.  You may be wrong.  But, I'm going to find out for myself what is right and what is wrong because I'm not taking the word of a man who puts birds in chains."


Medgar Wiley Evers was assassinated by a white man from the Mississippi delta on June twelfth, nineteen sixty-three.  Four days later and less than five miles away, I was born.   Four years and ten months later, Martin Luther King Junior would receive the same in Memphis, a three hours drive north of me.  That's the world I was born into.

Of my father's many frustrations with me (in his mind, the worst) was that I could calmly absorb any amount of energy or abuse, or effort to change my mind or change my course of action without any reaction or change on my part.  I was immutable.  I never put on a big drama or shouted, "It's MY LIFE, Daddy!" I simply would quietly not change my course, no matter how hard he pushed me in another direction.  I got this, of course, from him.

I was born into a world afire.  Afire because my home had a large population of people whose fathers and grandfathers had been field slaves and because the population of people who looked like me was determined to keep these seeds of slaves separated from the political and social power their numbers would otherwise grant them.  Closer to home, there was a fire in my personal world because my uncle left the world as I was coming in, and much of what he was then fell on my father.  

Not yet forty, Daddy was appointed to the Board of Directors of Millsaps college and then chairman of the board before I could walk properly.  Daddy's rise came not from charisma or ambition or wealth but because he put his body and his life into the jaws and gears of our society and pulled with all his might.  Even when he had no idea what he was doing, he would pull with all his might, and somehow things would move.  There was a cost to what he was doing, but he bore it so I, and my brothers, and my baby sister would have a home, a Mississippi that was better than what we were born into.  Eventually, it would take his life, but on this, he was Immutable.  

As the Methodist church became United in Mississippi, it was decidedly not united on one thing.  Some of us believed Christ obligated us to accept these progeny of our father's slaves as brothers, and love them and foster them as a matter of our christ-calling, on this they became Immutable.  Others thought this an abomination.  A destruction of the armature of the society we lived in, and a threat to our very existence, on this they were immutable.  

Millsaps College was, and is now a Methodist organization.  Many of our students would become methodist ministers.  Many of our professors, even those not teaching religion, were also methodist ministers, including men who daddy spent his childhood with.

As the American world and the American South began to consider a change in how they treated their children of African descent, forces in Mississippi began to push back with all their might against this change, even to the point of murder, of several murders, even murders of people I would now describe as children, even though they were remarkably brave and involved in a very adult adventure.  

At Millsaps, there was a feeling growing among some of our faculty to push in the other direction, that they were called by Christ to push back in the other direction.  In this, they found kinship with another Christian College, an organization of the Disciples of Christ created to serve and elevate Mississippi's black children, Tougaloo College.  Their symbol of the Star and our symbol of the Maple Leaf became entwined in an effort to make a basal change in Mississippi, a change many would do anything to prevent.  

Daddy's opinion of the Civil Rights Movement was built around his exposure to Ivan Allen.  Allen was the Mayor of Atlanta, even more importantly, he was a stationer, a purveyor of office and school supplies, like my father, and that's how they met.  Since the end of the war, Allen had a simple proposal:  Atlanta had too many negros for the city to prosper so long as we held our foot on their necks.  For him, this wasn't a matter of radical or even Christian thought, it was simply a matter of business.  There's no way for Atlanta to prosper if seventy percent of the city did their best to keep thirty percent as poor and as powerless as they possibly could.  That'd be like trying to run your car with two of the six cylinders welded to the engine block.  This was the course my Uncle Boyd, and my Father took.  They weren't radicals.  They weren't even particularly interested in Mississippi-African culture beyond their cooking, but they were interested in elevating the opportunities and activities of Mississippi, and there was no way to do that if we kept our foot on the necks of a third of our citizens.

There were people at Millsaps who were much more passionate and active on these issues, and as the sixties opened and Kennedy and Johnson began to open new opportunities, some of Millsaps faculty and several of our students began to move with energy in that direction, and they did it where they could be seen, and they did it knowing there were those who would see and know and say "That Millsaps Professor was in amongst 'em!  He's agin us!"

I was a child when all this began.  A small child at first, but I grew.  A small child but an extraordinarily observant child, and I grew, and I watched.   Daddy was not one for broad or loud statements of political purpose, but he was determined.  At his office on South Street in downtown Jackson, the first person you saw when you entered the building was a black woman Daddy hired as receptionist.  There were plenty of white women who could be our receptionist; by the time I was old enough to work, they all were white, but Daddy was making a point.  A point he would never articulate but a point nobody could miss.  A black woman answered our phone.  When angry men would call my father at work with a mind to force him to force these Millsaps professors to change their ways, a black woman would answer the phone.  "I'm sorry, but Mr. Campbell isn't in right now.  Can I take a message?"  She was immutable.

At home, both when we lived on Northside Drive, and when we lived on Honeysuckle lane, our house phone was in the kitchen.  This was fairly common in most homes.  It was separated by a door from the breakfast room where were ate most of our meals, one of the few places where I'd get to see my father in the early days of his career.  The world would pull him to other places, but he made every effort to eat with us, when he was in town, but until I got old enough to work with him, that was often the only time I had with him.

Most people, in my part of the world and in my generation, had dinner between six and seven o'clock.  Most people in my generation and in my part of the world never used the telephone in those hours.  It was rude.  Men who were very angry with Millsaps, and believing they could force my father to change things if they spoke to him strongly enough, but couldn't reach him at the office, didn't care about being rude.  They would call during dinner hours and continue to call until someone answered.  

In most homes, children were encouraged to answer the telephone because it taught them to be courteous and well-spoken.  Because of my stammer, it would be several years before I became well-spoken, but that's not why I wasn't encouraged to answer the phone.  Sometimes the people on the other end had no concern that I was a child.  They had an angry message to deliver, and if I was the one they had to deliver it to, so be it.  I would tell you what they said, but my Aunt reads these, and it makes her sore when I use those words.

When the phone rang during mealtime, a look passed between my mother and father.  Mother's chair was closest to the kitchen door.  I sat to her left, my sister to her right.  Mother would answer the phone.  "Hello?"  If it was family or a friend, her face would light up, and she'd have her conversation, usually with women who were also feeding their family but had news that couldn't wait, usually her sister or her niece.  If it was a salesman, she'd just say, "we're not interested." and go back to dinner.   Sometimes, though.  Sometimes she'd hold the phone out and say "Jim," and everybody's face would change.

When daddy took a call during dinner, it wasn't a good thing.  If they were saying to him what they sometimes said when I answered the phone, it wasn't a good thing at all.  He never betrayed what was said.  If it was angry or cruel, or just stupid, he would calmly say, "thank you for your call" and hang up.  Sometimes though, sometimes the call wasn't somebody he could just dismiss.  Sometimes the call was from somebody who was important to our business or somebody who was important to our state, and Daddy had to listen closely to what they had to say, even if he had no intention of doing what they were trying to make him do.  He was immutable despite incredible pressure to change him, but he was polite.

Tonight I put on a tie and shaved my head so I could attend a celebration in honor of Martin Luther King Junior at Millsaps college.  An event put on, appropriately in tandem with Tougaloo college.  Soon, it will be sixty years from the day Medar Evers was shot, then sixty years from the day I was born.  Millsaps celebrates by making the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute part of the Millsaps Family and giving them space in the John Stone house a few steps away.  Young people from Millsaps and Tougaloo stood and spoke and sang on the very spot where I performed or administered many plays and performances in a new structure for a new century. 

Even though it's been sixty years, I'd like to be able to say the issues Medgar Evers gave his life for were no longer a concern in Mississippi, but they are.  I'd like to say that the issues that made people angry at my father and angry at Millsaps were no longer a concern, but they are.  The only faculty members left from those early days in the sixties are T.W. Lewis and Charles Sallis.  They weren't there last night, but they were on my mind.  

I cannot tell you what the future will bring.  Millsaps and Jackson, and Mississippi are all struggling right now.  We're fighting for our lives, not because it's our lives so much as it's the lives of those who will come after us.  There's a secret that I know, that I was taught as a child.  I am old.  Millsaps is old.  They are.  We are.  I am, and will continue to be immutable.  We remain because if we don't, others will suffer.  

Monday, January 16, 2023

Forgiving The Forgets

I try to make forgiveness a daily habit.  Jesus pretty strongly implies that if we want God to forgive us, we have to forgive each other.  I figure that's a fair trade.  I'd much rather be forgiven myself than hold a grudge against anyone.  I'm an agnostic leaning heavily toward faithful and obedient either way, but even if you're completely an atheist, there's still someone you want forgiveness from, even if it's just yourself, and it's not equitable for anyone to expect forgiveness for themselves if they're not willing to do it for others.  

Forgetting is another matter.  I like to scribble.  It also is a daily habit, whether I show it off to anyone or not.  I like to write from my imagination, but I prefer to write from memory.  That has its own rewards but its own challenges also.   Some of it requires that I rub my fingers along old wounds and see if they're still wet to see if there's anything to write about.

The wet ones are what I make my stories from.  I hover over them and observe how the flesh knits around the scar and pull at the sides to see if any bright red will flow.  Some of my best stuff comes that way.  Some of the things I can never, ever, ever show anyone comes that way too.  

Some of the very best writers, particularly the Southern writers I obsess over, combine this method with imaginative writing and produce works like Sound and the Fury and Glass Menagerie.  I'll never reach those heights, but I understand bits of the process they go through.  It's very powerful, but it's also devastating.  If you look at what happened to people like Faulkner and Williams and Hemmingway, by the time they're forty, this reopening of old wounds takes a toll.  The blood loss starts to be evident in their everyday life and in their drinking.

There came a point in my life when I started to avoid drinking.  There were so many people I loved that spent part of their lives getting drunk every day.  I did too.  There were entire years when I'd sit at the dark corner of the bar at Scrooges, drinking, and thinking.  Remembering and drinking.  Part of how I write is to sit quietly and turn the words over in my head, stacking them and cutting them until they start to resemble something I remember.  There comes a point in the process where I'm ready to start putting it down on paper, so I'd pay my tab and thank Keough, the bartender, for the company and go on my way home where my computer was.  She's Irish, and her husband is Cuban, so I think she understood.

Spending a lot of time remembering everything you ever did wrong, everything and everyone that ever hurt you, and turning it over and over in your mind, probably isn't a very healthy way to live.  Everyone does it, though.  At least the way I do it, there's something at the end to show for the time spent.  

It creates a sort of everpresent sense of melancholy and dread that writers and poets, and artists can be known for.  Sometimes it ends badly for them.  Those are the famous ones.  I think my obsession with forgiveness saves me from that, though.  I may spend the day wondering why someone would do a terrible thing to me, but it always ends with me forgiving them for it, and that softens the ache. 

I can't really posit writing a healthy activity, especially as a daily habit.  I've seen it wreck some beautiful people.  Today, young writers celebrate the melancholy of a Sylvia Plath or an Emily Dickinson without really considering what it did to them as people.   Poor John Kennedy Toole never even got to see any of his works published before the writing process burst all the sutures he made for himself, and he expired by his own hand, younger than Jesus was when he died.

What I can say is that keeping your sanity while you write requires a generous helping of self-forgiveness.  There will be times when you spend the entire day saying, "why, why, why," where only admitting you did your best and forgiveness will keep the water from your eyes.  If I love you, and I do love you, then I cannot recommend this path for you.  The pain of life feeds it, and you develop something of an addiction to it.  But, if you love me, and I hope you do, I can tell you I am safe.  I'm in no danger of ending up like Toole or Hemmingway, or Plath.  There will be days when it doesn't seem so, but I've gotten pretty good at forgiving myself.  

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Flat Footed

Try not to read too much into this.  It's real, but it's a combination of several conversations with more than one person over a period of time.  What's important is that I somehow understand what they were feeling, even though it was many years ago now.  Maybe I'm trying to figure out what I was feeling, too.  What I was thinking.  Why I was caught so very flat-footed, hit between the eyes when I was supposed to be the observant one.  I don't hold any grudges.  It's all just a whisper of a memory.  I've never stopped caring for anyone, no matter what happened.  Sometimes, I just wasn't able to be what they needed me to be.


"Whatever it takes, I feel obligated to try and work things out."


"I know"


"I've invested a great deal of time...you're important to me.  Your happiness, it's important to me.  I've invested..."


"I know"


"Try to explain to me...  Tell me.  Tell me, what went wrong?  What happened?"


"It wasn't real."


"Wasn't real?  What do you mean?  What wasn't real?"


"none of it."


"None of what?"


"None of what was happening.  None of it is what I wanted.  None of it is what I ever wanted."


"But, you said... We had plans.  You said this is what you wanted.  You said I was doing what you wanted, what you needed.  We went to... We did things ...  How could none of it have been real?"


"I was taking a lot of pills."


"I knew,"


"You knew what?"


"I knew about the pills, ok?  I knew."


"They made me do things, say things...It's not my fault."


"Was it my fault?"


"You let it happen."


"Let what happen?"


"You let me do it."


"I was doing... I was trying to do... You said you needed me to do these things."


"I said a lot of things.  They weren't real."


"I don't understand."


"They weren't real."


"To me... What I said was real!  What I did...  I meant it.  I meant all of it.  I was telling the truth!"


"I know."


"I...What do I do now?  Where do we stand?'


"We don't.  You move on."


"I don't understand.  I did...  I did what I was supposed to do.  I did what I said I would do.  I did what YOU said you needed me to do.  I was telling the truth. The whole time.  I meant what I said.  I felt what I said.  I did what I was supposed to do!  How is a man supposed to know what to do?  I acted on what you said, on what you did.  I responded to what you said, what you said you were feeling, what you said you needed.  I did what I was supposed to do."


"It wasn't real."


"It wasn't real.  You said that.  It wasn't real.  How am I supposed to know what's real?"


"You don't."


"I just was just.  I wanted to do the right thing."


I know.  You have a right to be angry."


"I'm not.  I'm trying not to be.  Me getting angry doesn't solve anything.  I'm not angry.  I'm not!"


"There's nothing to solve.  I have to move on."


"Move on?  Move on where?"


I have a job.  Friends.  A life.  I'll move on."


"I'm not sure what I have.  I thought I was doing the right thing.  I thought I was helping."


"You helped a lot."


"At least that was real?"


"I have to move on.  You have to move on.  I can't live a lie."


"you... you lied to me."


"I have to go."


"I'm staying... I'm staying here for a while.  You.  All of it was lies?"


"I have to go."


"I'll go.  I'll go too.  I don't know when."

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Lonely Paintings

I can't mention the names of the people in these kinds of stories.  They deserve their privacy.  Besides, the point is not who they are but what they are and how they lived, at least in my stories.

She'd grown accustomed to living in the room beside her husband in the skilled nursing facility.  Both struggled with daily tasks in their ninetieth decade but wanted little more than to be together.  They'd visit each other's room, watch television, read what's left of our newspaper, and talk with the sitter.  After seventy-five years together, few words had to pass between them to communicate a lifetime of experience.

He died quietly while I was visiting my family.  When I got back in the building, I could tell something was wrong,  Days later, he was gone, but his room was the same.  The bed was made, and everything was in order, but he wasn't there.  With the lights out, you'd think he was napping.  

In his room, there were three or four large paintings and three or four more in his wife's room.  I knew something about him that nobody else in the building knew.  In his younger days, he was a member of the Jackson Watercolor Society, now the Mississippi Water Society.  I thought I recognized the paintings as his own, but they might also be by his master, John Gaddis.  I asked his nurse to quietly check the signatures for me.  They were his.

Watercolorists always seemed a bit of magic to me.  I knew several great ones, including Jackie Meena, who lived across the street.  I was allowed to take drawing from the daughter of Mildred and Carl Wolfe because they taught at Millsaps.  I was allowed to take oil from the daughter of Carter O'Ferrall, who was Grandaddy's best friend, and one of the kindest men I had ever met.  

Make no mistake about it, though; Art was for housewives and weirdos.  As much as I admired the work of Walter Anderson, it's no mystery which camp he fell into.  I was meant for greater things.  I had no other choice.  

"You could be anything you want, Buddy.  If only you'd settle down and study."
"I'm trying.  I promise."
"You could be a doctor if you wanted to.  You're really smart.  Wouldn't you want to do that?"
"I guess."
"How about you spend less time with those comic books and monster movies and try harder at math?"
"Ok, I'll try."

Oil paint, and acrylic, and pencil drawings, you could kind of control those.  They would do what you told them for the most part.  Watercolor was different.  You laid out an opportunity for it and did your best to guide the shapes on your page.  I would watch Mrs. Meena work a few times.  She'd move her brush across the paper like she was planting seeds that grew in the fibers of the expensive art paper she got downtown.  There was no way I could do that.  Not ever.  I stuck with oil and drawing for a while but gave them up because everybody knew life called me for other things.  At least, that's what I was told.

For me, landing in a skilled nursing facility was almost like I died and was born again.  All the shackles that held me down wore away, and I could remake myself according to what I really was.  A bulletin outside the community room said, "Water Color Class-Hope Carr."  I thought, "what's the worst that can happen?  If it's horrible, I don't really know the other people in the class, so it won't be too embarrassing."  Now, I'm making five or six new paintings a week.  I'm not good at watercolor yet, but I'm not afraid of it anymore, and my lifelong admiration of those who were good at it helps guide and inspire me.

I go by the room of my neighbor who lost her husband, pretending to be on an errand but really just checking on her.  After so many years together, being apart must feel like a great empty spot for her.  Her husband was in high school with my mother and father.  When I would see his father, he'd ask Daddy, "have you seen my boy?"  Daddy would say he had.  They were on boards together and had many common friends.  

I was kind of like his wife; he'd always been there--now he's gone.  Sometimes she'd go into his room and turn the light on to see if he was napping, then remember, after more than seventy years, he's not there anymore.  She'd pause and let the thought sink in, then turn the light off and go back to her room alone.  The unfairness of her moment strikes me like a cold wind.  You spend decades building a life with someone, then one day, there's a hole in your life where they used to be, and nothing will fill it.  

I suppose it won't be long before they pack up the things in his room and take them away, leaving her even more alone.  I hope his paintings go to someone special.  They weren't easily made, and there won't be any more of them.  I'm glad I got to be near him in the last days.  It's good to have somebody who knows what you were but still appreciates what you are now.  I don't know that I'll ever be as good a painter as he was.  I've had some great teachers but never much confidence.  I'm free now, though.  Anything can happen.  His paintings transcend him.  Art is like that.


Sunday, January 8, 2023

My Imperfect Arm

Circled here is a lump on my arm.  Evidence of a bone broken when I was just twelve years old.  It's a lump now because Jim Campbell and Mike Barkett thought they were doctors.

My brother Joe played football for Andy Mullins at St. Andrews.  My sister and I were in the lower school.  During one of Joe's games, I joined a pickup game of nerf touch in the area in front of the Upper School Library.  As sometimes happens in a game of touch, I was tackled and held out my arm to break my fall onto the worn, compacted spot of dirt where the older kids walked to class every day.  It hurt.  It hurt a lot.  I sought out my mother.

When I was little, Daddy's career caught fire.  It required him to miss many things in our childhood, most things, really,  but he never missed a football game.  Not one.  

"Let me see, buddy,"  Daddy said.  "Make a fist.  Try to squeeze my finger.  Try harder."  

"I AM trying.  It really hurts!"

Mike Barkett, baseball coach, and lower school administrator, saw the commotion and came over.  

"It looks like a sprain.  I know what to do."  With that, Mike fetched a bag of ice and an ace bandage.  After wrapping my wrist in the ace bandage, they then wrapped the ice bag onto it with another ace bandage.

"Keep that on there for a while, Buddy.  It'll feel better."  So I sat on the bleachers the rest of the game, trying not to cry, with an ice bag wrapped onto my hurting arm.

At home, mother refreshed the ice bag during supper and sent me to bed with the entire contraption wrapped to my now useless left arm.

In those days, St. Andrews hired a Greyhound bus to take us kids, to and from school.  Some kids still had their moms take them to school, but I was under orders not to be spoiled and ride the bus like a man.  Not a problem.  Normally I could draw on the bus all the way home, and my second favorite girl rode it too, dropping off just before I did.  Riding the bus with my left arm immobilized in the ace bandage, which had by then increased to three bandages meant that I had nothing to hold the sketchbook with, and every bump was causing considerable pain.  The girl I liked talked her mom into taking her home for a while.  The bus driver always did his best to look out for me.  "I'll avoid the bumps, pal.  You sit quiet."

After the second week of this, I was still complaining of pain in my arm.  Some kids thought it was funny to jostle me on the bus, causing even more pain.  "I'm calling J.O. in the morning." Mother said at supper.  J.O.  was James Oliver Manning.  One of dad's oldest friends.  They had both been number one at the Alpha Upsilon chapter of KA at Ole Miss.  There was a time when every third house on Honeysuckle lane had the name of a KA on the title.  Dr. Manning and Dr. Turner were Jackson's busiest orthopedists.  In the days to come, J.O. Manning would found Mississippi Sports Medicine, where I would also become a patient. His wife was a brilliant painter.  One of my favorites.

Once again, I was checked out of school by my mother, who sat in the waiting room in J.O.'s office near the stadium on Woodrow Wilson.  Mother was obsessed with paperback novels, all mysteries, and she would consume about one a week, fifty-two paperback mystery novels a year.  She kept them in paper grocery bags when finished to trade at a paperback book store near Parham Bridges' Park.  The person who taught me to read, read herself. A lot.

"Let's get you x-rayed," a pretty nurse said.  She maneuvered a gigantic machine, the kind that I'd seen turn tarantulas into monsters on Horrible Movie the weekend before, over my poor arm, naked of its ace bandages for the first time in twelve days.  "Hold still," she said as she moved behind a heavy screen.  "Why does she need to be behind a heavy screen when I'm here practically naked!" I thought.  This wasn't going to end well.

Once the ordeal with the X-Ray machine was over, the nurse returned me to the waiting room where my mother sat, one leg crossed over the other, reading her mystery novel, her basket purse with houses painted on it that she made herself with Jane Lewis and Onie Flood sitting beside her.  With some help from the nurse, I sank onto the examination table and sulked.  This won't go well, I thought.  

"How'd it go, buddy?"  "


 "Do you want a sucker?"


"Does it hurt?"

"no," I lied.

After a while, Dr. Manning came in.  He had a voice that sounded like he was speaking to you through an oak barrel.  He flicked on a light table and jabbed two x-ray sheets into the holding clip.  It was my arm.

"Tell Jim Campbell I'll make a deal with him.  I won't sell pencils if he won't practice medicine.  Your son has a broken arm."  

In the x-ray you could see pretty clearly where the break was.  It was also pretty clear that the bones didn't line up exactly right at the break.

"I want to put him in a cast.  It'll heal and be strong, but it might not be perfectly straight."

Forty-eight years later, it's still not perfectly straight.  

Momma and daddy and Dr. Manning would have many more opportunities to take care of me, but Daddy and Mike Barkett never tried to practice medicine on me again.  That's too bad.  It produced some great stories.

Chapter 1 An Escape Plan

I don't think it's betraying a confidence to admit that, for a while, the principal places for gambling in Mississippi were the Mayflower Cafe and the Jackson Country Club.  It was at the Country Club that I'd play my card.

Although very few of my friends did, all of my dad's friends knew that I was critically unhappy in my life in Jackson.  Of all Daddy's friends, I had an affinity for Rowan Taylor.  We shared an appreciation for art, women, and whiskey.  He asked me once, "what is it you want out of life, son?"  I had no answer for him.  

When I said what I said, my father looked at my mother and his mother, who had dubious expressions on their faces.  "Whatever you feel like you need to do, I'll support you, but come see me in the morning."  My father's office was at most a hundred steps from where I had set up camp in a corner of one of our five conference rooms, the one we opened mail in, with two computers, a scanner, and a printer.  "Come talk to me in the morning." meant that he was taking what I said seriously but that we should talk about it alone, lest it upset his mother, which it did.

There were men in Jackson who became concerned that Mississippi was developing a bad reputation around the country and around the world.  One of their responses to this was to dress modernly and adapt modern designs for their buildings and offices.  The result of this effort was buildings like First National Bank, Capitol Towers, and The Sun-n-Sand Motel.  Dumas Milner was a prime mover in this modernizing trend, and so was my father.  

For some people, the Capitol Street Gang was betraying our sound Southern Heritage.  The criticisms didn't change anything.  Mississippi was moving into the sixties if it gasfaced the navy.  When it came time to move the Country Club from West Jackson to North Jackson, many members wanted a Greek Revival style like an antebellum home, but Dad and Rowan and Dumas Milner and a few others pushed for what we now know as mid-century modern.  My Grandfather was one of the ones who preferred the Greek Revival style.  Ultimately the modernists won out, and although several remodelings have tried to hide the building's base design style is still very evident.  

Daddy didn't play golf or tennis.  For some people, membership in the Country Club was a sign you'd made it in the world; for Daddy, it was a sign to the rest of the world that we weren't quite the mindless savages we appeared to be on television.  At least not all the time.  The Country Club provided us a great place to swim, although I don't think my father ever actually witnessed this.  Usually, we were just dropped off by my mother and told to put these elastic bands around our ankles with numbered tags on them.  I suppose so they could identify the body if we drowned, which no one ever did.  At least not to my knowledge.

One service of the Country Club Daddy used was the Sunday Buffet.  Organizing outings to the Country Club for Sunday lunch was something of a statistical ordeal.  Starting from Galloway, we had to get my Grandparents, My father's family, his sister's family, and any visiting relatives to the Country Club and in line by twelve-thirty or we'd be standing in line for an hour before anyone ate.  For a ten-year-old, it was a challenge to keep my shirt tucked in and out of trouble until we got to the table.  For a twenty-four-year-old, it was more a matter of lasting in line, still suffering from the effects of the Saturday night before.  

For some time, Daddy and I had been discussing how unhappy I was in my life in my job.  I'm an extremely object-oriented person.  Like my father, my happiness depended almost entirely on my relationship with my work.  Unlike my father, I wasn't in anywhere near the right field for my talents and skills.  This conflict was leaving me very empty and unfulfilled.  I'd given up on my art in hopes that it might help me align myself with what my job actually required.  

Being competent but not good at my job was a problem.  I'd been through that with school, but that problem I could blame on my reading problems.  This was real life.  I needed to excel, and I wasn't.  

At that point, my job was to help organize twenty-seven other office supply companies into a buying cooperative and coordinate our core inventory system and develop a catalog and purchasing history program for what became known as the Office Supply Ordering System that we were members of, but decided to develop on our own.  My father began moving me into more of the marketing and advertising part of the company.  Although my performance was sporadic, the programs I was involved in were successful.  Although people thought I had potential and had some technical skills nobody else in the company had, it was becoming clear that I was very unhappy, and it was affecting my performance.  I wasn't going to be the success my father, and his uncle, and his father were.  For me, that wasn't good enough.  I needed a plan.

Knowing that I wasn't performing anywhere near my capacity made me feel like I was constantly disappointing everyone.  Knowing that the things I could do much better meant nothing to the people who depended on me made the situation much worse.  I felt like a fraud.  "Take the money and shut up.  Life should be this easy for everybody." Some would say.  I was constantly aware that I was wasting an opportunity many would kill for.  It didn't help to know this.  I felt like a spoiled asshole who should just go along to get along.  I also felt like if I died, it wouldn't be so bad.

At this point, I'd been involved in two relationships, both ended with the other party deciding they wanted to be with someone else.  The first was perfect, no harm, no foul; we went our separate ways with no hard feelings.  I wasn't so lucky with the second one.  She wasn't willing to let me go until I'd spent almost two years helping her dad out of a jam and making sure she had a chance at a college education.  At no point was she willing to make any sort of commitment to me, but should I ever waver in my commitment to her, I'd receive a lengthy and tearful phone call to reconsider.  One day she said, "sometimes you look at me like you hate me."  "I don't hate anyone,"  was my reply.  I think she knew I wanted to escape from everything, including her, but she wasn't ready to go it on her own.

I couldn't love my partner.  I couldn't love my job.  My art was in abeyance, and it'd been two years since I'd seen a movie that I really liked.  I needed to do something.  To change something.

I had a plan to escape.  I'd been thinking about it for a while.  The idea thrilled me, but it also filled me with doubts and regret.  Escaping meant leaving behind every person and every responsibility I had in Mississippi.  Maybe it'd work out, maybe it wouldn't, but I would be far away and separated from everyone either way.  There was no guarantee this would work, but I thought I had to try something.  Telling my family would be difficult.  Lunch, Sunday a the Country Club was the soonest time they'd all be together.

"I've sent in applications to USC and UCLA for their film program.  I'd like to join their undergraduate program, then move on to the MFA program at either school."  I said after the plates were removed and Bubba's Sanka coffee was served.


My father looked at my mother, then his mother.  There was a hurt look on her face.  "That's California," she said.  "Yes, Los Angeles,"  I said.  That I might try and escape this life they'd laid out for me since my mother announced she was having another child had never crossed anyone's mind.  What I was talking about was a betrayal.

"Come talk to me in the morning" was my father's escape plan from discussing my escape plan.  

géant brisé

When introducing him to his readers, Hugo describes Quasimodo: "One would have pronounced him a giant who had been broken and badly put together again."  

Even before my body was actually broken, there was never a time when I didn't feel exactly this.  I doubt if there will ever be a better interpretation of the book than the 1939 RKO version with Charles Laughton.  At the end, with Frollo vanquished and Esmerelda freed, Quasimodo sits alone in the battlements of the cathedral beside one of its famous gargoyles and laments his life, "oh, why was I not made of stone, like thee." and the camera angle changes to reveal the immensity of the cathedral and the smallness of Quasimodo.  

A feeling of isolation is part of the human condition.  We are every one trapped inside our own minds, spending our lives trying to discover ways to reach someone, anyone, before the lights go out on us.  I've never met anyone, not the strongest, not the most beautiful, not the most intelligent, who didn't have feelings of brokenness, of isolation, guilt, and loneliness.  It's always been my gift and my curse to see that behind the eyes of the people I meet.  It's one of the reasons Southern men tend to make humor out of self-effacing.  "I am weak.  I am broken. But you need strength from me, so I'll make a joke of it."  

There is a giant of untapped potential inside all of us.  Even those who you think couldn't possibly do more have infinitely more potential inside themselves.  Bragging is a combination of recognizing those untapped reserves and an apology for not producing them.  Some of us are better at releasing the giant inside of us, but I've never met anyone who was good at it, and I've met some amazing people.

Broken giant is a lonely existence.  Our closest companions are stone simulacrums, made twisted echos of ourselves, but without heart or emotion.  They have an advantage over us, always, because they do not feel, and feeling will almost always have moments when it tortures us, whoever you are.  

In discussing his career, Laughton said that Quasimodo is the character he played that was the most like him.  That's been interpreted as a reflection of his sexuality or his weight, or his lack of physical beauty, but I always saw it as a reflection of his humanity.  We are all broken giants.  The bells and the gargoyles are much easier for us to communicate with than each other.  We all sit alone on the parapet of life's cathedral, watching the happy people of Paris below us, envious of the unfeeling stone.  Like Quasimodo, whoever you are, life will, at times seem like something for others, but not for you.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Kings and Rubber Cigars

Today is the epiphany, or the theophany if you're Coptic, which always seemed a better name for me since the point is that the day represents the revealing of the theos, or Godness of Jesus, roughly "God Appears" in English. (apologies to those whose greek is far better than mine.)

In most traditions, it celebrates the day the Magi followed the star of Bethlehem to pay their respects to the baby Jesus. "Magi" is a Persian word usually associated with Zoroastrianism, meaning "priest" or "philosopher," but often translated to "wise men" or "king" in English.

The Magi are only mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew. It doesn't mention their names, their countries, or even how many there were. There being three of them, their three different nationalities and their three names are all part of supernumerary and not canon Christian traditions.

Much of the traditions we associate with the Magi come, not from the Gospel, but from the Old Testament, particularly from Isaiah predicting the coming of the Messiah. They bring gifts to the newborn "king of the Jews," or "the true king of the Jews," or "Messiah." Their presence and their naming the baby "King of the Jews" is what first reveals Jesus as the Messiah, and so that's why we celebrate it. It also predicts the next step in the Jesus story, where the acting King of the Jews, Herod the Great, seeks to destroy the baby before it can take his throne, forcing the holy family to escape to Egypt, much like Joseph did.

In English tradition, Ephiphany is associated with wassailing, or the visiting of orchards to procure their cider, which should have a reasonably strong alcoholic content by this time of the year, so it's a good day to get smashed and sing. In the American tradition, you're also supposed to have your Christmas decorations down by today, so you can start putting up your Valentine's day decorations.

We three kings of Orient are
Trying to smoke this rubber cigar
it was loaded and exploded
spreading us ever so far

Monday, January 2, 2023

How to Paint: Lesson One

If I'm gonna do this painting thing, then I'm gonna do it for mastery, not to pass the time because I got nothing better to do.  That sounds like a bold statement for somebody who quit doing it for almost thirty years and was only moderately talented to begin with.  All that's true, but I'm just that kind of an asshole.

I have weird ideas about art.  They're similar to my weird ideas about religion.  Both involve chasing something you can't ever touch and most never catch even a glimpse of.  Beauty is a fundamental force of the universe, both creating and destroying; it is a principal motivator in whatever game God plays.  It's a principal element in what drives him to create, essentially us, as well as everything else, but then also to destroy the same so that its fleeting temporal nature magnifies the intensity of its value.  That its overwhelming power can exist only in the liquid nature of time encourages us to persevere, even though we are meek and puny in the face of beauty.    

Because art and beauty have no structure or definition, I figure if I go about it also without structure and definition, then I'll just get lost and confused and probably drink myself to death like Hemmingway.  Just kidding about that, although losing his path really is how Papa died.  Watercolor is a new medium for me.  That's good, though.  That means I can't use shit I learned when I was sixteen as a crutch.  I have to learn all new disciplines, all new methods, and perspectives.  Since I'm moving into the second half of a centenarian life, I have to be mindful of constantly learning new things to keep my mind exercised to prevent its decline.  I've seen what happens when it declines, and I don't want that.  Since music, dance, and science seem out of the question, art must be the way to go.  I'm not spending the rest of my life learning new words for scrabble.

All of that unnecessary verbiage aside, here's the plan:  five new watercolor paintings a week.  They may be exercises, or they may be an attempt at finished pieces, but there must be five of them, at least nine by twelve inches in size.  Because all my research so far says that drawing is a key element of watercolor, then I'll need to do at least five drawings a week, separate from the painting, although they can be used to prepare myself for a painting.  Draw it once as a drawing, draw it again as the underpinning of a painting, like so.  That's a total of ten hours a week working on this project.  That's nothing.  I used to spend twenty-five hours a week sitting on my ass at scrooges.  This is a lot more productive and a lot less likely to lead me into chatting up a woman who might ruin my life.  The food won't be as good, though, and sometimes I really miss whiskey and tobacco.  There may be weeks when I do ten paintings, but there have to be at least five.  It's too easy to "think about" painting without actually doing it.  I did that for longer than some of you have been alive.  

None of this is to say I will be any good.  None of my efforts to paint or write or draw or sculpt or act is to "be good" or seek approval; it's about whatever that's inside me needs coming out, and it won't leave me alone unless I let it.  There were times in my life when I would do these things and not tell anyone, not my wife, not my mother, not my father; it's not about that.  What's different now is that I've found that it's actually kind of nice if I share what I'm doing.  Sharing is good like Mrs. Nelson said.  Naps are good too, but I've napped too long.  It's time for work.

Official Ted Lasso