Monday, July 31, 2023

I know Victoria's Secret Too

 In her song “I Know Victoria’s Secret,” singer Jax reveals that Victoria’s secret is that she was made up by an old man living in Ohio.  She’s right, but there’s more to it than that.  

Victoria’s Secret was invented by a man named Roy Raymond, who tried shopping for foundation garments at stores like Sears and found the experience inadequate.  Underwear for both men and women was produced by the same companies that produced them for the troops in WWII and sold them in packs of three, mostly in white, but sometimes prints or pastels for women.  Raymond was aware that the most successful clothing mail-order catalog that wasn’t Sears was Fredrick’s of Hollywood.  He had the idea to do the same thing, but less trashy and in a better location than West Hollywood.  Not knowing much about California, he picked Palo Alto for his first store and produced his first catalog with two sigs (16 pages) and a cover, which immediately sold out.

In the late 1970s, Les Wexner studied the growing patterns of young women shopping in the new phenomenon of suburban malls.  He combined that with the fashion sense he gleaned from the more popular women’s fashion magazines and found low-cost producers to make similar items priced for middle-class young women, with the result being The Limited, which by 1980 was almost entirely located in suburban malls.

Wexner was much better with money than Raymond, and in 1982, offered to buy out a bankrupt Raymond and add Victoria’s Secret to Limited Brands.  With the deal completed, Wexner was the unchallenged “King of Malls” and remained so until total sales in malls started falling off in the new century.

Jax’s song suggests Wexner might have been creepy.  He might have been, but not in an Aqualung sort of way as the song suggests, but in more of a Merchant of Venice sort of way.  He’s not eyeing little girls with bad intent, but he is making an awful lot of money.  

I’ve heard people read the long “I am a jew” speech from Shylock, suggesting that Shylock might have been a sympathetic character, and Shakespeare might have been sympathetic to Jews.  He was not.  Like a lot of Shakespeare’s work, you really need to read the whole play.

Wexner was responsible for a lot of things.  Among them are the move to women sexualizing their bodies at a much younger age, even younger than the “flapper” movement in the 20s.  He promoted an unrealistic body image that lead to an epidemic of eating disorders.  Between the fast food business and the fashion business, Americans have whiplash with regard to how they should feel about food.  

Wexler was also one of the first to move most of his production to Asian sweatshops with lax or no rules regarding child labor, so you ended up with a situation where pacific islander twelve-year-olds were manufacturing clothes sold to American sixteen-year-olds, who had to hide them from her father and change clothes in the car before going out to meet her friends.  

He did all this to make money, and he did make money—lots of it.  I think it’s important to do what Jax does and reveal how these things happen, so you don’t end up with young people who all they really know about the people marketing to them that “it’s cool” or not.  It’s an awful lot more complicated than just cool or not, and maybe songs like this are the best way to get the message to teenagers who really don’t have much time for us.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

Sunday Sermon July 30 2023

 The governor came to church today.  It’s good for the church when he comes, and it’s good for him when he comes, and I don’t mean politically (although that might have been a consideration.)  I can’t promise there weren’t twenty people around him praying that Jesus would remove the scales from his eyes, but I’m pretty sure he knew that was part of the job when he took it.  

There’s a lot going on in his life, including a second run for governor of Mississippi.  A little bird told me he wasn’t entirely satisfied with his reception at the Neshoba County Fair, so that might have something to do with him being butt in the pew this morning.  To my way of thinking, a candidate who is a little dissatisfied with the job he’s doing is a lot more beneficial than the guy who thinks he can do no wrong.

I like Tate.  We have a lot in common.  When he was a student, I used to talk to Matt Henry about him when they were both KAs at Millsaps.  Matt liked him too.  I wish I could talk to Matt about anything again.  A lot has changed for Tate since he left Millsaps.  A lot of his views have gone from fairly moderate to, I don’t know what to call them now.  I honestly don’t believe in my heart that Tate honestly believes in a lot of the things he’s been pushing for lately, but I think the men pulling his strings and making promises about his future career that they’ll never keep are leading him astray of his own judgment.  

I’m not the guy who’s gonna say Mississippi needs a Democratic government because, quite frankly, considering the state of the Mississippi Democratic Party right now, other than about four people, I wouldn’t trust them to organize a fish fry.  A lot of people think Presley can turn it around, but that’s an awful lot to put on one guy.  We’ve had strong Democratic governors before, but they served when there was a strong Democratic Party backing them up.  People call William Winter Mississippi’s greatest governor, and maybe he was, but he had a team of some of the sharpest guys I ever met behind him, both on his staff and in the legislature.  

With a word, Tate could do more good than I could with a year's effort.  Good for Mississippi and its people.  With just a few words, he could make huge strides in healing the schism in the United Methodist Church in Mississippi and solving the hospital crisis in Mississippi.  I don’t think that word is coming.  I think there are men with a very impractical vision of Mississippi holding carrots in front of Tate’s nose and dangling swords over his head.  Those words aren’t coming.  

Not long ago, a senior member of Tate’s party told me he thought “market forces” would solve the problem of Mississippi hospitals.  It was a moment that took my breath away a little.  I didn’t say anything, but what I wanted to say was, “Dick Wilson came to me thirty-five years ago and said you wanted to run for office, and you were a solid conservative, and I should give you a listen–which I did.  Somewhere along the way, you and some other guys changed the definition of what a conservative means, and now you’re as useless as tits on a bull when it comes to solving Mississippi’s problems.”  I didn’t say that, not because I’m a gentleman, but because I don’t think he’d listen to me, and I didn’t want to get in a fight in front of people.

After Sunday School, I thought, maybe some of us who Tate either knows or knows of should go see him with hats in hand and talk to him about what Jesus wants for Mississippi, and I don’t mean what Jesus wants for the unborn babies of Mississippi, because right now being a born baby in Mississippi can be a pretty sketchy proposition with way too high of a chance for a horrible ending, and he’s much more able to solve this than me or any of my friends.  I’m not good at begging, but I’d beg for the people of Mississippi.  I’d beg Tate Reeves to remember what he was taught at Millsaps and make choices based on what the people who are trying to live here need, not based on what some conservative talk show host says is important.  You going on Fox News isn’t going to save one malnourished baby or one heart attack victim living in an area without a hospital.  

Going to church should mean more than just going to church.  Cary was sick today, so Susannah delivered the sermon.  Her sermon was about presenting a welcoming face to the world and the good it can do.  In it, she discussed her time ministering to Aids victims at a time when most people weren’t very educated about how Aids spread, and there were few effective treatments for it.  She made the point of how powerful a simple human embrace could be for someone whose own family is afraid to hold them for fear of the disease.  She didn’t know the governor would be in the pews before her this morning.  She didn’t even know she would be preaching.  I know he heard what she was saying.  Whether it reached into his heart is between him and Jesus.

If I could talk to Tate today, I’d tell him that his heart is a lot more likely to tell him the truth than whoever is whispering they’ll send him to Washington in his ears.  Hopefully, he realizes he’s not the first guy they did this to.  Tate’s smart enough to pass comprehensive exams at Millsaps.  He’s smart enough to figure this out.  He just needs to listen to a higher power.

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Christopher Nolan's Oppenheimer

 I saw Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer at the Capri Theater and dined on the fried catfish plate that was delicious and finished with the apple cobbler.  In a lifetime of going to movies, the Capri offers the nicest, most complete experience yet.  Even better than when I saw Silent Running and Escape From The Planet of the Apes there.

I’ve always felt a great deal of existential tension about the work of J. Robert Oppenheimer.  As a teenager, I read that a 13-year-old boy built a working atomic bomb for a science fair project.  It was even the subject of an episode of Barney Miller.  I took this to mean that I should learn to build one.  Along the way, I learned that the story about the 13-year-old boy was greatly exaggerated.  He lacked not only the plutonium but also the shaped-charged explosives to make his model work.  

The segments of a California orange inspired Oppenheimer’s team to create shaped charged explosives in such a way that it created an implosion into a small container of plutonium with sufficient force to break apart the atomic bonds in the plutonium.  They made a bomb powerful enough to use the fingers of God to split apart the basic structure of the universe, making an even bigger bomb.

My knowledge of this never settled well with me.  To excise it, I made a folded paper model of Fatman and Littleboy; the devices dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  There’s a sequence in Nolan’s film where they crate up Fatman and Littleboy and drive them away on the back of trucks, leaving Los Alamos, through Jornada del Muerto, in correspondingly large and small crates, out of the laboratory out into the history books: fame and Infamy.  Seeing them, I thought: “Hello, old friend.”

I’ve made excruciatingly detailed scale models of these devices in folded paper, then destroyed them when it began to concern me that keeping them around was an imperfect reflection of my mental state.  Maybe it was.  When I met some of the worst people I’ve ever known on the internet, I imported those files into Blender and made a .obj file out of them, which I then imported into a virtual world filled with truly objectionable people.  I’m not sure what my point was other than to say this exists, and you exist, and I can’t really break it down further than that.

There have been several films about the creation of the bomb; this one goes from Oppenheimer’s early years in Europe through the trinity device test and ends with Oppeheimer’s confrontation with the McCarthy era insanity.

Like many turn-of-the-century Jews, Oppenheimer once entertained the possibility that communism might provide his people with the safe and beneficial environment they desperately wanted.  You saw this sort of worker’s philosophy working its way through art and literature, and science in an era when men believed in the concept of a better world.  Many intellectuals saw the Russian experience with communism as a deformation of the optimism felt in the early worker’s movement.  Oppenheimer, like many turn-of-the-century Jews, felt a great sense of betrayal when Russian communism became what it became.  

There have been many historical investigations into Oppenheimer’s history with communism, and no one has ever been able to come up with more than that.  Like many intellectuals, he would be criticized for his involvement in the Spanish Civil War and the communists there.  There was a strong sense of antisemitism in the McCarthy era persecution of pre-war communists.  In the theater where I saw the movie, a woman cackled anytime communists were mentioned.  I’m not sure what that portends, but it’s been my observation that the communist witch hunts have returned.  

Nolan used his trademark cinematic style to portray the guilt Oppenheimer felt about what his creation became.  This was clearly the strongest of all the themes explored in the film.  The effect is really very strong in a Dolby-enabled theater.  I doubt it will have the same emotional impact on a home system.

Clearly, Barbie will be the most successful film this year.  Oppenheimer might be the most important.  Like a lot of important films, some people won’t enjoy it.  The intensity of it becomes a different sort of entertainment from what some people pursue.  Murphy as Oppenheimer and Downey as Strauss are standouts.  Much has been said about the performance of Florence Pugh and Tom Conti as Einstein.

It’s a movie about people much smarter than anyone you know discussing the basic structure of the universe and how to unlock the awesome destructive forces of God himself.  The sequence covering the trinity test itself comes at the end of the third act.  It’s powerful and effective at putting you into that scene, that moment in human development.

In the bible, it talks about God’s power to smite entire cultures, and he did. Before Oppenheimer, that ability was reserved for God.  Based on the book, The American Prometheus, Oppenheimer stole the fire from Olympus and gave it to men.   I’ve never lived in a world where this power didn’t exist.  The year before I was born, the Russians sent missiles with atomic weapons to the island nation of Cuba.  Mississippi was well within striking distance.  

As a physicist, Oppenheimer pondered the death of stars; as a leader, he gave us the means to bring about the death of humanity.  Only a physicist could do that.  

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Gun Statistics - Real Life

 Here on the front end of sixty, here is the tally on my experience with guns:

A few dead deer.  Several dead ducks and doves.  A few dead squirrels, which I feel bad about because we didn't eat them; we just killed them.  

Three near-fatal accidents.  Three accidents where only property was damaged.  Six suicides and two suicide attempts.  Two murders.  Three armed robberies and two assaults with a deadly weapon.  

What I have yet to experience is anybody using a firearm to protect life, liberty, or property, including the police.  I've heard of it happening, but I have yet to witness it or have it happen close to me.  

If you look at the FBI statistics for Mississippi, my experience is pretty normal.  Despite what the NRA says, you're statistically more likely to accidentally shoot yourself or someone else than you are to use a gun to defend yourself.  You're also more likely to use a gun to kill yourself.  Whatever effect the 2nd amendment hoped to produce, this is what it did produce.

The other argument in favor of the NRA's interpretation of the 2nd amendment is that it gives us what we need to defend ourselves from a tyrannical government.  Well, we tried that too.  The result was Jackson burned to the ground, and Vicksburg was under siege for so long people were eating rats and mules to survive.  Our economy was destroyed, our railroads unusable, and more than six thousand Mississippians were dead.  People like to say we killed more Yankees than they killed of us, but that's not true.  Mississippi was a turkey shoot.  We've received accolades for fighting as hard as we did, but we were brutalized, and the right to bear arms didn't help us.

Reasonable gun laws start with looking at things how they really are, not how we'd like for them to be.  I don't know why we're not using guns more to protect life and liberty, but at the moment, you're a lot more likely to take these things with a gun than to protect them.

Whatever the intention of the 2nd amendment was, whatever the potential the 2nd amendment has, the result we're getting now is the exact opposite. Clearly, we're not interpreting this correctly, and since one organization is almost entirely responsible for how we interpret the 2nd amendment, the fault pretty clearly lies with them.

Moonwatcher and Oppenheimer

In the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C Clarke introduces the character of Moonwatcher, a proto-human and the alpha male in a tribe of ape-men who are in conflict with another tribe of ape-men over access to a water source.  A fight for survival.

In filming this section of the book, Stanley Kubrick used the same actors and the same ape-men costumes to represent both Moonwatcher's tribe and their enemies.  Moongzer's mask was different, more articulate, and more detailed than the others, but all the other masks were taken from the same mold.  Kubrick calculated (correctly) that by having the actors play double roles, both as the protagonists and the antagonists, it would look like he was using more ape-men than he actually was.  

Despite Kubrick's clever means of filming the sequence, Clarke had a different point in mind.  Clarke wanted to show that these proto-humans were extremely similar genetically; what tiny differences there were made them mortal enemies, and extrapolating that point out tens of thousands of years, Moonwatcher's tapir bone weapon used to kill his enemy becomes a satellite loaded with thermo-nuclear weapons, pointed at earth.   There are minute genetic differences between us and the Russians, and yet we stand (as we actually did stand at the time of the film) moments away from destroying each other.  Moonwatcher is both Kennedy and Khrushchev.

Although we see a leopard kill and eat one of Moonwatcher's tribemates, the real threat, the difference between extending his genetic material and oblivion, was the other ape-men.  

A principal theme of the 1960s was xenophobia on many levels.  Arabs hate the Jews.  Russians hate the Americans, whites hate the blacks, and North Koreans hate the South Koreans; all genetically very similar, but all are perceived as a mortal threat by their counterpoint.  In 1967, when Kubrick and Clarke were making 2001, in Mississippi, some white men in a truck set bombs in the office of Perry Nussbaum in the Beth Israel synagog in Jackson.  After tens of thousands of years, ape-men were still willing to kill each other over access to water they could have shared.

Clarke was a very prolific writer.  Much more prolific than I.  Of all his works, 2001 remains his most famous by far.  It's hard to say if it's a hopeful work or not because the aliens make us take the next evolutionary step even though we still have death pointed at each other.  He discussed the matter further in 2010, but not that many people read it, and even fewer saw the movie.

This weekend, when Oppenheimer comes to Jackson, I'll see it at the Capri.  I'll also spend some of the time thinking about Arthur C Clarke and Moonwatcher.  We can't seem to escape what he said about us.  

Monday, July 24, 2023

State Flag Conspiracy

There's a fairly popular myth that woke liberal politicians broke in and changed the Mississippi state flag in the middle of the night, despite the people's wishes.  There are a couple of problems with this theory, the first being that there are only about eleven woke liberal politicians in the Mississippi state legislature.  They're not very organized, and they usually go out at night.  Sometimes all night.  While that might warm the heart of Mississippi's most conservative souls, it's just not what happened.

Lauren Stennis devoted a fair portion of her life to changing the Mississippi State Flag.  Lauren was to the left of me on many issues, and we often didn't agree on things, but on this, we did.  I made every effort to very visible support her efforts.  I believed it was important.  Lauren deserved a win on this.  She did the work.  She was tireless and devoted, and she was, more than anything else, right.  You should have been able to tell your grandchildren about the woman that changed Mississippi's history, it would have made me and a lot of other people very happy, but that's not what happened.  The referendum Lauren fought for lost.  It lost by a much larger margin than any of us expected.

The story's not over, though.  The same battle over the South Carolina flag was heating up.  Students in South Carolina started demanding that the NCAA take a stand.  The NCAA isn't a hotbed of woke liberals, either.  They'd really rather do anything than deal with stuff like this.  Somebody at the NCAA did a head count, though, and it was pretty evident that there were an awful lot more descendants of federal soldiers and Confederate slaves playing football, basketball, and baseball than there were descendants of Confederate soldiers.  Some of these descendants of Confederate Slaves were saying things like they would boycott games in or with South Carolina teams if they didn't change their flag.

The NCAA is about playing football, and this business in South Carolina was threatening that.  The NCAA said, "Y'all gotta change," to which South Carolina said, "Screw you!" and that's when the NCAA said, "Until you change, we won't sanction any championship games in your state.  With protests increasing in the state and pressure from the NCAA, South Carolina capitulated.  The attention then turned to Mississippi.

In Mississippi, the chancellor of Ole Miss (New Miss, according to James Meridith) wanted nothing to do with a fight over the confederate flag.  His position was that it was needlessly divisive and had nothing to do with improving the university experience.  He was right.  His solution was to get rid of the confederate flag but keep the name "rebels."  That seemed to appease nearly everyone.  

After the flag referendum failed and the University of Mississippi cooperated, the NCAA turned its attention to the state capitol and threatened the same sanctions they used on South Carolina, starting with taking away championship games and then becoming more punitive from there.  

Threatening Confederate symbology is one thing.  Threatening football is another.  Very soon, the college board, College presidents (both public and private), and college coaches began pressuring the Governor, the Speaker, and the lt. Governor (all Republicans) to do something.  Universities and colleges began refusing to fly the state flag.  Some cities refused to fly the state flag.  Governor Bryant started looking for a way out of this.  Finally, at the end of June 2020, the Republican legislature of Mississippi and the Republican governor retired the Mississippi state flag.  They did it in hopes we could get back to business.

A lot of people still have copies of the Stennis flag, now known as the "hospitality flag."  In my mind, Lauren will always get credit for this, even though it didn't work out the way she wanted.  Conservative Republicans changed the Mississippi state flag because they loved football more than the confederacy.  I haven't a bit of a problem with that.  Mississippi doesn't ever do things in a straightforward way, but sometimes we get them done some other way.

Tate and Aldean

Tate Reeves decided to throw his hat into the "Don't Try That In A Small Town" ruckus.  He had some energetic support from people who ain't from here.  People from Mississippi were far more concerned with "What are you gonna do about hospitals, Tate?" and at least one poor soul asking, "When y'all gonna give me my flag back."  I suspect that's the same guy who posts on every Mississippi-related post about Mississippi.  There's a "neo-confederate" Harley gang in Pearl, whose members all look like they are old enough to have been actual Confederates.

Since this story isn't going away, I did a little digging.  Don't Try That in a Small Town is the number one song on iTunes.  That it was iTunes struck me.  On Spotify, Amazon, and Youtube Music, Don't Try That in a Small Town doesn't finish in the top one hundred.  It doesn't even finish in the top 50 on the country lists."  What's the discrepancy?

I honestly had forgotten iTunes still existed.  When my stepdaughter was 13, she wanted more than anything to have an iPod, so I got her one.  When she nearly got us all arrested downloading songs from Napster, I made sure she had, and only used, an account on iTunes.  That was the last time I engaged with iTunes.  

iTunes clings to life as dead last in the music browser wars by holding onto some market segments that don't update their game very often.  One is certain older parts of South Korea, which is why nearly every other song after Don't Try That in a Small Town in the iTunes top ten was K-pop.  The other segment that still clings to life using iTunes is older white Americans who signed up to iTunes from an AOL account thirty years ago and never updated it.  I also learned that it's incredibly easy to game the numbers on iTunes using bots, mainly because even Apple hasn't cared about the product in twenty years.  

I'm not a journalist, and if I was, I'd probably be a crappy one, but I uncovered all this before my coffee got cold, and yet so many major news outlets and public voices, including the Governor of Mississippi, didn't bother to mention that the story is a fluke, and possibly a fake.  

With the possibility that the story might be fake, or at least greatly overstated, I became much more interested in what's going on there than I was in Jason Aldean and his little song.  There's not really enough evidence to accuse anybody.  There is smoke, but is there a fire?  With that in mind, I started trying to figure out who might benefit from a fake story.

There are forces on the left that want very much for you to believe there are a bunch of crazy white racists trying to take over the country.  There are, actually, but their numbers aren't anywhere near as large as the news might make you think.  Since the left-leaning media already has that meme out there, they would have some benefit from feeding it, and a story like this certainly feeds it.  

The other thing I thought about was that if you look at the lyrics of the song, it picks up on a lot of memes that the NRA is currently pushing.  His management, I'm sure, is aware that Aldean shares a market with the NRA.  When I see lyrics like: 
Got a gun that my granddad gave me
    They say one day they're gonna round up

the NRA sprang to mind. That's an idea they've been pushing with a fever for thirty-five years. If somebody was going to use bots to change the iTunes popularity results, the NRA is a prime candidate. Whatever the NRA was made to be, they now have a reputation for using pretty sketchy tactics.
There's also the very real possibility that once one news agency reported the story, everybody else jumped on the bandwagon because they needed stories to fill their top fold. The news business is still a business.

A lot of the people responding to the governor's post seemed to think that country music ain't what it used to be. I can't really address that. Everybody gets to a certain age when they're mad that the current music isn't like the music that was popular when they were teenagers. There's an awful lot more money in country music than there used to be, so whatever else happens, that's going to have an effect.
Ultimately, none of this is a solution to anything. A hundred Jason Aldeans with their grandaddy's gun wasn't going to stop the BLM riots, nor solve the problems that led to the riots. That's a popular American myth, but it's still a myth. Kyle Rittenhouse cried like a baby in court because he believed in this myth enough to kill somebody but not enough to make even a small dent in what was happening. The NRA and Fox News made him a hero, and the left made his mom a villain, but neither side mentions the fact that what he did made no difference in what happened at all. People dying in riots just make the riot bigger.

Ultimately what I'm saying is that I don't think the story here is the story. I think this is a tempest that's drawing attention from a lot of other, much more important things.

Don't Keep Secrets

My wife and I used to argue because she thought my version of her was a lot more optimistic than what she saw in herself.  I think one of the reasons she wanted to get married was that she wanted the things I said about her to be true.  

When a child loses confidence in themselves, we have a tendency to blame the parents, but in her case, I knew them before I knew her, and that wasn't the problem.  

Sometimes, I think people just have trouble finding the things they're good at.  Everyone has them, but not everyone knows what they are.  A lot of us tend to judge ourselves based on what other people are good at.  I do too.  That's a rigged game, though.  You have your own gifts, and it's utterly unfair to judge yourself by someone else's.

I've loved a lot of people where I really wanted them to see what I saw in them, just for a few minutes, that if they could see just a glimpse of the power and beauty that I see, it'd make it real for them.  

The girl before my wife had the same problem.  I just wanted to shake her and say, "Don't you see!  Don't you see!" but she never did.  She lived out the rest of her life without seeing what I saw.

I used to write really long letters explaining exactly why I felt about someone I loved the way I did.  I think maybe that might have helped me share my vision with these girls, but someone came along before them and made fun of it, so I gave up on the practice; now, the opportunity to share this is lost to time forever.   

Don't just tell people you love them.  Tell them why, and don't assume they already know.  They often can't see it, but you can. 

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Tolkien and Creation

Because his life wasn't as full of so many personal tragedies as his friend Lewis, Tolkien never vacillated between belief and atheism as Lewis did.  Tolkien was born a Roman Catholic and remained one all his life.  Many people have written about how Tolkien's theology helps inform and shape his fiction.

Despite his devotion to Catholicism, Tolkien believed that the Romans, by converting Britain to Christianity, had destroyed, displaced, and erased the complex cultural mythos that existed there when the Romans arrived.  He held up Stonehenge as proof that, before the Christianization of Britain, there existed a thriving, complex, and developed culture with a fully developed mythos of their own.  

Whatever these proto-Britons believed, all we had left of them in Tolkien's time were these stone "henges," massive rings of carved stone distributed around the middle and south of the island nation.  Tolkien died in 1973, Missing the discovery of the Lindow Bog Bodies, which date to the time around the building of the henges, and suggested a surprising (and disturbing) possibility that the proto Britons practiced human sacrifice.  Greek and Roman writers had for generations accused these so-called "druids" of human sacrifice.  Here was the proof.  

In Leeds and again at Oxford, Tolkien made a living for himself as a linguist.  In particular, he was an expert in Germanic and early English languages, making a name for himself by interpreting and studying Middle English epic poetry.  Before and after the First World War, Tolkien was known for his study and interpretation of Beowulf.

Tolkien decided he could use fiction to replace the lost British mythology, and he would use Beowulf and the Prose Edda as his models.  This became The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and the Simmilarion.  

Like all mythologies, Tolkien had to address the issue of creation, in particular, the creation of man.  Like many cultures, the proto-Semitic races that became Judaism proposed a creation story where the progenitor god created men from the soil.  Nearby cultures suggested clay, dust, and even the foam of the sea.    All these near-eastern myths shared a similar concept.  Men were impotent copies of the progenitor god and would be used by the god or gods as pawns in some larger game.

Tolkien was aware of the pointy-hat, fake beard-wearing "neo-druids" who pranced around Stonehenge on the equinox, but he didn't think much of them.  He was convinced that they and the horror writers of the sixties who produced works like "The Wicker Man" had it all wrong.  

In Tolkien's mythology, men are still pawns of a progenitor god, but he creates several levels of creation, each possessing less and less of the divine spark.  First was the Istari, the Wizard class, which had a shade that became the Balrog.  Then came the Ents, and their shade, the trolls.  Elves and Orcs, Dwarves and Hobbits, and then men.  As the creative spark of earth wore on, all these sentient creatures would filter down to men, and men were all that was left.

Tolkien never intended for his creation to replace or weaken Catholicism, but I've heard quite a few uninformed people call it satanic.  We assume that most mythologies come from generations of people blending their stories together; Tolkien does a pretty credible job of it working alone.  Perhaps it always was just lone writers working alone all along, only we renamed them prophets.  

I Didn't Like The Nursery

I always felt like being an introvert like I am was such a disappointment to everybody, particularly my mother.  She tried so hard to get me to socialize with other kids, and it almost never worked.

We tend not to think of kids with learning disabilities as "disabled", but if you can't speak normally, or read normally, you feel far more different from the people around you than you really are.

I remember when I was five, and my sister was two, my mother took us to the nursery at Galloway, so the rest of the family could attend church in peace.  Jim Wilkerson and Jim Moffett were already in there running around like they owned the place, knowing exactly where all the toys were and how they worked.  My sister was over with the toddlers, organizing a group of ten, planning a day when they'd all wear the same color pull-ups and the rubber pants with the lace ruffles on the bottom.

I don't remember who the other women were, but my mother was talking to Mrs. Keyes and pushing me out in the play area, pretending I wasn't resisting.

"I k...., I Ka...., I k-k-k a, I can't go over there!" When I'm nervous, my words don't come.  They especially didn't when I was little.  Normal stuttering, I don't mind.  I'm older than Moses now, and I'm used to it.  Those times when the words just won't come though, when I can't get past the first two or three syllables without having to start over, even now, that makes me feel inadequate.  When I was little, it made me feel like an alien.

I looked up at my mother, doing my best to plead with my eyes without actually crying.  Crying would just make it worse.  "Please take me home," I thought.  "Please, please, please take me home."  I tried this playschool thing.  I really did.  I wanted to be a good boy, but my words broke, and now I'm gonna cry, and if I cry, what's next? Will I wet my pants too?  "please take me home.  Please, please take me home."  

One of the things that started to drive a wedge between my mother and me was that she pushed me to the very limits of my disability.  It was absolutely the right thing to do.  Without it, I would have remained hidden where it was safe forever and never sought out ways around my disabilities.  It separated me from my mother, though.  She was no longer the place for safety and comfort.  The only place where I found safety and comfort was being alone, and that's where I stayed most of the time for the next fifty-six years.  

You really can't question a mother's love.  She might have even known that pushing me beyond my boundaries might push me away from her, but it was more important that I go out and stretch my wings than staying cuddled under hers.  That's a horrible choice to make, but sometimes life is about horrible choices.

You can't really tell that I stutter now.  It seems like an illusion to me like I'm putting on some sort of performance.  If I let my guard down, or if I'm caught by surprise, my words still break sometimes though.   It's absolutely unnerving, even now.  Working through my stutter conceals my shame and provides me with false confidence.  When the illusion breaks, I feel dishonest, like a magician might if a curtain falls down unexpectedly and his entire illusion apparatus is exposed.  

I'm sixty yeas old, but I still stutter and I'm still dyslexic.  It's who I am.  I learned ways to disguise it and work around it, and even sometimes make it work for me, and that I owe to my mother, who made me stay in the nursery, even when I was terrified and begged to be brought home.  

Saturday, July 22, 2023

The Song of Summer Visitors - First Draft

 With San Diego to his right and the Pacific Ocean to his left, Marc expertly turned the steering wheel of his old, but maticulously maintained truck down the ramp edging the trailer with the skiff on it into the water.  Tyler watched his grandfather with rapt attention, like he was watching a ballet.  There was nothing Tyler loved more than sailing with his grandfather.  There was nothing Marc loved more than Tyler, even the sea.

Years ago, many years ago now, Marc tried to teach his wife how to back the trailer down the ramp.  He tried and tried, but she never got the hang of driving in reverse with a trailer behind.  When it became clear that she only had a few years left to live, Marc’s wife, Tyler’s grandmother, asked him to take her out to sea one last time.  He lifted her frail, emaciated body out onto the boat, then miles off shore, in the lanes where the whales pass from North to South, under a starlight sky, she passed from this world into the next.  

He wrapped her body in yards of linen he found at an abandoned craft store with enough stones from her garden to make sure her body went to the bottom of the sea, and he gently lifted the woman he loved over the side of the boat and dipped her into the sea, which would become her final home.  Watching the shrouded white figure of his wife sink into the sea, he heard the impossibly, long keening song of the whales, joining him in this moment of sorrow.

The skiff today had the same body as the boat Marc buried Tyler’s grandmother with, but in the years since it’s had many upgrades, including an array of photo-generator cells on the roof of the cabin, condensed batteries that would hold a charge for years.  The cabin was big enough for Tyler and Marc to sleep, and stored enough food and water for a month’s excursion.  

With the skiff, afloat, inspected and secured, Marc parked the truck, and he and Tyler set sail.  Many years ago, Marcus shucked oysters, bussed tables and tended bar so he could pay his way through college with a marine biology degree.  He had two jobs, one was cataloguing and observing the number of cetaceans that passed by San Diego for the California Dept of Wildlife, and another leading tourists in the winter to see gray whales, and blue whales in the summer.  Watching human beings observe and interact with these ancient and mysterious creatures made him very happy.

Clear of the dock, Marc raised the sail, and steered seaward.  His thick, white hair, with curls as thick as his thumb blew in the wind.  Tyler’s hari was the same texture, same cure, but glossy black.  They set sail.  Marc’s strong broad hand on the tiller, his deeply tanned skin wrinkled at the knuckles.  A roadmap of tiny wrinkles in his ancient flesh, the veins in the back of his stand out beneath the bleached white hairs.

Tyler sat forward.  His job was to hold the lines to the Jib and keep it in trim.  A few feet away from his grandfather, tyler studied the chords flowing back from the top of the jib to make sure then went back straight, tugging the line for the jib to one side or the other if they began to flap.

Marc could easily make this trip by himself with just the mainsail, but Tyler liked having responsibilities, and doing things to make Tyler happy was the point of life these days.

With more than an hour to go before they reach their destination, Tyler intensely watched his sail, while Marc intensely watched Tyler.  Tyler loved his grandfather.  He loved sailing, he loved his parrot and he loved chocolate, but he’ll never know the feeling of loving his own child, or grandchild.  That made Marc very sad.

Marc’s grandmother taught ancient history at a private catholic academy in San Diego, long before the city became what it is now.  Through her connections and utilizing his keen mind, Marc won a scholarship to attend.  One day  a boy asked if he was named for Marc Anthony.  “No,” Marc Said.  “I’m named for Marcus Aurelius, one of the five good emperors and a philosopher king.”  

With a strong steady wind, the sea rippled against the hull of the skiff.  Tyler focused his eyes out to sea and said, as he has many times before, “Tell me how the world ended, grandpa?”  Marc sighed.  The ruins of San Diego were still visible behind him.  The architectural glass skins of the towers long ago broke and dropped away as the steel and concrete skeleton of the buildings began to buckle and collapse under the weight of time.  

Tyler was exceedingly intelligent, but he was nine years old.  For nine year olds, telling the same story over and over provides some comfort for them.  Tyler knew there were a million stories about the past, but this was the story of his past, and as horrible as it sounds to you and me, it was fascinating to him.

Marc’s eyes focused.  He wanted to tell the story honestly and correctly, but in the way a nine year old would understand.  Tyler had been nine years old for seven hundred years, so Marc had the opportunity to practice this enough times to make it perfect, but it was never any less painful.  

“You were six,” Marc said.  “You were six years old when the virus hit.  It hit first in Greece, but within a year spread to the whole world.  People had been talking about the end of the world, probably since the world began.  Some thought it would be fire.  Some thought it would be flood.  Some thought the hand of God would smite us.  Some thought zombies would eat our brains.  Some thought we used use nuclear weapons to destroy ourselvles.  Some thought an asteroid would take us out like the dinosaurs.  Nobody expected something so tiny it couldn’t be seen would destroy the world.”

“There were a little over eight billion people on earth when the virus hit, within a hundred and fifty years, there would be less than two million.  It would take a hundred and fifty years for the world’s population to bottom out and stabalize, but within five years of the initial outbreak, everybody left on earth stopped aging.”

“You were six then the outbreak began.  You aged three more years after than, then your body stopped getting older, but you also stopped getting sick.  Your body became able to heal itself of almost anything.  Your nine years old now.  You’ll be nine years old forever.”

“Some people died very quickly once they became infected.  Your mother died five days after she contracted the virus.  Your father was deployed in one of our stupid wars in Eastern Africa, so it took a week for command to get the message to him.  With the world dying, we ended the war pretty quickly and your father came home.  He lived another five years.  Your grandmother another twenty.”

“If the virus didn’t kill you, it turned you into superman.  No disease could touch you.  I was seventy-three when the virus hit, but my body never got any older.  My skin was still wrinkled and old, but my muscles and my organs worked better than they did when I was twenty.  My hair came back, but it was all stark white as a seagul.”

“Something about the disease responded to hormonal changes in the body.  Once your body started to show the first sign of puberty, you quit aging.  You’re strong and healthy and really very, very smart, but you’ll be a little boy forever.  Ther’s a little more than two million people left on earth.  About a quarter of them are little kids like you.  The rest are grandparents like me, mostly grandpas.  Everybody inbetween died out.  We’re all that’s left and we’re not getting any older.  This fall, it will be seven hundred years since the virus broke out.  You and I never got any older.  We never will.”

“Something about the disease made me desire the company of a woman again in ways I hadn’t thought about in twenty years.  Your grandmother and I were very happy for almost seventy years after your mother and father died.  We took over a big house on a hill.  I had enough knowledge of mechanics and electronics to keep everything running.  The people who owned the house converted it to solar power long ago, so there was always electricity.  Your grandmother was a whiz at raising vegetables and chickens, and that’s how we lived for a long time.  We were happy in a world that was dying, dead really–except for us.”

“The disease made our bodies incredibly strong.  The only thign that could kill an infected person who survived was dispair.  There were stories of people who gave up on living after the world died, but found it almost impossible to end their own lives.  Almost that is.  There were a few ways left to break an unbreakable body.”

“The disease killed off anybody who had normal adult hormone levels.  People who had reduced hormone level like your grandma and me survived the first wave of the disease.  Little kids like you who hadn’t started the puberty level of hormones survived too.  Everybody in between died within twenty years, leaving just old people like me, and young people like you.”

“A lot of old and a lot of young people died, but some survived like we did.  For some reason, the diseae lasted longer in men that in women.  Men who were infected and survived were almost supermen.  Women who were infected and survived were too, but for some reason, for many of them, the disease would one day just stop working.  The immortality the disease gave them ended, and they began to be susceptible to diseases again.  That’s what happened to your grandma.  The disease extended your grandma’s life, then it ended it.”  

There are women left in the world, but not many, and those who are left don’t have much need of men.  Some have grandchildren of their own to look after.  Some are hold up somewhere using the kybernet to communicate with what’s left of mankind, some still trying to find a cure.

It wasn’t long after people began theorizing that sub atomic particles could communicate with each other regardless of constraints of time or space than people began developing a way to communicate on the sub atomic level, allowing computers to exchange information without wires or radio transmission, even through space without the constraint of c2, the Speed of light.

This way, humans on earth could communicate, in real time, with the human colonists on Mars.  There were less than three thousand people on Mars when the virus broke out.  There are almost forty thousand now.  They live completely separately from the humans on Earth.  Any interaction carried the risk of the virus infecting the Martian population, which would spell the end of mankind.  The last uninfected human beings in the universe live on Mars, and they are growing and prospering, turning Mars into a beautiful living planet again, like it once was.  Humans lived, grew up, fell in love, had children, grew old and died agian, but only on Mars.

“I’m gonna be a little boy forever.” Tyler said.  “FOREVER!” he shouted in the winds, with an impossibly happy look on his face.  “Forever,” Marcus said, with a tear in his eye.

By instinct, Marc knew where to stop.  He lowered the mainsil and tied it to the boom.  He pulled fried eggplant, tomato and pepper sandwiches out of the cooler, so he and Tyler could eat in the cool breeze.

“Is this the spot?” Tyler said.  “I think so,” Marc said.  He’s been knowing where to stop for seven hundred years.  He knew even before the disease, but now he knows weeks before when his friends are returning.  They speek to him in his sleep.

“What does it sound like,” Tyler said, “when they sing to you?”

“Do you know what it sounds like when you can hear their song through the hull of the skiff?”  Marc asked.  “It’s like that, only louder, and longer, and only when I sleep.”

“What do you think they say in their songs?” Tyler asked.”

“I think they say, ‘hello friend.  I’m coming soon.  I missed you.’” Marc said.  The old ones sign to me first, then the younger ones, then the younger ones become the older ones, and the new younger ones are born.  The older ones teach the younger ones the song, and tell them about their friend in the boat.”

“There was a time when men hunted whales.  They cooked down their bodies to make lamp oil.  They used their teeth to make women’s corsets.”  Marc thought it was important for Tyler to know the whole history.

“Whale teeth are like giant feathers, they strain the tiny shrimps they eat of the water.” Tyler added.  

“That’s right.  It’s called ‘Baleen’ and they used that to make girdles for women so they wouldn’t look fat.”  Marc grinned while Tyler puffed out his cheeks and stuck out his belly like the photos of fat women he’d seen.  Tyler could barely remember meeting any women ever.  What he knew about people he knew mostly from photographs.  

“Why do you think the whales chose you to talk to?” Tyler asked.

Marcus looked out to sea.  “I think I chose them.  I’ve been studying whales since I was a little boy like you.  The disease made me able to do things I could never do before.  I would remember word-for-word books that I read when I was thirteen.  I could hear and identify the song of birds miles away, and when I sleep I can hear the songs of whales at sea.”

“And they tell you when they’re coming!” Tyler said.  

“Well, I’ve known what time of year they were coming for a very long time, but their songs in my head let me know when shales I knew were coming near.”

“Like Notch!” Tyler said, excited he remembered the name of one of grandpa’s friends.

“Like Notch,” Marc said.  Notch was one of the first blue whales Marc recocognized from one season to the next as blue whales made their way North to South past San Diego.  There was a noticeable notch taken out of his dorsal fin.  Marc assumed it was from some sort of accident, maybe a shark attack when he was a juvinile, but it must have been some sort of congenital defect, because Notche’s children had it, then grandchildren, now the great grandchildren of notch pass by San Diego every year, with the song they sung to Marc passed down from generation to generation.  

When men stopped hunting whales, there was some concern that blue whales were near extinct, but once they were protected, they started making a comeback.  Now that man’s pollution dropped to almost nothing when their population was decimated, whales traveled the oceans in numbers not seen since before men learned to sail.  

“When you think they’ll get here?” Tyler asked.  

“Pretty soon now.  We’ll sleep here tonight.” Marc answered, and pulled out his guitar to play songs Tyler knew.  Marcus liked songs written by a man named Yusuf Islam, who died a century before Marc was born.  He played “Morning has Broken, Peace Train, and Father and Son, a song Marc understood too well, but Tyler never would.”  They sang into the night and ate grapes, blueberries and figs, and waited for the whales.

Marc woke with the sun.  He made coffee while Tyler slept.  When the world goes from a population of eight billion down to two million, there’s an awful lot of somethings left stored in warehouses.  Marc knew of a dock side warehouse that had entire containers of freeze dried and vacuum sealed coffee beans.  Enough for the rest of his extroridinarily long life.  He might be the last man on earth to enjoy coffee in the morning, but enjoy it he would.  Tyler slept in the tiny cabin as the yellow fingers of the sun stretched across the world.

Soft at first, but growing louder, long, deep whistles vibrated through the hull of the skiff.  “Wheel, wheel, wheel, wheeeeeeeeeel.” they sounded.  Tyler sprang into awakeness.  “They here!” he shouted.

Tyler scrambles to the deck of the skiff, hanging onto to the stanchion so he doesn’t go over.  Marc uses his binoculars to scan the horizon.  “There!” He shouts, pointing to the north.  A spout breaks the surface of the water, then another, then another.  A pod of whales was coming towards them.  

“Quick!” Marc shouted, as he raised the mainsail and tyler raised the jib.  They turned the skiff in the direction the whales were headed and waited for them to catch up to them.

The flukes of a blue whale are twenty-five feet wide.  Almost wider than the skiff is long.  They look slow because they’re a hundred feet long, but blue whales are remarkably fast.  Soon there are spouts on both sides of the skiff, as the pod slows it pace to travel in time with Marc and Tyler on the skiff. 

Tyler looks out and counts two adults and two juviniles with notched dorsal fins.  The great grandchildren of his grandfather’s whale.  The largest whale, an ancient female with a notched fin breaks the surface not twelve feet from the skiff.  She’s many times longer than the skiff, which looks tiny and frail now.  Her pectral flipper reaches under the skiff and nudges it’s keel.  Tyler shakes with excitement when he feels her touching the boat.  He can smell her breath as she spouts mere feet from him, the mist falling down on his shoulders.

For most of the day, Tyler and Marc sail in the middle of a blue whale pod.  Animals they’d known for years, descendants of animals they’d known for seven hundred years.  Marc was seven hundred and seventy eight years old.  Tyler was seven hundred and six years old.  Their bodies never aged, they never feared death, and neither knew how long this would last.  

As the sun began to set, the pod pulled away from the skiff.  Their journey was many miles yet.  Tyler sat in the cockpit of the skiff with his ear to the hull, listening for the last of the whale songs.  

Marcus Aurelius Delehandro studied the tan shirtless chest of his grandson, in an eternal hope that one day, a black hair would appear among the downy white fuz that constituted most of Tyler’s body hair, some sort of sign that this arrested life might one day start moving again, that one day his precious grandchild might still become a man, then an old man, then a grandfather like himself.  It crushed him knowing that tyler’s life would never be complete.  

There’s not much to compare with the love of a grandparent for a grandchild.  It’s easy to think you’d want that to go on forever, but when the day came that it did go on forever, after seven hundred years, the thought that consumed Marc’s life was that his grandson, the last heir of his family, the last living human being he loved on earth would never live a life complete.

Tyler never understood this.  He was happy to be a boy forever, as boys usually are.  Marc had no friends who ever understood him, except in the summertime, when the whales swim by and spend the day with their old friend.

An Elven Messenger In The Woods

Sometimes I run into people who, even if we never interacted so much before, my life and theirs intertwine like the roots of two trees in the same patch of forest, deep and wide pushing through the same soil, pulling out the same moisture and nutrients to keep our leaves alive and send out new buds.

Wanting to be a writer, calling myself a writer, and actually being a writer are all very different things.  I can, and did, type a thousand words a day for forty years, but I'm still not a writer because unless I offer those thousand words for anybody to read, it's not communication; my typing is a dead message with no listener.  With no listener, there is no writing.  

When the prospect of turning sixty came into my sights as a reality, I decided that regardless of whatever health challenges I have left (which get fewer every day), I should mend this situation.  God created me wanting to type a thousand words a day, more than wanting to--needing to.  If I don't get my words out in a day, I feel incomplete, and if I go two or three days without it, depression starts to set in.  I don't know how much I believe in the idea of "God's Plan," but I don't believe that much of a compulsion to do something would come without there being some purpose in it.  

I knew I could do the work.  I've been doing it as long and sometimes much longer than I've known most of you.  Other than my brother and sister, there's a pretty small fraternity of people who knew me before Mrs. Kitchings suggested I learn to type.  Doing the work and getting it out in the world are two different things, so I decided that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to start making connections with writers.  I grew up seeing Willie Morris and Larry Brown in bars and Eudora Welty at parties and socialite functions, but that's something different.  I needed to make connections with people who were trying to do the same thing I was doing, only better and with more confidence and more experience, who could show me the way.

Since today's prospective college student consumes twenty times more new media than traditional media, one of my strategies for the past two years has been to identify and amplify the social media message from organizations that are important to me.  I know how this works.  The social media companies "publish" millions of messages every day and decides how many people to show this message to by how much engagement the message gets and how much engagement the sender normally gets.  That means if I like, comment, and share the social media messages of the organizations I care about, then it greatly increases the chances that the social media company will serve the message to another target of the message, in this case, prospective students and prospective donors.  

This might sound dumb, but tapping "heart" or typing "Great Job" on the stuff Millsaps posts makes a huge difference.  Every time you do it, you increase the algorithm score on both the message and the school.  As a side benefit, whenever I log into social media for the day, I get a pretty comprehensive run down on what's happening on campus, a task I used to accomplish by strolling around campus or just talking to Joe Lee Gibson while he emptied the garbage cans.  

This way, I end up knowing, every day, what's going on with the Phi Mu's, what's going on with Food Services, the Baseball Team, Campus Pride, The Many Adventures of George Bey, and what was the original kernel of this story, whatever Liz Egan and the Writing Center was doing, which one day included a one-sheet about the McMuling Writing Workshop.  Having just seen it that morning, I mentioned to my sister in church that maybe I should go to that.  She said I should.  Having that conversation at that place at that time with that person probably meant something.   I was still basking in the blessing Cary transmitted to us at the end of his sermon, so when I got home, I shot off an email to the address on the post, which I assumed would be Liz or one of her students.

Preparing for the course, I sent in the possible first chapter of a book I'm working on, and the first person to respond to it was a woman who I knew worked at Millsaps named Isabelle Higbee.  Even though it said "Ezelle" in her Facebook profile, I wasn't yet making a connection with who she was.  Isabelle had just retired from a position at Millsaps that I always knew as Jack Woodward's office, so that's a pretty big connection there, but there was still a lot more I didn't know about yet.

Part of the writing workshop is reading to the other participant's pieces of what we're working on.  Sharing your work with other people doing the same sort of work is an important part of the creative process.  Isabelle's project is stories her mother told her about how her parents met during World War II in what became occupied Belgium.  As she told the story, my ears began to tingle.  Holy Shit, did James "Paddy" Hearon have a daughter I didn't know about?  James worked for my father for most of his life and took a special interest in me when it became clear that I was drowning in my professional life and struggling to find a place where I belonged.  

"Who was your father?" I asked.  "Robert Ezelle," she said.  I still wasn't making the connection.  I said that her story was so incredibly familiar to me that I knew a guy who had almost the same life story.  "James Hearon?" She said.  Her mother and James' wife Paulette knew each other and spoke frequently as the only two Belgians living in Jackson.  Then she said something about Mississippi Bedding, and the pieces started falling into place.  "Do you mean Bob Ezelle?"  I said.  I'd known her father and her brothers my entire life, but I had never heard the story of how her mother came from Belgium during the war.  

I'm ashamed to admit this, but sometimes little sisters get overlooked.  I always thought I tried not to do that, but I guess I missed one.  Isabelle's brothers were a huge part of Galloway Youth Ministries and a huge part of my youth.  They and the Gobers pretty much ran the place.  There's more to the story, though.  Part of our business at Missco was selling furniture for dormitories at schools and (unfortunately) furniture in prisons, and each of those furniture sets required a pretty durable mattress that we always bought from Bob Ezelle.  We laughed; even though Franklin Dorm is mostly used for storage now, I'm sure there are still a bunch of mattresses in it that came from Mississippi Bedding.  Our lives had roots that had interwoven for years, and because I'm sometimes completely socially blind, I had missed her.  Deciding to take this course in writing mended that.  Now that I've been given a second chance in life, I'm paying a lot closer attention to the trees around me, and this was one of them.

In The Lord of the Rings, it means something where there's a member of the Elven race in the woods.  They're this powerful class of being with magical forces that tie them deeply to the roots of Middle Earth, and their presence means something important is happening.

One of the first faces I picked out of the crowd when I attended the McMullin Writer's Workshop was Jeanne Luckett.  I can't remember a time when I didn't know who Jeanne Luckett was.  Even though she was considerably younger than my Daddy, he was incredibly impressed by her, not only because she was a Millsaps kid (which she was) but also because, on a professional level, she was involved in everything he thought was important, so throughout my life, whenever we would discuss these major campaigns going on, like the re-naming of First National Bank, or giving Millsaps a new look, or giving Missco a new look, her name was part of the conversation, and her work was not only evident but prevalent.  

To be honest, she always kind of intimidated me.  One of Daddy's business associates, whom I never got to fish with or drink with, was always kind of a mystery to me.  But I knew that everybody who knew her loved her, including some really important ones like Suzanne Maars and Rowan Taylor.  During the night, when Graphic Novelist Andrew Aydin lectured, I saw him talking with Jeanne.  Passing to my seat, I touched his elbow and said pretty cheekily, "Don't let her fool you; that's one of the most important marketing people in Mississippi history."  I meant it too, but I think I embarrassed her.  Having grown up at the feet of people who had remarkable careers, most of them didn't impress me with what they created, but she did.  Just driving around town, even now, I can look at things and say, "She did that.  She did that.  She did that too."

On the last day of the conference, I came early because I always try to go early to things now.  I spent so long not going to things at all that I figured I needed to start going early so I could catch up.  Going early, I had a chance to get Jeanne alone for a few minutes.  Talking like that, one on one for a good spell, really for the first time ever, I learned that our lives overlapped and intertwined in so many ways.  It means something when you love the same things and the same people, and that's something I share on so many levels with Jeanne Luckett.  For me, her face will still always mean that there's an Elven messenger in the forest, but now I'll always know this was someone who drank from the same well I drank from, someone whose history is part of my own.

One of the last things Ellen Ann Fentress said before I left at the end of the conference was, "Why don't you try putting together a short story."  I've always liked short stories, but I never thought I could write them, even though I've had some great teachers in short stories, including Austin Wilson and Suzanne Maars.  

Even though they ordered in some really great sandwiches from Broad Street for the conference, I made a tomato sandwich when I got home, just because we're rapidly running out of tomato sandwich season, and holding it over the sink to eat it so I don't get tomato seeds and tomato goo on my shirt, I started putting clay on the board and poking around at it with the idea of what sort of short story I could write.

Ray Bradbury's name came up over and over during the conference.  One of my peers, Kate, who was a very recent Millsaps Graduate, is taken with him too; she should be; he's Ray Bradbury.  One of the things Bradbury told me at the House of Pies, with Uncle Forry across from us, was that I shouldn't worry about writing, that I loved robots and dinosaurs, so I should be ok.  With that in mind, I started turning over ideas of robots and dinosaurs and rocket ships and Martians in my head, and what I heard was a whale song, and I knew I had my story.  

I've already written a crap ton this morning.  God knows if anyone will read this.  I have my idea for a short story.  Hopefully, I'll have at least the skeleton laid out by Monday.  

Friday, July 21, 2023

Sins of the Father

In the larger world, we talk about the baby boom generation, generation x, and millennials.  In Mississippi, there's only one generational marker that matters:  Those of us who were in school when the order for segregation came and those who weren't.  That moment in history, that turning point of history, changed the future of Jackson and Mississippi and might have destroyed it.   

If you look at Jackson now and many other parts of Mississippi, you'll see a school system that's just about as segregated now as it was in 1970.  There are some white kids in black schools and some black kids in white schools, but for the most part, all of our schools are either almost entirely white or almost entirely black, with a fairly predictable outcome of underfunded black schools and overfunded white schools.  

White schools have buildings named for wealthy white benefactors (who usually paid for them) while black schools have buildings named for people who died for the cause, that were either paid for with what federal dollars trickled down to us, a bond issue Jackson can't afford, or they just renamed an older building that had been named for a white person, sometimes a Confederate hero.  

I'd like to report that successful middle-class and upper-middle-class black families stepped in and replaced the lost financial support of white people with their own financial support, but that's not happening.  Middle-class and upper-middle-class black families are, by and large, sending their kids to the same private schools the white parents send their kids to, but there are far fewer of them, so they end up being a small minority in their school that sits inside a city where people who look like them are actually the majority.

It's awfully easy to say, "Boyd, you were six years old.  You don't bear any responsibility in this." and there have certainly been times when I believed that.  I don't say that anymore.  These days, I tend to say, "If you're alive, and you live here or did your best to escape from here, then you bear some responsibility."  Leaving Jackson, leaving the Delta, even leaving Mississippi doesn't make you not responsible anymore; it just makes it easier to live like you weren't.  

Part of dealing with the sins of the Father is that you're left with some portion of what they left behind, just like they were left with the sins their Father left behind.   Breaking the cycle isn't easy, but until you do something different, you won't get nothing different.  Any generation can break the cycle.  They just have to choose it.

Reconciling Segregation Academies

Ellen Ann Fentress has a really cool project where she's illuminating the histories of Mississippians who attended the many "segregation academies" that arose at the end of the sixties and the start of the seventies.   I spent most of the twilight hours last night digging through it.  

When I was really too young to have their respect, I asked both Jesse Howell and Glen Caine about this.  The only thing I had working in my favor was they both knew I was the third generation of a family that had served Mississippi Schools since the end of the First World War.  Working against me, they knew I was on friendly terms with Bob Fortenberry, William Winter, Charlie Deaton, and Ray Mabus, and I might feel some sorta way about the schools that sprang out of segregation, and I did.  

I myself had gone to St. Andrews.  One of the few private schools in Mississippi that didn't spring out of the segregation wars.  One of the reasons I went to St. Andews was that the superintendent of Jackson Public Schools had told my grandfather that "Jim better get those boys into private schools because I don't know what's gonna happen."  He wasn't long before his retirement date, so I guess he felt some sort of freedom of speech in that.  He was also pretty involved in the efforts to keep Jackson Public Schools separate for as long as they were.  After he retired, we went through three or four superintendents until Bob Fortenberry decided to return to Mississippi and take on the task.  

Glen Caine was a lot more forthcoming with me than Jesse Howell.  Glen gave an awful lot of his time to Millsaps after his tenure at Jackson Academy, and I'll always have a lot of warm feelings toward him.  Both men told me the same thing.  Their goal was to create something like Memphis University School in Jackson, and there were many reasons to create a new school than just segregation.   I believe they were telling the truth, but I also believe we can't really hold MUS faultless in all this.   

They were both very determined that I know their school had no connection with the Citizens Council.   While that was true, it's also true that no white person in Jackson was very far from the Citizens Council.  In my studies of the time when Galloway UMC split in two, a lot of the names were members of the Citizens Council.  These were people I knew; some of them were people I respected and liked.  This is a very confusing history, one that will take a good bit more than the seventy years we've had to sort it all out.

I've heard many times the story of when Mr. Howell tried to buy land for the school from Mr. Westbrook and offered him a price, to which Mr. Wesbrook said, "If that's all you got, you better go talk to Gus Primos about some of that swampy land his dad bought in Rankin County," and that's what he did.  That's how Prep ended up where it is.  

I asked both of them why they built metal commercial buildings rather than conventional construction methods.  Their schools, in the early years, were basically warehouses with air conditioners.  Both of them told me the same thing.  That style of construction met their needs, both in terms of capital outlay and expedience and that's what struck me: why expedience? Why was there such a hurry to get the school built, and why didn't they have more time to build up their capital beforehand.  

I have an awful lot of respect for both of these men.  They educated a hell of a lot of people I know and did it well.  There's still a dangling sword in all this, though.  It may be that my generation can't really address this adequately, although Ellen Ann Fentress is trying to.  People like Cindy Hyde-Smith, clearly don't give a fuck.  There's also the issue of what taking 90% of the white kids out of the Jackson Public Schools did to the system that was left after and what responsibility we have to redress this.  In a lot of ways, Jackson Schools are as segregated now as they were in 1960, and it has an impact on the quality of education you can get in Jackson and the quality of life for the people who live here.  If a city can't offer quality public education, they might as well give up on attracting young couples to the city.  

The sins of the Father is a really complicated issue for Mississippians and not one we handle well.  It has a tremendous impact on the quality of life we can offer now too, even though we're all pretty old and the fathers are mostly dead.  I don't believe in the solution of moving everybody to Madison and Rankin County and starting all over.  I don't think that solves the problem; I think it moves it further down the road.  Sometimes moving the problem further down the road can make it much more formidable when you do face it.  

Admissions Project link below

What Motivates Amanda

It's my hope that I can show you more than I tell you in my book, but since these are imaginary people, I have to decide what to tell you before I show it.  Although my characters are all imaginary, they all have qualities and histories that match people I've known in real life, but none of them have the same combination of qualities and histories as people I've known in real life.  It's kind of fun to say, "What if they're like John but with a father like Mary and a smoking habit like Tom?"   

Some of the faculty and administration do have pretty close to a one-to-one correlation with real-life people, like George Harmon and Lance Goss.  I even include Frank Hanes just so I can give him a happier ending.  None of them are exactly one-to-one, but they'll be recognizable.  None of the students or their parents match up with any living person in every aspect.  They're all amalgamations.  They're all imaginary and not meant to be taken as my opinion of any real person.

 Amanda Moore is eighteen.  At 5'8" she considers herself tall for a girl.  She'd much rather be six inches shorter.  She has light brown hair, with tremendous hazel eyes, and a few acne scars that aren't nearly as noticeable as she believes they are.  Most would say she was pretty, but she practices not looking friendly or approachable.  Her looks get her attention, and she knows how to work that, but her looks give her very little satisfaction or confidence.  

Other parts of her personality get in the way of her education.  Without that, she'd make a remarkable lawyer one day.  If she had any confidence, she could do just about anything, but despite the attitude she projects, she has none.  She's always done well in school because she was usually the brightest one in the class, but now that she's in a school full of kids who were the brightest ones in class, she's lost her seat at the table.  

Amanda is from Pascagoula, between Camille and Katrina, and before gulf coast gambling.  She's the only child of her mother, who was the second wife of her father, who now lives with his third wife, who is twenty years younger than him.  She has three half-brothers and sisters, including the four-year-old, that now gets all her father's love.  At four, he's decided that this will be the big strong son he always wanted, even though he's only four and still eats his boogers.

A modern psychologist would diagnose Amanda with Histrionic personality disorder.  Amanada's only ever seen one psychologist, a marriage and family counselor, ordered by the court when her mother sued her father for more support.  Since then, Amanda has refused to see any "head shrinkers," even after she started cutting her arms and thighs at fifteen.  Her mother, who is never sober after five o'clock, accepts Amanda's promise to "get help at school," even though her school counselor isn't a psychologist.  She's not even a counselor.  She's a nice Christian lady her private academy hired because she had an education degree and the right political attitude.  

Amanda has been experimenting with sex and drugs since she was fifteen.  A pretty girl can always get free drugs.  Sex gets her attention but never warmth, passion, compassion, or companionship.  Sex sometimes gets her better drugs and more of them.  

Amanda chose Marsh for college because her father and grandfather went there.  Her mother sees it as a chance for a new beginning, away from those nasty boys who she knew were leading her precious only child down the wrong paths.  Her mother went to community college.  She was her father's secretary before she became his mistress and would have probably remained his mistress had she not confronted Amanda's Father's first wife with a tremendous pregnant belly and some bad news.   Her father's first and second wives are now pretty good friends who mix a drink and call each other on the phone to talk about how much they hate the third wife and her stupid son.

Marsh College could be a fresh start and a new beginning for Amanda.  Her life could be very different, but she doesn't want that.  She wants more of what she had in Pascagoula, only this time with smarter boys, better drugs, and nobody to talk her ear off if she comes home four hours late.  

I'm trying to figure out ways that Amanda can eventually find happiness and peace later in life.  With all my characters, I'm telling the story of the moment but showing glimpses of both their past and their future.   That's kind of the point.  College isn't a destination.  It's a transitory point between the future and the past, even for the people who work there.  I'd like to say that what happens in the book is a painful moment that passes, and life becomes better; I just don't know how I'm going to do that just yet.  I'm not going to leave Amanda in the state she's in, though.  These are my creations, and I do have a fondness for all of them.  

Amanda will come off like a bitch, and somebody you don't want to be around.  It's my hope to show that she really never had a chance.  The cards were stacked against her.  Bradley tries really hard to find some good in her, but he's looking in the wrong places.  His attitude comes from an unstated belief that women are always good at heart, and men are always bad at heart, and someone like him has to mediate a safe place between them.  That's kind of the premise of being a gentleman, a myth Bradley believes more than he believes anything else and tries to apply in his life, but never with the results he hopes for.  People are never good or bad.  Their choices might be, but they themselves aren't.  Everybody tries to do good, even if they're wrong about what good is.

Amanda and Bradley, and Laurel aren't real, but I want to make them feel real.  That's one of the reasons why I'm setting them in a place that's very real, so real that some of my readers will recognize even the trees and the hills.  I'm not promising solutions to social problems.  This is just a story about people.  These are just observations about things that are in all people.  I'm not strong enough to shape a solution to what happens in the world, but I can maybe tell you about it.  I hope readers will see something they can sympathize with and understand in both the nicest and the meanest characters.  

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Book Title

Since the action of my book takes place around a college production of Mid Summers Night Dream, I'm thinking of calling it "What Fools These Mortals Be" or some variation of it, maybe even just "What Fools."

This means I will spend the next few months reading criticism of the play to try and discover themes I can use that I hadn't already picked out on my own.  It's probably presumptuous to borrow a title from Shakespeare, but when Faulkner did it, it left an impression on me, so maybe it will have a similar effect if I do it.  You're also supposed to write what you know, and theater is something I know.

I constantly worry that if I write about unpleasant people doing unpleasant things, even though they're imaginary, somebody will point out that I'm no prince either, and they'd be right.  That's the point, though.  I'm not writing about evil people.  I'm writing about ordinary people faced with situations that don't match any of the good and evil scenarios their parents taught them at a time when most young Americans got their morality from television, and on television, America's favorite dad was Bill Cosby.  

I have stories with a pleasant ending, but this isn't it.  The best I can say is that everybody survives by the last page.  Some learn from the experience.  Some don't.  I'm not even trying to teach my readers anything.  It's an image of an echo of a time.  I hope to make somebody care about what happens to my imaginary people, even if the imaginary people don't get what they want or even what they need.  

Dot Kitchings and the Keys to the Kingdom

I'm not yet ready to bury my past.  You'd be surprised how rarely people ask if I'm ready for anything.  Me being ready or not, has no impact on the progression of life.  

My sister called this morning to ask if I was going to the funeral for Dot Kitchings.  It's the same day as the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame induction for Jim Page, famed Millsaps Baseball coach.  I told her the logistics might be challenging, but I was going to do my best to do both but that I would be at the funeral for sure.

I don't much care for funerals.  In the years I was in the crystal cave, I attended none of them, missing even important ones.  A ritual celebrating the end of a remarkable life sometimes feels like just "the end" to me.  

When I look at St. Andrews now, it's grown so much from the school I knew.  They have all these really cool opportunities to build confidence and broaden horizons.  We didn't have that in the seventies.  One thing I learned as an adult was there were times when it was a struggle to keep the doors open and make the payroll.  We didn't have a lot of the impressive things the campus now boasts, but we did have people like Bea Donnelly and Dot Kitchings.

I entered Mrs. Kitchings' class, having been behind every year in language, history, and math.  Anything that required reading or writing, or calculation was a cold mountain for me, so I spent a lot of time in summer classes trying to catch up.

My mother suggested a trick using an index card to block out most of the text on the page of a book, so I could focus on just the one line I was trying to read.   That made a surprising difference.  Although I was behind, I went to the first day of Mrs. Kitchings's class, having read "The Hobbit," The Narnia Books, "The Martian Chronicles," and "I, Robot."  A girl I liked read "Slaughterhouse-Five" while I struggled with "The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe."  I don't think she was showing off.  She was just lucky in an area where I was not.

I think Mrs. Kitchings understood that I loved reading; I just couldn't do it very well.  She taught us "The Foghorn." I explained the connection between "The Foghorn" and the movie "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" and how Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen were childhood friends, and I had written Harryhausen a letter.  

My problem came in two parts.  The reading part I'd made some progress on, but the writing part was still really a problem.  Some of my old teachers read these essays sometimes.  They have my great sympathy for ever having to read my handwriting on tests or papers.  I'm aware of how bad it is.  An awful lot of effort was put into improving it, but it proved fruitless.

One day, Mrs. Kitchings was talking to my mother and told her that the Education Center, right next door to St. Andrews, offered classes in typing.  Maybe I could attend class there one or two days a week.  If I learned to type, maybe my papers would be at least readable.  

Without realizing it, she handed me the keys to what would become my life-long passion.  Touch typing broke the link between my eyes and my fingers where dyslexia was confusing them.  Typing made me free.  Free in ways I never dreamed possible.  I had so much I wanted to express, even if nobody ever read it, that had been completely impossible before, and now I could not only do it, I could do it well.  I had never had the experience of doing anything well other than lifting weights in my life.  This changed everything.

Now in my sixties, I write between one and two thousand words a day, every day, even Sunday.  Dot Kitchings' idea made an entirely new person out of me.  It would still take a few years for what I could do to really manifest, but once I was through that door, I could do anything, and I got through that door because of her.  

I always sit in the back at funerals.  My face may not express that much emotion, but my tears do.  I'm not very good at saying goodbye, but I'm very good at remembering why I should.  

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Quentin Compson Leaves Home.

Mississippi never leads nor follows.  It intensifies whatever fears and prejudices are already present in the larger society as if to say, "We can do it too," worried that, if we don't, we might be overlooked or forgotten about.   

"Do you hate blacks and queers?  We really, really hate them.    We'll prove it, and boy, will you be impressed.  Do you want to stop abortion?  We really want to stop abortion.  We'll do anything to stop it.  Boy, will you be impressed!"

It's not that we can't change, or be loving, or human.  We once tried to kill James Meridith, but now he walks those same streets as a hero.  People ask him to pose for a photo with their children.  It's almost as if we proved our point about integration; now, we can go back to being human again.  We never really hated the guy; we were just trying to show how dedicated we were to this idea, even though those who did lead were leading the entire country in another direction.     

Maybe, ultimately, it's a matter of confidence.  Maybe if we had more of it, we wouldn't be so determined to lead the way on the most prevalent negative emotions.   Maybe then we could say, "That's too much.  We don't want any part of that."

Yesterday we had a lecture from Donna Ladd, formerly the founder of the Jackson Free Press and now Editor of the Mississippi Free Press.   When I first started blogging, some of the people who now run very political blogs recognized me as having once been very political and tried to win me to their side by impressing me with how much they hated and disagreed with Donna.  Now that the face of journalism is changing, I worry that those same guys are having a much larger impact than they deserve.  That's not to say we didn't suffer from horribly biased news before, but for a while, we had almost liberated ourselves from that.  

Donna has launched more young writers than I've even met.  That makes her the perfect addition to the McMullan Young Writers program.  Donna's from Philadelphia, Mississippi.  She's just a couple years older than I am, and I was born in 1963.  If you think about what happened in Philadelphia in 1964, then you can't really blame her for feeling some sorta way about Mississippi.  

Those feelings made her want, more than anything, to escape Mississippi and never come back.  I know of a lot of people who had the same feeling, some really famous ones like Oprah Winfrey and Leontine Price, and Tennessee Williams.  Williams didn't go far, but in the 50s and 60s, New Orleans was an oasis of its own.  There were only a few places in the country where he could be what he was, New Orleans was one, and Mississippi was not.

At one point in her lecture, Donna asked the question that I spend a great deal of time thinking about.  "How many of you want to leave Mississippi when you graduate?"  More than half of the hands went up.  Some with energy and enthusiasm.  

I talk about this with my friends a lot.  "How do you keep your children here?"  So many of my generation face this.  Some of the young people in the forum that day were actually children of people I've known for a long time, raising their hands to say they want to leave Mississippi--to my mind, they want to leave those who love them more than anything.  I can't really blame them.  We invest so much treasure and time and energy and blood into raising these children, working so very hard to make sure they become remarkable people, and when they do actually become remarkable people, can we really ask them to stay here knowing that they might have to clip the wings we spent a lifetime giving them?

So much of what happened in Philadelphia that summer in 1964 touched my life.  Even though I was just learning to walk, it was so close to me.  My father always told the story of how the FBI called and wanted forty desk sets in forty-eight hours and how he struggled to fill the order.  Ben Puckett talked about the day the FBI called to rent equipment to dig up an earthen dam.  Clay Lee was a passionate young minister who the conference moved away from some pretty terrible things in Jackson, at Galloway, and sent him to a quiet country church where the troubles of Mississippi wouldn't upset his promising career, and they sent him to--Philadelphia Mississippi, just months before June of 1964.

I can't really blame Donna for leaving Mississippi.  We didn't exactly lay an appetizing table before her.  It's a miracle we ever got her back. 

When I was at St. Catherine's, I would have coffee with some guys, and one of them told the story of how they longed to leave Mississippi and see the world, and did, but when he saw in the newspapers that Rabbi Nussbaum's office and synagog were bombed, he figured he needed to go back to Mississippi.  He never hated Mississippi, but he never thought he'd get such a loud call to come back to her, either.

Many of Faulkner's characters spend a great deal of time turning over in their head what it means to be from Mississippi.  In Absalom, Absalom! my sometimes favorite novel, Quentin Compson struggles with his feelings about his home.  Throughout Faulkner's books, the Compsons often represent the moral heart of Mississippi.  Far from home, he says, “I dont hate it he thought, panting in the cold air, the iron New England dark; I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it!”  I've never really had a Quentin Compson moment, but it's been close.  I've known a lot of people who did, though, and acted on it.  It's our own fault, really.  Everybody has a chance to make it better, but not everybody does. 

Official Ted Lasso