I’ve been to most states, but Mississippi is one that I’ve never had a reason—or a hankerin’—to go to. That changed last week when I attended the Acts 8 “Print Proud, Digital Smart” Magazine Innovation Conference in Oxford, MS. Though the conference was my sole reason for being in that part of the country, I did manage to get some R&R in between sessions—and on the final night of the conference.
With only slight deference to our collective gnat-size attention span, here is the condensed version of my impressions of Mississippi and, in particular, the towns of Oxford and Clarksdale.
First, it takes forever to get to Oxford. Fly into Memphis, rent a car and then spend a good hour and a half driving down a dark, two-lane highway. The only view is a continual thicket of trees that will have you driving in dread that Bambi and his mother could come bounding out and land with a dull thud on your front windshield—or worse.
This phobia is not unwarranted. We were warned it could happen. And happen it did—though not to us. There couldn’t have been a worse scene to come upon at 1:00 am on a chilly, dark Mississippi morning. Some bubba in a pickup had just hit a deer and left it in a heap on the highway, leaving its now-orphaned fawn frozen with fear at the edge of the trees—looking plaintively at its dying (dead?) mother. The agony of that tragic situation was exceeded only by our feelings of helplessness. I mean, you can’t exactly stop and offer roadside grief counseling to a deer or put the distraught little fella in your car and take him to a wildlife rescue center (if those even exist there). Nor can you explain to the forlorn fawn that its mother had just been killed and that he had better “buck up” and figure out how to survive in the cold, cruel world of heartless humans, fast-moving cars and compromised habitats.
Nope. You can only keep driving … and crying, while trying to keep the sad image out of your mind. Simultaneously, you wish that you weren’t in Mississippi, where road kill is served up “fresh daily.” (Kidding on that last one—I hope.) Later, when this tragic event came up in conversation with a local, we were given a decidedly unsympathetic response: “Yes ma’am, well, we do hunt deer here.”
Welcome to the Hotel Not California
Thankfully, even if mama deer didn’t get to her destination safe and sound, we did. My SoCal Life Magazine colleagues were booked at the Ole Miss Hotel on the Mississippi University campus, which was … well, an interesting experience. The hotel, like most of the other buildings on the campus, was a large, square, unimaginative brick edifice with an equally unremarkable interior. (Brick in moderation—especially juxtaposed with aged wood—is cool, but this campus was too much of a good thing.)
Checking in at 2:00 am in the morning spared us the lines of conference attendees. But as a trade-off, we got a night clerk on duty who was practically blind and, because of this, had his face literally pressed up against the computer monitor. (He declined my offer of reading glasses.) On top of that, he apparently had not yet learned the basic skill of credit card swiping and ran my colleague’s three credit cards multiple times, effectively de-magnetizing at least one of them.
When we kindly asked the university student what his major was, he replied, “Hotel management.” Hmm, methinks it’s time to reconsider his career choice.
The next day, expressing genuine concern over the state of this young man’s eyes, I was told by the day-shift desk clerk, “Yes ma’am, well, he has an eye appointment in two weeks.” It was just one of several glaring cultural differences between Mississippi and California; there’s no way in the Golden State that this guy, who could neither swipe nor see, would be working behind a hotel front desk. (Other glaring differences consisted of a “white bread only” option at a catered luncheon, catfish and grits as meal staples—ugh—and, as expected, a sloooow way of talking, though I don’t consider the latter a negative thing.)
Time to Scream – Shades of African Queen
As to my hotel room, all was well and good (no complaints); that is, until a slimy creature suddenly appeared in my bathroom sink. It appeared to be—screech!—a leech. As in those blood-sucking creatures that attach to your skin like an Amway recruiter and never let go. (Think of Humphrey Bogart’s dilemma in that memorable scene in African Queen.) I promptly flushed the vile thing down the drain, thinking that was the end of it. I mean, in all my personal history of washing bugs down sinks, not one—not a single, solitary one—has ever come back up again; that is, until that night at the Ole Miss Hotel where Ludwig the Leech (don’t ask me why I’m making him a German male) began crawling out of the sink hole, slinking around and looking for his next host.
“Uh uh, no siree!” I screamed, turning on the water full force. “I ain’t hosting no nasty slimy worm in my bathroom. My blood is stayin’ where it is and you is goin’ down … sucker!” And down he went. To make sure Ludwig wouldn’t “turn” again (zombie lingo), I closed the stopper.
There to learn … and to help me reach my goals and dreams.
The conference itself was wonderful and educational, and I won’t bore you with those publishing industry details—except to say that I’m more convinced than ever that many, if not most, magazines are not worth reading. But the relatively few that are deserve to be read—and not just online, which as the conference reiterated, is an inferior way to digest the written word for all sorts of sociological, psychological and purely brain-cell preservation reasons. (More on this fascinating topic of brain science in another post.)
Blind and tech-challenged desk clerks and heart-attack-inducing cuisine aside (solely consuming good ol’ fashioned barbecue is worth the risk IMO), there’s a reason that Mississippi is called the Hospitality State. They are, hands down, some of the friendliest, most welcoming people on the planet. That was clear from the get-go—just about everywhere. It almost makes you forget that you’re being addressed as “ma’am” every four seconds—by young and old alike. (Though it does make you question if your fillers and botox are wearing off a bit too soon, making you actually look like a “ma’am” or—even worse—an “Ole Miss.”)
Stay tuned for Part II of Mississippi Learning- Blues, Bugs and Barbecue