One Day In September


I never saw the twin towers.
 
On the day they fell, I was working in Indianola, Mississippi as News Editor of The Enterprise-Tocsin newspaper. I’d been to upstate New York, but had never been to the city.
 
My managing editor woke me up that morning with a phone call. (In those days, we worked well into the night and often started late in the morning.) The call made no sense to my groggy mind. Something about two separate planes hitting the World Trade Center. I heard something about unrelated incidents. I was picturing Cessnas or something. Certainly a bizarre coincidence, but I didn’t understand why he was calling me.
 
He told me to come to the office. I did. I understood then. We watched the towers fall.
 
The Enterprise-Tocsin is a weekly newspaper in a small town in the Mississippi Delta. To this day, it’s a great example of community journalism. The content is entirely local; there are no wire stories in The E-T.
 
I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to do. Generally speaking, The E-T focused its attention fully within the borders of Sunflower County, Mississippi, and ignored anything beyond the county lines.
 
This was far far beyond our county lines.
 
This was not a thing we could ignore.
 
We would use no wire stories, but we would cover the events of that day. We began working on a local reaction story, capturing how these events had affected our community.
 
But, very quickly, we learned that it was a local story.
 
By the end of the day, I was on the phone with a young man from Indianola who had been there that morning. He was freshly out of college, at his first day on his new job at Morgan Stanley.
 
Hours before I talked to him, he had been making his way down stairs. Not long after, his new workplace collapsed into rubble.
 
I learned something that day about what “local’ means. Regardless of what city you’re in, what county you’re in, there are times local is far bigger than that.
 
There are days the entire country is local.
 
There are days the entire planet is local.
 
The anniversary this year is slightly different for me.
 
I never saw the twin towers, but I have stood where they stood.
 
Rebecca and I went to New York City two months ago; the first time for me.
 
We visited the pools that fill the two iconic squares that mark the boundaries of where the towers once stood. We visited the memorial; heard, saw and experienced the story of what happened there that day.
 
It was real for me in a way I’d never understood before.
 
But, this, too, was real:
 
We stayed in a hotel a short distance from the site.
 
Our window was filled by One World Trade Center.
 
We took the elevator to the top. We looked out over the city.
 
It’s a beautiful building.
 
I never saw the twin towers.
 
I’ve seen the World Trade Center.
 
My experience of that day 17 years ago was defined by connection. By the realization that the world is much smaller than I realized. That distant events are much closer than I knew. No man is an island, nor is any county in Mississippi.
 
My experience this year is informed by what I saw in July.
 
Devastation is not defeat. So long as we endure, hope endures. So long as hope endures, there is resilience.
 
We fall.
 
We rise.

Thoughts about Time Travel


Without spoiling anything, the most recent episode of my friend Jason Sims’ podcast has a moment that relates to a subject I’ve given a lot of thought, involving time travel:

If I had the ability to travel through time, I would do some amount of the stereotypical time-tourism stuff, like watching the Apollo 11 launch or being at the Sermon on the Mount.

(But not the one with the loaves and fishes, because I am allergic to seafood.)

But that would only be like 5 percent of my time-traveling.

The huge majority of my time traveling would be going back to places that I miss, like eating at favorite restaurants that have closed or walking through places I worked that have been torn down or playing classic video games at the arcade.

In particular, there is a Mexican restaurant in Indianola, Miss., in the mid/late ’90s that would have gotten a lot of my future business.

Because these were favorite places of mine, though, it raises the possibility of past-me encountering future-me, which I feel it would be important to avoid. There are two reasons for this:

One reason is the cliché concern that it would create some sort of temporal paradox/anomaly thing that would destroy the space-time continuum. This is the lesser of the two concerns.

The bigger reason is this: If I assume that I’m going to actively avoid past-me being aware of the presence of future-me, then the fact that I’ve never seen myself do this is entirely consistent with the possibility that I will, in fact, do it.

I’ve been thinking about this for about 20 years now.

And even back then, I wondered how careful that would really require me to be. For example, if 22-year-old me were at a restaurant, and 52-year-old me walked in, would younger me even recognize me as the same person?

Factor in the facts that a) I’m not really going to be expecting time-traveling future older me to come in, so that’s probably not going to be my first thought*, and b) I’m honestly probably not paying a lot of attention to the other patrons anyway.

For example, the guys on the right in these two pictures from 22 years apart certainly favor each other, but if they were in the room together, do they really look “the most logical explanation is that one of them has traveled from the future” alike?

Supporting my theory is this: Several years ago, my friends Caleb and Lauren told me about the time they were at their favorite restaurant, and an older couple came in as they were leaving. (Or vice versa, I forget.)

And this older couple looked JUST LIKE OLDER VERSIONS OF THEM!!

And they now say that this restaurant has since made some changes so they don’t think it’s now as good as it used to be.

There are only two possible explanations: 1) The couple they saw was future-them, who had traveled back to the past to revisit their favorite restaurant when it was in its prime, or 2) It was an older couple that favored them quite a bit.

I, obviously, subscribe to option 1.

Which means that there is a good chance that I may already will have eaten again at Los Arcos in Indianola again in the future before it closed.

*Though I’ve already acknowledged that I’ve been thinking about this for 20 years, so if it happened since then, I actually probably am maybe more likely than average to think it’s time-traveling future me.

The Most Famous Person I’ve Ever Met


From a Plinky prompt: “Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever met?”

Photograph of President William Jefferson Clinton with Buddy the Dog in the Oval Office: 01/16/1998

Who is the most famous person I’ve ever met? Well, it depends on what your definition of “is” is.

Actually, no, wait, it depends on what your definition of “met” is.

Back in the fall of 1992, about a week before the presidential election, Bill Clinton was winding down his campaigning with a visit to Jackson, Miss. I was a student at Ole Miss at the time, and a group of us decided to drive down to Jackson to hear him speak.

After he spoke, we pressed down to the front of the crowd to try to get to meet him. There was a short fence that separated Clinton from the crowd, and he was walking along it, shaking hands with a few people, skipping a few people, shaking hands with a few people, and so on.

I made my way against the fence, and Bill worked his way toward me, shaking hands with people as he came. He shook hands with the person next to me, looked at me, and then skipped down a little ways and started shaking hands again.

I generally just summarize that story as “One time, Bill Clinton refused to shake my hand.”

So, does that count as meeting? If so, then Clinton definitely wins the most famous person for me.

If not, then it gets a bit more complicated.

I’ve actually had conversations with famous people in a number of different areas, but how do you determine which of them is the most famous?

Probably the most historical person I’ve met is astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon. I spoke with him briefly in person at a space symposium back in 2004, and then had a longer conversation on the phone with him a little later about the 35th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

In the acting arena, James Earl Jones is probably the most famous actor I’ve had a conversation with. Back in college, several years before Star Wars: Episode I started filming, I asked him, and I’m sure he loved getting this question, what he knew about the rumored prequels. He told me they were going to happen, and that he would be in it at the very end. So there you go.

Musically, it’s got to be B.B. King. B.B. consider his hometown to be Indianola, Miss., where I worked for the newspaper for five year, so I saw him several times when he came into town for his annual homecoming concert. I got to ask him a few questions for the paper and talk with him a little. He considered my editor, Jim Abbott, a friend, so I got to be around while they talked, too. B.B. is an amazing man, friendly and incredibly down-to-Earth. Just a super, super nice guy.

In the field of writing, John Grisham, right around the time the movie “The Firm” came out, when he was really probably at the height of his popularity, took a six-month or so sabbatical from interviews. When the Sunday “Parade” magazine (or possibly USA Weekend, I forget which) wanted an interview with him during that time, he agreed, but with the stipulation that he would interview himself rather than talk to someone else. To the best of my knowledge, he granted only one interview during that time — to me. I was working at the college paper at the time, and he was in town for a private screening of The Firm, which I’d been invited to. I told him I knew he wasn’t doing interviews, but would he be willing to let me ask just one question. He said he’d never met a reporter that could ask just one question, but if I could, he’d answer it and I could use it. I did, and he did.

So with all of those possibilities, how do you determine who the most famous person I’ve ever met is?

Oh, yeah, Google.

Google “James Earl Jones,” and you get just over 4 million results.

“John Grisham” gets you over 9 million.

Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, a participant in probably the greatest human achievement of the 20th century, nets about half a million.

And B.B. King? Indianola’s favorite son gets almost 27 million results, making him the most famous person I’ve ever met.

Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

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“The Help,” You Say?


The Help photo

Emma Stone, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer in “The Help” Photo credit: Disney

Ironically, the longer I lived in Indianola, Mississippi, the more recent the boycott seemed.

I started working there in 1996. The boycott happened in 1986. When I started, it was so long ago that it was when I was just starting middle school, and now I was out of college. Which, at that age, was forever.

By the time I left Indianola, I’d been there six years. A pretty decent chunk of the time between the boycott and when I started. And it seemed like it wasn’t as far in the past as it had been. And, of course, living in Indianola made it seem like maybe the boycott wasn’t as far in the past as I’d thought, either.

The boycott was probably the last major battle of the civil rights movement for Indianola. Robert Merritt, a very qualified, very capable and very popular principal had been passed over for the city school district’s superintendent position by the white school board. Initial protests were ineffective, and eventually a boycott of downtown businesses was mounted, which eventually resulted in changes to the school board that in turn resulted in Merritt beginning a productive tenure as superintendent.

There were still more “firsts” to be marked — it wasn’t until I was there that the majority-black city and county saw their first black mayor and black sheriff, for example, but those changes were relatively straightforward, without the need for boycotts or legal action. Merritt’s appointment wasn’t the end, but it was the turning point. It was before my time, but I definitely lived among its effects.

“The Help” is set in a period that was also before my time, three times further back than the boycott had been when I got to Indianola.

It was an odd experience watching the movie. I knew the locales, even if I was distracted by newspaper-name changes. And while the people were fictional, I knew them — not the exact individuals that inspired the Kathryn Stockett’s book, but certainly their peers. The White Citizens Council was, after all, founded in Indianola, and I dealt with people who had formerly been among its ranks.

Formerly because it no longer existed, and formerly because it was not the sort of thing you would have claimed by the time I was there.

And that was what made watching “The Help” such an interesting experience — it was at once hard and all too easy to believe. The Mississippi I knew was far removed in some ways from that time, enough that it was hard to imagine it being that recent, that immediate. But, at the same time, not far enough not to see how the past and the present were connected.

“The Help” may be based in reality, but it’s still fiction. It’s a slice of what life was like in Jackson, but it’s a carefully cut slice.

The truth, of course, is better and worse and stranger and more distant and more immediate than any movie could convey.

Song Challenge Week 6 — A Song That Reminds You Of Somewhere


To make the Post A Day 2011 challenge a bit more bearable, I’ve set up a couple of regular features. Keeping the music theme I’ve been using, I’m undertaking the 30 Day Song Challenge as a weekly project.


Week 6 — A Song That Reminds You Of Somewhere

“The Thrill Is Gone,” B.B. King

As those who know me at all know, I worked for years at the newspaper in Indianola, Miss.

As those who know me at all know, Indianola is where B.B. King claims as his hometown.

Every year, B.B. King would come back to Indianola and give a fund-raiser concert. He and his band got nothing for it, the proceeds would benefit local parks.

As a result, it was the most self-indulgent concert you’ve ever seen. Since B.B. was doing it as a favor, he cared less about entertaining the audience than he did about entertaining himself.

He usually played a pretty short show, sometimes only five or so songs. The focus was a dance contest, in which he would pull kids from the audience up on stage. This made B.B. happy, but it was not unusual for audiences to leave en masse during this part.

I will say, though, that I liked it for one rather interesting reason. B.B. always wanted a diverse group of kids on stage, so he’d ask for what he needed to round it out — “I need another black boy.” One year I left during this part and walked home, you could hear him easily a mile away in the middle of the small-town Indianola night calling out what he needed.

I should point out at this point that Indianola, in addition to being the hometown of B.B. King, was also the birthplace of the White Citizens Counsel, sort of a white-collar (so to speak) version of the Ku Klux Klan. So it gave me great delight that the town had come far enough that an elderly black man could yell out clear across town, “Bring me another little white girl,” and people would pay to see it. There’s hope for us all yet.

But, I digress …

Like I said, most of the concert was pretty self-indulgent. It had its entertaining moments, but it was more about the event than the music.

Except …

When B.B. started playing “The Thrill Is Gone,” it got real. Real fast.

What I remember, what this song takes me back to — and not the studio version, only live versions — is not the way the song sounded. It’s how the song felt.

I remember standing in the park, hearing B.B. King pluck Lucille in the way only B.B. King does, and feeling the notes pass over and through me, resonating in my heart and bones, not an aural sensation but a physical one. And a powerful one at that.

I’ve had similar moments at other concerts, but having seen B.B. King at his homecoming concert probably seven times, none of those has the reinforcement of this one.

When I hear The Thrill Is Gone, I think of Fletcher Park, Main Street, Indianola, Mississippi.