The Bold Balance of Characters and Caution; Mississippi Uniqueness

        Whenever I do a book store gig I try to incorporate a visit to a local school. This all started with my Mississippi miracle I’ve told you about before. I enjoy visiting with young people. I guess it’s because except for the gray hair and the age, I’m just a large child myself. If the good Lord hadn’t given me a good grown-up doctor brain and a fine wife and children I guess I might have starved to death. I never got all the kid out of me and in many ways never did learn how to be an adult. I found these kids to be so unspoiled, yet far more sophisticated than I was at the same age. I am certain they realized that part of my writer gig is that it makes me feel younger, and they granted me that privilege.

        After I met with the Jr. English class, several of them wrote to thank me for coming. They picked up on my every idea, and then some.

       One commented as adults their principal and I were bold. We met as total strangers on the golf course in 2007 and took a chance on becoming friends. I thought about that. I’m not sure we were so much bold as old. After three decades of one patient after another before you, a Doc gets a pretty good notion as to who tells you the truth and who doesn’t. Most people are straight up, but you only have about fifteen minutes to sift out any disingenuous motives. So far, I’ve never run into a gray-haired mandolin player who loved the gospel and had it turn out to be a problem. I guess I’d advise my young friends, yes, be bold, but be “old” too. Don’t lose your enthusiasm, but also proceed with caution.

        They made some fine observations about character creation. As a doctor you have to be a perpetual student to survive. I remember the first time I visited Mississippi. We were near Biloxi. My dad saw a man walk across the street and said, “Look at the way he walks, he’s had a stroke.”

        I thought if he could diagnose a man he’d never met from the driver’s seat of the family car he must be the smartest man in the world. It jump-started a life long habit of observation. I still recall how the man walked. He had what I now call an ‘antalgic gait’ (a sway) and his left arm didn’t swing right.

        In the class we talked about character creation. As a writer, and as a doctor, you have to observe and record the smallest of details and burn them into your brain. As one student observed, “every character is somehow derived from the subconscious mind of the writer.” Give that young’un an “A” for the day.

        As I read their feedback, a realization struck me. My daughter has always said I could spot a bad actor and find a legal and ethical way to neutralize them faster than any adult she’d ever meet. After all these years, I am pretty good with that skill, but my radar isn’t perfect. This student understood one aspect of my writing I hadn’t fully considered. It has evolved into a tool for me. My day job depends on an accurate interpretation of situations to avoid trouble for either me or my people. Creation of characters allowed me a safe way to examine human behavior. The student was right. Create your characters in fiction with abandon, but in real life hold your people close and proceed with caution. To be wild and dangerous in art might allow one to be sane and safe in reality.

      Several commented as to the balance in life. I have said I am 80% doc and 20% artist, and that is the right blend for me. For them to understand this and go for it at such a young age was remarkable. I guess I was at least forty years old before I got a good handle on the concept. I was fortunate to have a wife and children who loved me in spite of an 80+ hour work week. The balance is indeed the ticket. A career as a doc is a marathon, and if you die early from overwork you’ve done no one a favor. Several wrote to say they could see in me a way to find the balance. It thrilled me to pass that one on, because I did not learn it easily. 

       One wrote to say they thought the sound of the mandolin was ever prettier than the guitar. Now there’s a kid who is high on my list for all time. (I love the guitar too, but I am a mando guy for the most part) Another planned to be a doctor, but didn’t want to give up their music. In me they saw how it could happen.

       They understood the beauty of their own uniqueness. As one student said, “we are all the ‘only one’ of something.” Tom T. Hall once told me he thought one of the most important things for an artist was to have identity, ie find what makes them unique. And we are all artists, even if we just doodle on a note pad like I used to do on the church bulletin when the Preacher got too long-winded.

        If I can be the world’s best physician bluegrass fiction writer, maybe they can be the best teacher/choir singing mystery writer or whatever else they might choose. They are from rural Mississippi. I grew up in rural N.C. Neither of us have limits on our imagination as to what we can be. 

        I recalled as a junior English student our teacher asked one boy (name changed here) “Jerry, who are you?”

       He said, “I’m Jerry Smith.”

       She replied, “No Jerry, who are you really?”

       Jerry scratched his head and raised an eyebrow. “I’m Jerry Smith,” he blurted out. “I live on Peach Street.”

       We were too naive to understand her point or Mr. Thoreau either for that matter, but I’m certain she wanted us to know the journey to self-actualization is a long road. For that matter, none of us figure it all out. As Indie would say, “We ain’t perfect; we’re only human.” The students seemed to understand this better than I did at their age. It takes time to grow a human being. Transformation to doctor, writer, mandolin player; each one requires the better part of a decade. They wrote to say they were going to renew their efforts and find the patience to give themselves time to grow and find themselves.

       When I was growing up, Coach was the ticket. What he said was the law. One time I forgot my gym shorts and couldn’t work out, and Coach busted my rear end for it. I didn’t forget my gym clothes again though, you can be sure of that. The principal at this school was also a Coach. I always respect Coach, ’cause they are in the biz to help people. I hope I helped inject a little more of that respect in the students too. Guys, to this day if Coach tells me to do push-ups, I drop and try to give him my best, ’cause I trust him to look out for me.

        One student in the class asked how long it took me to learn to play the mandolin. The standard bluegrass answer is “I’m still learning.” And bluegrass is a true art from. In it, we always continue to learn. These school children reinforced the concept to me all over again.

        Mississippi, old Doc can’t help but love ya. I’ll be back. Maybe next time one of you will play a mandolin duet with me. Keep on learning guys; don’t ever stop.

Dr. B

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35 Comments on “The Bold Balance of Characters and Caution; Mississippi Uniqueness”

  1. WordDreams Says:

    I teach technology to 8th graders. I’m old (and bold) like you and always wonder what they think of an old person teaching such a cutting edge topic. And then I let it go. As long as I don’t judge them, maybe they’ll return the favor. Young people are a tad scary but they keep us young.

    • drtombibey Says:


      My guess is they think you’re pretty cool. When you get right down to it I guess we’re all just people and and if we treat others with respect most of the time we’ll get along.

      Who knows, maybe we’ll do a gig in your classroom one day. It was a lot of fun.

      Dr. B

  2. Interesting visit to the school in Miss. Dr. B. I’ve been in some classes like that with kids and they sure can catch you on some things…teach you some too. Liked what you said about being 40 before you got the ‘handle’ on doctoring, the concept, I mean. I thought, “that’s pretty much like this counseling thing…except it is a little more like a 60/40 mix I think for me…60%counselor and 40% artist…you’re right though, the ‘art’ is a part of the whole thing… thanks. “Doc” Elwood

  3. drtombibey Says:


    Very cool. Yeah, Harvey County isn’t too bad a place to get stranded, even if it is old fashioned. Will drop by and check out your home too.

    Dr. B

  4. Megan Says:

    Hey Dr. Bibey,

    I am one of the students from the Saltillo English class! Thanks again for speaking with us. I was very compelled by the way you played with the mandolin and spoke of your book! What you said about the list of priorities was very eye opening and made me realize that I needed to set some of mine higher on the list and move some down! Thanks for everything, and I hope you visit again!


  5. that kid Says:

    Thank you for blogging about your visit to our classroom, and thank you again for coming! I realize that it makes pleases you to have seen us so intrigued by your doctor/artist lifestyle, and i’m surprised that it did so much. I really like how you said that your father once made a “doctoral like observation”, and this one incident caused you to persistantly do so throughout your life. This obviously lead to greater things in life, such as becoming a doctor. Also, thank you for quoting my letter in your blog, where i mentioned the characters are derived from the subconscious. This definitely helped me connect to this much more as it was directly related to me and it felt as if you were communicated specifically to me.
    I very much appreciate you coming by our class, and I hope we all get to see you again sometime!

    God bless

    • drtombibey Says:

      Megan and “That Kid,”

      Guys I didn’t quote your full names for purposes of general Internet safety, but bless you for you fine comments and attentiveness. You treated Doc like one of your own, which is all we can ask for.

      I’m am very pleased my words spoke to you directly as communication is the writer’s primary task.

      Dr. B

  6. Brittany Says:


    Thank you very much for coming to speak to us. I enjoyed the blog and can’t wait to read others. You are blessed with the ability to write, be a doctor, and play instruments and I want to thank you for sharing it with us. I hope that you are able to see us again soon. Thanks again!

  7. Sadie Says:

    Hey Dr. Bibey!
    Thank you very much for coming to visit with my English class and taking the time to write about it. That makes me feel like we made an impact on you, like you did on us. I was very impressed with everything you have done with your life, and I hope to be able to read your book. The balance you have is inspirational, and it made me realize all the possibilities I have for my own life. Thank you again for coming to speak to us!


    • drtombibey Says:

      Brittany and Sadie,

      I’ve often thought if we adults can help kids “jump start” their lives and not have to learn everything the hard way (as I often did) we have done them a favor. You guys work hard, but keep the balance and have fun too.

      Dr. B

  8. Sarah Says:

    Dr. Bibey,
    Thank you for mentioning us in your blog! It made me smile and means a lot to me! Once again, I want to comment on the balance you’ve found in your life. That’s something I definitely want to have in my future and even right now. Also, I’m planning on buying your book soon! It seems very interesting; I like bluegrass, medical things, and mysteries, so I think I’ll enjoy the book a lot. Thanks again for visiting our class! You are a huge inspiration to me! I’ll be following your blog. Hope to see you again sometime!


  9. Rebekah Says:

    Hey Dr.Bibey!
    Thank you so much for coming to speak to our class and for writing a blog about the experience! I liked it when you said that your life is 80% doctor and 20% artist, and how you balance your life even with your busy schedule as a doctor! I think our class was really able to learn from you and what you said about how to form characters. Once again, thanks so much for coming! We would love for you to come back soon.


  10. Anna Says:

    Dr. Bibey!!

    Thank you so much for coming to speak with our class!! You have truly inspired me to work my hardest at everything I do. I also realized I do not need to give up on things so quickly. I want to thank you for helping me to realize that. Your visit made me see that goals are obtainable; I just have to be patient.
    By the way, I completely agree with whoever said the mandolin is prettier than the guitar.

    • drtombibey Says:

      Sarah, Rebekah, and Anna,

      All writer write in hopes someone will decide their words make a difference. All of you guys have made this old writer’s day.

      When I was a kid, I thought people were just good at what they did because they were born that way. It may all come easy to a very few people, but most of us had to persist for a long time to become what we wanted to be.

      Also I might mention if books were rated mine would be about PG 13. I had to write about some things is the way I saw and heard them in my life as a doctor.

      In other words, I don’t cuss around my children. I hate to write that that around you guys, so I’ll apologize for that part now.

      And I’ll admit if I get real mad I sometimes let one slip. It’s one of the things I still have to work on.

      Dr. B

  11. Felix Miller Says:

    All those comments from the youngsters in Saltillo show how much your visit meant to them. I am not surprised, your writing and your talking are of a piece.

    I liked your comment in your blog entry, “To be wild and dangerous in art might allow one to be sane and safe in reality.” Oh, yes. And you have to have both sides to be complete.

    Thanks for your blog, The Mandolin Case, and sometime in the near (I hope) future, The Acquisition Syndrome.

    • drtombibey Says:


      I am humbled by all the kind comments. It makes you realize the responsibility you have as a writer to choose your words with as much care as possible.

      Dr. B

  12. Kyle Says:

    Dr. Bibey,
    Thank you for coming to speak to our English class and thank you for blogging about the visit as well. You are a awesome writer with your blogs, you have great talent. I learned alot from your visit about how to write and express our feelings when we write. Glad we got to hear you play as well, a doctor, a mandolin player and a author wow what a combination. Thanks again for coming. Hope to hear back.

    • drtombibey Says:


      The visit was much fun for me. I see a lot of suffering in my job, and art allows me to deal with it all. I’m glad you guys were a part of my journey. Watch for me at the festivals; I’ll be back to Mississippi some day.

      Dr. B

  13. Mallory Says:

    Hey Dr. Bibey!
    Thanks so much for coming and speaking to my English class and writing about us in your blog. I can honestly say that we got just as much out of it as you did! You are such an incredibly talented writer. I loved where you wrote in your blog about keeping your enthusiasm but also proceeding with caution. I couldn’t agree more with that statement. It was great listening to you serenade us with your awesome mandolin talents! Thanks again for coming. Good luck with your book, and God bless! =)


    • drtombibey Says:


      You guys have already proven yourselves.

      One of my friends read this post, and the comments, then called and said “Doc, those kids in Mississippi give me hope that the education system works after all.”

      You guys have now touched people you do not know with your written words. That means you are now writers.

      Dr. B

  14. Catherine Says:

    Dr. Bibey,
    Thanks so much for coming to talk to our class. I really enjoyed it because I can’t remember ever having a published author come speak to me and I thought it was really awesome! I find it crazy how you manage to be a full time doctor and yet you still find time to do things you love such as writing, playing the mandolin, or even golfing every now and then! Haha. I have a hard time just trying to balance school with sports and church! Thanks for the blog–it was really nice to see that you actually cared about your visit and enjoyed it. I hope to keep hearing good things about you!


    • drtombibey Says:


      Well, one secret to all this is that I am now semi-retired, at least compared to the old days. Like many docs nowadays, we are office based, and the doctors at the hospital (hospitalists) do that work.

      I did both for twenty-two years, and I enjoyed it, but it was about to overwhelm me. I’m just glad I lived to write about it. Believe me, there are many, many docs across the country, some are right there in your hometown, who are very dedicated and not enough folks really know what they do.

      And too my #1 secret of all was my family. My wife and children tolerated a crazy life-style and loved me anyway.

      Dr. B

  15. Chuey Says:

    Thanks so much for actually trying to let us know that you care! So many times writers and other important talented people come to visit schools and never even remember the name of the school. You are officially on my “respect list” for taking time out of your day to let us know you care about people. I’m glad that we could be as much of an inspiration as you were to us. I know many of us saw huge potential in ourselves after you came to teach us how a man can live a doctor’s life, love a normal man’s family, and play a country man’s mandolin. Really really loved your music. Hope you keep on showing other students around the country how kind and interesting you are.
    Thanks! – Chuey

    • drtombibey Says:


      I tell ya friend, I’m not really that important; like you say just one regular guy who tries to do his job.

      I’ve been a Doc a long time, and as best as I can tell we’re all only human. I’m old and y’all are young, but other than that we’re all about the same. Anybody acts like they’re better than you tell ’em Doc said it ain’t so.

      Gotta crash. Can’t stay up as late as I once could.

      Dr. B

  16. Kevin Says:

    Dr. Bibey,
    Thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to come and visit my English class. I enjoyed having you, and I’m sure the rest of the class did as well. I think it is extremely unique to be a doctor as well as a musician, especially a mandolin player! You have inspired to follow my dreams, even if one day they seemed lost. I have learned from your life story that you can always go back and pursue them! Thanks again for the time, and I wish you nothing but success in the future! Hope to see you play at a festival one day as well!!


    • drtombibey Says:


      Follow your dreams sure enough, young man.

      One time I had a med student who did a community medicine rotation with me who said he had to go back to the university to get some rest, ’cause he’d never met anyone who worked and played as hard as I did.

      I was young then. Nowadays though, following my dreams is snooze after the news. Oh well. I have no regrets.

      Y’all take care.

      Dr. B

  17. Dani Says:

    I am one of the students from Saltillo. Thank you so much for coming by and having such an interesting visit with us! I hope some day you can come back. I have read some of your blogs and I think you are a great writer and I can’t wait to read more! I loved your Bluegrass playin’! I think the whole “physician-mandolin-writer” thing really works. I’m sure you are probably the only one who can pull it off.
    Thanks again for the awesome visit!

    • drtombibey Says:


      Good morning. I reckon I’m the only one. As your fellow student said, “we’re all the only one of something.”

      I had a great time. My Lit agent noticed all the comments and decided if the kids were that good we needed to go to more schools when I do my book store signings. I’m all for it.

      Honest to goodness, you guys are smarter than we were back at that age. I was just a country boy who wanted to eat mama’s fried chicken. We didn’t know the world was so big.

      Dr. B

  18. Peggy Says:

    Hi Doc,
    I am proud of my students and pleased they enjoyed you as much as I did. They would have loved Sat. at Reed’s, but I was out of the loop on that. (Mitch is recovering well from his surgery.) You need to make a trip back in April or May and we can have a pot luck at my house and the class can come and Ken’s group. Who knows, I may have some musicians in this class. Now that sounds like a fun time.
    Your friend,
    Mrs. T

    • drtombibey Says:

      Mrs. T,

      My friends who have heard about my trip and read their comments were impressed. Tis a good group of kids.

      I will be back to Mississippi. I wish I could get there in April/May, but I have four weekends on the book journey then. (Two bluegrass festivals, one writer conference in Chattanooga, and a doc book co-promo for the County Doctor Complilation) I gotta tell ya though, the notion of jamming with Ken and those young’uns is my kinda gig.

      Thanks for all you do, and for letting me be an English teacher for a day. It made my Mama proud, and for a southern boy anything that makes Mom happy is cool.

      Dr. B

  19. Kane Says:

    Dear Dr. Bibey

    I was not at school the day you came to visit. It sounds like you all had a great time and I apologize for missing it. I hope you will be able to make another trip here and I can listen to you speak somewhere. I have read a lot of comments and things on this page and it appears you have a very interesting and successful life. You are a perfect example of The American Dream, which is what we are about to be working on in Mrs. T’s class. Thanks for working us in your schedule.


    • drtombibey Says:


      You know, I do feel like we got to live the American Dream. I didn’t get rich or famous, but I got to live exactly the way that made me and my family happy, and we helped some other folks along the way. I don’t guess you can ask for more than that.

      Someday we’ll meet out on the bluegrass road at a school or a festival. You stick out your hand to shake and tell me you’re a Saltillo young’un. We’ll buy you a burger and play you a song.

      Dr. B

  20. Ashlyn Says:

    Dr. Bibey,
    To my dismay, I was absent the day you visited my junior English class. You must have been something special, because all they can do is marvel about you. Thanks so much for taking your personal time to come speak to my class. I hope the next time you come I will not be absent.
    It’s interesting that you play the mandolin. You are one of two people I know that play. My aunt plays the mandolin, and I just can’t seem to understand how you learn how to play. It’s a great talent, no doubt. Hopefully you can play next time you come!
    Thanks again for coming, God bless you.

    • drtombibey Says:


      Mr. Smith and I are both mandolin guys and good buddies, so I’m confident I’ll be back someday. I’m at work on a sequel to my book too, so Reed’s is in my future again.

      Maybe your aunt can play a song with us next time- triple mandolins!

      Dr. B

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