Sunday, December 30, 2012

These are Uncivilized Times

Manners separate us from the animals. Some have speculated that it is our ability to accessorize (Steel Magnolias), some that it is our ability to dance (Pride and Prejudice), but face it: manners mark our culture as civil or otherwise.  Maintaining our standards of actions towards others allows us to move freely through the world, without sparking a riot.

In the land where I hail from women with good manners are often referred to as "belles" which is fine, despite the reality that many of them are rough and tumble, tomboy sorts who lack the alluring femininity that "belle" conjures up.  Men typically are called gentlemen when they know enough to behave in public, which again, is something of a misnomer as there are scads of Southern gentlemen who are certainly not gentle in their appearance or upon initial meeting.

Florence King, a fellow Southerner and writer I occasionally read, once wrote something to the effect that ladies and gentlemen are people who use their manners to keep others from feeling uncomfortable.  I couldn't agree more. It matters not if you're high or low born, charging down the hill to 80 or up it to 30, truly if you use your Mama-handed-down maxims to save other peoples' feelings, you are to be commended.

At various times in my life I have confused this civility with being a doormat, have mistakenly believed that if I wasn't in someone's face I was being a coward, wallflower or worse, a follower.  As I've matured I've come to the realization that, shockingly, I was wrong. Turns out I can passionately state and defend a position without making someone else cry. I can draw attention to modern problems without insulting someone's intelligence. I can even, occasionally, refrain from lecturing the poor people of lesser intellect that infest my daily world.

My Mama told me that ladies do not smoke, eat or drink while walking down the street.  I only smoke cigars, always seated, and do most of my illicit eating and drinking in a car, like most Americans.  The one exception I make is at festivals or parades when I will walk around swilling whatever's being poured and eatin Jell-o shots, but at those moments, since everyone else is too intoxicated to notice my lapse in grace, I figure it matters not.

Mama also said, as did her Mama, and I'm assuming hers as well, that ladies cross their legs at the ankle, not the knee, lest the world form inappropriate assumptions about your private life.  It makes me cringe to see younger women violating this rule, but I have hope that with the ascension of the Duchess of Cambridge, perhaps they'll imitate celebrity in an appropriate way going forward.  I personally circumvent this Mama-maxim by wearing pants (a lot) and sitting like a gentleman, with my knee on my ankle.  This is mostly due to a love affair between myself and food, which doesn't allow the slutty knee crossing, but also the love affair of my parents, which resulted in my legs being so short that crossing them at the ankle makes my feet dangle like a kindergartners' in church.

The women who raised me had a whole slew of rules regarding bodily functions, as you might expect.  I never once heard any of them, or any of the men in my life do things that cruder humans find so funny on cable TV.  This one I take to heart, believing that intestinal gas is something best kept to yourself at all times.

Just a year or so ago I was mortified to violate this rule for the first time in public.  Sitting in a sterile exam room, a gastroenterologist snaked a camera down my throat in attempt to discern why I was having trouble swallowing.  I was in a bit of a twilight fog, though it couldn't have been heavy enough, when he removed the camera and to my lasting shame, was treated to an enormous belch to the face.  Automatically, as my cheeks flamed, like any good belle, I followed that expulsion with "Oh, my goodness.  I am so sorry". 

Despite obviously not hailing from my part of the woods, he was a gentleman too, as he assured me that it was of no consequence, and mercifully, thoughtfully, signaled to the nurse to increase my meds, pushing me deeper into the fog where I couldn't be haunted by my very serious show of bad manners. Mama would have approved.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Zac Brown Gave Me Conjunctivitis

Zac Brown, I'm so mad at you.  Being a grown, capable type person usually means I can drive to work, listen to music and prepare myself for the day.  Yesterday was, evidently, a horse of a different color altogether. 

There I was in my Jeep, minding my own business, when your heartfelt crooning about our shared home invaded my awareness. You sang about pine trees, pecan (that's PEE-CAN, say it with me) pie, peaches, and fried chicken. You invoked the mystical whispering pines. You even had the audacity to mention Mama.

Out of nowhere I felt this, well, feeling.  It was strange, an odd sort of feeling, one that I'm not really used to.  My chest felt funny enough, that I thought for a minute about swearing off bacon for awhile.  But then my eyes started foggin up, even though it wasn't raining. The smile I had been wearing just moments earlier slid off my face and crashed on the floorboard.

Luckily, the stereo has an off-switch, which I utilized as soon as I realized the severity of the situation. Zac Brown, you made me cry.  If you know me at all, which Zac, I realize you don't, you know that crying is one of those activities I believe was intended for babies, old people and perhaps people in car accidents. Healthy adults should usually reserve such a thing for private time, in their homes, preferably in their bathrooms, with the door locked.

I eventually managed to get myself together, head into the office and do a little work.  Then just a few hours later, while pecking diligently at my computer, I noticed my eyes were doin that thing again.  And no, I was under the influence of no music.  I waited for it to clear up, but when it failed to do so I took myself down to the Minute Clinic, as it is my belief that eyes do not normally fog up and weep for no good reason.

At the clinic the helpful NP confirmed what I had begun to suspect: conjunctivitis.  Which, for me at least, was a relief.  Here I thought Zac Brown had managed to turn me into a weepy, emotional person with no better manners than to cry in public. How soothing to realize that it was only a highly contagious virus in my eye.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Let Me Call You Sweetheart

When you find yourself a brand new parent, it's easy to become overwhelmed by emotion and forget the important tasks at hand. Namely, what the hell are we gonna call this thing?  I found myself in that particular boat almost a year ago when we had a 3 pound shivering, underfed Chihuahua dumped, pretty much literally, in our arms.

We were told his name was Paco, but he didn't seem to be aware of that.  We attempted to rechristen him with several other Latin names, only to be met with blank stares or sometimes, like in the case of the misguided "Nacho" attempt, nothing at all. Two frustrating weeks of this had us pulling out our hair as we searched for the moniker that our lil man would be proud to carry around.

Literary names, think Fitzwilliam and Rhett, were considered and quickly discarded, as were the more obvious Killer and Butch.  Then out of the blue, it hit me: why not call him the name that it seems half the Southern men alive or dead have answered to?  And so our tiny Chihuahua became Bubba, a name he greeted with enthusiastic tail-wagging and plenty of face-licking.

So much has been written about the Southern tendency for naming people in certain ways. We love double names, things that end in Sue or Rae or Joe and most of all things that can be twisted into some interesting alternative. I would know, considering that I have not one or two, but four separate names. 

As a small baby they named me Candis, a family name held in much esteem as it had been passed down from my great-great-grandmother, a reported full-blood Cherokee princess. As much as they all loved the name, almost immediately it was decided to call me Dee Dee, despite my birth certificate saying otherwise. To be fair my middle name is D'Anne, to honor my father and his father (we share the middle D) and from this they created the Dee, which became Dee Dee.

Dee Dee suited me fine until one day, somewhere around 1987, when some bitchy girl at day care called me "Doo Doo".  Clearly, I could answer to this name no longer in the public arena. And so I declared myself to be Candis, as was legally my right, and had all things official, like my yearbook photo, labeled as such from that day forward. My family disregarded this request as a "phase" and have proceeded to call me Dee Dee without pause for 32 years.

Although my public nickname was the double Dee, I also had the pleasure of a family-only name.  My Papa, one of the great loves of my life, had early on forged his own path, calling me Doodlebug. It was his pet name for me, the oldest and for a while, geographically at least, the only grandchild.  I happily answered to that until the last time it passed his lips, just months before he left us.

With three possible nomenclatures to refer to myself, one would think all possibilities had been covered, but no, not quite. We moved to a small  farm in Worth County, GA when I was 8ish. There I learned to navigate in a rural community and blended family. One cousin by marriage, part of that new branch of relatives, accidentally gave me my final nickname.

As my entire family called me Dee Dee, to my frustration at the time, my baby sister took it upon herself to rebel and call me by my given name. The first time our cousin heard her say "Candis", he became confused, or potentially deaf, and heard "Cactus." This he happily called me, repeatedly, for roughly a week before anyone realized the mistake. When it was finally discovered,  he burned tomato red as the whole family shared one hell of a laugh at his misunderstanding.

Cactus stuck, ha ha, and became a common form of address in the family. In my teen years, I went public with the unusual moniker by declaring my camp name to be Cactus: she who is prickly, but soft on the inside. Everyone has always agreed that it suits me more than anyone would've imagined.

All these years later, all these names later, I'm still Candis D'Anne to the public world, but Dee Dee to my Mama and (usually) my Daddy. I'm always going to be Cactus to my camp family; its been 7 years since my last camp season, but if you yell it in Wal-mart, I'm gonna turn around.  Nobody calls me Doodlebug anymore, which makes me sad, though truth be told, it wouldn't mean the same coming out of anyone else's mouth.

Names can impart dignity or strength, beauty or intelligence.  They can emphasize our uniqueness or pay homage to the past. New parents should consider all of that as they struggle with the naming question. Just remember that ultimately, what you put on the documents matters a whole lot less than what you end up actually calling it.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Life as an Ex-Pat

I jokingly refer to myself as an ex-pat, despite the fact that to the unaware mind, I still reside in the country of my birth. A native Georgian, 6th or so generation, raised in the magical land of pines, moss and moonlight, I am currently a traveler on extended stay in a foreign land known as the Midwest.

Up until this fall I technically still lived in the metropolis of Louisville, Kentucky, a Southern city by map lines, if not by personality. Evidently Louisville successfully and stealthily seceded from the South some years ago and has been steadily practicing its twang and brusque mannerisms ever since. Kentucky is a Southern state, but Louisville remains its own little principality here on the banks of the Ohio.

We recently moved across the mighty brown Ohio River to the land of the crossroads. As one friend put it "Indiana is called the crossroads to everywhere, because it is the middle of nowhere."  While the change from Louisville to the Southern Indiana village I now call home was a journey of less than 10 miles, the distance in my head looms large. I am officially "up north", something I once thought would involve living in NYC for a few years while I partied with the literati in SoHo lofts.

For better or worse, here I am and here I will stay for the foreseeable future. Of course if the Mayans turn out to have possessed second sight, this will all be a moot point rather shortly. No doubt my heaven will involve pecan trees, a screened porch and the smell of gardenia.  Perhaps I'll be able to eat all the fried chicken I want, washing it down with a mixture of my mama's tea and some fine KY bourbon, which incidentally is my second favorite thing to come out of KY. The list may only be two items long, but second place ain't bad.

On a recent trip home, meant to assuage my seemingly incurable homesickness, I happened across Atlanta magazine featuring a cover story that shouted for my attention.  "How Southern Are We? And Do We Really Care?" or something of that nature. It's a valid pair of questions, as Atlanta has always, always been a new city, a work in progress that turns its nose up at the uppity coastal dames. As a major US city, home to a huge foreign born population, could Atlanta still be Southern?

I have no answers for the general population, only for myself. We may be a new breed of Southern, but we're still that society working hard to be friendly, hospitable, and a little more gracious than our Midwestern and Northern neighbors. Does it matter? I have no idea and really don't give a damn. It matters to me, my Mama and my Daddy. That's enough.

In a gift shop somewhere off I-65 in northern Alabama I once spotted a wonderful pink shirt that proudly proclaimed "American by birth. Southern by the grace of  God." My companion on the trip thought I was kidding when I began digging through the pile seeking a version that could accommodate my food loving self, until I spied one, declared victory and headed to the cash register. I'd like to say that I now own that delightfully tacky piece of Southern chic, but alas, my steadfast friend managed to wrest it from my grasp and tell me in no uncertain terms, that I would not be leaving with that piece of fabric.

So of course I left empty-handed and dejected, returning to the car to complete our drive down to the Redneck Riviera. After a few or fifty miles of pouting, a realization stole over me that comforted me greatly: my shirt may not spell out my regional patriotism, but anyone who's ever met me knows its engraved on my heart.