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.