The Rambling New Yorker A chronicle of one New York native's journey to the land of the blues Mon, 31 Jul 2017 21:47:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Coming to an End Mon, 31 Jul 2017 21:46:55 +0000 Four years ago I came to Cleveland, fresh out of graduate school.  It was my first professional job and my first time living outside New York State.  I had never been down South and really didn’t know what to expect.  But I knew I had a job, an apartment, a Walmart nearby, and an internet connection.  So if nothing else, I could get by with just the basic necessities.

Despite my initial concerns, I thrived.  Cleveland turned out to be a great place to live.  The people are friendly, living is cheap, and there is a good sense of community.  I made friends through Delta State and through the local community garden.  In my working life, I grew my professional skillset and made many interesting connections.   Serving Delta State helped me find my passion for technology and gave me a direction for my career.

Yet for all the good times I’ve had living in the Delta there were always downsides.  Cleveland is very isolated. It is far from home.  And as someone who is always on the go, the slower pace of life doesn’t really suit me.  From this outset this journey was an adventure for me, even though I was not always fully aware of the fact.  And all adventures must end.

And thus my time in Cleveland will be coming to a close.  On July 14, after many months of searching and applying, I accepted a position as a Systems Librarian at Skidmore College.   Located on Saratoga Springs, NY the move will see me return to the Capital Region I left four years ago.  My start date is set for early September.  In order to give myself time to relocated I will begin the journey home in mid-August.

For those of you who have followed my blog from day 1, thank you very much. It has been a wonderful journey.  With my return home, there will no longer be a need to maintain the Rambling New Yorker.  It was always a chronicle of my journey to the land of the Blues.  As that journey ends, so too must the story written on these pages.  Therefore this post will be my last.  In the coming weeks I will be archiving this blog as a static website and will turn my attention to relocating back to the land of sometimes winter.  I wish all of you well on your journeys.  This is the rambling New Yorker signing off.

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Rambling Back to a Galaxy Far, Far Away Mon, 01 May 2017 03:29:14 +0000 An AT-AT walkerAs some of you may remember, back in 2015 I went to Star Wars Celebration Anaheim.  It was, needless to say, a great time.  Having not been to a Star Wars convention in five years I was seriously excited.  This was also before the new movie came out.  I had only recently gotten into Star Wars Rebels and finished The Clone Wars.   So the excitement was building.  Us Star Wars faithful were finally getting some juicy tidbits after a long drought.  In my personal life, I finally had the money to go to a convention of any sort in years and hadn’t done much in the way of traveling in a while.  In other words, the stage was set for a good time.

Such a time was had by all.  For the first time I camped out overnight and got to see the big panel event and the latest trailer for The Force Awakens.  In the process I met four guys who happened to be there by themselves.  We hung out for all four days.  I saw the first two episodes of Star Wars Rebels months before the rest of the public and got a few cool pictures.  Everything seemed to just fall into place.  Truly it was a transcendental experience.

So naturally when Lucasfilm announced the next US Star Wars convention I jumped on it.  In 2017, they returned to Orlando.  Being drive-able from Cleveland meant no expensive airfare.  Moreover I’d already been to the Orange County Convention Center and so knew the lay of the land so to speak.  And with Star Wars: The Last Jedi coming out, I knew there would be some sort of news or a trailer.  I was fully prepared to relive my 2015 experience.

The reality turned out to be a tad different.  Let’s start with the good.  With the exception of one guy who lived in Orlando, none of the people I’d met in Anaheim were able to make it to the convention.  Knowing that, I decided to not leave things up to random chance.  My initial plan was to wait overnight for a panel and hope to meet some new friends.  But that’s risky.  First off I could just as easily have ended up spending 15 hours by myself reading a book.  Moreover, the big rooms in Orlando were half the size of those at Anaheim. So there was a greater than average chance of waiting all that time and not actually getting into the panel I wanted.

So I decided to do two things.  The first was to seek out a group of Star Wars fans in advance.  I went through a couple of venues, from message boards to podcasts.  There was one I listened to which accepted donations via patreon and in return gave donors access to a slack group.  I’ve wanted to join it for a long time and the convention was the perfect excuse to do so.  That turned out to be a good idea.  While I actually spent much of the convention alone, I had something to do basically every night.  Also I now have a community of fellow Star Wars fans to interact with every day.

The second thing I decided to do was skip the overnight experience.  It was a tough choice, but in retrospect was a very good idea.  Unlike in 2015, at Orlando Lucasfilm had two such events as there were two huge panels for which they knew people would wait overnight.  That really wasn’t a big deal for me.  Of more concern was the size of the rooms.  While the Orange County Convention Center is a huge place, Lucasfilm has never used the entire space.  So the largest stage in 2017 only held about 3000 people for a convention which ultimately drew 70,000 people.  Between the too small rooms, the fact the panels would be streamed live over the internet anyway, and my own need for sleep I just couldn’t justify it.  Having driven to Orlando I didn’t want to start off the convention by not sleeping.

They say Star Wars fans come to conventions to wait in line.  It was supposed to be a joke, but in 2017 turned out to be the reality.  By 5pm Wednesday night, fully 18 hours before the opening ceremonies, hundred of people were already in line. And I had plans Wednesday night anyway.  Hanging out with my new friends from the Slack channel was a higher priority.  Sleep came next.  While part of me wanted to jump on the end of the line like I did last time, I decided to make the rational choice and hit the sack.

As it turns out I was able to see the opening ceremonies from the exhibit hall.  No one mentioned it, but apparently most of the big events were shown there too.  Also everything streamed was posted to YouTube.  Moreover the entire thing was apparently a disaster.  The whole weekend the staff members, to the extent there were any, didn’t seem to know what was going on.  Security was no better.   Worse, the organizer (a company known as ReedPop) put everyone waiting for the opening ceremonies into one line.  So it was entirely possible to wait overnight and not actually get into the room with the live panel.   Such a thing happened to several podcasters from Tosche Station.

Inside the convention center
Inside the convention center queue hall on day 1.

Then there was the line to actually get in.  The convention center in Orlando has about 7 entrances, but on Thursday they only opened one.  Behind it was an airport-style security checkpoint, which was about as much fun as it sounds. It quickly turned into a bottle neck with the line wrapping around the building and going down the street.  I got in line around 8:15 or so and didn’t get into the convention center until after 9.  It’s never taken that long in the past.  Then I had to find my way to the line for the exhibit hall.  Literally almost no one knew where it was.  It took me a good 20 minutes to pin down where it ended.

The autograph hall
The Star Wars Celebration autograph hall

The rest of Thursday and Friday went well for me.  I totally avoided The Last Jedi panel and watched it later on YouTube.  It turns out I didn’t miss much.  Other than the trailer we didn’t really learn anything.   I mostly avoided the autographs as well.  My plan had been to steer clear of the autograph hall completely.  They’re expensive and time consuming to get plus this year a different company (Topps) was handling the process.  Since the beginning an outfit known as Official Pixs did the autographs and I was skeptical about how Topps would handle things.  Such skepticism was warranted.  It took me 45 minutes to buy one ticket for Denis Lawson’s (Wedge Antilles) autograph.  In order to handle demand Topps set up a system similar to airline boarding.  People were divided into groups

Dennis Lawson's autograph
So that happened.

based on when they bought a ticket, starting with the letter A.  Unfortunately they wouldn’t tell you in advance what group you were in, forcing one to buy a ticket without knowing where in line you would be.  And the tickets were day specific so you had to guess which day would be least crowded and hope for the best.  Then on your chosen day you had to wait around the autograph hall (which was far too small) listening for a staff member or volunteer to call out your group letter.  The result was hundreds of people milling around the area trying to listen for one person to give them the all-clear to get in line.  And the lines themselves weren’t well managed, either.  When I was waiting for Lawson’s autograph, the line for another celebrity was flowing into his.  It was a mess and I’m thankful I got Mark Hamill’s autograph at Anaheim.

So I avoided the worst of the convention by avoiding basically anything popular.  This included Mark Hamill’s tribute to Carrie Fisher and a few other things as well. I attended several talks put on by Star Wars authors and a panel about upcoming books.  These were all very good.  Jason Fry was particularly entertaining and I enjoyed listening to Timothy Zahn talk about characters.  By Friday evening, however, I was not happy.  Never mind that all of the panels I skipped were being recorded.  I was upset with myself for having not even tried to get a wristband for a panel on Friday.  So Saturday morning I showed up around 7am to attempt to get into the Star Wars Rebels panel.  Not only did I do so, but I got into the live stage and had some good conversations while waiting in line.  Being able to say I was in the room when they announced Rebels was ending feels good, even if the effort to get there didn’t make any logical sense.

That’s the thing about Celebration.  So much of it makes no sense when you actually think about it.  We fans spend $1500 – $2000 or more for the pleasure of waiting in line, wading through crowds, and sitting overnight for news which is immediately available elsewhere.  When viewed that way, it’s ludicrous to attend.  Yet there is so much more to Celebration than all of that.  It’s really all about the social experience.  More than anything else, that is what we can’t replicate elsewhere.  Celebration is a chance for Star Wars fans to spend four or five days surrounded by other people who are as passionate about the franchise as they are.  There really is nothing else like it.

Of course everyone has their own reasons for attending.  Some go to shop, others to get autographs, and some to go to panels.  Those are all perfectly valid reasons.  However as Celebration grows every year most of those things become harder to do.  So for me, it will always be a chance to make new friends and reconnect with old ones.

At the 501st Bash
At the 501st Bash

I ended everything on Saturday night at the 501st bash.  Last time this was an awesome good time.  This year, not so much.  Weird Al Yankovic performed for about 45 minutes.  However he sang mostly obscure songs and as it turns out I’m not a huge fan of his.  Before he came on the DJ played mostly cantina music.  The party might have picked up later, but I had to leave early as I was driving the next day.  Still I got to hang with one of my friends from the last convention so it wasn’t a total waste.

Overall it’s hard to call Star Wars Celebration Orlando a huge success.  I personally had a good time.  However there were a myriad of logistical problems.  Some people are calling for attendance to be capped at around 40,000 or so.  I feel such artificial scarcity would hurt people unable to plan in advance.  At the very least, ReedPop needs to have adequate space and staffing levels.  What happened this year is unacceptable.  Other cons, including New York Comic Con which ReedPop runs, go smoothly.  Still I was able to have fun.  So while I don’t know what the future holds, I am leaving the door open to ramble back to the galaxy far, far away.

Click here for more photos of Star Wars Celebration Orlando!

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The Many Faces of A Small Town Tue, 17 Jan 2017 04:27:58 +0000 People sometimes ask me what it’s like to live in Cleveland.  Back home no one can imagine living in Mississippi.  Even other folks I’ve met in the South can’t imagine living here.  Mississippi in general, and the Delta in particular, have such a reputation that people just can’t picture themselves here.  That the local culture isn’t immediately visible to those only passing through doesn’t help.

The truth is of course complex.  Let’s start with the good.  The denizens of Cleveland, Mississippi seem to be genuinely happy.  It’s the sort of place where everyone knows everyone.  Neighbors are friendly and helpful.  Religion and politics are rarely discussed in public.  Cleveland (and the Delta more broadly) also have a rich history.  The local business community is thriving and jobs are more plentiful than elsewhere in the region.  So life is good and moves at a slower pace than in the rest of the world.  And living is cheap.  So low stress, no traffic, low cost of living, friendly people … what’s not to like?

A few things.  You have to love quiet living to enjoy the Delta.  There may be a thriving local culture, but there still isn’t much to do compared to many other communities.  The nearest city of any real size is two hours away.  So many people spend time with family and friends.  Without those your pretty much stuck.  There aren’t a lot of meetup groups so you have to hang with those who land next to you.  This can result in some interesting friendships.   The main sources of friends for a lot of residents seems to be either work or church.

Which brings me to my next point.  The Deep South is called the Bible Belt for a reason.   There isn’t quit a church on every street corner, but the ratio of people to churches is rather high I suspect.  Religion isn’t forced, but it’s also everywhere in ways great and small.  You can get by without going to church (I do), but you miss out on a lot of social activity.  Being an outsider in a small town can be tough.

And people seem to be rather averse to change.  You see this in a lot of little ways.  Traditional gender roles seem to predominate, for example.  Race is another example.  White and black communities still remain largely separate.  The former thrives, the latter not so much.  And not many people seem to care to change the state of affairs, which is part of the reason for Cleveland’s on-going struggle to integrate its schools.

These are all generalizations, of course.  Cleveland is full of wonderful people, many of whom defy the stereotypes others have about Mississippi.  The good isn’t just a facade for a darker reality.  That said, there is more to this town than meets the eye and not always in a good way.

In some ways I’ve lived in a bubble for the past 3 1/2 years.  Not only do I live exclusively in the white half of the town, I’m not overly close with a lot of people.  I tend not to see my friends very often outside of work which makes it difficult to see beyond the facade people usually put up in public.  Still I’ve led a good life in Cleveland.  On the whole the good out weighs the bad.  It is, in many ways, a unique place to live.


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Come as Strangers, Leave as Friends Sun, 23 Oct 2016 21:17:02 +0000 About three years ago I decided to visit a local establishment called Po’ Monkey’s.  It was a tiny little shack on the edge of a cornfield which had nevertheless achieved world fame due to its status as one of the last rural juke joints left in Mississippi.  it was truly a unique experience and made for an interesting blog post.  I later went back a few times either by myself or with friends.

Sadly times have changed.  This past July the owner of Po Monkey’s – whose real name was Willie Seaberry – passed away at the age of 75.  It marked the end of an era.  Unlike so many places which try to replicate an “authentic” old time feel, Po Monkey’s was the real deal.  In operation since 1961, Po Monkey’s was one of the types of juke joints were farmer workers and locals would gather.  It was the sort of place where the blues was born.  1

As far as I know plans have yet to be put in place regarding the establishment itself.  Po Monkey’s was literally Seaberry’s house and was in a rather isolated location.  I personally think some aspect of it needs to be preserved either in the original location or in a museum.  Hopefully a decision is made before too long.

Po Monkey had a motto for his place: “Come as strangers, leave as friends”.  I never heard him say it myself.  But in some ways it encapsulates life as a transplant to Cleveland.  We all come here as strangers from all corners of the country.   Everyone is equally shocked by life in the Delta.  And through our shared experiences we end up making friends we never thought we would.   More than anything that’s what makes life here different.  There are places – churches, community gatherings, etc – which draw people together.  The town is small enough for many people to know most everyone else.  And folks around here seem genuinely happy.

Meanwhile there are other changes afoot.  There are two new hotels planned for Cleveland.  The hope is the new Grammy museum will attract an influx of people.  It’s a reminder of how, as good as life is for some of us, much of the town still struggles.  It is still isolated and much of the blues tourism bypasses us.  Some people are working to change things.  So despite the loss of Po Monkey’s, life continues ever onward.


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A Dance With DragonCon Sun, 11 Sep 2016 01:05:11 +0000 As you may recall, last year I traveled out to California for Star Wars Celebration Anaheim. Being surrounded by 50,000 Star Wars fans for four days was an amazing experience. It really felt like coming home. For once I could talk about anything Star Wars and not have to translate or watch eyes glaze over. I met some great friends whom I hope to see again at the next Celebration.

However in 2016 I decided to take things to the next level. Every year in Atlanta there is a convention called DragonCon. Unlike Star Wars Celebration, DragonCon is a multigenre convention covering everything from science fiction to fantasy to comic books and science. There’s music, workshops, parties, panels, autograph sessions, and of course cosplay. It’s mostly focused on the fans and is largely run by volunteers. So it’s very different than other conventions which are more focused on promoting a particular property or providing a venue for others to do so.

With the exception of a small Star Trek and Farscape convention in 2004, my sole experience of convention going has been Star Wars Celebration. DragonCon was a new experience. First of all, it was larger. The official attendance figure was around 75,000, but some said the real number was as high as 100,000. And unlike other conventions, DragonCon is located in five hotels and two buildings of the AmericasMart in downtown Atlanta. So things are a bit spread out, which made for a lot of walking.

That aside, the whole experience was incredible, if a bit overwhelming. Never in my life have I been so immersed in nerd/geek culture. The panels are arranged into tracks which are largely scheduled in the same spots. So it’s entirely possible to stick to a topic and immerse oneself in it. I chose to graze on steampunk, Star Trek, Star Wars, A Game of Thrones, and even dabbled in science and Middle Earth. As much as I like Star Wars Celebration it has largely become a chance for Disney/Lucasfilm to promote their upcoming products be it movies, TV shows, or books. At DragonCon, the panels are created by and for fans, which means more programming variety and more chances to interact with celebrities. In fact, most of the celebrity panels I attended were largely Q+A sessions. At the same time I saw panels on everything from rail guns to polyamory. Truly DragonCon has something for everyone.

Yet the social experience is probably at least as important. This is after all a convention, not an academic conference. I wasn’t there to learn, but to have fun. Being a solo attendee, I spent a lot of time by myself. A lot of folks attend in groups which combined with the huge number of people made it difficult to interact with others. Even so, I still made some new friends. The more I go, the more I will meet new people.

Then there were the parties. Many conventions have parties, but DragonCon takes things to a new level. A lot of the different tracks, which are really fan groups unto themselves, threw parties on Saturday and Sunday night. They varied in quality. The Star Trek one was said to be dull. However the Star Wars and steampunk parties were a blast. On Saturday night I watched a woman dancing with a space whip for almost an hour. For those of you who haven’t seen a space whip, it looks like a cat o’ nine tails made out of glowing fiber optics. Done right it looks like your handling pure light and is downright psychedelic, especially when paired with EDM. But don’t take my word for it, watch it in action.

One of the great – and overwhelming things – about DragonCon is the fact activities are going on constantly all weekend. On Saturday, I left the Marriot at around 2 am. Inside the party was still going. Outside people were lining up for the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Even Sunday, when I had to pull myself away from an awesome steampunk themed party at around midnight, there was still plenty going on. At the first timers’ session on Thursday, they told us of the 6-2-1 rule. In one 24-hour period, you should get 6 hours of sleep, have 2 full meals, and take 1 shower. Deodorant doesn’t count. Walking around the con at night its very easy to see why the point needed to be made. With everything going on, its very easy to get sucked in and not take care of yourself.

No post about DragonCon would be complete without discussing the costumes. Cosplay and conventions go hand in hand. Since DragonCon is a multigenre convention the costumes run the gamut from Jedi to comic books to video games. And they were good. You could really tell people put a lot of effort into them. Harley Quinn and Deadpool seemed to be very popular. Every year there is a parade which anyone in a costume could apply to be in. Seeing them all on display was wonderful. Many fan organizations had banners and some businesses had floats. Medieval Times even trotted out people on horseback.

So as you can tell I had a good time. The whole experience was a bit overwhelming. It might take a few times before I find my groove. But even more so than at Star Wars Celebration, I feel like I’ve found a whole new community to get involved in. While cosplay has never been my thing, it interests me more and more. There are whole groups of people out there united by their love of science fiction and fantasy. So as with Star Wars Celebration, I absolutely plan to return to DragonCon someday. In the mean time here are some pictures and some resources for those interested in possibly attending.

Related Resources

Big Cons vs Little Cons – A good overview of the pros and cons of attending large and small conventions

Hotel and Travel FAQ – Excellent set of questions and answers about all things related to DragonCon hotels and travel

Photos of DragonCon

Parade Photos

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One Town, Two Schools Mon, 04 Jul 2016 16:54:19 +0000 This post is long overdue.  First I wasn’t sure how to respond.  Then I was traveling. For a few days the blog was down due to a denial of service attack.  There was also a hefty amount of procrastination thrown in.  Truly it is the enemy of civilization.

The story which led to this post is as follows.  Back in May, the US District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi issued an order mandating the Cleveland School District desegregate.  Specifically, the order required the district to consolidate its two high schools and two middle schools.   People around town were not pleased.  The story quickly blew up.  Within days, the whole country was gawking at this backward Mississippi town which seemingly hadn’t quite heard of the whole civil rights thing.  Much of the coverage was decidedly unfavorable and often inaccurate.

As one might expect the issue goes back decades.  I’m not going to recount the whole history of desegregation here.  Others have done so well enough.   However the situation here prior to the ruling was as follows.  Contrary to what some have reported, the strict de jure segregation which once was a fact of life is a thing of the past.  There is one consolidated schools district.  Students have a choice as to which Middle School and High School they attend.  Some programs, for example the International Baccalaureate program, were only offered at one school.  So from a certain point of view, the schools were already desegregated.  People around town certainly believed so.

The Federal government saw things differently.  I’ve written before about the divisions in Cleveland.   They extend to education as well.   Let’s start with a map of the district: .  Look familiar?  Compare it to the dot Dot map of Cleveland, Mississippimap:

The pattern of building schools mirrors the racial make up of the town.  And to a certain extent so do the demographics of the student body for the schools themselves.  On the one hand school choice has been around for some time due to previous integration efforts.  As a result Cleveland High School, formerly all-white is now nearly 50% African American.  However East Side High School remains 100% African American.  The same is true of the middle schools.

Therein lies the real issue.  Past desegregation efforts have enabled the African American community to integrate.  However the white community has not done so.  Many people simply continue the same old patterns of life from years ago.  I have personally witnessed few, if any examples, of open racism.  However old habits die hard and bias works on an unconscious level.  Whether people admit it or not, true integration requires an active, on-going effort.  It’s not enough to just repeal the laws.  We have to take steps to overcome the assumptions we’ve grown up with and stop ourselves from passing them on to the next generation.  Hence the focus on education.  People who grow up in diverse environments have a very different view of the world than those from more homogeneous ones.

None of these issues are unique to Cleveland.  Much of the country is dealing with entrenched racism.    So Cleveland doesn’t have as big of a problem as a lot of other places.   Nevertheless people are concerned about the future.  The big fear is white flight.  If the integration plan goes forward many are afraid the remaining white population will flee to private schools.  Such has been the case elsewhere. Indeed there already is one such institution in town.  Only time will tell if Cleveland suffers a similar fate.  However as long as Delta State remains here the town as a whole will thrive.  And being isolated there are few places for people to “escape” to.  There are no suburbs to flee to or gated communities to wall oneself up in.  So the very nature of the Delta’s location might put a ceiling on white flight, should it materialize.

For now we all wait with bated breath.  The school district was required to submit its timeline for implementing the government’s plan several weeks ago.  Presumably they did so although there was talk of an appeal.  Regardless of what happens the local paper will probably cover it.  So I’m sure the outcome will penetrate even my newsless bubble.  In the mean time there is TFA, summer break, and the Fourth of July to worry about.

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Lake Cleveland Mon, 21 Mar 2016 02:29:14 +0000 IMG_20160310_142737_smallOccasionally I wonder what a foot of rain would look like.  Every so often you hear about some unfortunate place getting a whole month’s worth of rain overnight.  Unlike a foot of snow, it’s never pretty.   But coming from a place which is not generally prone to flooding there was always that morbid curiosity.

I need not wonder any longer.  During the week of March 7th, just after Mississippi went to the polls, a storm moved in.  It was one of those slow movers with tons of moisture.  Thankfully it was short on tornadoes.  However in the span of 24 hours Cleveland got a good 8- 10 inches of rain, possibly more.  It was so bad, Delta State closed early.  Later we got even more rain which did not help.  Many of the roads around me were flooded.  Of course people still unwisely drove through them leading to the local police to block off certain areas.  Luckily my apartment sits on a block not prone to flooding so I had the privilege to ensconce myself at home with two weeks worth of food (thank you Crock Pot!).  Some people were not so lucky.  Most of the surrounding streets were flooded making my block feel like an island.

It reminded me of scenes from RIvers by Mchael Farris Smith.   Set in a post-apocalyptic Mississippi ravaged by extreme weather, Rivers follows the story of Cohen as he tries to survive in a land abandoned by civilization.  Cleveland was not quite that bad.  Actually it was totally pre-apocalyptic, let’s be real.  But with many streets covered in water it felt oddly desolate.  Delta State was on Spring Break and the lack of students adds to the sense of isolation.  Standing near a flooded roadway it almost felt as if all the people had left and will never return.

Back where I’m from this sort of thing is unusual.  Rockland and North Jersey have plenty of areas prone to flooding, but I did not live in them.  Occasionally we’d have the odd hurricane, most recently Sandy, but it was rare to be completely trapped.  So even in very heavy rain, I did not have to worry much.  Thus I have the privilege of ideally wondering what would happen if the rain never stopped.

I spent the weekend following all the rain in Memphis which did not have things nearly as bad.  Driving up Highway 61 it felt as if I was on a never ending causeway traveling between disparate islands of civilization.  There were low hanging clouds and rain.  On all sides of me, fields had turned into lakes.  Streets had become rivers.  Buildings and cars stood out from flooded lots like ruins of a long dead civilization.   Even a week and a half later rivers are still swollen although the sun has come out and the waters have receded.

Such is life in a flat, flood plain.  There is also this whole El Niño thing.  All told Cleveland got around 15 inches of rain in 4 days. The town seems to have handled it well.  The local emergency management department put out a call through the local paper asking for information on property damage so they could report it and try to get a federal disaster declaration.  Delta State resumed operations the day after it closed early.  The local Domino’s even posted directions on Twitter to help people in certain parts of town find their way home.  But the power stayed on, my fridge was still stocked, and my car remained above water.  As with the winter storms we’ve had, everything was  blissfully boring.

There is of course more rain in the forecast.  However I am confident we’ll get through it.  This is spring so stormy weather is to be expected.  And in any case summer is a few months away.  Before I know it we’ll all be melting and praying for rain.  In the meantime here are some pictures from the flood.

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Turn Up the Music! Thu, 10 Mar 2016 01:34:38 +0000 IMG_20160305_100238_smallLast weekend was special in Cleveland. A major project, which had been underway for five years, finally reached completion. I am referring to the Mississippi branch of the Grammy Museum. Many people have heard of the Grammy Awards and the organization behind them, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. They have a museum out in LA which “explores and celebrates the enduring legacies of all forms of music, the creative process, the art and technology of the recording process, and the history of the GRAMMY Awards, the premier recognition of recorded music accomplishment.”1 Unbeknownst to most outside the Delta, the Recording Academy has also been quietly building a second branch right here in Cleveland, MS.

Neil Portnow, President of the National Academy of Recording arts and Sciences
Neil Portnow, President of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences speaks at the Grammy Museum Opening

The whole thing has been in the works for nearly five years. The Recording Academy wanted to expand their brand outside of Southern California and after extensive thought and planning (plus a fair amount of lobbying of course), they selected Cleveland as the location. The museum is physically located on Delta State’s campus and sits right next to Highway 8. The University put in a lot of work, including relocating part of its golf course, and leased the land to the Recording Academy. Actual construction started early last year and after several delays, culminated in the opening ceremonies on Saturday.

On the inside the museum is wonderfully sleek and modern. Far from being a collection of dusty old records, there are dozens of computer terminals presenting information from the history of the Grammy awards to the history of the music industry. There’s a recording booth, a dance floor, and even a set of instruments which play into headphones. The designers even included a section devoted to the history of music in Mississippi. It is equal parts entertainment and education making for fun for the whole family. Best of all much of the museum, if not all of it, is unique to our location. So rather than air dropping the one from LA into the middle of the Delta, the designers created something special which reflects the rich history of the region. Sadly I have few pictures of the inside. I only saw it briefly a few days prior to the official opening and did not get a chance to really explore much.

Right about now many of you are wondering exactly how the second branch of the Grammy museum ended up here instead of New York, Memphis, or Nashville. Part of the answer seems to be the local chamber of commerce. When the Recording Academy began looking into locating their new branch in Mississippi, key figures in the chamber supposedly began lobbying for it to be located in Cleveland. Sadly I don’t have much more inside baseball although the town is said to have contributed a significant amount of money to the museum’s construction. However the location is definitely appropriate given the significance of the region. The Delta Blues was invented nearby at Dockery Farms.   Many great Blues musicians came from the Delta and so it has a rich history. Since Cleveland is geographically in the center of it along its major thoroughfare the Grammy Museum would be just the thing to get people to stay in town for a while. So a lot of folks have been excited by this for quite some time.

Privately, however, people seem skeptical. Cleveland is still two hours from the nearest airport. There is still little to do around here beyond Delta State and the Blues Trail. So it is hard to imagine tourists flying in from across the country just to visit the Grammy Museum. Perhaps Blues tourists will be motivated to give Cleveland a second look, but not many people are expecting success.

All the same, these sorts of things can thrive in small towns. Cooperstown is one-tenth the size of Cleveland and pretty much in the middle of nowhere yet the Baseball Hall of Fame is located there. Jackson, NJ is similarly far from anything yet Six Flags Great Adventure is there. And Mount Rushmore is in a more isolated location than Cleveland. So an optimist can say the Grammy Museum stands a chance.

Then again, maybe not? We need to remember this is the Delta. Cooperstown has a quaint charm to it and is located not terribly far from an interstate highway in upstate New York. Six Flags is also located near a highway and has the advantage of being in the Northeast corridor not far from Philadelphia. And Mount Rushmore is, well a mountain. Profitable or not it is going to be there for the next 100,000 years or so.

To be honest I’m not sure which side I’m on. The Grammy Museum is awesome and having it here is a helluva coup for a small town. But the criticism is well taken. The Delta is the Delta and I doubt even a great new museum will substantially change its fate. The region is still dealing with decades of out-migration and under-investment which have left much of it desolate. I am confident the Grammy Museum can spur some growth and business for the area, but the long term trends are what they are. It is going to take much more work to change them.



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A Suburb of Nowhere Sun, 07 Feb 2016 18:49:02 +0000 Cleveland has a lot to offer for a small town. There are restaurants, shops, bars, hotels, a university, even museums. Given that the population is only about 13,000 people, it’s very impressive. Furthermore there is a strong community. The people seem genuinely happy and the problems of the world very far away. Cleveland is a comfortable place to live.

In some ways the town feels like a suburb. There are things to do, places to eat, and friendly neighbors. However Cleveland does not have big city problems such as traffic and crime. The people are friendly and most everyone knows everyone else. With all the town has one expects to find a major metropolitan area hidden somewhere in the cotton fields. Except of course there isn’t one. You have to drive over two hours in any direction to find anything approaching a big city. In between there is nothing, but farmland and poverty.

Living in Cleveland is like living in a bubble. All those friendly people don’t seem to care what the outside world thinks of them. They blissfully go to and from work, Kroger, and Walmart spending Friday nights at Delta Meat Market or maybe Hey Joe’s. It is all a self contained world centered on Delta State University. The school looms large here and is the sole reason Cleveland does not look like Clarksdale or Greenville or any of the other Delta towns. Fortunately the college is going nowhere. So there seems to be so little need to do anything differently.

Yet step outside the safe boundaries of the white community in Cleveland and reality quickly intrudes. A few days ago I attended the wake of a colleague’s relative. Driving up along South Chrisman, I saw block after block of run down houses, dilapidated corner stores, and rusted cars. The faces, of course, were all black. Then comes Court street and suddenly its all shops and familiar territory.

Make no mistake there is a wealth gap in Cleveland. The racial divide is somewhat blurred, but is there all the same. The white and black communities might as well be separate towns. They exist in different areas and don’t really mix. I have yet to see many examples of overt racism, but its legacy is on display for all to see. Sadly I don’t have statistics, but if I did they would not be encouraging.

In the grand scheme of things Cleveland is insignificant. It’s a small college town in the middle of nowhere. Few historical events of note have occurred here and it has no real claims to fame. For a while I bought into the idea that Cleveland, MS is the best place on earth. Then I traveled outside it. Returning home in particular helped put things in perspective.

Yet Cleveland is also unique. Somehow this small, insignificant town has managed to attract a diverse population. There are college professors from all over the country, international students from many countries, TFA corps members from all walks of life, and more. It’s as if there is some inverse hellmouth drawing people into the land of the lotus eaters. You see once here, many people don’t want to leave. Life is cheap, friends are close, and anything you can’t get at Walmart is available on Amazon. Only the reality of better employment elsewhere pulls people away.

It’s hard to say what the future holds. The Mississippi branch of the Grammy Museum opens in about a month. There is a lot of buzz about the number of tourists it will attract. Personally I am skeptical. Delta State, meanwhile, is going nowhere. Yet thirty miles away one can find its mirror image in Mississippi Valley State University. It too is a regional university. Being a Historically Black College and University there is little appetite to merge the two school although the idea has been floated in the past. So for now life in Cleveland continues on as it always has.

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On the Mighty Mississippi Sun, 01 Nov 2015 19:41:03 +0000 As you may recall there are several events which occur in October.  I wrote about one recently.   Another is the Mississippi Library Association’s annual conference.  It happens every year around mid-month.  As the name implies, it is a gathering of librarians from around the state.  There are the usual panels and presentations, plus an awards dinner and breakfast.   2015 marked my third year attending.

In addition to seeing friends I don’t meet very often, the conference gives me the opportunity to travel around the state.  Mississippi is a bigger place than people realize and there are some areas I would not otherwise have visited.  Vicksburg and Biloxi are two examples.  This year it was held in Natchez.

Located an hour south of Vicksburg, Natchez is one of the oldest cities in Mississippi (and indeed in the whole Mississippi River Valley) being founded in 1716.   At one time it was the capital of the state, before being replaced by Jackson.  For a very long time, Natchez was a port city where the cotton and sugar grown on the surrounding land was shipped out to elsewhere in the US as well as overseas.   Eventually the structure of the economy changed and Natchez along with it1.

Magnolia Hall in Natchez
Magnolia Hall in Natchez
Main Street, Natchez
Main Street, Natchez
Downtown Natchez at night.
Downtown Natchez at night.





Its story is similar to many places in western Mississippi including the Delta.  Like Vicksburg, Clarksdale, and Greenville Natchez had its hey day long ago.   All of these places thrived on cotton production which generated great wealth for those few who controlled the trade.   The signs are still visible in the mansions lining the streets of Natchez and Vicksburg.  However where the Delta has fallen into decline Natchez has been able to capitalize on its heritage.  The city today survives primarily on tourism and to an extent on revenue from a pair of casinos located near the city.  The same is true of Vicksburg although Natchez pulls it off much better.  The city has far more shops and restaurants not to mention bars.   While last year I ended up eating most meals in my hotel and sitting around, Natchez offered more in the way of places to go.  I even was able to get some fudge at a shop downtown.

Chocolate/Vanilla swirl and English Toffee fudge
Chocolate/Vanilla swirl and English Toffee fudge

Interestingly Natchez is a city of only about 15,000 people which is not much more than Cleveland.  However the two places could not be any more different.  The latter is essentially a college town with some ambitions to be a center of blues related tourism.   The former is a once thriving center of commerce now turned into a tourist destination.  Natchez really does not feel as small as it actually is.  Population statistics don’t paint a complete picture of a place.  The number of people living in a given town is less important than how the economy is structured and how wealth is distributed.

It remains to be seen if Cleveland can capitalize on its heritage the way Natchez has.  This town does not have as illustrious a past being primarily the home of Delta State University.   Certainly there are efforts to bring people in – the Grammy Museum for example.  However there is little to keep people here for more than a day.  Where as places such as Natchez have more of an urban feel, Cleveland really is a small town.   The buildings aren’t as big and there isn’t as much to do.   Certainly there is no convention center here as there is in Natchez.  In the end its more about the resources a town has more than its population.


More Images of Natchez

King's Tavern
King’s Tavern

First Presbyterian Church
First Presbyterian Church

Natchez at Dawn
Natchez at Dawn

Synagogue in Natchez
Synagogue in Natchez


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