Monday, August 28, 2023

UMMC Urban Myths

For quite a while now, I’ve been collecting the urban legends that emanate from students and employees at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.  Now that I live next door, I’m looking for some new ones.  Urban legends are similar to myths.  They tell a story that’s usually related to something historical or factual but doesn’t have to be, and the story reflects some sort of moral value, as interpreted by the culture the story comes from.  They are cautionary tales that are disguised to not look like cautionary tales.

Being told in Mississippi by Mississippians, there’s some effort to make the stories more vivid, more interesting, and more local than, say, stories from the University of Pennsylvania Medical College, no offense to Pennsylvanians.  Stories generated in Mississippi will have our unique flavor and perspective on things like race, sexuality, gender, religion, and people from Mississippi State University.

I’ve been doing this for around forty years, and there are a lot of stories.  These are the categories I’ve organized them with.  

Stories about Cadavers:  Like the Greeks, UMMC students are obsessed with the moral implications of death, the relations between the dead and the living, and the influence of living morality on the dead body.   Stories about cadavers often have the elements of ghost stories but are couched in a medical scenario to give them extra vitality and credence.

Stories about Swelling and Exploding Cysts:  What goes into the body must come out of the body, and what more interesting way to come out of the body is there than exploding cysts?  Often, these stories involve elements of new ties/shirts/suits that are destroyed by detritus shooting out of a cyst.  These are often tales of how dedicated a young doctor might be who sacrifice his new tie or designer glasses to open the cyst, often on some fat woman’s taint.

Stories about Catheters:  The Greeks did this, too.  Stories about the phallus and its misadventures are both the stuff of comedy and morality.  A malfunctioning phallus and what must be done to make it function can encompass all sorts of memes about morality, culture, and body horror.

Stories about Aids:  Although they’re not as prominent now, there was once an entire genre of stories about Aids.  To the myth-maker, aids was not only a disease but a moral judgment against the people who violate the cultural mores about sexuality and gratuitous sexual encounters.  Stories about men, often upstanding citizens, who got aids by cheating on their spouses were common.

Stories about Strippers and Prostitutes:  Much like the aids stories, these are stories about sexual morality and the perils of wanton sexuality.  Strippers and prostitutes make a lot of money, but they end up at the hospital with fatal diseases or gunshot or knife wounds that prove fatal.  These stories are precautions both against using prostitutes and becoming one.

Dumb Mistakes/Darwin Awards:  There may be no greater cautionary tale than “Don’t do dumb things.”  Especially in the South, stories about “y’all watch this” or “y’all hold my beer.” are perfect for urban myths, and their arrival at the hospital with fingers/testicles/teeth/ears/toes blown off make great stories.    

Crime Doesn’t Pay:  Stories about criminals who show up at the hospital after the police or other criminals shoot them are pretty common.  While there’s sometimes a racial element to these stories, they all have moral implications.  If you hadn’t have been doing that, you wouldn’t have ended up here with a gunshot wound.

Because University is a communal experience, they are great places to generate stories, particularly myth-building stories.  Most of the stories I’ve collected about UMMC I can’t reprint here because they’re either really gross, really depressing, and sometimes obviously bigoted.  There are guys who spend their entire lives and careers studying the memes broadcast in stories like these.  It’s a fascinating area of study.

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Terror At The Carnival Ball

I originally wrote this about twenty years ago and reprinted it because my sister didn't remember it.   I did it pretty quickly, without much research, because for many years, this was just something of a family joke. I have now, and research is easy, so I reworked the entire piece to reflect more and more accurate information.

When I was a kid, my mother was deeply involved in the Jackson Junior League.  I’m not sure who the Senior League was, but the Junior League consisted of women under forty who became involved in civic events.  They did many cool things, including fairy tale theater and puppet shows, which I loved.  In 1970, when I was seven years old, the Jackson Junior League sponsored the Carnival Ball.

The Carnival Ball was the primary fundraising effort for the Jackson Junior League. They sponsored many charities for disadvantaged children and young women in trouble, but the primary goal of the Carnival Ball was to raise money for that year's Arts Festival, which, in turn, raised money to build an arts center downtown.  They’ve had other fundraising efforts through the years, and the current main fundraiser is Mistletoe Marketplace.  In 1970 was the thirty-eighth annual Jackson Junior League Carnival Ball.  Lance Goss directed the entire event, and Frank Hains was the technical director.

My mother wasn't the kind of person to join a volunteer organization like the Junior League without doing any actual volunteer work, so one year, she ended up in charge of all the costumes for the Carnival Ball, and my brother was enlisted as a page boy. I remember racks and racks of costumes filling the living room and the dining room of our house and strangers in and out to try them on. 

That year, the King of the ball was Doctor James Hardy, the famous surgeon who pioneered heart and lung transplants at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.  In 1963, two months before I was born, he performed the first Lung Transplant on a dying inmate from the Mississippi State Penitentiary, the first successful operation of its kind.  The next year, he successfully transplanted the heart of a chimpanzee into a dying man, also the first successful operation of its kind.  Isabel Poteat Lutkin, wife of Donald Lutkin, the new president of Mississippi Power and Light Company, was the queen.

The theme that year was Echo 1890, where the floor of the Mississippi Collesceum was transformed into a facsimile of Jackson, Mississippi, in 1890.  While everyone at the Carnival Ball wore costumes, special attention was paid to local “celebrities.”  Lt. Governor Charlie Sullivan came dressed as Diamond Jim Brady.  Mayor Russell Davis dressed as an 1890 Jackson Policeman.  Al Simmons, head DJ at WSLI (and father of newscaster Scott Simmons), rode in on a balloon as the “observer.”  Governor John Bell Williams dressed as one of his personal heroes, Teddy Rosevelt, with a retinue of young Jacksonians as his Rough Rider soldiers.  Attendants to the "princesses" wore Gibson Girl costumes and wigs, and page boys wore knickerbockers.

While my mother handled all the costumes for the major characters, It was John Bell Williams who made an impression on the seven-year-old version of me.  Williams was a World War II hero and lost one arm in battle when his bomber crashed. Sometimes, he wore a mechanical prosthetic arm that ended in two curved metal prongs, but I didn’t know that. 

Williams was an old-style Democrat and previously served in Congress in Washington. He supported segregation, but, as governor, he didn't fight the court order (Alexander v Holmes County Schools) when it came down to desegregating Mississippi public schools immediately, but others did.  Williams distanced himself from the Citizens Council, but by then, the damage was done.

Arrangements were made for the Governor to come by our house and try on his Teddy Rosevelt costume before the ball. My dad supported Williams' opponent, William Winter, in the governor's race, so this was a slightly delicate moment. 

My mother pulled us kids aside to tell us that a very important man was coming to the house, and we were to be on our best behavior and be very polite and say "yes, sir" and especially not to stare because he had only one arm.  “Only one arm,” she said, and that was all she said.

Determined to be a good boy, I spent the next day and a half preparing myself to meet this important man with one arm. I wasn't going to stare, and I wasn't going to say anything stupid like, "Nice to meet you, we voted for William Winter." or "Hey, mister, where's your arm?".   This man was a hero, and he sacrificed part of his body fighting those rotten nazis.  I was going to be a good boy and a solid scout.

The big day came, and a nicely dressed older man came to the door in a dark suit with a hat. I was seven years old. Now, my mother was wise to warn us about meeting a man with one arm, and I was ready for that, even though I'd never met a man with one arm before. I was prepared for there being no arm.  I wasn’t prepared for what there was.  What she didn't tell us was that he had replaced that arm with what looked to me exactly like the gleaming metal HOOK like Captain Hook had in Peter Pan!   

I’d seen both the animated version of Peter Pan by Walt Disney and the Television version with Mary Martin.  In both versions, Captain Hook was a bad guy who wanted to poke holes in little boys with his sword, so I ran and hid in the many racks of costumes taking up space in our house, not to come out until after the Governor had left.  My mother hadn’t lied to me, but she left out some important pieces of information.

In the years to come, I would have more gentlemanly encounters with Governor Williams when he spoke to my Boy Scout Troop and other functions.  Charlie Sullivan would be a regular visitor at our house during his ill-fated run for governor.  I would buy honey collected by former Mayor Davis in the years ahead.

I think my mother missed being in the Junior League.  Her life was much simpler and much more exciting then.  There was considerable pressure on white moms in Jackson in 1970 to move their kids out of the public schools, and there were other conflicts, but my Mother’s life would become much more challenging in the years to come.  

Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Van Cliburn Concert

 In 1978 I was fifteen years old.  It was the first year I ever fully experienced the darkness inside me.  My family fought through an extraordinarily difficult 1977 and survived.  Things were looking up, but my outlook on life lost any hint of sunshine for the first time.

My father was the chairman of the Mississippi Arts Festival, an event designed to raise money and awareness of the proposed art center attached to what was then called the City Auditorium.  My father’s favorite appreciation of art was listening to Hee Haw on channel 12.  He was a big promoter of the idea of bringing arts and culture to Jackson, but he wasn’t the type to spend much time at the opera.

The featured performer for the 1978 Mississippi Arts Festival was Van Cliburn, the celebrated pianist from Shreveport, Louisiana.  He was to give a performance at the City Auditorium and attend a gala reception afterward at the Governor’s Mansion.  My mother wanted very much to attend.  Although he helped arrange the event, my father would have never survived a two-hour classical piano concert awake, and he didn’t much care for that governor, and that governor didn’t much care for him.

My oldest brother had just returned home and was under both legal and medical advice not to go out at night.  My middle brother saw nothing remotely cool in a concert by a guy who looked like Jerry Lee Lewis in a tuxedo.  Having deeply loved the previous Beverly Sills concert, I was anxious for my mother to ask me.  She decided I was old enough, not only for the concert but for the reception afterward.

We had dress circle tickets purchased in the name of The Office Supply Company.  I didn’t have a tuxedo, but I did have a navy blue suit and a red tie.  The concert was fascinating.  Van Cliburn moves like he was animated by Walt Disney.  I was attentive and wrapped in attention the entire concert.

After the concert, Mother asked if I thought we could park behind the Office Supply Company and walk to the Governor’s Mansion.  Since she was the one with the impractical shoes and the one driving, so I figured it was best just to do whatever she suggested.

Inside the Governor’s Mansion, I recognized many faces from church and our neighborhood.  Dick Wilson and Lester Senter stood next to Dick’s father, Baxter.  Bill Goodman had a drink and asked my mother, “Where’s Jim?” with a smirk.  My father’s actual location at home watching television wasn’t a mystery to anyone.  I’m sure there were lots of husbands who wished they’d made the same deal.  

Sunday night in April, the Governor’s mansion was prolific with flowers.  The Governor and his wife stood to the right of Van Cliburn, shaking the hands of those willing to wait in line.  Cliff Finch had hair not unlike Donald Trump.  Both an unnatural color and an unnatural shape.  Deeply tanned, he convinced Mississippi farmers and workers that he was one of them by carrying a lunch box.  He was not.  His wife looked like she’d taken enough pills that we could have performed minor surgery on her without complaint.  We later learned that was most likely the case.  At fifteen, I was already pretty well-versed in the ritual of shaking hands.  This wasn’t my first governor.  

My mother began to work the room.  These were her people, and there was an open bar.  “I want to look at the paintings,” I said as a way of announcing that I was going off on my own.  More than anything, I just wasn’t in the mood for a grown-up party or any kind of party, even though I really loved the concert.  

I found my way into a room to the side of where they had the staging area set up for the party.  It seemed to be used for storage.  In a couple of years, Elise Winter completely remodeled and restored the Governor’s Mansion.  Rumors and tales of the damage they found left by the Finch administration passed around Jackson for years.

I recognized a girl standing by a window as the governor’s daughter.  She was something like two years older than me and held a glass of chilled white wine.  “Do you want one?” she asked.  I was pretty sure she wasn’t supposed to have one, and I was absolutely sure I wasn’t supposed to.  I’d snuck alcohol from parties before, but considering the guest list at this one, I was under some pressure to be good.  She sounded like this was maybe her third glass that night.

“What’s your name?” She asked.  Her hair was unnaturally blonde and sculpted with aquanet and a blow dryer.  Her voice had a cadence that told me we weren’t from the same tribe.

“Alexander,”  I said.  I did that sometimes when I didn’t want to have to explain that my name was Boyd with a “D” and not just “Boy.”  I still do it sometimes.

“Did you go to that thing?” She asked, gesturing toward the Auditorium.  

“Yeah, my dad was a sponsor,”  I said.

“That’s not my kind of music.”  She said and gripped the back of my arm.  “You’re so big.”  She said.  I’d heard that before.  “I can get you a glass of wine or a beer if you want it.”  She said, demonstrating her power and connections.

“Can’t, I’m in training,”  I said.  It was mostly a lie, but if she hadn’t figured out I was just fifteen, I didn’t want to be the one to spoil her delusion.  

Glancing left and right, she moved her hand around to the front of my arm and squeezed my bicep.  Then she leaned in and kissed me.  I could feel her tongue brush against the tip of the cupid’s bow on my top lip.  This, too, felt like a show of power and connections.

I pulled back.  “I’ve got to go check on my ride,”  I said.  Saying that my ride was my mother wasn’t cool, so I left that part out.  After I found my mother, I never saw the governor’s daughter the rest of the night and never spoke to her again the rest of my life.

There were stories about her career at Ole Miss, but I’m sure she was a pretty nice girl.   A few glasses of wine and a really boring party can lead a girl to silly mistakes.  

I didn’t feel like I’d been kissed by a pretty girl at all.  I felt really dark and misunderstood.  I felt like if she had any idea who I was or what I was like, she never would have kissed me.  Sometimes, it’s a lot easier to kiss a stranger.  I experienced that a few times.  It’d be another year before I felt like I had a handle on this being around girls thing.  So much had to happen before that.  Some of it was really dark and painful.  I wasn’t really ready for what life would become.  I’d had a taste of it.  Some of my friends had lost a parent, and I was just beginning to realize that I’d lost my brother, or at least lost the person he was before he got sick.  

Van Cliburn’s career would continue to rise, but I would always associate it with something entirely different.  His was the music that played when I went through one of life’s more difficult doors.  Hiding a pretty girl in one of the rooms didn’t make things much better.

Signs and Omens

 Ken Stribling messaged me last night with corrections about a piece I wrote at 3:00 a.m.  What would I do without friends who can’t sleep either?  

Janie messaged me during coffee hours with some really vital information about an aspect of my Mississippi History project.  If this thing ever comes together, it’ll be due, in large part, to her input and influence.

Nearly all the boys I knew fell in love with Jane at one point or another.  If you ever saw her, you’d know why.  I did, too, but when a girl takes your friend’s heart, there are rules a gentleman must follow, or at least try to.  

I told her that I thought seeing Ruma’s photo at Hal & Mal’s was an omen.  Ruma had been the city attorney at a very young age.  She was an unusually brilliant lawyer and a valuable asset to the city.  A boy I knew loved her more than anything.  When she died so young, a lot of us felt like we lost a limb.  Jackson’s in constant trouble now.  The kind of trouble where the advice of a good lawyer could make a really big difference.  

Ruma loved Mississippi.  She died exploring it.  If I were to meet her in heaven today, I’d have to explain why I let Jackson get as bad as it is.  Maybe that’s what an omen means.  It’s a reminder of where your course lies.

Jane and I were born into a kind of bubble, a gilded age in Mississippi history.  We had very politically and socially active parents at a time when the worst of the Civil Rights stuff had passed, and Jackson’s population was growing at a pace never experienced before.  We had two very strong, locally owned banks.  Our electricity came from a company based here in Jackson.  Our clothes, our shoes, and luggage all came from stores based here in Jackson, where we’d see the owners at parties.  Millsaps was at its peak enrolment, and the academic world was falling over itself trying to copy the success of George Harmon.   The entire medical profession was amazed at the success of a bunch of nuns from Chicago who moved to Mississippi.  William Winter and Ray Mabus were governors–without a scandal in sight.  At certain parties, you were fairly likely to see Willie Morris, Eudora Welty, Michael Rubenstein, and Dale Danks wandering around.  Long-neck beer was a buck at CS’s, Cherokee, and Dutch Bar, and the Jackson Mets were Texas League Champions.  

Bubbles don’t last, though, and when bubbles break, it can break your heart.  The city of Jackson is facing the possibility of their insurance increasing by 300% because they can’t seem to manage their affairs.  My beloved Zoo is valiantly fighting to hold on, but I’m basically watching it die.  Violence in the city is at terrifying levels, and nobody in the city government seems to be taking it seriously–at least not to the level that the situation would seem to warrant, and nobody seems to have answers.  

Her children, my step-children, my nephews, and the children of nearly all my friends are asking if they should stay in Mississippi and will we be hurt if they don’t.  It’s not their job to worry about how we feel if they leave Mississippi; it was our job to make sure Mississippi is a place where they felt like they could grow–and I guess we didn’t do that.  

Some people, like Jane, tried to keep building Jackson and Mississippi a lot harder than I did, and I feel pretty bad about giving up for as long as I did.  I guess I thought maybe I was the problem, and if I stepped out, smarter and better people would take over, and that’d fix everything.  It didn’t.  The bubble around Jackson broke, and we were left naked, looking around and saying, “Oh.  I don’t think I know how to fix this.”

I think my plan was not to be here at sixty still, looking at all this.  I think part of me wishes I’d left this mortal coil when the bubble around Jackson broke.  That was a pretty shitty plan and a cowardly move on my part.  

When I look at Jackson now, I see so many green shoots.  The signs of life and growth are everywhere; we just have to provide the right environment for it to thrive.  There’s nothing that says there can’t be more than one Gilded Age.   Seeing that photo of Ruma reminded me of the path I’m on and energized me to keep pushing.  

Keep correcting me while I post parts of this project on Facebook, and keep messaging me these details that I missed.  The past isn’t the only avenue to the future, but it’s the only one I understand.  

What Happened to Feist-Dog

This project that I’m calling “Lies My Mother Never Told Me” has been openly banging around in my head for about a year and a half now.   Quietly, these stories have been whispering to me for forty years.  The funny thing about whispers is they sometimes say, “Go now!” and they sometimes say, “You better not.”  

What makes this project interesting is these are real people with real stories, and they all have histories and are interconnected.  I can put my finger down and say, “I want to start here.” in, say, 1963, but the story doesn’t end there; it feathers out like the Mississippi River Delta into time and space, spreading farther and wider, dropping more and more rich loam.  What makes this project dangerous is that these fingers, these feathers of time, reach into real people with real lives and descendants.  The story doesn’t stay in 1963; it reaches out through the seventies, eighties, nineties, and the millennium. It reaches until today, and if I write about things in the past that were painful, it could hurt somebody today.

For example, when I went to the McMullen Writer’s Workshop, the featured speaker was Andrew Aydin, a fascinating young guy who wrote a graphic novel about John Lewis.  So, I’m going to the lecture, and I’m thinking this is really cool because I’ve been into graphic novels longer than most. Lewis was a guy who really interested me, and this is pretty important work, and one of the first things out of Aydin’s mouth was how much he appreciated the school putting him up at Fairview, and in the back of my mind, I think, “Oh.”

Fairview is beautiful and a great representation of what Jackson can be like, and the food is really good, but, to me, that was Bill Simmons’s house, and even though he and Ms. Corley from St. Andrews made it into this beautiful inn, it’s still his house, and his history is so deeply intertwined in everything “Lies My Mother Never Told Me” is about, that I can’t really talk about the story without talking about him.  I can talk about pieces and fabricate whole sections that avoid him, but the story of how Mississippi moved from 1954 to 1994 involves Bill Simmons and some really unpleasant things about him.

Even writing just that sentence makes me nervous.  I’m pleased about what’s happening with Fairview, and I wouldn’t ever do anything to damage their reputation, but going to Bill’s house and having him show me all his books on the Civil War and what I call the “questionable anthropology” he studied for twenty-five years are part of the story–part of my reflection on his story.  The newspaper and radio program he wrote are part of the story.  The schools he created are part of the story.  

I can’t tell this story without talking about Bill Simmons; most importantly, I can’t tell the story of Bill Simmons without pointing out that I really liked the guy.  I know many brilliant people who also liked the guy.  As a writer, I can reconcile that.  That becomes part of my story, but I'll be criticized as a historian (which I am not).  Historians have written about all this.  Stephanie Clanton Rolph wrote about it, and I’m reading her book now for reference.  I think her work on this is much more important than mine, but Stephanie is a lot younger than I am, and she didn’t have all the sort of interpersonal connectedness I did.  I can’t tell you how to reconcile the facts that Bill Simmons was this brilliant guy who appreciated art and music and history but also believed and taught some of the most putrid, hateful things I ever heard.  Both statements are factual, though.  Maybe part of why the universe draws me to this story is that somebody really needs to make the point that it’s a lot more complicated than just saying he was a horrible guy.  

Another part of it is that I deeply love Galloway.  It’s a part of me, like a limb I didn’t use for twenty years but really need now.  People have already pointed out that there are painful parts of Galloway’s history in this, and if I loved the church, do I really want to dig all that back up?  

The answer is that I don’t want to bring all that back up without strongly making the point that Galloway worked through it.  Love and acceptance won out, even though getting there was rough.  Goodness won out, and Galloway was much stronger in 1970 than they were in 1960 because of it.  A sword has to pass through the fire to become strong, and we passed through the fire.

I wrote that long piece about why I was baptized by WJ Cunningham, not by W.B. Selah or Clay Lee, making the point that I never met Cunningham and didn’t really engage with his future in any way other than what I saw on paper, but it turns out that wasn’t true.  Joe Reiff helped make the connection that he was Lori Trigg’s grandfather, and I knew Lori well.  A guy in my pledge class was deeply taken with her; the rest of us were absolutely devoted to her. I very likely met her grandfather one of the years she was voted on the Millsaps Homecoming court, but I knew him as Lori’s grandfather, not the former pastor at Galloway.

Another thread that I’ve been interested in but can’t really make up my mind about is that Riverside Methodist Church didn’t die out.  They took the money the Boy Scouts paid them for their building and built a smaller church in Rankin County.  They have a website, and it's given me some tantalizing bits about what they’ve been up to over the last fifty years, but do I have the right to try and talk to them about some potentially painful and embarrassing things in their past? 

I can’t actually tell my story without telling the story of other people, too.  That’s one of the reasons why I post big pieces of it on Facebook, so people I know can pick it apart and correct me when I make mistakes and either privately or publicly challenge my perspective.  It also gives them a chance to tell me pieces of the story I don’t know, which is really interesting because these stories are fifty years old, and I’ve been digging into them for at least forty years, but every time I write about it, somebody tells me something new.  

My dad believed the only way to deal with Mississippi was to keep looking ahead.  Tear down all that antebellum stuff and build modern new stuff.  The past is but the past, and we’re all about the future.  I understand his point of view, and sometimes I agree with it, but the past is the stock and the roux that binds this stew together.  We’re not yet to the point where we can say the past has no hold on us.  I know that my dad, and Mayor Danks, and Mayor Davis tried to put a modern face on everything so the world wouldn’t judge us for the sixties, but those stories are a part of us, and it’s important to tell them.  I may not be the guy to tell them.  I may be better off writing about Dinosaurs, Robots, and Space Ships like Ray Bradbury said I should.  These stories don’t leave me, though.  They percolate through everything else I try to do.  

Even if I say I will stop working on “Lies My Mother Never Told Me,” it won’t be true because there’s more to writing than just moving my fingers across a keyboard.  I’ll still lay in bed, putting pieces together in my head while I wait for the alarm to go off.  Photos of brilliant people I used to know hiding in a corner of Hal and Mals will still catch my eye.  

I haven’t written about Feist-Dog in a while.  There’s a million other dogs living here, so he’s running around sniffing butts.  This is feist-dog’s story, though.  The day Medgar Evers was shot, Feist-dog was on the radio.   The day men ran Ed King off the road, Feist-Dog was on the radio.  The day Rev Cunningham left Galloway and the days Bill Simmons and Jessie Howell opened their schools, Feist-Dog was on the radio.  He’s just an imaginary dog on the radio, but this is his story.  I’m just a little boy who saw parts of it, and tried to piece together the rest.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Reading The Other Side

If I'm going to write about what happened in the sixties and early seventies, I feel like I need to be able to at least understand and articulate the opposing viewpoint, even if I don't agree with it.  

In Mississippi, most of the argument in favor of segregation came from the Citizens Council, and most of that came from Bill Simmons.  There's such a vast gulf between the things the guy said and wrote and my personal experience with him that I struggle to rationalize it all, and yet it's all true.  

No one sets out to be a villain.  Everybody believes they're working for the greater good.  Medgar Evers thought he was working for the greater good.  Bryan De La Beckwith thought he was working for the greater good.  Obviously, they weren't both correct.   Either that or the actual greater good isn't something we can understand.  

Most of what Bill Simmons wrote, I attribute to what Stephen Jay Gould called "biological determinism," or what I call "really bad anthropology."  What really helped me with all this was Richard Dawkins' theory on "The Selfish Gene," where he introduced the idea of the "meme" as a unit of cultural evolution to help the gene maximize inclusive fitness.  

There's an awful lot more to the word "meme" than funny pictures of cats or animated gifs from 90's sitcoms.  "Meme," as Dawkins intended it, could be the key to everything.  Once you infest yourself with a certain set of memes, then everything Bill Simmons ever wrote and everything Bryan De La Beckwith did starts to become understandable.  They're serving not truth but a meme, and that meme serves some level of genetic inclusive fitness.  

The wrongness of what these men said and did was the result of the selfish gene and the memes it spun to protect its agenda.

George Lucas simplifies the story so that red light sabers mean bad and light colors mean good, and that makes a great story, but there's more to it than that.

I'm starting these stories with the idea that everybody in the are trying to do what's right, but there's a big difference in what they all consider "right" to be.  Everybody is working to serve the memes they start with, but everybody starts with different memes.  

It's possible that the same flaws in my brain that make it difficult to read or speak also give me a way to see these things differently.  Either way, every time I turn on the television, I see where an old enemy of my culture has returned.  Understanding them is vitally important.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

A Short Sad Story

 I used to think I had a clear preference for muscular girls with raven black hair and coal black eyes, who had a preference for progressive politics and read Hemmingway and Faulkner and listened to Edith Piaf; then, a long-time platonic friend of mine asked one day, "What's up with you and lesbians?"

And I said, "Oh."

"We've been fishing from the same well, haven't we?" I asked.

"Have been for years."  She said.  "But, I never held it against you."  She continued, clasping a solid hand down on my trapezius muscle as a sign of friendship and respect.  

"I guess that explains my batting average,"  I said, in revelation and sad resolution.  

"Mine too, brother."  She said.  "Mine, too."

Lies My Mother Never Told Me -- Part 1

Clay Lee didn’t baptize me.

The last days of summer dripped out of the bottle like sweet syrup.  School starts soon.  My teeth are freshly scrubbed, and I sit at the breakfast table in my cowboy pajamas, reading my baby book while my mother cuts out patterns to make a dress for my sister.  Baby books are pre-printed journals where mothers mark down significant events in a child’s first year.  They were popular in the sixties, so were having babies.  We were at the end of the post-war baby boom, so different from our older siblings that they started calling us “Generation X.”  We had different tastes and values than the earlier boomers.  

I was accustomed to the idea that my baby book was considerably slimmer and less complete than my brothers' or sister's.  My mother explained that this was “middle child syndrome,” meaning that older and younger siblings take up most of the mother’s time, so middle children get less attention.  It was true that my baby book was smaller, and the only family member in fewer of our home movies was my father. Still, I never felt bad about the middle child thing because my mother spent more time with me than anyone while trying to figure out a way to circumvent my dyslexia so I could read. Without reading, I could never become any of the things they wanted for me.  There might also be other reasons why the mother of a newborn in 1963 in Jackson, Mississippi, might not have the time to fill out a baby book.

My fingernails were broken and jagged from climbing trees.  My cuticles were cracked and stained from digging holes and playing with dogs.  In my baby book, my thick finger pointed to a name on my Certificate of Christian Baptism.  “Who is W.J. Cunningham?” I asked.

“That’s the man who baptized you.”  My mother answered.

“Why didn’t Mr. Lee do it?”  I asked.  Clay Lee and Bill Gober were the only ministers I’d ever seen at Galloway.  

“Clay was associate pastor.”  Mother said, pointing to a typed letter to the six-month-old me from Rev. Cunningham, congratulating me on my choice to be baptized and promising to watch over me the rest of my life.  I could read individual words well, but blocks of text might as well have been Sumerian cuneiform due to my dyslexia.  At the top of the letter, I saw the print saying “Clay Lee, Associate.”

“What’s associate mean?”

“That’s like assistant.”

“Why was Mr. Lee an assistant?”

“Because this was a long time ago, and Mr. Lee was still a young man.”  

Saying that Clay Lee was a young man obscured the fact that my mother herself was only thirty-three years old in 1963.  A little less than half as old as I am now.  Ed King, who features heavily in this story, was only twenty-seven.  From my perspective, my parents, Clay Lee, and Ed King, were always the senior people in the room and the most in charge.  In 1963, they were all young associates.  

“It can’t be that long ago,” I said.  “I’m only seven.”

“You’re a big boy now.”  My mother said.

Even now, I have no memory at all of Rev. Cunningham.  “Did I ever meet this Cunningham guy?” I asked my mother.

“I think so.”  She said.  “He was there the day he baptized you.” and she smiled at the joke she made at my expense.

Not really understanding my mother's story, I accepted it as the truth, and it was the truth, just not all of it.  I was too young to remember Cunningham when I was baptized, but why didn’t I remember ever meeting him after that?

My mother told me many things about the year I was born, all of them were true.  She told me about the twin boys she miscarried the year before.  They were to be named John and Allen, after my uncles.  She planned to call me John-Allen until my Uncle Boyd died in February.  Everything changed after that.

She hadn’t planned on getting pregnant.  With Uncle Boyd very sick, my father’s job became more demanding.  More than that, following the miscarriage, she just wasn’t emotionally ready.  A weekend at the Broadwater Beach Hotel during a National School Supply and Equipment Association meeting was romantic enough to change her mind, and I was conceived one balmy fall night in the sea air.

She told me that spots of blood started showing up in her underwear just before Christmas and continued until weeks before I was born.  Dr. Pittman could sometimes pick up a fetal heartbeat, and sometimes couldn't.  Sometimes, she would go for weeks without feeling me move, and then I would keep her up all night, kicking.  As the spots of blood got worse, Dr. Pittman ordered her to stay in bed for the last three months of my pregnancy.  Fortunately, my grandmother lived with us and could watch over my two brothers while my mother was bed-bound.

She told me that, after she started having contractions and checked into the hospital, Dr. Pittman told my father the contractions weren’t nearly coming close enough together, and it could be another day before I was born, so he and Jack Flood crossed the street to get hamburgers at Primos.  When they returned, with a hamburger in a sack for my mother, the nurses were cleaning me up, and my mother returned to her room.  The contractions started coming much more quickly after they left, and in moments, I was born.

There were scary parts to the story.  There were funny parts to the story.  I was satisfied that was the whole story, and everything my mother told me was true, but she didn’t mention a word about what else was going on when I was born.  

I was born at Baptist Hospital because that’s where Dr. Pittman delivered babies.  After losing the twins, my mother was very particular about pre-natal care.  There were times when they didn’t know if I was alive inside her or not.  I can only imagine what it must have been like.  I was born alive, healthy, and strong, with a prominent beauty mark above my left eye that turned red when I cried.

My mother and I were still in the hospital when, two days later, an ambulance brought a twenty-seven-year-old Methodist minister from Vicksburg named Ed King to the emergency room after some nameless men ran his car off Hanging Moss Road.  He had significant jaw, cheekbone, and mouth damage, but no surgeon would see him.  The fix was in.  No plastic surgeon in Jackson would treat Ed King.  Some men carried scars from the Civil Rights Movement in their hearts for the rest of their lives.  Ed King carried them on his face.  

Three weeks before, King ministered to some students who dared to violate the color barrier at Woolworth’s on Capitol Street.  Photographs of the incident are famous.  King was young, strong, and beautiful in his clerical collar while an angry mob pelted the protestors with food and condiments, hoping for more tangible violence.  Nurses sewed his face up two days after I was born and bandaged him the best they could.  

Ed’s life and mine tangled together like vines on the same tree.  I walked much of my life in the path he made, even though I rarely understood it that way.  When I asked my mother about the man with the scars on his face that sat at Galloway, she said he was a minister, and the scars came during the civil rights times, which I understood to be long before I was born.  It wasn’t.  My mother told me the truth but didn’t tell me all of it.  

I understand why she left things out.  I was a sensitive boy and very empathetic.  I also tended to make whatever tragedies happened in people’s lives my own.  If she had told me the whole story from the beginning, my response would have been unpredictable and probably extreme.  

Before 1950, most of the world wasn’t willing to do or say much about the South’s peculiar institution of maintaining geographic proximity to our African neighbors but keeping iron locks on every conceivable cultural gateway, especially schools, restaurants, public transportation, and churches.  

As the world came home from World War II and the Korean Conflict, attitudes began changing.  Some young ministers, like TW Lewis and Ed King, both graduates of Millsaps College, began to question whether the South’s peculiar institution violated the scriptural teachings of Jesus.  Critics of Ed King would say his time in Boston, after Millsaps, had made him a communist, and that’s why he was interested in all this racial equality stuff.  

Brown v. Board of Education was decided while King was at Millsaps.  Not long after, Methodists around the country began discussing ending segregation at the church door—Methodists who were not from the South.   

King might have then, and now, had socialist tendencies, but he’s far from a communist.  Despite what you hear, they are not the same.  Like most things in life, King’s ideas about integration are scripturally based and informed by the prevailing methodist opinion on issues.  

It’s a mistake to assume King was “just another liberal.”  In the eighties, I was friends with a woman who was very involved in abortion rights.   The clinics in Jackson were under constant attack, and some episodes in other parts of the South turned violent. She assembled a group to defend the clinic, its employees, and its patients from these possibly violent protestors.  She rented the Heritage room at Millsaps to hold a meeting to discuss clinic defense and training, but someone associated with the college was demanding a hearing on the issue and she asked if I would speak on her behalf.  I made it clear that I could only go representing myself and not as an agent of my father, but as I was personally interested in this issue, I would be glad to do it. 

The meeting was set.  We were to meet in Stuart Good’s office with Wayne Miller, representing Campus Security, a tenured professor from the English Department, my friend and I, and the person filing the complaint.   Sitting quietly in Good’s office, wondering who might come through the door with a complaint about our having an abortion rights meeting at Millsaps, I was shocked when it was Ed King.

I’d had discussions with people who had a scriptural argument about abortion before and felt confident doing it, but this was Ed King.  I was profoundly intimidated and unprepared for this.  Wayne Miller turned out to be the deciding factor in this issue, and we ended up having the abortion rights meeting without event.  That day, I learned an important lesson: never assume you know what Ed King thinks about an issue.  

The struggle for civil rights started at a quick pace, and by the year I was born, it became burning hot.  

July 1953, the Korean War ended.  

May 1954, the Supreme Court decides in favor Brown in Brown v. Board of Education.  School segregation in the South would end with “all due haste.”  That verbiage would become important later.  

July 1954, The Citizens Council forms to “defend” the South from the effects of Brown v. Board of Education.  

August 1955, Emmett Till murdered.  

December 1955, Rosa Parks arrested.

March 1956, Mississippi forms the State Sovereignty Commission.  Its initial purpose was to counter bad press about Mississippi, but it becomes a segregationalist spy agency.  

September 1956, James Campbell Jr. Born

October 1959, Joseph William Campbell Born

June 1961, Despite direct orders to the contrary from the National Methodist Conference, Galloway United Methodist Church Lay Board votes to empower ushers to keep any “colored people” from entering the sanctuary.  

December 1961, John and Allen Campbell are stillborn.

September 1962, The “Battle of Oxford” to prevent admitting James Meridith into the University of Mississippi.

January 1963, Twenty-eight Methodist ministers sign the “Born of Conviction” letter; most notable among them was Keith Tonkel.  

In February 1963, Boyd Campbell, former US Chamber of Commerce president, dies in Jackson.

April 1963, Allen C. Thompson, Mayor of Jackson, closes all Jackson swimming pools rather than integrate them.

May 27, 1963, 600 African residents of Jackson meet with Thompson to demand the desegregation of public places and schools.  

May 27, 1963, The Justice Department publishes a plan to integrate Southern Schools “with all due haste.”

May 28, 1963, Ed King and students from Tougaloo College attempt to integrate the lunch counter at Woolworths on Capitol Street.  In less than a month, an attempt is made on King’s life that ends with his face scarred for life.

May 31, 1963, The Mississippi Methodist Conference severs all ties with Rev. Ed King.  

June 12, 1963, Four days before I was born.  Medgar Evers was shot dead in his driveway, a little more than two miles from where I was born.

My mother had been in bed since the start of Spring, not knowing if I’d be born alive or dead.  W. B. Selah, who had been the head pastor at Gallow since 1945, was the longest-serving minister in the already long history of Galloway.   After the Brown decision, Selah began advocating for an open-door policy at Galloway.  He pushed for a plan that when “Negros” came to Galloway, ushers would invite them in under the condition that they come with a worshipful heart and not to disrupt the service.  The Lay Board voted overwhelmingly against it.  In the Methodist Church, the lay board has much more power than in the Episcopal Church or the Catholic Church, which have a much more powerful central organization.

Selah believed his congregation loved him and would follow his lead, even though they voted against it.  On June 9, 1963, two weeks after I was born, five African protestors showed up on the steps of Galloway.  Ed King was in his car, not far away, his face still bandaged from his atack.  Galloway ushers violently rebuff the protestors, who are then arrested by the city police.  Selah tells the police that he is the minister of Galloway and he will not press charges against these people.  The police say it doesn’t matter because they’re being charged on a city ordinance, not trespassing.  W.B. Selah, who had been at Galloway longer than any other Methodist Minister in the history of Mississippi, walked back to the podium before his beloved congregation and resigned.  His associate pastor Rev. Jerry Furr, went with him.

Without a pastor or an associate, the Lay Board at Galloway petitioned the Mississippi conference for a new Minister and a new associate.  On September 1, 1963, they sent William Jefferson Cunningham and Clay Lee to take over ministerial duties at Galloway.  On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Texas.  December 29, 1963, I was baptized at Galloway, not by W.B. Selah, whom everybody loved and baptized my brothers, but by WJ Cunningham, who nobody knew.  

Like Selah, Cunningham preferred an open-door policy at Galloway.  Like Selah, the lay board opposed it.  Nat Rogers, the state's most important banker, whose groundwork led to the rapid growth of Deposit Guarantee Bank, which became the state’s largest bank, was the head of the Galloway Lay Board.  He conceded that Galloway should eventually work toward an open-door policy, but at a very slow and deliberate pace, a much slower pace than Cunningham wanted.  Selah had members of the congregation who supported his open-door plan, and Cunningham inherited them.  Their numbers were growing, but not fast enough.  Conflicts between the stubborn Cunningham and his congregation grew.  

A hardline segregation group rose up and blocked every effort Cunningham made.  They sent anonymous and signed letters to the Conference asking for a new pastor.  The Conference, wanting to avoid soiling the career of the young and promising Clay Lee with the conflict in Jackson, moved him to a rural congregation in Philadelphia, Mississippi, thinking things would be quieter there.  Lee had not finished unpacking the boxes in his new home when Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were murdered in June of 1964.  

Lee did his best to minister to the people of Neshoba, Mississippi.  He was even instrumental in putting together what they called the Philadelphia Project, which sought to combine the efforts of multiple churches to pull the community together. Still, he was swimming upstream in a strong current.

Cunningham made slow, painful progress at Galloway.  Nat Rogers worked to keep the conference and the hardliners at Galloway off his neck.  On July 2, 1964, Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act by using every political trick he knew and every ounce of intimidation he could muster.  The act made it illegal to discriminate based on race in places of public accommodation.  The question of whether that included the church caused many arguments.  Forces that favored an open-door policy at Galloway were emboldened, and hardliners formed an escape plan.  

June 8, 1965, long-time affiliate of Galloway, Millsaps College Board of Trustees, voted to desegregate the school, including Nat Rogers.  Segregation hardliners at Galloway began transferring their membership letters to a new church that would become the Riverside Independent Methodist Church.  Over the next two years, over two hundred Galloway regular members moved to Riverside, which promised to continue the fight for segregation.

On January 10, 1966, Galloway again voted to open its doors.  This time, it passes.  Galloway is desegregated.  My little sister, born three months later, was baptized in a fully liberated Methodist Church.  

WJ Cunningham would go on to write a book about his experiences at Galloway.  You can’t blame him for having ambiguous feelings about the rough handling he received there.  In 1966, WJ Cunningham asked the conference to transfer him out of Galloway, and they agreed.  Clay Lee returned to Jackson, and Galloway became the church I knew.

The Civil Rights Movement would never again be as hot and active as it was in 1963 when I was born, but it wasn’t over yet.  In 1968, over one hundred young men and women signed the “Letter of Belief and Intention” in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger Newspaper, asking for an even more open society.  In October of 1969, the Supreme Court decided in favor of Alexander in Alexander v. Holmes County Board of Education, changing the verbiage of Brown v. Board of Education from integration “with all due haste” to integration “immediately,” prompting a panicked mass exodus from the Mississippi Public School System.

When I became a man, both my mother and my father would tell me the truth of all these things.  They would tell me all these things and more–some that I will never write down.  But when I was a boy–when I was seven, they believed I didn’t need to know all the ways the world around me was nearly torn apart.  Between my stuttering and my dyslexia, I was a pretty shy boy and easily frightened.   Knowing that these things were going on around me probably would have been upsetting.  There were many other lies my mother never told me.  I think that happens with little boys.  You have to wait until they’re strong enough to take on the world the way it really is.  

Tuesday, August 22, 2023


I’m working on a project.  I don’t know what to call it yet.  Part of it might be “Lies My Mother Never Told Me.”  For this project, I’ve made a timeline of all the significant events in my universe that involve the Civil Rights movement.  “My Universe” here includes Jackson, Mississippi, Millsaps, Galloway, Ole Miss, St. Andrews, The United Methodist Church, Prep, Casey, Murrah, The Jackson Zoo, Riverside Park, WLBT, WJTV, The Office Supply Company, Mississippi School Supply Company, First National Bank and Deposit Guarantee Bank.  

The timeline starts in 1954 when Brown V Board of Education was handed down, and goes until 1990.  Some might say 1990 is too late a date for the Civil Rights movement, but keep in mind how long it took to settle the Ayers Case, or, as I like to call it, Millsaps Alumni defend the State of Mississippi from its own mistakes.  

I suspected and confirmed by making the timeline that if you made a heatmap of events based on date and geographic location, there’s a significant cluster surrounding the day I was born.  A superstitious person might think I was the cause of it all.

I use Uber a lot.  I have a high rating because I’m polite and tip well.  Not long ago, I was meeting a lady at Bravo.  My Uber driver was a black man about my age.  Some of the drivers don’t talk at all.  This one did.  “Where you from?” He asked.  I said I was from Jackson.  I grew up here.  “Where did you go to high school?”  I said I went to St. Andrews but didn’t graduate in a typical fashion, so I went to college a little early.  “I went to Murrah.”  He said.

He noted where I was going and asked if I knew Jeff Good.  I said I knew Jeff Good really well, primarily through his dad, and I knew his wife primarily through her being a girl at Millsaps.  My driver explained that he and Jeff graduated from Murrah together.  

People who graduated with Jeff at Murrah aren’t just regular kids.  These are the kids who started public school in 1970, the year that the Department of Justice took control of Jackson Schools and a year after Alexander V Holmes County, where the US Supreme Court changed the wording of Brown v Board of Education from “all due haste” to “immediately.” All the schemes Mississippi came up with were over.  We had to integrate.  Jeff didn’t live in Mississippi yet; he lived in a state where this sort of battle didn’t have to happen.  My driver did, though.  He and I were born in the same hospital.   That class who graduated with my driver were the first Mississippians to have gone all the way through school without ever facing public school segregation.

You have to think about why fighting Brown V Board of Education was so important.  If you’re in a state that believes it’s better off if everybody is educated, what does it matter if a black kid learns to multiply fractions sitting next to a white kid?  There was no Civil Rights Act yet; you could still refuse to seat black diners at your restaurant if you wanted.

It mattered because our schools taught math and science. Still, they also taught language, literature, history, civics, and religion; these courses are all gateways to culture, and in Mississippi, the last thing people wanted was to admit Africans into the white culture.  

Schools are cultural gateways.  You’re given a mascot.  You’re taught to have “school spirit.”  You cheer for your school, mainly when it plays other schools.  More importantly, though, you form relationships, like my driver who wanted to tell a total stranger that he shared this cultural connection with a man I knew, and in many ways, that made us equal.

I’ve written extensively about when and why my parents decided to take me out of public school.  Had I stayed in public school, I would have spent most of my high school career with this guy.  We would have been alumni together.  Forty-five years later, it seems alien that anyone would try to keep us apart, but they did.  

Many people say that there’s no reason to write about these things, that there have been a lot of other people who wrote about it already, and obsessing over the past is no way to bring on a happy future.  You’re supposed to write about what you know, though, and write about what you feel.  What I know is what happened to Mississippi, and what I feel, more often than not, is haunted,

As a man, Jeff became a gatekeeper to a new kind of culture in Mississippi.  It’s been challenging and sometimes painful, but we’re forging a new, blended sort of culture in Mississippi.   James Meridith was the first African to graduate from the University of Mississippi sixty days after I was born.  Today, he walks around Jackson like a movie star, and whatever he did, it wasn’t really that big of a deal.  It was that big of a deal.  They shot the guy.  The only reason he lived and Medgar Evers didn’t was because some redneck had lousy aim.  Nobody knows who Aubrey James Norvell was, but they ask James Meridith to sign autographs for their grandchildren.  I’m okay with that outcome.  

Much has been written about why Mississippians were adamant about not allowing black faces through our cultural gateways.  Questions of why always matter, but in this case, the questions seem to go round and round in circles.  I’ve been told, my entire life, that Mississippi would have corrected itself eventually.  I don’t think I believe that.  Even with tremendous pressure, some men fought this to their graves.  

I’m not a very good gatekeeper.  I don’t like to talk to strangers, and I don’t like to talk to anyone at all unless I know you pretty well.  I prefer books to pickleball or cocktail parties.  I’m grateful that there are gatekeepers, though.  Some open restaurants, and some drive Uber taxis.  Both open the passages that allow us to blend our lives together now that the worst part is over.  

Sunday, August 20, 2023

Third Graders in the Light House

Because I'm old, I take a diuretic to make sure my body doesn't retain water because my body works about as well as a 1982 Ford.  It's a tiny dose, and I split it in half, but even then, I still gotta pee for two hours when I take it.  

Normally I just make sure I don't have to be anywhere for two hours when I take it.  This morning, because I make bad decisions, I decided that I was a grown damn man, and I gotta go to church in 30 minutes, but I can still take this tiny little half pill and not have any problem.

I hate having to leave a room with something going on for a latrine break.  Once you've done it, there's the awkward business of retaking your seat.  About two-thirds of the way through Sunday School, it hit me.  I wasn't going to make it till the end, which I hated because it was a really good discussion about how we decide what morality is.  

After visiting the cis-gendered, handicap-enabled little boys' room across the hall from what most of my life had been the fourth and fifth-grade Sunday school, I decided there were only five or six minutes left in class, so rather than facing the walk of shame back into the room, I decided to find a spot in the sanctuary for the eleven o'clock service.

Getting settled in the sanctuary early, I got to see our youth minister working with her third graders as she explained to them the ritual of the church, presenting them with bibles.  I knew this was coming because I actually read the church bulletin email, but I wasn't really ready for the wave after wave of memory watching them produced in me.

Fifty-eight years ago, it was my turn to sit on the front row to receive a bible with my name stamped on it.  Five or six of my readers were there too.  They're much, much younger than I am, but we were third-graders together.  In the congregation were my parents and grandparents, who can't come anymore, just like Eudora Welty, Lance Goss, Ross Moore, and others, but there were some people there today who were also there fifty-eight years ago, Kay Barksdale, TW Lewis, Red Moffett and more.

None of my classmates were there.  Some are current members of Galloway, but they either attended the 8:30 service or didn't come today.  Others don't live in Jackson anymore.  Some are not even in Mississippi.  One runs the most famous restaurant in Oxford.

Membership in Galloway isn't a comfortable kind of Christianity.  As I study our history, I'm learning how many times Galloway was the steady ship in a bad storm with a hull thick enough to break the ice in uncharted waters delivering its cargo to calmer seas.  Yesterday, Galloway helped host over six thousand people for the Mississippi Book Festival.  Galloway is uniquely suited to do this, both because of its physical proximity to the Capitol but also because of its historical connection to Mississippi writers.

Most of the people in my Sunday School have Ph.D., MD,  or JD after their name.  One is a judge, and one is the first boy to become a Rhode's Scholar from Millsaps.  My daddy always thought he'd be governor one day.  That never happened, but he did fabricate governors all over the country.  He'd probably object to my choice of verb here, but if you're in his party and you want to win an election, he's your guy.  We're readers.  We read in several languages and look for things to read to challenge our worldview.  I can't think of a congregation better suited to the broad spectrum of thought that makes up the Mississippi Book Festival.  

Christianity is ancient.  It is the conduit of so many of our cultural threads going back through the millennia.  It connects us to all the wonders and beauty and pain and regret of the centuries.  Galloway acts as a light-house through time.  There are rough seas ahead, there were rough seas in the past, but Galloway provided a beacon then, and it provides a beacon now.  

It hasn't been easy forging a culture in this country, particularly in Mississippi.  We've made horrible, painful mistakes, but if you build your house on solid ground, you can weather any storm.  Matthew and Luke both recount the parable of building on solid ground.  

Galloway is built on an ancient site.  Did you know there was a graveyard underneath it?  A small plot with the mortal remains of some of Jackson's earliest residents, the sanctuary was built over it.  The graves and the gravestones still stand undisturbed, save for decades and decades of organ music.  We are a light-house to history.  Their history sits with us every Sunday.

Generations and generations of eight-year-olds have been folded into and made a part of our congregation.  There's so much more to it than just accepting the Lord and learning a few bible verses.  At eight years old, you become part of something ancient.  You're eight, so you don't understand this, but the thread of culture going back to the pharos continues through you.

My diuretic stuck again, and I couldn't finish Cary's sermon, but I listened to it on Youtube.  

Driving home, I thought, the world is a confusing, sometimes frightening place.  Bringing eight-year-olds into this ancient battle seems like such a strange thing to do, almost cruel, but it's an ancient and honorable ritual.  Standing up in front of your parents' friends and accepting the gift of a book seems like an odd thing to do, but it's the start of something.  It's the entrance into something very ancient that struggles to find the good in life and fight for it and fight for you as you fight for others.  You're eight, but now you're a light-house keeper.  Even if you don't stay here.  Even if you move far away and transfer your membership out of Galloway, you take some of us with you, and we keep some of you with us.  Don't be surprised if you look at your books when you're sixty and say, "Wow, that's my third-grade bible."  

Friday, August 18, 2023

The Ritual Killer Review

Last night my friend Tom messaged me that Morgan Freeman was giving a lecture at Millsaps in a movie.  “The Ritual Killer,” now streaming on Hulu, was shot in Jackson during the time when I was still really sick, so I guess I missed a lot of information about it.  The film was shot in Italy, Jackson, Clinton, and the Pearl River Reservoir.  It’s a psychological thriller with Cole Hauser from Yellowstone playing a Clinton, Mississippi Homicide Detective (the Clinton Police Force may not have homicide detectives.  It’s only about 20 guys.)  Morgan Freeman plays a professor of African History at a small college in Clinton.  There actually is a small college in Clinton, but they shot the film in Jackson at Millsaps instead.

The Ritual Killing referenced here is African shamanistic medicine, which in some instances, requires human body parts for the more powerful rituals.  There was a rash of these sorts of killings in Africa a few years ago.   In the film, a powerful businessman hires an African shaman to come to Clinton, Mississippi, where he lives, and conduct these rituals to make him more powerful, rituals that require the sacrifice of two children and a teenager, which is where the homicide detective comes in.

Morgan Freeman plays an anthropology professor.  The first scene with him has him lecturing in the Heritage Lecture Hall in the Ford Academic Complex.  With all its geometric shapes and brick patterns, the building photographs really well.  One of the students in his class is Claire Azordegan, who was in the Spring Show last year.  She doesn’t have any speaking lines, but she does a good job of looking like she’s studying really hard.  I expected to recognize other players in the production, but most were out-of-towners.  Bill Luckett as the crime scene scientist, did make me smile.  Bill died two years ago, and we still haven’t anyone like him yet.  Covid and other issues delayed the release of the film.  

The writing credits for this film look like a house party.  IMDB lists seven different writers.  None of the writers are from here, which is why, most of the time, it feels like they just threw a dart at the map and chose to set the film in Clinton.  Although they did a fair amount of research into African Culture, they did zero research into Southern Culture.  This film could just have easily been set in Chicago or Fresno, or any city.

To write a film about voodoo killings and not even have some of it set in New Orleans is a huge missed opportunity.  There are a few exterior shots toward the end that were apparently shot in Baton Rouge (there are no riverside warehouses on the Pearl River.)  A film about African culture set in Mississippi is such an obvious opportunity to discuss the exchange between African and European cultures that makes up the state culture of Mississippi, but one the screenwriters completely ignore.  There’s absolutely no story-driven reason to set the film in Mississippi.  It’s just a place.

That being said, they photographed Jackson and Millsaps beautifully.  There are a few exterior establishing shots actually done in Clinton, but nearly the entire film is shot in Jackson, including a police chase through the Lamar Life Building and a couple of really good scenes shot in Hal and Mals.  I feel like the Mississippi Film Office just gave them a list of filming locations, and the director said, “Sure.”  It works too.  The film feels very much like it’s set in Middle America, which I suppose was the objective, but they left an awful lot on the table.

Most of the scenes shot in Italy could have been shot anywhere too.  The writers don’t seem to have any sense of place at all.  It’s like they wanted an excuse to spend two months filming in Rome, so they wrote it into the movie.  I know a guy who actually did that.  The movie is 20 Million Miles to Earth.  Check it out sometime.  Shooting it in Rome gave Ray Harryhausen a pretty great honeymoon.

Morgan Freeman’s role is very similar to the character he played in Se7en and Kiss the Girls.  I”m sure Cole Hauser can be a fine actor, but in scenes with Morgan Freeman, you can tell he’s scared to death and comes off as really wooden and not committed to the scene at all.

As a psychological thriller, I’m pretty pleased with the film.  It has a nice, even tension to it, and you end up feeling pretty strongly about the leads finding a resolution to the action.  It’s kind of like dinner at a Chinese restaurant, though; you’re hungry an hour later.  If you’re from Jackson or at all involved with Millsaps, it’s worth watching just so you can pick out locations you know.  

With New Orleans so nearby, nobody has ever done a movie about Voodoo in Mississippi before.  We have it, though.  There was a time when one of our store managers fired an unreliable delivery guy, and there were chicken bones left in the doorway to the building for a month.  

Nearly everybody has Hulu these days.  It’s worth a night at home watching movies.

Monday, August 14, 2023

I Became A Bully

I became a bully.  I didn’t mean to.  I didn’t want to.  I think it happened because I didn’t do enough to make sure it didn’t happen.  I learned early on that the bullied kids often became the best bullies.  That key bit of information should have been enough to keep me out of this, but it didn’t.

Now that we’re all in the third quarter of our lives, I’ve heard my classmates say that our school had a problem with bullying.  I don’t know how to tell if that’s true.  We certainly weren’t as bad as you saw in the movies, but it sure felt like something wrong was happening when it happened to you.  

We were a small school.  Education in Jackson became fractured over the issue of integration, and St. Andrews decided early on to try and go their own way to avoid both sides of the argument.  They also chose to pay their bills with tuition rather than depending on large donations, so it ended up being the most expensive school in the state.

In the fifth grade, I began to grow faster than my classmates.  A York barbell set lay dormant in our playroom from when Coach Jack Carlisle wanted my brother to move with him from Murrah to Prep, and he wanted him to put on muscle weight, hence the barbells.  My brother found much more to occupy his time at Prep than football, so the barbells gathered dust until I discovered them.

Beamon Drugs in Maywood Mart had a different selection of magazines than the Totesum nearby.  They hadn’t any comic books, only things older kids and adults might read.  Architectural Digest caught my eye.  My dad liked my AD magazines so much that he subscribed.  I also found Strength and Health and Iron Man.  Beamon Drugs also had a godawful early form of milk whey protein powder and a broad selection of dietary supplements.  I decided I had no interest in making my body a temple, but a bulldozer might be useful.

One of the first people to notice the effects of my growth spurt and weight training was Jack Carlisle, who lobbied me to switch to Prep from the fifth grade until my second year in college.  For a guy with only one leg, he was pretty tenacious.  

We were pretty isolated from the Junior High kids in fifth and sixth grade.  They had a reputation, but apart from some taunts across the football field that separated us, their reputation had nothing to do with us.  That all changed when we were in the seventh grade.  We moved from our safe, isolated part of campus into their midst. 

My introduction to seventh grade was that a boy from Prep sent out word that, for him to have an adequate position at Prep, he would have to fight me.  That made absolutely no sense, but after sizing him up, I decided it wouldn’t be so bad.  Word went out that we were supposed to meet at Mr. Gattis Pizza (now Amerigo) for the big fight.  None of us could drive yet, so getting a ride to Mr. Gattis without betraying the purpose was probably the most complicated part of the mission.

I had never been in a fight before, so I let him start.  He threw a few punches that landed but didn’t seem to make much difference.  In the movies, if you hit a guy in the jaw, he passes out.  That didn’t happen.  Maybe I was immune.  I’ve been hit in the jaw a lot since, and it never made me pass out.  

I didn’t want to hit him because that didn’t seem gentlemanly, so I tried a hold I had seen on television.  I knew wrestling was fake, but I figured the moves were authentic, so I turned him around and wrapt him in what I thought was a full nelson, only I’d done it wrong, and I was pressing his arm against the arteries in his neck in, what the wrestlers called, a sleeper hold.  

Just as his body began to go limp, grownups ran out of the pizza restaurant to make us stop.  It’s probably a good thing because sleeper holds are actually quite dangerous, and neither of us knew what we were doing.  Our unimpressive encounter satisfied my opponent, and he never challenged me again.  I’d gotten through my first real fight without any damage and an overestimation of my abilities.  The grownups stopped before it ended, but I had the advantage.

Back at St. Andrews, the boys taunting us safely across the football field were now a few steps away.  That changed things considerably.  Most of the eighth and ninth graders weren’t bullies, but some were notorious, and the notorious ones loved nothing more than waiting for us seventh graders to try and gather outside the classroom.

Winter in Mississippi is more of a concept than a reality.  January of that year was unusually cold despite our reputation, and one morning, while we were in class, it began to snow.  When the lunch bell rang, everybody ran out of the upper school buildings looking for enough snow to make a ball to throw at each other.  Soon, we used up all the snow around the buildings and the bleachers, and intrepid snowball fighters moved out onto the football field and its fresh coat of snow.

We seventh graders got there first, but that made no difference when the ninth graders began to move in.  Soon, the biggest bullies found my friend Walter and started tripping him so he’d fall into the snow and mud, pushing him when he tried to get up while his three bully friends roared in laughter.  Something broke in me.  “I’m bigger than him!  I’m bigger than anybody!” I thought.  I ran to Walter’s antagonist and shoved him with all my might.  “I’m tired of you!” I shouted as he stumbled back.  “I’m tired of your shit!” I said his name. “STOP!”  I shouted and slammed my foot on the snowy earth.  I’d heard people say, “I put my foot down” all my life without knowing it was a natural response when you loudly wanted to make your point.

The moments that followed lasted forever.  Nobody expected this.  Lots of people joked about “what would happen if Boyd lost his temper?”  “What would happen if Boyd got in a real fight?”  That moment was here.  Walter’s antagonist was shocked but ready.  He came at me with vengeance and arms flailing.  One, two, three punches to the face.  He was stronger than the boy at Mr. Gattis, but hitting my face wasn’t a sweet spot.  He grappled me, and I wrestled back.  Young, untrained, but unrestrained bodies were testing their limits.  

One edge of our football field ended in a steep hill that led down into some undeveloped woods.  Our pushing and grappling landed us on the precipice of this hill.  I got enough leverage to slam him on the ground by twisting him over my hip.  His glasses flew off.

I pulled him up from the ground and pinned his arms behind him,  I could tell I couldn’t hold him long, but while I had him, I shouted, “Somebody get his glasses!”  Fighting was one thing; breaking a boy's glasses could get you in real trouble.  Walter’s nose was still a little bloody and red when he slipped in to pick up his bully's glasses.  He wanted the bully to know he was a part of this.  Bob Trent and Mrs. Sergeant ran in from the blind spot behind us to break us up.  “Boyd!  Stop!  Stop!”  They yelled for me to stop, not the boy I was fighting.  That made me feel horrible and guilty.  

I didn’t get in trouble, but I got a lecture.  “Your body is changing, Boyd.”  “You have to be careful.”  “You could do some real damage.”  “There are always better ways of solving things.”  We never discussed it, but I always wanted to ask Bob Trent why I didn’t get in trouble.  Was it because he knew how the fight started, or was it just because fighting wasn’t as serious as I thought?  Even though I stopped the fight to save that boy’s glasses, I felt very guilty.  I told my father what happened, thinking I’d be in trouble.  He said I did the right thing.

I don’t think you could say I won either of these fights, but I didn’t lose, and in kid parlance, that meant something.  What I didn’t know–what I had no real reason to suspect, was that if you stood up to a bully, that made him want to befriend you and make you one of them.  I suppose that’s what hazing is all about.  You pass some sort of test, so you become one of them.  My former enemy, now new friends, fully expected me to bully my old friends, and I hate to admit it, but sometimes I did.  

I don’t think I was prepared to be asked to join them.  What bothers me now is that maybe a part of me saw this as a social promotion.  Sitting with the bullies might make me look cooler than sitting with the nerds, even though I had nothing to talk about with the bullies.  Spending all day talking about whose breasts had gotten the biggest and speculating about who was doing what with whom wasn’t nearly as interesting as figuring out how the muppets operated or all the cool things the Ultra Seven Warriors could do.

Bullying was pretty easy.  Find a trait of the person you’re picking on, it doesn’t really matter what trait, exaggerate it and draw it out in a funny voice, and they’ll get mad.  They might get really mad, but what were they gonna do?  I was the strongest kid in three schools and had a team of meaner bullies behind me.  For one boy, we changed the “i” in his name to “eeee, " which was enough to bully him.  Another boy had a big nose and a funny voice, so we called him Gonzo after the muppet monster on the Muppet Show.  

I didn’t like bullying, but it became my place in our little society.  I was the bully victim turned bully himself.  Maybe they all were.  Maybe being bullied is what made you become a bully.  

One of my new friends played football with me.  Before games, Coach Clark was determined we spend two or three hours with our teammates in quiet reflection, thinking about football and the lord.  During one of these quiet sessions, one of the biggest bullies of all told me about what his father did to him.  I believed him, too, because when we played, his father would shout the most horrible things to his son from the sidelines.  Nothing he did was good enough.  He tried shouting at me too, but I just looked at him like, “Who the hell are you?” He never addressed me again.  Without a doubt, whatever this boy was doing to seventh graders at Saint Andrew's was nothing compared to what his father did to him at home.  I never thought of him as a bully again.  He was a victim.  He still did and said the most horrible things, but more horrible things were happening to him than anyone knew.  

A famous artist sent his daughter to school in ninth grade with us.  I’m not really qualified to speculate on this, but something was very different about her.  I suspect it may have been some form of autism, but nobody ever told us anything.  Maybe even the teachers didn’t have a very complete diagnosis of her as this was still the seventies.  She also had terrible scoliosis and had to wear a bulky back brace to endure sitting in the classroom all day.  

I don’t know what to tell you about this girl’s intelligence.  She made it through her classes with us ok, but she found socializing nearly impossible.   Her hygiene was inconsistent and awkward at an age when most girls were obsessed with their looks.  She soon found herself bullied by almost everyone.  Even some teachers turned their faces away from the painful spectacle in the high school courtyard every day.  They weren’t prepared for it either

She preferred Bea Donnelly and Jerry McBride and ran to them when we upset her. They tried to help her, but I always thought the school was at something of a loss about how to handle this.  Had any of the teachers explained to us what was happening, we might have been kinder or even just said, “Hey, we’re in kind of a spot here with this girl; can you help us out and be nice to her?” but no one did.  Maybe they didn’t know themselves.  

You know kids are being cruel when they replace somebody’s name with the word “The.”  For the entire student body, her name was not “Laurie”; it was “The.”  We said “The Gadd,” but what we meant was “The Monster,” “The Outsider,” and “The Misfit.”  I’ve spent forty-five years wishing I’d tried to understand this person rather than make fun of her.  I supposed that’s going to be my burden.  

My time as a bully didn’t last.  I realized it didn’t feel right.  I’d rather be the kid that tried to stop his friend from being bullied than being a bully myself.  I’ll always think that maybe life wasn’t cruel enough to me for the urge to bully to stick.  Everyone has some pain in their lives, but to stay a bully, I think there has to be more pain than reward.

I never saw most of the kids I bullied again.  I had a speech ready in my head if I ever did.  My artist friends told me how important The Gadd’s father was in the world of Mississippi artists, and my heart sank.  I could have made a difference.  As big as I was, maybe I could have turned the tide and shielded her from some of the poison other kids threw at her.  I didn’t, though.  I didn’t add to it, but I didn’t stop it.   Not stopping it when I could have made me feel more like a bully than anything else I ever did.  I stood up to these boys when they pushed Walter into the mud and snow; I could have stood up to them again, but being accepted among them changed something.  I was no longer as interested in what was right as I was in what my social position might be.

There are a million books and movies about high school and college because that’s when you go from what you really are and try on different masks to see what you will become.  For a time, I wore the mask of a bully.  I didn’t care for it, and I don’t think I was any good at it, but I learned to be cruel.  Being popular was more important than being right, at least for a while.

Sunday, August 13, 2023

Earth's Ill Fated Sister

We take the word “myth” to mean something this isn’t true.  “Is he Man or Myth?” “Unicorns are Mythological.”  This is a very superficial and inadequate understanding of the word.  Myths are stories we tell to explain very complicated and nuanced things that are nevertheless very important.  “Where do we come from?”  “Why are we here?”  “What is Justice?”  “What makes Greeks different from Persians?”  “What does it mean that we have one God and the Egyptians have many gods?”  

These stories have to be true, even if they’re not factual.  Truth and fact are not the same thing.  Factually it is not true that a great fish swallowed Jonah.  In truth, there are great and grave consequences for not following God’s plan for your life.  Hera may not have factually assigned twelve impossible labors for Heracles, but in truth, some men spend their entire lives and perform incredible feats to redeem themselves.  It’s unlikely there was ever a man like Heracles, but the myth of Heracles is true of all men.

From the beginning, the Greeks had a burning, passionate curiosity about the world.  They also were blessed with a very descriptive language which they used to create the most remarkable myths to tell the truths of the world, even if they lacked the scientific knowledge to discover the facts of the world.  To explain how the world began, the Greeks created the myth of Gaea and Uranus.  They had 12 children called Titans: Oceanus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Cronus,  Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, and Tethys.

The titan Theia was the mother of Selene, the goddess of the moon, and it’s here that our story begins.

As the universe began to slow from creation and cool from the event that began it, pools of matter, mostly hydrogen, began forming in the new fabric of what we call space.  This matter, all matter causes a warp in the fabric of space; this warp draws bits of matter to other bits of matter.  

Imagine the surface of a trampoline.  In one spot on the trampoline, you place a heavy watermelon.  The mass of the watermelon warps the surface of the trampoline.  Now place an egg on another part of the trampoline and a cantaloupe on another.  The egg distorts the surface of the trampoline too, but not very much; so does the cantaloupe, which warps it much more.  Because the egg deforms the trampoline's surface less, it is drawn to the warp of the cantaloupe.  Once the egg and the cantaloupe are together, they are both drawn to the deformation in space caused by the watermelon. Soon, the egg, the cantaloup, and the watermelon all occupy the same deformation in the trampoline's surface.  

This is what happened at the beginning of the universe.  As matter began to come together, it created a deformation in space and time.  As more matter comes together, the deformation becomes larger, attracting even more matter to it.  Eventually, enough hydrogen is trying to press itself into the same instance of time and space that the matter begins to compress. The space between atoms gets smaller and smaller as the compression gets greater and greater, and eventually, the mass reaches a critical point. This ball of hydrogen ignites and explodes, creating a star, in this case, a star we call Sol, our sun.

In the explosion that created Sol, some of the matter from the original mass is ejected out with great force but is held in the gravitational pull of the new star, so the forces trying to fling this matter out into space work against the pull of gravity, and all this matter begins to spin around the new star.

At first, this matter was a flat disk, but lumps began forming in it over time.  The largest lumps become the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. Smaller lumps contain less gas and more compressed rocky matter, and they form the other planets and the rocky inner planets, including Earth.

In the third orbit around the sun were two masses, one called Earth and one called Theia, because of her future role.  Both planets were still white hot from creation.  They burned across the sky, expelling their energy out into the coldness of space.  Theia was much smaller than Earth, about the size of Mars, and for millions of years, it held a stable spot in orbit around the sun, but eventually, the gravitational attraction of Jupiter and Saturn caused Theia’s orbit to spiral, and once it spiraled enough to escape its Lagrange point of stability and put it on a collision course with earth.  

Earth and Theia were molten and unformed at this point, but their rocky core had already formed.  Theia didn’t collide with Earth head-on, but more of a glancing blow.  The force of the collision made most of the molten rocky core of Theia join with the Earth's molten rocky core, which is why the Earth has a core much larger than the other rocky planets.  

Some of Theia’s matter was flung out into space and became part of what we now call the asteroid belt.  Parts of Theia and parts of Earth were pushed to the side of Earth, far enough away to collapse into their own body rather than fly out into space or collapse back into Earth.  

Within hours gravitational forces formed this molten matter into a globe, much smaller than the Earth, and forever locked in orbit around it.  The planet Theia gave birth to our moon in much the same way that the Titan Theia gave birth to Selene.

Ancient Greeks didn’t have access to the type of physics or the computers necessary to calculate how the collision of Earth with a previously unknown sister planet might form the moon, but they understood the causality of things and created a myth to tell the truth of the moon’s origin, even if they had no way to know the facts.  Even my essay is more myth than science because I skipped over huge volumes of physics and computational mathematics, but it doesn’t make what I wrote any less true.


Saturday, August 12, 2023

Oppenheimer and McCarthy

I enjoyed Christopher Nolan's "Oppenheimer" very much.  Announcing the film caused a general stir among the movie-going public. This was a subject they were very hungry for.  I think, in some sense, what people wanted from the film, and the film they actually got might be two different things, and this disconnect between expectations might diminish the film's longevity.

Much like what you see in the film, people's main concern before Hiroshima was that, once the bomb became hypothetically possible, it was imperative that the Americans develop it first.  Whatever implications there might be in creating such a device, the only one that mattered was that we do it first.  Keeping in mind that the German team had the universally recognized world's greatest physicist, Werner Heisenberg, leading their team, the concern that the Americans might be second or third to develop such a weapon had serious implications for the history of the world.

After Little Boy was detonated some 600 meters above Hiroshima, and Fat Man, hours later, above Nagasaki, the world's opinion, including our own, about the nature and implication of atomic weapons changed.  If you look at the cinema after the war, doubts about the bomb were making clear inroads into our subconscious.  In the United States, movies started featuring ants made gigantic after exposure to the bomb began eating farmers.  The bomb reanimated monsters of the past.  In Japan, the Bikini bomb revived and mutated a dinosaur, covering it in burned and scarred flesh like the survivors of Hiroshima, and began burning and destroying what parts of Tokyo survived the war.

Audiences expected Nolan's film to address these issues.  We've been discussing them since the war.  Even in the eighties, Sting wrote a song about how to protect his little boy from Oppenheimer's deadly toy.  The film we got included a lot of that, but it included a lot more of how Lewis Strauss used the panic caused by J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthy to try and ruin Oppenheimer's life.

While that's an interesting story, I don't think most people even knew it ever happened, and if they did, they were still much more interested in the bomb itself than attempts to discredit Oppenheimer afterward, although I think it's important that we discuss the fact that the move to discredit and ruin Oppenheimer had more to do with things that ultimately didn't really matter, especially compared to what Oppenheimer actually did.

There are lots of movies about McCarthy and Hoover.  I think it's important to tell that story.  I think it's more important to tell the story of telling everything involved in unlocking some of the secrets of the universe.  I'm not really that interested in some parts of the story that Noland chose to tell.  I've been aware for some time that Oppenheimer had a reputation as a womanizer.  Florence Pugh's presence in the film was interesting, but you never really got to know much about her; other than that, she was pretty unstable psychologically.  I've been in love with psychologically unstable women.  There's always a reason for it, but in this film, we don't see it, and ultimately Tatlock's life, suffering, and death don't make much difference in the final impact of Oppenheimer's life.

In some ways, I still prefer Roland JoffĂ©'s 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy.  It doesn't have the visual style of Noland's Oppenheimer, but it deals a lot more with the science behind the project and a lot more discussion of the moral implications.  Roger Ebert hated it, and Rotton Tomatoes gives it a pretty lackluster score, but I still think there's something to the film.

Official Ted Lasso