Friday, November 19, 2010

Everybody Eats

I taught composition for about 8 years before I got to the University of Tampa, 9 if you include my time in writing centers at the beginning of my MA degree. I always worked very hard on the course, but I never could make anyone excited about the class. Sure, there were moments when students told me they learned vital skills in Eng 101 or 102, but few ever said they liked writing and research -- until this year.

This year, my research & writing course got a complete overhaul and a new theme: American Foodways: The Study of American Food Culture through Research and Writing. I divided the class into 3 sections: Food Memories, Southern Foodways, and Food Politics. One section encouraged students to write autobiographically about a memory they had that involved food (using the book Eat, Memory as a model); the next studied the culture of southern food through Cornbread Nation (a section that involved a food project -- edible research, yum); and the final section, which I'm currently teaching, is the "Food Inc," Omnivore's Dilemma, gritty agribusiness portion of the course.

A miracle occurred. Somewhere between my African student telling about his refusal to eat a sacrificial ox and my Hindi student defending her choice to eat halal, the students became interested -- not only in writing and research, but in each other. They became friends, in some cases, but colleagues, mostly, sharing resources, pairing up to go to Epcot to research The Land, engaging in vegan diet experiments together and comparing notes. It was . . . weird. People were speaking voluntarily, actually completing the assigned reading, and consistently bringing in current events, video clips, and other news references pertaining to the class.

I've been scratching my head trying to figure out what suddenly went right but I've had to admit finally that it wasn't me; it was food. Everybody eats. I wanted the students to love what I loved -- I tried memoir, the South, even a class with open topics. But what I needed was an undeniably common ground, and that, apparently, was food.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

I just finished the wildest story that I have ever read, and all of it was true.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot tells a tale I was unlikely to be interested in, at first, since its focus is the origin of the HeLa cell, one of only a few cells that not only grows in culture, but multiplies. I don't really care much about nonfiction science stories, but this one was different.

Skloot tells the story of a young black woman from the South who had her cancer cells taken and experimented upon; neither she nor her family were the wiser, even long after Henrietta had died and the cells had become so remarkably important that every lab in the nation had a sample of them, leading to the development of vaccinations and treatments for polio, AIDS, syphilis, and a number of other diseases. The book is about the fight over the cells but also about the family tormented by their mother's "immortality." It's a story of eugenics, degeneracy, lies, rocket-ships, violence, forgiveness, trust, and faith.

Since most of the surviving Lackses never had more than a third-grade education, Skloot's journey to find the truth about Henrietta is long and hard, as she fought to win the trust of a group of people who both never understood and couldn't trust the science that made their mother immortal. Plagued by their own demons, the Lacks family members suffered from paranoia, depression, anxiety, rage, and high blood pressure -- none of which, ironically, they could afford to have treated, despite their mother's important contributions to science. Their story is hopeful and heart-wrenching. I would strongly recommend it, even if neither science nor nonfiction are genres you typically embrace.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Warming Up to the Kindle

I'm a bibliophile. I love everything about books: the smell of their pages, the triumphant feeling of turning that last sheet of paper at the end of a good story, the escape. So when the Kindle came out, I frowned and shook my head. "Not for me," I said. "I spend 3/4 of my day staring at a computer screen. Why would I want to spend my evenings doing that, too?"

At least, I felt that way until I filled my house up with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, cramming books into hallways and stuffing them under beds. If there's one thing I like more than books, it's a decluttered house. Clutter makes me unable to think; people who keep things for sentimental reasons baffle me, since a memory is worth much more than the thing with which that memory is associated. If I have too much stuff in my home, I feel anxious and sweaty. But I wasn't about to give up reading -- so, I turned, finally, to the Kindle.

No, the Kindle doesn't have that glorious smell of old dusty pages, but let me talk about what it does have. First of all, every time it goes to sleep (it is remarkably energy efficient), it digitally weaves a new "cover," made of art, the faces of familiar authors and poets, or classic book titles. It's a constant surprise and I find it delightful. As for the "computer" screen, it isn't one. Amazon has manufactured "digital ink," which reads like a book page, doesn't promote eye strain, and doesn't have a glare. I am no more fatigued after reading from it than I am from a paper-and-ink page.

But the best part is the giant online selection of books, which I can peruse from my own home, in a big comfy chair. I recently finished Mockingjay sooner in the evening than I'd hoped, which left me without a book to read for the rest of the week. My schedule is so busy that bookstore perusal can only happen on Saturdays, if I'm very lucky. But because of the Kindle, I was able to download 3 previews of books I'm considering reading and read 20 pages of each as a trial run before committing to buy. I can spread out my trial all week long, something I don't have the luxury of doing in the hour I might have to spend in the bookstore.

I can see this wireless / 3g feature working out really well on holidays, when I visit family with space to spare only for Christmas presents and not for the 4 books I think I might be able to read in two weeks. The newest version is as thin as a comic book and twice as light; it slid into my purse without adding a bit of extra weight, making it ideal to take to the many doctor's visits I have these days.

Did I mention brand-new hardbacks are $9.99? If for no other reason -- sold.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Reality News

So, this weekend at a monster truck rally, a truck went out of control and smashed 8 people in the crowd, killing them. While I was eating breakfast, the news decided to play it for me, causing me to immediately hit the power button to switch off the grizzly scene. At what point did it become necessary and acceptable to show scenes like that on TV? And why can't I become desensitized to it?

I trace the moment I became disgusted with sensationalist news to 9/11, when CNN ran a close-up shot of people hurling their bodies out of the windows of the towers before they completely collapsed. Their free-fall to the jagged stones of concrete below is something I will never be able to erase. If I'd been warned, I would have looked away; I did not need to store that image for instant recall, nor can I see how it added to the reporting of the atrocity in any way.

The Digital Age makes video so accessible that I rarely hear anyone talking about the appropriateness of screening a shot before considering airing it. On iphones, digital cameras, flips, and laptops, cameras are ubiquitous. The 24-hour news cycle makes the eyewitness account imperative, since it ostensibly keeps viewers from switching to another channel to get a summary, rather than an up-close-and-personal view, of the story. But what's lost in the fight to be first? Sure, it's the verifiability of the story, but it's also the respect of the subjects and the subjects' families being filmed, not to mention that of the viewers.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


Lately, I have had some very odd dreams. Last night, I dreamed that an old friend of mine was held hostage in the attic of a suburban home and she was traded for me and my dog Sierra. The couple who kidnapped me wanted me to be their maid so that they could throw dinner parties and look richer than they really were. When the wife was out of the room, the husband would try to slash my wrists with scissors, and when she was in the room, he'd pretend I did it to myself. At the dinner party, my parents showed up and began helping me wash knives and forks, trying to figure out why I couldn't leave. I kept slipping them tiny paring knives to hide under dishtowels and trivets so that I could stab my keepers and escape after the party, but my parents kept exposing the knives, shining them, and putting them into drawers. I woke up before I could escape the house.

The night before that, I dreamed I wanted to visit a former professor and friend at my alma mater, but instead of looking for him in the Foreign Languages building, where he worked, I ended up in the English building. It had been turned into a corporate office with suits and filing cabinets and papers everywhere and not one familiar face. Someone did tell me that my friend now worked in the elongated glass Toyokyo Building (a combination of Toyota and Tokyo, though I don't know why -- this building isn't real) and that I could find him there. But when I entered Toyokyo, all I could find was an underground basketball stadium with hundreds of Japanese businessmen everywhere. Above the concession stand, Baylor had submerged about five athletes in a "water coma" so that they could recuperate. You could watch them hooked up to underwater monitors being operated on by surgeons. I never did find my friend.

At least I no longer have insomnia.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Cross-Dressing Patriot

As you lift your beer and sparklers in celebration of our nation's independence this 4th of July, don't forget to give a toast to Deborah Sampson Gannett, the crossdressing patriot. Although present-day Tea Partiers would probably write her out of the history books if they could, she's certainly someone to remember.

Gannett was about 20 years old in the late 18th century when she strapped her breasts tight to her body with a strip of cloth and donned a man's suit she'd been secretly sewing in a barn for months. One would imagine she sidled into the New England tavern where Revolutionary troops went to sign up for combat and collect their reward money for doing so. The story goes that, upon collecting this large sum, she drank herself into oblivion, passed out in her bedroom, and missed next morning's roll call, thereby invoking the ire of her superiors, who searched for her in her house and, apparently, discovered she was a woman.

Gannett wasn't to be deterred, though. Sick of farm chores and suitors, she put on her suit and ran away to another New England town, where she signed up for the Revolutionary War again, this time assuming her brother's name, Robert Shurtleff, and began her 3-year service with fellow patriots.

As with all cross-dressing war stories, this one gets complicated when she gets a small bullet (read: miniature cannon ball) in her upper thigh. As her body is carried into the tent where the doctor is going to take off her pants to dress her wound and, thereby, discover her secret, she tries to shoot herself in the head, but the gun is too unwieldy and her resolve fails her. She goes with plan B instead. She distracts the doctor by telling him she just needs to sleep, and when he leaves the room to tend to the others, she steals his surgical instruments and cuts the ball out of her own thigh. She then hobbles back to the battlefield, telling her comrades, "I'm just fine, boys; let's get moving."

So they do, and she serves well for the remainder of the war -- at least, until she reaches the fever epidemic in Philadelphia and comes so close to death that her body is dumped on a wheelbarrow intended for a row of cold unmarked graves. Doctor Binney notices her movement and plunges his hand into the front of her shirt, immediately coming to two realizations: (a) Soldier Gannett/Shurtleff's heart is still beating and (b) He has breasts.

Binney carries her to his house where he "leaves out" the fact that Shurtleff is a woman and allows her to recuperate there. He then parades her as a Revolutionary war hero to his friends, still maintaining her disguise. "Shurtleff" is courted by a lovely young 17 year old woman, who baffles Gannett in her ardor. After accepting loads of gifts from the young girl, Gannett finally tells her the truth and takes off with the other troops. Her biographer maintains that Gannett/Shurtleff and the scorned lover "remained friends," but, woman-to-woman?, I doubt this is true.

Binney rats out Gannett to her superior officers only after Gannett has moved on. She is honorably discharged and provided a sum for the remainder of her life from the American government. It isn't enough, though, and to make a little dough on the fascination with the war shortly after its close, she acts out her biography onstage at the Boston Federal Street Theatre. Each night, she paced through 27 military exercises before giving her speech to a packed house. Audiences loved and hated her.

So this fourth of July, as you celebrate all that the red, white, and blue stands for, don't forget to the thank the crossdressing soldiers who made this holiday possible.

Monday, June 28, 2010


8,172 views and perhaps a total of 6 comments over the lifetime of this blog? Is anyone out there?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Back in Boston: Other People's Mail

Imagine the fall rolls around and my students and I are playing "my summer vacation." Sally went to the Virgin Islands to play Carnival and visit her folks. Rufus hiked the Himalayas, and Joan studied abroad in Prague. It's my turn and, giddy, I say, "I spent the summer in a library!" It probably wouldn't win me any awesome professor points, would it?

And yet, there's something wonderful about the library I spent the past 2 weeks in, researching for my book project. The Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) is a cool, quiet marble shrine to everything that means anything to people who want to preserve early American culture. The first time I sat down under the librarian's watchful eyes to touch Abigail Adams' letters -- to trace the worry for her husband in her slanted penmanship, to wonder if the paper's softness came, at least in part, from John's propensity to read her missives over and over again -- I became addicted. The yellowed pages, smudges, stains, misspellings, crossouts and cracked red wax seals made the clean, crisp, white, ellided, footnoted, neatly edited published versions of these letters look like lies. The letter's body often tells as much about the correspondence as the words on the page do. There is no substitute for the Real Thing.

This time around, I was visiting the MHS to read loyalist's letters -- you know, women who sided for the "wrong team," the Brits, in the Revolutionary War. And by the end of it, I was with the Tories. According to their version of the story, the Patriots were undisciplined, ungrateful, unfaithful children. The American soldiers were rude, vile, indecent men who barged into women's homes, often drunk, to make a spectacle of themselves before stealing wood and valuables to take with them back to camp. Those that fled the war took agonizing journeys to Nova Scotia to establish towns like Halifax that would become safe havens for British sympathizers, but they often did so while leaving behind brothers, husbands, and sons, who stayed behind to defend land the families would eventually have taken from them by the eighteenth-century version of Homeland Security (then called Committees of Safety).

At any rate, the whole trip got me to thinking about the death of letter-writing, and how letters and journals, like this blog, are at best semipermanent, so easily taken down and deleted that I ache for the archivists and historians who will want to know anything about millenials in the Digital Age. What will we leave behind?

Monday, June 14, 2010

Back in Boston: Edie Sedgwick

So yesterday, after a dinner of buccatini and pancetta, I needed a long stroll, so Andrew & my friend Lisa & I decided to cut through Boston Commons to see Faneuil Hall at sunset. I wanted to show Andrew the newest crop of baby ducklings, but when we got near the pond to see them, we found, instead, two men flicking water on the poor creatures. They turned to see us gawking, and, per my luck, one of them stumbled toward me.

"EDIE!" he said.

Here we go, I thought.


"I do not look like Eve Sedgwick," I said. "Eve Sedgwick looks like a man." I was pretty impressed that someone as high as this guy could conjure up an image of a respectable feminist critic like Eve Sedgwick at the height of his hallucination, but was just as confused as to why he'd feel comfortable calling such a formidable woman "Evie." In case you don't know her, this is Eve Sedgwick:

He seemed confused by my response, so he wrinkled his brow and tripped over a tree root. He decided I couldn't speak English very well, so he started yelling at me.


I thought the most logical way of dealing with him was to yell back.


This was all entirely too confusing for him and, anyway, his companion was trying to sit in a perfect stranger's lap. She was flapping her arms trying to shoo him away, but it wasn't working. He swerved toward his friend and pulled him down the pathway away from the ducklings and, thankfully, away from us.

Of course, it was only after hours of giggling about it did I find out who Edie Sedgwick, 1960s pop icon, was (see below).

I have to admit, I was a little relieved.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Back in Boston

Boston looks different in the morning than it does in the day. By day, I can't help but associate Boston with the belly of a beast, mostly because, by day, I ride the subway, which smells like blown-out tires and hot exhaust and dirty feet and old newspapers. But this morning, I saw Boston at daybreak when I went for a jog at the Commons. And it was an entirely different scene.

There's a long hidden stretch of pavement that runs along Commonwealth that's shaded by old, long-fingered trees and tall apartment buildings. Bronze statues of women I've studied for years but thought no one knew about interrupt the sidewalk. Lucy Stone. Phillis Wheatley. People pour out of tiny apartments with big dogs on leashes. German shepherds, fat labradors, unnamable English-looking showdogs that probably cost more than my car. How do they all fit inside, I wonder? Then there are the impertinent little creatures -- Jack Russells, Rat Terriers with bellies larger than their little legs, Wirehairs with perfectly straight earpoints and leather collars, walked by women wearing 3-inch high heels at 6 o'clock in the morning.

There's no way I could ever fit in here, were I to momentarily go insane and move to New England. This has a little to do with the fact that I'm a hick and a little more to do with my complete lack of urban fashion sense. My Coldwater Creek sweater and so-five-years-ago wedges make me look dowdy around the women who shop on Newbury street, where they apparently develop some superhero ability to pair breezy pale colored skirts with floral vintage-but-not-bargain-basement collared button-downs. Their long bare legs seem impervious to the weather, which is a steamy 50 degrees in the middle of June. I wear a hooded jacket and scowl at them as I clunk down the street but it doesn't make me feel any less out of place.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Chronicles of a Life in Linden: Coming Out in Cass County

I recently went home and opened the newspaper to a story about a man who was living a closeted gay lifestyle with a crossdresser who called himself Sa'Derius. You have to understand that crossdressing is something you have to drive 4 hours to Dallas to do; it must've taken a lot of stealth and planning on Sa'Derius's part, and somewhere between Commerce and a club in Deep Ellum, Sa'Derius must've done some soul searching. He decided that he and his partner should come out to their families and stop living life as if they were ashamed of themselves. When Sa'Derius approached his lover to convince him to come out to Cass County (ok it was Bowie but the alliteration is appealing), his lover shot and killed him. He told the judge he was convinced Sa'Derius was clutching a gun in his hand, but when he pried open his cold, dead fingers, all he was holding was a bottle of blue nail polish. Honest-to-God true story.

It's hard to come out in Cass County. When I was teenager, I had a friend who didn't so much come out as she was outed by her lover, who was a wild girl with dark punk hair and Goth white skin and acne. When she sat down at the prep table and put an arm around my friend, she was making a statement. Before we could blink, Goth girl had taken out a rotten banana and taught us how she and my friend had learned to do all kinds of things with it. She took time to take in our faces, and then she left. My friend never recovered from the ridicule that followed her outing in the school cafeteria. She moved and didn't tell a soul where she'd gone. I haven't heard from her since.

When I was a bit older, I met one of the best preachers I'd ever had. She helped me through the worst year of my life -- 1996, the year I became a 16-year-old, had my first heartbreak, and lost my grandfather to cancer -- and helped me understand Faith and Doubt can, in fact, go hand-in-hand. When she moved to become a pastor in another city, she divorced her husband and took a female partner, a Lindenite who had also been married with children. Everyone buzzed. I'd heard some people xeroxed her partnership announcement in the paper and tacked it up on telephone poles, but it's impossible to say if that was true.

It's hard coming out as anything different in Cass County, and that applies to just about any label someone might try to adopt. It's hard to be a drug addict, divorced, depressed, alcoholic; it's tough to be too smart or too dumb, to have no job or two jobs, to have no kids or ten. Being part of a rural town is a lot like being part of a big family. Some types of deviation can bring you closer to everyone in it, while others can make you a permanent outcast. Which it'll be is anyone's guess.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Chronicles of a Life in Linden: Lacy's Bridge

Lacy was dead, to begin with. That's all I can really tell you because I don't remember the true story behind the ghost that allegedly haunted Lacy's Bridge. Variants of it have something to do with a young girl, a suicide, maybe an unborn kid, maybe a lover scorned -- who can tell?

Rumor had it that if you crossed Lacy's Bridge at night, all manner of things could happen to you. Your car would stall. Your lights would go out. Faces would press up against your window while you stared out into the dark night.

If you wanted to reach the witch's grave, you had to cross Lacy's Bridge, and that's just what we were doing one Halloween night when I was about 15 or 16 years old. The car was stuffed with teenagers dressed as slut-whore bellydancers, slut-whore cheerleaders, and slut-whore nurses. The guys smeared gooey fake blood on white t-shirts, halfheartedly playing along with the charade. We turned the car engine off at Lacy's Bridge to call her out. You don't know quiet until you reach the country in East Texas at night. Bullfrogs turn to vampires. Bellowing cows become the moaning dead. I surreptitiously put a handprint on the humid back window and tapped my friends to show them that Lacy was trying to push the car over the edge into the black water. Someone, undoubtedly Carrie, maybe Lauren, gave me a good smack for pulling my old antics.

Let me pause a second to tell you that smack was entirely justified. One night, at a sleepover, I forced my friends to watch the Exorcist when we were entirely too young to do so, then crept outside and, at the scariest part, raked my fingernails down the dark glass that looked into the livingroom. Thereafter, my friend Steph slept in the bathroom wedged between the toilet and the wall. This was a stunt topped only by the time Melinda & Carrie tried to pull one on me by planning (a little too loudly) a sneak attack on me after I'd fallen asleep. Since I'd overheard the plot, I unscrewed all of the light bulbs in the room and hid, so that when they pounced on my bed, they found it empty. When they went to turn on the lamp, all they heard was CLICK. And then, my favorite part: CLICK CLICK.

So I'm saying I deserved the smack. At any rate, I was about to try something else to elicit a scream when we heard a gunshot. Everyone slipped and stumbled and scraped, a flutter of gauze and sequins and fake wigs and high heeled shoes, trying to cram back into the car and speed away. Lacy must have been preoccupied because the car started -- did it do so weakly? -- and we skidded away on the dirt road back home.

We say, to this day, that somebody's daddy was firing at us for trespassing near his house. In Texas, you don't step on someone else's land uninvited in the middle of the night -- especially Halloween Night -- and expect a glass of sweet tea. Maybe it was Lacy, trying to teach me a little something about fear.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

If Necessary, Use Words

Every day on my way home from work, I pass a used car lot, and that used car lot has a sign that hasn't changed in the year I've lived here. It says, "Go forth and spread the gospel. If necessary, use words."

I've always thought that was a ridiculous sign, mostly because evangelicals who might follow that advice are probably already too full of words and too short on action. But for some reason today, the sign struck me. It made me think of Lillian Smith's Killers of the Dream, which says the South is marked by signs with words and signs without words, and while she was talking about state-mandated and social segregation, it still has resonance with me today. Everywhere I turn, I see a message.

Take, for example, the other day. I was sitting at a red light next to a homicidal maniac who decided that, when the left-turn-only arrow turned green, he'd shoot out of the go-straight lane I was in and attempt to careen into the cars veering left on their protected signal. Seconds after the maniac made his attempted suicide, I sat at my own red light, wondering how in heaven's name he hadn't been smashed to pieces. Suddenly, the car behind me sat on his horn and gave me an ugly hand gesture. Beeeeeeep. He wanted me to run my red light, too. His message was, "I'm more important than your safety," "I have somewhere interesting to be," and "You don't matter very much."

I was recently engaged in a service opportunity with a woman I didn't know well. A man walked in after all of the food had been cleaned up and approached me. He'd missed breakfast and the access pass he needed to obtain clothing for the month. "Do you have any shoes?" he asked. It was 95 degrees on the pavement outside. Summer was approaching with fury. "The clothes closet surely does; let me get you the ticket you need to get them," I said, turning to the woman in charge, expecting her to give it to him. "You're LATE," she said sharply at the man with no shoes. To add emphasis, she looked at her watch and blew out a huff of air, rolling her eyes. "I'm sure they don't have anything. Because you're SO LATE. But I GUESS you can look." He was eyeing the 13 loaves of bread she was preparing to toss in the trash can, and she noticed it, and she took them away anyway. "I am important here," she was saying without saying it. Her sign read: "I matter here. I feel powerful when I deny you what you need. I am in charge and you are not."

I thought about my own signs without words. What have I printed there for everyone to see?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Chronicles of a Life in Linden: The Drugstore

I didn't know, at the time, that spending every day after school at a real, working drugstore would one day be an unusual thing, but it would be.

A drugstore in a small town is about more than just pharmaceuticals. Like the Country Store, it's where old guys go to drink coffee in a drab room in the back. And it doubled as a video store with neat rows of plastic VHS boxes. I always wanted to rent the ones that had titles like "I'm Gonna Git You Sucka" but I was a creature of habit. I would always pick Labyrinth even though I knew every word from the beginning to the end.

The drugstore also had rows of neat white Whitman's chocolates for men who forgot their wives on anniversaries and valentine's and didn't have time to make the hour drive to a big city to pick up a present. It was the best place to pick out cards with bad puns before stepping down the street to Capital Florist, which let you charge your flowers to your account because they'd know where to find you if you didn't pay your bill. I didn't want chocolates, however; I was most interested in the Wetslicks Fruit Spritzers Lipgloss which I was convinced would make boys want to kiss me. It didn't.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Chronicles of a Life in Linden: The Legion Hall

Sure it's "Music City" now but the Legion Hall used to be this big dusty auditorium with concrete floors, peeling paint, and musty-smelling velour curtains. I loved every inch of it.

It's where the Lions Follies, a show featuring local talent, took place, and my dad and Mr. Penny (male adults in small towns don't have first names) were the emcees. Mr. Penny always wore a red shirt and red pants and suspenders; he could wiggle his hips and feet in two different directions at the same time, which I found remarkable.

I used to perform at the Follies too. When I was little and it was OK to sing off-key, my mom dressed me up in a poodle skirt and put my red-headed boyfriend in front of me in a sailor suit and told me to sing "Soldier Boy" to him. The only thing I can remember is that his face turned as red as his hair and when he kissed me on the cheek at the end of it, the crowd started to whistle, which I didn't understand. When I got older, my mom sat me down and said, "Kacy, I have to tell you something. You're not very good at singing." Which was true. So she strapped a two-headed styrofoam dummy to my back and put boots on my hands and feet and I did a weird puppet show to a song I can't remember. That was the end of my career as a stage performer at the follies.

The best part about the Lions Follies was the underground "green room" which wasn't green at all but solid cement and cold. Follies participants would party there after the show; everyone brought food to stash in the kitchen for the celebration. My friend Lauren and I would tiptoe downstairs and steal one of Miss Billie's sandwiches, which she made with ham and crack, and my mom would always catch us and fuss at us for being the little piggies we truly were.

When I got older I watched the show from the audience, usually balancing on the yellow handicapped railing at the back of the building, practicing gymnastic flips over the bar and barely escaping smashing my head into the concrete floor. Later, when the fun of the follies was long over, the building was used as a gym, when a husky guy from out of town came to teach wouldbe cheerleaders backhandsprings. One night, he took everyone's payment for that month and skipped town without so much as a kiss-my-foot. I wonder whatever happened to that SOB.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Do You Trust Your Guards?

I was flying to Albuquerque for a conference the other day and had the privilege of sitting next to a trio of the most amusing people I've ever met, though I can't say I thought so at the time.

The experience began with me squeezing down the plane's aisle to stop at my row which was, of course, already occupied by two people. The older man got up to let me stumble to my window seat. The woman next to him, who was probably 20 years his junior with a face stiff with botox injections, refused to move. "May I sit down, please?" I asked. I couldn't take one more Yankee attitude. She clutched an oversized Gucci handbag tighter and stared straight ahead, setting her lips. "IF YOU DON'T MOVE," I say louder as if she's old rather than mean, "I WILL SIT IN YOUR LAP."

This makes her pick her dainty toes up and swivel them to the side to rest in her husband's chair. She will not be moved.

I attempt as quickly as possible to turn on my ipod but I'm not fast enough; she immediately begins whining through her nose, "Why do we have to sit back HERE? WHY aren't we flying first class?" So now it's clear. I'm the riffraff who has put her out. The proletariat has infiltrated the ranks.

But her husband doesn't hear her because he's taken up a conversation with a woman across the aisle from him. This woman is about his age, a psychiatrist, and, judging from their conversation, has no idea that Botox is his wife, which is when things get interesting.

After the man declares to the plane that he can "surf the internet in flight any time he wants because he owns $28 billion dollars worth of stock in this company," his new friend gets interested. "Have you been to New Zealand?" she asks. "I once considered living on my friend's 20-acre golf course overlooking the ocean," he responds, "but I didn't want to leave my 4 houses here in the states." His answer doesn't matter; she's asked it so that she can tell him, "I lived a month there after my husband left me. Now I couldn't be happier."

At this point, Botox begins taking things out of the Gucci so that she can slam them into his lap. By the end of his conversation with New Zealand, makeup bags, magazines, and various sundries are piled up to his forehead. But he takes no notice.

Instead, he says, "I might as well move there. You know, for when the anarchy descends."

I cut my eyes sideways and wait for New Zealand's attempt at a girlish giggle but it doesn't come. Instead, she closes her eyes and smiles as if he's passed a test and she's proud of him. "I have a house on a mountain," she tells him. "You can only get there by helicopter." "Us too," he says. They're starting to get excited. "I have a water tank big enough to run a house for four months," she says, giddy. "And we have a house run by a generator that could power a Wal-Mart for six," he adds, more coolly than she did. "Yes," she replied, "but" -- and I'm not making this up -- "do you trust your guards?"

Now, I would've had enough of a story to tell if she'd stopped here, but she didn't. It finally dawns on New Zealand that he speaks with the plural pronoun. "Who's we?" she asked. "My wife," he replied, pointing to Botox who, by this point, has stopped breathing in her absolute fury. Her swollen lips are puffier than before; she's narrowed her eyes as if to slice holes in the back of the sticky airplane tray; her arms are crossed so tightly that her elongated, manicured nails dig into her overtanned skin. "And she's as beautiful on the inside as she is on the out."

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Chronicles of a Life in Linden: Shae vs. the Tornado

My first Texas tornado that I can remember happened when I was ten years old and in school. We'd had drills for as long as I could remember but we'd never had to use them. Tornadoes were legends in Texas; I expected to hear a train, though I remember wondering if I should be listening for the clack-clack of its wheels or a shrill whistle. I didn't hear either. In fact, everything was silent, which was quite a feat for the fifth-grade hallway, where several kids were hunched over, faces touching the dirty floor, the top of our heads touching cold lockers, tiny hands covering the backs of our skulls. As if that would protect us from the ceiling that I just knew was going to fall on our heads. The sky turned green. The air became so thick you could eat it. The only other time I've felt something like that was during hurricane Katrina, when my old house breathed in and waited to exhale for what felt like days.

That's when Shae started to chant. It was weird because he was sitting cross-legged -- a direct violation of duck-and-cover tornado code -- and saying words I didn't understand in an even monotone. I was grateful because he'd interrupted the deal with God I was making that I surely would be unable to keep (I promise I'll be good forever; I promise to clean my room every day; I promise to give my book money to the communion plate). "What are you doing?" I asked him. "I'm talking to Buddha," he said. And the storm stopped.

Now, you have to understand that Linden didn't have any Buddhists, at least as far as 10-year-old, sheltered, close-minded Kacy was concerned. You were either Baptist or Methodist or you wore long skirts and spoke in tongues or you were a heathen; Catholics had to drive 22 miles to the closest church and so that didn't count. Why had Shae's God stopped the storm when mine didn't?

Shae was already mystical to me because he could eat an entire hoagie sandwich without any help. In my memory, he brought one to school every day piled high with shiny delicately sliced meats -- I imagine mortadella, salami, chorizo, and serrano ham with lettuce and tomato peeking out of the side. Now there's no way that's true because Milsteps only carried Carl Buddig turkey and bologna and something vaguely resembling meat studded with olives and pasteurized cheese. But the way I remember it, he carried a feast with him. Somehow Shae's ability to eat man-sized sandwiches and to stop tornadoes made him magical. Maybe he was.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Chronicles of a Life in Linden: The Country Store

The Country Store sold icees, stale coffee, those sugar-coated orange slices, and something called "potato logs," which my dad used to buy me for "dinner" when mom took night classes in Texarkana. You could buy gas there and you could count on it being overpriced, or, like the old men who hung out at the tables inside, you could treat it as a place to read the paper and buy black coffee and see your friends when the domino hall shut down. Primarily it was a spot for socializing.

Since it sat at the crossroads of 59 and the gateways to downtown, it was the ideal meeting place. The only problem is that no one really met there to go anywhere; the Country Store was the destination. It was a classless place: the dopesmokers, cheerleaders, rodeo-riders, nerds, freaks, and everyone in-between mingled there, and by mingled I mean that they stood on opposite sides of the parking lot and glared at one another. This so-called party would only be broken up by a fight, a curfew, sheer boredom, or a run to the county line for beer. As a girl with a perpetual twelve-year-old's face (or a judgmental goody goody reputation), I was almost never invited to the latter.

Miss Paula, who wasn't a "miss" at all and should, by Southern standards, never have been called by her first name, bought icees every morning of her life from the country store. She lived in the boonies -- yes, that's a real place -- but made the drive anyway and as far as I know never missed a day. Someone tried to buy her an icee machine once but she never used it. I never really understood the draw but now that I live in a place without a country store, maybe I do.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Chronicles of a Life in Linden: The Dairy Queen

I've always wanted to write an autobiography, not because my life is interesting, but because the people I grew up with were. I'll never have the time to do it, so instead, I'm going to tell you about Linden, the little town where I grew up, in a series of blogs I'm calling Chronicles of a Life in Linden.

When I lived there, Linden had 2,000 people and one stoplight and only two official hangouts I was privy to: the Country Store and the Dairy Queen. This is about the Dairy Queen.

The Dairy Queen sold fried steak baskets with fries and gravy and a heartstopper called the DQ Dude which was a fried steak sandwich on two fat butter-laden pieces of bread slathered with mayonnaise. I'm almost positive the side dish was a coffee-can of bacon fat with a straw. My friend Lauren and I would beg for our parents to bring one to us while we were stuck at the daycare, trying to weasel our way out of eating string beans the consistency of cornmeal mush and overcooked macaroni noodles. I divided my fries into even numbers and dipped every other one in the DQ's peppered white gravy and tried to chew each one the same number of times as the last one, an early sign of the OCD nature that would get me my PhD.

Later, it'd be the place where this neighbor kid keyed my shiny blue sports car with 4 round bugeyed headlights for no apparent reason. This same kid spent almost every balmy summer night with me and Bobby on our deck listening to Weird Al tapes and eating Doritoes until the powdered cheese was so caked on our fingertips that we'd have to scrape it off with our front teeth. By day, he'd knock down forts we'd built together and attempt to tear up my family's swimming pool while we weren't home but I could never figure out why until someone told me he loved me. I stand by my own hypothesis that he must have been bipolar but, then, who could ever tell the difference?

Later I learned the Dairy Queen wasn't known so much for its food or vast parking lot full of teenagers but for the drug deals that went on in the kitchen. It's still open despite the fact that someone found a condom in his cheeseburger, sandwiched between two beef patties and a pool of greasy cheese. So much for the bucolic nature of the rural South, eh?