Friday, February 24, 2006


There are lots of different ways to do Mardi Gras, you know.

What you'll see on CNN this weekend and on until Tuesday - drunken throngs pushing through the French Quarter, girls on balconies, the crowds packed like sardines around the barricades at the parades on Canal - that's Mardi Gras, for sure. The fact that it's mainly tourists and a few die-hard locals doesn't diminish the fact. It's the most well-known aspect of a multifaceted thing.

But the pagans and hippies and crusties and hipsters in the Marigny and Bywater? That's another Mardi Gras. It's a big one, too - a deep and complex celebration running just a few blocks from the insanity on Bourbon Street, but miles away all the same.

Then there's black Mardi Gras, with Indians and cookouts, social clubs and crowds under the interstate on Claiborne. I haven't had the honor of seeing much of that one, but it's Mardi Gras, for sure.

And Metairie's a whole different thing - parades and crowds and beads, yeah, but a whole different flavor, a whole different set of traditions.

And then there's St. Charles Avenue, where I'll be. No barricades, for sure, and smaller crowds. Yes, there's parades and beads, and we'll drink a lot of beer, but there are kids and grandparents, college students and families, locals and tourists. People will chat with strangers, cops will walk a lost kid back to his parents.

So what I'm saying is what you see in a fifteen-second spot on the news this week? The three drunk college guys, heads immobile from huge beads, hooting at the camera? That's not all there is. It is, no shit, a cultural event unique in the United States. It's the way these people celebrate their culture - as important to them, in its way, as being in church on Sunday is to a Baptist. It's heritage and history and celebration - the last, particularly, is in dire need in New Orleans.

And that's where I'll be for a few days. Don't rob my house.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Owly Shoals

My favorite spam e-mail sender here lately: Owly Shoals.

Come on, nobody is named Owly Shoals. There could be a thing called Owly Shoals, I guess, though that's kind of a reach...and that set me off, Captains Courageous-style:

There came a night, eighty miles off the coast of Hatteras, with a high wind and towering waves. The cabin-boy was lashed to the mizzen, and the Old Man gripped the ship's wheel as the foam from the wave-tops blew across the deck.

That was when the cabin-boy first heard it, faint at first but growing as the boat plowed on to the west: hooting. A multitude of hoots, coming to them on the wind.

"What is it, cap'n?" the cabin-boy asked.

"'Tis the Owly Shoals, boy," the grizzled Old Man said, "there's no trickier piece of sea between the Arctic and the Bahamas. We'll have to run a true course, or we'll all end up a ball of bones a thousand feet down."

The cabin-boy shivered as the hooting grew louder.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Bikers vs. Idiots

I love this:

"Wearing vests covered in military patches, a band of motorcyclists rolls around the country from one soldier's funeral to another, cheering respectfully to overshadow jeers from church protesters.

"They call themselves the Patriot Guard Riders, and they are more than 5,000 strong, forming to counter anti-gay protests held by the Rev. Fred Phelps at military funerals.

"Phelps believes American deaths in Iraq are divine punishment for a country that he says harbors homosexuals. His protesters carry signs thanking God for so-called IEDs -- explosives that are a major killer of soldiers in Iraq.

"The bikers shield the families of dead soldiers from the protesters, and overshadow the jeers with patriotic chants and a sea of red, white and blue flags."

As I've said before, Phelps and his bunch of crazies masquerading as a church should be tossed in jail for treason - or at least rounded up, taken to the basement and beaten bloody. These bikers are beyond awesome.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Background Noise: Addendum

I called to wish my sister Dawne a happy birthday tonight. She told me how much she'd liked this entry. I wasn't surprised - she grew up there too.

"Did you tell him how you knew it was summer when you heard the cars at the race track?" I heard my brother in-law ask.

He makes an excellent point. The sound of Saturday nights in the summer, then: race car engines, bellowing from before sunset until well after midnight. The cars were loud and clear in my neighborhood, and on most summer nights you could hear them all over town. I don't remember hearing any after we got here, post-hurricane, but I was preoccupied. Will I be able to hear them way out here in Marion? Time will tell.

I was talking to Julie, my other sister, not long ago about children cussing and how cute it is and whatnot. She told me whenever she and her daughter would drive into West Memphis in the summertime they'd get hit with the unmistakable sewer smell of broken pipes on the east side of town - where we lived. "Smells like someone knocked over the shithouse!" Julie would say. She stopped saying that when Lynne repeated it back to her.

"But that's just how summertime smelled," I told Julie, "it's kind of pleasant, really. Nostalgic."

Saturday, February 18, 2006


[Pictured, left: The view from the guest room window. Shit is bleak, yo. I assure you my neighborhood doesn't look quite as much like a Morrissey song as the picture would suggest.]

More winter weather - and again on a weekend! Not that last weekend was disrupted by the snow. By noon on Saturday the snow was all off the roads; we went running around Memphis Saturday night. It was pretty for a while, though.

This mess, though, may hang out a while. It started early this morning. It is amazing cold. The wind is howling in from the north. The weather - a mix of sleet, snow and freezing rain - is supposed to keep on until Monday, maybe.

But Sonya made a big trip to the grocery store last night. We will cook and eat and have a quiet, ice-bound weekend.

Weird weather, dude. We went out for our anniversary dinner on Thursday night (Tsunami in Cooper Young; the food was good but the service was a bit casual for the prices we were paying) and it was warm and humid - the place had their door open when we got there, and I would have considered a table outside if they had had any set up.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Survivor Guilt?

Is it silly to be achingly homesick for a place you're not from? Because I ache for New Orleans. Sometimes I look around and I'm all, "holy crap, when did I move?" But it's been months, hasn't it?

And I wouldn't want you to think I'm unhappy here. Far from it. I'm tickled to be back among family and friends in my hometown. I love our new house beyond reason. My new job is awesome, and seems to be getting awesomer. Things are very, very good here.

But still. I was so comfortable in New Orleans. We had carved out a pleasant little place for ourselves - nothing flashy, just a modest little life. In a lot of ways, really, we're better off now than we were then.

I think the problem is there wasn't any closure, as overused as the word is. Since I was laid off in May of 2003 - and even more since John was born - Sonya and I have both said, "if a good job came up for one of us in Memphis we would move." It was an eventual goal for a pretty simple reason: we wanted John to grow up around family, just like both of us had.

But when we left town on August 28 we had three changes of clothes each. My biggest worry? Sonya had an appointment to get a haircut from Shawn over Labor Day weekend. I was afraid we'd have to go back to New Orleans in a day or two and then make the drive again the next weekend.

Cleaning out the apartment in October didn't help, either. When I left that afternoon it looked like I was almost done. Just one more trip, probably, and then we'd be ready to move. Of course, I haven't been back since.

I'm still talking to people at my old job. When I'm down for Mardi Gras they told me to come by and get the stuff that was in my cube. Sonya's tight with her old coworkers - some of them were here a couple of weeks ago - and she's still getting money from them.

Sonya and I had talked about it. Before we leave town, we said, we'll do this or that. A few New Orleans things had slipped by; we knew we'd do them before we moved away. And a big party, for sure, with all our friends and acquaintances. Pour out every drop of booze and cook all the food.

I hate to sound like a broken record, people, but it's my party, etc. Before we moved there I would get all yearn-y right before Mardi Gras, and this is like that but worse. It gets me sometimes: should we have gone back? What would that be like? I'd be working like a dog, I'm sure, but I might have gotten a raise. Sonya would be back and forth to Baton Rouge, I suppose - they're not sure when her workplace will be back in town. John's school reopened in November with a handful of children. I like his daycare now, but I don't think they do as much learning as they did at the old place - they just hang out and play all day. That's fine, but he could handle a lot more than that. Our lease would have been up at the end of the month; what astronomical price would the new rent be? We all play what-if, I know. I've played it every day for most of the last six months.

I'm not trying to justify my decisions...or maybe I am. To myself, at least. Out of the people Sonya and I knew there, everyone was displaced for a while. Some of them still are. But everyone's going back, or they've already gone back. Things just fell into place for us here. It took a while to get jobs and house worked out, sure, but I think it would have taken at least that long - or possibly a good bit longer - to get things back to normal in New Orleans. If they could ever get back to normal, whatever that is.

Last night I was walking around the house, turning off lights, locking doors, and I looked out the front door. It was a clear night, and the moon was full or close to it, and the silvery light was bright and cold over the former bean fields that stretch off towards the interstate. It was a good moment, enchanted in a small way, and I said to myself, "this is where I belong." I believe that, too, but I suppose when you lose a way of life - even when it eventually (and happily) gets replaced - it takes a good long time to let it go.

Saturday, February 11, 2006


Snow is very rare in Memphis. During any given winter it will snow a handful of times; out of those times it may actually stick to the ground and be something you can go out and play in once or twice.

Thursday night they were predicting snow, and lots of its. Surprisingly, the forecast didn't change on Friday. "The temperature will drop Friday afternoon and then it will snow. A lot," the weather guys all said.

[Friday night, snug in our house, fire burning, I said to Sonya: "I like following winter weather much more than tropical weather. With snow it's all, 'how will the drive home be? Will I get a day off?' With hurricanes it's like, 'Do I need to leave town? Could the weather possibly kill me?'"]

So, at about one-thirty Friday afternoon, it started to snow. A lot. As advertised! Thick, wet, white snow that started to stick as soon as it hit the ground. I got sent home at two-fifteen. Sonya had already left. I went to the grocery store, she went to get the boy, and we met up at the house.

Then we went outside to play and make a snowman.

The snowman was wearing a Yankees cap, sunglasses and gay pride beads. He had insectile little weed-arms and an untrustworthy red bean smile. And a rake.

It was perfect snowman snow, too. As soon as I'd roll a little bit across the ground it would pick up every flake around it. Gigantic, car-crushing snow balls were possible.

In summary: I got off early and then got to play in the snow with my kid. When we came in, there was a fire burning. It was the greatest afternoon ever.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Yo, New Orleans people.

We're coming down for Mardi Gras. That's a done deal.

But! Where we were going to stay has fallen through. Anyone got any ideas? Or a comfy cozy guest room? We'll bring you some Authentic Memphis Ribs!

All right. Sure. Plus: Ear wax!

A conversation from this morning:

I'm in the living room, putting my coat on. John is sitting on the couch, drinking milk, eating Cheerios and watching Blue's Clues.

"Where going?" he asked me.

"I'm going to work."

"John with you?"

"No, you can't go with me. You've got to go to school."

"All right," John said, "sure."

["Sure" is the hot new word lately, and John says it in a bored, patronizing voice. As in, "sure, we'll do what you said, you moron. Like I care." He's basically a teenager. I imagine "whatever" will be the next popular word.]

"I love you. Have a good day."

"Love you." And he went back to his breakfast.

* * *

Readers who are easily squicked by the human body and its various by-products can stop reading here. Fair warning.

* * *

So I'm getting out of the shower this morning and I'm using a little toilet paper to get some water out of my ears. I don't use cotton swabs, as a rule. They scare me. Sticking things inside my head always scares me.

I push a little toilet paper into my ear and I feel something thunk solidly into my eardrum. I pull the toilet paper out, but too late; everything is muffled on my right side. Blocked!

This happened to me once in college, too. I had to go to the doctor and he used this thing (that looked like the bottle my grandfather used to attach to the garden hose to fertilize the lawn) to spray water in my ear and eventually chase out a lump of wax the size of a Miata.

"It happens to almost everybody," the doctor said that time, "the wax gets pushed back and pushed back until there's no more room."

At lunch I went to Walgreens' and got an ear-cleaning kit. Contents: fizzy ear medicine and a syringe. Then I picked up some lunch and took it to Sonya's office to have A Romantic Lunch With The Wife.

I get there and I walk into the little kitchen in Sonya's office to get some salt. For a split-second the whole world tilted just a teeny bit, then I felt something fall inside my ear. I could hear again! I reached in my ear and retrieved a distressingly large ball of wax. No wonder I couldn't hear!

I'm still going to use the ear-cleaning kit tonight. Apparently I need it.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

In poor taste, like always.

Lying on the couch with the Wife last night, flipping through the channels. We come upon the band Heart (Ann and Nancy Wilson, remember? Barracuda? These Dreams? Alone? Hits!) in a recently taped performance. First they showed the blonde guitar playing sister.

"Heart," said Sonya.

And then they showed the hefty lead singing sister.

"Enlarged Heart," I said.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Background Noise

In West Memphis two interstates - I-40 and I-55 - run together for a few miles. I've heard that this is the busiest stretch of road in the United States, though that may be an exaggeration. It's certainly busy.

I grew up a few blocks away from this stretch of highway. The hum and whine of truck tires has always been in the background, as far as I'm concerned. I remember sitting by the fire in my grandfather's workshop in the backyard on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving one year. I was ten or so, and it was cold and gray outside, but warm and smelling of cedar shavings inside. My grandfather was whittling and probably smoking his pipe. The only sound was the crackle of the fire, his knife slicing off paper-thin slivers of wood and the interstate, murmuring in the background.

It's a few years later. A summer night in high school. My mom has already gone to work, my grandmother is in Florida at my sister's house. I'm outside, following the dog around the yard. I'd been off on some teenage adventure - drinking, chasing girls, or some combination of the two - and just gotten home a few minutes before. Life is good. The interstate agrees.

Even sitting in the house you could hear it, assuming neither the heater nor the air conditioner was on. Turn off the TV or the radio, sit and listen for a minute. There it is: endless tires on concrete. I would crack the window in my bedroom and there was the finest white-noise source in the world.

I went to college in Conway, Arkansas. The background sounds were very different. First in the dorm, where there was a constant babble of young man swagger, female yips, and drunken howls. It never stopped, though it did pause a bit in the early hours of the morning.

After Sonya and I got married we lived in some cheap apartments near the school. The ghetto mamas would walk outside their doors and whistle across the courtyard and then hold screaming conversations. If we left the bedroom window opened at night we'd hear cows in a nearby field. Livestock in town.

We moved to a new place, big and cheap but very, very close to the railroad tracks. Very close. We were on the third floor, and the whole building would shake when a train went by. If the windows were open conversation was impossible. We'd stand on the walkway on the second floor and throw apples at the train. It was very close. Not a bad place, though. It was a big apartment complex, full of college kids. We had lots of friends there.

Then, Memphis. At the Gayoso we were on the sixth floor, looking across the Autozone parking lot to the river and Arkansas to the west. Busses and garbage trucks would shake the building, but we rarely heard anything except the dogs in the apartment next door. The place was old, and built solid.

After a couple of years we moved down the street to the Claridge. Eighth floor, this time, and facing into the block. Six floors down from our bedroom window the HVAC system for the building roared and chundered all day and night. I felt right at home.

We lived at a place called the Orphanage when we first moved to New Orleans. We lived in a building out back, in the middle of a block, surrounded by the backyards of townhouses. The place was poorly build out of spit and chopsticks so we heard our nieghbors TVs and bedtime conversations. They heard our dog and almost got us kicked out. At night, though, it was dead silent. Maybe a passing car with a thumping stereo or a gunshot down towards the river, but most of the time? Nothing. Just quiet. I would wake up, sometimes, in the middle of the night and listen to the quiet. It was weird.

That place threatened to go condo, though, so we moved down the street to Sophie Wright to a long cinderblock building between two restaurants. It was nice, though. We had two off-street parking spots and a little garden out back. And bars and restaurants everywhere you looked. The bedroom windows looked out over the garden and into the back lot of Cafe Roma. They were busy over there until two or three in the morning, but they were usually pretty quiet. Still, it was the back door of a restaurant. We heard lots of stuff. Pots hitting the concrete. Busboys making weekend plans. Sonya once heard a guy get fired.

Then we moved to River Ridge when we needed a place by the end of the month and Mardi Gras was raging all around Uptown. It was great living in the suburbs, really. Everything was convenient, and it was a quick drive into town. The background noises were cars on Citrus and Hickory and the fountains scattered all around the apartments. And wind in the trees.

And, speaking of wind and water, I find myself back in Arkansas, living in a brand-new house where the sound of the interstate comes across the soybean fields with spooky clarity on cold winter nights. They used to be soybean fields, at least. Now they're all staked out and waiting for the builders to come in the summer and continue churning out my new little neighborhood. The train runs about a mile away, too, and I love the sound of the horn. So does John.

"What's that, daddy?" And then he'll answer his own question. "Train. I like trains."

There is a metaphor here, or symbolism, or something in growing up near the road and the contrast (irony? I don't know) of settling down by the same road years later. I don't care to look for it. I am where I am. It's more than good enough.