Thursday, August 6, 2015

I See...

I was reading some Whitman the other day – "Leaves of Grass" – and was inspired to write some free verse. Poetry is something I've dabbled in over the years, and while I'm never satisfied with what I've written, I feel it's a healthy exercise. I wasn't going to post this here, but a friend and fellow writer said I should.

So, here's what I wrote.


I can’t see the person
I see sweat, tears, blood
Pain, despair, suppressed longing
Stains on the conscience scrubbed raw

I see shells and facades
The remnant of a childhood lost
A vain clutch at a phantom breeze
Bearing fix’d mistakes from a previous life

I see cues taken
From generations before
Worn paths, crooked and straight
Myriad means converging at the same, inevitable end

I see connections
Forged by want and need
Friends and lovers dancing ‘round
Led by notes of flat plains and sharp valleys

I see families
Bound by strings of DNA
Bonding and fissuring in undulations
Ever defined by blood and an unchosen name

I see monsters
Ravaging ones, meek ones
Ones unsure which side to take
And those who wish they could be angels

I see skin, hair, veins
Flesh to be caressed and cut
A thin sheet of beauty pulled taut
To cover the macabre form of our souls

I see rituals
Words handed down
Drinks at 5:00 passed around
Men in silent combat with their father’s shadow

I see chaff
Buffeted and tossed
Floating indistinct across fields
Landing where it will in its own time

I see monuments
Built by a scheming world
Balanced upon anonymous shoulders
Toppled by the capricious shifts of money and ideals

I see refuse
Swept down the sidewalk
By the passing swoosh of wingtips
Filling in the jagged cracks to save stubbed toes

I see masks
Hiding tortured faces
Prosthetic grins beneath sad eyes
Crow’s feet scratching at the plastic skin

I see promise
Frenetically swirling inside
Bubbling and boiling as if in a cauldron
Seeking an outlet to explode itself into the world

I see rivers of blood
Spilled in the giving and taking of life
Splashing across the grass and the lilies
The sins of man lapping at my feet as I tread the shore

I see hope
Nonsensical, indomitable
Reaching blindly into the mist
Assured its faith will soon be rewarded

Monday, July 20, 2015

I'll Take a Quiet Life

Silence is priceless to me. I seek it out obsessively, looking for a moment or two in the rare ebbs and lulls of my life. Silence doesn't mean a lack of noise, but rather a chance to let my thoughts and emotions rise above the outward cacophony. On my short commute to and from work, I listen to music from my iPod (never the radio, ew), and it's usually carefully chosen. It needs to fit my mood, and apparently my mood the past year or so has been best reflected by the music of Radiohead.

One of the songs that often captures my mood, as well as my general desire for silence and peace, is "No Surprises," off the album "OK Computer." The entire album is about alienation, and "No Surprises" speaks to the pervasive suburban emptiness I find myself feeling, and that I crave in a resigned way.

I'll take a quiet life
A handshake of carbon monoxide
With no alarms and no surprises...
Silent, silent

Most days I just want to be left alone, tucked into my anonymous corner of this vast world. I'll accept whatever is given me, so long as that handshake brings me the promise of predictability and, above all, silence. No voices telling me what to think or do, no winds ruffling my hair, no rain pelting my skin. Slack tide. Stillness. A cloak of solitude, where nothing can find me. That's what I want.

It's nearly impossible to have for any amount of time. The shouts and bangs and ringings and clamors of life penetrate the cocoon and force me to engage with them. The noise might be an unpaid bill or a plate dropping on the floor – both give me a start. They didn't always cause such a visceral reaction, but my guess is the wreck in 2010 lowered my tolerance for racket of every kind.

A heart that's full up like a landfill
A job that slowly kills you
Bruises that won't heal
You look so tired, unhappy...

The noise causes that landfill to stack up higher and higher, desperately seeking a place to be released. The emotions pile atop one another until they've no place else to go, so they slip and collide and undercut each other, and those slices of silence bulge as the landfill tries to empty itself all at once. The thoughts and feelings can't be sorted out before the noise resumes.

I've never been able to take people in large doses. They only make life more inscrutable. I tend to live inside my own head, and there always seems to be an invisible wall between me and other people, whether it's my wife, parents, good friends, co-workers, acquaintances, strangers. I can connect with them, to a point, but I can't let them in because I don't know how. Or maybe I just don't want to, because that would make the silence all the more elusive.

So I come off as aloof or uncaring or, worst of all, apathetic. I don't like to talk, so that doesn't help the perception. But the less I talk, the less others talk to me (in theory), therefore – silence. Silence is the only place where I feel comfortable. It's a place I use to go to more often, when I was young and life had yet to fully spring itself upon me with its demands and distractions. That's probably what I miss most about my childhood, is the ability to lie quietly on the carpet in my room and imagine little men playing baseball in front of me. The easiest way for me to return there is by getting lost in a song that speaks to me either through the lyrics or the music (preferably both).

I get lost in Radiohead all the time. It's my oasis of silence.

Friday, July 10, 2015

A Prison of Stars and Bars

Somewhere in my closet, or maybe the attic, tucked away in a dusty brown box, I have two flags: the Confederate battle flag, and the Stars & Bars Confederate flag. I've had them since at least college, and at one time I displayed them proudly. That was a long time ago. Now, they feel like skeletons in my closet.

If you grew up in the South – in my case, Mississippi and Louisiana – when I did, symbols of the Confederacy were the norm. You didn't give them a second thought, at least not if you were white. I had those flags, and I had a battle flag bandana, a battle flag license plate, a battle flag keychain, and a shirt or two featuring the flag. They were fashion statements as much as anything else.

I was wearing that bandana one night in a mall in Chattanooga when a police officer came up to me and told me to remove it, expressing concern for my safety. I was taken aback. The cop mentioned a recent incident in Kentucky where a teenager with a Confederate flag flying on his truck was gunned down by some black guys, but I couldn't conceive that happening to me.

That same year, I was chilling in my dorm room when a couple of my black dorm mates came in to hang out for a while. One of them looked up at the wall above my bed and said, "What's up with the flag?" My full-sized battle flag was hanging there. I don't recall my response, but I'm sure I used the word "heritage" in there somewhere. We didn't discuss it further.

Another time, I was at a Louisiana Tech football game, and upon returning to my truck I found someone had stripped my Confederate tag off the front. So I bought another one.

Looking back, I realize I was essentially oblivious to how others perceived the flag. I knew some people didn't like it, but I failed to understand why. I saw no logical reason to get worked up about it, and I truly think that was more due to ignorance than racism. Like any white Southerner, I've had to work through a mindset that is partly racist by nature, but I have never been one to set myself against another race simply because I'm white and they're not. When I was young, I never understood why my friends would use the n-word, and I remember arguing with my friend and his cousin – a girl a few years our senior – about using that slur.

Years later, I exchanged several emails with a man from Detroit who had read something I wrote and spewed some of the most hateful words about blacks I've ever read.

This is how I encountered racism growing up. It was no longer the raging behemoth that had once enveloped the South in its shadow, but its mark was still there, the scars still sensitive to the touch. Racism still thrived in those festering wounds, like an infection that can't be treated. My parents and my friends' parents came of age smack in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, and unfortunately, not all parents of that generation raised their children the way mine did. On the playground, in the dusty old barber shops, even at church, wounded white pride made itself evident in the form of whispered epithets and off-color jokes. I even remember a friend popping in a cassette with songs that fantasized about killing Martin Luther King Jr. I winced at the time, and now I wish I had said something.

I'm not trying to absolve myself of being a racist. Too many times, that's what white Southerners (and many non-Southerners) do. "Oh no, I'm not racist, not me. I even have black friends." But it's there. My racism was a more passive strain, borne of ignorance and, later, an unwillingness to let go of things I treasured. Which brings me back to those flags.

I'm a Civil War buff, and the history of our fair region has long fascinated me. The flags have an important place in that history, and while I'm fine with them being banished from the governmental domain, I see no reason to rid myself of them. They have meaning, and not just to me, whose great-great-great-grandfather enlisted at age 15 to fight in a Confederate uniform. They have meaning to the story of the South, in particular to its great tragedy. And anything with meaning should be remembered, which is not the same as being endorsed.

Bring the flag down in South Carolina, change the Mississippi flag – I don't care. Because symbols, while important, tend to be a product of their time. The time for those flags was more than a century ago, and they are worth preserving – in a museum, with other historical artifacts. But I don't want to get bogged down in that hot-button issue, which our society has – in typical fashion – managed to elevate far above the far more important issue of what caused Dylan Roof to slaughter nine black people (the flag had squat to do with that).

For those who still cling to the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy, I say this: You're holding us back. To say that the flag is about your heritage is fine, but to place such an inordinate amount of import on it in regards to your Southern heritage is to sell the South short. The South is so much more than a flag or any other symbols. Our history is so much richer than that. If you think a flag being taken down is a serious threat to your Southern identity, then maybe you don't have as much of a Southern identity as you'd like to think.

There are other flags of Southern pride you can wave, so to speak, besides the Confederate one. Wanna talk heritage? How about our musical heritage? It's found in people like B.B. King, Elvis, Leadbelly, Hank Williams Sr., Drive-By Truckers, the Allman Brothers. It's found in places like Memphis, New Orleans, Muscle Shoals, Athens, Nashville. It spans generations and genres, transcends race and politics and everything else that seeks to divide us, and it reminds us all that we have in common.

How about our literary heritage? The words of Faulkner and Welty and Grisham. How about our athletic heritage? Friday night and Saturday afternoon football, with stars like Payton, Dupree, Manning, Bo, and Herschel. The fertile baseball soil that grew legends like Hammerin' Hank, Ty Cobb, Josh Gibson, and Frank Thomas.

There is plenty to celebrate about one's Southern heritage, which is much more than a piece of fabric. There's more heritage in a single Hank Sr. lyric than there is in a museum full of Confederate flags. Speaking of Williams...

We had just moved from Oxford – where Ole Miss fans passionately waved Confederate flags at home football games – to Clinton before my second-grade year. At Clinton Elementary, part of our curriculum included music appreciation (or whatever they called it back then), and my most vivid memory of that is learning about Hank Williams. We learned about his music, and we learned about the man, who would often be laid up on a cot spitting up blood just before a performance.

I love to see the towns a-passin' by
And to ride these rails, 'neath God's blue sky
Let me travel this land from the mountains to the sea
'Cause that's the life I believe He meant for me

Those words, from Hank's "Ramblin' Man," capture the Southerner's love for his homeland. The intimacy of small towns, the expanse of the countryside, the tree-blanketed mountains, and all the charms of the Southland. Those have always been there and always will be. A flag? That's a transient symbol, just one small square of a diverse tapestry that stretches across a land and a people and a history that defy any sort of narrow categorizations or stereotypes. We often complain as Southerners about being put into a box, but it's far worse to put yourself in a box, tied off neatly with a Confederate bow.

We're more than that. As Patterson Hood put it, "Why fly a flag that stands for the very things we as Southerners have worked so hard to move beyond?"

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Mind Stream: The Bulging Earth

I've been reading "Writing Down the Bones," by Natalie Goldberg. Wish I'd read it years ago. Anyway, what follows is a stream-of-consciousness exercise I did a few weeks ago after reading one of the chapters (I forget which chapter). Kinda dark.
The world is full of too many things. It is bulging, the ground roiling with the uncontainable existence of life and non-life. All the sunshine illuminates for me are the scars and bruises of time and shoots of love that never bloom from the earth because no one truly knows how to nurture them. We are broken gardeners, claiming love and other things of which we know almost nothing. Our "love" is but a ghostly mockery of whatever love truly is, or perhaps it's a hint of a phantom that exists only in our feeble minds, which are full of too many things that contradict each other and paralyze our internal logic.

I stand on a street corner as cars and people and life whiz past in fast-forward. My eyes find no focus, and my heart beats alone, a quiet drum beat hopelessly looking around for its music. If the music is there, the cacophony is drowning it and burying it in some crevice where even moonlight cannot reach. I stand on this corner and stare at the silver sky, waiting for the rain to bring either clarity or death. My name is Nothing, and no one calls it.

The straight, smooth lines that carry men slice my veins. My soul leaks out and is carried away on the autumn winds, and I cannot follow. The browned leaves gather at my feet and rise up, and I become them, and I float away in a thousand parts.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Nicolas Cage and the Rapture

Just a quick post to note that Nicolas Cage is starring in a reboot of the "Left Behind" movie series, because of course he is.

The Left Behind books were entertaining, although I certainly had significant theological disagreements with them. And the Kirk Cameron movies were just meh, but I gave them an A for effort. With Cage and some other familiar names on board – including Chad Michael Murray and Lolo Jones(!) – this new project might be taken more seriously by the general public.

My wife can't stand Nicolas Cage, and he's not my favorite actor, either. He's been in some good movies, though, and he's certainly not scared of any role. Nor does he shy away from movies with spiritual content (see: "World Trade Center").

I get the feeling this movie will be spectacular – whether a good or bad spectacular, who knows. But Nicolas Cage in a rapture movie has my attention for now.

Friday, February 21, 2014

I Don't Mean to Offend, but...

What triggers our reactions to what we perceive as offensive words or behavior? To what degree are those reactions borne of an intuitive sense of right and wrong, as opposed to social conditioning?

Growing up in a Christian home, a lot of things about the world offended me as I got older and developed a sharper view of the sin in man's heart (and in my own heart). I still consider myself a Christian, but I find myself being less easily offended these days. Part of that is because it takes up too much energy to get offended at every little thing.

I mean, I still don't like hearing someone take God's name in vain. And there are certain social issues on which I have strong feelings, and it can upset me when someone mocks or dismisses my beliefs. But I get over it.

Perhaps my skin has thickened from being a journalist all these years, or maybe I've become apathetic (certainly cynical), but what bothers a lot of people doesn't bother me all that much. Perhaps it should, but it doesn't. Given the influence of my childhood and adulthood experiences, it makes me think that social conditioning does indeed play a large role in what we find offensive.

But I also believe there is an intuitive aspect to it. You see it in very small children, who aren't old enough to understand what you tell them about right and wrong but can sense when someone has been wronged (especially if it's them). The law has been written on our hearts, so to speak, even if we can't always make out exactly what it says.

And that's where the social conditioning can come in. Those who are older and in authority take a child's pliable moral sense and shape it into something more solid, whether for good or bad. Once that value system is established – and everyone has a value system – then we can more easily identify what we do or don't find offensive.

A certain amount of self-righteousness is inherent in any value system, and thus a proclivity for seeking out things that offend us. When something offends you, it's because your sense of right and wrong has been pricked, and taking a moral stand for something makes you feel morally superior to whatever or whoever has offended you. We all like being in the right, and most of us like letting others know that we're in the right and, if they disagree with us, they are clearly in the wrong. So really, being offended is something we want.

This psychological phenomenon, by the way, is not unique to any particular group of people. Christians, Muslims, atheists, Republicans, Democrats, communists, pacifists, warmongers – all possess some sort of moral sense, even if it's twisted. All are offended by those who oppose them.

Of course, some people are more easily offended than others. Given how my attitude in this regard has changed over the years, does being less easily offended equal a crumbling value system? Or more accurately, perhaps, does it mean my value system has turned inward? (Even the most selfish person has values, it's just that most of those values are concerned acutely with the self.) Is it a sign of maturity?

As I ponder this, one thought strikes me: Over the years, how I handle personal insults has changed dramatically. Of all the things that might offend me, a personal insult isn't one of them. Again, I point to my experience as a sports journalist, a job in which insults come with the territory. Sports fans can be a pretty easily offended bunch, and so they lash out at the easiest targets – the messengers.

It's at the point now that someone hurling insults my way actually provides me with a few laughs. Witness this recent Twitter exchange, precipitated by my calling a Mississippi State player a bust after two seasons:

That's tame stuff. I once had a reader – an atheist who took exception to a column I had written for a Christian website – send me an email in which he prayed that Satan would give my children cancer. It doesn't get more offensive than that, but I ultimately laughed it off because of how ridiculous it was.

Laughter is a great way to deal with those who would offend you. It strips such a person's words and actions of their power.

Of course, choosing not to be offended leads us into another moral thorn bush, one in which I often find myself entangled: We can think ourselves too morally advanced to let those offensive heathens bring us down. There's that damn self-righteousness again.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Short Story: Battle (or, Initiation)

I have neglected this creative outlet for too long, perhaps because I had put upon myself unreasonable demands for its purpose. So I have decided to appropriate this space for a more specific use.

I like to write essays, short stories, poetry, and the like, but I keep it all under guard on my laptop. But it's the kind of writing I enjoy most, much more so than the tripe I put in the newspaper every day. So I will, as Red Smith liked to say, open a vein here and bleed. Many things I have had written for weeks or months or even years will appear here periodically. Being extremely self-critical, I do this with some apprehension, but I figure if people don't like what I write, well, they can find something else to amuse them.

My first entry as I take this new course is a (very) short story about a Union soldier entering battle for the first time. I simply have titled it "Battle," although "Initiation" might be a better title.


An orange sun burns through the mist that is pressing down on our camp. There is a heavy silence, of expectation and foreboding. I am freshly shaven. My uniform is clean and stiff, my black boots tightly buckled. My hat is snug. I check my pistol. It's clean, polished, loaded, ready. My stomach is full of ham and coffee.

The rest of camp is beginning to stir. My fellow soldiers speak in low tones. General Ammond told me that men always speak this way before battle, not wanting to make Death aware of their presence; He would be here soon enough.

The birds are silent, as if they sense something. There is no breeze to move the trees or tall sage grass. The world seems to have paused, waiting as long as possible to furiously exhale. I am breathing easily, nervous not for what I must do – I am well-trained – but for that moment when reality becomes completely inescapable. It is not the bullets and bayonets I fear, nor the men wielding them. It is the unknown fates that will befall us, the Providence that comes well-disguised as chaos and chance.

I have steeled my mind, and so my nerves are no match for my focus and resolve. Still, thoughts of home steal in. The images flit about my mind, and they seem to be so distant from the present in both time and space. They seem little more than a dreamy prelude to the cold reality now facing me. For a moment, I feel like the only man in the world.


Cannons have been carefully aligned, trenches dug, fences erected. The medical tents are clean, fully stocked and prepared for the inevitable influx of patients. I recall a play from my childhood, one my school did about the Revolutionary War. I had played a general. The stage had all the necessary props, all the accoutrements of war, but with no real battle to fight.

The fog is lifting. To my right, well up a hillside, citizens mill about. They are putting down blankets. I see three women in ruffly dresses, fanning themselves. One man has a telescope, surveying the landscape. I remember what we were taught about the ancient Romans and their lust for bloodsport at the Colosseum.

It is time for formations and last-minute instructions. We all know the battle plan like we know the Psalms, and likewise take comfort in it. I sense some fear among our men, but more than that I sense confidence. My fellow officers are striding down the lines, inspecting, searching for any flaw, be it an unbuttoned coat, an unsighted musket, or a wavering will. Everything is in order, and few words are spoken. We are ready.


My horse is fidgety. He seems anxious for the battle, unwilling to await the trumpet's call. He has done this before. I have not.

We can see the enemy coming out of the haze. It is already hot, and sweat is rolling down my cheeks. The scent of dogwood floats by on a breeze, and then the air is still.

The enemy is advancing through the sage, and the only sound is the swishing of their boots against the acquiescent grass. We stand, waiting for the moment, and then the thick air is pierced by the battle cry. The guns rattle as they're unshouldered, the front line kneels into the damp soil, and staccato blasts puncture the air. All the illusions that I'd taken for reality to this point dissipate in the smoke and the screams.


Sounds roll around and collide in my half-dream. Booms, pops, yells, grunts, whizzes, hooves clamping, men crying for God or mother or both. An image of a girl I once wanted fills my groggy mind. Desirée. Caramel skin, hazel eyes and hair as black as the first mare I broke. Desirée once smiled at me, and in that shard of time my heart felt a peace that I've not since felt 'til now. She smiles again, as through a haze, and I am floating toward those blossoming lips. I feel I must be dead, and this is my Heaven. Yet I know it's not real.

I am back in the field, on my stomach. My head feels weighed down as if by a man's heavy boot, and my uniform is twisted about and torn. I lift my head slowly, bloodied sage stuck to my cheek. A fallen soldier's soles are inches away. I suddenly realize the battle has ended. A negro hums as his shovel reaches into the ground. I rise on all fours like a wounded dog. The ground is red, as if the roots of the sage are opened veins.

I stand, feeling like an old man rising from his death bed. Bodies of men and horses lie haphazardly across the pasture like discarded cigarettes. The fog has been replaced by lingering gunsmoke, the acrid smell swallowed up in the stench of what I presume is death. It is like what I once smelled at my uncle's slaughterhouse, only multiplied and folded over and thrust into my nostrils with the force of a roadside abductor, who instead of ammonia soaked his cloth in dead men's sweat. It is nearly smothering me.

My ankle hurts almost as badly as my head. I limp over to the negro gravedigger and ask him who won. He replies that we did, and I realize that victory smells the same as defeat to those in the fray.