Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Jogging our memories

You know you totally forget about something then someone else brings it up as a meaningful memory then you can suddenly recall a slice of your past life vividly?

That happened to me when I read about Kevin Sessum's memoir, Mississippi Sissy.

Here's a summary of the book from some literary website:

"...the stunning memoir from Kevin Sessums, a celebrity journalist who grew up scaring other children, hiding terrible secrets, pretending to be Arlene Frances and running wild in the South. As he grew up in Forest, Mississippi, befriended by the family maid, Mattie May, he became a young man who turned the word "sissy" on its head, just as his mother taught him. In Jackson, he is befriended by Eudora Welty and journalist Frank Hains, but when Hains is brutally murdered in his antebellum mansion, Kevin's long road north towards celebrity begins."

Here's an excerpt from the first chapter:

“Fuck,” said Frank Hains. “I knew I shouldn’t have given that last bourbon to Eudora.”

It had taken me almost a decade after that day of my mother’s funeral, but I had finally found the only equivalent that Mississippi offered to a What’s My Line? life. Frank — a John Daly–like presence in Jackson — was the arts editor of the state’s afternoon newspaper, for which he also wrote a column called “On Stage.” Eudora was writer Eudora Welty. We were at a cast party for New Stage Theatre’s latest production, Long Day’s Journey into Night, starring Geraldine Fitzgerald as Mary Tyrone. Frank and Miss Welty were active members of New Stage, and he was playing host that night at Bleak House, the name given facetiously to his antebellum home by the local literati of Jackson. The Dickensian nickname derived from the house’s outward appearance of haunted dilapidation where it sat, rather spookily, on a hill opposite Jackson’s lone Jewish cemetery....

Frank would often allude to his “dusky endeavors,” as they had come to refer politely to his interest in young African Americans, some of whom had touched him deeply with their aspirations and narratives of maternal love. Miss Welty welcomed these stories of nuanced carnality, as Frank was careful not to tell her the details.

I was in high school when Frank Hains was murdered, and he'd just directed a play in Vicksburg, Mississippi, that my brother and a friend were in. We used to sit there as he'd explain his inspired plans for the set, and we thought he was so sophisticated.

Then he was murdered. Everyone was shocked. My father, a forensic pathologist, told me that the crime scene indicated that it was a homosexual murder. I was additionally shocked by that news.

My brother then started a gag where some of us would go around confessing that we were the murderer of Frank Hains. (The crime was unsolved.)

A friend from high school recalls how my brother would "creep around muttering, 'I murdered Frank Hains.' It was SO funny because we'd be watching TV or making cookies, or whatever, and he would suddenly appear and say that, in a sepulchral voice, then just walk off."

Also a friend from Jackson recalls actually attending the party that Sessums writes about. She wrote: "Do you remember the very first page of the book, when he describes that party where Eudora Welty got drunk, and Frank Hains was oozing around hosting so urbanely? I wuz thar (as Tom Joad would say.) That very exact party, for the cast of Long Day's Journey into Night. I felt mighty sassy and grown-up, there among the big folks, rubbing shoulders with Geraldine Fitzgerald and all. It made me feel better to read that Miss Welty was so drunk that Kevin had to drive her home because she was horribly rude to me that night. It never occurred to me that she was full of bourbon---I was so naive I didn't think old ladies drank anything but coffee."

I enjoyed the whole experience of thinking about something again that I'd forgotten, and the memories of others from that time rounding out the story for me. Hope someone else is out there writing a memoir that will jog my memory again soon.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The sky's the soft blue of a work shirt

Isn't this a beautiful poem that my friend just sent me:

Today, the sky's the soft blue of a work shirt washed
a thousand times. The journey of a thousand miles
begins with a single step. On the interstate listening
to NPR, I heard a Hubble scientist
say, "The universe is not only stranger than we
think, it's stranger than we can think." I think
I've driven into spring, as the woods revive
with a loud shout, redbud trees, their gaudy
scarves flung over bark's bare limbs. Barely doing
sixty, I pass a tractor trailer called Glory Bound,
and aren't we just? Just yesterday,
I read Li Po: "There is no end of things
in the heart," but it seems like things
are always ending—vacation or childhood,
relationships, stores going out of business,
like the one that sold jeans that really fit—
And where do we fit in? How can we get up
in the morning, knowing what we do? But we do,
put one foot after the other, open the window,
make coffee, watch the steam curl up
and disappear. At night, the scent of phlox curls
in the open window, while the sky turns red violet,
lavender, thistle, a box of spilled crayons.
The moon spills its milk on the black tabletop
for the thousandth time.

"Poem on a Line by Anne Sexton, 'We are All Writing God's Poem'" by Barbara Crooker

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Have you ever put a lampshade on your head when tipsy?

In a speech to Irish leaders on St. Patrick's Day, Barack Obama jokingly urged the audience to go easy on the spirits. "Stay as long as you want, try to avoid putting any lampshades on your head, because there are a lot of photographers here," he said. When did putting a lampshade on your head become a universal symbol of drunkenness?

Probably in the 1910s or 1920s. While it's impossible to pinpoint the first instance of a man donning a lampshade at a party, the image most likely came out of vaudeville and was popularized in early silent films. In The Adventurer (1917), Charlie Chaplin plays a rich yachtsman who, pursued by the police, puts a lampshade over his head and stands still as the cops pass by. While that example is more about disguise than inebriation, the lampshade on the head had become a drunk gag by 1928, when the Baltimore Evening Sun ran a satirical piece called "The Life of the Party": "It is usually customary for the life of the party about the middle of the evening to put a lampshade on his head and give an impersonation of [Scottish soprano] Mary Garden, after which he tells a joke that is not meant for mixed company."

Me again: I think I have put a lampshade on my head once after too much champagne. Sort of embarrassing to recall, but I think I am guilty of this one. Are you?

Monday, March 16, 2009


Check this site out, and be sure and scan your next sandwich for the site.


My sandwiches are too boring to scan. I get a turkey, cheese and lettuce sandwich every day at the office. The deli staff at Nokia (I work for the cellphone maker in their European headquarters outside London) start making my sandwich when they see me come down the stairs (11:45, so I can get the sandwich before the line forms, then I wrap it up and leave it until I come back from the gym). I don't even have to speak to them, they just make it and hand it to me.

It's the same with my skinny lattes too. They see me come downstairs first thing in the morning, they start making my latte.

If only the rest of my life could be so simple.

They do say to me, "Don't you get bored having the same sandwich year in and year out?" But I say it's too much to ask me to choose a different sandwich every day. I can only handle so much excitement in my life.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Stuck at Rowan Oak

I made one of my mother's staple recipes recently, Salmon Cakes. They are easy, delicious and nutritious. My family fights over them -- they are that tasty. Here's how to make them:

Can of salmon, drained, and thrown into a mixing bowl. Add bread crumbs or crackers in a zip lock bag that you've whacked with a rolling pin so they are crumbly. Add an egg to bind it together, worcestershire sauce, salt & pepper and any other spices -- I put paprika or anything with a zippy flavor. Mix them up with your hands and shallow fry in a pan. Delish.

Now I know that my friend Brenda would say to add some mashed-up potato to this mix because William Faulkner's nephew told her to do that. But I say keep it pure.

My friend and I went to Faulkner's home Rowan Oak in Oxford one November day a few years ago for a nostalgia tour. It was there in 1979 that we first visited as students, and her car got stuck in the mud. I mean hopelessly stuck. We went asking people at Rowan Oak for help -- among them Shelby Foote and other Faulkner scholars who were there for a reception. Did they help? No. They left us to die out there while they drank mint juleps and talked about books.

So we went back to Rowan Oak in 2000 to remember those days. We went into the house, and surprisingly there was William Faulkner's nephew, Jim, and he was telling visitors interesting little-known facts about his uncle. (Jimmy Faulkner wrote a book about his uncle called Across the Creek .)

Anyway, I don't know how the subject got on to salmon cakes but Jimmy said William F loved them with potato in them, but I'm sure my mother's way is superior. Faulkner might have been a Nobel-Prize winning author but I'm sure my mother knew best about salmon.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Who's Buying Natchez Regional?

Around September, we learned that Natchez Regional was up for sale and towards the end of the year, we learned there was a secret buyer. In early January, we were supposed to hear who that was. Well, we're still waiting. In the meantime, NRMC has filed for bankruptcy - which was somehow a good thing. We recently learned that our secret buyer is also interested in buying Community Hospital, although they deny knowing anything about it. This whole thing is beyond bizarre.

Today I ran across a blog article that claimed Essent Healthcare in Nashville was planning to buy NRMC. This blog is written by some current or former employee of one of their hospitals, who is not fond of Essent, who has filed a lawsuit against the blog, which doesn't seem to be worried. I have no idea how reliable this information is, but it's worth looking into. Kevin Cooper, are you listening?

Monday, March 02, 2009

Beauty and terror

Natchez was a wonderful place to grow up -- full of interesting people and places. We loved participating in the spring pilgrimage every year -- photo above is of me and my brother Kevin, all dressed up for the pageant.

But there was a dark side to Natchez in the 1960s during the Civil Rights movement. My father was the town's pathologist and coroner and every Saturday night, it seemed, he was called out to attend to some brutal murder scene. Because I was a small child, I thought these murders were a normal part of life. I had no idea that the era I was growing up in was an especially violent one.

My father would come home with pictures and tales of each slaying -- a bomb planted in a car, a man set on fire or shot. It was horrifying.

When we would drive past rural gas stations, my father would say, "That's one of their meeting places."

"Meeting place? Of who?" we would ask.

"The KKK," he'd reply.

I recently came across some additional photos of Natchez during my youth. I debated about putting these up, but if these guys decided it was OK to march in public in Natchez in the '60s, then they can march again in this blog. I'll make a concession and not put their names here, even though they are printed on the back of the photos.