Thursday, September 23, 2010

god knows what you'll hear here...

in addition to god's ability to know exactly where it is that we are in relation to the rest of humanity despite the difficulties many atlases and mobile gps apps have in doing likewise, it turns out the old bearded and muscular man in the sky also knows what we will hear on a daily basis as we go about our life in the middle of nowhere.

okay, maybe not. but i've certainly heard a lot of things that you don't really hear everyday in other parts of the world. and i'm not talking about the way things are said; we've been over that already. i'm talking about the actual stories that you hear.

take, for instance, my conversation with the fine gentlemen at a local tire store. i walked in to get some new tires for my truck and walked into a conversation i couldn't have made up. this place we live is dominated by farmers and apparently farmers have amazing stories.

while i can't do this one justice here just imagine me, or yourself, it really doesn't matter, standing across from a farmer relating a story to myself and the mechanic about a cow that received two barium enemas that were supposed to cure its ailments, but resulted in it spewing some pasty white liquid all over a trailer just as it was being taken out to be appraised for sale. in a fitting end to the tale, the judge who saw this rather disconcerting event take place simply began yelling, "bloat! bloat! bloat!" and the cow sold for half its worth.

oh, did i mention i heard this story twice? someone came in as the farmer was yelling "bloat!" and clearly wondered what the hell was going on, so we were all blessed with the enemas again. thankfully only in story form.

not to be outdone, this story came only hours before i attended my first volunteer fire department meeting. epic. while most of what happens at these meetings cannot be shared for both insurance and decency's sakes i can share that it was generally what you might imagine happens when you combine fifteen men from 26 to 65, equal parts business and pit-stops, one spittoon, and several folks tapping the rockies. perhaps the only thing i can share is that when i told everyone that i was a writer by trade, one fine young gentleman asked if i wrote porn. i don't. i promise.

well i guess i can share one more, even though i didn't technically hear it that night. as we were sitting around doing our voluntary fire work, someone made a comment about one man's tank. that's right. tank. not, hey jim how's that jeep treating you? or i heard you got a new shotgun, bob...apparently one of my neighbors owns a tank. in case you're wondering, the answer is yes. he does fancy himself a vigilante at times. i remembered reading a story about some guy in mississippi who chased a man charged with robbery through a cornfield in a tank, and going through one of those seth myers/amy poehler really!?! skits in my head. what never crossed my mind is that i would one day be able to see his house from my front porch. it's funny how things work out, isn't it?

on a more serious note, when you live out here in the land of corn fields sometimes driven with tanks, you'll also hear things like, "i had a very faulkner experience today." no one in dallas walks around thinking that. on the other hand maybe they feel like patrick duffy every now and then. what my neighbor, the guy who shared his faulkner like experience with me of sitting with a man who doesn't fit in the culture around here which is different from the culture elsewhere where he also feels uneasy, was getting at was that out here just about anything is possible. and if it's possible, someone will probably share whatever happened with you and what they tell you will either make you laugh, cry, or do both for very different reasons. and you can't even begin to make up these stories in your mind. they're so much better when they're true.

images from here and here

Monday, September 13, 2010

going once, going twice...

"well, my family has a house up in the mountains on a lake, and we go up there in the summers, and there's this cute little general store that we go to, and there's this guy who works there who wears overalls and no shirt and he has very few teeth."

this eloquent, run-on response was given in a college english class that i took in response to the professor wondering about our perceptions of people from the mountains as we prepared to study charles frazier's cold mountain. once she finished waxing so poetically, i figured i'd just sit this discussion out and hear what my colleagues had to offer about where i grew up.

i learned a lot. people from the mountains are dumber, less attractive, and more likely to both own a gun and fire it at will. their sense of fashion is vastly outdated and they are more likely to fall in love with a person across the room if the room is in their own home. i also learned that owning a second home somewhere does not make you a local expert on anything except tax codes and that it's difficult to agree with someone's assessment of anything when they choose to pose for playboy's girls of the acc spread. ok, i already knew that last thing was true.

after sitting through this painful display of amateur anthropology, i began to look at where i grew up a little differently. months before that discussion i was chomping at the bit to get out of that little mountain town and all the backwards people i couldn't take anymore. i thought i was surrounded by a lot of dumb, gun-toting, tooth challenged people who didn't see what the world had to offer them if they'd just step off that mountain for a little while. but to hear some other people make those comments stirred up some familial ties i didn't know i had. it was like they were all my little brothers and sisters and while it was perfectly ok for me to mock them, under no circumstances could anyone else do the same.

i even started watching my favorite documentary differently. in high school some friends of mine convinced me and several other guys that we needed to see this movie called hands on a hard body. contrary to popular opinion it is in fact not a porn flick. it follows about a dozen folks in a small town in texas as they vie for a new pick-up truck. when i was fifteen, it was comedic genius. the misplaced references to highlander, the super jesus-y lady who thought god told her to sell her truck before the contest because she was going to win this one, the former marine with a literal shag carpet chest. gold. all of it.

but then i watched it after this discussion of mountain people (sounds like a show on tlc) and got really sad. they weren't acting or trying to be funny. they wanted that truck so they could use the rest of their income to oh, i don't know, feed their families or pay their rent. they joined the marines because there weren't really other options for them. they needed that truck and they were willing to stand up with one hand on it for close to a week just to get it.*

i couldn't get this film out of my head the other night when we went to a local auction. i tend to think of auctions as events where furniture and personal effects are sold at decent to astronomical prices. at least i tended to until the other night. when the first items up for bid were boxes of fudge rounds and other little debbie treats, i had to withhold my laughter. but then people started bidding on them. all of them. they were gone in about a minute.

and that's when i started wondering if this was how the auction usually went, if it was a sign of the economic times, or if it was just a chance for friends to have a yard sale in auction format and we just happened to show up. once the woman in front of me started asking serious questions about the quality of a small teal bell and the "flavor" of the incense, i realized we were at a serious affair.

there was a caller, his bedazzled partner who took down all the purchase information, and two rather unique individuals hawking the various wares of the show. one man in his hawaiian shirt, vietnam vet hat complete with head lamp and the personality of benny hill; the other could be described accurately by my friends in english class.

while the wares didn't always seem auction worthy to us and at times it felt like watching whose line is it anyway as the vet and his buddy ran through their jokes about everything they picked up, one thing became obvious. if it didn't serve an immediate purpose (nourishment, replacement or repair, etc.) it didn't get bought. that is, except for the ladder golf set we took home. we also bought a t square, so i can start building some stuff around the house that we later learned is made from some cancer causing chemical. awesome.

this was a purely utilitarian auction. what can i get for the least amount of money that will do my family the most good? apple jacks > teal bells. my father-in-law would've found a lot of partners in crime here.

maybe folks from the mountains, rural america even, are the way those geniuses in my class described them. stereotypes do come from somewhere, but i think there's something more behind it. life's a little slower and even a little more practical for those that live there. that doesn't mean it's an idyllic existence by any stretch of the imagination. i can't imagine that a place where you're willing to take off for a week to stand next to a truck that you may or may not win or go to an auction every week to buy foodstuffs is completely pleasant all the time.

all i'm saying is that day-to-day operations take precedence over the frills and extras life has to offer. sometimes that order make things hilarious, sometimes it makes them sad, but it's always real and just as entertaining as living anywhere else.

*note: the jesus-y lady is still hilarious and always will be and the the film is still comedic genius in my opinion.

photos by boone and joey joey joseph

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

rural grammar, part ii: pronunciation

i think everyone has an embarassing story about mispronouncing a word in front of a bunch of know-it-alls at one point or another in their life. in my family there are tales about fat-i-gue and ep-i-tome.

in eighth grade i was given the the word diphthong in a late round of the annual spelling bee. being the confident speller i was and having heard mrs. avant (pronounced as southern as possible with emphasis clearly on the first syllable) clearly say dip thong, i thought to myself, "nailed it," even before the office was a glint in ricky gervais's eye. "dipthong. d-i-p-t-h-o-n-g. dipthong," i said confidently. no need for it to be used in a sentence or to wonder about its language of origin.

i started to give myself a pat on the back and make my way to the final group when i heard mrs. a-vant apologetically tell me that i was wrong and would continue my streak of never winning anything academically, athletically, or socially. well, i told myself the last part. she just told me to have a seat.

if she'd wanted me to spell diph-thong, why didn't she just say so? i spelled what she said, and since when is the h in ph silent? we don't talk on the pone or get lit listening to pish! oh that's right, it's not silent, mrs. ay-vant, eighth grade english teacher. and yes, i will take the title you stole from me even if vince young won't take the heisman he got jobbed out of.

thank you gary larson for summing up my pain.

here's the thing. i'm not sure she knew what a diphthong was, and i sure didn't. (i thought it was the kind of garment will ferrell thought that olive garden waitress was wearing in old school.) but if i had corrected her and said, "actually mrs. av-aunt, you pronounce both h's in the word," two things would have happened. first she would have told me what a pretentious little brat i was and then she would have given me some lecture about how it actually is dip-thong and who was i to question her on pronunciation. she would have been right on both accounts.

when it comes to pronunciation, beauty and everything else is in the eye of the beholder, especially in rural america. towns and counties across this fine country of ours are pronounced in ways foreign even to the foreigners for whom they are named.

ball-i-ver county to you, my friend. no
offense simon, but your revolutionary success in south america won't get you very far here.

i think pronunciation is part local accent and part our quest to incorporate all languages into english. for example:

el dor-ay-do, kansas...
think if they'd just translated it. welcome to the golden one, kansas. who wouldn't want to
go there?

buena (byoo-na) vista, virginia...
lovely view, incomprehensible pronunciation.

kosciusko (ka-zee-es-ko), mississippi...
sorry george washington's polish engineer friend, thaddeus ko-shoos-ko, but can you blame
us? the colonies weren't exactly teeming with poles back then.

we rural americans even tinker with the pronunciation of english words. i mean, why wouldn't we? there's a small town in north carolina where the thing to do on a friday night is cruise through downtown. when you look at the town's name on paper, there are four distinct syllables. when you pronounce like everyone who lives there does, there are two: rutherfordton becomes ruv-ton. don't ask me how. it just does. you can ask any sixteen year old you see on main street on a friday night provided he or she is willing to interrupt the cruise.

then there are places like belzoni, mississippi. named for italian explorer giovanni belzoni. unlike other places, locals and anyone seeking to elude ridicule says bel-zo-na. this makes no sense. english is my first language and i took 12 credits of italian in college and in neither language does an i make an uh sound.

there are also places like, oh, the state of arkansas. arkansas is a french pronunciation of a native american word that we americans decided sounded alright with us, so we kept it.

none of these, however, top what some small folks are willing to do to ensure that you spell their town's name correctly. i give you exhibit a: lurand, missisippi. exhibit b, guin, alabama, to follow after my next trip through the yellowhammer state.

there's another town i recently drove through called durant, and while there's no sign to tell me how to pronounce it, i now know it doesn't sound anything like the way nba stud kevin durant pronounces his name. i applaud these towns for their willingness to help folks like me, the son of a speech pathologist, to avoid making the embarassing mistake of mispronouncing their town's name and bringing shame upon myself and my family.

before you hop on the train and start railing on these places and these people for the "incorrectness" of their pronunciation, think about those news reporters that friend you have who just decided after spanish class one day to start trilling all his r's or that friend who took french and subsequently thought jimmy buffett was a boob for mispronouncing and misspelling his own name and that formula one needed to choose between grand priks and grahn pree and quit splitting the difference.

once you remember how annoying they were, you'll realize shakespeare was right when he talked about the rose. the v in "bolivar" might not sound like a b here, but the honoring of ol' simon is still there, so who really cares? sure things might be accented differently and syllables might be muddled together, but it gives a little character to the places we call home and is a welcome reprieve from the other places that continue to look like you could be anywhere. chances are ruvton, durant, and buena vista have something you can't find in a target, a starbucks, or a pep boys.

photos by boone, cartoon by gary larson found here

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

longer, broader, and a hell of a lot more relaxed

perhaps the greatest difference between rural and urban life is the notion of time and space. hours are still hours and miles are still miles, but their use and perception are decidedly different. at least that's what i've come to notice living in out here in god knows where, america.

i remember first noticing this in college. i grew up in what you could call a rural part of america. ok, well it wasn't that rural, but rural america was closer to me then than i am to a grocery store now, so go with me. i never noticed how different the pace of life could be in two places only 90 miles apart.

in winston-salem, meals were things eaten between meetings and classes. they generally lasted only twenty minuted because there was always something to get back to: a paper, a meeting, an important episode of joe millionaire or the real world/road rules challenge. (i hear your judging laughter. just remember who thought the hills was riveting television. not me.)

when i would go home for a weekend, time seemed to stand still. the nights were longer. the days were filled with conversations that meandered from topic to topic with few, if any, discernible shifts. meals were events. this was, in part, due to the fact that most of them involved witnessing and/or participating in the cooking and cleaning as opposed to grabbing a sandwich and fries, gulping them down, and sending the tray down a conveyor belt.

when we did eat out, it was leisurely and filled with conversation. friday nights out for hamburgers and sunday lunches at a local sub shop were never less than an hour, and nothing seemed wrong or wasteful about that use of time.

i'm thankful to know the same is true with my in-laws. i'll hazard a guess and say 40% of our time in their home is spent in the kitchen, 40% is spent on the sun porch talking, and 20% is spent doing whatever else there is to do. it's fantastic. i don't know exactly what it is about small town and rural life, but the sense of time runs counter to the time our urban friends feel.

time doesn't just slow down at meal time. you'd think rural americans were all buddhists with the way they live in the moment, and by living in the moment i mean having a conversation at the post office counter or on the sidewalk in the middle of an afternoon walk. i spent three hours with a woman talking about quilting and her family this morning. i can tell i'm adjusting back to life in rural america because i loved every minute of it.

but it's not just time. space is different as well. when you live in rural america, there's generally a lot of space between you and whatever it is you are headed towards or whatever it is you need. this is especially evident when driving. the roads are straight and the horizon is flat.

in atlanta, or any city for that matter, your sight distance in a car is often impeded by buildings, billboards, or buicks. you can generally only see as far as the next apartment complex or shopping area. the same idea applies in appalachia only its not buildings that block your view, but rather mountains, so while you might not be able to see very far, the only thing coming into your view is nature, not neon lights.

here where we are, you can see literally as far as is humanly possible. if a human eye can discern a shape or a color in the distance, that shape or color can be be seen.

this depth to the view has the ability to play tricks on you when you drive. a stop sign in the distance may appear to be a couple hundred yards away when in reality its a mile away. i can't tell you how many times i've started to slow down for a stop sign only to end up creeping in first gear for a couple of blocks.

even more than the illusion of distance, there is literally more space to be seen. there are more stars to be seen here than i've ever seen before. the other night, our neighbors built a little fire in the yard and we sat out there drinking, getting to know one another, and enjoying a cool evening that i hope means fall is near. late in the evening, robert, our next door neighbor, and i walked down toward the bayou and looked up to see what we could see. i was speechless.

there had been very few occasions in the last three years when i was graced with a night sky like this one. no clouds. no rain. no street lights dimming the view. no buildings or advertisements blocking the great unknown. we could see the milky way. i don't think i remembered until then that you can see the milky way.

it's a similar feeling to standing at the ocean and thinking about swimming to england or mexico or whatever landmass is closest to you beyond the horizon. you simultaneously realize how small you are in relation you are to everything outside you and how amazing it is that you even have the chance of comprehending all there is out there.

rural life offers a different way of thinking about and seeing time and space than urban life - longer, broader, and a hell of lot more relaxed. sure, there's a lot to be said about the productivity that a faster pace of life breeds, (i'm just as waspy and driven by the protestant work ethic as anybody) but there's also something to be said for being able to see as far as the eye can see and for being able to enjoy a meal and the company around you. i'll take that any day.

path photo by boone, town photo from here

Friday, September 3, 2010

which do you prefer?

you know when you're at some meeting for the first time, and the person in charge asks everyone to share their name, where they live, what they do, and their social security number (well maybe that's just me)? well, usually these "get-to-know-you" games often end with sharing an interesting fact about yourself. an example would be to share whether you like the mountains or the ocean better. if you're like me you choose mountains, but wish you could choose mountains at the ocean so you could go cliff diving, but that's neither here nor there.

what they will never ask is whether or not you like the mountains, the beach, or the landlocked plains of the rest of the country better. i mean who's really going to say, "ooh ooh, me, i'm for the plains. they're so lovely and flat."

well, having moved to the plains of the mississippi delta (which is in fact not near the gulf of mexico, but rather in the northwestern part of the state between the mississippi and yazoo rivers) i'm starting to rethink my answer. i might just be that guy who will jump up and down voting for the plains the next time i'm in a small group where the leader asks the mountains/beach question.

why, you ask? isn't this

much more appealing than this?

don't tempt me with your colorful autumn leaves and your lush and wooded trails. i said i was starting to rethink my answer.

one of the more revealing things about the mountains/beach/plains question is that it points out our connection to the land, whatever that land may be. humans have been tied to the land for...well forever. as soon as there were enough of us around to start getting territorial about things, we started claiming land, thinking the more land we had somehow made us better than those with less, and trying desperately hold on to what land we had in order to make a living.

our relationship to the land is easy to forget when we live in cities with enough pavement to cause a creek to flood a city (i'm looking at you atlanta), but when this is what you see out the front and back of your house, it's easy to remember.

i had the pleasure of spending an afternoon earlier this week with a lawyer from the small town where i live. he told me about what life was like in this place when he was growing up. he even recalled that he never saw his grandfather without three things, his pocketwatch, his wallet, and his pistol. his grandfather was a farmer at the peak of this place's existence. it's safe to say just about everyone who lived here depended on the land they worked for their well-being.

advancements in technology have taken that percentage down a bit, but still the overwhelming majority of the economy here in the mississippi delata is farming. corn, soybeans, rice, cotton. they're all kings here. and they will be as long as the soil stays fertile and people keep tilling it.

but more than the history of farming in this are, this lawyer told me to listen for something. he said to listen to how people describe where they live. "ask them where they live and they'll say, 'i have a place across 49 or over the bayou,'" he said.

there's a sense of belonging when you say you have a "place" somewhere. i know when i've lived in other places, i've always just said, "i live at/in/behind." there's no sense of belonging when all you can say is that you live somewhere. everybody lives somewhere. others might say "i stay at..." which is much more transient than having a place, but much more specific than living somewhere.

i'm not sure if this is a local thing relevant only to folks in the delta, but i'm inclined to think it's true for anyone who lives in a place so tied to the land. i mean, when you look around and see field upon field upon river upon field, it comes as no surprise that people want to know where there place in the world is. if all you see is the natural world, it's easy to wonder where you belong and to stake your claim.

i guess the same can be said while you're standing on a mountain top or wading in the ocean, but for most of us those moments are occasional and sometimes interrupted by a plane advertising free parasailing or a crotchety old man complaining about the wind after he drove up the other side of the mountain for a view from the visitors' center.

for now, we have a place here.

trail photo by timmy, all others by biz and boone

Thursday, September 2, 2010

rural image of the day...

hitt, mississippi

rural grammar, part i: the apostrophe

colloquial language. it's a beautiful thing. it brings life to our various parts of the world and is perhaps the single greatest factor in determining someone's whereabouts. an accent here, an elongated syllable there, and voila! you know where someone is from...or in the case of george w. bush where they pretend to be from. (bush scholar john william ferrell will back me up on this one.)

just think how boring it would be if we all sounded like me, monotone and with no recognizable accent. there's no need to keep thinking. it would be terrible.

but colloquial language doesn't stop with accents. there are idioms and reference points that also play a part. some make their way into mainstream american english. one can cut off, cut out, turn off, or flip off the lights, and depending upon where this person is from they will do only one of the above despite the fact that there is no cutting or turning involved in making a room dark, and generally that jerk that just cut you off going 70 down the highway gets flipped off, not a light.

that being said, i have been astounded at the use of apostrophe in rural America. it's truly baffling at times. i cannot tell you how many businesses i have driven by here in the mississippi delta that buck all grammatical trends when it comes to naming. you would not believe some of the names I have seen written down if i introduced the people to you. some uses are passable, a plural that could could possibly be construed as a possessive, a made up word, or one that's just misspelled in which case the problem goes a lot deeper than possession.

take for instance, this lovely restaurant in cleveland.

at first blush there's nothing wrong with it, right? wrong.

well, i guess you're kind of right. it would be more awful if it were possessive. the crustaceans would then be marketing their crawfish, a member of their very own family, for your enjoyment. no one wants to eat crawfish served to them by an actual red lobster. it's just weird. that's why chik-fil-a uses cows to sell chicken. they get this distinction.

but then again, it might actually make more sense for it to be possessive seeing as crawfish are a member of the crustacean family so ipso facto the crawfish do belong to the crustaceans.

seeing as no arthropods actually own businesses (yet) the name for this establishment is all the more confusing. if they'd just call it "Crustaceans" there would be no problem. i would know that when i walk in the door i will be offered any number of exoskeletal creatures soaked in butter, and not simply crawfish. there would be tanks full of rubberbanded crustaceans waiting for consumption. anyone could get behind that...well almost anyone. sorry to those who keep kosher and anyone who's actually adheres to being a vegetarian. (fish is just as much a meat as anything else that comes of a bone.)

it wasn't until i drove through cleveland and clarksdale, ms one afternoon that i realized the problem is being compounded by national chains like walgreens and americas best value inn.

according to a walgreen company stock holder, "Walgreens dropped the comma years ago. Yes, that makes it incorrect, but that’s what they did. Look at your Sunday sale insert or a Walgreens building. No apostrophe. Sad, but true."

sad indeed. since when do companies get to mess with grammar at will? there's no poetic license in acknowledging that mr. walgreen is now responsible for thousands of convenience stores/pharmacies. it probably had something to do with the cost of the signs.

americas best value inn is no better. granted they do operate in Canada, the US, and Mexico, but the last time i took world geography those three made up north america, a single unified continent. so really they only serve one america until they open a cozy little inn down in Rio for the 2016 summer olympics.

really, they're just lazy.

and probably canadian. i'm just saying.

in addition to the blatant misuse of apostrophes by businesses in rural america, there is the over abundant use of apostrophes in names. the name "Leroy" is no longer a single five letter name, but now can be written any number of ways given the introduction of the apostrophe into child naming: Le'roy, Le'Roy, L'roy and so on and so forth.

really the only proper use of the apostrophe in that last example is the last one because it replaces the e. but who will be stopped by such logical thinking? not walgreens, and certainly not any expectant mother who thinks "Le'roy" has a certain je ne sais quoi that "Leroy" does not.

don't get me wrong. i would love to have a name with some flavor. when your name means "from britain," there's really no way but up to go when it comes to adding flair. but i don't think randomly placing an apostrophe at the syllable break gets it done. look at where it takes you.

i'm sure as i continue to live in rural parts of america, i'll continue to confront this and other grammatical misappropriations, so check back for more.

for now i leave you with this actual name and hope you can guess how to pronounce it. it is a real name of a real person and i can get someone who knows this person on the phone if you don't believe me. there are no apostrophes in it. i'm done with them for now.


i can't wait to read your attempts.

coming soon: pronunciation.