Not a Southern Storyteller

I suppose I should finally give in and identify myself as a Southerner. I don’t consider myself a Mississippian or Alabaman , even though I lived in those states and others. But most of my memories start at Eglin AFB in Ft. Walton Beach on the Florida Panhandle — where Alabama meets the sea, if you will.

Growing up on Air Force bases, it was hard to feel a part of the local civilian community as one might if he or she lived there on a long-term basis. That’s not something I intend to go into in any depth here. There’s plenty to be written about the civil-military divide. Suffice to say, it wasn’t until I moved out of the Deep South (I mean, “the South”) to Texas that I ever felt the need to defend it; to embrace its part in my past.

I may not have a thick Southern accent (courtesy of the diversity of U.S. military personnel), but I’m obviously a Southerner, merely by the relative amount of time I lived in the Deep South and Texas. Texas isn’t a real part of the South. It’s Texas. The South starts when you hit the western border of Louisiana. That is, where the poorly maintained highways begin.

I always considered myself an Air Force Brat and, beyond that, an American — I grew up on federal property. What else could I be?

It wasn’t until I moved to Texas that I felt the need to defend the Deep South.

At this point, I’ve lived in Texas almost as long as the South. And Texas is still Southern enough.

I have never felt that I have that penchant for storytelling that Southerners for which are celebrated. (I can’t get myself to read Faulkner even.) Telling a joke has always been a tightrope walk for me, and I often fall to the joke’s death. My grandfather from Alabama, however, was an excellent joke teller.

I guess I did, to some degree, tell stories on inadequate.net during the Ruta Maya and early college era(s). I feel like they were aphoenix-NYPLll written with a point in mind. I remember turning the weekend’s events over in my mind looking for an angle from which to write about what had happened while stuck in traffic on my commute to work at Austin Community College. (All during the period after high school and before college.)

Sometimes, they were story-like, but I remember them (and have previously called them) as “moments” because so many were less traditional stories so much as written snapshots of moments in time. Rarely a beginning, middle and end. (Though that may be a lie I’m telling myself.)

Wednesday I Skyped with a class of graduating English Writing and Rhetoric students at my alma mater. I’d warned the professor beforehand that my comments on the economy they are entering as writers is not what they likely expect. It isn’t the same economy their parents graduated into. It’s the “gig economy” I’ve so often bemoaned, where you have a workforce of freelancers — generally, underpaid.

I told them not to look for “writing” jobs or “writer.” Instead, they will have to learn to call themselves “content strategists” or “content producers” or, at best, “content writers.”

I encouraged them not to demean themselves and the craft by writing for free. They will have to recognize that while some writing has always been commercialized, it and they have now been commoditized, I told them. I encouraged them to look at their student loans when they got home and join a movement to have them abolished. I urged them to start investing now and be prepared to receive 1099s and pay all their taxes at the end of the year.

Mostly, I told them about my career history — stay away from politics or publishing or Hollywood or anywhere/one you will be treated as an underpaid flunkie with responsibilities including picking up the boss’ dry cleaning, reminding him/her to take meds and the many other things legislators — who become babies upon election — request or need.

Most of all, I stressed the need for a portfolio. Without proof, your degree means nothing, I said. I also encouraged them to look into design and design thinking, learn about content management systems and build skills to work on the backend of websites and become familiar with email marketing.

At the same time, I told them this economy, at some point in the future, be more profitable for writers. It’s an idea economy. Designers, writers (or, I’m sorry, “content strategists” or “copywriters,” at best) other creative career fields. These are the people who are needed to create and communicate innovative services, products, theories, thoughts, et cetera. Get a job with a design consultancy, I stressed.

And, again, I hit on not writing for free — even if the publisher tells you it earns you “exposure.” Sure, if The Atlantic Monthly comes calling, give them 500 words for free. After that, charge them.

Now, a little about New York City.

I still haven’t really gotten out to explore except for a bit two Sundays ago. We went to the West Village on the way to Warby Parker to get my glasses adjusted (they did a crap job on ’em) so I could finally wear them. Of course, the subway encountered a problem a number of stops before ours, so that’s how we ended up in the West Village. I wasn’t happy. Misty was upset because I was upset.

I received the slowest, smallest large mocha I think I’ve ever purchased. We also stumbled upon a tonsillar (a name I’ve never heard used for a barbershop) with a couple of young hipsters — one of whom, who had a handlebar moustache and bowler hats, was another a haircut and beard trimming while stood around in his suit doing . . . nothing.

The place was agoraphobically small and all wood. An obvious tourist draw. But I needed a beard trim.

We were directed down a side street and into a basement  of an apartment building where we found two men and one woman with Armenian accents. Two older gentlemen were giving haircuts and beard trims to hipsters as well. Quickly, one of the men finished. We took our offered shots of whiskey, Misty and Carl sat down and I got into the chair. I received a very good straight-razor shave (much better than my last in Austin) and beard trim. We were even able to get him to stay away from my hair. I want my curls back, not a molasses helmet head like the hipsters.

Afterward, we swung by Warby Parker’s HQ (located in a damn-near vacant skyrise with a paper sign where the doorman should be declaring that they were open and on such-and-such floor.

Then we headed home.

Misty has been working such long hours since she started back at frog (right back to working the way she did when she left frog’s Austin studio a few years ago). No matter how many times nor by whom she refuses to truly and clearly set boundaries. I think she may be starting to do so now, but she’s exhausted and stressed out that she’s made herself sick. Her cough is back with a vengeance.

When I ran out of Lamictal and Duane Reade screwed with us about getting it, Misty both worked from home and worked the phones for two days trying to get my meds. I was laid out on the couch by the second day, Monday. Took the day off work even.

I went to see Nurse Gail to get a re-up on my prescriptions and she ended up running an EKG on me because my heart rate has been so high the last two visits. I was at 110-120 beats/minute but got it down to 90 during the EKG. We — including the doctor — chalked it up to stress for the most part. I think that’s the best explanation.

It’s true. I do feel stressed. I feel like I’m behind and missing things at work. I worry my boss isn’t happy with my work or pace for the first time (though nothing of the sort has been communicated to me in any way). I truly worry that I’m being unproductive. I work late hours to make up for those I miss while communicating with apartment brokers and ordering groceries or going on an errand, which, if it involves leaving the neighborhood, may as well be considered an afternoon-long excursion with four more obstacles than needed to accomplish a simple task. With the subway, I thought I’d get around faster. Nope. Driving in Austin gets you there faster in many cases.

Misty has felt homesick (for the West Coast in the main, but Austin maybe a little and the South, in general, moreso) than I have so far. Our next move is planned to be to New Orleans — the exact opposite of this fast-paced, no-acknowledgement-when-we-pass-on-the-sidewalk city. She’s also started taking umbrage with those who talk crap about the South.

A few words — and I don’t remember what they were exactly or even the gist right now — nearly led me to tears in Gail’s office. That’s what I need. A good talk — about what? I don’t know — with a friend, someone kind, in person, with whom I can tear up a little and not be judged harshly for it. And not be judged by whatever subject it is that brings me to tears. I, honestly, have no idea what would elicit the ready tears. One day, I’ll find the time and then the place where I can hang out and slowly meet people. Future is hazy on that right now, though.

Indeed, I haven’t completely abandoned the expectation that we’ll end up somewhere else sooner rather than later. Whether that be back to Austin or to NOLA or elsewhere. That isn’t necessarily what I want, but the situation here seems so tenuous and impossible and frustrating and discouraging (to both of us) that I haven’t foreclosed on the possibility of our leaving New York and trying again later, or not. It feels like a failure if you leave right after arriving. But it isn’t because I, or we, can’t handle the city.

NYCers are just as provincial as Austinites. The real estate situation here is maddening and the number of income taxes — city, state, federal — borders on the absurd, but the city itself is fine. Harlem is fine. We’ve experienced none of whatever white people associate with Harlem. according to most white folks’ beliefs, we should have been mugged and near-victims of drive-by shootings because black people live here, but that’s not the reality at all. All is fine. In fact, we’ll be looking for our own apartment in this ‘hood, much like my living in East Austin.

The city isn’t nice but it isn’t easy either. Sort of like me. Maybe that’s why I haven’t felt as homesick as Misty except when thinking about my fur-children Jeff and George and my human family. I even miss Elmo, the parrot.

Or maybe it’s because I haven’t had the time when nor the place where nor the person with whom I could express whatever brings the tears, and the new beginnings.

But who knows? Misty’s angry enough with me that I may be back in Austin next week.

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