Saturday, November 30, 2013

Black and White isn't just a fashionable color scheme

                One of the after effects of a large meal like Thanksgiving is the propensity to discuss those issues that would normally be avoided by those not on the edge of a food coma.  Tryptophan apparently causes neural mis-firings as well as sleepiness.  As usually happens when someone discovers I am from the South, they immediately christen me as the "voice of my people" and begin the volley of questions.  I haven’t lived in the South for 11 years; apparently my accent is permanent.  Of course I do talk to my sister about every other day and her combination of Southern and East Texas accents could cause Siri to sound like Ellie May Clampett; that may be why figurative magnolias burst forth and surround the words that I speak. 

                The conversational topic that was broached was racism.  Quite naturally, they meant in the South.  As I am used to this specificity, I broadened it to include, if we were forced to delve into the topic, racism everywhere.  It seems odd to me that there is racism period.  In this day and age, most everybody is bi-racial, even those who don’t look like they are.  Take me for example.  To the untrained eye, I look whiter than most Canadians.  In my extreme preppy clothes, I could even be mistaken for someone from Connectichusetts.  Until I open my mouth, that is.  Then people automatically put me on a plantation with Scarlett, Rhett and the lot.

                No one would believe that there is Native American blood running through my veins.  Right along with the redneck blood, should that ever be considered a race.  My father’s mother’s mother was some sort of Native American, no one can remember what so no casino money for us.  However, if you looked at some of my relatives on the Thompson side you see there is something there that’s simply "not white”.  My Dad’s brother, my Uncle JM, may he rest in peace, had the coloring and hair of our Native ancestors.  He married my Aunt Barbara, who is some percentage Hispanic, so their children are very dark complexioned.  I say that to say this, there are very few people who are “all white” so to be uptight about someone’s race or nationality is, well, silly.  If you want to dislike them for their taste in clothing, music or mode of transport, be my guest.  At least I can understand that; whether or not I agree is irrelevant.  

                I also find that most non-Southern Americans, and many members of the media, haven’t updated their opinion about Mississippi since the 1960s.  I find it truly sad to think that much of the rest of the country still assumes that there are lynchings and protests and poor treatment of anyone “not white”.  Of course these are the same people that have kept “Two and a Half Men” on the air looooooong after it stopped being funny, which was halfway through the first episode.  If you like that show, I am also sad for you but in a much more judgmental fashion.  I’m gonna pray for you, heathen.

                What people need to realize, dear readers, is that while there might be people in the South who do not like someone because of the color of their skin, it is more likely that any actual hatred is related more to the color of their football jersey.  Talk about throwing around some prejudice.  If you want to see angry Southerners, just visit Facebook on college football Saturdays.  It is brutal, y’all. 

                As I am one of the Southerners who left the South, it has fallen to me to try to explain the realities, having lived in “God’s Country” from birth through the age of 32.  I have lived in many different locales in the last 11 years including Alaska, Ohio, New England and DC, and I have experienced stupidity and prejudice everywhere. 

                Por ejemplo (which is Spanish), Native Alaskans don’t like anyone that’s not from Alaska, including anyone who lives in Anchorage because “it’s NOT Alaska”.  There’s even a town called Unalaska, which is actually in Alaska, which doesn’t make sense, but you try telling that to an Inuit.  I dare you.

               I can personally attest to blatant racism in Cleveland, OH; the tiny enclave of blue in one of the reddest states on the electoral map.  You might think the blue is from Lake Erie, but you'd be wrong.  Cleveland, while filled with great restaurants and plentiful shopping, smells like freshly mowed dog poop.  Anyone who has ever pushed a lawn mower knows that smell; a subtle mix of heatstroke and indentured servitude. When I lived in Cleveland, there were areas of town I couldn’t frequent, including the famed BBQ Place, Hot Sauce Williams.  My assistant, Valerie (hey girl!) told me she’d have to go get me the rib tip basket, which I allowed her to do but only on special occasions…like Wednesdays.  It was the same for her.  She wouldn’t have felt welcome should she want to have dinner in Little Italy which could have doubled as a break room for extras from The Sopranos, y’all.  I was nervous but the food was too good to pass up.

                I explained to my holiday companions that I am sure there are Southerners who are racist but they typically keep their mouth shut in public.  And there are those whose dislike or distrust may run very near but still under the surface.  But that’s both blacks and whites; it’s not exclusive.  I can’t think off-hand of anyone I know that actually hates somebody.   At most it’s an aversion to spending time with rather than hatred of any particular group of people.  Southerners are ultimately too polite to outwardly display any negative emotion, not related to sporting events or alcohol consumption both pro and con.

                And as per usual, the conversation always veers to the KKK, as if, again, I am the resident authority on all things Southern.  There is a resident authority.  Shelley Rushing Tomlinson is my fake cousin and the actual ‘Belle of All Things Southern’.  Since she’s not here, let me just say that I love me some John Grisham, but I don’t know anywhere I’ve lived in the South where there is a KKK chapter as active as those in his books “A Time to Kill” and “Sycamore Row”.   And I have lived in Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama.  I also lived in Texas and Oklahoma but only some people consider them Southern states, I suspect only because they’ve had so many Miss Americas.

                I don’t personally know nor am I kin to anyone who is or has been active in the KKK.  It’s not an actual club, like the Junior League.  I mean, those who would have that much hate aren’t ones who tend to actually possess event planning skills.  They couldn’t/wouldn’t have a bake sale or run a thrift shop.    These are not the people you turn to when you need energetic assistance to implement your great idea.  Those who I know that might be racist to the extent they would take action are not actually capable of keeping their focus on anything longer than it takes to smoke a Marlboro Light 100. 

                These people are theoretically powerless.  They aren’t on Facebook, other than unknowingly starring in a photo montage of “People of Wal-Mart”.  They are not computer literate.   I daresay they are barely literate.  The Southerners I know are part of the literate South.  The South of Faulkner, Williams, Welty and, yes, Grisham.  The arts and letters of the south don’t spell HATE.  What they sometimes spell is not always fit to print but quite likely amuse while tailgating, sitting in a deer stand or floating down the river.  I have done all three with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

                I said much of this to my guests with my patented look which is a mixture of condescension and pity with a dash of Christian charity. I’ve been practicing, dear readers.  And I did remind them that this new generation, the Millenials, seemed poised to be the first post-racial society.  They don’t seem to be bothered by anything not displayed on their iPads or iPhones and even then it’s mostly met with duck lips and tongue wagging selfies.  This latest trend lays squarely on the shoulders of Mr. Achy-Breaky Heart, father of Destiny Hope Cyrus.  Yep, I did it.  I called out Billy Ray.  It's time to assign blame.

                I just hope that the Millenials remain otherwise occupied with Kimye and skinny jeans and don’t ever feel compelled to actually listen to Uncle Bo Jimmy Jack and absorb the hatred that he may be spouting in the privacy of his 1966 Chevy truck up on blocks in the front yard because Lord help us all if someone that backward gets the skills to utilize an iAnything or figures out how Meetup works. 

                All we can do is pray hard and pass the Fritos, bean dip and everything from the left side of the Hardee’s menu.  We’ll keep ‘em so full of grease and protein that if they ever get a mind to wreak havoc, the gout will keep them stationary.  Gout hurts, y’all.

                And I think I’ve said more than enough for now.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Uncle Dusty's Guide to Literature

                I recently attended a Q&A session/book signing for James Franco’s book, Actors Anonymous with my friend Teresa (Hi Teresa!).  I’m not quite sure if I'm a fan, and I'm also not really sure the genre and I haven’t actually read it yet but something he said during his talk I found interesting.  When asked how he is able to portray such a wide variety of people on screen, he said he finally learned how to “relax into (his) character.”  And I think that is what I have done with this blog; relax into my voice.

                When my friend Liz Shellman (Hey Liz!) suggested I chronicle the life I would lead once my Dad moved in with me, I tried to figure out just how I would say what I wanted to say.  She suggested that I “write like you talk, dude; it’ll be all good.”  That right there is some sage advice from one of my favorite Texans. 

People ask me if I’ve always been a writer and the answer is…sorta, kinda, not really.  I have always been a story teller but I haven’t always excelled putting pen to paper.  While I may have entertained at telling stories, I have found it difficult to have that same kind of connection when writing.  A writer has an edge because they can stop and think of the perfect thing to say or to formulate a brilliant quip.  Storytellers just say what they are going to say, for better or for worse. 

                And my “voice” when telling stories has remained pretty consistent; my “voice” while writing has definitely improved with age and practice.  Anyone who read anything I wrote in high school knows I was a very dramatic writer.  And not in the good way.  Were Nola Faye Boyd alive, she could attest that my first foray into short stories, the ludicrously titled “Forever, Meredith”, was a painful exercise for both writer and reader.  I can’t remember the specifics but I do know there was a jilted blind girl and, well, do I need to go on?

                Although I considered my first book A Gone Pecan (and if you haven’t purchased it, why not?) as a way to capture the essence of my mother, I have summarily been informed by innumerable people whomever’s voice is (the narrator) Cady McIntyre, it is most definitely not my mother’s.  I guess it’s mine were I to be a middle-aged woman.  When I sat down to chronicle my relationship with my father, I finally felt, at age 41, that I could just be myself, warts (or should I say, farts) and all. 

It took me until the ripe old age of 40 to stop being concerned with people’s opinion of me.  I would like to think it’s because I have become much more at ease with myself and have settled into a comfortable maturity.  Although, full disclosure, it may be because I think I am fancy enough to pass muster with anyone, should they be so inclined to ponder the wonder that is me.  Let’s go with the maturity thing.  It sounds better.

                I have recently been gifted with the newest novel from one of my favorite writers, Donna Tartt.  My best friend Christopher knows the connection I have with her first novel The Secret History and he very thoughtfully sent me a copy.  It has been sitting on my bedside table taunting me and I am, frankly, a bit nervous to start as I was disappointed with her second tome, The Little Friend.  Pondering that got me to thinking about other books or authors that have excited, illuminated, saddened or affected me profoundly and I thought I would share with you Uncle Dusty’s Guide to Literature.

1.       Candide by Voltaire.  The book that helped develop my cynical view of “classics”.  Seriously, overrated as is most of William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The only positive outcome of publishing The Great Gatsby was the Brooks Brother’s Gatsby Collection. 

2.       In Cold Blood by Truman Capote was the book that caused a fundamental shift in my reading habits to heavily non-fiction.  Other non-fiction favorites include Isaac’s Storm and The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson; although, I did not like his In the Garden of Beasts.  Two other interesting reads are Fingerprints by Colin Beavan and Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine.  Kim Powers’ Capote in Kansas is a fictional take on Truman Capote while visiting Kansas writing ICB.  It is excellent.  Demonstrating how hysterical non-fiction can be is Will Cuppy’s The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody.

3.       A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.  The first book to make me actually laugh out loud.  The second book that caused a lot of LOLing was Yeah, I Said It by Wanda Sykes.  The book that made me scream and throw it across the room was The Amityville Horror.  I don’t care who wrote it.

4.        Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich was the book that caused me to re-think my views on the working poor.  It also made me able to admit without embarrassment that my family has, at different times, been on food stamps and lived in a motel.  The working poor, whose number increases daily, is a shameful reality in this country.

5.        The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett and 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff are the two reasons I appreciate the novella.

6.       The memoir that helped me realize that although I am a product of my family, I am fully in control of the outcome of my life was The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.  Other surprisingly good but not life-altering memoirs are My Life in France by Julia Child and Vicki! by Vicki Lawrence.  One that was absolutely hilarious but vulgar in parts was Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson.  The memoir I wanted to like but didn’t was Ali in Wonderland by Ali Wentworth.  I only kept my copy because it’s autographed.

7.        Andy Warhol’s Diaries edited by Pat Hackett was the book that started my weird fascination with New York Society.  Interesting, funny and surprisingly down-to-earth, Andy Warhol was the master of observation.  Other Society-based non-fiction I’ve enjoyed is Philistines at the Hedgerow by Steven Gaines, The Last Mrs. Astor by Frances Kiernan and Empty Mansions by.

8.       The best book that made me uncomfortable was The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.  Difficult subject; beautifully handled.

9.        Microserfs is the book that introduced me to the genius of Douglas Coupland.  The book that made me his lifelong fan was Miss Wyoming.  The book that he signed when I met him in Alaska was Hey, Nostradamus!  He brilliantly did a reading…of John Grisham’s The Client and found a haiku about a hushpuppy!

10.   The best John Grisham book is A Time to Kill.  The next best is A Painted House followed by Skipping Christmas.  Yes, I know it was a terrible movie; the book is excellent!  Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt is one of my all-time favorites.  Clint Eastwood’s massacre of the movie is repugnant.  You can’t blame the source material, people.  On that note, I think the Harry Potter movies are the best example of my liking both the book and the movie; all eleventy-hundred of them.

11.   The books that made me want to befriend TV stars were Bossypants by Tina Fey and Is Everyone Hanging out without me and Other Concerns by Mindy Kaling.

12.   The book that began my devotion to all things British and mysterious was The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley.  All 5 entries in his Flavia De Luce series are exceptionally good.  The book that started my anglophilia was Gone With the Windsors by Laurie Graham.  Other books that have fueled my obsession are Royal Sisters by Anne Edwards, Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn and The Windsor Knot by Sharyn McCrumb, although the last one is only remotely British.

13.   My appreciation of peeks at other writer’s journals was sustained by Bill Bryson’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself, The Know-it-all by A.J. Jacobs, Reading the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) by Ammon Shea and The Unlikely Disciple by Kevin Roose.

14.   The book that tells you it’s awesome?  The Book of Awesome by Neil Pasricha, of course.

15.   The impetus for my lifelong relationship with music trivia was The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits by Fred Bronson.

 All this book talk has me itching to read “The Goldfinch” now.  I’ll let you know what I think.