Sunday, December 13, 2009

Malicious mischief


The shooting began and ended quickly – six to eight shots fired in rapid succession from a moving vehicle perhaps 200 yards north of my house. It was, alas, a Saturday afternoon drive-by.

It’s not unusual to hear gunfire in rural Mississippi. For one thing, the woods are crawling with hunters this time of year. Added to that, one family near me has an obsession with firing large automatic weapons for fun, sometimes at night. And as readers of these posts may recall, I encountered a young man this summer who stopped his car in my driveway and began firing a pistol, apparently on a lark.

But gunfire from a moving vehicle is a deeply disturbing phenomenon because it almost invariably indicates criminal activity, and it can be lethal whether it’s focused or random, as evidenced by the young girl who was shot in the head when a bullet passed through a wall while she was doing homework at the Boys and Girls Club in Jackson last week. So when I heard the shooting along the Edwards Road, I immediately jumped in my truck to see if I could catch a glimpse of the vehicle. The perps had apparently anticipated such as that and were speeding off down the road by the time I got there, out of range. All I could tell was that it was a dark green pickup, a Ford or a Chevy. Then it was gone.

Living in Mississippi, these sorts of episodes are a sad fact of life, and I didn’t think much more about it, other than to keep an eye out for the truck as I was driving on Sunday morning, when I thought I saw it parked on Northside Drive, near a house that is a sort of font of trouble in the area – a derelict place surrounded by junk, open dumps, a squalid paddock for a few pathetic, poorly cared-for horses, and occasionally, large, suspicious bonfires that billow heavy black smoke into the air, indicating, I suspect, an illegal dumping operation. There is almost always a group of wayward men hanging out at this godforsaken outpost, typically drunk at 8 a.m. It would be no surprise if the drive-by were linked to the place.

Still, I was surprised when the shooting erupted again at the same spot on Edwards Road at around 1 p.m. on Sunday, at a point where my house is partially visible from the road. Again, six or eight shots fired in rapid succession. Again, I jumped in the truck and tore out down the drive, passing Daniel, who rents the cabin on my place, who had also come out to see what the shooting was about. The green truck passed my drive just as I got to the road, speeding away. Perhaps stupidly – considering these guys were obviously armed – I gave chase. I wanted their tag number.

They drove extremely fast but I was aided by a slow-moving car that impeded them as they reached the intersection with Northside Drive, and I was able to get the tag number and see the perps -- three black guys -- and get a good description of their vehicle – a dark green, older model Ford F-150 with a large dent in the driver’s side. The driver was a sort of stocky guy with a shaved head.

I couldn’t write the number down while driving and I have a poor memory for numbers, so I called my land line to leave the tag number on my answering machine. As I did this I found that even after getting the tag number I for some reason kept chasing the guys, and that they were still running. I’m not sure what I’d have done if they’d have stopped, but the fact that they were running made me want to continue chasing them. They sped through the church parking lot, went the wrong way down a one-way street, and tore through a little residential area, trying to outrun me, then ran a stop sign. At this point I dialed 911 but immediately hung up, thinking it would be better to call when I had the tag number in front of me. Also, at this point, I decided it would be best to let go. There was an old man in a suit walking in the road, and I wasn’t going to terrorize the neighborhood the way the F-150 guys did.

Then, as I was headed home, my cell phone rang. It was the 911 dispatcher. This impressed me, that the guy had followed up. I told him what was going on and he gave me another number at the sheriff’s office to call when I got home and had the tag number in front of me. The tag number, by the way, was HP2-638. Hinds County.

Within 30 minutes a deputy was at my door. The first question he asked was whether there was anyone who had a grudge against me, such as an employee that had been fired. I said I didn’t think it was personal, that I suspected these guys were just thugs and perhaps were taking pot shots. Not that that isn’t a big deal in itself. I halfway expected the deputy to be dismissive, as the police in Jackson – and sometimes the county – can be, but he wasn’t. He ran the tag number, told me whose name it was registered to, and said it had a Clinton address that doesn’t exist (I later checked the phone book and found a man by the same name with a different address in Jackson).

The deputy said he would speak with the folks at the house where I thought I’d seen the truck and try to track the guys down. He felt like his investigation would probably be enough to stifle any future shooting, but he really wanted to see them face-to-face. “People know I’m serious. They call me the troll in Edwards,” he said, proudly.

I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I had to laugh, and he smiled. When you meet a committed law enforcement officer, it’s inspiring. I wouldn’t want their job, and in Jackson, at least, it’s hard to put much trust in them, so when you see someone who is clearly trying to do the right thing, you’re grateful. There’s not much standing between normalcy and anarchy, and these guys patrol the most crucial terrain. Unfortunately, in Jackson, the criminals control the dynamic. I like to think we have some immunity out in the country, because everyone knows everyone, but you can’t live in proximity to a major crime spot and not feel it breathing down your neck from time to time.

The sheriff’s office appears to be working hard to take up the slack outside the city’s boundaries. I was impressed by Officer Hammill’s dedication to solving this particular drive-by. On his report he wrote “malicious mischief,” and he said it was probably just someone firing off a few shots with their new pistol. But he clearly understood that there’s a fine line between malicious mischief with a gun and killing someone, and I have no doubt he’ll follow through. I just hope he’s right about these guys. Idiots with guns open way too many possibilities.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Evansville, Indiana


Carolyn McCleary is an 88-year-old flash drive, and on a recent day in Evansville, Indiana she waited patiently in a chair on the second floor of the University of Evansville library to transfer some of her data to me. I almost missed out on the opportunity because I felt like my own working memory was getting full, but fortunately she didn’t let that get in the way.

The University of Evansville and its host city are not well known, really, for anything. When you fly over Evansville you see a low-rise metropolis sprawling on the banks of the Ohio River, surrounded by square farm fields, random swatches of forest and a few smokestacks venting minor smudges toward the horizon. It doesn’t look like a notable destination. It’s the sort of place that seems to exist only as a passing landmark beneath your plane, like a miniature model of a Midwestern town that you wouldn’t be inclined to visit on the ground.

But as I made my way to the last venue of the official Sultana book tour, the small Evansville airport prevented me from relegating the place due to lofty oversight. The tiny Chautauqua Airlines jet banked over the city and gently touched down, taxied past a nondescript building that must be the world’s smallest Foreign Trade Zone, then rolled to a stop outside the terminal. As I deplaned, my friend Margaret McMullan was on her way to the airport to pick me up, with the top down on her silver Audi. Margaret, who lives in Evansville with her husband Pat and their son James, and who is an accomplished novelist who teaches English at the university, was about to put the city on the permanent mental map of my life, mostly by unveiling a cast of remarkable characters, including, inadvertently, Carolyn McCleary, who made my stopover in Evansville one of the more inspiring and energizing of the tour.

I flew to Evansville to talk about Sultana as part of a lecture series put on by the university’s English department called “Coffee Hour.” It sounds dull, but wasn’t, not by a long shot. Though there are still a few small Sultana events on the horizon, the official tour, which began in New York City in March, effectively ended on Nov. 12 in Evansville, a few hours west of the home turf of the three primary characters in the book. Among the many pleasant surprises was meeting Carolyn McCleary, who ultimately raised more intriguing questions than she was able to fully answer. Unanswered questions are the mainstay of writers, who tend to be both attracted to and deeply disturbed by them.

The Carolyn McClearys of the world are how stories are kept alive, how memory and wisdom and knowledge are passed along in cases where the institutional record fails. In such cases there needs to be someone, like an elderly woman in Evansville with files in her head and hands who is determined to fill in the blanks. Which is precisely why McCleary made her way with her cane across the long expanse from her car to the library, where the author she had read about in a recent edition of Evansville Living – me, the stranger, the writer flying in from New York -- had agreed to give her some of his precious time.

Talking with anyone about their family history is fraught with tiny perils. The conversation may turn out to be either truly enlightening or stupefyingly tedious. Earlier in the day, when Margaret informed me that she’d received an email from one of the event’s organizers about an old lady who wanted to meet with me and show me her family’s old Bible, I initially resisted. A person with an old family Bible brings the threat of long conversations about dead ancestors who mean a great deal to the person but not necessarily much to anyone else. Such conversations, while invariably pleasant, tend to be endless reels, with no beginning or end. I say this as someone who both enjoys talking to old people (and particularly old ladies) and who writes books about long-running, largely submerged stories that are often evoked in forgotten, yellowed documents with notes scrawled in the margins, typically in a shaky hand. The problem with such conversations, for me, at least, is inherent in the very Bible that McCleary loaded into her car but was unable to carry into the library due to its weight and her comparative frailty: The begatitudes, as I call them, the “Ruth begat Isom” or whomever, ad infinitum and ad nauseum. The truth is, while it matters to Carolyn McCleary that Sarah Elizabeth Harris Davis was born in 1850, married T.A. in 1869, and died in 1916, it doesn’t really matter to me. Like many people, my working memory and my hard drive are forever on the verge of being full, so I have to pick and choose. Which is why I asked Margaret to tell the person to tell the old lady that I’d have only about 15 minutes before the talk, and that perhaps we could continue the conversation after the book signing. In that way I imposed limits that could, if warranted, be lifted.

Margaret and I found McCleary sitting by the window, with her cane leaning against the chair and her files in her lap. She is an exquisite example of old ladydom, with neatly beauty-parlored hair, proper dress, remarkably clear skin and very bright eyes. Margaret introduced us and left us alone to talk. She had this to show me: The aforementioned Bible, which she said came from the steamer Sultana, though it is dated 1852, 10 years before the boat that blew up in 1865 was built; handwritten notes that she’d jotted down for me about how she came to possess the Bible, and related details; a few newspaper clips about the Sultana disaster and about a church bell in Equality, Illinois that once belonged to her family and purportedly came from the Sultana; and several other documents, including a crew roster from the boat. My first thought was: How was this possible? Then: Is it? And finally: Carolyn McCleary is very organized, far more so than I; and that I was sorry I didn’t have more time with her. As I said, she’s 88; her husband, who she said was brilliant, recently died; and what she told me piqued my interest.

I’m not sure what light any of this might shed on the Sultana story, but I intend to find out. It’s plausible that the bell was cast for one of the previous boats christened Sultana, each of which was destroyed, after which it (the bell) could have been transferred to subsequent, new boats by the same name, and that it was ultimately recovered from the 1865 wreck during salvage operations. It is also possible that people got confused about which Sultana was which, and that the bell has no relation whatsoever to the Sultana disaster. But it matters because there are so few artifacts from the Sultana, and the bell’s survival could mean there are others. Mrs. McCleary was open to either possibility. Her aim was merely to raise the questions for me, since I wrote the book.

Her mother, she said, was raised by an aunt and uncle, the latter of whom was one of several owners of, or perhaps investors in, the Sultana (or, at the very least, a Mississippi riverboat named Sultana). With each successive death the Bible passed down the line, eventually to her. The bell was given to the Methodist church in Equality, where it yet rings; it is inscribed as having been cast in Pittsburg in 1848 and used on the Sultana. It will take further research to determine what, if any connection, there is to the Sultana disaster. The point is, I nearly missed the chance to even hear the questions because I was wary of having too much information – an odd concern, considering what I set out to do. It has to do with oversaturation with meaningless details and related errata, though in all honesty it also relates to a question I was asked during my Sultana talk, which was whether I considered my book complete when it was clear that I had everything there was to have, or because my deadline was approaching. It was a good question, one that in an ideal world my editor might have asked, and the answer was that it was something of both. You never know that you have everything, and deadlines are violated at your peril. You have to stop somewhere, and you end up making a judgment call. Faced with Carolyn McCleary, I now wonder. I also feel a strange sense of guilt. Any writer will tell you, you never really finish writing your book.

The crowd at the Coffee Hour talk was large and mixed, comprised mostly of students and teachers of varying ages and locals who had read the article in Evansville Living. They asked good questions, and throughout the event I could see Carolyn McCleary, seated in the back, smiling now and then. Among them, many later gathered at Margaret’s and Pat’s house for an after-party, including a man from Ireland with a twinkle in his eye who teaches history at the university; a guy from Scotland who also teaches there and has a friend back home who – by coincidence – published a book about a group of Scottish soldiers headed home from the First World War whose ship went down in the North Sea -- an odd parallel to the story of the Sultana (the author’s name is John MacLeod; the book is titled When I Heard the Bell). There was also an enthusiastic student who wanted to know why I didn’t rewrite the book after I discovered the inimitable character, George Robinson, to which I answered that it was too late, and that I was making up for it by focusing on Robinson in a Sultana screenplay that my friend Danny and I are writing; a man who each year helps stage a week-long writing workshop in a little town called New Harmony, on the Wabash River; a particularly genial man named Mike Carson, soon to retire from U of E, with white hair and beard, who asked the question about when I knew the book was finished; a guy who knows as much about politics as anyone I've met, and is a go-to guy for NPR; and a witty guy who recently returned from studying in England, who teaches my book Mississippi in Africa in his creative nonfiction class. All interesting characters, and not only because they came specifically to listen to me, though there was that, but who are interesting in their own right and especially because they somehow came together in Evansville.

I knew about the University of Evansville only because of Margaret, whom I met a few years ago when we both spoke at the Oxford Conference for the Book. But after the Sultana talk last week I have a new appreciation for the place, if only because it brought this erudite, informed, creative bunch together in a place that seems, on the surface, to be in the middle of nowhere. The teachers and others I met would make any university proud, so much so that they’d represent an implausible cast of characters were they assembled for a work of fiction set in a small Midwestern city. I was supposed to be the entertainment but they also entertained, telling funny and illuminating stories late into the night, by which time Evansville had proved itself to be far more than an insignificant flyover town.

Over the course of the time I was there Margaret and Pat also showed me the local sites, including a virgin forest in the middle of town and a lovely old farmhouse on a high hill with a great post-and-beam barn that was being refurbished from the ground up by Amish craftsmen. They made me feel very much at home. Margaret, in particular, has a way of making a person feel welcome in myriad thoughtful ways, and of enlivening any event, and it was almost embarrassing to hear her describe me in her introduction to the Coffee Hour as someone who could have shared a notorious apartment in Brooklyn with W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee.

There was, inevitably, the one sleeper in the audience, though I took comfort in the fact that she was nodding off before I even started to talk. I only wish I’d had more time in Evansville, and especially, to talk further with Carolyn McCleary, who declined my offer of help her back to her car, saying, “I want to stay as independent as I can, as long as I can.” In the end, Evansville was as close as I got to returning to Jefferson County, Indiana, where my version of the Sultana saga begins and ends. I haven’t heard from anyone from there except Janice Stanley, who helped me research John Maddox, and Romulus Tolbert’s descendent, Anne Woodbury, who helped me more than anyone, who now lives in California, and who attended the University of Evansville once upon a time, during which she developed a long-running friendship with Mike Carson. In any event, Evansville was enough.

The final leg of the Sultana tour ended with a bumpy flight back to New York City, which threatened to become its own survival story, during which everyone seated around me in the exit rows – including a Delta pilot who was being shuttled to JFK – deigned to actually read the emergency exit information. The woman next to me asked if I would take the responsibility to open the door, if it came to that. It was, I should point out, Friday the 13th and we were seated in the 13th row. Our pilot came on before we even took off to say it was extremely windy in the New York area and so was going to be a rough ride, which I resented hearing. Why would we want to know? If he had read Sultana, he’d be aware that it’s sometimes better not knowing what the future holds.

In the end, he was right, of course. It felt like we were on a runaway bus careening down a steep and rutted mountain road for 45 minutes. When we finally touched the ground, the pilot came on again and said we’d be deplaning on the tarmac, and that those of us who were wearing hats should hold onto them. Literally, we were to hold onto our hats. I suppose the specter of crowds chasing their hats across the runway was pretty daunting, but in the end his admonition proved helpful, and it offered confirmation that we’d been through something meaningful, and that it was, finally, over.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Something other than you


I arrived on the Thursday before Halloween, which in New York is the point of no return during what really should be called Halloweek. People were already wearing costumes on the subway, three days before the actual e’en. It got worse on Friday, and worse still on Saturday. Anyone who has ever been to Mardi Gras has seen better costumes, but New Yorkers make up for it by their sheer numbers and by the fact that they’re from every country on Earth.

As my friend Erica and I headed out to see a show on Saturday evening – her husband Andrew is a musician, and was playing a gig – we were first dazzled, then overwhelmed by the massive outpouring of costumed people. In Brooklyn, where my place is, there were lots of kids out trick-or-treating, and they were certainly cute. Plus, I overheard one oversized trick-or-treater, a tall, hot-pink kitty cat, say to someone in a doorway, “You know the rule, bro, give it up, man.” In Manhattan, on the other hand, it was as if everyone in the city had resolved to either be something scary-but-more-importantly-kind-of-sexy or to be something simply and deeply scary, which is to say, not clearly in costume.

One of the best two costumes that night was so subtle as to be seriously disturbing. The woman had scratches in the vicinity of her collarbone and one on her cheek – they were not horror-movie scratches; they looked real. The husband had his shirt buttoned wrong. They looked like they’d recently engaged in either rough sex or a domestic dispute, possibly both. I’m pretty sure they were dressed up, though after a while the tiny, old Puerto Rican man beside them started to look like he was dressed up, too. There began to be a lot of gray area. The other best costume, which I never actually saw but which Danny’s brother Devin did, was a woman who was dressed normally but had a tiny trickle of blood coming from one nostril. She was walking alone down the street.

Owing to the crowds, it took Erica and me a half-hour to get through the station at West 4th Street, taking baby steps across the platform while a Maniacal Mary Poppins breathed down my neck and I struggled to not push against the axe-murdering, pre-pubsescent boy in front of me, the entire, overly costumed crowd lurching slowly, slowly, slowly toward the long, inclined corridor that led up from the bowels of the subway, as if we were emerging from Hell. I’ve never taken such small steps for so long in my life. I began to think I’d be sore the next day from using such tiny muscles so deliberately. Next we all had to pass through the turnstiles, which was no small feat under the circumstances, after which there was a stunning visual as the costumed crowd slowly, a half-step at a time, ascended the stairs, which subsequently turned, then NARROWED before depositing the leading edge of our zombie column onto the street, where the larger crowd outside, plus rain, impeded our general distribution. By this point we had lost all control of our direction. We could not cross the street. There was a parade, with men guarding the barricades who, it seemed to me, were costumed as surly New York City cops. The result being we never made it to the show. We couldn’t get there.

Trust me, we tried. But we eventually gave up and headed to the bar where our friend Danny worked, where several of our friends work, in fact (including Cara, who’s in the picture with Erica and me). Danny was dressed as a boxer, which was a nice touch because he is a boxer. Cara was a World War II pinup girl, though she looked suspiciously like a French maid. I was dressed as me with a skin graft on my forehead, which was cleverly concealed by my father’s caddie hat. Erica was a sailor girl and wore my mother’s shoes. When people asked what I was I said I was an STD. Erica said most adults see Halloween as an opportunity to dress up in order to get laid; it’s like breeding plumage. In that sense, I was going against the grain.

I’ve never been one to dress up, aside from my most disastrously successful effort, a decade ago, when I decided that what you were supposed to be on Halloween was, in essence: Something other than yourself that’s scary. Subtlety is key. I mussed my hair, rubbed circles around my eyes using dark, grayish makeup that was not identifiable as makeup, stuck the biggest band-aid in the box on the side of my neck and put on wrinkled khakis and a worn-out button-down shirt that I normally wear to weed-eat, so that it was flecked with a constellation of inexplicable, tiny grass stains. I got arrested that night. And even before that, people avoided me. At parties, people wouldn’t talk to me. I considered my costume a complete success. I had the crowd under my spell.

As a writer, you’re always looking for ways to keep the crowd under your spell. This fact came up during breakfast a few days after Halloween with a group of friends, most of whom are writers. At the table was one who’s working on both a book and a film; another who’s working on a novel; another who’s writing a memoir; and another with a new baby. In short, there was a lot of reproduction going on, and everyone, including the new mother, was mindful of the need for pacing and for keeping the subject under their spell.

But with all this rampant activity, with the excitement and stress of knowing that publishers are currently reading the proposal for my next book, I fell under one of New York City’s own spells, which involves overstimulation. I felt, for the moment, as if I were stuck in that incrementally lurching, costumed crowd, with the result that I was mostly inclined to retreat to the confines of the apartment Danny and I share in Brooklyn, to stare at my computer screen and deliberate the many ways I might channel all this stimulation toward an appropriate climax, all with the understanding that for now I must be content with subtle foreplay. On the surface I was in the middle of the most stimulating city I can imagine, wanting to basically do nothing, which is strangely similar to being no place and wanting to do everything. The World Series was being played in town, but I didn’t go. The New York City Marathon came right past my door and I didn’t see it. Instead, I sat at my computer and waited for it, waited for the desire to well up again, waited for that moment when the crowd is freed from its constraints but not from my spell, which I’m fairly sure will happen soon.

Along the way, late one night, Danny and I set about devising a concept for a movie based on Sultana. It wasn’t just an exercise – we’re serious about doing it. Danny’s idea was that the movie would open with this very interesting scene during the disaster, which he had concocted, which would stun the viewer, would crash onto the screen, after which there would be the inevitable fade-to-black and then the fade-in of the comparatively prosaic scene at the outset of the war – to, you know, BEFORE. Then you’d slowly build the story back to that disaster scene, etc.

It sounded good until I realized that crashing onto the screen necessarily meant that the actual climax of the movie, which of necessity comes later, would have to be something other than the disaster itself, and I was unsure what that might be. With this unexpectedly early climax it appeared that we’d be shooting our wad too soon, and it would go downhill from there. You’d just have a lot of conversation and flirting and light touching from that point on, and you’d end up going to sleep.
I thought it wouldn’t be satisfying if the money shot came before the foreplay, until I realized that I was precisely wrong, that it would actually be satisfying too soon.

So we got rid of that idea, and moved on. We created an outline. We paced ourselves. We moved deliberately toward the climax, at the head of our imaginary column of viewers. We’re planning to write this screenplay because my agent has admitted defeat in her effort to sell the film rights to the book, having run into the same log jam that I ran into when I had the good fortune to receive an email from a descendant of one of the main characters in the book, J. Walter Elliott, who (the descendant) is himself a successful screenwriter and, therefore, logically, should have been an easy sell.

What the screenwriter told me was that a movie about the Sultana would be a very hard sell to a studio, particularly in the current economic environment, when no one wants to invest in anything that doesn’t offer the guarantee of a huge return. He said, essentially, that we’re talking about a movie that involves a cast of thousands, in period costumes, and as if that weren’t enough, includes battles and two prisons a would require a great deal of location shooting, including aboard a life-sized replica of a Mississippi River steamboat that BURNS on a FLOODED RIVER, at night. OK, I thought. OK. Yes, it does sound expensive. And it’s not as if you could simply shoot a lot of closeups to hide the fact that you were using only 12 actors augmented by thousands of computer-generated extras. Which is when he, the screenwriter, added: “Plus, there’s no love interest,” by which I took him to mean: No role for, I don’t know, Hillary Swank, or is she already washed up? Anyway, he added, “The studios are superstitious about water.” Apparently from the studio perspective water is not simply a place where someone can drown, though there is that. Turns out water has also played a notoriously bewitching role in one too many films. Movie studios equate water with their own disasters, he said.

But, still. Was there ever a better idea for a movie? Could the story of the Sultana possibly be more cinematic, with a more compelling plot? In the end, my emails with the screenwriter trailed off. So I began to badger my agent, who handles literary sales, not film sales, and so had to work through a film agent herself. I had encountered a similar situation with Mississippi in Africa, which, admittedly, was its own sticky wicket in the movie-making sense, in that it spanned two continents and two centuries without a single protagonist, much less a love interest. Another friend and I had tried to work through that one, fictionalizing and compressing the story, but then he got married and I lost my momentum. So when my literary agent reported back that the film guy at Creative Artists had said basically the same thing the screenwriter had said about Sultana, and another guy, to whom a friend in the movie business had referred me, and who had expressed great initial enthusiasm for the Sultana idea, quit returning my calls, well… after that Danny and I decided to have a go at it ourselves. Danny has done one film of his own and I wrote the book, so we decided we could write it. Did I mention that I was also momentarily sequestered in Brooklyn? Then, theoretically, someone would feel compelled to buy our script.

The point, though, in book writing, movie-making and, if you’re me, in just about any endeavor including romance and scaring strangers on the street, is not to be too obvious or to plunge into the action too quickly. If you go over the top or plunge into the action too quickly, it’s hard to keep the crowd under your spell for long. I am speaking purely from observation, as I have rarely toured the top or plunged into the action too quickly -- not yet, anyway.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bad music


When I’m lying on my deathbed someday, I do not want Sheena Easton there. The same goes for Abba, Queen and a long list of other pop music stars whose annoyingly infectious songs have unfortunately been catalogued in my head. I’d like to use that memory space for something else. I see no reason for my brain to harbor these infections, yet it does, note by note.

The thought occurred to me during what felt a bit like a dress rehearsal for the big event, as I lay under the lights of an operating room for a follow-up procedure related to my melanoma this spring. No worries there, everything is fine, but anything suspicious gets removed now. Me and my plastic surgeon are into some serious profiling in our war on dermatological terror.

Anyway, it’s strange to be awake in the operating room, as I suppose anyone who has given birth knows. You feel like both the focus of attention and an outsider, with all the lights on you while nurses with sharp instruments talk to each other about what they did last weekend. Meanwhile they’re playing really bad seventies and eighties music over the P.A. system. Why do they play music in an operating room? I guess it’s entertaining for the medical personnel, but isn’t it also potentially distracting? I say that as someone who also wonders how professional baseball players can perform at their best while wearing jewelry, with stuff in their pockets such as snuff cans. Me, I’m easily distracted. I found Sheena Easton an unwelcome addition to the operating room environment.

Please do not use this post as an excuse to mention songs that you personally hate, that stick in your head, as such responses will be immediately deleted. I’m not sure why people enjoy willfully transferring musical infections, but they do. I feel bad for even mentioning Sheena Easton, assuming you know who she is. I do not want to hurt you. I have a persistent fear that some of those annoying, encapsulated songs in my head will come back to haunt me one day. The songs are a kind of brain spam that appears in your mental queue unbidden, and which you can’t delete. Hence my fear that I might, many long years from now (hopefully!), find myself lying on my death bed, an old man, ruminating about the meaning of a long and eventful life, with loved ones around me, only to have “My Baby Takes the Morning Train” start playing in my head. I don’t want it to end that way.

Which is why I finally had to ask the nurse to change the station. I know it makes me seem a bit fussy as an operating room patient, but I don’t want any unwanted files to be updated in my brain. The nurse conceded that the song we were listening to was pretty awful, but the station she switched it to turned out to have its own bad seventies music score. The reason I don’t like oldies stations is that they usually play music from the past that I didn’t even like back then. And it’s worse, hearing it now. But I was reluctant to say, “Not that station, either.” I was already asking the head nurse to scratch my head for me, since they’d swabbed me with something antiseptic and admonished me to refrain from touching my face. “Um, what do I do if my ear itches?” I asked, to which she replied, “Tell me where and I’ll scratch it.” Which she did. And no sooner was that problem solved than my left eyebrow started to itch. So she had to scratch that. She acknowledged that the drying antiseptic fluid often made people itch and it was no problem for her to scratch, but having to ask made me hesitant to ask the other one to turn the dial on the radio again. We’d been chatting about various things, as if no one was about to take a scalpel to my head, but when I said, in reference to the scratching, that it would be terrible to be paralyzed and to have to ask someone to scratch every time you itched, the nurses chose not to respond. Other than the radio: Silence. Apparently I’d crossed an invisible line when it comes to operating room banter.

When the surgeon, Ken Barraza, came in, he explained what he was about to do, then commented that he didn’t much like the song that was playing. Thank you! This made me feel that I was in good hands. One of the nurses tattled that I’d already made them change the station, to which he replied, “I didn’t even like this music back then.” We’re about the same age, and apparently, the same mindset.

“This song sticks in your head,” I said, to which he replied, “Don’t say that, now it’ll be in my head all day!” So I quit talking about it. I tried to tune out the strains of “You’re so Vain” while under the knife of a plastic surgeon, though in my case vanity was not the instigator of the process, but was merely brooding on the sidelines.

Everything turned out well, except for the fact that “You’re so Vain” is now playing in my head again, after having summoned it here, and I’m sorry if that also happens to you. But I repeat, do not take this opportunity to try to infect me with your hated songs. It does not help you, it only hurts others!

Also there was this: In the lobby of the clinic was one of those cheesy inspirational posters, of a kitten playing with a ball of twine, with a caption that read, “Inactivity is death. – Benito Mussolini.” I thought to myself: Somewhere out there is a person who works at a company that designs and sells cheap inspirational posters, who hates his or her job, whose boss is an idiot, and who correctly surmised that there are people out there who like kittens and don’t know who Mussolini was. Just so you know, Mussolini was a murderous fascist who was hanged for war crimes during World War II, and is therefore an odd source of inspiration. Nonetheless, the possibility that the designer’s joke was on us would itself be a sort of triumph, and therefore, inspiring in an adverse way.

And when I say the word “joke” I do not mean to summon the song “The Joker” by the Steve Miller Band, which I hate.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Baton Rouge


The audience at a book signing is typically a diverse assemblage of people with different reasons for being there. There are people who are clearly interested in the topic of the book; people who are merely curious to hear what an author has to say about his work and who, in some cases, will drop by a signing to hear almost anyone; people who’ve perhaps been compelled to come along; people who’ve already read and embraced the book or are otherwise a fan of your work; and people who are there, from all appearances, to challenge you as an author, to cast everything into useful doubt, most of whom fall into the opposing categories of sleepers and skeptics.

Contrary to what you might think, the person who nods off and the person who uses your platform to exhibit his own superior knowledge of some arcane aspect of the story are both useful to the author’s enterprise, if in an adverse way. Perhaps more than the more genially engaged audience members, they help you triangulate the interest of your readers and potential readers. The sleeper reminds you that no one’s interest is assured, that you must keep the action moving, maintain the necessary suspense and offer the promise of revelation, knowing that many people (including me) are prone to dozing when required to sit quietly for too long. The skeptic is another story; he keeps you on your toes, often forces you to explore in greater detail some component of the story that you might have glossed over in the past, and, if you’re ready for him, gives you a chance to prove yourself under fire in full public view.

They were all there in Senate Committee Room F of the oddly storied Louisiana State Capitol on Saturday, where I spoke about Sultana as part of the festivities of the ambitiously staged Louisiana Book Festival. I was among perhaps 50 authors who participated, including Kevin Wilson, author of the wonderful short story collection Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, whose parallel book tour has frequently placed us in close proximity, including when we shared the stage on “Thacker Mountain Radio” at Square Books in Oxford, Miss. Wilson’s event, which included an engaging discussion of his funny and thoughtful stories and his reading of an essay and a passage from his upcoming novel, was the only one I attended other than my own. I had skipped the author’s party the night before because I was busy working on the proposal for my own next book, and so drove down from Bolton to Baton Rouge the morning of.

The Louisiana capitol is a departure from the American norm in that it does not symbolize, architecturally, the bicameral democratic process it facilitates. The bifurcation of house and senate is less obvious, and there is no lofty dome representing the hopeful coming together of the political system. Instead the capitol building is a high-rise. It is a monolithic and, aside from a vaguely deco tilt, prosaic structure. Otherwise, the most interesting aspect is the bullet hole in the wall that marks the spot where Huey Long was assassinated.

After weeks of incessant downpours, the festival benefitted from a welcome break in the weather, with blue skies and a brisk north wind. The plaza before the capitol was filled with vendors’ tents and resounded with the music of a jazz band. The turnout was large, though with so much to choose from, the audiences at most of the events ranged from a dozen to perhaps 30 people. Wilson and I were both pretty far down the playbill, at the dozen-member audience end. I was introduced by Greg Langley, the book editor of the Baton Rouge Advocate, who noted that among the legions of authors of books focusing on the Civil War, I had come up with what (to my ears, anyway) sounded a little like a new gimmick – viewing the legendary historical episode through the prism of what we know today about the physiology of fear. And he was right, that is precisely what I did in Sultana, though not because I was searching for a new way in but because that was my own interest in the story, which I saw not as a history per se but as an experiment in human survival that unfolded against the backdrop of the war. Either way, it was a thoughtful introduction.

So that was the theme I ran with. I never know precisely what I’m going to say, choosing instead to come up with an opening anecdote that is related to the current venue (in this case, the Sultana passed through Baton Rouge on its way to and from Vicksburg, and one of the protagonists was stationed nearby), and then taking my cues from the audience. Among those cues are nods of recognition, the occasional smile or laugh, the nodding off, or the look of consternation on the face of someone, usually a guy near the back, who will offer some sort of challenge during the Q&A.

This crowd was, on the whole, lethargic. I looked forward, hopefully, to the Q&A, when I might be able to draw them out. There are usually a small number of people who like asking questions, and their questions are always invigorating. The person with challenge in mind typically waits through a few interrogatories before offering his own. That was the case with this guy, who, when called upon, professed to be knowledgeable about steam engines, and had a few very pointed questions about the one that blew up and doomed the Sultana. He seemed almost intent on disproving the theory that it could have blown up on its own, though he never raised the specter of possible sabotage – a favorite among audience skeptics, I’ve noticed. Instead he simply used the opportunity to showcase his personal knowledge of steam engines and to test mine. I know only what I’ve read, but I wrote this particular book, so fortunately I had a fair grasp of the facts. His numerous follow-up questions enlivened the discussion and brought to mind a few issues I had not previously considered, such as whether the men operating the boilers had pulled out the stops, more of less, to push the machinery past its safe capacity. Remarkably, I had never heard that possibility raised, though it seems logical considering the boat was overloaded and straining against a huge river at flood.

In any event, the skeptic seemed to be grudgingly satisfied with my answers, and after a few softball questions from others in the audience, the discussion coasted to a stop. So ended the penultimate scheduled event of the Sultana book tour. Last on the list is an upcoming talk at the University of Evansville, in Indiana, in November. I hope there will be a skeptic there, as well, because (as is the case with the chronic dozer) I am also one.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The pilgrimage to Raymond


When Brahim Karaoui’s mother finally fulfilled a lifelong wish to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, he was nervous. She was elderly, illiterate, and had never been far from the oasis where she was born and raised in the Sahara Desert. In Mecca, a big city that’s far from the Moroccan desert, as many as two million pilgrims a day stream in counterclockwise motion around what’s known as the Kaaba, a two-thousand-year-old shrine, which stands in a broad open area at the center of Islam’s holiest mosque. Important though the pilgrimage is, it’s a scary undertaking for an old lady who’s never been away from home. There’s lots of jostling.

Brahim told me about his mother’s journey on the occasion of our own, entirely different pilgrimage – to Raymond, Mississippi, where the term denotes an annual tourism event focusing on local history. Brahim and I had met in Morocco in 2000, and in the years since had become close friends, traveling together in Europe, Africa and the U.S. It was during one of his visits to Mississippi that we attended the Raymond pilgrimage, which is basically a tour of venerable buildings interspersed with talks about historical events. Brahim is a man of the world and enjoyed this glimpse of local culture, and he was amused to hear the word “pilgrimage” used to describe what is a decidedly casual, sectarian event. Mecca’s pilgrimage has been going on for something like 1,300 years; Raymond’s is only a few decades old.

Last year I returned to the Raymond pilgrimage with another friend, Irem Durdag, who also happens to be Muslim, though she is of the backsliding variety; Irem didn’t even comment on the co-opting of the word. She lives in Istanbul and accompanied me to Raymond because I was scheduled to be speak about my book Mississippi in Africa, in the imposing old courthouse just off the square. Her reason for being in Mississippi was to attend the pig roast that my friends and I put on each year at my house out in the country, even though, like Brahim, she doesn’t eat pork. The pig we cook is really just an excuse for a party. Each year we have lots of vegetarians in the crowd.

As far as I know there were no Muslims at the pig roast this year, though judging from the number of Boca burgers we went through, the ranks of vegetarians are growing. In any event, I returned to the Raymond pilgrimage to speak about my book Sultana, this time accompanied by a small crowd of early arrivals for the four-day-long pig roast weekend, including friends from New York and San Francisco. Instead of Muslims we had Hindus, Christians and Jews, and perhaps a few general nonbelievers, who stood out among a crowd of mostly elderly locals who came to hear about the series of disasters in the long ago and far away which culminated with the sinking of the Sultana. For some of my friends, the history of Raymond – and the local preoccupation with it – was almost as alien as it had been for Brahim and Irem.

I spoke at St. Mark’s Episocopal church, which was used as a field hospital for wounded Union soldiers following a Civil War battle on the outskirts of Raymond. I was told that blood stains are still visible on the church’s floor, though I didn’t see them myself and no one I asked could point them out. Perhaps they have faded away over the years. Still, even talk of blood stains carries a certain power, and whether we saw them or not, there’s little doubt they were once there. Battlefield hospitals during the Civil War were gory places, typically with piles of amputated arms and legs just outside the door. Our experience at St. Mark’s, by contrast, was decidedly sedate, though I tried my best to horrify the crowd.

I told the story of my three guys, how they enlisted in the Union army, endured the violence of the war, and were captured and sent to Confederate prisons, where they survived starvation and disease, after which they were transported to Vicksburg to board the fated Sultana, embarking on what was to be the worst maritime disaster to date in American history. In my version, it’s primarily an extreme survival story. There is no direct connection to Raymond, other than the backdrop of the Civil War and the possibility that some of the soldiers aboard the boat had fought there, but the war is enough of a common denominator there. Pilgrimages are, in one sense, about paying homage to the physical reminders of the past, and when you do that in Mississippi your gaze will inevitably land, eventually, on the terrible spectacle of the Civil War. There’s an entire graveyard in Raymond, for example, devoted to fallen Confederate soldiers. Raymond is today a beautiful little town of lovely old houses with ceiling fans parsing the humid air, and streets overarched by graceful live oak trees, but it was a horrific place for everyone in May of 1863.

After my talk at St. Mark’s, my friends and I joined an orderly procession from the church to the town square, to a reception at the home of Isla Tullos, the mayor. Then we drove out into the countryside to the tiny hamlet of Learned for supper at the Gibbs country store. The next day more out-of-town guests arrived, and the subject of the Sultana faded into the background. But that night, standing in St. Mark’s, thinking of those blood stains on the floor, and of the slave spirituals that would be performed in the church a few days later by a local choir, I found myself wondering what it is that keeps us looking back, and in some cases, undertaking pilgrimages for the express purpose of doing so. For Muslims, it’s a religious requirement to visit the site of Islam’s origins, if you’re able. It’s quite different in Raymond, obviously. But the point of both, I think, is to turn your attention to something momentous that happened long ago, something worth remembering.

I’m not a historian, but I’ve always been fascinated by historic places, including, for some reason, old, abandoned roadbeds. Driving along modern highways in rural Mississippi, I often see the old sunken beds, overgrown with trees, crisscrossing the paved route, and am a little haunted by them. I sometimes follow them on foot through the woods, and come upon long-abandoned intersections, again, grown up in trees. I think the reason I’m attracted to the roads, and to old sites in general, is that they provide evidence of worlds that have passed away, but which were, for a time, The World. Everyone who tramped those roads on foot or horseback or in a buggy or wagon felt that they were living in the one, actual world. Then that world slowly dissolved, and a new one took its place. But there are overlaps, and thinking about how people experienced life in a previous world can be illuminating. Old sites show us that there is continuity, even if the people who populate the entire world inevitably die. We’re living in our one, actual world now, and it will pass away, but there’s something both haunting and reassuring about the idea that there are many worlds, and that all of them seem like the actual one.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Word


Thank you, Jesus. Now can we talk about the blood on the floor? The historic small town of Raymond, Miss. will hold it's fall pilgrimage next week, and one of the venues will be St. Mark's Episcopal Church, a little church that was a scene of unimaginable horror during the Civil War, when it was used as a makeshift hospital for Union soldiers wounded during the Battle of Raymond. I'm told that blood stains are still visible on the wooden floor. The church will be the setting for my next talk about the Sultana, at 6:30 pm on Thursday, Oct. 1. St. Mark's is just off the square, across from the courthouse, which was used as a hospital for Confederate soldiers. St. Mark's will also be the site of a musical event on Sunday, Oct. 4 at 4 pm: A free concert by the Jubilee Singers of Hinds Community College, an African American choir originally formed in the 1920s that sings spirituals and other traditional music. The concert will be followed by a community sing-along and potluck supper on the church grounds.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The monster in the garden


 The odds are that the picture that accompanies this note gives you the creeps. For most people, there’s really no way around it.

I tried to find a less disturbing picture of a cottonmouth water moccasin – the primary subject of this note – but I’m not sure such a thing exists. I found several examples that were actually beautiful, such as one of a snake lithely swimming through lily pads. But I had to admit that even a beautiful picture featuring a snake is repulsive. There you are, enjoying the lovely scene and then: Look out! There’s a snake in those lily pads!

There is basis for this fear. Poisonous snakes are dangerous. But there’s more to it than that. Unless you’re a herpetologist, you probably have an overdeveloped fear of snakes. By now you may even wish you could “hide” the cottonmouth photo, which would probably not be the case if it depicted, say, an alligator or a grizzly, which are more dangerous. Why is that?

The question came to mind after I mentioned, on my facebook status update, that I had come upon a water moccasin while trail running near my place in Mississippi. It was just a status update, a throwaway thought, but the responses came fast and furious. One of my facebook friends summed up a common refrain when she wrote, “The only good snake is a dead snake.” Yet some of the readers who were most repulsed kept up with all the responses, betraying a morbid fascination. I’ve noticed this before when the subject of snakes comes up: People are disgusted by them, but can’t get enough of stories involving them. Everyone has a snake story. It’s the conversational equivalent of a horror flick.

A recent study delved into the reasons for our almost universal fear of snakes. The scientists concluded that the fear was an evolutionary response – early man recognized that anything that crawls quietly on the ground, hides easily and can inflict a fatal bite is to be feared, and that fear was incorporated into our genetic coding. It’s something of a no-brainer – even children who were asked to peruse a series of photos could find the snake hidden in them almost immediately, yet took longer to find, say, a hidden flower. What the study didn’t really answer is why our fear is so intense.

I’ve had my share of snake encounters, and as I was running on my network of mountain bike trails, as I do most every day when I’m in Mississippi, I ran up onto that big, fat water moccasin. Previous snake encounters on the same trails had involved non-venomous species that were hurriedly crossing my path; they seemed as eager as I was to put the encounter behind them. This one, on the other hand, was actually following the trail, in the opposing direction, as in: "Comin' THU!" and refused to give way. After screeching to a halt and backing up with a cartoonish, circular blur of legs, I hid behind a tree to safely observe the snake, hoping it would move on so I could continue down the trail. It didn’t. Water moccasins can be aggressive, but this one seemed more obstinate and suspicious. It never coiled up. When it did finally move, it slithered just to the side of the trail, where it was camouflaged by the leaves, and waited. This made me hate it even more. I chose an alternate route. 

The encounter took some of the joy out of the remaining run. The jumping of curving, snake-sized tree roots crisscrossing the trail lost much of its allure. Plus, it now seemed that the chances of encountering a snake had exponentially increased, and brought with it the peril of venom-injecting fangs. This snake, after all, in addition to being poisonous and unaccommodating, had actually been following the trail, which was very different from a random crossing.  I began to attribute more meaning to this encounter than is probably warranted. It didn’t help when so many facebook readers responded that they had also been seeing a lot of snakes lately, in one case suggesting it might be mating season. I began to have second thoughts about trail-running in the current herpetological environment. 

I don't bother non-venomous snakes. I have no problem with snakes in general, and even the moccasin on my running trail had beautiful markings and coloration (the word "striking" comes to mind). But I do not like to encounter pit vipers in places where I frequently go, especially when I’m miles from nowhere, alone, with a heart that is already racing. In my experience, water moccasins almost never run from you. I'd have killed this one if I'd had something to kill it with.

Wilson Carroll, who was among those who responded to my status update, wrote that it must be mating season because his young son had shot and killed four moccasins at the family farm in the Mississippi Delta the weekend before, in the span of 10 minutes. “Two were entwined in some kind of sickening reptilian love embrace,” he wrote. “They died that way. It made me happy.”

I know. We’re not supposed to voice such antiquated notions. They say rattlesnakes in parts of the West are becoming rare after a century of wanton killing. But still.

Another respondent, Reed Branson, quoted a herpetologist who said that moccasins aren’t as aggressive as people think, that they’re basically slow to escape and so, end up standing their ground. I’m not so sure. I've seen moccasins strike at a stick many times, and though I once came upon one that did flee from me, it raised its head and the first foot and a half or so of its body off the ground AS IT RAN, and simultaneously pivoted its head back at me from side to side, mouth open to reveal the cottony inside that gives cottonmouths their name, as if to say, “Come after me, mofo!”

Of course, we’re talking about fear, on both ends, which is almost always a bad combination. Most people who are bitten by snakes get bitten while trying to kill them. For example, I read a news article about a guy who was burning brush on his farm who encountered a rattlesnake, went to get his gun to kill it, then somehow tripped and shot himself in the leg. After he hit the ground the snake bit him. He also suffered severe burns as he crawled away through the fire, which had gotten out of control while he was focused on the snake. I am not making this up. It was in the newspaper; there was a byline. Notably, the rattlesnake itself escaped.

I once encountered a rattlesnake in the road that had been run over by cars so many times that every part of it except the head and a few inches of its body were basically a part of the pavement. Yet when I came close, it opened its mouth threateningly, showing its fangs. I hated, and feared, that snake, too.

The very shape of a snake, the looping curves, the slithering motion, the violent strike – all evoke immediate loathing in most of us. It’s been theorized that our fear goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden and the concept of original sin, which seems a bit of a stretch to me, for several reasons. Why, if we’ve incorporated the horror of expulsion so deeply in our psyches that we need to kick some relevant ass, do we focus exclusively on the snake? We should, by all rights, feel a revulsion for apples as well, since the apple was essentially an IED presented by the snake. Why don’t we get a chill down our spine when we walk through an orchard? But why, if it’s merely a logical evolutionary response, is our fear still so strong?

I think it goes back to our latent fear that in life there is always something evil underfoot. We have learned, both during our evolution and in our everyday life, that things can go terribly wrong very quickly, that the danger can come from anywhere, and that it can be hidden close by. It is natural that we would fear something that embodies all of that. Combine that fear with ignorance, which is itself part of the equation, and add a few wildly popular misconceptions, such as the myth of the water skier who fell and was killed by a nest of moccasins, and it’s all wrapped up for the snake.

I’ve never been bitten, but I’ve certainly experienced my share of snake horror. Once, while wading barefoot in a swamp, I felt something under one foot and looked down to see the largest moccasin I’ve ever encountered, writhing out from under me. Moccasins are easily identified by their thickness and coloration, even if you can’t see the evil-looking triangular head, and in a millisecond I realized I was standing on top of this one, apparently just behind the head, which alone could explain why I hadn’t already been bitten. The next moment I was being levitated through the air. I landed perhaps 15 feet away. After catching my breath, my friend and I naturally antagonized the snake with a long stick.

A few years later, in that same swamp, when a friend and I were seining for fish and other aquatic creatures to put in our aquarium, we noticed first one, then two, and eventually, perhaps 20 harmless yet very large diamond-back water snakes swimming past. We were pleased to note that they were not in the least bit interested in us, and as a result we did not fear them. We went about our respective endeavors. More recently, a six-foot-long rat snake appeared on my back porch, and was so unperturbed by my presence that I left it alone until it eventually moved on. My point is, I don’t think it’s just about snakes -- it’s about poisonous snakes, and over the millennia, the feeling has doubtless grown mutual.

Fear of snakes, poisonous or otherwise, like every other fear, feeds on lack of knowledge, which is why they have those nature days at the local natural science museum where school children are allowed to handle docile and beautiful corn snakes. There is no sense in fearing a corn snake, nor in killing a snake whose only goal in life is to eat your mice. Fear is a useful tool, but it should be used judiciously.

I have observed the results of coupling fear with ignorance. I have a cabin on my place that I rent out, and for 20 years it has been infrequently visited by what is no doubt a succession of rat snakes. I can’t find where the snake gets in (only one at a time appears to hold franchise to the domain), but I have lost tenants because of it, and who can blame them? Even a “good” snake is bad when it’s inside. Once I rented the cabin to a herpetologist who actually looked forward to the appearance of the rat snake. It never came, but one night he phoned to say he’d been out at the pond looking for critters with his headlamp, and had found a small cottonmouth, and would I mind if he caught it and added it to the collection of the museum where he worked? Have at it, I said. One less water moccasin in my world. Educated though I be regarding snakes, my fear of moccasins has never abated.

My grandparents had a hunting camp along Steele Bayou in the Delta, and the woods there were home to five of the six venomous snakes that inhabit Mississippi – three kinds of rattlers, copperheads and moccasins, all in abundance. A friend of theirs had once abandoned the boat from which he was fishing to swim ashore after several snakes slithered out of his live fish-well. I have also heard of fishermen shooting holes in the bottoms of their boats when moccasins dropped from overhanging limbs. I understand how this could happen. Fear is not always rational. In fact, it seldom is. Fear and reason originate from different parts of the brain entirely, and, like an emergency vehicle, fear has the right of way. This is not to say fear cannot be informed by reason, but you’ve got to do the educating before the snake appears on the trail.

Once, two days before Christmas, one of my dogs got bitten by a moccasin. I took him to the vet for antibiotics, only to get a call from someone back at the house saying another of my dogs had been bitten. Before the second one arrived a third had been bitten, too. Later, I figured out how it happened. The dogs were terrified of moccasins, after one had been bitten a year before, and so they became obsessed with them, with the result that they actually hunted for them and ganged up on them, and ended up playing the tug of war of death with them. Sooner or later, everyone got the bad end. The dogs learned from their mistakes, though, and eventually got pretty good at killing moccasins. I can now recognize the “moccasin bark.” But when I hear it and look up to see one of them slinging a moccasin wildly by the tail (they can actually kill them this way), I beat a hasty retreat. I don’t even want to be around.

In our vast retinue of snake mythology, one story has it that Cleopatra committed suicide by holding an asp to her breast so that it could inflict its fatal bite. Historians now tell us this is a myth; it didn’t really happen that way. What actually happened was probably more like this: After the asp was brought to her, Cleopatra took one look at it and said, “Bring me some, I don’t know… hemlock.”

Sometimes fear is worse than death. So use it wisely -- don’t waste it on the corn snake. Save it for the moccasin slithering menacingly down the trail, or hiding beneath a boat, or doing whatever it may ever deign to do, wherever it may ever think to go. 

Monday, August 31, 2009

Day of the Locusts


A sad and scary episode is unfolding in the hills north of Los Angeles, and I suppose it's crude to even consider the literary value of an apocalyptic fire while it's still raging, while people's lives are still at risk, but it's also irresistible. I felt the same way about the Australian wildfires, which included scenes of incinerated car wrecks and people submersing themselves in swimming pools as walls of flames swept overhead, and one hardy woman who saved herself and her children by hiding in a wombat burrow. Some day, some great literature will no doubt come out of all that.

It's easy to be smug about people building houses in hurricane zones or on fault lines or in desert hills that have always been prone to wildfires, but disaster can strike anywhere. And when it does, it illuminates what matters, what works and what doesn't, which provides raw material for potentially great literature -- or, considering the L.A. locale, perhaps an awesome (or, in the wrong hands, awful) movie.

I am far distant from the L.A. fires, and can only go by news accounts, facebook status updates from friends who live there, and my own experience of being trapped at the Old Faithful Inn in Yellowstone National Park. During the latter episode, the park's now-legendary fires swept through in 1988 and forests and fields and cabins for miles around were consumed by flames that blackened the skies and rained burning embers down upon the small group of mostly reporters who hovered by the geyser, where the firefighters told us there was a higher oxygen level (the greatest danger from such fires, beyond being burned alive, is suffocation, because the fire consumes all the oxygen in its path). Everyone but the media and the firefighters had been evacuated before the fire jumped ahead of itself and crossed the only road to the inn, trapping us there, and that night, after it had swept through, we drove for miles through a hellish scene of burnt and smoldering forests, punctuated by lingering, small fires and the occasional still-torching trunks of trees. The sense of invincibility that we tend to carry with us through our daily lives gets torched by such an experience, too. 

So far, I've been struck by two accounts from the L.A. fires. One involved two foolish people who ignored evacuation orders for an area called Big Tujunga Canyon and attempted to ride out the firestorm in, of all things, a hot tub, which a sheriff's office spokesman said "did them no good whatsoever." The two survived but were severely burned.

The other, in an AP story that I assume originated in the L.A. Times, included the following quote from a man who had waited anxiously for news about his home. "It's the worst roller coaster of my life, and I hate roller coasters," said Adi Ellad, who lost his home in Big Tujunga Canyon over the weekend. "One second I'm crying, one second I'm guilty, the next moment I'm angry, and then I just want to drink tequila and forget." Ellad left behind a family heirloom Persian rug and a family photo album he had put together after his father died. "I'm going to have to figure out a new philosophy: how to live without loving stuff," he said.

Sunday, August 30, 2009


August 21, 2009 

Yesterday evening I sat out on my friends Lee and Dick’s screened porch drinking bourbon and watching the summer rain on their lake. The rain fell at a long slant on the water for about half a glass, then slowly dissipated as the clouds withdrew their touch.

At that point a single verdant cypress on the far shore was unexpectedly spotlighted by a shaft of sunlight coming through a hole in the clouds. A car throbbing with hip hop music passed on the distant road. As the hole slowly closed, but not completely, the world was saturated with a new, diffused, golden-green light, dazzling, wet and soft, that permeated even the porch. There must have been a hundred different shades of green. An array of filters was imposed on the scene in quick succession. The surface of the lake quivered under an aimless, skittering breeze. It was like being on acid.

“Light in August,” Lee said, summoning one of the reasons that, despite my love for New York and the wider world, I find it hard to be gone from Mississippi for long. 

Islesboro, Maine


August 13, 2009

Her real name is Honor Blackman, but she’s better known as Pussy Galore, the character she played when she was young and hot in the 1960s Bond movie “Goldfinger.” Some people on the island of Islesboro, Maine still call her Pussy Galore, though never to her face. She’s almost 80 now.

Pussy Galore and her husband own the second largest summer house on the island of Islesboro, which is in Penobscot Bay midway down the Maine coast. The largest used to belong to Kirstie Alley, who acted in the TV show “Cheers” and, incidentally, produced so much household waste at her Islesboro place that her staff kept 14 garbage cans queued up by the back door, which seemed to say a lot about wealth -- a subject that held great fascination for me at the time of my first visit to Islesboro more than 30 years ago.

I recently returned to Islesboro, and this time was struck more by the passage of time than by displays of wealth. Everything seemed to have remained more or less the same, which was odd, and only emphasized how much everything else had changed. It’s good to have a place that can serve as a bellwether, illuminating anything from the pitfalls of wealth to the vagaries of time – a place in the margin where you can take stock now and then.

Islesboro is a place of stunning scenery -- shimmering blue water, rocky islands and long vistas of the mainland mountains, characterized by an odd mix of sprawling summer “cottages” (as their absurdly wealthy seasonal residents refer to them) and the comparatively rustic abodes of local fishermen, plumbers and the like who have been exploring their own small gene pool within the confines of the island since the 1750s. The demographic counterbalance gives Islesboro a depth not normally associated with playgrounds of the rich and famous. Though I am personally more drawn to the worker bees, I have to admit that the queens are entertaining in their way.

I first visited Islesboro in the summer of 1978 when a friend and I joined the ranks of a third, smaller island demographic: Workers who were there by choice, who were neither lords nor serfs, and whose unique station afforded us opportunities to hold parties on estates that we didn’t have to pay for and to sail on other people’s 90-foot sloops while they were shopping in Boston or hobnobbing in New York. Rich people tend to have a lot of good stuff, but it occurred to me back then that most of them don’t enjoy it as much as you’d expect. As seasonal workers we maintained the lush landscapes of their large estates, changed the sheets on their multiple guest beds (one cottage had 16 guest rooms), and crewed and maintained sailboats worthy of a cover of Wooden Boat magazine, which they shuttled between Islesboro and places like West Palm Beach. All of which gave us unique, generally unencumbered access. It seemed to me that we had the best of both worlds. Also, we were young.

I lived that summer in a tiny, gabled house beside a cove that miraculously emptied and refilled twice a day as a result of the shifting tides. For roommates I had Ando, a musician from Corinth, Mississippi, and Tom, a Meridian native who more or less launched a Mississippi-Maine seasonal migration that continues to this day. My friend Lisa and I arrived at the start of the summer in her green VW Rabbit with her now-legendary dog, Poo Poo. We didn’t know each other that well starting out, but after realizing, at a party in Jackson, that we both had friends living on the same island off the coast of Maine, it seemed to make perfect sense for us to head out together on an open-ended journey. I stayed until October; Lisa is still living in Islesboro today.

I’d never seen the kind of ostentation on display in Islesboro, and I was both fascinated and a little put off by it. I’ve always enjoyed looking down my nose at snobs, and Islesboro can be a very good place to exercise this tendency. I went to work as a bartender at the only pub on the island, while Lisa got a job as a housekeeper for Princess Joan of Luxemburg, a Connecticut native who had married into royalty and who, after being widowed by the prince, that summer married an elderly duke from France.

People like Princess Joan tend to go back and forth between lavish dwellings, hauling their supporting casts (maids, yardmen, nannies, cooks, etc.) with them. Over time she and Lisa became friends.

Lisa and I had followed my friend Tom to Islesboro. He’d moved there in 1977 to work on the summer house of a woman from his hometown, Meridian, Mississippi, and afterward decided to stay. Lisa was friends with a friend of Tom’s who had likewise followed him to Islesboro, and soon after, other friends began to arrive, with the result that by mid summer we had almost enough Mississippians to play the island in softball. We were short two players, so they awarded us two guys from the Caribbean – the only two black guys on the island -- to round out our team. The guys, who crewed someone’s boat, became honorary Mississippians.

It was a magical summer, and Lisa, her sister Cindy, Tom and Ando all stayed in Maine after the trees began to turn, and are still there today. The rest of us return for periodic visits, as I did earlier this month for my sixth trip to Islesboro, which had the feel of a reunion, hovering as it did around the 30th anniversary. Further amplifying the feeling of reunion: The Dark Harbor ice cream shop hosted its 30th annual island footrace and the island held a seventies-themed, multi-generational dance at which Ando’s band played many of the same songs they’d played at the pub in the summer of 1978, most notably Little Feat’s “Dixie Chicken,” the bar’s theme song that summer.

There were a few minor changes in evidence. There is now a bookstore next to the Dark Harbor Shop, which was sold out of copies of Sultana (the storeowner had tried to set up a signing but at the time my schedule was too complicated, and he more or less gave up). The store’s big seller now is a tell-all book by summer resident Isabel Gillies, who plays the wife of Detective Eliot Stabler on Law & Order SVU. The Pendleton boat yard is definitely bigger than I remembered, and there’s now a small assisted living facility tucked away into the trees. But overall, the place looks pretty much the same. Coming in, as I do, at long intervals, Islesboro tends to seem contained in a way that only an island can, and even more so because so many of the same people are there, doing much the same thing they were doing the last time you saw them. It all seems a bit surreal, as if the summer of 1978 is continuing to unfold, the primary difference being that the key characters now have gray hair.

Part of the feeling of stasis stems from the fact that no one really wants Islesboro to change. There are strict covenants to prevent wholesale development while enabling construction of some affordable housing (typically on hidden lanes), and as always, the necessity of a ferry ride to the mainland exerts its own limitations. There is no hotel on the island and there are no real restaurants, so it’s no place for tourists. You’ve pretty much got to be fabulously wealthy, have family ties going way too deep, work on the island, or know someone.

The sameness of Islesboro is in some ways deceptive. People have been born and have died since I first visited, including Billy’s father, who now lies buried in the family cemetery down the lane from his house, and Lisa’s mother, who died at her house last summer. Yet I felt like I was revisiting a place that exists outside the normal space-time continuum. The Ottman twins were still there, lithe and beautiful as ever as they made their way from one end of the island to the other on their bikes. Ando was still playing his guitar, singing in the same band that rocked the Islesboro Pub the summer I tended bar. Billy Warren still runs the Dark Harbor Shop, the primary meeting place down-island. Billy Boardman still works at Stanley Pendleton’s boatyard, as does Nick Love, a member of a wealthy summer family who moved back after a career as an actor and model. Shake Mahan, my boss at the pub, runs the grocery store, and has for 20 years. From all appearances, my peers have neither ascended into the upper echelon (which looks no more attractive to me now than it did then) nor settled for the lower rung. We’re all still somewhere in between and generally happy there. Everywhere I went I recognized people, and was pleased to observe that their offspring are the 23-year-olds of the islands now, enjoying the place much the way we did in 1978.

There was a powerful reverb, and in many ways it felt like I’d never left – as if my previous life was continuing to unfold, in my absence, 2,000 miles away.

Somebody's darling


August 3, 2009

The morning’s yahoo news carried an item about the mistakes job-seekers typically make, such as sending out resume email-blasts and wasting time at job fairs. None of which compared with what I saw last night, which was perhaps the most tragic episode in job-seeking history, ever.

I was sitting in a restaurant in New York City, and it was pretty late when the woman walked in the door. She was stunningly beautiful, with a mix of hardness, craziness and vulnerability – Amy Winehouse stuff – that was both attractive and screamed Trouble. I should say right off the bat that I have no connection with this woman, and everything I relate here is based on uninformed observations or comments I overheard.

I watched as she approached the bar and asked to speak with the manager, who, it turned out, wasn’t in. Hearing this, she stared at the person with a look of strange, muted desperation -- shock, really, like she’d just been told she wasn’t going to be evacuated and everyone who stayed behind would die. She was quietly but intensely focused on this idea of talking to the manager, and that focus struck me as unnatural. I suspected drugs, though it was possible she was just crazy. From all appearances, talking to the manager mattered more to her than anything. Yet she was very quiet about it. You could hardly hear her voice.

Normally when you ask to see someone and are told that the person is not in, you maybe ask when is a good time to see them, whatever, then leave. But this woman just stood there, clearly not inclined to leave. Instead she claimed a small, rarified space in the center of the restaurant, smack in the middle of the line of traffic. I later learned that she had previously applied for work at the restaurant and was determined to be hired.

Aside from the fact that she was acting so weird, the dominant impression you got of her was that she was really, seriously good looking. She was blonde, Hispanic, with dark, oddly blank eyes and a voluptuous form that was set off perfectly by a shimmery sundress. She was sexy to the point of being disturbing. Her body seemed like its own invitation, and that would become more distressing an hour or so later, when she was wheeled out of the restaurant on a gurney, looking sexy as ever despite the fact that she was comatose. I know, it sounds weird, and it is weird.

After being told a second time that the manager was not in, she repeated her desire to see him, then stared at the employee as she was again told that he wasn’t in. After about 10 minutes of people trying to get through to her that the manager wasn’t in, and that he had considered her and wasn’t interested, the staff went about their business. The restaurant was busy. She sat down at the bar beside me. I looked away. Now and then she’d make eye contact, but each time I quickly looked away. It was the look on her face, the crazy, crazy need. I’m often attracted to trouble, but I know when I’m outclassed. I had no idea what it would take to straighten out her world, but I knew it was going to take way more than a job.

After a while she got up and approached a staff person again and began to make threats, a new tactic. She claimed one of the employees had stolen from her and said she was going to tell the police that the restaurant sold alcohol to under-aged drinkers if they didn’t give her a job. The staffer explained to her the concept of extortion. She said she wanted a drink. He said no. He asked her to leave. She would not leave. He walked her outside. She stared at him -- that empty yet focused stare. A couple of times tears filled her eyes, but each time her resolve returned and she repeated her requests and her threats. I noticed that her purse was heavily laden, and I began to wonder what was inside. I decided not to leave just yet.

The bar was closing when she went into the bathroom, and I thought: Not good; she’s not coming out of that bathroom. And she didn’t. After a while one of the staffers knocked on the door. No response. After a few tries he told her, through the door, that if she didn’t come out he would call the police. No response. So he called the police. I know this guy, and by this point I was getting concerned. I imagined two scenarios, one involving her with a gun and the other involving her slitting her wrists. So I waited just outside the restaurant door. Soon the police arrived. They had to remove the bathroom door from the hinges because there was no key, and they found her slumped on the floor, OD’d on heroin, they later told us. The police summoned a fire truck and, for some reason, two ambulances. I stood on the sidewalk, watching their ministrations as a crowd of late-night New Yorkers gathered to observe the commotion. I hoped the woman wouldn’t die. 

When they brought her out it occurred to me that her beauty might be all she had now, and that it was probably not going to be enough. In fact, it would probably betray her. The police asked if the restaurant had any contact information for her, so they retrieved her resume, which she had delivered folded up (and unevenly folded at that). It was sad, seeing what had brought her to this point, or at least what she claimed on paper had brought her to this point. It sounded normal, but there was something about the presentation that was off. 

I later heard that she survived the overdose. Not only that, but she called the restaurant the next day to say she still wanted a job.


The kindness of strangers


July 25, 2009

There was a woman, perhaps 80 years old, on the G train between Brooklyn and Queens, who looked very confused. She didn’t look like she should be riding the subway alone. Though she was well dressed, I wondered if she had dementia, judging from the way she glanced around nervously each time the train stopped in a station. In fact she was just completely out of her element.

Across from her was a family of tourists from someplace far away. I noticed them because they were arguing, and concluded that they were from someplace like Croatia because their looks and language said “east European country near the Mediterranean.” Wherever they were from they were definitely not having a good time. Their arguing got louder and louder, and after each outburst the father would lean back and stare sullenly across the car. The two sons would continue their debate while the mother stared placidly into space, seemingly uninterested in whatever problem they faced.

At the next stop the old lady approached the father of the seeming Croatian family and asked him a question. He shook his head dismissively – rudely, I thought. Seeing the old lady’s turmoil, a young black woman quickly stood up and began trying to help her; she studied the subway map and told the old woman the train she needed to take, where she should get off to catch it, etc. The young woman then got off the train, pausing in the doorway to look back and say, “OK?” to which the old woman nodded. But it wasn’t entirely true. As soon as the train started moving again the old lady gave me a look that said, “The black woman was the one who tried to help me. That surprised me.” It was one of those looks that tell you that race is a subtext whether you know it or not. I say that not because the old lady was a racist, but because she was able to convey to me, with a subtle white-to-white look, her surprise that the one person on the car who had come to her aid was black. I don’t know how she did it, but it was clear, and I was glad this was something she would carry back with her to wherever she was from.

After that another young woman sat down next to the old lady and, while the “Croatian” family began loudly arguing again, the old lady tried to communicate with the new young woman, who studied the subway map, pointed some places out to her, and, when her own stop came, turned to me and said, “She needs to take the 7 train.” In that way she passed the responsibility for the old lady to me.

Seeing this, the elder son of the Croatian family turned to me and said, in halting English, “Can you tell us how get to Rockefeller Center?” Wow, I thought. You people are seriously lost. Not only miles from Rockefeller Center, but on the wrong train, going the wrong way, and getting more lost with each passing stop. I told him they needed to get back to Manhattan, at which point another guy overheard us and said he was going to the train they needed, and they could follow him. The older son thanked me. The father glowered. The mother ignored everything. The old lady watched to make sure I remembered that I was now in charge of her.

Because I was getting off at the same stop as the old lady, I motioned for her to follow. I don’t think she knew how to say anything in English other than the name of the place in Queens she needed to be and “thank you.” When we got off the train, it was actually pretty complicated getting to the 7 train because they were working on the lines – you had to go up to the street, walk a couple of blocks, cross a busy intersection, go another block, and climb some stairs. And once we got there, she couldn’t find her metro card. I had an unlimited monthly card, so I swiped her through. She was confused when I didn’t follow, but I wasn’t going on the 7 train, and once she realized I’d brought her there anyway, she said thank you four or five times, then said, “Anna,” and pointed to herself. I said, “Alan,” and pointed to myself. She blew me kisses until she was out of sight.

This got me wondering: Why do people think New Yorkers are unfriendly? Sure, they don’t exactly nod at everyone they pass on the street, but how could they, when they pass hundreds of thousands of people a day? Here was a case in point to refute the myth: You could plop down a very old lady with almost no language skills in an unfamiliar subway system and total strangers would take care of her.

I also found it reassuring that one young man was managing to find the balance between an oblivious mother and an angry father, and do what he needed to do to find his way.