I just finished a book called Bettyville. It's by George Hodgman, who grew up in Paris, Missouri, near my hometown, then went to the University of Missouri school of journalism in the 1970s. After graduation, he went off to New York City and became an editor at various magazines.
The book is a memoir of his return to his hometown to care for his 90-year-old mother, Betty, who is resistant to moving out of her home, though her health is failing.
Bettyville is getting lots of good reviews, as it should. It's funny and poignant, and since it's set in the counties and towns where I grew up, and I have a 94-year-old stepmom who still lives in my hometown, I found it very compelling. I have a lot in common with the author. Except he's gay and I'm not.
His memories of growing up "different" in a small town in rural America are sometimes painful to read, but Hodgman writes with wit and humor and grace. I found myself laughing out loud at some of his observations of small town life. But Paris has changed, and not for the better. As he writes, three great forces have destroyed much of rural America: the death of the family farm, Walmart, and meth. And homophobia, while maybe a bit distilled, is still rampant in the hinterlands.
If you need further evidence of that, see the current brouhaha about Indiana's "religious freedom restoration" act, which basically allows people — and businesses — who feel "compelled by sincere religious beliefs" to refuse to do business with gays. It's institutionalized bigotry and there's no way around it. A few decades back, people used the same "logic" to refuse service to African Americans and to those in mixed-race marriages.
The negative fallout has been spectacular and has spawned a "Boycott Indiana" movement. Several major corporations and national organizations have announced they will no longer do business in the state. The state's governor, Mike Pence, has stumbled his way through several appearances on national television, attempting to defend the act. It's a black eye for Indiana, and it will cost the state millions of dollars. And, of course, most GOP presidential candidates are defending it.
It could have been Tennessee suffering through this stupidity. Last February, state Senator Brian Kelsey of Germantown proposed nearly identical legislation in Nashville. It was quickly dubbed by opponents as the "Turn Away the Gays" bill. The reaction was vociferous — in Memphis and Nashville, particularly. Local restaurateur Kelly English vowed to hold a fund-raiser to defeat Kelsey; LGBT activists here and nation-wide raised a stink. Kelsey backed down, withdrew his sponsorship, and the bill died in committee.
Score one for decency and common sense — and for Bettyville.
It's deep in a November night in Memphis, and I'm awakened by rain. It's coming down hard, sounding like a million pebbles hitting the roof. The gutter I've been meaning to clean is overflowing outside the bedroom window. A flash of lightning illuminates the room, and I do what I've done since I was a boy: count the seconds 'til the thunder rolls. I get almost to 10 before I hear a distant rumble. Two miles or so. Someone else's lightning ...