Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Quotable South, Part 7: Storytelling

Storytelling and copulation are the two main forms of amusement in the South. They're both inexpensive and easily procured.
--Robert Penn Warren

So, this entry is a bit of an elaboration on some of the things I already covered in The Quotable South, Part 6: The Drawl, but a recent conversation reminded me that there was more still to be said. There is always more still to be said. For now, I'm just going to skip addressing the "copulation" half of Robert Penn Warren's quote above. Whether sex is inexpensive or easy to procure in the South is debatable, I think. (Well, at least one of those is debatable... I'll leave it to you to guess which one.)

If there is something of Heidegger's with which I totally agree, it's that you never really notice something until it's absent (or broken). An anecdote: I was having lunch the other day with a few new acquaintances. One of my lunch-mates, a Delaware native, was regaling us with a story that, as far as I could tell, was intended to be funny or interesting or both. And, bless his heart, he was bombing. I mean, seriously, it was long and incoherent and pointless and overly-detailed and BO-RING. I tried, I really tried, to pay attention and to look engaged, but I just slowly drifted away. And then I thought to myself: You know, this could be a great story. What is he doing wrong?

So, here are some tips for telling a good story (or telling a bad story good):

1. Pick your battles. Not every story is worthy of recounting. And if it isn't, you have to let it go. Maybe you can pick it up again later, but if it ain't ready, it ain't ready. Think of it like a small fish or an unripe vegetable... put it back into the world and let it grow a bit. Maybe it will die on the vine, but maybe it will present itself again as something that could actually consitute a meal.

2. Don't let the facts get in the way. Most of the time, no-one is checking your sources or verifying your details. Embellish a little. Hell, lie a little. Or a lot. It's in the service of a greater cause, and your interlocutors will thank you for it.

3. Find the universal in the particular. Read Aristotle's Poetics. Then, read it again. Then, imagine how you might apply the same insights to comedy (instead of tragedy). Or, in other words, try to formulate Aristotle's lost theory of comedy.

4. Know the punchline. You should know, before you begin, what the ending of your story is. And then you should direct all preceding material toward that end. It's like bulding a house of cards... it's okay if there are points in the story in which your listeners may think to themselves "where is this going?", so long as when you put that last delicate card on top, you inspire something like an "ooooh....aaaahhh....i can't believe it stands up!" response.

5. Don't go down with the ship. If you're losing your audience, ABORT! Don't be a hero.

6. Make it personal. First-person accounts are the best. Even if it didn't actually happen to you, you can tell it like it did (see #2). If it is a tragic story, a first-person account makes it all the more tragic. And as tragedy goes, so goes comedy.

7. Diamonds are a storyteller's best friend. The four "C's" used to calculate the value of diamonds are: Cut, Clarity, Color, and Carat. Translate those into criteria for judging your story. Then add more color.

There you go. You're welcome.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Good Life

I stopped at the gas station yesterday to pick up some milk and noticed that the cashier had a (pretty mean-looking) shiner on her right eye. I asked her what happened, and she told me this terrible story about her bruise: Apparently, she's been living in Memphis for the last 3 years with no air conditioner, but recently was given a window-unit by her grandmother. She lives alone and was trying to install the AC by herself. When she went outside to adjust the unit, it fell out of the window and hit her...hard. She was knocked unconscious and, to make matters worse, when she came to her leg was trapped under the window unit. She said that all she could think to do was ask the Lord for help moving the AC and to thank him that someone had provided her with one, even if it had proven to be somewhat of a Trojan Horse. At that moment, her landlord drove up and rushed to help her. They finished installing the AC together and she returned to her new cool apartment just a little worse for the wear.

It was a heartbreaking story really, and I told her that I was sorry for her misfortune and that I hoped her injuries didn't take too long to heal. This is what she said:

"Oh, honey, don't you worry about me. I'm too blessed to be stressed and too anointed to be disappointed."

And there you have it.

The Critics Strike Back

A while ago, I noted Eduardo Mendieta's review of Adams' Habermas and Theology. Mendieta hit the nail on the head by opening his review with the claim: "Adjoining two nouns in the title of a book is like writing a blank check to 'cash.' One better know who is receiving the check and one better make sure to have sufficient funds when it gets cashed. " It was a brilliant and biting rhetorical flourish, of which I am still jealous.

However, there is a new contender for my jealousy. In Tim Maudlin's recent review of the new collection Truth and Realism. Maudlin lambasts the essays contained therein for their inconsistency. The essays were collected from a conference by the same name, and Maudlin argues that the participants seemed to be talking past one another, rarely agreeing on what the issues at stake were, thus producing a generally incoherent collection that never seems to hit the mark. But, at the end of his review, Maudlin singles out one particular author (Timothy Williamson) and delivers the following coup de grace:

"Williamson's final paragraph begins: "In making these comments, it is hard not to feel like the headmaster of a minor public school at speech day, telling everyone to pull their socks up after a particularly bad term." I cannot speak for the participants at the conference, but my own reaction to being compared to a wayward British schoolboy was: So who died and made you headmaster?"


Friday, June 22, 2007

Celebrating Soulsville, USA

Tonight is the "50 Years of Stax" reuinion concert here in Memphis. As you probably know, Stax Records was a cultural/musical phenomenon rivaled only by Motown, Elvis, and the British Invasion. Stax recording artists included: Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, the Staples Singers, Wilson Pickett, Albert King, Booker T & the MGs, Luther Ingram, Rufus and Carla Thomas... and the list goes on and on. (For a great history, check out Rob Bowman's Soulsville USA: The Story of Stax Records.) Some of those artists are reuniting tonight for a concert to be hosted by Chuck D.

Of course, I arrived back in Memphis too late (and too poor) to get tickets, but I imagine it will be a night to remember. I love, love, LOVE Stax music. It reminds me of home. It's gritty and sexy and soulful and raucous. It makes you hungry. And its sound is as big and as mysteriously beautiful as the Mississippi River.

So, everyone, find yourself an old Stax recording and give it another listen today. I recommend Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally." It's one of those songs that you've probably heard ad nauseum by every cover band in every dive-bar in the country... hell, you've probably drunkenly sung along to it more than once. Ride, Sally, Ride! But listen to the original again. And try to figure out just what it might take for you to write a line like: One of these early mornings, you're gonna be wiping those weeping eyes...

Thursday, June 21, 2007

This Is Your Blurb!

Just before you go on the academic job market, everyone tells you that one of the most important things you can do is to figure out a way to distill and encapsulate your entire project into a roughly 2 minute soundbite, otherwise known as a "blurb." This is a difficult, but immensely practical, endeavor. Chances are that you are the only person who is actually interested to hear all the gory details of your fine research point in footnote 245. So, you take all that work you've done, you throw away the bones and you get to the meat of the matter. No frills, no subtleties, no "problematizing" or "calling-into-question" or "investigating-the-limits-of"... just the facts, maam. And then you repeat your blurb over and over again to yourself, then to your friends, then to your potential employers, then to your committee, until it flows from your lips automatically and you hardly notice anymore the ideological hatchet job underlying it. It just becomes second-nature, like belching.

What people are less aware of, in my view, is the need to also develop what I will call the Minor Blurb. Now, as everyong knows, the Major Blurb is the one you use to get a job, to show off to your academic friends, and to introduce yourself at conferences. To use some terminology that I hate, the Major Blurb is the ready-to-hand (sometimes, present-at-hand) tool that aids in the worlding of your world. But, the truth is, your non-academic friends and acquaintances won't understand your Major Blurb. If I were to say to my new neighbors, for example, that I "deconstruct the concepts of truth, forgiveness and memory in order to investigate the aporetic nature of social and political decision-making"... well, all they would probably hear is that I "blah the blahdee blah, blah, blah in order to blahdidee blah blah."

Especially for those of us in philosophy, the quagmire immediately following the question "so what do you do?" is already familiar. If you are lucky enough to get past the next stage ("I am a doctor of philosophy in philosophy.") without any visible bruises or having to explain that, no, that doesn't mean that you can offer counseling to your interrogator or prescribe him/her drugs, then my advice would be to prepare yourself for the next question: "What kind of philosopht do you do?" IMMEDIATELY DISCARD THE MAJOR BLURB! Here, the Minor Blurb is your friend and your shield. Make sure that you have it handy, that you've practiced it to the point that it's all shiny and pretty, and then deliver it quickly, confidently, and without any eye contact that might encourage subsequent questions.

Then, I suggest you follow-up with something like, "so, do you think it's going to rain this afternoon?"

Monday, June 18, 2007

Random Awards

So, I'm giving The Quotable South a break for a bit. This morning, I've decided to share with you some random bits that deserve, in their own perverse way, an award.

Greatest News Headline This Week on MSN.COM:
"Travolta Spurns Daylight"
So, apparently John Travolta and his wife are night-owls. And Scientologists, in case you just fell off the turnip truck. As reported in the article, Travolta not only tends to go to bed very, very late every evening, but he also flies his personal plane several times a week to the Scientology Center in Clearwater, FL where he "gets his thetans cleared out through the practice of auditing." Now, if I were the author of this article and I had to pick which of these practices is weird enough to serve as the tag for my piece, I think I would have chosen the thetan-auditing. But then again, I would have never thought to describe a night-owl as someone who "spurns daylight." And that's why gets the award.

Greatest Sex Scandal sans Any Actual Sex:
Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton versus Atty. Richard Fields
I'm still re-acquainting myself with Memphis politics, but this week I had a not-so-rare opportunity to dive back into those murky waters head-first. Our Mayor, Willie Herenton, was (allegedly) the vicitim of a "sex scandal conspiracy." But it's even better than that, becuase it was a thwarted sex scandal conspiracy. (Memphis must be the only place outside of Hollywood where you can get "sex", "scandal" and "conspiracy" in one pop.) One of Herenton's opponents supposedly hired an ex-exotic dancer to lure the Mayor into a sexual encounter, which she was encouraged to videotape, presumably for the purpose of diminishing Herenton's chance of being reelected in the upcoming mayoral elections. Good thing for the Mayor, she was an ex-exotic dancer with a heart of gold, and told Herenton all about the conspiracy ahead of time. No word on what happened to the videotape.

Greatest Overheard Conversation:
"Jake's" friends, unnamed, on the D.C. Metro
I really overheard this conversation a couple of weeks ago when I was in D.C. Two guys, early-to-mid-twnties, got on the Metro and took the seats behind me. It went like this:
GUY 1: Dude, guess what happened to Jake?
GUY 2: He had to register as a sex offender?
GUY 1: Yeah
Note to the kids out there: if the first thing that you guess about your friends is that they had to register as sex offenders, then either (1) you need new friends, or (2) you need to immediately set up your own fortune-telling business. Let's hope for the second.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Quotable South, Part 6: The Drawl

A Southerner speaks music.
--Mark Twain

Southerners can probably say "shit" better than anybody else. We give it the ol' two-syllable "shee-yet," which strings it out quite a bit and gives it more ambience, if words can have ambience.
--Lewis Grizzard

If you are going to be underestimated by people who speak more rapidly, the temptation is to speak
slowly and strategically and outwit them.
--Doris Bettis, on the Southern drawl

It's funny how, after you've been away from a place for a while and then come back, you can see and hear things that you never noticed before. For me, coming back this time, I now notice the Southern accent. I've spent the last 6 years in the Northeast and although I would occasionally hear my parents' or siblings' accents from time to time on the phone, I really had forgotten the immense range of drawling variations that strcuture the rhythms and tones of language down here.

In my second year living in Philadelphia, one of my grandfathers told me that I "talked like a Yankee." I assumed that this must be true and that I had lost my Southern accent. (I was quickly informed by friends and strangers alike that this was not the case.) I've never really been able to hear my own accent, but I know I have one. I've tried (very hard at times) to lose it, but it appears that is a futile endeavor.

Just a couple of random remarks on the Southern accent. First, I think people underestimate the kind of prejudices associated with having a drawl. I spend most of my time around academics, and I have a Ph.D. in philosophy, but I still get the impression that whenever I meet someone for the first time and open my mouth, they immediately make a fairly standard set of assumptions: (1) that I'm un- or under-educated, (2) that I am socially conservative and/or fundamentally religious, (3) that I'm secretly racist, and (4) that I love country music. (Well, I guess 1 out of 4 ain't bad...) I like Doris Bettis' quote above because it recognizes the way in which an apparent handicap can be turned in one's favor. There are a lot of advantages to being underestimated, not the least of which is that it can be played like an ace up the sleeve. Silly, silly Yankees... bless their hearts.

Second, there is no adequate linguistic substitute for the word "fixin'". Believe me, I've tried them all.

Third, in my view, Southerners don't just have a unique accent, but a unique relationship to language in general. According to Roy Blount, Jr.: Southerners think words are like people. Peculiar people. Mix a bunch of them together and you can't tell what might happen. That's so true. I think that Southerner idioms are always either hyperbolically overstated or hyperbolically understated. Constructing the perfect euphamism is a fine art here. As is perfectly recounting "the one that got away." I like to say that I don't tell funny stories, I tell stories funny. That's an inheritance of my region and my family that has proved immensely useful over the years.

I'm not sure if anyone is still out there reading these posts. Comments? Anyone?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Quotable South, Part 5: Subtle Differences

My father would say that the only difference between Mississippi
(which was a dry state) and its neighbor Tennessee,
which was wet, was that in Tennessee a man
could not buy liquor on a Sunday.

--Willie Morris

I've always been perplexed by the differences in blue laws from state to state. Blue laws are designed to enforce moral standards, particularly the obserevance of Sunday as a day of worship or rest, though the only type of these that is regularly enforced is the prohibition of alcohol sales. But what I find especially intersting is the difference in blue laws in the North and the South. I would have assumed, before I knew any better, that they would be more strict in the South than in the North. And I would have been wrong, wrong, wrong.

So, here's just a little cultural trivia about Tennessee's blue laws. Here, you can buy beer almost anywhere (including gas stations and grocery stores). Liquor and wine are sold together in independent stores. You cannot buy liquor or wine on Sundays, because those stores are closed. You can buy beer on Sundays, but only after 12 noon... that is, after church is over. The one interesting local variation is that you can't even be served alcohol on Sundays until 12 noon. That means, of course, that if you go to Sunday brunch, you must wait until noon before your waiter can bring the mimosa.

In a related bit, Tennessee has for a while solved its budget shortfalls with "sin taxes," or taxes on socially-proscribed goods like alcohol and tobacco. The Tennessee sin taxes apply to cigarettes (by the pack), wine (by the gallon) and liquor (by the gallon). Oh yeah, and since I've been gone, Tennessee has gotten the lottery, I guess in order to compete with the casinos just over the river in Mississippi.

I just wanted to note that, contrary to the conventional wisdom that figures the South as socially conservative, the blue laws here are far more lax than in any of my recent homes in the Northeast (New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut). Pennsylvania is particularly strange in this area. But then again, that's where all the Puritans were...

The Quotable South, Part 4: Heroes and Heroines

I would venture to say that loudly denouncing Emmylou Harris will get you killed in any establishment that serves liquor south of Delaware.

--Steve Earle

Ahhhh, Steve Earle. For all his piss-and-vinegar-laden griping about Nashville, he still will stand up and pick a fight with anyone who hasn't earned the right to criticize its ambassadors like he has.

[An aside: Steve Earle was interviewed several years ago on Terry Gross's NPR show Fresh Air, and she asked him about his time in prison. She wanted to know how many songs he wrote while locked up and whether or not he played those songs for his fellow inmates to test them out. Steve Earle, characteristically, snorted with incredulity: "People have been watching too many movies, I think," he said, "Nobody has a guitar in prison. Only in movies do inmates play guitar."]

There are actually a lot of people (and things) that one shouldn't speak ill of when south of Delaware. Like Bear Bryant. Or William Faulkner. Or, of course, anyone from the "Cash" or "Carter" family tree. It's not that Southerners have a rose-tinted or unrealistically angelic opinion of these cultural heroes and heroines--after all, most of them are drunks, philanderers, ex-cons, rogues or some combination of these. (But, hey, we're all sinners.) It's just that Southerners don't want other people (read: Northerners) coming down here and purporting to possess some measure of expertise about our local food, music, culture, literature, sport or politics. People who aren't from around here sometimes don't seem to know the whole glass-house/throwing-stones equation. And all the houses down here are glass...

Anyway, Steve Earle's comment about Emmylou reminded me of a story involving my grandfather many years ago. He was a mild-mannered man most of the time-- one of those "less is more" people that actually get things done while everyone else is talking about getting it done. He had a dog named Monty (after Montgomery County, where I was born and where he lived). Monty was a great dog but, to be honest, not a real "looker." One day, over morning coffee at the local bakery, one of my grandfather's friends said some negative things about Monty--namely, that the dog was ugly-- which really got my grandfather riled. He came home and talked about that guy for days. As it turns out, what the other guy said about Monty was mostly true, as my grandfather readily acknowleged, but as he explained to me: "It doesn't matter if it's true or not. You just don't talk bad about another person's dog. Just like you don't talk bad about another person's children. I can criticize my own dog and my own kids, but if some other man wants to come up here and criticize them, that just ain't right. I gotta defend them."

Consider yourself warned.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Quotable South, Part 3: There's Just Something About Deep-Fried Lovin'

It means, "I love you. And I'm sorry for what you are
going through and I will share as much of your burden as I can."
And maybe potato salad is a better way to say it.

--Will D. Campbell, on the tendency of Southerners to bring
food to families in mourning

If someone asked me what one of the best meals I ever had in my life was, I would have to say it was a plate of fried chicken, greens and pinto beans that I ate just after the graveside service for my grandmother several years ago. I don't know who cooked it and I don't know what made it taste so good. We're all exhausted after funerals--so much ceremony, so many people, so much of both laughter and sadness--and maybe that created an appetite in me that would have found anything delicious. And there was certainly a lot to choose from, as is always the case after funerals. Neighbors, churchmembers, coworkers, the guy who delivers the mail, the kid who cut the grass, not to mention every cousin from the farthest branches of the family tree... everyone is there and everyone brings food. The plates wrapped in aluminum foil, the cassarole dishes and the pie pans stretch out in and endless line of quasi-sinful sustenance. And all of it is good.

I like the idea of sharing food as a way of expressing love, sympathy, companionship, whatever. It has deep roots in the church tradition of "breaking bread together." It seems thoughtful in a way that a card or a potted plant only imitates. It recognizes something really profound, but really mundane-- you just can't do anything when you're hungry. Not even manage your own grief. The food is, of course, impermanent... but so, so memorable.

I've had many good meals with family and friends already since I've been here. (A practice that I must curb post-haste!) I'm happy to have eased back in to this place where people feed each other emotionally by feeding them physically.

And I hope--I really hope--that my friends and family cook up a mean storm when I'm dead.

The Quotable South, Part 2: Gittin' Religion

I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.

--Flannery O'Connor

First of all, if you aren't familiar with Flannery O'Connor, by all means stop reading this immediately and go find yourself a copy of A Good Man is Hard to Find. Make sure you're sitting somewhere hot and humid when you read it, preferably accompanied by a tall glass of sweet tea or an ice-cold Coca-Cola. And extra points if either of those beverages has a nip of spirits in it!

Southern religion has changed little over the years. No wait.... let me start again...

Southern religion has changed a lot over the years. Well, actually...

It's like this: religion, like sweet tea and family gossip and anything deep fried, is still one of the cultural glues in the South. It still serves as a manner of defining and distinguishing people. It still gives structure to community and time, both of this world and the next. But, over the years, churches have become much more corporate, much more politically savvy, and much, much wealthier. My father used to advise that one should steer clear of any church with a gymnasium... because that indicated that the congregation's money was going to the wrong place. Now you can hardly find a church without a gym. Here in Memphis, we have Bellvue Baptist Church, which is bigger than a mall and has three lighted crosses which sit just off the interstate exit that (allegedly) can be seen from space at night. Bellvue has a congregation of over 9,000 people. (No, that's not a typo!) But, somehow, even with all of those people, Bellvue congregants report the same relationship with their church and its members as any other small, backroads worship hall. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I'm not sure that I can really add much to Flannery O'Connor's insight. I think she's right that Southerners of all religious persuasions--by which I mean, of course, all Christian denominations--are somewhat "haunted" by Jesus, much in the same way that you would be with a ghost that took up residence in your home. Whether you attend to that presence or not, it's still there, it's still powerful, it still shapes and misshapes your life and activity, and there is no exorcising it. You might as well heed the advice that every grocery store clerk, gas station attendant, and bank teller in town will give you: "Have a blessed day."

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Quotable South, Part 1: Keeping Up With The Joneses

Every Southerner alive, at many, many points in his or her childhood, heard the words, "But what will people think?"

--Julia Reed

I love this quote by Julia Reed (author of The Queen of the Turtle Derby and Other Southern Phenomena). I used to say that the structure of the Southerner's psyche is different from the rest of humanity's in this way: the Southerner doesn't need a superego, the Southerner has neighbors.

I'm not sure that one ever shakes this sense of self-monitoring, but I was reminded of my own proclivity for it on the day that I moved into my new house last week. As my movers shuffled in all of my furniture and boxes, I sat on the front porch (yes, in my front porch swing) checking things off of an inventory list. Of course, the inside of the house was in total disarray, as it always is when one moves. But the only thing I could think about was the fact that the hedges that line my front porch were overgrown and mis-shaped, and obviously had not been tended in some time.

Now, what should I have been doing? I should have been unpacking, organizing, and cleaning up the inside of my new home in order to make it livable as soon as possible. But what was I doing on that first day? You guessed it. Cutting the hedges.

Why did I do this? Well, the only thing I can say is that in the convoluted process of Southern reasoning, I concluded that the neighbors couldn't see the inside of my house, but they most certainly could see the outside. And I knew, looking at the outside, that something simply had to be done about those damn hedges.

After all, what would people think?!

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Back Online, Memphis-Style

Well, I'm just about all settled in now. And, surprisingly, it's neither hot nor humid. Or maybe I'm acclimating more quickly than I thought... At any rate, the weather is beautiful, the city is familiar enough to be comfortable but changed enough to be interesting and, most importantly, I am happy to report that my fear of arriving hear and finding out that I didn't know anyone in town anymore has proven NOT to be true. Whew!

To aid this transition, and to keep you all posted on my new environment, I've decided to devote the next couple of weeks of my postings to the South (or, as my friend Kristen likes to call it, the "dirty dirty"). I'm going to take famous quotes about the South and try to expand on them a bit. I'll call this collection The Quotable South and I invite you all to weigh in as you see fit.

Hope y'all are still out there...