Saturday, October 17, 2009

Outrunning the Express Train

By the time I post this, another anniversary of the day the earth shook will have passed, twenty years in fact. It was October 17, 1989 and at 4:25 pm I'd finally knuckled my way through traffic, jaws tight, much gnashing of teeth, inching across the Bay Bridge to take my daughter to an acting class in San Francisco and then head to the McKesson corporation for a meeting.

I worked in the theater as managing director of a company in Oakland so really was not conscious of the sports mania around me. But almost everyone around else was in baseball heaven around the fact that the Bay Area was having it's own version of New York's subway series, the Oakland A's versus the San Francisco Giants. I just wanted the darn traffic to end so that I could get where I had to go.

After seeing my twelve year old down the stairs of a very large, very solid looking office building, essentially in the basement of the building to her youth acting class, I still managed to be on time for my meeting, about ten minutes away by car. I walked into the office of the program officer for McKesson's foundation, hand extended to say hello and thank her for her time, only to hear a crunching, grinding, deep wrenching sound and discovered that I could not stand up. We both ended on our knees in her office. That was probably the proper place to be given what was happening around us and the devastation not too far away. I suspect we both silently prayed our way through what was the longest fifteen to twenty seconds in my life.

Once the moving stopped, and I could catch my breath, we looked at each other, nothing broken, no blood, and both bolted for the door. As any Californian will tell you, when it begins to shake, head for a doorway. In my ten years in the Bay Area, we'd always managed to make it to the doorway. Always. Now the only thing I wanted to do was to get through the door and down the stairs.

I don't remember anymore which floor we were on. I don't remember the pounding rush down the stairs, it could have been silent for all I know, the only thing I remember is the pounding of my heart. The stairway was dark as the power was out, there were no flashlights, and a ton of humanity with one goal, get out of the building.

When we hit the ground floor and rushed through the front glass doors, still intact, I couldn't figure out why there were so many people who'd gotten no further than a few feet from the building. Then I began to see, bricks and masonry on tops of cars, hoods and trunks, tops of cars bashed in with huge huge chunks of buildings on top, glass all over the street, buildings with yawning gaping holes where things used to be. It was eerily quiet, with the exception of the sirens. I finally understood that this may have been the big one.

I thought of my daughter in the basement of that big, solid looking building and my heart almost stuttered to a stop. I heard someone say something about a fallen span of the Bay Bridge, they heard it from a portable radio someone had. The bridge that my daughter and I been not twenty minutes ago, for almost a full thirty minutes because of the game.

My feet began to move and my brain caught up with them. "Where was my car, were the streets passable, the traffic lights aren't working, will they let me drive, where was my car?" My brain seemed be on a loop, fear, panic, think, fear, panic, think. I opted to walk rather than chance the streets, plus there were bound to be after shocks. I've never walked as fast in my life.

In the days before the ubiquitous use of cell phones we used public pay phones. And they worked. And they weren't vandalized. But I digress. But that day the system was over loaded and no calls were going out nor coming in right then. I couldn't reach her school, nor my husband and sons across the Bay, nor my office. I kept walking, and fear took three steps to my every one.

When I got to her building they'd managed to safely get the kids up the stairs and into an open air parking lot with no wires around, and not enclosed by buildings nearby. You think about these things in earthquake country. When she saw me, she grabbed me by the waist and hung on for dear life. She'd heard about the Bay Bridge but didn't remember if my meeting was in San Francisco or back across the bridge in Oakland. She'd been all but rooted to the same spot since they'd fled up the stairs with the noise of the earth moving around and through them, loud beyond measure seemingly following them, chasing them up and out of the dark to the outside. She was velcroed to me for the next two months. ("Really, I'll be in the bathroom for only five minutes." I'd come out and she'd still be there waiting. This was two weeks afterward.)

Now joined cheek by jowl to each other and not yet sure how much damage had been done, and if our family had survived, we made our way to a restaurant with, miraculously, power and television. There I saw with mine own two eyes the price one pays for living in California. Nothing however prepared me for the collapse of the freeway. It too had been a parking lot that afternoon on our journey across the bridge. And now it was...gone, collapsed, on top of countless people, missing my across the hall neighbor by twenty feet. Twenty feet became the difference between life and death that day as she watched cars right in front of her just drop out of sight amidst a cloud of smoke, dirt, dust, and debris.

My daughter wiped tears from my face, tears that I was unaware were even sliding down my face. So close, we were so close to having been a statistic.

I decided to make our way through the hordes of dazed and stunned people to my car and try to figure out how far north I had to go to find a bridge open to get me back across the bay and then head south home. Just as we stepped outside the restaurant, courage in hand and fear on a tight rein, I saw a colleague, the face of someone I knew. Brian was wending his way surely but very slowly home on foot, I had a highly dubious chance of making it across the bay that evening but I had a car. We got my car, went to his place and spent the evening glued to the television and trying the phone every five minutes until finally around 11 pm, Eureka, a dial tone. Brian graciously allowed me to go first as a woman with a family in harms way.

Undoubtedly my relief was all but palpable when my husband picked up the phone and I learned that he and the boys had made it through okay, that our apartment was fine, we'd sustained almost no damage at all. Now that he'd heard from us, our daughter in school back east could rest and stop calling every fifteen minutes, he could relay that the two of us were safe and sound and had a place to stay.

In those fifteen seconds on my knees in the office I'd prayed and promised. I prayed for the safety of my family and I promised that when the next earthquake came, "God, I won't be here." When I got back to work, after making a pilgrimage to the Cypress Freeway where they were still trying to locate survivors two days later, I announced, "I'm outta here."

What was so amazing to me was that everyone else wasn't saying the same thing. Instead they tried to talk me out of it. I finally explained that for me and mine, living in California is like living on railroad tracks. You know sooner or later that express train is going to come running through, and me, I'm getting out the way, getting off the track. I'm bowing to the superior strength of mother nature.

If it were just me, I'd have done what one woman did. Packed up her car, walked away and left everything else in her apartment with a note on her door, "Take it, it's yours, I'm not coming back."

Ten months almost to the day we left California for Chicago. We'd survived tremors, shakes, minor quakes and shrugged them all off. We'd survived the annual fall fire season. We even survived mud slides where the homes of two neighbors gave into gravity and soaked land and slid down the hill. We'd survived floods in the rainy season. And I said good riddance and good bye without a backward look at some of the most beautiful country God ever created, but I suspect he meant for us to enjoy it, passing through on our way some place else.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Low Down on the Down Low, Southern Style

"I've never had so much gay sex with straight men in my life as I did in Charleston!" His words had my head spinning in complete and utter disbelief. As my blonde friend spoke, his brunette friend vigorously nodded his head in agreement.

At first I thought maybe these two guys were talking about another Charleston, they must have been mistaken. But no, they meant Charleston, first to fire a shot in that war of northern aggression, the site of our nations first rebellion, first to secede, South Carolina, USA.

It was a beautiful glorious day in San Francisco around 1985, the sun was shining, it was warm, and if you've been to San Francisco in the spring you know warmth, spring and northern California are not on speaking terms on even a good summer day. I was giving a ride back across the Bay to a couple of theater colleagues, two gorgeous and very funny young white men who'd just moved back to the Bay Area after two years living and working in Charleston at the Spoleto Festival.

We were having a fabulous time singing along with Sylvester at the top of our lungs, windows rolled down catching the wind as we rolled across the Bay Bridge, the sun seemingly following us on it's way toward Hawaii and no traffic in sight.

Sure there are gay men in the South. I knew that but he explicitly said "straight men." (Even black folks from the big city of New York have stories about music directors, and choir directors in Black churches that everyone just turned a blind eye to and pretended ignorance. "Oh, meet Mr. Black, he's Mr. Gray's roommate.") So no, I didn't know any gay men in the South back then but, certainly there must have been many. It was just that most, no, all of the gay men I knew from the South had left; they'd fled screaming on the first thing smoking out of the South to environs more friendly. And it seemed that all of them had moved to the Castro District in San Francisco in the mid 80s!

"Can you believe it, we had to move back to San Francisco to get a rest." Huh, say what?

"These married men would get up in the morning, put on their suit and tie, kiss little Johnny and Suzy goodbye, buss the wife on the cheek, grab their briefcase, hop in the car, and stop at my house on the way to work for a little topping off before heading to the office. It was fun and exciting at first, but I just couldn't juggle them all anymore. It was just exhausting"

By now I was flabbergasted. All the gay men I knew were, well, openly gay. This was my first glimpse into a subculture of folks who are not just undercover, or in the closet even, but men who are actively passing because they have compartmentalized that part of themselves that likes sex with men. They were gay, I kept insisting. Then they must be bi-sexual? Right?

Very patiently, like trying to explain "blue" to a blind person, they kept saying, "No, not gay, straight, they just like a little diversity." So I had questions, how could this be? Mind you, this was pre-E. Lynn Harris, pre-down low as something that everyone is familiar with, whether you're white or black, Asian, Latino, old, young, gay or straight, the down low has now become a part of our lexicon. But it was 1985 and I was being schooled.

After the about fifteen-hundredth time I'd said, "But I don't understand, how this can be going on in the South?" Their response was, "Honey, let me tell you about living in the South. You can do anything in the South that people do in other more "liberal" (fingers as quotation marks) parts of the country. People do drugs, sell drugs, there are bootleggers to get around the laws in "dry counties," (fingers as more quotation marks), people screw their best friend's wives, or husbands, sisters or brothers, fathers rape their daughters, people steal, lie, cheat. You can do anything, just don't put it anyone's face! It's the veneer that's important, not the substance but the surface."

So there you have it! The low down on the down low. It's a southern thing. Well no, not really. But you get my point, the down low is about preserving the surface, the veneer of things, no matter how ugly it may be, how much "stuff" is roiling and boiling underneath, as long as things are civil and serene on the surface, as long we observe proper decorum and demonstrate good manners, it's all good. And that is very Southern.

There's something else that has stayed with me about the ride that day across the Bay Bridge. Within four years of 1985 I lost 22 friends and colleagues to AIDS, 85% of them within a two year period. Sylvester's voice was also stilled. The sheer loss of talent and creativity is incalculable. I don't know but certainly have ample reason to suspect that the two beautiful young men I'd given a ride that day, may also not have survived what felt like a tsunami of death. There were no drug cocktails back then, no one-a- day regimens, getting the result of your tests took two weeks, and though people were dying to get into drug trials, (pun intended) at that point AIDS was a virtual death sentence. So the chances that they made it out of that period alive are not great.

It makes me wonder though, what ever happened to the wives of the husbands in Charleston who needed a little "topping off" on the way to work?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Nickeled and Dimed in the New Economy

Once upon a time people actually dressed up when traveling by plane. It was a big deal, an event, because as traveling went, it was a lot less expensive to drive, or take the train, or even the bus. Commercial flights were more business oriented than the preferred mode of travel for the every day Jane and Jack going home for the holidays. Flying was a horse of another color, so to speak. Unless one were going to jump on the back of that winged Esso horse, it was a damned expensive to take a trip. (Yes, I am dating myself here but I was but a babe in arms back then with a wicked memory. So there!)

Since the golden days of air travel, when you could smoke and drink in flight, when they served real food, even had a menu so you could choose your poison, the experience has had the life sucked out of it, so much so it is unrecognizable as anything other than a big metal tube with wings. It goes up, it lands, the journey in between is more akin to cattle being herded in the chute than taking a trip somewhere.

As gas prices went through the roof in 2008 and the economy went into free fall; as one industry after the other fell off the cliff of prosperity and profits, the airlines scrambled to find a response that made sense, that would act as a bungee cord twirling them back and up from the abyss.

As first one airline then another instituted a luggage surcharge, I shrugged. Hmmmph! Okay, I thought, no problem, carry on from here on out for me. Then it was no food, "let them eat peanuts." Find the food sucked rocks. I had been bringing my own anyway. So there!

Getting through security had become an exercise in frustration and measurement. Exactly how many ounces is 3 ounces? Will it be enough to get me through a week away from home? Take off my shoes on the dirty floor? Just damn, I developed a strategy for that as well, slip off shoes with no metal. Jewelry? Simple earrings that do not set of the alarms.

I was just rolling with it, whatever they through at me, fine, no problem. Until yesterday.

Yesterday I bought a ticket on Air Tran. It was exciting, I got such a good fare at the last moment. I love deals. Then comes the screen to select my seat, and... WTF? I am offered a choice, I can pay $20 for a seat with leg room in the exit row, or $6 for an aisle or window seat! Excuse me? What the hell did I buy when I just bought my ticket, all of two minutes ago?

Mind you, I am still in coach, it's not like I'm upgrading or anything. I bought an airline ticket and now I have to pay for a damned seat? Welcome to today's a la carte culture, boys and girls. What's next, buy a movie ticket then have to buy a seat, one price in front, another for the middle, and different one for the back rows? Going grocery shopping? That will be ten cents for each bag, fifty cents for the express lanes, and one dollar for bagging your groceries. Getting your nails done? That's eight dollars for the manicure and twenty-five cents per nail for the polish.

Seriously though. When I bought the airline ticket, what did it get me, transportation in the bulkhead? (Yes, I'm trying to work something out here because this does stick in my craw.)

All of this to say, it looks like they are going to nickel and dime us to death and we need to advocate on our own behalf before they take us off to the poorhouse, and make us pay for that, too! In the words of that wonderful 70s movie, I am mad as hell and not taking it anymore. Well, yes, I will take the plane but boy will I give those folks a piece of my mind. No! Wait. They'd make me pay for that, too. :)

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Alternate Universes, Theocratic USA

So I wondered, pondered, scratched my head looking at the Tea Baggers merrily marching looking like they were having a really good ol' time, and tried to figure out which planet they inhabit? Or is it an alternate universe, a parallel universe where down is up and up is down, and right is left and left maybe just doesn't exist. Really, I did. Yes, I was trying too hard to find a basis in reality for what I was seeing.

My eyebrows first reached for my hairline when I saw people on the news all but having an honest to goodness, I'm going to fall down, turn around and split my pants hissy fit because the president was going to, imagine this, address their little kiddies and exhort them to study hard, to stay in school! Whoa!! Scary.

These parents were frothing at the mouth so much that I had to wonder, what the hell? I know they think Obama's the anti-Christ but what, he's going to do an electronic Vulcan Mind Meld on young Susie, Bobby, and Jimmy Jay, and wrench their impressionable little minds and cause them to actually think? Oooh, think, oooh, socialism.

None of it was making any sense to me, I mean NONE OF IT, not nary one bit. The level of vitriol, of fear, of hate was just insane and quite frankly, scary as hell.

Then I read an article by Frank Schaeffer, author of the book, Crazy for God...and his article explained it all. I'm not crazy, these people are as out of touch with reality as I thought they are.

What I learned is that what we are seeing is the intersection between corporate interests to thwart change, channeling funds to the Christian fundamentalists as the shock troops who will go to any lengths, say anything, do anything, tell bald faced lies, pick up a gun and kill a doctor performing legal procedures that they disagree with, bring an assault gun to town hall meetings, or kill a security guard at a museum dedicated to ending hatred.

What I also learned is that it is impossible to have a reasonable rational discussion with someone who is basically a Christian flat-earther. These folks have more in common with Islamic flat-earthers than they have with those of us who believe in and abide by the rule of law in modern society, no matter how painful. Didn't we suck it up after the Supreme Court selected our president?

But for the right white wing there is no sucking it up, we lost. And therein lies the problem because according to Frank Schaeffer, these folks have no interest in nor intent to work within the system but, rather, they seek to over throw the system and replace it with a theocracy. Yes indeed. Our own fundamentalist theocratic USA, or a piece of it if they are able to build enough hate to secede, again. Because that is what God has deemed for this Christian nation.

In their USA, education curriculum, the bible. Court system, the bible preferably the old testament. Science, doesn't exist. Government, not needed. And there has been a generation of men and women who have been raised, home-schooled, for the past twenty to thirty years steeped in just such a culture as above. Oh, and many of them would love to put some folks "in their place," who have just gotten to friendly with freedom.

In the meantime, if the corporate vultures aren't careful they will wake up one day and discover that they waited too long. The beast they've been feeding is now knocking at their door and boy is it hungry.

So if like me, listening to our own homegrown terrorists makes you wonder if you've stepped into alternate universe, don't worry, you haven't.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Fox in the Hen House

It was a lovely Friday evening in Atlanta a week or so ago. A few friends and colleagues were seventy three stories above the city at the beautiful Hyatt Regency Hotel, spinning slowly around in a complete 360 degree view of the city at the Sun Dial Restaurant. Celebrating the birthday of our board chair, we watched the sun set and the moon rise. Musicians were jamming behind us, it was a fabulous evening. (Helped along by a really good bar tender.)

But every now and then there was this discordant note that was struck. Not by the musicians, they never struck a sour note. But as the restaurant revolved, 360 degrees in an hour, we'd swing around to the bar area where there was a flat screen television with the sound turned down until it was inaudible, broadcasting Fox "news." (I can't take them seriously, the pity is that anyone does.)

You might ask, so what? The answer is, this is a Coca Cola town. Trust me, Atlanta is a Coca Cola town; created here, an iconic presence here, and the formula is deep in the vaults of Sun Trust Bank. (So I have been told.) If you dare bring in Pepsi, and there are venues that may have Pepsi, but they are few and far between, folks take note. CC doesn't take encroachment on its home turf lightly. It is serious business, Coca Cola and Atlanta go hand in hand.

This is also the home of CNN. Sitting in the restaurant looking out at the city, we had a lovely view CNN's headquarters. So when the Hyatt Regency is playing Fox news in a CNN town,within spitting distance of the CNN Center, that is a serious smack in the face. But it is Atlanta, in the state of Georgia, in the deep South. Soda may be one thing, its sweet and fizzy and non threatening. But politics is a whole different kettle of smelly fish.

Fox is the place where the psycho babble of fulminating fury and flagrant disregard of facts and sanity run rampant. (Fox is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Ahh, Macbeth.) Lies, distortion, misinformation and disinformation have a direct feed into the brains of rabid white wing racists providing their daily ration of hate and vitriol. (Yeah, I've been holding that in for a long time. :)

That's why the South right now is crazy making for liberals, progressives, and decent thinking human beings of all colors who care about things like right and wrong, principled discourse, civility, and value people over things.

It would seem to me that those who are on a steady diet of all things Fox are in desperate need of health care. The level of rage, hate, and fear must be giving them embolisms at the very least. I pity them but not so much that I'd turn my back on them, let alone the other cheek. They are too dangerous for that. But I digress.

There must be a way to gauge it but I would bet that CNN is being beaten by Fox in the South. Fox speaks to the "Old South" the good ol' boys South. I don't know where Michael Steel and his ilk think they fit in that equation but I guess being a token in that club must be comfortable or they wouldn't be there. CNN speaks to the New South with it's transplants from all over the globe and please God, keep on coming. Without CNN and other cable outlets to offset the madness, I suspect that by now the whole damn region would be up in arms, once again. And I ain't just whistling Dixie.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Speaking Out Loud

If you have not read Margaret and Helen's blog, you are missing two of the funniest, most insightful women in recent memory. What I love about them is that, in this environment, they are totally open and willing to call bullshit what it is, bullshit. (See the link below.)

Check out their latest blog below about the madness of the crazies who are up in arms because President Obama plans to do an address to students in schools urging them to stay in school and study hard.

Here's where I get concerned. Are we cognizant of the fact that it isn't enough to just vote, celebrate, cry at the inauguration, participate in polls to say, yes, I stand behind my vote? Are we aware that voting was only the first step toward change?

If I were Obama, I'd be sitting in the White House wondering, "Where the hell are all the people? What happened? There were millions and millions of people around me yelling for change, crying for change, screaming for change. Did I imagine that, hallucinate? Did they mean it?" Pinches himself, "No, its real, I am in the White House."

Folks, understand something, he cannot do this alone. The president cannot snap his fingers like a wizard or a genie, and presto chango, done, it's a new day in America. Our prayers for his safety are important, critical even, needed beyond question, but it is time to pray and pack. We need to pack up our complacence, our busyness, our distractions, our tiredness, and begin to get engaged in the process.

There's a flaming terrorist preacher in Kansas praying daily for Obama's death, urging his members to help him meet his maker. Really, I couldn't make this crap up. (I use flaming terrorist as in the flames of hell.)

Then there was that flaming terrorist at a town hall meeting in California who said he was a proud right wing terrorist.

No, I am not suggesting that we go to Kansas to give the idiot posing as a preacher a righteous beat down, although it is tempting, nor am I suggesting that we lock the treasonous congressman out of his office until he swears allegiance to the flag, and mean it. (That would be the congressman who nodded and smiled at said terrorist at his town hall meeting and egged him on.)

What I am saying is that it is time we stopped being all pc, all cool and the gang with everything, watch the news, shake our heads, hurrumph, and get on with our lives. It is time to call things as we see it, call a spade the proverbial spade. As I see it, a huge faction of the white wing (that is not a typo), have lost their frickin' minds. This is not to malign those who are working for change as hard if not harder than we are. I am talking about that faction of folks who can't wait to dance on Obama's grave, who can't wait to unite the base against whatever the made up tempest in a teapot they can gin up next.

If you think this is hyperbole, think again. There is a vein of hatred that runs so deep right now in our nation that if you are not scared, then you ought to be. These folks are not playing. I realize that a huge part of my understanding of this is grounded in where I live. It is easier to ignore when you live in places where your values, principles, and beliefs are not in the minority. I live in a state that Obama lost. I live in a place where people know and can tell you, "This used to be a sundowner county." I live in a region that is the heart and soul this madness, the cradle of the confederacy and the cradle of the right white wing, no matter where it resides now, it began here in the South.

Your elected representatives need to hear from you, need to know that you will hold them accountable, write letters to them, to your newspapers, confront the crap for what it is. The time for genteel thoughtful responses and pleasantness under the guise of bipartisanship is pass. The republicans don't care about bipartisanship, they don't care about us, our feelings, our thoughts or world view.

I read recently that when there is a dispute between two people who are divorcing for example, the one who is crazy wins. The one who will snatch the kids and run to Australia, or who will beat themselves and say it was their spouse, the one who will say anything, do anything, to win, will more often than not, win. Your only hope is here is to get crazier. Yes, it is a recipe for a badly made cake, two parts crazy, add milk and sugar and stir.

How far must we go to bring us back from the brink of disaster? Maybe it is a case of detente' by craziness. When the other side knows you're willing to get as crazy as them, it gives them cause to pause. Liberals live in their heads, we think carefully about things, feel the others pain. We're the eggs on the breakfast plate while the wing nuts are the ham, fully committed. The chicken made a contribution, but the pig, the pig made a commitment.

What is it that the other side seems to care about? They care about power, about power, about power. And they are really righteously pissed about being out of power and having a class A1 hissy fit about it.

Here's the way to Margaret and Helen;

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Night in Nacoochee Pt 2

Let me state for the record just in case I have not made it clear already, I don't do creatures and critters in the house. Dogs and cats are cool, even birds and fish, I prefer fish to birds, less mess and not as intrusive. Other than the aforementioned very very short list, creatures and critters belong outside. Outside the house, in the yard or woods or wherever they live, that is where they belong and I am good with that, I am real good with that.

You will never have to worry about me crossing the path of a bear, or mountain lion, or badgers, deer, or otters even, whilst out hiking soaking up the sunshine and thinking, "Ahh, ain't life grand, this is just great." If by any chance someone tells you they have a picture of me backpacking or hiking over hill and down dale, believe me buddy it was photo shopped.

So here we are in Nacoochee, White County, GA (I just love that name, Nachoochee, it is so cool and funny. It's an Indian name, like many places in or country we kept the names and got rid of the people.) having sat up for hours taking apart the world and putting it back together again and finally we all realize we were talked out. I head downstairs to one of the guest rooms following my host, it is a lovely room with great views of the woods surrounding the house, very cozy.

Let me paint a picture here, to get to their house we turned off a two lane road onto an unpaved road, drove for about a mile, then made yet another turn onto an unpaved road and drove that maybe a quarter mile. So we are in the serious woods, the no-joke there-are-no-lights except- lightning bugs woods. If there was a neighbor, they'd only know you needed help by setting off flares. It was so deep in the woods that we were told if your house catches on fire, the firemen will come to make sure it doesn't spread but there are no fire hydrants to help put the fire out. Seriously, I can't make this stuff up.

Now, my hosts are both artists and arts management consultants. They travel all over, love good food, good friends, great wine, checking out arts and culture events, and good conversation. I suppose heading to the woods is a pretty effective way to shut out the world for awhile. It would have been peaceful for me too if I could just relax. But I digress. (I think there was something about being a black person in a formerly sundown county in the mountains of Georgia, in the middle of the night that kept me on alert.)

Okay, after being shown around the downstairs and where's where, and what's what, my host says, "Oh, just to let you know, no worries, we've taken care of the snake problem, and you may see a brown wood scorpion, if you do just step on it, they're about this big (makes a circle with her thumb and forefinger), but you're bigger, and if you see a spider, don't worry we haven't seen any brown recluse spiders."

My brain went into overdrive. Could I sleep in the car? It was three or four in the morning, the sun would be up soon, I wouldn't have to be in there too long. But suppose I have to go the bathroom, then I'd have to walk in the dark to get to the house? Oh no, that will not do. Yes, it was crazy thinking but, hey, snakes, brown wood scorpions, and spiders were violating my basic rule, creatures and critters outside.

It appears that when you build a house in the middle of the woods, you may know you own the property but the critters and creatures have called that little piece of heaven home a helluva lot longer. Eons maybe. You're just a squatter. They can't read the fine print, don't know anything about property lines, right of way, surveys, and deeds. You're in the way. If you leave a hole for them to crawl through, even the smallest, teensy tiny little crack, they consider it manna from heaven and an invitation to share quarters.

I went to bed that night determined that nothing short of a bomb was going to me get to put feet to floor until the sun was well and truly fully up, hanging big bold and golden in the sky for all to see, no diggity no doubt! That was the only night that I can remember ever not getting up for a midnight run. See what the thought of critters and creatures can do for you.

That morning after the sunlight hit me, I opened my eyes, put on my glasses and peered carefully, slowly around the room. Took a couple of books and threw them in the corners, then waited a couple minutes to insure that nothing moved, then I gingerly put my feet on the floor. I guess the critters got the message, there was a new sheriff in town.

Monday, August 31, 2009

A Night in Nacoochee

"This used to be a sundown county," the director responded in answer to my question.We were standing around talking with the designers and some of the cast after the opening night performance of an original community based play. I heard the comment, clearly I did because it resonated with me as the conversation kept moving along without me. I'd asked a question, the director answered it and my brain just went on vacation. It kept rambling around in my head, like hearing a piece of music or a song that just keeps repeating over and over in your mind, "This used to be a sundown county."

Seriously, for a moment I thought maybe it meant something else. It couldn't mean what I thought it meant, surely not? Maybe I misheard him, misunderstood him.

My colleague and I had driven a couple hours north for the pre-show reception and opening night performance of a play about this gorgeous little community in the mountains of northeast Georgia, not far from the Tennessee line in the Appalachian foothills. It was a very pleasant drive up, the higher up we went the cooler it got, the heat and humidity began to melt away; the houses were spread out, there were working farms, horses, cows, and other assorted wildlife and cattle. (I love looking at cattle and wild life while in a heavily armored moving vehicle.)

I've seen community centered original plays before but was especially interested to see the work of this playwright who has been doing this work for twenty years or more. Unlike traditional plays, this work begins with collecting stories from the community, working with them to figure out a through line that connects all the stories together, and the playwright weaves the stories into a play, a story about the community. Most often a professional team of directors and designers will come in to handle production elements. The community is the cast, the banker, the teacher, mom and grandpa, rehearse for weeks and weeks remembering lines, learning blocking, and everyone in the whole town is excited to pitch in and help however they can.

When we drove into the yard that afternoon for the pre-show reception, we were at a beautiful old house turned into a restaurant with big porches and a full house of people; folks were milling around outside, and all throughout this rather large expansive house. As we wandered around saying hello and introducing ourselves to the local arts council board and staff, and guests, I could not help but note that I was the sole person with a permanent tan. (And as I stood out, they noticed me too. "So, who are you with?")

As we drove in a caravan to the cultural center for the performance, I passed a black woman driving in the opposite direction. I wasn't totally alone. Yes!

As the auditorium began to fill though, I could see that I was going to hold the "only" award that evening. The play was quite lovely, some of the stories were really interesting, especially the piece about moonshiners in the mountains, how that line of work came to be, and how they took care of each other when the "Revenuers" came calling. There were ghost stories, and fabulous puppet work by a puppet maker from Minneapolis. There was a young kid in the cast who clearly was either Native American or from Central or South America, singing with a quartet of young men serving as sort wandering troubadours.

Of course when the lights came up and I've just spent two plus hours watching a play about the community, with community members in the show and in the audience, and there were no black people in the cast, I had to ask. "What happened to the black people? Why weren't they part of this? There are black people here, aren't there?"

And the answer to that question was, "Well, this used to be a sundown county. There are about 800 black people in the town."

If I could my head would have spun around on my neck like that chick in the Exorcist. 800??? (Yes, I know, I was focused on the wrong piece of information.) 800? You mean 8000, right?

There are approximately 20,000 in White County. Yes, White county. (You can't make this stuff up, I tell you.) This pretty little town is unincorporated. A census update for 2007 says that the African American population in White County is 2.17 percent, and the population of Hispanics, Latinos is 1.15 percent. Given that White County covers a pretty big territory with two other fairly good sized towns, it is a safe bet that the number of black folks for that little town is indeed, 800.

So where the heck did they go? Well, as they must have been told often enough over the decades and throughout that period of strict segregation, "Don't let the sun set on your ass in White County," I suspect that they took it to heart.

Before heading to bed that night in White County, a dear friend and colleague opened her home to us so we wouldn't have to drive back down the mountain in the dark, you know I kept returning to this issue. (If there was a nit to pick here, I picked it. I really wanted to understand.) We stayed up late into the night talking about the facts of life living in the south today, four southern white women and me. I was totally gobsmacked to learn that the cultural center tried to reach out to the black community but were rebuffed. It seems that there is a white woman in town, she's the gatekeeper to the black community and she was not amused nor inclined to assist. I flashed back to a weather beaten little structure on the grounds of the cultural center. It was little more than a shack that had been moved to the grounds of the cultural center over the past year, work was underway to try to document and preserve it. "That is the only remaining slave cabin left in the county," I was told.

Before I fell off to sleep I wondered what it must have been like for black folks in White county not too long ago, then mused about the fact that they would have been knocking down the doors and dragged all our happy butts off to jail or worst. Our hosts are a gay couple! What a day what a day.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When They Tell You Who They Are...

Because I don't know who said this, but I think it was Maya Angelou, let me say for the record that I am quoting, or maybe misquoting someone. If that someone happens to read this, please forgive me and understand I fully got the essence of what you were saying, enough so that I remember what was said. "When someone tells you who they are, believe them."

"I'm not good enough for you." "I am weak." "I drink too much." You can fill in the blanks for yourself. We've all heard stories about friends, or it happened to you, where someone tried to tell you who they were and you said, "No, it's okay." Or, "You don't really mean that," better yet, "No, that's not true. I know you and you are much better than that." (Subtext here, I know you better than you know yourself.)

What does this have to do with Musing on the New South, you may ask? Let me ask that you stay with me a minute as I try to connect the dots for myself.

The nation seems to be experiencing a serious case of apoplexy about the President, hidden behind a political meltdown about health care, which is really a trojan horse for the right wing to kill the President's agenda in an attempt to retake the house and senate in 2010. (You would think he was elected by a thin margin rather than the beat down he gave his opponent.) But I digress.

At any rate. Everyone knows that for the past thirty plus years, the heart and soul of the Republican party, their little people salt of the earth base, versus their big people big money base, has been based here in the South. These are the folks that will send their last twenty dollars, or five dollars when their cages are rattled with lies of "Death Panels," "Your tax dollars paying for abortion," "Your tax dollars paying for illegal immigrants," and heaven forfend, "He wants to take your guns away from you." Since the 1970's the envelopes with money just came pouring in.

It grew out of their Southern strategy that married money to divisive social issues that would, they thought, give them a permanent majority in Washington. That's not speculation on my part, in their hubris and arrogance, and complete disregard for people because it is all about winning at any cost, they stated publicly, loudly, and often, that they now had a permanent majority.

There is a cowboy element to Southern culture, as least as it has been promulgated by the media. (As with anything in media, take it with a huge pillar of salt. If more folks took that attitude about images of Black folks in the media...) But I digress. There seems to be a part of the culture that is steeped in guns, the bible, and militarism. So when someone says, "I am a proud right wing terrorist," in a public meeting, and the congressman elected to the US congress, sworn to uphold the constitution nods, smiles, and cheers the guy on....WTF (This is one of those down the rabbit hole moments.)

It happened at a town hall meeting in California last week. In an earlier post I noted that California is both one of the most progressive and regressive places all once. (It is a very schizophrenic state in fact.) But it could just as easily have happened here. And I have not one iota of doubt that the guy in California voiced what many gun wearing, rage filled, lost in the wilderness what the hell happened to my place in the sun, scared, mainly white men are feeling.

And as I think Maya said, "When someone tells you who they are, believe them." I believe that guy. I hope that the FBI, or Justice, or whoever is tracking all of this stuff, with all the billions of dollars we spent on computer programs, and hardware and software, and satellite tracking, to know every piece of information about everyone, (remember the Total Information project as part of the Homeland Security act?), I hope that someone shows up at this guys door. Tomorrow morning. First thing. Do not stop, pass go, straight to his home. You don't even have to look hard because his name was made public already.

If Timothy McVeigh had stood up and shouted, I'm a proud right wing terrorist, in this environment he may have been given a parade with a marching band and all. Hell, Rush Limbaugh would probably give him the keys to the city. Really, I mean it. And what does that tell you about how far the right is willing to go?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

It Ain't All Bad Here

As we slide slowly toward fall, we are coming to one of my favorite times of the year. My two favorite seasons are spring and fall. Never more so than now however, now that we're living in the South. Let me tell you, as the heat and humidity eke away and the leaves begin to fall, we'll still be wearing shorts and flip flops well into November.

The South has a long growing season, and short winters. Oh my, when its eighty degrees at Christmas, I could hurt someone singing about White Christmas, just beat them over the head with a wet noodle! If I never see snow again, ever, in this lifetime or the next, it will be too soon. If we never have to shovel snow, drag out the salt, worry about ice storms, and cold snaps not meant for humans to do anything but huddle around a fire, or stock up on perishables like we are preparing for an ice age, I will still be a very very happy camper.

Winter will really arrive in January, and by March it will be over. I LOVE IT!

As I started writing this blog about living in the new South, a number of friends have noted that they considered moving here but the fundamentalism of the bible belt, the political conservatism, and issues of race and racism are just barriers they could not overcome.

Clearly I understand, or as my girl in DC would say, I "overstand" their concerns. Having acknowledged that though, as one who has lived in New York, Massachusetts, California, Chicago, D.C., and New Jersey, there are trade offs no matter where you go. That's life.

Here is what the South offers that ain't bad by half. I love drive through everything, at the dry cleaners they see you pull up and they go get your clothes without the ticket because they know your name and your car. They bring them out to your car, put them in nice and neat, you pay and go. I've never seen so many drive through coffee shops. And a drive in movie that shows first run movies for $7 dollars thank you very much.

One of my daughters friends lives in Houston, she has her favorite drive through Daiquiri and Margarita place that she can hit on her way home from work. They have about twenty or so different flavors they'll mix up for you, put it in a plastic cup covered with plastic wrap so that you, wink wink, can't open it until you get home. Riiight!

Even though you can't buy wine and beer on Sunday in Georgia, the drive up liquor stores are a hoot and on some Saturday nights, it may be quicker to go inside the store than sit in line at the drive through. Of course restaurants do a bang up business on Sunday as you can get all the beer, wine or whatever you want at your local watering hole and favorite eatery!

When we first moved here, going to the grocery store was an experience. (Unfortunately I now take it all for granted.) They are so well laid out, clean, well lit, and I couldn't understand why everyone kept asking did I need help finding anything? Did I need help with my groceries, getting them out to the car? (No tipping allowed.) And there are the little things like canisters of hand cleaning wipes to wipe down the handle of the cart.

So there is an ease and civility here that helps to gloss over the other stuff. But hey, I was born and raised in New York City, and there are places in the big city that black folks just don't go. Think Howard Beach. Remember Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismand and Abner Louima? If you've read the book or saw the documentary, Traces of the Trade, about one of the largest slave trading families in the US based in New York, or saw the exhibit at the New York Historical Society, Slavery in New York, then we understand that America's peculiar institution wasn't peculiarly limited to the South.

And although there are many things I loved about northern California, there is no place with more natural beauty, there are also earthquakes, mud slides, and the annual fires. And I remember how Oscar Grant was murdered in San Francisco on New Years day. People tend to think of flower children, and free love and liberalism when they think of California, but it one the most progressive and regressive places all at the same time.

Chicago, oh but it is one of the most beautiful cities in the country, truly. Standing on the sandy beach at the lake you can really think you're at the ocean. The downtown is gorgeous, it is one of the few American cities with a functioning livable, walkable downtown. Between May and October that is. After that it is all over, forty five degrees below zero with the wind chill factor is usual. Take your battery out of your car on bitterly cold nights and bring it inside. There are a host of tips and tools you collect to survive winter in Chicago. And there are few northern cities that were as strictly segregated as Chicago.

Someone joked that you could go for days and days on Chicago's South Side without ever seeing a white person. It was one of the few places that Dr. King was unsuccessful, the racism was that deeply entrenched.

There are trade offs, no place is perfect. Not Chicago, New York, not the west or New England.

Here's what I know, the South is the bogeyman, our doppelganger for all the ills of our nation. It is an easy whipping boy or girl, a place in our national psyche that seemingly embodies all that is wrong, cruel, mean, spiteful, unforgiving, wrapped up in patriotism and blessed by the bible. And although it is many of those things, even most of those things, it is also a place where there are pockets of people who are doing the work of reconciliation around the difficult issues of race. It is a place where many people are running for their lives away from unthinking fundamentalism, seeking spirit, questioning authority, free to think.

Yes, there are issues here, but there isn't anything so different, or unique, or beyond the pale that happens only here. If there are a thousand stories in the big city, there are a million here. And I find that some of the absolute best story tellers live right here.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Now on to the Anti Black

This post is part II of my Glen Beck and the Anti Black posted on Friday. And I will try hard not to turn this into a rant. Seriously, if I find myself going in that direction I will reel myself back in, promise.

A couple of people had the same response as I did when they read my post, "What does that mean? He's the Anti Black?" This much I know, it sent my finely tuned antenna thrumming like a narcotics trained dog catching the scent of grade A prime "stuff." After all, when someone is called the Anti Christ you know there isn't anything good about that. (I have been known to call Dick Cheney the spawn of Satan but never the Anti Christ.) In fact the Encyclopedia Britannica says that the, "Antichrist and precursor of Antichrist have been, and remain, terms of the most intense opprobrium." Intense opprobrium, bottom of the barrel soul sucking, nail to you the wall bad. (Try a search and see what comes up under Antichrist Obama. Boy we'd need an hour just to begin to decipher and unravel all the symbolism, under currents, twisted logic, and sheer craziness he evokes in some folks.)

Even Antiheroes who are bad guys, or gals, who become the protagonist, the central character in a movie or book, (think Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men) are failed, highly flawed characters. One source I checked said this about antiheroes, "antihero - Protagonist who has pronounced personality or character defects or eccentricities which are not usually associated with the hero archetype."

Words have meaning, and I love language. I was destined to be caught up in this almost Gordian Knot of symbolism and signs in the simple well meant statement, "You're the Anti Black."

At the heart of the matter, bottom line, there isn't anything good about being told you're the antithesis of blackness; not when it was meant as a high compliment! As I write that it makes my head hurt. Following this logic then, Blacks who achieve through hard work, education, dedication, perseverance, determination, by dint of their will and willingness to succeed; Blacks who are polite, mannerly, well spoken, thoughtful, we are the anti-Black, the antithesis of blackness.

And Black Americans who don't succeed, (and I will not go down the rabbit hole of all the things, reasons why, issues and crap that could cause one to fail as a Black person in this culture, just won't go there) all things that are dysfunctional, and sad, and tragic are therefore the "pro-Black."

Chew on that one for a moment. Because the person who made that comment to my nephew is one of the coolest white men he's met in the South. The guy thought he was paying a compliment, he was saying to this young man not quite thirty who owns his home, is married, not a hard partying person, resourceful, responsible, smart, grounded, terrifically hard worker, you're not like the average black man. You're the anti-Black. What he illuminates then is his impression, belief, understanding, his perception of Black Americans, that the average Black person, what he perceives of as the standard if you will, are those in jail, on drugs, selling drugs, and the litany of other dysfunctions. It makes me go straight to crazy that for too many people, this is what decades of struggle have come to. And the beat goes on.

But before I go, just one little itty bitty question. So is this guy, and all the well meaning, grounded white Americans who understand issues of race and racism, those millions of white citizens who put aside their fears and voted in one of the most historic elections in our history, does this mean they the anti-white? Just asking.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Anti-Black and Glen Beck

I tell you there are days where stuff just comes looking for you, you don't even have to leave home to find it! Let me say right here, this may be a little controversial for some folks. But it landed in my lap and, being me, it's been noodling around my head all day and I have to get it out. Based upon the title you know I'm talking about race. Not because it was at the top of my topics for the day, but because someone told my nephew he's the Anti Black, and a neighbor in my subdivision wants our book club to read Glen Beck's book, Glen Beck's Common Sense. (My nephew lives in North Carolina by the by.)

Let me begin with the latter, Glen Beck. When I read the list of proposed books for the upcoming year and got to the bottom of the list and saw Glen Beck, my mouth dropped open. I was hoping against hope that it wasn't the same Glen Beck, opinionator passing as commentator, muckraker, bottom feeding agitator, crap disturber passing as nut job, on Fox News. (Talk about an oxymoron, Fox and News, like a free market health care system, but I digress.)

Alas, it was the same person. I considered for about five minutes letting it pass, not saying anything, hoping that some other brave souls will vote it out. But I was just undone. (All it it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing. I really believe that.) As the only person of color in my book club, in a sub division where there are but a handful of us, it just upset me to no end to find Glen Beck on the list. Here's why. I believe that the right wing are out to incite riot, mayhem and murder. After inciting the mob they will wring their hands, moan and groan and pretend they just don't understand, "He acted alone, we abhor violence." Oh me oh my!

What's my evidence? How many people showed up to Bush's public meetings carrying loaded weapons? When Bush's actions and policies actually were treasonous, how many people showed up to public meetings shouting Traitor?

I fired off a note to the book club coordinator voicing my dismay. I can't abide Fox news and since the right wing have shown that they will go to any length to destroy President Obama, have been seriously considering boycotting their non news programs. Yes, I know, this means 24 and House, and a slew of other shows, but that is for a later discussion. All of this to say, I refuse to watch their "opinion masquerading as news programming." But Glen Beck's remarks about President Obama after the Skip Gates brouhaha sent me right over the edge. (Huffington Post, Salon, NY Times, Bill Maher and others covered it.) In case you haven't heard he said that the President has shown that he has a deeply seated hatred of white people, and in fact is a racist. WTF!

I don't know if my response, or having a provocative book on the list violates some kind of book club etiquette, but there it is. Let me be clear, I am making no assumptions here about the reason, cause, or political leanings of the book club member who proposed this book. Here's what I do know for certain though, we would need a facilitator for that discussion, we would need to actually read Tom Paine's Common Sense in order to fully understand his philosophy and thinking in order to put Beck's book in context. (Beck claims his book is based upon the principles, thinking and philosophy of Tom Paine.) And given Beck's own statements, we would have to talk about race and racism.

And then a white guy told my nephew he was the Anti-Black. What a day what day!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Following the Food

"Is the iced tea sweet or unsweetened?" I was sitting in a midtown restaurant in New York and had ordered an iced tea. It was habit to ask if it was sweetened or not. The waiter lifted his eyebrow and pulled his head back as though I had spit in the tea or something! "It's unsweetened," he practically hissed, overly dramatic to say the least in response to a simple question. It may have been a "No Duh," to him but I needed to know.

My bad, I forgot where I was. Here in the South when you order an iced tea there is no question that it will be sweet. If there is a question it will be the degree of sweetness; crack your teeth sweet, mix it with water sweet, and just right. (Here's a hint, when in a restaurant in the South ask if they have unsweetened tea, otherwise you'll never know because you aren't often offered a choice.)

I got to thinking about food in the New South while making a pitcher of iced tea at home this afternoon. We don't sweeten our tea at home, if you want to add sugar no problem, it's available. Often we have a simple syrup chilling in the fridge which makes sweetening iced tea easier.

Then I flashed on the scene at the restaurant in New York, and that led me to fried pickles at a Stone Mountain restaurant. It's called Aunt Sally's Front Porch, or something to that effect. The name of the restaurant really isn't important, it was the fact that after placing our orders they brought us a basket of hush puppies and fried pickles. Piping hot, right out of the hot grease, and hmmm they smelled good.

Of course I recognized the hush puppies, and as always wondered where the heck the name came from? But the other item was unrecognizable. I was thinking it might be a weirdly shaped green tomato, which are quite tasty fried. A friend sitting with us took pity on me, leaned over and said, "They're fried pickles, dill, I think."

My eyebrow went up like that waiter in the restaurant in Manhattan. My neck flew back like someone had waved a snake in my face. She may as well have said it was a fried grasshopper or something. " Fried pickles? Why? Who would even think of something like that?" I asked. Seriously, I really wanted to know. Did someone have a craving for something fried one day and the only thing on hand were dill pickles? Or maybe it came from the imagination of someone deep in pregnancy, jonesing for something fried, and something sour?

I'm an adventurous eater, one who jokingly says I am an omnivore. I have eaten Bambi, and Thumper, and Kanga, too. There are only a handful of foods that I really don't like. And before I declare something beyond the pale, I at least try it.

We had been in Georgia all of a month or so when we had this outing to Stone Mountain, a location made famous by Dr. King in his I Have a Dream address. Who knew there were rides, and fireworks, and all manner of fun things for kids and families to do now? We've come a long way Baby!

But this fried pickles, and snickers, and mac and cheese, and other assorted fried stuff was freaking me out. Someone had jokingly said about well known Georgia chef and restaurant owner, Paula Deen, "She'd fry butter if she could!" Well, yes, I believe that to be true now.

I feared for my arteries but plopped a pickle anyway. Not too bad, not worth doing more than once but, not too bad.

Since my Stone Mountain experience three years ago, I have discovered a few incredible, amazing international markets that all but shriek, New South right here! The first time we went to the Dekalb International Farmers Market I all but lost my ever loving mind. The produce section was the largest I have ever seen, anywhere. If there is a fruit or vegetable, herb or spice from anyplace on the planet missing, then it's probably inedible. You want fresh fish, there are tanks with the fish still swimming, choose one. There were probably 100 different kinds of cheeses, and fresh meats, including goat and chicken feet, and dairy, (fresh organic milk from an Amish farm) and teas, coffees, and I could go on and on but it would make you as exhausted as I was after my first trip.

A little over a year ago while getting my nails done, my favorite nail tech told me about the Super H market, about twenty minutes north from my house. It is Asian owned and they are opening five more in the area. When we pulled into the parking lot any questions about authenticity went out the window. Just mercy, Super H is so large that they have foods sectioned by country, Thai, Viet Namese, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and Phillippine. Got all your regular fruits and veggies, and at amazing prices, including a ton of stuff I have never heard of, then head over to the fish section and choose, dead or alive. (Beats fishing.) If you shop on Friday, Saturday or Sunday you can taste your way to fullness as they offer you steamed dumplings, and soups, and appetizers galore.

But, most importantly here's what I know, if we follow the food, at least here in the Atlanta area, then you can see a possible future for the New South and it doesn't look anything like the past. And I for one am thrilled.

Being the

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Singing on the Porch

I know the title sounds funny, a little like Singing in the Rain without all the special effects and dancing, but it totally encapsulates what was one of the most blissful days in memory. As you may know I just got back from spending a week in the woods in the mountains of North Carolina with about two hundred plus incredible performing and visual Southern artists.

So bear with me for a minute and I promise I will tell you how me, the one who loves to sing way out loud, often forgets the words and have been convinced I have no voice, ended up in the middle of a fabulous jam session with some serious singers! Yes, this is a New South story.

It was Saturday morning and I slept in late after hanging out until 2:30 in the morning listening to music, dancing, and hearing these young spoken word artists from all over the South, whose words and imagery all but took my breath away. It was hard hard hard, I tell you, to pull myself away and do the responsible thing. Yes, I lost my mind and thought I was a fully grown adult or something.

Sleeping in meant that I missed breakfast but praying to St. Mattress was more important than food at that point. So sleep won out. Once I finally crawled up from the abyss, I began to smile. I had an appointment for a massage!! This was the first pebble in the bliss filled pond.

If you ever come to Atlanta for any reason, build in thirty minutes or so for a massage. I will happily put you in touch with one of the best masseurs I have ever met, bar none. Just Mercy, incredible body work, I practically melted off the table. Patrick is gifted, believe me. Then I had a little lunch with more music and wonderful conversation. This was the second pebble in the bliss filled pond.

Leaving lunch I was trying to figure out how to bump somebody off, well not seriously but you get my drift, so that I could take their place on Patrick's already filled dance card and squeeze in another massage before we had to leave the next day.

The cafeteria has two huge porches off a dining hall that could seat four or five hundred. I think we could as easily have eaten on the porches as inside. (But of course, you run the risk of being eaten alive before you could wolf down half your meal.) Our retreat in the mountains is a really nice camp about ten minutes from Ashville, NC. What a lovely beautiful setting. One of things that I most appreciated is that there must have been literally hundreds of big comfy rocking chairs on the porches in the main areas, scattered around all the patios near the pool, in front of the resident buildings, and in front of each room in the buildings where porches lined the walkways to your room. But I digress.

(We took every opportunity available when in small group meetings to head outdoors to the rocking chairs, look at the mountains as we talked, surrounded by trees and quiet. It was such a relaxing way to have a meeting. LOL)

Walking out of the dining hall that day, someone said, "Come on, let's get together and sing." Well, sure, I thought, I'll sit for a minute and hear them before heading out to a workshop or something. There were maybe six of us, we grabbed some rocking chairs, made a circle and they began to sing. Operative word, they. Now I knew two of these women can sing, I've heard their music, seen them perform, they can blow. Then there was my girl Linda from Carpetbag Theater in Knoxville, TN, a fellow New Yorker transplanted to the south about forty years ago. I know she's an actor, writer, and director, but I'd never heard her sing.

She started things off with this huge voice that just blew me away. And they began to rock literally and figuratively, and I began to join in, I couldn't help myself. I hear music and my voice just runs away from me. Nobody gave me dirty looks or anything. So I really joined in. Then three more women came to join us. Then two more, then one more, then three more, before we knew it we had over fifteen women singing our hearts out and having an absolute ball.

People were coming from all over the camp to hear us because in the mountains sound travels. We had four and five part intricate harmonies going. Our chairs were just rocking in rhythm, and we had a tambourine, and our feet for percussion, and hands clapping in syncopation. Linda's feet finally ran away with her and danced her up out of her chair! That's when we really took off. I was practically levitating out of my chair.

It was an hour or more of sheer unadulterated joy as we raised our voices making music. It was unscripted, totally off the cuff, and such an incredible moment of sharing, teaching each other the notes, or the melodies, passing off the lead as you were so moved. And crawling around in bliss at our feet was little Ziah, maybe eight months old, such a gorgeous sweet tempered little girl, who was passed from one to the other as we sang, and her mother took the lead. She sang the lead in Spanish, and then English, she was magnificent with a soaring poignant voice that just dug deep inside you.

I looked around me at this fabulous array of Southern women singing on the porch and recognized that we represented the New South; we were black, white, Latinas, older, middle age, young, gay and straight, tatoos and locks, straight hair and curly do's, from rural communities in Alabama and Kentucky, and cities like Charlotte, or Atlanta. It took all of us to raise the roof, we each brought our own special, unique gifts to the party. And what a party it was. I would do it over again in a heartbeat.

That was third pebble in the bliss filled pool, I may not be able to sing lead but I can sing background like a pro!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I'd Have Picked My Own Damn Cotton

These are connected musings about signs, signals and symbols in the New South. That was the thought that woke me up this morning, what have I noticed over the past three years? So I began thinking about what I've seen since being here in ATL. Here goes:

1) Symbol: My daughter and her family bought their first home about a year and a half ago. They are almost an hour north of Atlanta in the town of Cumming, GA. I have no rational explanation for the fact that literally weeks went by as I was going and coming in and out of her subdivision before I finally noticed it. It isn't like these homeowners were trying to hide it or anything.

Then one day I guess I slowed my New York-fast- roll, long enough to look, to see. There it was in the front yard of a small house, right across the road from the entrance to her subdivision, flapping in the breeze, proudly flying high, a confederate flag.

2) Signs: Slightly over two years ago while visiting family in Columbia, SC, heading merrily on my way to the mall to see what's what, I noticed what became one of my favorite bumper stickers. I was directly behind a big ass pick up truck waiting to make a left turn on a hugely busy street, (I know it already sounds enormously stereotypical, but I can't help it, I didn't buy the thing he did) and along with the gun rack and a couple of confederate flags, there was the bumper sticker. It read, "If I'd known it was going to end up like this, I'd have picked my own damn cotton." Really, it did. Clever, funny even.

3) Signals: Those of you who know me, know that I love good BBQ. And have tried BBQ from one end of the country to the other, and many points in between. (Well that might also be because we have lived on both ends and many places in between. LOL)

But I digress. At any rate, for years when driving into the Columbia, SC area there were these mega billboards advertising Maurice's BBQ. There were at least eight of these things surrounding the highways with a nice big picture of Maurice with tantalizing quotes from satisfied customers, and all the wonderful things you see on billboards, and- a confederate flag! Really, saw it with my own two eyes.

If you bet that we have never eaten at Maurice's, you're a seer, quick, head to Atlantic City. I have absolutely no desire to give Maurice my money. And I am under no illusion but that he would have smiled, taken my money and said, something to the effect, "Don't forget to come back now, hear." Not in this lifetime.

No, not my money when, clearly, he was nostalgic for the days of free labor, mint juleps, and cool breezes scented by magnolia trees, aided by the tired arms of said free labor vigorously fanning.

Then over the past year while my dad was in the final stages of his illness and it was beginning to feel like we could put the car on automatic pilot and it would navigate to SC on it's own, I noticed that Maurice's billboards no longer had the flag! Say what? And the house across the way from the subdivision in Cummings? No more flag!

This is good, right? I imagine that someone may have knocked on the door of that home one day and said, something to the effect, "Listen, we are trying to sell some homes here and your flag is causing a little bit of a problem. It's giving our community a bad name."

I hear that Maurice's BBQ had received numerous complaints over the years. Capitalism apparently trumped ideology? Finally, I guess, something pushed him to the edge, he reached the tipping point maybe, and decided to call off the dogs, or hogs and lay the flag to rest.

The guy with the pickup truck and the funny bumper sticker, haven't seen him again but, my response sitting there reading his bumper sticker that day, "I wished y'all picked your own damn cotton, too." Mind you, at the time I saw his truck, I don't think Barack Obama had even announced his candidacy. So that wasn't the trigger for the guys frustration. No, that was just his every day, "I don't believe this crap, where I am in my life and I want to blame someone," angst.

But I digress. See the point I really wanted to make here was that in a strange way, I preferred knowing that the flag was in front of the guys house, and on the billboard, because it sends a really clear and unambiguous message. I get it, and most folks of color, especially black folks in the South, understand.

So without the symbols, signals and signs, some poor unsuspecting unknowing person may show up at the front door of that house in Cumming one night, with a broken down car looking for a phone, or help with a tire, (Yes, I know that's not a good idea but they always do this in the movies so I thought I'd try it here, it's creative license) and end up with a rude shock.

Although my short term memory is shot to hell, I am blessed or cursed depending upon your point of view, my long term memory is great. And I remember the story of Yoshiri Hattori, an exchange student in 1992 who was shot and killed in Louisiana because he mistakenly went to the wrong address while on his way to a fellow students Halloween party. A twitchy homeowner "thought" the kid was there to do him harm. There was a big brouhaha, and a lot of hand wringing and outrage, but the kid was dead and the homeowner was acquitted.

Here's the deal, really, I want to know. If you have a loaded gun in every room, and two in the bedroom, and you really are prejudiced, then hang the damn flag, please. Hang the flag, put up a sign, even one of those "Protected by Smith Wesson," that people use instead of ADT or Brinks. Trust me, I will not knock on your door. And no, I still won't head to Maurice for BBQ while in Columbia. Same man, same restaurant, same food, with the flag in the back room somewhere. Pass it on to unsuspecting drivers.

What isn't okay is state sanctioned, government enforced laws that codify prejudice as was once upon a time in our not too distance past. The Maurice's of the world, flash your gang signs so that we, the rest of us, know who you are.

But I digress. :)

Monday, August 17, 2009

Welcome to the New South

It's been three years and one month exactly to the day since we sold our house and moved to Georgia. We arrived in Atlanta, GA July 17, 2006, after a nine year sojourn in New Jersey, Newark to be exact. As urban cities go, it doesn't get much more urban than Newark. It has everything that people think of when they think of Newark, and a whole lot they don't know about as well. We lived in a great, wonderful neighborhood in the North Ward called Forest Hill, one block from beautiful Branch Brook Park that had been designed by Frederick Law Olmsted who designed Central Park. Our neighborhood was hugely diverse with a significant Spanish speaking population of folks from all over Central and South America, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, with many of the original Italian and Jewish owners who didn't, wouldn't or couldn't get out when the neighborhood began to turn over, and black folks. (One of the houses on our block was the exterior used for Uncle Sonny's house in the Soprano's. I have a fond memory of sharing wine and beer with the crew one night during and after a shoot.)

We left a place where, even though it cost $6 dollars to cross the bridge or tunnels into Manhattan and we did so frequently, we could be in Manhattan within twenty minutes. Yes, that is twenty minutes with no traffic. And when was there not traffic? At 11 pm when we decided we wanted to hang out in the Village, or head uptown for a night of music and food; New York is a food lovers heaven for cuisine of any kind or ethnicity. A very very expensive densely crowded kind of heaven.

We left a state that had an Amish farmers market with fresh fabulous meat and produce, and the tiny college town of New Brunswick with six amazing restaurants within walking distance of each other, including the wonderful Makeda's for Ethiopian food that was our home away from home, our personal Cheers. Newark and surrounding communities had old line Italian bakeries that had to-live-for pastries and breads, and a gazillion diners, and community block parties galore. There was a growing downtown scene happening in Newark, and the famous Ironbound district with its historic Spanish and Portuguese community, and truly wonderful clubs and restaurants.

And then we moved to Georgia, the metro Atlanta area. My husband, Harry, and I are both big city people, born and raised in Chicago and Manhattan respectively. Southside for him, Harlem for me. We don't have dreams of a house in the woods with wide open country spaces with lots of trees to get lost in. (Besides there are creatures and critters in the woods.) That's what Central Park, or Branch Brook Park is for. When you need a tree fix, or want to see wide expanses of grass, go to the damn park. If you want flowers, I planted them in my back yard and that was more than enough, thank you very much. Very pretty, lots of work, hard on the knees, but worth the price of admission.

We are not hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, backpacking kind of folks. Thinking about camping makes me itch. Been there, done that. Got the t-shirt and a gopher under my damn sleeping bag, knocking against my head to wake me up because he wanted out for his morning potty break or something.

And I must have hot running water for a shower, and a comfortable bed. Okay, I'll spill the beans, when I travel I really am a hotel kind of gal. I love hotels, the little travel size shampoos and conditioners, room service, thick towels and comfortable beds. And did I mention room service?

See what working for a living does for you, because that's why we are living in Georgia. They made Harry an offer that we just couldn't refuse. And we would be really close to family. And there's an arts scene, and it is a fairly big affordable city. Friends frequently ask, "What is it like living in the South?" That's what this blog is for. To tell you what it feels like living here through the lens of an urban refugee, and a damn Yankee one at that.

Here's a taste for you, it is the moment I felt like we'd gone down the rabbit hole, and was being asked to believe six impossible things on an empty stomach.

Last year, in response to the deep drought situation, two years of little water that almost led to war with Alabama and Florida, coupled with an economy rapidly headed toward the ninth circle of economic hell, our illustrious governor, Sonny Perdue, (what kind of name is that for a governor, anyway?) decided that what Georgia really really needs to increase tourism, and bring money to the state, what we really really needed was...hold your hats boys and girls, a damn Trout Fishing Contest!!!!! And the state will happily invest money to facilitate this event. WTF?

I swear to goodness and God. That's what our esteemed governor announced, had a huge press conference and everything. "Governor Perdue will make a major announcement this afternoon to assist Georgia's ailing economy," intoned a serious news commentator in a deep sonorous voice. For a little bit I got interested, wanted to hear what he was going to propose for us.

So you know I was so flummoxed, so totally taken aback that my mouth hung open for fully five minutes as my brain tried to compute and make sense of what I'd heard. "Is he serious," I wondered? It would bring in millions and millions of dollars to the economy as serious fishermen from all over would come to Georgia for a chance to win, whatever the prize was. I'd stopped listening after hearing that a fishing contest was going to revive our economy.

And that is the moment that I knew for certain that I wasn't in Oz any longer, no Toto, no witches, no yellow brick road. Where are a girls ruby slippers when you need them? Not at DSW for certain.

So this blog will be about learning what it means to be a Southerner and living in the "New South."More tales and reflections to come soon.