Saturday, June 25, 2016

Head-on Collision

Almost, Anyway...

This is how I left my two girls
for my evening out. Even I can't
tell which one this is, but the
other one is completely under
the blanket. I told them to be
good. They look like they're
planning to be good.
Ever since I read that the two finalists on American Idol's last season were both from Mississippi, the winner and the runner-up, I'd been wanting to visit Trent Harmon's (the Idol winner) family ranch and their Longhorn Seafood and Steakhouse Restaurant, which the Harmon family opened up many years ago right there on their family ranch. It lies outside of Amory, Mississippi, not far from either Columbus or Aberdeen. So I called up a friend in Aberdeen and invited her to go with me. The woman is an active realtor in Aberdeen and showed both me and my partner many kindnesses when we were both in Aberdeen almost two years ago looking at houses.

She said there were a couple of newcomers to Aberdeen that she would like for me to meet, and so I told her she should invite them, and we would have an evening out at the Harmon family steakhouse. I got to Aberdeen in time to pick up my friend and the two newcomers, and we headed out to the steakhouse on the family ranch.

It was a  beautiful drive along a tree lined, two-lane highway, late afternoon, but it was quite busy at 5:30 p.m., and it was on this road that we were nearly involved in a head-on collision. There were about six cars in the oncoming lane, and I don't know how many cars might have been behind me when it happened, but all of a sudden (isn't that the way accidents usually happen?) a car pulled out from behind the line of oncoming cars and was heading right for us in our lane.

Things were tight, when the oncoming car had to create
a third lane!
We weren't close enough to see the bugs in the grill work, but the grill was distinct. There was a sharp drop off on the right side of my car and I could not pull over more than a couple of feet. Had I panicked, we would have rolled over heading down the deep embankment of the road. So I stopped the car and all four of us watched as the crazy driver kept coming at us. The oncoming cars might not have realized what was happening, because they didn't seem to move to their right, either, and so the oncoming car barely fit between them and us.

It was over in less than a minute and there was no accident, not even a scrape. I just hope the reckless driver had to do laundry that night and bathe when he got home!

My girls listen, enthralled, as I
tell them about the near
head-on collision. Mae is on
the left and Ellie is on the right.
I didn't take any pictures of the food this time. What can you improve on any picture of the steak and baked potato? But the steak was delicious. I saved half of it for lunch. Outings such as this one puts me in direct contact with locals in these small towns, and really, other than the accents, here, we could have been at a similar restaurant in any rural area in the United States. People don't dress up for these local restaurants, and there's no protocol to be seated and served beyond, "What would y'all like to drink?" and later, "Have y'all decided yet?"

But I did get to hear about the local goings on in Aberdeen and Amory and comments about the food, and I finally brought up Governor Bryant's signing of the so-called freedom of religion bill, HB1523. I was glad to see that all three of my guests knew about the bill and all three (as I had long expected in this area of Mississippi) were appalled to see that Bryant had signed such a thing. We more or less talked around the issue that it affected LGBTs and good-hearted people and continued to make the state look bad in the eyes of the rest of the country. And really, my only comment after bringing the subject into the conversation was that Bryant couldn't seem to understand why no Fortune 500 companies wanted to come to Mississippi.

Nonetheless, that topic settled into the background and we talked about the food and foods we wouldn't eat and foods we had eaten, like rattlesnake and rabbit and settled on the hot-fudge cake with ice-cream for dessert. And the conversation continued. I think it was a fun night out, and the woman I invited told me to be sure and come to one of the newcomers' breakfasts they have every Tuesday morning at the Penny Lane cafe and coffee shop. And I allowed as to how I would.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Arts Council Writers and Storytellers Group

Joining in the group...

The Columbus Arts Council Building on Main & 5th Street
One of the activities I looked forward to when I knew I was moving to Columbus, Mississippi, was checking out the writer's group that meets regularly every second Tuesday of the month at the Columbus Arts Council venue. More on that in a moment...

It's not easy to meet people being a newcomer to a town, where people already have jobs and friends and schedules and activities. And being retired, without having a work place to meet others, makes it even more difficult. I've been here now a little over three weeks. I've spent most of my time working at home, getting unpacked and settled in, trying to make the new house comfortable and functional for me and the girls (Ellie-Mae), the twin-sister calicos I adopted, and it has been a pleasure, even if at times a bit frustrating, because every time I get going full-steam on a project at home, I discover I need to run out and buy a broom, a tool, cleaning supplies, postage stamps, food.

I don't think it's a matter of distrust...even though,
at this point, I certainly feel like one of the
walking dead because of the move-in work I'm doing.
I've only had real contact with the workmen I've hired to come in and diddle with a few things that I don't have the skill or strong back to do myself. I've met the neighbors across the street, one of the houses next door, a woman across the intersection who came to introduce herself. And each of these encounters have been nice. But of course, right now, they're all strangers, and I'm the newcomer. I've also attended the newly minted MFA Writing Program student/faculty reading, a "fiddle" concert, and now my first meeting of the Writers' Group. While the people were nice and I was able to carry on sustained conversations with some of them, I'm still the stranger in town, the new comer, perhaps an unknown quantity.

Every time I've eaten out, I have had to go by myself. I don't mind, it's part of getting to know a place.

Luckily, I do the kind of "work" that will eventually put me into contact with precisely the kinds of people I want to have as friends. I'm an editor and writer, and I've been wanting to meet fellow writers. So I joined the writers group last night. One of the people in the group is kind of the facilitator. She calls on the various writers to read excerpts from their ongoing work. The group then discusses what has been read and conversation is lively. The meetings only last for two hours each month, so it's going to be a kind of s-l-o-o-w kind of acquaintance-ship before I think I will be invited out or will feel free to invite people to my house. Writers are by nature solitary when they write and only come out for meetings such as this to bounce their works off other writers.

The group number fluctuates, and last night there were only eight of us. If a group like this gets any bigger, however, it can hurt the function of the group, which is to read and listen and discuss each writer's work.

But there are ancillary activities and events that I discovered, since the meetings are held at the Arts Council venue, including other ways to express one's work as a writer and participate in other activities. I won't be participating in the Mother Goose Rhyming event for children twelve and under, but writing something for the Peace theme coming up in September of 2016 sounds interesting.

Just visit the Columbus Arts Council link on this page, right column. For a town this size, the CAC is surprisingly active and events appear to be well attended. As with getting acquainted and finding friends,  I know I will have to put out an effort to attend as many functions as I can. But I can say that in each of the events I've attended, and even the restaurants where I've eaten, there is a southern attitude from all that is welcoming, curious, and in the case of this town the usual question: why did you choose to move to Columbus? Over the course of these posts, I will be answering this question by implication.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Portent of Things to Come

The coming heat and humidity...

Give a Mississippian five minutes and they will eventually get around to talking about the humidity. Here in Columbus, they say the worst two months of the year for the deadly combination of heat and humidity are July and August. Yesterday was June 11, and I got a taste of just what that might mean. The temperature reached near mid-nineties and the humidity was around 50%. There was a marked difference between the inside of my house at around 73 degrees, where it was cool enough that when I lay down for a nap with the girls (my kittens), I actually had to use a blanket over my shoulders, and  outside, where I could definitely feel the oppressive humidity even at just 50%, along with the heat. On the gulf coast, however, I have been told for example that no conventions are planned between mid-May and September, because there the heat/humidity is just way too unpleasant.

A Mississippi River Valley...heat haze
I was in New Orleans Louisiana, once before Katrina and once afterwards, both times in May for the Saints and Sinners Writers' Conference. In one instance there were breezes, and that helped immensely in alleviating the discomfort level. So, I can only hope that July and August are months where we also get breezes.

Nor am I a stranger to oppressive humidity, since I lived in San Antonio, Texas, for seven years. There, it's shirt-sleeve weather even in January, and in the summer you can actually see the humidity as a mist glowing around the trees.

Yahoo City, Mississippi (I think)
But I think (so far) that if the other ten months of the year are moderate and comfortable that Columbus will be a great place to live. Of course, that remains to be seen. I've been here in October, March, April, and May in various years, and usually have encountered nice weather. What I'm giving up living in the desert of southern New Mexico is very nice weather for about eight months out of the year (with dust storms dominating from about March through May) and triple-digit heat for at least two months thereafter.

I know I have yet to experience drenching rain storms and tornadoes, but that will be another postcard sometime in the future. Columbus sits up on a bluff, and much of it is downright hilly in the northern part of Columbus. I hope to show pictures of that part of Columbus in another post.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Fireflies and Not Fireflies

Mississippi Comparisons

Growing up in southern New Mexico meant that I had never seen a firefly in real life until I was an adult and living in Maryland. I didn't see them again, until I moved to Columbus, Mississippi, and the whole subject of fireflies brings me to a need to get to know Mississippi by revealing what it is and what it is not—at least based on my experience. This is the "deep" south; make no mistake about that. On one side of the state is the Mississippi Delta, on the other side is the Tom Bigbee River, and small lakes and streams and creeks.

Jackson, Mississippi, the state capital
Indirectly, I have gleaned that Mississippi is close to three million people. And the other thing is, it only has two towns larger than 50,000 people. Jackson is the only true city. Small towns abound.  So my "conclusion" is that Mississippi is a rural state. Here are two links to a description of some of the notable small towns: Twelve of the small towns  and Seven of the most beautiful small towns in Mississippi. Compared to New Mexico, which is three times the land size of Mississippi, Mississippi has a million more people. These are large give-or-take statements, but the population in New Mexico is concentrated in just a few towns far apart. It has several towns larger than 50,000, and Albuquerque is over half a million people and a metro area of almost a million; second to that is Las Cruces, NM with over 100,000 people and a metro area of over 200,000. So the difference is that New Mexico's population is concentrated in towns and cities; Mississippi's population is scattered throughout the state in mostly small towns.

Even though Mississippi is only around 50,000 square miles, it has 82 counties. By comparison, New Mexico is over 120,000 square miles but only has 33 counties.

Mississippi has fireflies; New Mexico doesn't.

Mississippi has lots of surface water; New Mexico doesn't. Mississippi has creeks that seem larger than New Mexico's largest river, the Rio Grande. These kinds of comparisons, however, are not that exciting, but kind of necessary to give me a feel for the state.

Because I know that Mississippi has a lot of small towns, I would expect to be able to take day trips and stop all along the way, in the summer at outdoor fruit and vegetable stands, enjoy lunch and coffee in small independently owned cafes and diners. In New Mexico this is becoming less and less the case. New Mexico towns of any size have given over to fast-food chains, and the independent diners of yesteryear, where you could stop for coffee and a delicious hamburger have been replaced with McDonalds. While this is also true of some towns along major roads in Mississippi, some towns are isolated enough that locals depend on locally owned businesses.

Then there's the matter of the heat and humidity. It really comes down to July and August, according to some of the locals in Columbus. They say these are the two worst months of the year. It's the same in the part of New Mexico I come from. Mississippi has much higher humidity. New Mexico doesn't. In the hot months of the year it's just a matter of whether you're in a sauna (Mississippi) or an oven (New Mexico). One boils you, the other broils you.

My house, my car, on my street
Here in Columbus, I live in a pretty conventional looking neighborhood, with the exception that all the houses along my street are around a hundred years old. There are neighborhoods in Las Cruces, New Mexico, that are tree-lined and the yards have grass, rather than gravel, and if you squint, you could believe you're in a lush city and not see the overwhelming desert all around. Here in Columbus, it is lush and green, and there are fireflies. That's the difference. There are not fireflies in New Mexico.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Getting to Know Columbus, Mississippi

Out and About Town

Part of the seduction of Mississippi is the town of Columbus where I chose to buy a house. It wasn't a spur of the moment decision, and while I've only been here about eight total days, six of which were spent without furniture, I've managed to get acquainted with quite a few (very) friendly people. On the first day I had an opportunity, I visited Columbus's Farmer's Market. They are only open for two hours (8 to 10) on Mondays and Saturdays and longer on Thursdays.

Since I had no cooking utensils, yet, I bought a ripe tomato at the farmer's market and a loaf of delicious sour dough bread. This went with the deli turkey and cheese I bought at the local Kroger's grocery. I liked the farmer's market and figured I would have to return there on a Thursday for what promises to be a fuller selection of vendors. Further, as the summer gets into full swing, I am certain there will be more vegetables and fruits. I uncovered my wok just this evening, and so when I return to the market, I can buy some small squash, which should go really well in my chicken wok recipe.

Also on Monday night I attended the MUW (Mississippi University for Women) MFA writing program, student/faculty reading. I returned there on Friday night when two of the featured writers were Deborah Johnson and Allen Wier.

On a Thursday night, a week to the day of my arrival, I attended a fiddle concert at the Columbus Arts Council. The Columbus Arts Council appears to be very active with gallery events, musical entertainment, and other activities. On Tuesday, June 14, I will attend my first meeting of the writers/story-tellers group at the Arts Council. This is something I have been looking forward to for several months, just waiting until I could move here to join. Since I am a writer and have been a book editor for over 35 years, I feel I can contribute well to the group that meets, and they can teach me about being one of those legendary Southern Writers that seems to emerge from Mississippi and the deep south to woo and transfix readers all over the United States.

How much more down home can you wish for?
The food is excellent and basic.
And of course during the last eight days of my residency, here, I have discovered locally owned restaurants, the kind of eatery I prefer over the chain restaurants (which are also abundant here in Columbus). The first diner is the Ranch House diner out east on Main street, just about 3 miles from my house. It opens at 5:30 a.m. and is now open until 3 p.m. There you can get the most scrumptious down-home breakfasts, and it's where many locals hang out for grits and jawing about many affairs.

As soon as you walk through these rustic doors, you're
treated to the sounds and smells of sizzling steaks right at
the entrance.
This evening, Saturday, June 4th, I ate at another highly rated locally owned restaurant, called Old Hickory Steak House. I am specific about the date, because I had the opportunity to stand in line waiting for a table and visit with people coming in for some baseball happening at MSU (Starkville) that seemed to involve Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi. I had the opportunity to listen to the southern accents from three different states, all in the same line. I have to take my steaks very rarely, because it's an extravagance, but I can assure you that when I have guests come from out of town, that will be one of the places I want to take them to. Columbus is one of the places where out-of-towners like to fill the hotels and motels when there're happenings at MSU Starkville.

Now, my meal was just plain surprising...yes, a salad comes with the meal, but the surprising thing is the tubs of dressings they set on the table. You have a choice of bleu cheese, thousand island, or ranch dressing.

Now, come on...! You don't see this sort of generosity in a chain restaurant. And it's up to you if you want to go easy on the dressing or drown your greens in it. I of course tried bites of all three dressings; each was equally delicious.

Nor are the portions you can choose from their entrees any less generous. I ordered a small ribeye, and it was 10 oz of pure, cooked-to-perfection beef. Of course, I made myself eat only half of it, so that I could take some back to be reheated in my wok. There's only one remaining slice of sourdough bread from the farmers market to go with the steak and baked potato.

I've discovered that starting a household from scratch can be costly and time consuming, so I'm going to have to stretch my dollars as best I can, but I can't think of a better way to do that than to bring home half of each meal that I eat at a restaurant. I did the same thing the other night when I ate at Little Dooie's BBQ place.

I've had a pretty full week, but watch for my next postcard from Mississippi on an entirely different topic about Mississippi, its people, its culture, its history, and that which is progressive and open.


The twin calico sisters...

I deleted the other post about my little twin girls who came to Mississippi with me, because I put up a bad vid and it didn't show much at all.

This is an action shot of Ellie chasing May through the door
into the bathroom at my house, where I have set up
their food, water, and "bathroom."
Anyway, these two little girls, one named Ellie and the other named Mae came with me to Mississippi. They were weaned, of course, and already eating hard Iams kitten food by the time I picked them up and got them situated in their little "RV" in the back seat of my car. It had a cage, and inside was their carrier where they slept, but it also had a bowl of their food, an automatic water dispenser, and of course the litter box—and boy was this last item necessary.

This is Ellie, I believe
This is both of them,
but I can't tell which
is which.
We traveled almost 1300 miles together, and while they slept most of the time, they would come out and yowl as close to my ear as they could get. We didn't really get to know one another on the trip, since all I did was drive. We stopped for four hours somewhere in the Texas hill country, in Killeen, Texas, just barely halfway to our destination. I think by this time that they thought they had always been in their RV and that the whole world was what they could see within the confines of the car.

When I took them into the hotel room and set out their carrier (bed), food and water and litter box, they quickly adapted. One headed straight for the food and the other for the water. I don't think they had ventured to try the food while they were in the car. I made a video of them in the hotel room, but it's much too long to put in this post, since I am only allowed a 100 mb vid, and this one was 700 mb.

In the eight days we've been living in my house, and only three days with furniture, we've all adapted pretty well. They use my feet and legs as their jungle gym, and I can occasionally entice one or the other to let me hold her. They're both affectionate and purr, but they're too busy with each other, wrestling and playing hide and seek to sit still too long for a good petting from their daddy.

Finally here's Ellie-Mae in their nest I made for them in my house. They're little "angels" when they sleep. But when they're awake, they live to eat, poop, pee, and play.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Miracle Whip and a Shower Curtain

Or...dealing with the unexpected

I crossed the Mississippi River into Vicksburg, Mississippi close to dusk. But it was hard to tell, considering that the sky was menacing with rain clouds, lightning off to the west and the east. It was sprinkling as I drove across the bridge and then it increased, so that by the time I was heading east (I think it was east, but without mountains to guide me and rain, it was difficult to know) I was driving in a downpour at times barely able to see the stripes on the road. So, here I was, finally in Mississippi, about to call her home. The rain was appropriate, that is, considering that part of my reason for leaving New Mexico and the desert was to get to greener, wetter country. On May 24th at 4 p.m., I left Mesilla, NM for my trip to Columbus, Mississippi, where I had bought a house, in the very historic south Columbus district (pictures to follow later). It was an almost 1300 mile trip (one way) to reach my destination. When I stopped at 4 a.m. in Killeen, Texas, where I rented a hotel room and where I stayed only four hours before getting back on the road, my navigator in the Samsung Galaxy crapped out, and I could not get directions. I was in a relatively unknown part of Texas, somewhere in the Hill Country and I had to navigate back highways to inch my way up to I-20. I had gone this way to avoid driving through Dallas/Fort Worth. That was a mistake! I hadn't realized that I would be going through Ft. Worth/Dallas in the wee morning hours and would have encountered very little traffic. All this to say that my second leg of the trip was fraught with errors on my part, and what should have been a relatively easy trip took me sixteen hours. I finally arrived in Columbus at midnight, going into Thursday, May 26th.

My house is still empty of furniture, as I write this, and I haven't yet heard from the movers. Since this is a Memorial Day weekend, I don't expect they'll be here until May 31—or even later. I have no cooking utensils, no dishes, since everything is on the moving truck. I'm running out of clothes, as well, so I have had to be stinky (the utility room is blocked by stuff the workers have left here, also probably not to be moved until the 31st.) And, trying to avoid spending all my cash, I decided to buy sandwich fixings. So I went to one of the local groceries and bought meat and cheese and bread and got home prepared to fix a sandwich. I realized two things. I had forgotten Miracle Whip, and further I realized I couldn't take a shower because there was no shower curtain in the only bathroom with a shower head. The bathroom stopper in the other bathtub didn't work, and the bathroom with the shower didn't have a curtain. So...I headed back to the grocery store for Miracle Whip and a shower curtain, an odd combination, I know, but the clerk didn't think anything of it, probably didn't even look at the products long enough to register what they were.

But even more frustrating than the lack of a laundry room is that, without furniture, I have no place to sit, except on the toilet seat in either of the bathrooms.

Other than the initial missteps I took getting here, I am not disappointed in Columbus. The lush beauty of the countryside is a given. But it's often the case that a new town might appeal from the outside looking in, and then realization sets in that it was simply not what it seemed. Last night I attended a meeting of the MFA faculty and students in their first ever reading of their work at MUW (Mississippi University for Women, but no longer just for women). The MFA writing program is relatively new, and I was treated to readings from at least one student and one faculty member that were top-notch. Each had a sense of humor in the selections they read, each was full of being "southern" and that, too, was not a disappointment, not a surprise—the "southern" part that is.

I also found a down-home breakfast and lunch diner, not one of the big box chains out on Highway 45. Instead this one is in far east Columbus, almost out of town, and as the waitress told me, "I guarantee you will become a regular, here," I cannot deny it. I get to see the locals, but I haven't yet struck up a conversation with them, or they, me.

The northeastern Mississippi "accent" is gentle on the ears, unlike, say, the east Texas or Oklahoma accents, which are grating and a lot heavier. Sure, subtitles would sometimes be nice, floating above the heads of the speaker, but it is not often that I need them. I simply, politely ask, "what?" to get them to repeat themselves. I don't want to give the impression that the accent is thick, though, or really difficult or much different than where I'm from...really. Sometimes outside noise interferes, sometimes it's my own becoming-a-little-hard-of-hearing if a person's voice is too soft, and that, more than anything describes the accent. Soft, warm, southern.

Tonight, I attend a fiddling concert.