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A Street Full of Flags

Recently, Lynn found out that her dad was the guy who held the nuclear codes during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  He was the base commander at Barksdale.  She understands better now the visceral fear that she felt, at age ten and eleven, everytime he left the house.   Would she ever see him again?  She remembers "duck and cover" at school, the shadow of anxiety that hovered over everything.

The cadets who graduated from our military academies in recent weeks entered in the late summer of 2001.  They imagined bright careers, a boost up the success ladder, service to their country and a happy future.  They stayed at the academies knowing  they would be going to war, and knowing that many of them would die. 

When I read about them (and the newsmagazines and newspapers all have marked the occasion with profiles), I admire their courage, their nascent heroism.  They are indeed some of the best of us.  We need them to become teachers and doctors, lawyers and politicians and librarians.  They ought to become leaders in their communities, and raise proud sons and daughters of their own, and ease into old age surrounded by well-loved grandchildren.

We will lose many of them.  Not only those who will die, but those who will become crippled in body and spirit, those who will become embittered by the horror of what they will find themselves having to do, those who will be corrupted and crushed by the brutal reality of the world they are walking into.  We will suffer not only the loss of their promise, but the agony of their parents and their spouses, the uncomprehending sorrow of small children just born.  It is a terrible cost, but there are times in history when it must be paid.  This is not, I grieve to say, one of those times.

My President is a foolish man, undone by vanity and hubris.  But on this Memorial Day, I will choose to believe that, blinkered and blinded and cossetted and coddled as he is, he truly believes that the men and women who are giving up their lives for his decisions are doing so for a right and noble cause.  If I am wrong, if this really is just about oil or pride or vengeance, then I pray that the Christian god he professes to serve will damn him, damn him forever to hell.

On our street, the flags go up in front of every house on these national holidays, and stay up Dsc00109throughout the weekend, day and night, rain or shine.   Lynn, the colonel's daughter, rages at the thoughtlessness.  These aren't decorations!   In North Little Rock,  her father, now in his eighties, carefully raises the flag in the morning, brings it down at night, never lets it stay out in the rain, never lets it touch the ground.     I think of him, and do the same.


She seems to know us now.   I looked down from the loft, calling her name.    She looked to the0028 left and right, her eyes wide.  "Where is he?" said Lynn, holding her.  "Where is that no-name guy?"  She looked up finally and saw me and laughed.    When I came back down and appeared in front of her she gurgled and cooed.  "What a fine game," said Lynn.

She squalls and fusses.  Maybe it's the sweet potato that she's eaten for the first time that has her tummy a little upset?  Lynn is sitting with her out on the deck and can't get her to settle.  I hear Josie's wail from the living room, so I go out and gather her up.  I hold her close in the crook of my arm and talk to her softly, ceaselessly.  "Let's walk around the house little Josie oh isn't that interesting how that fan turns oh yes little Yosefina I see how you like that now we'll walk into the other room over here oh see how the light changes little Josephine you like that now don't you yes you like that rumble rumble of my voice don't you you little critter no you don't understand a thing I'm saying do you but you love that rumble rumble..." 

Despite herself, the eyelids gradually grow heavy and then, all of a sudden, she's asleep.   I am inordinately pleased that I can comfort and soothe her so well.  I pray that it may always be so.

Pork Dinner

We were in San Antonio when Lynn first saw the email from the Alabama Booksmith.  Peter Kaminsky was going to be in town touring behind his new book Pig Perfect: Encounters with Remarkable Swine and Some Great Ways to Cook Them.   (He referred to it as his Pigapalooza Tour).  In honor of the occasion, Frank Stitt would be hosting a wine dinner at Bottega.  Given the swine emphasis of our recent odyssey, it was obviously the perfect way to put a final close to the events of the last two weeks.

So last night found us on the mezzanine with 34 other guests, eating a remarkable meal (Niman Ranch lardo, salame & pancetta while we mingled, a salad of pork cheeks and fava beans to start, with a main course of "porchetta, burgundy and brooklyn style" (recipe in the book), finishing up with a selection of cheeses and a bread pudding) accompanied by perfectly matched wines.  Jake was the supremely charming master of ceremonies, of course.   Kaminski was decidedly entertaining and gracious, reading a few passages from his book, and talking through a slide show describing his (and others) efforts to combat the factory farming of pigs by supporting artisanal farmers and producers. 

We try to go to wine dinners like this whenever our busy schedules allow.  We've never left one without having learned a few things, met a few interesting people, and having had some memorable conversations.  Throughout human history, the combination of good food, wine, and an interesting mix of people has been recognized as one of life's supreme joys.

Aside from the obesity epidemic, part of the tragedy of our overprocessed, fast food culture is that too many of us see food as nothing but fuel.  We eat on the run, or in front of tv, primarily so that we can keep running.  When I was growing up, in a catholic household, we prayed before every meal, and every meal was an occasion for conversation.  These days, I don't pray (in that sense), but I do take time to be grateful for every meal.  And every evening, when we're at home, Lynn and I eat together in the dining room, with a lit candle on the table, music in the background, a bottle of wine, and something that we've prepared by hand, be it as simple as a couple of grilled sausages, a boiled potato, and some steamed green beans.  It is always one of the best times of the day.

So Good To Be Home

If it weren't that Marian & Josie were waiting for us to return Marian's car, I'd've tried harder to convince Lynn that we should stay another day in Clarksdale.   She and I have stayed in some wonderful places in our decade of wandering the globe, and the Big Pink Guesthouse is definitely among the best.  So we took our time getting ready to leave.  Bruce and I played guitars for awhile in the courtyard, and then we slowly got cleaned up, packed and ready to go.  I did try the slot machine, but it'sDsc00069 no longer working.   Pity.

Claire had told us about the Hopson Plantation, another development effort, which includes the Shack Up Inn and the Cotton Gin Inn.  One of the magazines in the house had a feature article describing the place.  That may be where I have to stay next time I'm in the area.  Maybe next summer when I take my next long driving trip...

AbesthumbWe stopped at Abe's for barbecue on our way out of town -- another John T. Edge recommendation.  Our efforts to expose Bruce to Southern Cuisine have been, we would have to say, a great success.  From the fried corn on the way over to Lake Charles, to the tamales at Doe's Eat Place, to fine dining at Madidi, we ran the gamut.  I told Lynn thatSan_antonio_trip_006_2 we probably need to send Edge a finder's fee.  I guess we can get away with just continuing to buy his books.

It was a little after 6:00 when we finally pulled in.  (Good to remember that Clarksdale is only five hours away from Birmingham.)  Marian had the house all cleaned up and freshly vacuumed, and she'd taken Josie in for a new set of pictures, so we cooed over those for a bit and then got Sadie unloaded.

Today is trip recovery day.  I've got tons of email to get through, the unpacking, paper mail to sort.  Slowly shifting my brain back into work mode.  Bruce leaves tomorrow afternoon, and then it's back into the thicket of libraryland.     Next stop -- SLA conference in Toronto.  We leave in eleven days.

The Pink House

Brilliant.  I believe that's what Brother Bruce would say.  We owe him a tremendous debt of gratitude.  It was he who first saw the link to the Big Pink Guesthouse.  I'd told him that we could come through Clarksdale on our way back.  He did some browsing and sent a message with the link saying, "We could stay here?"

The angels have been watching every step of our journey; I suppose in honor of Lynn's birthday.  When we arrived about 5:30 yesterday, after a wonderful long day (I hope I find time to get rhapsodic about the tamales from Doe's Eat Place), we banged on the door and there was no answer.  So Lynn called both Tommy & Claire's numbers, left messages and we walked over to the Delta Blues Museum (about 40 yards out our front door).  We left Bruce standing on the stoop in case someone showed up.  We knew that the museum closed at 5:00, but we could see people on the porch, and I was hoping that someone there would know how we could find someone to let us into the house.

We'd barely entered (and Lynn went straight to the restroom) when I looked behind and saw a woman walking across the lot toward the house.  Bruce was waving me over.  At that point, I could have: A) waited for Lynn to come out of the restroom, and then walked over to the house; B) told the woman at the desk in the museum to tell my wife where I was and head over to the house; or C) go over to the house, rescue Bruce and introduce myself to Claire and let Lynn figure out on her own where I'd gone.

I chose C.  That was definitely the wrong decision. Lynn gave me hell.  Jan, at the museum desk, gave me hell.  When we finally got over to Claire's guitar shop, I simply made full disclosure and gave myself hell.  Lynn was tremendously amused and decided that my abandoning her was worth it.

And if it weren't for not being able to get into the house, we wouldn't have bothered to go to the museum -- since it was after 5:00, we'd've assumed that it was closed.  We'd had such a good day that I was willing to accept missing the museum.  But the angels clearly wanted us to see it.

The house is magnificent.  At this moment, I am sitting in the courtyard, which is inside the house, looking over at the fountain, with the french doors behind me open on the beautiful Delta morning.  I haven't yet touched the baby grand piano sitting over there on the side, but I will before we leave.  And I'm going to throw a nickle into this ancient slot machine to my left, next to the kitchen door, before I leave as well.  I could stay for days...


Austin's an easy drive from San Antonio.  Bruce and I had the van loaded and ready to go, so as soon as Lynn finished her last presentation, we were on our way and headed northeast.   Arrived at our hotel about 2:30, and by 3:00 were walking into the Austin Hard Rock for our annual post-MLA pig sandwich.  Chip, of course, always loves coming to the Hard Rock and his littleDsc00054 prairie dog soul was particularly thrilled to be in Austin.

We flipped through the local weekly to try to get a sense of who was playing where and how we might make the best use of the nine or ten hours we had to spend.  Ian McLagan and the Bump Band at Lucky's doing an early show -- that sounded good -- and why does that name sound vaguely familiar?  And then I flipped a page and just about fell out laughing -- Billy Joe Shaver at Threadgill's World Headquarters.  Having listened to quite a bit of Shaver on this drive already, it seemed particularly heavensent.  So we asked Howie, our very personable waiter, where Threadgill's was -- turns out to be half a block from our hotel.  Oh yes, the angels are being good to us on Lynn's birthday.

So we strolled along 6th street, had a drink at The Library (of course) and eventually made our way up to The Lucky Lounge.    It's a long shotgun of a bar, with the stage at one end.  So dimly lit that after the sunshine of the afternoon, it took quite awhile for our eyes to adjust.  We were the only people there (it was just after 5:00) aside from the bartender and a guy setting up on the stage.  As sight slowly returned, I saw a sign up above the bar announcing that the band had CDs for sale.  Apparently the Bump Band had recorded several, and the sign was also offering the Faces boxed set...  and a classic Small Faces album...  What the...?  Bruce and I realized at just about the same time why the name had seemed vaguely familiar, and I remembered reading an article sometime back that mentioned McLagan having moved many years ago to Austin.    The place started to fill up, and Mac himself finally arrived.  He chattered on about its being his birthday this week, and then pointed out that as a surprise, his son and brother-in-law had come over from London.  He pointed them out, and they turned out to be the two guys right in front of Bruce.  We were quite amused -- Bruce comes all the way to Austin to find himself listening a Brit musician in a bar full of Londoners.

At the moment, we're getting ready to drive east out of Austin, shooting for Shreveport, so I've got to wrap this up.  Suffice it to say that we heard a bunch of really fine music, finishing up with Billy Joe who was as magnificent as ever.  The man is transcendant.  He's become that diamond he always hoped he would be.


We had Emmylou Harris singing "Waltz Across Texas" as we crossed the line from Louisiana in a light rain.  I'd done a playlist of everything on my iPod that had "Texas" in the title, so we had a couple of Billy Joe Shaver songs, some Terry Allen, Clint Black, and, of course, that great Chris Rea song.  A couple of weeks ago, Lynn came across mention of the Transpod FM and as soon as I saw it I knew I had to have one.  The perfect thing for a long drive.

The rain was  light and cleared up after just a bit and we zipped along on I-10.  I don't mind travelling the interstates in Texas as much as I do east of the Mississippi -- they're not barricaded with the impenetrable border of trees that makes one feel claustrophobic and in danger of completely zoning out after a hundred miles or so.  And I was eager for San Antonio.

Crossing Houston was ugly, but I knew it would be.  I didn't want to take the time to loop way north, and I figured that in the middle of the day on a Saturday it wouldn't be too bad.  Lots of construction made it nervy and annoying driving, but we moved at a good clip, and after an hour or so were back in the open.  Then I did get off the interstate, following Hwy 90, going through more little towns.  It was apparently bike marathon day -- in a couple of towns we came upon tired clusters of riders, with numbers on their backs, wheeling into the local city park finish line to cheering family fans and bottles of water. 

By 2:00 we were in San Antonio, slowly making our way past the Alamo, the long lines of kids in school t-shirts (there's a herd all dressed in purple!  there's one in pink and gold!) interrupting the traffic.  We were more than ready  for a late lunch -- get Sadie parked, get down to the Riverwalk for a beer and some chicken enchiladas!

So the first leg of the journey is done, and we've accomplished at least part of what we set out to do -- give Bruce a look at something other than the convention cities that he's been dropping into for the past decade.  He marvels at the amount of space, how even in the poorest towns the houses sit on their own quarter or half acre.  And this is only a tiny bit of the vastness that is America.   We've ruined much of it (somebody's got a lot of karma to work off for Houston) but out on the prairie, or up in the mountains, going through the small towns in the places where I've taken these long trips over the years, one can believe that we haven't completely screwed it all up... yet.

Fried Corn

San_antonio_trip_001_1I didn't even know there was such a thing as deep-fried corn on the cob!  What a great idea -- you'd think you'd see it all over the place.    We were driving across Mississippi, having left the interstate just past Meridian.  It was just after noon, and I wanted to angle up a bit and catch the Natchez Trace  north of Jackson.  We were driving  along  US Hwy 80, passing throughSan_antonio_trip_002 little towns like Chunky and Newton and  Hickory and Forest and Lake.  I thought for sure we'd pass some local little diner or barbecue joint.  But nothing. 

I was beginning to fear that I'd have to break one of the road rules (#2: Never eat in a chain restaurant).  We hadn't had breakfast and the Sonics and Hardees and Burger Kings that we were passing were starting to look pretty good.  Then Bruce and I both saw the sign at the same time -- "BJ's Cajun Cooker.  Chicken On A Stick $3.99".   I scanned the parking lot -- a couple of pickups and three or four cars.  Somebody was having lunch.  So we turned in.

Inside the door there was a high counter.  The menu selections were listed above the order windows.  Catfish po' boys, (and shrimp and oyster and clam po' boys too), grilled fish, fish & shrimp, etc., etc...  A tall, thin, slightly pinched looking woman swayed up to the window and looked down at us just a little sceptically. 

"Hello!" I said brightly.  She gave a nod.  "What do you think we should have?  My friend here is from England." 

A pause.  "Don't know what he wants," she drawled, making me feel like I'd breached some local protocol. 

Bruce gulped & grinned, "There's so many choices...!" 

She allowed a slight smile and said, "Some say the catfish is pretty good."  Another long pause.  "The plates come with two sides..."

So I ordered the grilled catfish plate with coleslaw and corn.  Bruce picked the fish and shrimp, with the same sides (I haven't asked him about this, but it was clear he was looking at the list of sides and thinking I have no idea what these things are.  Better to be safe and pick what Scott has...)

Miz Lean gave me the order ticket.  "Sit wherever you like.  I'll call out the last three numbers."  She gave me another stern look as if she wasn't quite sure I was following her about the last three numbers. 

"This is the real thing," said Bruce as we sat down at our little table, looking out the window at the pond in the back.  It took a while (she'd warned me that "it'll take a bit for him to grill that catfish") and then she leaned out the window, looked straight at us, and called out the last three numbers of our ticket.  I leapt up and went to get the paper plates, cups for our soda fountain drinks, plastic forks & paper napkins.  She softened a bit (I guess because I did the number thing right) and asked if we'd like tartar sauce or lemon juice.  Yes, to both, we said, and took everything back to the table.

It was no surprise that the food was superb.  This is the kind of place that John T. Edge would love.  But I was baffled when I got my plate and saw the golden brown cylinder that I at first took to be some kind of biscuit or corn fritter.  And then realized that nowhere on the plate was the mound of cooked corn that I'd been expecting.   What was before me was a half-ear of corn that had been very lightly battered and dropped into the frying oil.   The crust was paper thin, just enough to protect the kernels from the oil, so that they cooked up wonderfully juicy and full of flavor.   The fish was delicious, but the standout was that corn!

The Natchez Trace was beautiful, and we stopped off to see an Indian burial mound, and we wound our way down through the middle of Louisiana, listening to music and watching the life of the little towns, until we finally made it to our motel on the edge of Lake Charles.  It was a great driving day and we saw many wonderful things.  But I'll remember best the deep fried corn on the cob.


Family Medicine

"Maybe it comes from spending most of my adult life in academic medical centers, but the procedures themselves don't really bother me -- I just hate having to make the time!"   Mike nods sympathetically.  "Oh, I know!  You've got 10 or 12 hours of work to get done, and then you have to find  a couple of hours to go have some tests done, and when you get back you've still got the same 10 or 12 hours of work..."  Nonetheless, we're agreed on the sequence of things that I'll do over the next few weeks to verify that what appears to be a minor recurrence of kidney stones is, in fact, that and not something more serious.

Another advantage of spending my career in medical centers is that I'm having this conversation with Mike Harrington, Chair of Family and Community Medicine.  Aside from the fact that he's one of the best in the business and I trust his medical judgment completely, I've spent enough time with him in committee meetings and at receptions to know that he's a thoughtful, honest, standup guy in general, and someone who I feel comfortable with.

When I was growing up, in that little town in Wisconsin, Dr. Behnke was the family physician and the relationship that my parents had with him was long and profound.   These were the days of house calls and I remember, in those  terrible years when I was six and seven and eight and it seems I spent half my days in a sickbed with my parents wondering if I'd ever make it out, how often Dr. Behnke would come to the house, how he could be firm and stern, but was always reassuring.  These were the days before medicine was so heavily specialized and the only time we ever saw another doctor was if there was an emergency during one of those few times he was on vacation, and then his partner would fill in.   He kept me alive against the odds more than once.

The crown jewel of UAB's practice plan has been the Kirklin Clinic, a testament to modern technological medicine.  Whenever I've been over there, I know I'm getting great care, but I can't help worrying about so many of the people I see sitting in the waiting rooms.  They come from all over the south, many of them from little rural towns, and far from being a reassuring place, the Kirklin is vast and intimidating and, I suspect, more than just a little frightening. 

For reasons that have never been clear to me, Mike's department doesn't work out of the Kirklin.  They're in a little building up 20th street, that is intimate and comforting and easy to deal with.  It's a bit of a fluke that I ended up going there.  When I came to UAB and signed up for a primary care physician, the only name I recognized on the list was Will Deal, who I'd met at a reception just a few days earlier.   He was in administration, but he saw a few patients and practiced out of Mike's clinic.  A year or two later he was Dean of the School of Medicine and vice-president of the university.  Whenever I needed to see him, I'd email Ruth, his secretary, and she'd set something up.  I always had the feeling that as I was coming in the front door, Will was slipping in the back, tossing on his white coat so that he could come out to greet me.  Despite the fact that I might have been at an early morning meeting with him and the other Deans, and knew that he was working fourteen hour days running one of the largest healthcare enterprises in the southeast, his manner has always been that of a country doctor who is having a quiet day and is just so pleased that you've stopped by.

My experience there is not the least bit unique.  Sure, it helps my comfort level that I know Will and Mike and consider them colleagues, but I can see that they treat me no differently than they treat the other patients.  And on the few times when I've needed to see one of the residents, I can see that same attitude being passed on.  The residents don't have the calm grace and ease that their older mentors do, but they're working on it.   They know what the standard is to aspire to.

I think Dr. Behnke would be awed at the miracles that can be performed in the Kirklin Clinic.  He'd be thrilled to see the way that problems that were insurmountable to him can now be solved.  But I think he'd be a little dismayed too, and I think he'd worry about those people in the waiting rooms the same way that I do.  At the Family Medicine clinic, he'd feel right at home.

MLA 2005

"We feel like this every year," I tell Lynn.  "In the last couple of days before the MLA meeting we're completely stressed out and we don't think there's any way that we can get everything done that needs doing.  But we always end up having a great time..."  She nods, "Yeah, yeah, I know..."

This will be my 22nd consecutive MLA annual meeting.  In those first few years it was just about the only travelling that I did, and it seemed as if all the rest of the year revolved around it.  Now it's just one more trip among many, but it still carries the most emotional weight.  The other conferences or meetings I go to are relatively low-key affairs, compared to MLA's insanely overbooked schedule.   Every one of the twenty-odd sections needs to have its own business meeting and a couple of program sessions, and then there's all of the committee meetings and task forces, the plenary sessions, the general business meetings, and the whirl of receptions and social events. 

For some reason, this year I've been asked by a number of people who are attending the meeting for the first time, or who have only been to one or two, how to get the most out of it.  I tell them to go to all of the social events they can -- the most important part of the meeting is making those connections.  I suggest going to the main plenary sessions, since those speakers are usually fairly interesting, and to the general business meetings, which are usually not very interesting in themselves, but which do give you a good idea of how the Association functions.  I say that it might be worth going to a section business meeting or two -- generally only the most committed members bother going to those so it's a good way to meet some people who may be keenly interested in some of the same topics you are.

And then, alas, I tell them to skip most of the contributed paper sessions, or at least to be extremely selective.  Contributed papers are not a great way to share information, and to sit through a session just because you feel you ought to be there is not a good use of your time.  Going to hear a particular paper that's on a topic that you may be working on might be a good idea, especially if you take the opportunity to meet the speaker.  The poster sessions are good for that reason.  You can manage your time and attention better.

I think of the meeting as an endurance test, juggling my own responsibilities, spending time with friends, finding little spaces where I can get off by myself and recharge, exploring a bit of whatever city I find myself in.  Every year, the meeting leaves an indelible mark.  All of the major themes of my personal life, as well as my professional one, are reflected in the unfolding trail of annual meetings.

It was at the last MLA meeting in San Antonio that Lynn and I first showed up together as a couple, where I went into the exhibit hall, finally in a fury of frustration and said, "I need to talk to you... now."  Where we went outside and I said, "I'm tired of being one of your boyfriends," ready to end it right there.  And she grinned and said, "Okay.  You're it.  I just needed someone to pull me off of the ledge...  Can I go back to work now?"  And left me sitting there, dazed and exhilarated...

It was in San Antonio that Mark Frisse said, speaking of Lynn, "That woman has whole cities inside her..."  So true.