Monday, January 29, 2007

A Yankee Amongst the Magnolias - 6

Have you ever eaten just one grit? It's not very filling. ~ Bud Porter

So, after the last episode, the Daughter sends me an e-mail from a friend of hers with severely Yankee roots. It seems that the friend also likes sugar on her grits. Well, that's natural given her anecedents, but then she goes a bit too far. She allows how she likes to add milk so her grits are more like Cream O' Wheat(TM).

Frankly, my dear, that ain't gonna hack it down here amongst the grits trees.

There's nothing wrong with Cream O' Wheat (TM), hereafter referred to as CW, on account of I am a lazy typist. There are even occasional Southerners who will surreptitiously partake of the farina-based product. I was raised on the stuff myself, primarily because my mother was a great believer in food that stuck to one's ribs. Certainly CW will stick to one's ribs, as well as to anything else that it touches. CW is best served with about a half pound of sugar and a quarter pound of cinnamon to give it some semblance of flavor. It's really amazing stuff. When served in its molten state, it does have a grits-like consistency, but as it cools it approaches something more on the order of plaster of Paris. I'm sure there have more than a few emergency repairs done over the years with some left over CW.

In general, though, Southerners are not enamored of CW.

I did find one born and bred Alabamian, one of my co-workers, who admitted to having enjoyed sugar on his grits. Since he served a term in the Air Force, I assumed that he picked up this alien habit in his travels to various postings, but, no, he claimed to have sugared his grits since he was a mere babe.

I was properly amazed. He might as well have said that he didn't like catfish. He did, however, allow that CW was something that had never and would never cross his grits-raised gums. He also recognized that corn bread is never made sweet (strictly a Yankee activity) and the only way to make proper biscuits is to form them by hand from the bowl as you make the dough.

(I cannot do justice to describing the technique, but it's amazing to watch.)

So, I mentioned this unusual behavior to another Alabama native son. His response was to snort, and say something to the effect that the other guy's memory must be faulty. He must surely have picked up the sordid sugared-grits habit when he was stationed in Alaska or somewhere else north of Huntsville.

Clearly, this can be an emotional issue.

Speaking of emotional issues, I think I understated the mania for football here in Alabama in an earlier chapter. I've been an immigrant Alabamian for over twenty years now, and I thought I had seen the total range of angst and joy that Crimson Tide fans can go through. Then they hired Nick Saban to coach the Tide football team.

Now you can find rabid fans at a lot of universities. Texas fans are famous for their love of the game at all levels, from high school to professional. Georgia fans would trade their first born for the chance to babysit Uga for a week. Tennessee followers are actually willing to wear orange clothing at the drop of a coin toss. But nothing prepares one for the reaction of Bama fans to the arrival of Nick Saban.

Coach Saban arrived at Tuscaloosa's airport to find a huge crowd awaiting him. As he and his wife tried to work through the loving mob, one woman broke through and laid a serious lip-lock on the coach. She had to be pried loose. Welcome to Alabama, Coach. Since then, every move Coach Saban has made has been scrutinized, analyzed, and generally dissected into the minutest of details. For example, in his first press conference, people made great note of how genial the coach was. Geniality is not a Saban trademark, so this was remarked-upon as a sign of just how happy he was to be in Tuscaloosa.

A day or two later, he held another press conference, and he was all business, much more serious. That was taken as a good sign, too, as a coach down to the important business of winning championships -- and of beating Auburn.

He showed up at the LSU-Alabama basketball game wearing a shirt variously described as magenta or -- horrors-- LSU purple. I've heard less heated debates over the Iraq war as Saban defenders played down the shirt, while the less-committed (there are still Mike Shula fans out there) wondered if there was some sort of message there. I'm sure that there was; he just moved and that was a clean shirt comfortable shirt that he had to wear.

Generally, the Alabama faithful are pleased to have landed a big time coach with a track record of success (if one tactfully ignores the Miami Dolphin debacle). I do believe they're willing to give him two years to win the SEC championship and three to win the national championship. Why some folks have even had the largess to suggest that four years to a national championship would be acceptable--as long as he beats Auburn immediately.

That's just typical Southern gentility for you.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Reptilian Brain Speaks

The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. ... In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

The BBC, it seems, is taking some heat for its decision to air a program “devoted to the most offensive word in the English language.” To save you a lot of time trying to figure out which word that is, I'll tell you that the title of the program is tentatively, “I Love the C-Word.”

I have a few “c” words for the BBC. The very idea is a load of Crap, a pile of Crud, a Crock, total Codswallop (might as well use one the Brits would understand), a Crying shame, and a Criminal waste of air time. The same BBC that once gave us “I, Claudius” and the rest of the Masterpiece Theater programming now stoops to foul-mouthed soaps, Jerry Springer: The Opera (9000 curse words, including 200 instances of the big F), and phony documentaries on foul language. To show how serious the BBC is about this nonsense, they plan to have a comedian host it.

Yep, definitely a scholarly look at the evolution of the language.

When I broached this subject before, I said I didn't understand how foul language had become so ubiquitous. I think I'm beginning to figure it out.

First, let's separate “bad language” or “profanity” from “swearing”. They are not the same thing, even though in our linguistic laziness we using the terms interchangeably. In the olden days, swearing was serious business, since it was a violation of a sacred commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” If you invoked the name of God as part of a promise or oath, you were bound to undertake the actions promised. If you invoked God to curse someone, you were overstepping your personal authority and opening yourself up to the wrath of the Almighty, unless you had very good cause for such an invocation.

Profanity, on the other hand, came from “profane”, which did not mean dirty or foul language. Rather it meant “common” or “coarse.” The common people lived in a profane world; the language they used to describe it was, therefore, “profanity.” A member of the clergy, an educated person, or a peer was above such “profane” things and avoided the language, but there was nothing wrong with profanity in and of itself.

For example, a farmer talking about fertilizing his field was discussing a “profane” subject, but his language might well be more civil and easier on the ear than anything we hear today from a group of upper-middle class adults.

Somewhere along the line, profanity got associated with vulgarisms. What's hard to understand is how the vulgarisms got to be an acceptable usage in everyday language.

Enter the professorial types.

One Carol Breuss, a communication professor at the University of St. Thomas alibis our dwindling ability to express ourselves by saying, “As a culture, we decide what is a good word and we decide what is a bad word, and that's changing over time.”

Take notes, kids, because that piece of brilliance will probably be on the exam.

Foul language is recognized as foul language. No one thinks the F-word and its kin are good words, and few think of such words as even "acceptable". So the culture still thinks bad words are bad words, but the culture thinks its clever to use them in all sorts of inappropriate settings. Ms. Breuss lays the use of such words at the door of “permissive parenting”, but she also is paraphrased as allowing that use of bad language "may sometimes slip out because part of the brain handles language and part handles emotion. Studies show swearing comes from the emotional, instinctual place.”

So, we're letting the reptile within us control our thinking, and our parents wouldn't wash out our mouths for doing so. Well, that explains Dick Cheney.

What is really frightening is that nowhere in the story does Ms. Breuss think that thinking like a lizard is a good thing. Basically, she is using the “everyone does it” excuse, which is an incredibly lame justification for any action.

The saddest thing is that movies and television try to convince us that foul language is de riguer. I've tried to watch a lot of good films and had to give up because characters dropped so many F-bombs that it was impossible to actually follow what was passing for dialog.

I've got a bulletin for these apologists. I've worked in factories, slaved in restaurant kitchens, and even been a grape picker. Sure I've heard some bad language, but almost all people, white and non-white, managed to express themselves with a minimum of coarseness. I also found that bad language use is based on a sort of feedback mechanism. That is, if you use crummy language, the person to whom you're talking will, too. Avoid it and the other person will as well.

In other words, if we really want less bad language, we've got to stop using it ourselves. We could also decide that bathroom humor, juvenile dialog, and gratuitous profanity in our so-called entertainment media has gone too far. That doesn't mean purging all bad words from films and books, but it does mean using them sparingly so that it is clear that strong emotions are involved when such words are used. The lizard in our heads occasionally does the talking for all of us.

It just doesn't need to control our lives.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Benny Parsons 1941-2007

You know, I guess in a perfect world it would have been different for me. But it's not a perfect world. I may have turned out better off because of it. ~ Benny Parsons

I'm not overwhelmed by celebrity. There are relatively few famous people I'd ever like to meet or to have met. Benny Parsons was one of the few I'd like to have been introduced to. That's because I think Benny was not only an excellent race driver and the best stock car racing analyst of the bunch, but I think he'd have made me feel comfortable and taken the time, if he had it at all, to talk to me as though I was someone who mattered.

Everything I'm reading about him convinces me that I'm right about that.

Benny Parsons was born in the North Carolina backwoods. He somehow made his way to Detroit where he was, among other things, a taxi driver. He got into ARCA racing, which was the northern equivalent of the old Grand National circuit (now the Busch series). Today ARCA is pretty minor league stuff, but then the Cup division of NASCAR was always on the lookout for a promising driver from this circuit. Benny delivered on the promise.

The pure statistics of his career bear this out: Two ARCA championships, 526 Cup starts, 21 wins, 283 top ten finishes, and one Cup championship. He won that championship in the days when consistency counted, before the idiotic “chase” series. Over half the time he ran, he finished in the top ten. Can you realize how hard that is to do?

In my 30-odd years of racing Benny Parsons, I never knew of anyone being mad at Benny. -- Darrel Waltrip.

Stock car racing has always rewarded a certain amount of ruthlessness. Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Darrel Waltrip, and others drove in a manner that made it clear that no one but no one had better get in their way. Yet Benny Parsons raced with the likes of Petty, David Pearson (who was no pushover himself), and Cale Yarbrough and won without seeming to make anyone mad. At least not for long.

He didn't change much when he went into the booth.

He was just an absolute gentleman. -- Don Miller, Penske Racing

Benny never soft-pedaled in the booth, but he didn't go out of his way to say anything bad about any driver. He knew what was going on down there, which is why he made such an excellent partner to Ned Jarrett, who was not so well loved when he drove, but became an elder statesman in the booth. Benny and Ned provided amazing insight into the events of any race. But, you never heard some of their best stuff.

I used to have a C-band satellite dish. It was frequently possible to pick up the uplink from a sporting event which had two wonderful advantages: No commercials, and the chat between the announcers while they were “off the air.” Some sports analysts got into trouble for oogling cheerleaders or slamming a player that they were praising on air. Benny and Ned never would have gotten into trouble. But, during the commercial breaks, they would discuss the racing a little more critically than when they were on the air. They would also get a little more into the technical aspects of racing, which the average viewer wouldn't really care about.

It's a pity, because some of the most incisive analysis I ever heard about a race came from Benny when most folks weren't listening. But, his on-air commentary was top-of-the-line anyway.

B.P. was one of those guys you'd run after and keep chasing, because you wanted to spend some time talking to him. -- Robbie Loomis

That was how he called a race, as though he was talking to you. It carried over to his long-time partners, Jarrett and Bob Jenkins. You were just listening to three guys who really understood racing, who just happened to be sitting in the seats in front of you and were really giving you the inside scoop about what was going on. Drivers and crew chiefs loved to be interviewed by Benny, because he wasn't going to soft-pedal the questions, but he would never, ever try to make them look bad, either.

Even the last time I saw him, he was at Homestead, and had this girl carrying his oxygen bottle, and he's in the garage and he's just as happy as he could be. You knew he didn't feel good, but he still came down to see everybody and wish them luck and hang out in the garage, because that's where he wanted to be. -- Matt Kenseth

Benny raced in an old-timer's series that was floated for a while. The cars had speedometers, which, of course, stock cars normally don't have. He said that if they'd had those when he raced, he never would have made it because if he knew how fast he was going, he'd have been scared to death. I think that's the only time I ever heard Benny tell a lie, because once he started racing, I don't think anything could have kept him out of a stock car.

Millions of people welcomed him into their homes each week through his radio and television work and he became a friend of the family. -- Richard Childress

That's how it felt, like an old friend had come over to watch the race.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Forgotten But Not Gone

The gods too are fond of a joke. ~ Aristotle

Yes, they are.

When we moved to Alabama years ago, we were going through the “where to put it” routine with the movers. You know what it's like. Mover comes in with boxes all marked “Kitchen” and stops to ask, “Where do these go?” In our case, this meant that the Wife would open each box, take a peek, and say, “Kitchen.” As we went along, when she peeked into one box, marked “Den”, there was a small box inside that she didn't recognize. So she opened it and found four wine glasses. Since “Den” was my stuff, she naturally wondered why I had four wine glasses squirreled away.

I was outside, telling a mover where “Living Room” was when she came out and confronted me. I looked at the glasses blankly, because for a minute I had no idea why I had a box with four wine glasses in my den. Then I brightened and said, “Merry Christmas!”

You see, I always did my Christmas shopping the same way. The day after Thanksgiving, I would get up at dawn and head for the stores. I'd come home loaded down with goodies and hide them until I would wrap them, which I'd normally do a couple of weeks later. Well, this particular year, I hid all the presents in my den closet. Worried about the fragile nature of the wine glasses, I put them on the top shelf. Unfortunately, the top shelf had a number of boxes on it that held various kinds of junk that I accumulated over time that had nothing to do with being Christmas presents. So, when wrapping time came around, I simply forgot to check the top shelf.

Six months later, the box magically reappeared as a result of the move, so the Wife got a belated present.

Of course, she was somewhat reluctant at first to believe that her husband was that big an idiot, apparently thinking I had purchased them for some fictional female friend. Then she realized that while I might be idiot enough to forget a present, I wasn't crazy enough to have a girl friend, recognizing that I liked living too much to risk the wrath of a Kentucky woman.

That was 1985.

I've changed my shopping habits a bit since then. The day after Thanksgiving has turned into a complete mob scene, so I make a gift run on the Monday before and do the bulk of my shopping on line. This is nice because most of the stuff comes in boxes which I can leave pretty much in plain sight as long as I keep them closed, reducing the odds of forgetting something.

So, here it is, a week after Christmas, and I'm looking through my den for some electronic gizzy that the Son needs. I dig into one of my cabinets several times, looking for a small gray object in dark corners. I have to keep pushing something in a Wal-Mart bag out of the way. Finally, I decide to see what the heck is in the bag. It was a decorative cookie jar filled with cookies.

Yes, I did it again.

What could I do? I walked into the living room and said to the Wife, “Merry Christmas!” After an entirely too lengthy bout of hysterical laughter, the Wife and the Son asked when I had gotten those. A good question that really bothered me since I wasn't sure whether I had bought them this year or last year. But, thanks to government legislation, there was a “use by” sticker on the jar that said “February 2007”, so I figured that we could eat the contents without too much chance of harm.

They were really good cookies. And this time, the Wife didn't suspect any clandestine cookie-tasting rendezvous with some femme fatale.

Now, the Wife thinks this whole thing is a hoot and getting a delayed present is kind of fun, but, to be truthful, the novelty of looking like a goof is beginning to wear thin. Oh sure, it took 21 years to do it again, but I'm getting older now, so the possibility of another such faux pas looms large. I'd really like to stop doing this. At the very least, I need to stop doing it with foodstuffs.

Next time, they might be past their expiration date.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Gerald R. Ford, 1913-2006

I am a Ford, not a Lincoln. ~ Gerald Ford, when he became vice-president

With Gerald Ford's death came the expected stories about the “accidental president” and the only unelected president. The latter is only technically true, because, let's face it, people vote for presidents, not their running mates. I mean, if voters really based their vote on who the vice-presidential candidate was, George Bush the elder would have sunk beneath the waves with Dan Quayle hanging around his neck. Therefore, any vice-president taking over the unexpired term of a president is unelected. Ford was the first appointed vice president to become president.

Ford had no illusions about the mess that had been created by Richard Nixon and his Merry Band of Burglars. Ford's goal was to put an end to the divisions and move on, a goal he met with mixed success. He was also nearly shot twice, mocked for being clumsy, and defeated by Jimmy Carter. He was an intelligent man who could speak for himself, so perhaps I should let him have his say.
We needed to get the matter off my desk in the Oval Office so I could concentrate on the problems of 260 million Americans and not have to worry about the problems of one man.
I think Ford believed that, but I also think that Nixon made a pardon a condition of his resignation. Whatever really happened (and Gerald Ford has never changed his stance on the pardon), it most likely cost him the election against Jimmy Carter. Picking Nelson Rockefeller as his own appointed vice president didn't help much, but the pardon was a killer. Frankly, given the rest of Ford's term, during which he performed adequately, he should have won. Even though I am a fan of Jimmy Carter for his intelligence and humanitarianism, I think he was not the man we needed in the Oval Office. Unfortunately, the pardon, Rockefeller, and a strange inability to deal with Congress (strange because he was Minority Leader prior to becoming VP) cost him in a close outcome.
Our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works. Our great republic is a government of laws and not of men.
That says a lot about Ford. He believe in the Constitution and the checks and balances built into it. To him, the fact that the Nixon administration's abuses were found out and punished was a demonstration of that. It also played into his pardoning of Nixon. He saw no good in a former President of the United States in the dock along with his henchmen. Perhaps he was right, but I sometimes wondered how he felt about the rehabilitation of Nixon that took place years later. Ford intended forgiveness, not forgetfulness.

The American people want a dialogue between them and their president ... And if we can't have that opportunity of talking with one another, seeing one another, shaking hands with one another, something has gone wrong in our society.
On two separate occasions, potential assassins got within inches of President Ford. Fortunately for him, a Higher Power protected him when the Secret Service didn't, as both guns aimed at him misfired. Lesser men would have decided that the People could just keep their damned distance. Not Ford. He realized that if the President allowed himself to be isolated from his constituents, he would be isolated from their needs.

I know I am getting better at golf because I am hitting fewer spectators.
It started with the stumble down the steps from Air Force 1, a slip on a drizzly day. Had the White House spin doctors let it alone, there would have been a few jokes and that would have been the end of it. But, no, someone got the bright idea to issue a release saying something to the effect that his doctors had proclaimed the President to be above average in coordination and certainly not inordinately clumsy. Chevy Chase went on to make a career of doing Ford-fall-down impressions.

It didn't help that we kept getting reminded in those White House press releases that Ford was a two-way player at Michigan: Center and middle guard. In other words, he got whacked in the head a lot. The comics had tons of fun with that one, too.

Because Ford wanted to remain visible and accessible, his foibles were also on view for all. Other presidents tended to have their leisure moments out of sight of the prying eyes of the media. Eisenhower, for example, was a devoted golfer, but normally, he teed off and said “goodbye” to the reporters. On one occasion, he allowed the press to follow him around. When he had a terrible round, he summarily banned any further media escorts when he was relaxing at Burning Tree.

Ford, on the other hand, was in full view when, during a doubles tennis match, he clonked a serve off his partner's head. On a golf course, spectators had to stay on their toes, as implied by his tongue-in-cheek observation. But, he never hid. Oh, I'm sure he snuck away to play 18 holes with no strangers around once or twice, but he could laugh at himself, at least, once he was sure no one had been seriously injured.

I believe that truth is the glue that holds government together, not only our government but civilization itself. That bond, though strained, is unbroken at home and abroad. In all my public and private acts as your president, I expect to follow my instincts of openness and candor with full confidence that honesty is always the best policy in the end.
Would that our current crop of governmental mediocrities held to that simple but profound philosophy.
I hope and trust that people and historians 50 years from now will write that the Ford administration took over in a very turbulent, controversial period, and we healed the wounds and that we restored public trust in the White House and the presidency. I hope that's how it will be written.
Rest in peace, Mr. President.