Too poor to paint, too proud to whitwash

We don’t hear this much any more since most people see “whitewash” as a metaphor for covering stuff up, usually for unsavory reasons.

Actually, you can still buy whitewash, though those who need it often make their own.

To be flip about lack of money these days, one might say, “I’m too poor to pay attention.” Or, if you really mean you can’t paint your house, more people would understand “I’m as poor as a church mouse,” though that line has gotten a bit out of date because fewer and fewer people are going to church and those that do, don’t expect to see any mice there.

Organizations that are frugal often say they spend both sides of a penny. I’m not necessarily frugal, though I’ve spent a lot of years trying to spend both sides of a penny. I’m not sure what I’ll say when the government finally gets its way and stops making pennies.

I could start saying, I’m so broke I don’t have a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of. That probably won’t scan too well since few people answer the call of nature that way anymore–which is just as well.

Perhaps it’s more modern to say my income has often been below the poverty line. Most people don’t know what the poverty line is (it’s $12,760 for a single person) other than it’s not enough for providing the better things of life. (A digression: when Obamacare first came along, my wife and I weren’t allowed to sign up because our income was below the poverty line. What a shock. I would have thought that that group would have been given first priority. )

My friends always thought I was probably raking in the big bucks because for most of my working life, I worked for computer companies. The trouble is, technical writers were always the first to go when the company needed to cut costs. After we were shown the door, the companies forced their programmers to write the documentation, and I think THAT is the main reason for the saying, “Nobody reads the documentation.”

My wife and I both grew up in families that had to spend both sides of a penny. My wife always told people that one reason people in the south eat a lot of biscuits and gravy is because a meal built around that is cheap and filling. My mother grew up in the midwest, so we didn’t have biscuits all that often; what we did have was meatloaf padded out with a lot of breadcrumbs or oatmeal. We had salmon croquettes so often that I can no longer tolerate them; my wife had them often, too, and still likes them. She won’t eat meatloaf and I won’t eat croquettes.

My parents were happy that I liked seafood, so living in Florida was a good thing. I also loved (and still do) hushpuppies. They taste great, are filling, and inexpensive to make. My parents would never eat mullet, a fish most Floridians considered a baitfish.  I loved it. Still do. I suppose in the old days, people might have said, “Too poor to eat pompano, too proud to eat mullet.”

I was blessed by the Gods who knew my financial future to love a lot of cheap food. Except salmon croquettes–or crab cakes either, for the same reason (we could catch all the crabs we wanted, but then we ruined them with breadcrumbs.)

I’m not whitewashing this because being broke isn’t as much fun as it sounds even though southerners have a lot of humorous ways of describing it—like, “I was so poor I couldn’t jump over a nickel to save a dime.”

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the satirical mystery novel “Special Investigative Reporter.”

 

 

I should have been there

In the early 1960s, Tallahassee, Florida where I grew up was the site of multiple lunch counter sit-ins and movie theater protests. Many of these were organized by CORE and drew a fair amount of participation from students at the primarily black Florida A&M University. I was attending high school and college (FSU) in Tallahassee during these protests, but I wasn’t there.

Florida Memory Photo
Woolworth’s Lunch Counter – Florida Memory Photo

My excuses for not being there are many, including:

  • Tallahassee Police, who sided with the angry white on-lookers, we physically and verbally abusive.
  • Protesters’ eyes were damaged by the use of tear gas.
  • Protesters were fined and/or put in jail for violating a restraining order.
  • The KKK threatened not only the Blacks but the scattering of whites who joined the picketing and lunch counter sit-ins. Burning crosses appeared in people’s front yards.
  • Picketers were assaulted around town and once a person was identified, picketers were likely to have their yards filled with angry people.
  • I wasn’t ready to take on the backlash that I’d be subjected to from high school and college students who had been my friends.
  • I was sure I’d be fired from my jobs and that my participation would cause trouble for my father who was an FSU professor.

As FAMU student and CORE organizer Patricia Stephens Due–who was tear-gassed and ended up with permanent eye damage–said in her book Freedom in the Family–most Blacks weren’t there either even though the common perception is that they were a united front. Not so.

When I was working for Western Union across the street from the Florida Theater, it would have been easy to walk over there and join the pickets or sit at that lunch Woolworth’s lunch counter while on break. There’s an empty seat in the foreground of that lunch counter photo. Logically, it would have been easy to sit there, but when fear of the consequences takes over, it becomes emotionally impossible to sit there.

Looking back today, I’m embarrassed by my excuses and lack of courage.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell’s novel The Sun Singer is currently free on Kindle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Be careful where you say you’re from on Facebook

I no longer list Berkeley, California as the place where I’m from on Facebook because in “debates,” people say, “well, of course, Malcolm would say that, look where he’s from. We don’t need him telling people in Georgia what to think.”

I was born at Alta Bates Hospital, but don’t tell anyone.

My family is basically from California, with my late relatives living in Berkeley, Los Gatos, Santa Cruz, and Palo Alto. I think I was in high school (in Florida) when my father told me he could never go back because the farms and orchards had all been ploughed up and turned into developments, the places Pete Seeger said were houses like little boxes all made of ticky tacky and just the same.

I can’t go back either. For one thing, I can’t afford it. For another, I think the state has lost its connection to reality, a connection that always was fairly tenous on a good day.  Sorry, folks, but I really can’t support a state that says illegal immigrants should have a right to vote.

So, in these Facebook “debates,” I suppose people thought I support all the lunacy associated with California these days. During the Vietnam War protest era, I was part of that lunacy because (a) I hated the war, and (b) had an apartment in San Francisco’s Mission District while my ship was in port across the Bay and had trouble anywhere I went in a Navy uniform.

When I was told on Facebook that “they” (the people in the thread) didn’t need a person from a crazy state telling people in the South that he (meaning me) thought the state and federal governments had no right to legislate or otherwise mess up women’s health care, including the right to an abortion, I said, “ladies, I’ve lived in the South longer than anyone else commenting on this thread.”

Huh? I said that I grew up in Florida from the first grade to college and now live in Georgia where my wife was born. We live on a farm that’s been in her family for five generations. They were surprised. They were happy to see that I had changed the town where I’m from to Tallahassee, Florida, and appreciated the fact that I like boiled peanuts, collard greens, mullet, grits, and cathead biscuits.

However, according to their assessment, a California birth certificate meant that even if you left the state at an early age, you were more or less the devil’s spawn and couldn’t possibly go to enough church services to get even with the Lord. If not that, then I was probably dropped on my head in the hospital.

So there it was. Clearly, my identification with California was an albatross around my neck. In the old days (whatever that means) people said Florida really wasn’t truly Southern. My response was that North Florida was/is about as Southern as you can get and that unlike other states in the Confederacy, “we” weren’t conquered by the North during the Civil War. Okay, so we’re overrun by snowbirds every year and from Live Oak to Miami, the state’s been pretty much ruined by developers who’ve paved over everything there that used to be good and created endless sprawl.

But, I digress.

On the minus side, now that I’ve changed my Facebook hometown to Tallahassee, everyone thinks I’m a racist. When they push that view too hard, I mention that the biggest race riots in the country all happened outside the South.

Is there a safe place out there I can claim as my hometown?

Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell has written a bunch of novels set in the South, or partly in the South, including the Florida Folk Magic Trilogy.

 

 

Review: ‘The Nickel Boys’ by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel BoysThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This powerful story needed to be told. That power comes, in part, through Whitehead’s restraint as he tells a fictionalized story about Florida’s notorious Dozier School (called Nickel in the novel) in a straightforward, almost deadpan style. That is, he lets most of the atrocities speak for themselves rather than resorting to purple prose and sentimentality.

Floridians, who grew up in the panhandle and knew Dozier was a hell hole before the authorities knew (or admitted) it was a hell hole, will appreciate the care Whitehead took with his research into the school itself, the environment, and the Tallahassee neighborhood where college-bound Elwood Curtis grew up. The random and unfair vicissitudes of life for African Americans are aptly and horrifyingly demonstrated early on via the event that sends Curtis to the Nickel School.

Yet, I was disappointed in this novel and ended up with mixed feelings about it. One flaw came from the sudden uses of an omniscient author to explain Nickel customs and realities that should have been communicated to readers via dialogue or through the actions of the characters. Suddenly, Whitehead was more reporter than novelist.

Without giving away a spoiler here, suffice it to say that the authorial trickery in several places where the narrative jumps into the future are intolerable. The sections are not only jolting when they suddenly appear out of sequence with the chronological story but mislead the reader so that Whitehead can enhance the drama surrounding Curtis near the end of the novel. The realities here are interesting and make for an engaging subplot that could have been written without lying to the reader.

The protagonist’s near-worship of Dr. Martin Luther King, especially King’s belief that no matter what was done to the African American race, it should return only love–serves as an effective counterpoint throughout the novel. Can Curtis love his tormentors? The Nickel School tests Curtis over and over again, making it difficult for him–and the other “students”–to maintain a true sense of self in a land where the realities inside the school are similar to the realities outside the school.

The book is strong. It could have been stronger. I recommend it in spite of the flaws.

View all my reviews

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell grew up in the Florida Panhandle in the era when the novel is set, delivered telegrams in the Frenchtown neighborhood where the protagonist grew up, and saw the Dozier school many times before it became a news story. He mentioned the Dozier school in his short story “Cora’s Crossing,” included in the collection Widely Scattered Ghosts.

Time for a book sale

 

Okay, so I was lazy and didn’t create an updated version of this graphic that says the sale is live now.

Description:

When Police Chief Alton Gravely and Officer Carothers escalate the feud between “Torreya’s finest” and conjure woman Eulalie Jenkins by running her off the road into a north Florida swamp, the borrowed pickup truck is salvaged but Eulalie is missing and presumed dead. Her cat Lena survives. Lena could provide an accurate account of the crime, but the county sheriff is unlikely to interview a pet. 

Lena doesn’t think Eulalie is dead, but the conjure woman’s family and friends don’t believe her. Eulalie’s daughter Adelaide wants to stir things up, and the church deacon wants everyone to stay out of sight. There’s talk of an eyewitness, but either Adelaide made that up to worry the police, or the witness is too scared to come forward.

When the feared Black Robes of the Klan attack the first responder who believes the wreck might have been staged, Lena is the only one who can help him try to fight them off. After that, all hope seems lost, because if Eulalie is alive and finds her way back to Torreya, there are plenty of people waiting to kill her and make sure she stays dead.

Warning: Today’s My Birthday

Yes, I’m a Leo and darned proud of it.

–Malcolm

The stuff outside the car window on a road trip is actually real

“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame. 

On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.” 
― Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Interstate highways accentuate the problem. They take you past the real territory whether it’s small towns with local character or countryside made up of differing ecosystems that all blend together outside the car window with the same unreality as the background in cheaply made theater/tv cartoons. Even the exits look alike, featuring the same chain gas stations, fast food restaurants, and hotels as the exits one saw five hundred miles ago.

Wikipedia photo.

I remember my first trip through the peninsula part of Florida. Looking back, the homespun roadside attractions all seem rather tacky and low grade when compared to the destinations everyone’s racing to see in and around Orlando or Tampa or Miami. All that homespun was real and very different from town to town when compared with today’s tourist destinations. Even now, I prefer the numbered U.S./State/County roads where one can experience the local cultures and local environments. I’d rather eat at Mom’s Diner than another Applebee’s or another Cracker Barrel.

Chain restaurants offer a bit of security, I guess. When you walk into an Applebee’s or a Cracker Barrel, you already know what you’re getting. With Mom’s Diner, you don’t. When a see chain restaurants, I think of the old Pete Seeger song “Little Boxes,” a slam against suburbia, and I think, yes, all these buildings are made of ticky tacky and look just the same.

When you race through Florida on I-4, I-10, I-75, and I-95, you’re really out of alignment with the territory and can no longer say (obviously) that the journey is more important than the destination. Using the contents page of one of my favorite books about Florida’s wetlands, when you travel an Interstate you don’t see, much less differentiate, between seepage wetlands, interior marshes, interior swamps, coastal intertidal zones, and mangrove swamps. Likewise, hardwood hammocks, pine flatwoods, and savannahs fly past your car window (like TV) at a mile a minute.

Wikipedia Photo.

I see that Disney World and other theme parks are raising prices again. So, there goes a hell of a lot of money, long lines, crowds of people bumping into each other, submerged within Orlando’s ticky-tacky sprawl, and then home again via Delta Airlines or the Interstate. Missing from this experience is, of course, the real Florida. You missed the whole thing except for the so-called Magic Kingdom that features everything but real magic.

I’ll admit that when my daughter was little, we took her to see Seaworld and Disney World. And we recently went back again with her family so that my granddaughters could see the best of the best at Universal and Disney. Yes, we had fun. Probably, the kids had even more fun. I hope the kids will grow up and discover the real Florida someday, that is to say, a beach other than Daytona with its crowds and condos and hotels, the real magic of grasses, wildflowers and trees in one of the state’s diverse environments.

One Interstate is pretty much like another, but the stuff outside the car window isn’t the same from state to state. It’s too bad the good stuff gets passed by. It’s even worse when you realize most people don’t think anything’s outside the car window.

Malcolm

Campbell’s contemporary fantasy novel “The Sun Singer” is free this weekend of Kindle.

 

 

 

Our writing takes us back to our childhood

“Other than childhood, what was there in those days that is not here today?” – St-John Perse from “To Celebrate a Childhood”

Perse is not well known today. I know his work because my mother bought a copy of one of his books in 1944, and I found his memories of childhood to be similar to mine in tone as I left home, grew older, and thought back to those formative years before I grew up and started losing my innocence.

Photo by Kal Visuals on Unsplash

If my parents were still here today, they would tell you that I was dragged kicking and screaming out of the Pacific Northwest into the Florida Panhandle just before entering the first grade. If the acronym had been around in those days, I would have been shouting WTF–and probably incurred the wrath of everyone!

Oddly enough, Florida won me over. I “blame” the Boy Scouts and their camping trips for this as well as friends who had beach cottages, and my mother, too, who organized family day trips to all kinds of tempting places.

Florida has been showing up in my work of late. I set my first novels in Montana and then placed a satire in Texas. But I finally came home, and I guess I think of Florida that way now, and concentrated on the world where I grew up. My childhood in Florida was actually quite good once I started looking around at the neighborhood and finding an environment I liked. Basically, I grew up on the beach and in the piney woods.

Now, as those days draw me back now in my fiction, I wonder how many other authors discover that not only can they go home again, but that that is where their most powerful inspiration can be found. Childhood is such an impressionable time that it variously haunts us or inspires us for the rest of our lives. So many people are writing memoirs these days as though the writing itself helps them understand where they came from and what happened there. We do that in our stories as well.

Then, as now, I was struck by the conflict between the land and its beauty and the politics of Jim Crow. That disconnect still makes no sense to me. So, I write stories about it and try to figure it out. I have a feeling a lot of other writers are doing the same thing in fiction and nonfiction. We want to understand what turned us into the people we are today. Nature? Nurture? Probably both. For all I know, fate dragged me to Florida so that I would one day write Conjure Woman’s Cat.

That’s probably not the case. For one thing, I don’t believe in fate. But I do see that childhood wields a lot of power over us and that try as we might, we can never really escape it–supposing that we want to. I don’t want to, though I once did. Stories from a writer’s childhood are always there waiting to be told, to influence what s/he writes many years into the future. Those stories hold a lot of power over us and, frankly, life is much easier if we listen to them and share them with others.

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘Widely Scattered Ghosts’

Widely Scattered Ghosts begins with Moonlight and Ghosts: A couple visits an old abandoned mental hospital and development center at night, to quell some troubling dreams. This story draws you in quickly and kept me on tenterhooks until the very end. It had the right amount of tension to be spooky and just enough heart to leave a smile on my face.

Source: BigAl’s Books and Pals: Review: Widely Scattered Ghosts by Malcolm R. Campbell

I like this review, not just because the reviewer liked the book, but because she made a comment about each of the collection’s nine ghost stories.

If you’re not famous, it’s hard to find reviewers willing to consider short story collections. Those who do really earn their keep since they have multiple plots and characters to consider.

–Malcolm

Florida’s Oyster Reef Restoration Program

“Along Florida’s coasts, oysters play a vitally-important role in supporting healthy estuaries. Oyster reefs provide multiple benefits, from providing habitat and food for wildlife, to filtering water, removing nitrogen, and stabilizing eroding coastlines. Oysters are also a favorite cuisine for people and Florida once had robust oyster fisheries in many areas throughout the state.

“’Oysters are the quiet, unsung heroes of our estuaries, working hard every day to protect our coasts, clean our waters, feed and shelter fish, birds, crabs, shrimp and other wildlife,’” said Anne Birch, marine program manager for The Nature Conservancy in Florida. “When we help to restore and conserve oyster habitat and support the fishery we’re also helping our estuaries and our coastal communities flourish.”

Source: Florida’s Oyster Reef Restoration Program

Storms, reduced river water flows, and pollution are taking their toll on oysters, including those along the Florida Panhandle’s gulf coast where I grew up and where I’ve set many of my books. I’m happy to see that the Nature Conservancy chose to study and solve this problem–one that’s worldwide, actually.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell’s Florida Panhandle books include “Widely Scattered Ghosts” and “Conjure Woman’s Cat.”

My granddaughters will have to wait a while for my ghost story book

My granddaughters are 11 and 6 years old, so I thought it would be cool to dedicate my new collection of stories (Widely Scattered Ghosts) to them so that when they are in their 50s they can take a copy to Antiques Road Show and learn that the book–at auction–is then worth $1000000000000.

This haunted Florida bridge is the setting for one of the stories.

They live in Maryland, so I’m going to mail the book. But I can’t address it to them because they love getting things in the mail, especially packages. But they’re way too young to read any of the stories. Even though none of the stories are the Stephen King variety, Freya and Beatrice will need to wait until they’re teenagers (I guess) before they get to see the book.

So, the mail is going to my daughter with instructions to hide the book and to remember where she hid it. My father was an author. I always thought it was neat to have copies of some of his books autographed for me. Maybe the girls will feel the same way even though I’m no James Patterson or John Grisham.

Four of the stories are about an inquisitive and highly intelligent teenager named Emily who talks to ghosts. She reminds me of my daughter (except for the talks-to-ghosts part). As a grandfather, I get to brag and say that I think my granddaughters will grow up to be smarter than Stephen Hawking.

That makes me wonder if they’ll correctly guess the endings to each of the stories before they get there.

Malcolm