I figured I would try a blog as a way to collect some of my writing. I will probably start with just transferring some of my random thoughts I’ve posted on my Medium page over here. If you like what you read, then please feel free to give me some feedback. If you don’t like it, well, don’t tell me.
Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”— A. Bartlett Giamatti
We were ordinary kids who wanted to play ball. We didn’t discuss politics or finances or anything heavy. We just wanted to play ball.
When I was 11 years old, the kids in my neighborhood gathered almost daily at an open lot to play baseball, football, or whatever the sport currently in season. About eight of us kids lived in the neighborhood at the time, and we were like something out of central casting for The Sandlot. We had a pecking order just like any other neighborhood crew — we had the older kid, the talented kid, the big kid, the fast kid, the smart kid, the small kid, the shy kid and of course, the younger kid whose mother rarely allowed him to go outside. Not an evening passed without some combination of our group playing ball while our parents circled the neighborhood block, quietly making sure our childhood bickering didn’t need an adult referee. Our neighborhood was our village. Our field was maintained by a kind man who lived at the end of the street drove his riding mower down the street every few days. We tracked time by the adults driving by our game on their way home from their work, and everyone in the neighborhood knew to keep their eyes out for an errant baseball or even a stray kid crossing when passing that open lot in their car. Every day, we met and played ball.
One particular Saturday afternoon, my group was playing when we noticed another group of eight kids walking up to the lot. They were walking so softly you couldn’t hear their feet shuffle on the pavement, as if they thought if they walked quietly enough, then no one would see them. In hindsight, these kids had only traveled from maybe three blocks away but, at that time, in our history, they might as well have traveled from another planet. Like the Greasers and Soc’s in The Outsiders, sixteen kids sized each other up in complete silence as if we were about to rumble. These new kids were basically the same ages as our group, and had their own pecking order of ages, sizes and skills. But these kids were different than our group.
These new kids were black.
After a couple awkward moments of staring at each other, which would have been more awkward had we understood it should be awkward, I recognized someone from the park commission soccer team I played on the previous spring. His name was Joe.
”Joe, do you guys want to play baseball?” I asked.
Joe nodded and looked at his group. So they nodded. Not one of them had their bats or gloves with them. But they were kids, and we were kids, and that’s really all we needed.
Silently, their group walked out to the field while our group dropped our gloves and walked towards our makeshift homeplate. My friends grabbed bats to hit. Joe’s friends all took their positions wearing the gloves we left at our positions. Thus began a bizarre sandlot baseball game featuring two teams divided by race. With the exception of balls clinking off an aluminum bat or the thud of that ball hitting a leather pocket, this game was initially played in silence. Then, as the contest progressed a little, a chatter began— first to our teammates and then to the other team as we passed each other after the third out of every half-inning. Our game continued at that same pace until someone suggested we re-pick the teams and start the game over. Thirty-five years later, I don’t remember the suggestion arising because the game wasn’t evenly matched. Instead, I think it was made because childhood boredom comes quickly, and we were always trying to do something more “fun.”
The two best players, one black and one white, were naturally elected as the captains and after a quick flip of the glove (we didn’t have a coin), they chose new rosters for the afternoon. The result? Teams were no longer split along racial lines. Instead, sixteen kids, eight white and eight black, were completely mixed between two teams. We laughed and argued over balls and strikes and safe and out like all kids do. We marveled at how far some kids hit the ball, and we snickered when someone struck out. Just as we were before, we were ordinary kids who just wanted to play ball.
All of us quickly became friends that afternoon. Our group of eight was now a group of sixteen and it remained that way until the rest of the summer. We would meet every afternoon to play and it became one of the best summers of my life. In the years that followed, some kids moved away or some lost interest in sports. Boys will be boys and we all fell for the intoxicating combination of girls and gasoline. But to this day, I still think about those guys. That open lot in our old neighborhood, the scene of so many games that unknowingly taught me so much, is no longer open. On it now sits a beautiful brick house, a home filled with love and the scene of a new set of memories for another group. But in mind’s eye, I still see the open lot and my friend David’s sweet lefty swing sending another ball into orbit with my other friend Joe chasing down that same ball once it returned to earth. I see myself grabbing pulling down my red cap over my eyes and slipping on my brown Rawlings baseball glove, broken in to perfection for another epic chance to pretend I’m the second baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals. I remember everything about the best summer of my life. I learned a little bit about baseball but a lot more about life.
Pitchers and catchers have reported to their ballclubs for the spring, and it’s nearing Opening Day. My attention is everywhere and nowhere all at once, and I haven’t played in a baseball game since the Reagan administration. My eleven year old self would be disappointed that I really can’t tell you who plays in the middle infield now for the Cards. But no matter how times change and life gets busy, the game stays the same. Like James Earl Jones says in Field of Dreams, “one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past.”
A good steak needs no type of sauce, and especially not ketchup. While we are on the subject, you can order your steak past medium rare if you wish. However, you might as well chew on a Michelin.
Beer is not really drinking. The police tend to disagree with this statement, but beer is what you drink when you don’t really want to drink.
If you want something, and someone tells you that you can’t do that it, then work harder and show them you can. And by all means, if you have a law degree, then you have tangible proof you can do anything. So go do it.
In every situation, it’s always better to listen than to talk, and pay attention to the person in the meeting who is quietly measuring the room. Inevitably, that’s the wisest person in the place.
You’re going to make mistakes in your life. Learn from them and try to avoid making the same mistake twice. Your reaction to your mistakes will ultimately tell the tale.
Never be afraid to lead or think differently than the rest of the pack. This world has too many followers. Have confidence in your own ability to lead any group. Why shouldn’t you?
Try as we might, people, including your own children, cannot be protected from themselves. All you can do is give good guidance when you can and hope like hell they make the right decisions.
No matter how wonderful it seems at the time, the Ole Miss Rebels will eventually break your heart. While we’re talking about sports, understand when your sports team needs you most, you must find your Lucky Spot. The team is counting on you. It’s the least you can do.
Whatever you do, act like you’ve been there before and never let anyone see you uncomfortable. You are good enough and talented enough to handle any situation. Show the world you believe that fact.
If you’re going to be a lawyer, then dress like someone has actually paid you to be their lawyer before. Don’t dress for work like you’re going to the beach, a concert, or a gym, and for God’s sake, never wear white socks with brown dress shoes. People will think you went to Mississippi State if you do. No one has ever said “he dresses too nice,” so remember what you wear is important. And make sure your clothes fit. Otherwise you look “seedy.” No one likes seedy.
From 1987 to 1993, Axl Rose would sprint across the stage and shriek, “DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE? You’re in the Jungle, baby. And you’re gonna dieeeeeeee!”
Millions of people filled huge arenas and screamed at the top of the lungs their approval of this call of the wild from the frontman of the Biggest Rock and Roll Band in the F’ing Universe. Axl pranced and preened nightly. In the same show, he would growl about that old man being a real motherfucker and then he quietly assure a sad woman to take it slow. Nightly, and to the delight of their legion of fans, Axl begged to be taken down to the place where the grass is green and the girls are pretty before sitting down at a piano to sing quietly about the cold November Rain. For six short years, Axl and Guns’n’Roses could do no wrong. The worse they acted, the more hotels they wrecked, the more controversial they became (check out the shirt in the picture above), the more we wanted them. Their shows became a straight up rock and roll revival with Axl as lead evangelist every single time they hit the stage.
Then one day, it stopped.
The band’s penchant for self-destruction overtook their penchant for making great music. People quit buying their records. MTV stopped showing their videos. Another band soon took their place at the top. The arenas weren’t quite as full. The band, or at least the incarnation of the band that made them superstars, split up.
What happens next?
“Art is long, and Time is fleeting, And our hearts, though stout and brave, Still, like muffled drums, are beating Funeral marches to the grave.”- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Psalm of Life.
I started thinking about this stuff when I heard Tom Brady tell reporters after the Super Bowl that he was planning to play until he was 45 years old. Hell, if he keeps winning world championships, then I don’t blame him. He should play forever. But his comment struck me because I distinctly remember hearing Brady say years ago he wanted to play until he was 40. Now he’s moved it back to 45. I haven’t had the pleasure of hanging out with Tom and Gisele, but I have a feeling Tom might even say 50 years old once we’ve had a cocktail or two. So this question eats at me— What drives a person in the spotlight to stay in the spotlight? Is it competitive fire? Is it the love of the spotlight? Or is it the fact that he’s now been “Tom Brady, superstar quarterback” longer than he has been Tom Brady? When you’ve been the center of the stage so long, it’s got to be damn tough to move to stage left. Is it the fear of what comes next? If you’re someone like Archie Manning, then I guess you step back and become a dad. But Archie is not a good example. Thanks to his sons, Archie might be more famous now than when he played in the NFL. He’s still a god to the Southerners who remember his playing days but quite honestly, Archie has remained relevant largely because of Peyton and Eli. (If you asked every NFL general manager in 2005, then I would bet more than half would have invested six figures in an experiment consisting of freezing Archie and Olivia’s sperm/egg combination to be thawed out when their team was in need of a signal-caller.) But for every Archie Manning, there are 50 guys like Danny White or Dave Krieg or Neil Lomax— stars of the moment who become trivia questions as the years mount. What becomes of their life when they are no longer the center of attention? Is that all there is? F. Scott Fitzgerald allegedly said there are no second acts in American life. Catchy line, but I don’t know about Scott’s veracity. Although he didn’t do anything better than The Great Gatsby. Maybe he was right?
I don’t have the answer to any of my questions this week, and these questions nag at me like Edith Bunker nagged at her husband. Maybe it’s a sign of my middle age, but I can’t help but wonder— what happens when the lights quit shining bright? Better yet, what happens if the lights never come on? I went to a funeral of a friend of mine a couple years ago, and the eulogy for this 45 year old husband and father focused on his high school athletic prowess. Were those the best of times for him? I just don’t know. Maybe Neil Young was right— “it’s better to burn out than fade away.”
My father was in the local hospital for almost two and a half weeks before he eventually passed away. Dad was fairly lucid for the first 3-4 days, but was his mind was shutting down along with his body.
On the first Sunday he was in the hospital, I arrived at his room late in the day only to find him screaming at a nurse trying gamely to make Dad comfortable in his bed.
“I need a blanket on my legs,” Dad bellowed. The blanket was already on his legs. But the poor nurse was doing his best to pacify his 88 year old taskmaster, so he just straightened the blanket with the hope of satisfying Dad.
“I need to raise my legs,” was the next order. “Son,” Dad said as he pointed at the nurse. “Help this man raise my legs to put a pillow underneath them.”
Ever the dutiful son, I did as I was told, and propped up Dad’s legs under the pillow.
“Why are my legs raised?” Dad yelped almost simultaneously to his little legs hitting the pillow. “My legs need to lay flat on the bed. Who raised them?” I felt like my father had turned into Louis Gossett, Jr.’s Marine drill sergeant in An Officer and a Gentleman and I was Richard Gere in Basic Training.
We played this fun game of Dementia Simon Says for 15 minutes or so when Dad stopped suddenly and gazed up at the television on the wall. I recognized the unmistakable ticking ofthe 60 Minutes intro without even looking up,but when I did glance at the screen, I saw a familiar ruddy-faced man dressed in a navy suit with a shiny red tie tied just a little too long speaking to a huge throng of supporters.
“Son….who is that??” Dad stammered while momentarily forgetting about his leg raises. He looked like he was straining his eyes for better focus.
“That’s Donald Trump, Dad. You know who that is,” I explained. “He’s running for President now.”
Dad’s blue eyes looked over at me like a confused child separated from his family in a department store. So I continued.
“He’s probably going to win the Republican nomination, and he’s going to be tough to beat in a national election. He’s dominating the news. I really think people are following his message.”
My father studied the screen with intense curiosity, as if he were a prehistoric caveman seeing fire for the first time. Finally, after about a minute or so of listening silently to the television, the wisest man I have ever known spoke.
“Son. Have I died and gone to hell?”
I’m tired of it all.
No. Let me put it another way.
I’m fucking sick and tired of it all.
I had grand plans of putting into words the lunacy of this time in our history. I really did. It was going to be grand and dazzle every one of you with crisp prose filled with biting and incisive commentary. Since January 6th, I’ve been clipping articles and essays ready to go. But when I wanted to finally begin, I couldn’t do it.
I’m too tired.
We are being pulled apart by our fringes. The center is not holding, as Yeats warned us, and now the politics of hate, division and straight-up lunacy are becoming the norm. Both sides of the aisle are guilty and I spare no one. I have always prided myself on my vocabulary but I don’t have a better way to describe it all than this – It’s all just so fucked-up.
Inhis book, Idiot America, Charles P. Pierce put forth the three Great Premises of what he terms the new “Idiot America”:
Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
“Fact” is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
Anything can be true if someone says it loud enough.
That shoe fits our country like one of Kamala Harris’s Chuck Taylors, so we might as well wear it. We are all idiots. We are one nation under goddamn cell phones. If you can make a lot of people virtually “like” your views, then you’re golden. You’re practically a Kardashian then. Somehow, someway we have to go back to talking about ideas, not insults. Our commonalities used to be far greater than our differences. Our love of the whole— this beloved country— far surpassed our devotion to a political party or even worse, a person. Now I’m not so sure anyone gives a damn about our sameness. An incredible majority of our country has no desire to change its ways. We just want a faster internet service and our fellow man to leave us the hell alone so we can tap out pithy messages.
“If people see the Capitol going on,” Abraham Lincoln said to the Union Chaplain when asked about the expense of the dome during a civil war, “It is a sign we intend the Union shall go on.” For the first time in our nation’s history, on January 6, 2021, that little “shall go on” business seemed a bit dicey. I have good friends who went to DC for the rally. I know in my heart they didn’t go there with the intent to overthrow our government. But I also have dear friends who warned me for months of the impending federal marshal law or that the presidential election was “stolen,” even though they have no proof to that point. I guess the presidential election is a little like my own birth— I don’t have any proof I was there other than this document signed by a doctor which was purports to show evidence of the live birth of John Christopher Cox on June 11, 1974. But that doctor isn’t alive anymore so I should challenge the veracity of the entire document. I don’t remember being born so there’s a chance it didn’t happen. To believe otherwise is just buying into the government’s propaganda. Is that absurd? Absofrickinglutely it is. But the last 4 years has yielded a nation distrustful of itself. Our country should be the F.U.S.A., the Formerly United States of America.
God bless all of you. And may God bless this nation.
When we got to Ruleville, I started the questions.
“Dad,” I would begin. “Tell me a story about Archie.”
He was only happy to oblige my request. “Archie” was Archie Manning, the fabled Ole Miss quarterback who went on to sire two pretty fair quarterbacks in their own right. In our home, just like so many other Southern homes in the Seventies and Eighties, Archie didn’t need a last name. It meant “Archie Manning.” “Folk hero” doesn’t do justice to the reverence Archie was, and is, shown in the South. He is like what would happen if Tom Sawyer had a son with Johnny Unitas. Fans of all schools still rave about Archie being the best they’ve ever seen play the sport. The entire 42 years I knew him, Dad was never prone to hyperbole and never in awe of much of anyone. But Archie brought out the rare Fan Boy moments from my father. Every.Single.Time.
I would ask for an Archie story right when we turned on Highway 49 in Ruleville toward Drew (Archie’s hometown). Dad would begin telling me the familiar stories I had heard so many times before, and I always hung on every word. He would tell me about Archie Who and Hee Haw Kiner or the time Archie was hurt early in some game only to emerge from the locker room midway through the third quarter and jog to the sideline by himself ready to lead the Rebels to a come from behind victory. I heard that story so many times I could practically hear the murmur of the crowd myself. Dad’s tales of football games past would eventually leave Archie’s era and he would end up telling me about other great football games and trips, right down to who went to the game, what bottle they drank on the way, and how everyone always knew it was a big game if the Rebels were wearing the navy blue jerseys. Understand Dad was usually not a man fond of the spoken word, so I cherished these rare loquacious moments. The stories would take us through Drew and Tutwiler and then through the final turn at Marks as we pushed our way toward Oxford to make that day’s memories together. As I think back now, it’s hard to guess who was more excited those days- me hearing the stories or Dad telling them? I wouldn’t trade those slow Saturday morning 93 mile trips to Oxford for any amount of gold. I recall every trip and can still taste all of the pimento cheese sandwiches Mom packed for us to eat in the Grove. It’s glorious. Simply glorious.
That’s what college football is to me- a tradition passed from one generation to the next with each generation adding another helping of personal yarns like it’s cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving. For some folks, today’s college football has become an obsession of stalking the internet and television for information about their favorite team to help in the time-honored tradition of talking trash to your friends about a game being played by 18-22 year olds. But for me, it’s the memory of riding a two-lane highway toward the Mississippi hills with my dad and the fantastic stories about Archie that I can now tell my own boys when we make the same Saturday ride. It’s the sound of the CBS college football theme mixed with Uncle Verne welcoming me to another afternoon of football. It’s Herschel and Bo and Peyton and Eli and all the other one-named Saturday afternoon heroes. It’s my two older boys hugging each other as small children when Senquez Golson snatched away an Alabama touchdown in 2014 to ensure a Rebel win, and then them praying with tears in their eyes for Laquon Treadwell’s broken leg later that same year. It’s the sweet smell of Jim Beam and Sprite on a cool Saturday evening- an unmistakable smell that never fails to bring a long Deuce McAllister touchdown run to my mind’s eye the moment it invades my nostrils. College football is the explosion of noise in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium when Travis Johnson runs back an early interception for a touchdown against LSU in 2003 and the hush when Eli is tripped by his own man at the end of the very same game. It’s Johnny Football being Johnny Football, Tua being Tua, Dak being Dak and the LSU playing “Neck.” College football is Saban scowling and the Head Ballcoach smirking. It’s the Grove with your family surrounded by little boys throwing footballs hoping to have the chance to throw it in the big stadium one day. It’s looking at the scoreboard in Braly Municipal Stadium at North Alabama in 2000 and realizing my alma mater just won a national championship, but also looking up at the same scoreboard in 2010 and realizing my alma mater had just lost a national championship on the final play of the game.
College football fans can’t remember our wedding anniversaries half of the time, but we can all recite the starting quarterback of our favorite college football team and remember specific games and plays. We know our team’s history better than our own. At some level, though, our favorite team’s history is our own. I love it all. The pageantry, the excitement, the tailgating, the bickering, the wins and even the losses. It is part of my soul.
I hear we are playing for a national championship Monday night. I will watch the game and hang on every play. One of the teams will hold the trophy and become immortal. Neither of the teams is “my team,” but my hope springs eternal.
When I was in college, I had a good friend who was a normal, soft-spoken young man raised by a great family. He was handsome, kind, well-liked by guys and girls alike, and even known to lead a Bible study or two on campus. He drank alcohol on very rare occasions, and he seemed more mature at the age of 22 than any other 22 year old on the planet. When you saw him, you knew what to expect and there were no surprises. None at all.
One night, with no provocation, this same friend drank a little more beer than usual. Right before we left the house for an evening at the only college bar in our small town, he emerged from his room wearing nothing but a t-shirt and a bath towel wrapped around his waist. (I think he had a pair of gym shorts underneath, but I never checked.) For the rest of the night, Mr. Maturity walked around in public with a baseball cap pulled low and a towel covering his lower half as if it were the most normal thing in the world. Every person passing him would look at him and ask, “Is he wearing a towel?” In a flash, our forever reliable friend became “Towel Boy,” and no one knew how or what spurred his sudden transformation. Twenty-six years later, my college friends still shake their heads when we tell this story.
2020 became my friend “Towel Boy.” Everything we thought was normal in the world became abnormal, and quite honestly, life just got effing weird. To paraphrase the sportscaster Jim Nantz, 2020 has been A Year Unlike Any Other, and it will be a year we won’t ever forget. Most of us end the year carrying a couple more pounds than we started with, and some, myself included, finish the year with a helluva lot less hair than we had a year ago. Before March, I’m pretty sure I had never used the word “pandemic” in a sentence, and I’m also fairly certain I had never worn a surgical mask. These days, I do both on a daily basis. Social distancing sounds like a new break up plan with your girlfriend, but it’s now a way of life. We are all waiting and waiting to wake up from this bizarre dream and the only way I maintain sanity is thinking of William Faulkner’s words- “Even waiting will end…if you can just wait long enough.” So I wait.
As we head into 2021, I’m ditching the traditional New Year’s Resolution route. If 2020 taught me anything, then it would be that resolutions are pointless since this world’s greatest stability is its instability. But hope is always better than fear, and sometimes, our dreams can become reality. With that in mind, I’m just going to share my personal wishes for the New Year. Some are serious, some are not. But all of them are mine.
I wish for the Boston Celtics to win an NBA championship. It’s been my wish every year since 1985 and it’s been granted every now and then. It’s going to take some personnel moves and perhaps convincing the Nets to move to another country for it to happen this year, but this boy can still dream of another banner for the guys in green.
On a local level, I wish for a state championship for the Bayou Academy boys basketball team. Trust me, very few coaches work harder for their team than Wesley Aldridge, and the big trophies are coming sooner or later. I wish for sooner.
I wish to see live music and live sports in a big crowd again. I miss the hum of a packed stadium right before kickoff when fans are filled with that unmistakable combination of optimism and Jim Beam. I miss the long lines at the concession stand and the bathroom. I miss waiting in line forever to leave parking lots. I miss the rush that comes with 60,000 people rising to their feet in unison for a single pursuit. I miss it all and want it back.
I wish for the opportunity to coach my high school tennis team this coming spring. We were cut short by the virus last spring and I pray every day it doesn’t happen again. I passed my competitive peak many, many decades ago (where have you gone, forehand volley?) but I love teaching the game and pushing young people to reach their goals. My heart still breaks for the seniors of 2020. It cannot happen again.
I wish for the chance to take Quinn to a baseball game and let him fall in love with green grass in the sun. There is not a better way to spend a sunny spring afternoon than at a baseball game. Please Lord let it return to our lives.
I wish for cancer, the most vile of all diseases, to die an ugly death of its own. Although I was not personally diagnosed, it shrouded my life at every turn in 2020.
I want to travel. I have not left Mississippi since January. I was 17 the last time I went that long without taking some type of trip. My parents taught me that you have to wander from the Mississippi Delta to truly appreciate her beauty. I crave the opportunity to wander as soon as possible.
Above all else, I wish for normalcy to return. I want people to attend the church of their choice. I want kids to be kids again and I want restaurants and stores to be filled with customers. I want to hug a neck or shake a hand without the awkwardness of a teenage boy— Should I fist-bump or do I reach out my hand? I want to enjoy something as simple as tailgating in the Grove with my family and friends. Our regular routines don’t seem so mundane once they become nostalgia. Time waits for no one and memories are made in the moment. It’s long past time to have those moments again.
Am I too hopeful with my wishes for 2021? Probably. But I cannot let myself believe the black cloud of 2020 will last forever. It is but one year- 52 weeks-365 days- in the story of our lives. The human spirit is resilient even in the face of the strongest of storms. Albert Camus could’ve been writing of the great quarantine of 2020 when he said, “In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back.” 2021 will be something better, our own invincible summer.
For the record, “Towel Boy” returned to normal after his slight detour and is now a devoted husband and husband, just as we all knew he would be. His community and friends are better because of his work. Although we don’t talk very often, I am better because he is my friend. His days with a towel have long since passed.
In the next week, the “Best” lists will descend upon us. Best movies, music, books, tv shows, whatever. Every year, these lists come out. I always enjoy reading the various lists, if for no other reason than to see how much I’ve missed. You don’t realize how many movies you haven’t seen until you don’t have a film theater in your city. You don’t realize how little television you watch until you have kids.
Should there be a “Best” list in 2020? Honestly, the best thing about 2020 will be January 1, 2021. It’s damn hard to put “Best” and “2020” in the same breath, but one positive thing about a global pandemic is its ability to lend itself to catching up on reading. A check of my Amazon account would reveal I read a lot. A whole lot. I read just about every imaginable genre as my mother and father taught me to have varied interests. I’m rapidly running out of shelf space at my house for all of my books and I’m already spilling over to my office. (No, I’m not moving to the Kindle or Nook yet. To me, reading is still holding a book and straining my 46 year old eyes.)
Without further adieu, here’s my list. Since it’s 2020, I didn’t stop at the usual top 10. I went ahead and threw in another one to make my list as odd as this year has been. Note not all of these books were released in 2020. A couple were released in earlier years, but I just read them for the first time this year. I write this list knowing Jason Isbell probably had it right when he said, “No one gives a damn about the things you give a damn about,” but what the hell, it’s 2020. Let’s do it.
11. Dad’s Maybe Book by Tim O’Brien. What happens when a man who thought he would never have children has two sons later in life? Will he be around long enough to teach them all of the things he’s learned? How will they remember their dad if he passes away before they are grown? You write letters to them, of course. O’Brien’s memoir is poignant and laugh out loud funny at times, and so well-done. As a 46 year old father of a son under two myself, I have had many of the same thoughts as O’Brien. I just wish I could put my thoughts on paper as well as he does.
10. His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham. Jon Meacham speaks my language when it comes to history so I snap up everything he writes. His biography of the late John Lewis is an engrossing tale of bravery, courage, and the virtues of causing “good trouble.” We are a better America because of men like John Lewis.
9. Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End by Kevin Alexander. My son Walker made fun of my love of good food writing a couple days ago. Released in 2019, I was turned on to Alexander’s book right about the time the world told us we couldn’t eat in restaurants anymore. If you like food, and you’ve ever worked in a kitchen, then you will love this book.
8. The Last Trial by Scott Turow. I don’t usually read legal fiction because I find it unrealistic and quite honestly, it makes me anxious. But Scott Turow is a wonderful novelist, and I read anything he writes. Sandy Stern is a character unlike any other, and he will be missed.
7. 100 Days: How Four Events in 1969Shaped America by Harlan Lebo. Here’s another 2019 release. In 100 days in 1969, America saw a moon walk, Woodstock, the Manson family murders, and the invention of the internet. As historical events go, that’s a summer like Ted Williams in 1946. By contrast, we’ve been in a pandemic for over twice that long, and we really only have the third season of Cobra Kai on Netflix and a President who won’t accept defeat as our highlights.
6. Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused by Melissa Maerz. I think a film of the action behind the scenes might have been more entertaining than the movie itself. Such a fun read.
5. Reaganland: America’s Right Turn 1976-1980 by Rick Perlstein. Perlstein’s entire series on the conservative movement in the United States is so good, and he deftly blends political history with pop culture to take the reader through American history. This last book of the series was exhaustively researched, and brings to life my earliest memories of politics.
4. The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice by David Hill. Let’s see—you want me to read a book about the Mafia, gambling, family and the 20th century South?? Yes, please. This book is absolutely fascinating, and reveals that Hot Springs, Arkansas was straight-up crazy at one point in its past.
3. Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey. Sweet Jesus, what an intense read. Natasha’s former stepfather murdered her mother, and Natasha has told the story in haunting detail. I can’t shake the mental image of a high school Tretheway waving to her former stepfather sitting alone in the crowd at a football game after she and her mother snuck out of his house. He told the police later that he planned to kill her, too. Harrowing is not a strong enough adjective to describe this story.
2. Members Only by Sameer Pandya. A story about race and the dangers of the cancel culture told through the prism of an elite tennis club. I heard an interview with the author on a tennis podcast, and I loved every page of his book. It will definitely make you think. And laugh. Then think while you’re laughing.
1. (tie) Pappyland by Wright Thompson. I love bourbon and I love the South, so I knew I would like this book. Wright is a native of my Mississippi Delta, and his writing skills are as rare as Pappy Van Winkle itself. Wright spins out a story more about family and finding purpose than about sweet tasting bourbon. I don’t care if you don’t know Pappy from Popeye, grab a copy of this book.
1. (tie) The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife by Brad Balukjian. Growing up in the Eighties, I watched the Superstation religiously for my baseball fix. I collected baseball cards and knew every player in the big leagues. Even dudes like Rance Mullinks and Gary Pettis. But what happens to these guys when they’re no longer on my television at 6:35? I grew up. Where did they go? How cool would it be to take a road trip to find out the answer to that question? The author did. I wish I could write the sequel. Great book.
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
I am a couple days late lamenting the loss of former Mississippi Governor William Winter. Governor Winter’s political life is a remarkable tale in and of itself, from being elected to the Legislature as a law student in 1948 to finally being elected Governor in 1979 after being defeated in an earlier bid. He was a moderate on race when being moderate was both politically and personally dangerous. The product of a one room schoolhouse in Grenada County, he changed public education in Mississippi by the sheer force of his will and determination. He was a public servant with few peers in our state.
I wish I had deep and meaningful stories about my personal relationship with him. But I do not. I do, however, have a couple nuggets about him. From the moment I introduced myself to him as a law student in 1997, Governor Winter remembered my name and always asked me about my father and Dana Moore. I chalked the inquiry up to a natural politician’s ability to connect a name with a story— In his mind, my story was tied to my relatives who were his contemporaries. But Governor Winter was different. After Dana’s death in 2007, I received a note from Gov. Winter expressing his condolences. When Dad passed away in 2016, another note from Governor Winter arrived a week or so after the funeral. It’s the little things that count, and I’m sure he would send hundreds, if not thousands, of similar notes every year. But there was no election in his future and our relationship did not hinge on my voting for him. Instead, he simply being a human being caring for his fellow man. Our world needs more of those men.
Godspeed, Governor Winter. Our state is better because of your bravery, your courage, your humility, and most importantly, your humanity. You were Mississippi at our finest. Thank you for being one of our better angels.
“You wouldn’t know what to do with me if I were normal.” Those were my mother’s words whenever I would get frustrated with her behavior.
“Normal is boring,” is another one. Like most things in life, in hindsight, I have to admit she was right.
This time of year, the world is in a state of chaos making holiday plans. Christmas decorations have been meticulously hung around our houses, and families come together to spend a couple days together in celebration. Every family has their own holiday stories, and a lot of those stories involve loved ones who are sadly no longer around to celebrate. Some families probably tell about the time their kooky uncle, filled with too much Christmas cheer, told inappropriate tales about their aunt. There’s always that one relative who can’t help but give the absolute worst gifts. Me? I have a bittersweet relationship with Christmas. We’ve had some wonderful times in our family, to be sure, but not without some bumps along the way.
My Christmas memories start like most who came of age in the mid Seventies. It wasn’t Christmas until I dog-eared pages and pages of toys from that most hallowed of holiday publications– the Sears Roebuck Wishbook. Thanks to the Wishbook, I would rise at the crack of dawn on Christmas Day with the hope Santa had left a ton of Minnesota Vikings gear in my living room. As you might imagine, all of the Vikings swag made me the envy of every elementary school kid in Cleveland, Mississippi. (Or not.) My parents would wipe sleep from their eyes, and slowly trudge to the den where we would open presents just like every other family. My dad would always get cookbooks and shirts, and my mom would almost always get a new bottle of her favorite perfume. Besides my Vikings gear, I remember my older brother giving me his collection of Hardy Boys books one Christmas, but not before leading me all over the house on a scavenger hunt. I never knew my mother’s father but I know he used to give Mom $100 every year on a whiskey bottle. How do do I know? Because Dad used to put a $100 bill on the same bottle of V.O. every year and wrap it under the tree for Mom to keep alive her father’s traditional gift. Our Christmas traditions were our Christmas traditions until they weren’t. (For many years, we visited relatives and clients all over the county on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day for various holiday gatherings. I remember one year Dad brought me downtown to Rubenstein’s Department Store on Christmas Eve around 4 p.m. to “shop,” but I don’t recall him buying anything. I do recall him having a couple drinks with his friend Irving, and I had around 10 cookies waiting for them to stop talking. That same Christmas Eve, we then made a trip 25 minutes west to Rosedale to my dad’s aunt’s house for her family’s Christmas party, and Dad and I were able to get a little more bourbon and cookies, respectively. We ended the evening enjoying the Aguzzi family’s annual Christmas party, and I don’t recall anything eventful happening there. Well, other than I am fairly certain that last stop also involved more bourbon and cookies. As I recap that night now, I finally know why Dad never wanted to rise at 5 a.m. on Christmas morning.) At some point, Mom decided Christmas brought forth too many painful memories from her past, so we had to abbreviate the holiday festivities.
[Before going any further in this little story, I should first probably make everyone aware that my parents were extreme “cat” people. Growing up, we always had two or three cats around the house and my mother was known for feeding stray cats downtown by my father’s law office. Mom even had the local newspaper write a long article about her feeding the downtown cats- the pinnacle of small town fame. When I was about 15 years old, one of our cats had a litter of six kittens. Usually, despite his love of cats, Dad made sure we had homes for those kittens almost simultaneous with their birth. But this time, one of the kittens, a grey striped tabby tomcat with a pink nose, took a liking to me. From the moment the little cat opened his eyes, he gravitated to me. Every night, I would take my usual television viewing spot on the floor in our den and this little grey ball of fur would lay on my chest and purr loudly while I rubbed his back. After a couple weeks of this exercise, Dad told Mom we were keeping this new little cat because “that kitten should be able to stay with the boy he loves.” (Notice Dad framed it in favor of the cat, and not his son.) We named the tabby “Nagin Avalonni” after an Italian pen pal of Mom’s, and the cat quickly took over our home as if he were in charge. (The foreign pen pals are another story.). Nagin strutted around our house and ate pretty much anything and everything. He grew to be quite obese, mainly due to his aversion to outdoor exercise. As his waistline grew, so did his demands. He would jump up in my lap, and immediately start pawing at my hand to rub his belly while he purred and passed noxious gas that would almost make you choke if you were in the general vicinity. At some point, Dad coined him “King Noosky,” and explained to Mom and me the Nooskies were a special breed of striped fat cats throughout the world and Nagin was their King. As I look back, Dad’s creation of the Noosky legend is probably solid proof of the old adage “if you can’t beat them, then join them.” Rather than fighting, Dad just joined in the craziness that was our house.
What does all this cat stuff have to do with holidays, you might ask. Be patient. You will find out very soon.]
After Mom had what I would term a nervous breakdown during my late teens, she decided we would no longer have a Christmas tree at our house. Her reasons were long and many, and I won’t delve into her reasoning in this story. I was at an age by then that I wasn’t wishing from the Sears Wishbook anymore, but I still wanted a Christmas tree. Everyone else had a tree, but I also knew that not everyone had my Mom as their mother. Dad resigned himself to no Christmas tree, and it was what it was. Like I said earlier, Christmas brought back bad memories for Mom, and we were all trying to do what we could to just get through the holidays without a disturbance. (As an aside, mental illness is real. Don’t forget that.)
After a couple years of our treeless Christmas tradition, Mom found a grey and white striped stuffed plush cat sitting on its hind legs one afternoon while she was shopping one afternoon on QVC. The cat’s stomach lit up in the middle like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial while its little paws flew up and down like a stuffed Chris Farley. Unbeknownst to any of us, Mom pulled this little creature out of a box as soon as it arrived at the house, put a little red bow around its neck and placed it on the couch in the den. We later found out she named it the “Christmas Noosky,” in honor of our cat Nagin who was still ruling the roost.
Dad and I were both unaware of the Christmas Noosky’s existence until a couple days before Christmas when Dad and I both came in the back door at the same time late one afternoon. He had a couple wrapped presents under his arm, so I held the door open for him. As was Dad’s custom after a long day at the office, he poured himself a tall drink in the kitchen, and then walked into our living room to unwind. I walked in the den shortly after he did.
Both of our eyes immediately went to the warm yellow glow emanating from the top of the couch. In the darkness of the den, we clearly saw the vision of a glowing, stuffed grey and white feline. At its paws, Mom had placed wrapped Christmas gifts.
Dad took a long pull from his scotch, and looked over at me.
“Son, your mother has put a stuffed animal on our couch.”
I nodded in return.
“And we are now putting presents under it instead of using a Christmas tree,” Dad finished.
Dad shook his head slowly, as if he had lost another one. He lifted his cup for another drink while he stared at the glowing tabby pumping his arms like a stuffed track star. Finally, Dad let out a sigh, shrugged and placed both of the presents in his hand at the toy’s paws.
“Well as long as you know what we are doing. It makes sense to me.”
Dad then sat down in his chair and began reading the evening paper with a bemused look on his face. Every now and then, he would peer over at the Christmas Noosky and chuckle. Mom came down the hall from her room shortly afterwards for dinner, and life was normal.
One day and twenty years ago, Andy Mundy and I loaded up a car about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and headed towards Florence, Alabama. The Division 2 National Championship was the next day and our alma mater was, against all odds, playing for the big trophy against Bloomsburg University. Conventional wisdom tells you Florence is only about 4 hours east of Cleveland, Mississippi but Mundy and I have never been much on conventional wisdom. So, after somehow going through Jackson, we rode the Natchez Trace up to Florence and arrived at the hotel around 10 that night where we found a newly married George Bassi and his wife waiting in the lobby with a cold drink and the desire to go find something to do in the Shoals.
We discussed our entertainment options with the hotel concierge. (Ok, who am I kidding? We asked the woman at the front desk of our Holiday Inn where we should go for fun.)
“Well, do you want to go dancing?” the lady asked. She was on the telephone and talking to me in between smacks of gum and spitting quick words into a phone receiver. “I’m on hold,” she assured me.
Do Andy and I look like we want to go dancing, I thought.
“No ma’am. We want to go somewhere and have a few drinks before we go in,” I explained. “We have a late morning kickoff tomorrow.” I was kinda proud of my mature response. After all, I had been a lawyer for over a year.
She nodded at me, wrote the name of a place and an address on a sheet of paper and pushed the paper across to me.
“Just down the road.” The desk clerk/concierge motioned her hand towards the front door. “Perfect for y’all.” Considering she had never laid eyes on any of us before 30 minutes earlier, I had a little doubt she knew what would be “perfect” for us. As we walked to the car, I have never felt more like the dudes on Police Academy being sent to the Blue Oyster than I did at that very moment. But we were thirsty after a 4 hour car ride that took 7 hours, and we probably would have gone to Lucifer’s Lounge if it served cold beer.
Three blocks down from the hotel was a strip mall with a parking lot filled with cars. There, we saw a neon sign proclaiming the name of our chosen destination, or rather, the night’s destination chosen for us by the lady at the Holiday Inn. Like I said, there were lots of cars outside so we weren’t the only people with the urge to grab a beer or three on a Friday night in Florence.
Once inside, we found an old fashioned country and western honkytonk with Hank, Jr. and Merle providing the club soundtrack via a DJ booth. Through a smoky haze (yep, you could still smoke in public back then), we could barely make out a checkered dance floor filled with couples twirling their cares away. We moved to an empty booth in the corner of the place and immediately started drinking beer. Lots of it. We caught up on each other’s lives in the way old friends who haven’t seen each other lately do, and we reminisced about some of our favorite football stories— most illustrated how bad Delta State had always been at football. More than once that night, we expressed our disbelief that Delta State University, perennial doormat and the team no one cared about, was now one game away from a national championship. I would say the more we drank, the worse we became at football back in our day, but we were pretty damn bad without the help of alcohol as a memory aid and story embellisher. It was a great time toasting our football success and of course, George’s newlywed status.
About 45 minutes into our merriment, George got up and excused himself to go to the restroom. When he asked our waitress for the whereabouts of the bathroom, she pointed, “Go around the bar and through that closed door. Be careful.” Careful? Did she say careful?
George disappeared around the bar and then reappeared barely two minutes later wearing a broad grin like he had a secret.
“John, come with me.” George jerked his head towards the bar.
Don’t only women go to the bar in packs?
“You need me to come with you?” I asked. “Are you scared to go over there?”
“Oh no. But you have to see this to believe it,” George assured me. “Just come on.” He walked around the bar.
I guess I was curious so I followed George. I rounded the bar and shuffled toward the closed door.
George waited for me at the door and then opened it with a grand flourish. I walked past George into this other room only to be greeted by the sound of loud techno dance music. Loud. And techno. The room was lit with a black light, and sweaty people in leather were dancing, or actually grinding, with even more sweaty people in leather inside of large cages. The only comparison I can make is it reminded me of the old 616 club in Memphis in its vibe and urgency. Goth-looking people with chains and tattoos were standing around the bar, and in my blue Oxford button down shirt and pressed khakis, I have never looked more like a new lawyer in my life. I practically screamed, “I’m from the Grove! Have you seen Muffy and Alistair?” to every techno rave kid that passed me staring at me like I was the odd one.
George and I soaked in the techno a little bit longer before we decided to move back over to the other side. We were just sitting back down with Andy when we noticed our fellow DSU alum Ken Causey walking by our booth with an uncharacteristic spring in his step. Ken is one of the funniest men alive on a sober day, but add up our long car ride, the 4 beers we drank, and the fact there was a goth techno bar in a side room of a country and western bar in Florence, Alabama, and Ken is a fucking hilarious entertainment option. We yelled at Ken over the George Jones blasting through the soundsystem and waved him over to our booth.
Ken sat the end of the booth and eerily eyed us very similarly to the way Jack Nicholson leers at his family in The Shining. He stopped our waitress as she was walking by the booth.
“We need four shots of Jager. Now.” Ken demanded. No smile. All business. The night just turned weirder.
The shots arrived shortly and the smell of Jagermeister rose through my nostrils on a rapid elevator ride to my brain. Aren’t we too old for this? Can we just have a fruitier shot instead? Do people use this stuff for cough syrup?
“Drink,” Causey instructed. So we drank and I tried not to gag on that nasty shit. Ken finally broke the silence of three young men trying not to puke with a knuckle rap on the table. Ken looked at us as if he were about to unfurl the nuclear codes.
“The first time we score tomorrow, we are going to kick an onside kick,” Ken predicted. “We are going to get that kick. Then we are going to score again. At that point, those fuckers from Bloomsburg are playing catch-up the rest of the day.”
We all laughed at Ken’s prediction but he didn’t laugh. He just stared at each of us. So we quickly went back to telling old stories about football to change the subject. We drank until the bar closed and somehow found our way back to the hotel in the middle of the night.
Fast forward approximately 9 hours later to the championship game.
On a gorgeous day for football in Alabama, Bloomsburg scored first. We scored next. Then damned if we didn’t kick an onside kick and recover just like Causey said we would. We scored again just as Ken predicted. “Those fuckers from Bloomsburg played catch-up the rest of the day” until there was no time left to catch up. (We discovered later the truth that Ken had sat in a coaches’ meeting earlier that Friday evening and was tipped off to our strategy.) Josh Bright ran the midline option to perfection, and we shattered the championship game records for offense en route to our first football national title. Thanks to our Friday night, I had one helluva headache most of the day but the experience was worth the splitting pain I felt every time our band played the fight song (loudly) in the section beside me that afternoon.
We may never win another national championship in football but I will never remember that weekend, that drive, that bar, that prediction, that team, or that feeling when the clock struck zero.
We were champs. Forever and always. Those fuckers will play catch-up until the end of time.