Posted tagged ‘Mississippi’

The Bold Balance of Characters and Caution; Mississippi Uniqueness

January 24, 2011

        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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You Might be Ready To Be a Writer When…. (Cuttin’ a Wide Southern Swath)

January 17, 2011

        You might be a writer and a book peddler when you check the Weather Channel and realize a major storm is on the way and it might snow you in and tangle up your gig, so you toss three boxes of books and your mandolin in the car along with your lap-top, stuff a handful of duds in a duffel bag, then rush out and try to beat the storm. You realize in your haste you forgot to pack any pants other than the ones you have on, so you stop a hundred miles down the road at the Walmart for some new threads where you tell the customers they need Tommy Bibey books in the store.

        You’re on towards a high-falutin’ famous author when you’re stranded in Atlanta two days ’cause you miscalculated the exact hour the snow would blow in, and you had stop along the route to pee three times instead of two. You get caught in a blizzard where the MARTA buses swapped ends and blocked “Spaghetti Junction” in the worst storm in twenty years and the 18 wheelers on I-285 are frozen solid to the Interstate and have to be dug out one at a time by the DOT.

        But you, one brave solitary writer that you are, along with your fine wife, slip-slide up the down ramp and snag the last room at the Airport Hilton. You view the situation as one big fortuitous circumstance; as a writer you see it as a book peddler land of opportunity ’cause you and your mandolin are the only entertainment in the lobby.

        Everyone was on edge ’cause of the rush, the weather, and the inconvenience, but the music renders a strange calm to the chaos. Several folks buy your book. You aren’t sure if they really like it, felt sorry for you, or just came over to check it all out because of the music and the fact you were parked right next to the warm fireplace. Maybe they just wanted you to go away. (To be a successful book salesperson you have to calculate at what point your pitch borders on obnoxious and stop just shy of that)

        You’re ready to be a Literature pitchman when they only restaurant open in Atlanta metro area is the Waffle House and they are so over-worked your wife offers to help ’em bus tables. (The boss wouldn’t allow) You play ’em a song, leave ’em a card, thank ’em for that fine coffee, tell ’em everyone knows the Waffle House is the bluegrass breakfast of champions, then recommend they read Tommy Bibey when the spring thaw comes. You get in the parking lot, and step back inside. “By the way guys, ask corporate to consider a bluegrass coffee sponsorship for the Tommy Bibey tour.”

       They you wave goodbye, slide back down the off ramp, and escape town while you have a two-hour one degree above freezing window of opportunity.

       When you break into the clear in the sunny Southland a hundred-fifty miles south of Hotlanta you stop at a feed and seed to get a “Big Al’s Strawberry Alligator Ice” and a bag of cashews. It looks like some kinda tropical oasis and reminds you of the Sun Drop Slushies back in Harvey County. If you feel like that’s high cotton and better than an invitation to snorkel with the rich and famous at some exotic beach, you might be a southern writer.

        It’s just like home; a sign out front sports ads for Marvin’s live minnows, Happy Jack dog food, and Bud Light. You leave ’em a card and tell ’em the bluegrass people know the truth. In the rearview you watch as they scratch their heads and turn the card over with a curious look that seems to say, “Who was that masked man?”

        You’re a writer when you drive halfway across the South and four states through the snow to have a chance to talk to school kids about books rather than a bunch of rich guys at a some bank ’cause you have this hopeless romantic notion your words will somehow make the world a touch kinder.

        You’re ready to be a writer when you fall head over heels in love with a cool independent book store like Reed’s Gum Tree Book Store in Tupelo, the home bookstore of John Grisham and Elvis for Heaven’s sake. All the best pickers in that neck of the woods, “The Saltillo Circuit Riders” show up in force. It’s not every day the world’s only physician bluegrass fiction writer is in town, and they want to show support for one of one of their own. Me and Smitty get our picture taken with Elvis; I’ll post it soon.

        You leave behind a dozen signed copies and hope maybe Mr. Reed, the mayor, John Grisham and every good-hearted school teacher in Mississippi will scarf ’em up. I loved Mississippi. As Pa Smith says, “Come to Mississippi. We have so many ways to treat you good you’re bound to like one of ’em.”  

         As a writer you dream you might be a small part of something bigger than you; a place where smart people exchange intellectual ideas instead of venom. Reed’s was like that.

        You’re a writer if you sow seeds and plant word trees when you know quite well it’s unlikely you’ll be around long enough to partake of the shade. You do it ’cause you can’t bear for the dream to die when you do.

        You’re a writer when your best little young country music friends like Miss Megan say, “Doc, the reason this gig works is you and Marfar are playing. It ain’t work for you. Have fun; go for it.”

        You do it because that’s what you are. You don’t write for money. You write because when you get home, you say to your tireless life-long sidekick, “Hon, I’m beat. As best as I can figure if you include the royalty check that came in the mail while we were gone we only lost $273.34 on the trip.”

       And she smiles and says, “Yes, dear, but we’re living large. When’s the next gig?”

        “Let’s see. Bluegrass First Class. February, Asheville. Can’t wait. But for now, I gotta jump into a phone booth and turn into a doctor.”

        She shakes her head, laughs, and replies, “Able to leap tall buildings….”

        “Yeah, hide the kryptonite kiddo, Doc ain’t done for yet.”

Dr. B

 

Thanks to All in Mississippi

January 16, 2011

        We’re traveling the highway home, but I did want to stop long enough to thank my Mississippi friends. It was a fun visit. I’ll have much to write about this over the next few posts.

       So, to Marfar, Tommy Jr., Marie, Ken and Cindy Smith, Ma and Pa Smith, Ms. T, all the Saltillo High kids, the Master Sargent, Emily and Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore, Smitty, Julius, Dr. Richard, all the Saltillo Circuit Rider gang including the fiddlin’ Tupelo Beauty Operator (the beauty operators know all in Harvey County) Ms. Paula at the Jameson, Susan, and Elvis, I thank you every one.

        Y’all go visit Mississippi. As Pa Smith says, “Here in Mississippi we have so many ways to treat you good, you’re bound to like one of ’em.”

       We loved it all. A great state.

       Oh, and Lacy; all the best to you too, almost left you off.

Dr. B

Miss The Mississippi

January 10, 2011

        My song of the day on FaceBook is “Miss The Mississippi and You.” It’s an old Jimmy Rogers tune. I esp like Doc Watson’ version.

        One day a few years back I was gonna play a round of golf with my son here in North Carolina. He had to go to work, and I didn’t have a game, so I asked the pro to pair me up with someone. It didn’t matter who; I liked people and could work out a game with anyone.

       He put me in with a fellow named Smitty who was on vacation. We shook hands on the first tee. You know how it goes in the south. “Hey, my name is Tommy Bibey. Welcome to North Carolina,” I said. 

        Smitty noticed my hat. It read, “The Country Gentlemen.”

        “Are you a bluegrass man?” he asked.

        “Sure. I’m a mandolin player.”

        “Really? Me too. Hey, the Gentlemen were in Mississippi a while back. That kid who plays the mandolin with Charlie is from North Carolina; you know him?”

        “Yeah, man. That’s Darin Aldridge. I’ve learned a bunch from him. He’s a player.”  

        “No kidding. That boy is a hoss.”

        We found out we shared common interests in literature and Mississippi folks like Jerry Clower and Marty Stuart, as well as N.C. music people like Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson. I guess the folks we were paired with thought they’d stumbled into a family reunion. They watched all this for a couple of holes then asked, “You fellows known each other a long time?”

        “No, we just met,” I said.

        They were incredulous. “How can this be?”

        I shrugged my shoulders. “It’s the bluegrass way, I guess.” 

        Or as my friend Dr. Temple would say, “It’s the International language of music.”

        Smitty was a fine player and a true bluegrass gentleman who was also a coach and school principal in Saltillo, Mississippi, just outside of Tupelo. By the sixteenth hole he invited me to come down to Mississippi to play golf, eat his mama’s fried chicken, and pick music with his friends at their church. He didn’t have to ask twice.

       At that time I was early on in development of “The Mandolin Case.” I promised to keep him posted.

        I got home and told my Marfar all this and she asked, “So hon, when are we going to Mississippi?” (She has long since learned to never to discount her crazy physician bluegrass fiction writer husband’s dreams; they seem to always come true, starting with her)

        On a whim, I sent Smitty a short story I was working on called “The Rasslin’ Rangatang.” (It is in my blog archives) He shared it with a Ms. T, a gifted BreadLoaf English teacher at the school, and she assigned it as project for her students. I soon became pen pals with the kids. I still keep up with some of them like Miss Carrie, who is now a pharmacy student at Ole Miss.

       The kids took right to the pen pal gig. I was astounded by their insight and maturity. (I guess part of it was I ain’t nothing but a big kid myself) We traded some ideas back and forth, and I enjoyed the exchange. I recall one child wrote to say, “I can’t believe a famous writer would write us little school kids in Saltillo, Mississippi and care what we had to say.”

        I called my Lit agent (I had just signed with him) and said, “Boss, we gotta straighten this out. I’m not a famous writer.”

        He said “You are now. Any time you touch people with your written words, people far away who you’ve never met, then you by definition are a famous writer.”

        Man I was hooked. I think that was the day I decided for sure I had to keep being a writer. I was just getting started, but I was having way too much fun to quit. (As we say in bluegrass, “We ain’t having any fun at this, but at least we’re making a bunch of money.”)

        I miss the Mississippi, but I’ll be back down there Saturday. I’m gonna dedicate my blog this week to tell you more about how I fell in love with Mississippi, how I came to become an honorary Mississippian, and also the rest of the story, ie “The Return of Dr. Tommy Bibey.”

       For now, though, the Harvey County doc gig awaits, so I gotta go find my stethoscope. Stay tuned.

Dr. B