Posted by: e/m | August 18, 2010

The Character[s] of Place

It’s difficult to sum up any place, but it’s especially difficult to sum up San Francisco. I suspect this would be a challenging task for anyone, but it’s particularly daunting for me. In trying to explain San Francisco, I feel like I’m trying to explain my identity.

But it’s also hard because it also works in the reverse. Just as places make people, so do people make places. And there are a lot of different types of people in San Francisco. As an example, consider a cross-section of attendees at a free gypsy jazz concert at the de Young museum in Golden Gate Park, recorded in shorthand on the “notepad” function on my cell phone: “pointy elf shoes, red velvet pantsuit, crazy psychologist lady/killer boyfriend, russian fur pillbox hat, pink neon pants, man? in sari, spontaneous eastern european dancing.” (No need for comments. “WTF” a given.)

Obviously, not every event has this many characters, and granted, I’ve highlighted the most interesting ones. But it is true that San Francisco’s full of wacky people – and also wonderful ones. Some of my favorite stories are of serendipitous encounters with strangers – a teen with a cure for drunken hiccups; a man singing with two girls at a bus stop; a woman with a magical orange.

I wish I could retell these stories, but I have neither the space nor the time, nor, if I’m being honest, the ability. So much is lost outside of the experience.

So, with the admission that I will not, and cannot, do these people justice, I leave you with a collection of quotations – things I read, saw, or overheard. They are not in any order, and they do not represent San Francisco in its totality. But they represent a piece of it, or perhaps pieces, and snippets of what we know as that insane, wondrous thing called life. California! That crazy place. Here’s to San Francisco.

“Uggghhhhh I need a job/sandwich”
Text from a San Francisco friend

“A man is stopped for riding his bike on the sidewalk and is found to be transporting crack cocaine and marijuana. There’s a lesson here somewhere.”
City blotter, Tenderloin
7×7, August 2010

“Wharf rats. They love each other.”
Hot pink sticker on the window of a back door, Pacific Heights

“How’s your day been?”
“There’s still time.”
Conversation between a bus driver and boarding passenger, Marin City bus stop

“We had a party for Jerry’s birthday.”
Man on an adoring first-name basis with the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia

“Why didn’t you turn on the hoses earlier? What were you trying to do, conserve water?”
Resident, recalling his angry questions to a firefighter after the local post office burned down, Healdsburg

“It started here, you know.”
“What, 4/20?”
Conversation between two strangers on a inter-county bus to San Francisco

“Remember when Nick went to that healer and then he had some dream that the devil came and took something out from inside of him, and then he never had asthma again? I mean, that was a little weird.”
Woman, Pacific Heights

“GO GIRL!!!”
God’s message to me, as written on a notecard by my interpreter at a free destiny reading, the Haight

“woooa gnarly night! saw this d-bag get choked out by a big girl, then the same d-bag get in a fight with a hardcore homeless dude whipping around a chain!”
Facebook status of a San Francisco friend

“Volglio tutti in paradisio”
Latin for “I want you all in paradise,” above the exit to the room housing La Porziuncola Nuova, Northbeach

Posted by: e/m | August 14, 2010

The Self Within

When I tell people I’m from San Francisco, I can see they are flipping through their rolodex of assumptions. They may not be right on target, but by synthesizing media reports, movie scenes, and stereotypes, they can get pretty close. Or at least, I act the part. I’m eco-friendly, gastronomically-minded, and conscious of if not preoccupied by my responsibilities as a global citizen. Perhaps because most non-Californians know so little about California, I have developed a succinct description of my hometown designed to simultaneously confirm suspicion (yes, I support gay marriage) and debunk misconceptions (no, it is not hot, and actually, I spend as little time as possible on the very cold, very windy, and very gray beach). Outside of the Bay Area, I feel very sure of my identity, perhaps because it is so obviously distinct from those of my immediate peers.

But back inside the city, I lose my certainty. The city is not that big – only about 700,000 people, and you can very quickly drive from end to end –, but the diversity is endless. One moment I’m surrounded by Victorians and the next I’m in the projects. A shop advertises luaus and Korean barbeque. On the bus, I hear seven different languages. I can identify only two of them.

In this city that has everything, I am constantly reminded of how lucky we are to live in the time that we do. We have access to top class arts, entertainment, food, technology, and transportation, not to mention the more basic luxuries of sanitation, education, and healthcare. And yet sometimes I feel that we are not as happy as we should be.

All over San Francisco I see people walking, traveling, searching. In building our fast-paced, consumerist empire, we have disregarded personal sustainability, and there seems to be a pressing, at times heartbreakingly desperate need to fill this vacant spiritual gap. We’re enrolling in therapy, yoga, and meditation, joining online interest groups and blog rings. We’re funding Oprah and Dr. Phil and making ‘self-help’ a new category of bestsellers. We are so anxious for meaning that we have actually set out to create it.

It’s an identity crisis, and it’s also a double-edged sword. In collecting for the individual, we have lost our connection with others. And yet, somehow, we have also lost our connection with ourselves. Even in supposedly self-affirming exercises, we have no self-reliance. At the San Francisco Zen Center’s afternoon zazen, the woman next to me has tears pouring down her face.

We have no idea who we are. Walking in the Western Addition, I come across a man walking the same direction. For a while we walk awkwardly next to each other, until I stop and consult a map in a bus shelter. I know where I’m going, but it seems that it’s taking a long time, so I check to confirm that I’m going the right way. Soon, because I’m a fast walker, I catch up to the man.

“Excuse me,” he says. “Are you lost?”

I freeze. He’s got dreadlocks with seashells in them, and he’s wearing a backpack. For some reason I take his question symbolically, and I’m about to stutter a response when he clarifies:

“I saw you looking at the map.”

Oh. So not a call to escape existentialism. Except it is. Because after a while he invites me to a soup kitchen serving Indian food. There’s music, like a party, he says. It’s lots of fun.

I decline because I’m on my way to a poetry reading. But I kind of wish I weren’t, because no one’s ever invited me to a soup kitchen before. The man introduces himself. His name is Ramón. I tell him that I really appreciate his thoughtfulness.

The poetry reading turns out to be a destiny reading, which, according to my two interpreters, is an opportunity for a lay person to hear the wisdom of God. I’m not religious, but I’m already there, and it’s free, so I sign up. The two moderators sit down and tell me to put my hand over my heart, which I do. They tell me a lot of things, most of which are encouraging, and also something that I take with some sadness. The female interpreter, a young woman who appears to be in her mid twenties, notes that she sees me clutching a red balloon. She says that originally she saw me with a bunch of balloons, but that it was as if somebody came and popped them, one by one, until there was only the red one left. This balloon, she says, is my childlike faith in life. And I’m clinging to it as a last hope.

Outside, a group of young people has gathered on the corner of Haight Street. One of them yells out to me and asks if I like the Grateful Dead. When I say yes, he invites me to hang out with his friends. I explain that I have to get back to where I’m staying, and he asks if I’m afraid of the lot kids.

I assure him that I’m not. We introduce ourselves. His name is David. David starts to rage against the police. I argue that mostly the police are just looking out for people. For the most part, the people in the Haight aren’t like the people in the Tenderloin or the Western Addition. They’re not chronically homeless or doped up on hard drugs. The majority of them are just kids. Some of them, I think, have run away from home.

David considers for a moment, but then tells me how a policeman called his friend an asshole, apparently unprovoked.

“I don’t understand why they hate us,” he says. “I’m like, “Why are you filled with hate?” I’m filled with love.””

David goes on to express his frustration with societal expectations. In particular, he feels that the obsessive work environment leads to emotional discontent. Preoccupation with material concerns, he argues, leaves little room for humanitarian connections. I am reminded that homelessness is also metaphorical.

There comes a point when you must start over, when everything you’ve known suddenly ceases to hold true. Photographs, school assignments, a doorknob from your childhood home – no, none of it. You aren’t friends with those people anymore, the A+ essay now seems poorly written…you can’t even remember your old address. There’s a loss of meaning, a confusion of purpose. You lose who you think you are.

In the past two weeks, I’ve repeatedly been asked where I’m from. “Washington and Fillmore,” I said at first, priding myself on the likelihood that non-city dwellers wouldn’t know exactly where that was. Then, later, dropping the haughtiness, I asserted the area, “Pacific Heights.” As the days flipped on, I lost my initial glow. Most of my high school friends were working, and I couldn’t see them. I was tiring of the wintry August weather. And I began to think about school – all the things I had to do. I continued to insist on residency, but my answer gradually became more and more imprecise, broadening from cross street to neighborhood to a defensive and very general, “from here,” until finally, finding myself exhausted, broke, and packing for my inevitable flight back to Virginia, I said, “I’m just visiting.”

Posted by: e/m | August 9, 2010

The San Francisco State of Mind

All over the city are banners advertising the “SF State of Mind.” What the banners are actually promoting (very cleverly, San Francisco State University) is irrelevant. The point is, the agency behind the ads is brilliant – the target audience could have been all of San Francisco, and the ad would have had them locked in. This is because Bay Area dwellers believe there is something different about the people here. What specifically is hard to describe. It’s not something easily classifiable. The closest people seem to get to explaining it is a vague reference to attitude: “It’s a different mentality.”

For years, I felt this was a myth propagated by desire. Californians wanted to set themselves apart, so they proclaimed difference while actively working to sustain their off-beat reputation. I saw it as identity through consumerism: a carefully constructed “West Coast-ness” supported by purchases at Whole Foods and Urban Outfitters. Although differences may have existed on the surface, I felt they were identifiably created – and thus not true differences at all.

I was so convinced of the claims’ spuriousness that, in spite of numerous mentions of coastal attitudinal differences at my high school’s annual college panel, in which recent graduates returned to advise current students on their college choices, I set off for the capital of Virginia fully confident that I would quickly and easily adapt.

I loved my college. My dorm, my classes – and there were so many blondes, so many girls in dresses. I felt I fit right in. But gradually, small differences became apparent. Whereas in San Francisco, I was hardly a standout, in Virginia, my friends commented on how I was unusually eclectic. We’d go to restaurants, and I’d embarrass them by asking about the origin of the food. We’d go on walks, and I’d refuse to throw my water bottle in anything but a recycling bin. The heat made me feel sick. The summer rain I found disconcerting. And night after night, I dreamed I was walking the streets of San Francisco, block after block, my footsteps in the fog.

Four months into college, I admitted I had been wrong. What is it about this place, this city? No other place I know is so driven by mentality. Other places tout culture and history or food and entertainment, but few devote their loyalties to a citywide attitude. But even ‘attitude’ is not quite right. It’s more like a way of living. Or a way of being.

When I think about this area, I am often reminded of the Buddhist call to Right Mindfulness. This weekend, for example, my downstairs neighbors are driving the homeless to a meditation center for an all-day session of spiritual renewal. My neighbors across the street are off to pick their own summer berries. Across the bay, a library has a thriving plant-and-replace catalogue of seeds. A locally-produced face wash promises to nourish body and soul.

I thought, at first, that the area’s defining characteristic was a karmic openness. But it’s more than that. It’s an affinity with atmosphere, a loyal and knowing affection for the area and the people that lived there. A love affair – no, a religiosity. The people and the place are intricately connected. There is a desire and a need to live in harmony with each other, with time, and with the earth’s still vibrant spirit. Does it sound kooky? But it’s not, when you’re here. Zen philosophy drives what seems to be a patient and expectant faith in nature. In the past few days, not one but four different people, only one of which I knew, quoted the Zen proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

I could transcribe some of the philosophical conversations I’ve overheard or tell about my karmic encounters, but I’m not going to. Those are not the point. As a city museum’s advertising banner puts it, “The best conversations don’t have words.” “Muse,” it signals, and it’s not far away from “Om.”

So instead, a memory. I’m up in Alta Plaza Park, looking out and looking east. It is after six, and nobody is there. The terraces are empty, and the fog has rolled in, silent and smooth and swift. I can close my eyes, but I don’t want to. Shall I lift up my face? Oh, but I am already so close to Heaven. For down below are streets and streets of houses, undulating over the hills toward the ends of the Earth. The gentle hum of the MUNI – can you hear it? I remember its quiet grace. And beyond, the promise of the sea. The fog settles close around my face. I might be crying. But I’m not. Because there, in front of me, and all below, is the most beautiful place I know. Oh, Saint Francis. For what was it you sinned? Non est in toto sanctior orbe locus.

Posted by: e/m | July 30, 2010

“Southern Star”

Although this post will be the final Richmond post, it actually involves something I tore out of a magazine on my first day back in Virginia. I initially kept it because I thought it was representative of one particular aspect of the culture. I subsequently never posted it because it seemed, now that I was immersed in the West End, to be misleading. I felt, on the one hand, that it was absolutely indicative of the internalized ideal of the southern woman, and saw, on the other hand, that this wasn’t quite the case. I think I felt that posting it would propagate incomplete stereotypes and do an injustice to a group of women that has treated me so well. This group includes women that I find self-absorbed and exhaustingly shallow. It also includes my friends.

The magazine page is from the February 2010 issue of Ladies Home Journal, a magazine that, along with R Home (owned by Richmond Magazine and promoted with the slogan “How Richmond Lives”), appears regularly on West End sun room coffee tables. I was actually at the hairdresser because, tellingly, I didn’t feel I could reenter Richmond without my hair looking good. Vanity admitted, but I insist: there’s a lot of pressure.

The page spotlights Patricia Clarkson, the leading actress in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and a New Orleans native. The header is “Southern Star.” ‘Southern’ is bolded. Of interest to me was not her thoughts on Scorsese or affection for her dog Beaux but a featured quotation in the center of the page: “What makes me a lady…” Here is what Ms. Clarkson said: “Good hair, good health and a good heart.” ‘Good hair?’ I thought disdainfully, forgetting I was at the hairdresser. ‘Good health?’ (How did that relate?) The only charateristic I found appropriate was ‘good heart.’ (To give credit to the page designer, it was the only one of the three that was bolded.)

Well, I thought. This is perfect. Evidence of the Modern Southern Woman image that drives the gym-crazy, appearance-obsessed female population. I know a lot of people that put on makeup to go work out.

But this is not really the ideal, this southern woman who balances looks and deeds. It’s part of it, but it’s not the whole thing. And any West End woman or any other Richmond woman would be happy to point this out, to include intelligence and graciousness and sincerity. (A good heart does not necessarily encompass these things.) But it’s confusing, because although Ms. Clarkson’s triad is not the ideal, it has materialized as if it were.

Here’s an example: I attended a West End bunko party sponsored by a women’s club. Bunko is an old southern parlor game involving dice and the luck of chance. The hostess I happened to know. A la Ms. Clarkson, she had spent the day in front of the mirror and at the gym, and she had been looking forward to checking the box for characteristic number three as hostess of this evening party. She didn’t know any save two of the attendees, but she had heard, through various friends, that they were very sweet.

And they were. Sort of. At least, they were initially very polite. They had dressed in their bright summer colors and come freshly showered, their hair too buoyant and smooth to have been styled that morning. They had brought wine and pound cake and expressed sugary gratitude to the hostess, who had offered her house and time and food. And then they had settled into their bunko cliques and were discussing the swim team and their upcoming vacations to the lake. Unacquainted with the women, the hostess was, more or less, ignored.

It was a disheartening atmosphere for my friend – the hostess -, an atmosphere that she later told me repeated itself in a subsequent social gathering. She couldn’t understand. In between the two social events, she had talked with some of the women individually, in more informal settings, and they were genuinely attentive and kind. In group gatherings, however, they made no or insincere efforts to show that they were good-hearted.

It seems that like with so many other things, this is a case where social pressures inspire behavior that isn’t necessarily true to character. There is so much pressure – and not just in the South – to be and have it all. ‘Attractive,’ ‘generous,’ ‘healthy’…for college students, the list expands even further: ‘intelligent,’ ‘successful,’ the elusive ‘well-rounded.’ But don’t think that the first three aren’t pressures enough. With its “Spotlight” page, Ladies Home Journal is practically shouting out the ideal. Here is Ms. Patricia Clarkson: pretty, kind, and, although she doesn’t specifically say so, presumably a regular with an athletic trainer. She’s got money (actress), class (New Orleans), and in her torn white cutoffs, a youthful, natural look. This is the woman to be. This is the “southern star.”

Ms. Clarkson is so far above what most southern women will ever be that many of them must expend all their energy striving for similar levels of beauty and class. Perhaps they do not even realize that in the process they lose their kindness. Pressure is a devious foe.

Here is my take on the situation: Some of the women are primarily concerned with appearance and class, but most of them aren’t. And while many of the women do appreciate good health and hair, they recognize that these aren’t things that make a lady. They may act snobbish and narcissistic, but it’s all a tedious and even reluctant act, one supported by social norms and not social preferences. Most of these women are pretty average. They don’t go home and throw on sweatpants, but they don’t judge their neighbors’ fabric choices, either. They return to their cul-de-sacs, slip off their heels, and sit down to help their kids with their homework. Free of exclusionary social situations, they confirm what they already know:

A lady has a good heart – and she shows it.

Posted by: e/m | July 19, 2010

The Struggle for Selfhood

As proud of they are of their country, Americans, I’ve found, are embarrassingly ignorant of its contents. Worse, they resort to unfounded or exaggerated stereotypes to make classifications. They use disinformation to judge.

One of the great tragedies of our time is our campaign against the South. In a fearful quest to progress to the 21st century, we have ostracized rather than reexamined these states. We have lumped them together as “The South,” a region we have unfairly characterized as prejudiced, uneducated, uncultured, and mindlessly religious. It’s been 150 years since the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s call for national unity, and yet these states still struggle even for sour recognition.

In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the southern states have sought doggedly to define themselves as distinct, vibrant entities. More so than writers from any other part of the country, southern writers have pointedly captured their birthplaces, chronicling the conversations, events, and atmospheres of their hometowns. The characters are precisely rendered, the places beautifully caught. The stories might better be termed studies. There is almost always commentary.

It is difficult, maybe impossible, to truly and completely understand these stories without a supplementary experience of place. Similarly, it would be foolish for an outsider to assume full or even thorough understanding of a place. So please, Virginians, before you rail against me, let me emphasize that my observations are just that – observations. But I have been careful. They seem so close to being true.

Virginia seems to have a peculiar struggle for identity. Although Virginians and other Americans resolutely place Virginia among the southern states, other southern states look down upon it as suspiciously close to the North. Among the many accusations are its proximity to and engulfment by D.C. and its recent reception of nonnative (read: northern) families. This “betrayal” of identity leaves the state outcast from the “real” South. Ironically enough, its the state’s apparent loyalty to identity that leaves it outcast from the North. And admittedly, no other state has quite the same appreciation for General Robert E. Lee.

But then, of course, that leaves Virginia nowhere.

Whatever it is, Virginians are quick to note that it’s not West Virginia. Just as the other American states place themselves above the southern states, so do the southern states build a hierarchy among themselves, and West Virginia is arguably at the very bottom. My recent conversations with a Virginia mother underscored this point. Realizing that I was not acquainted with her children, she took pains to make it clear that her youngest child would soon be visiting the dentist to receive a filling for his chipped front tooth. “I’m so embarrassed,” she confessed. “He’s not from West Virginia.”

The problem seems to be that while Virginia can be defined by what it is not, it struggles to be defined by what it is.

Part of the confusion stems from the interconnectedness of is, was, would and could be. Virginia has a vibrant energy, but it’s an energy rooted in a glorified past. There are nearly one hundred museums and history centers dedicated to the state and its inhabitants. Historic markers line the roads. On a hot day in July, locals pack a church to see a reenactment of the Second Continental Congress. The moderator invites them to join in, and they do.

Virginians are romantics. Having lost faith in the present, they uphold the past. There is a general obsession with identity, a fondness and reverence for history. Memory, the mediator, falls in between. Silly as these reveries may seem, they are important shapers of atmosphere. They form a haze of sweetness and gentleness that clouds over the realities of modern life. It isn’t that Virginians don’t want to face modernity or can’t stomach the issues that confront them, but that they have an escape, a world they can enter into like a beautiful dream. No, there will never again be the wondrous days of the great plantations, or the sumptuous luxury of the bustling trains, but there is a glimmer of hope, a flash of remembrance that fuels their trial at life: A quiet radiance. A glow of light.

I do not know how to define Virginia. I do not know the specifics of history and contemporaneity, of matter and mind. But what I do know is this: the way in which we’ve defined it, or refused to define it, is wrong. How shameful, this civil snobbishness. Weren’t we the ones who fought for individual liberty, for freedom of expression and due recognition? Weren’t we the ones who fought the Civil War? Listen. We are a country of many different types of people, and we owe it to ourselves to understand and appreciate that. We can’t be generalizing and pidgeonholing and ignoring whole parts of our country. What folly, to cut away a piece of life! What arrogance! When what we should really be doing is crying, begging for more time.

Because haven’t you realized? Their identities are our identities, too.

Posted by: e/m | July 13, 2010

The Momma Figure

The stay-at-home mother: A main-stay of the upper middle class and the fuel that drives Richmond’s suburbs. She shuttles the kids from school to activities while managing the family calendar of swim meets, conferences, and holiday vacations. She is the one who gets up in the night. She is the one who survives the child-rearing horror stories. For 12 hours each day, she rules the roost.

A true chameleon, she’s a modern wonder of the world. She can turn on a dime from southern damsel to southern mother. She knows that only the best will do, and she devotes herself wholeheartedly to that cause. With her pearl earrings and pink cardigan, she’s chic, charming, and sweet – and somehow, she’s also sane.

As someone whose highest goal is to be a mother, I stand in awe of this figure. Like so many other upper middle class children, I grew up with my mom as my constant companion, and I attribute much of my identity and personal success to this fact.

But there is a sadness to these mothers, or a confusion. An exhaustion, maybe. Or a realization.

There seems to be something missing.

While sitting in the Ukrop’s Café off Patterson Avenue, I overheard two women talking. They spoke of the beach and their annual summer vacations and how their kids were getting bigger all the time. They agreed that time had sped forward since their kids were little and began to reminisce. Soon, they knew, the kids would be off to college. One of the women joked, “I’ve gotta find something to do!” She was laughing, but her voice was strained, her facial muscles tense. For just a second, she hesitated. It was as if she was considering, thinking about something. “You’ve got your sewing,” replied her friend as the first woman repeated her assertion. She chose, inevitably, to change the subject.

I do not know what this woman was thinking, and it’s not my place to make assumptions. But it seemed that maybe, maybe, she was reconsidering, or at least examining, what she had chosen as her purpose in life. She had devoted so much time to motherhood. She had dressed, fed, and educated her children for 10, 12, 15 years. She had taken them to summer camp and soccer games, Thanksgivings and Christmases. She had organized countless birthdays. Everyday she saw them. They were her life. And soon, they’d be gone.

It was as if she felt slighted, or incomplete. For what was she without her kids?

That pause was like her gasp for air.

Posted by: e/m | July 11, 2010

Keeping Up with River Road

Numerically, Richmond is not a small town. But spend a little time there and you’ll feel as if it is. At a church coffee hour today, my babysitting client introduced me to a friend of hers. “I’ve heard so much about you,” the woman said as she shook my hand. She wasn’t just being polite.

As much as I’d like to believe that this was due to my babysitting client loudly bragging on my behalf, I know that’s not entirely the case. For every time she mentioned my name, I guarantee there were double that number of follow-up questions. Casual small talk? Oh, darling. Haven’t you learned anything of this women’s world? Politeness always has a purpose. Richmond loves to pry.

In a time when most newspapers are struggling to print full editions, the Richmond Times-Dispatch has four full-color pages of society news. And the housing transfers section? Two pages, 8 pt font. And just in case the sale price isn’t enough to stimulate the weekly goss, the buyers’ names are also listed. You’ll know your new neighbors and what they can afford.

Everybody knows everyone and everyone knows everything. As a friend of mine jokingly explained it, “Richmond’s incestuous.” But more seriously, she’s half right. We go to the grocery, and we see her sister’s best friend. We go to the bookstore, and we see her high school prom date. She can’t know everyone, and yet it seems to be true: Regardless of how far out of the neighborhood we go, we run in to someone she knows. And this is a self-proclaimed introvert.

My friend is earnest, genuine, and down-to-earth. She admits the social circles can be catty and says she tries to avoid gossip when she can. But sometimes the temptation is too much to resist. When a friend texts her and insinuates that something has happened to Hettie, she immediately picks up the phone.

“I know this is bad,” she says, “but I have got to know.”

Not to worry. Her friend completely understands. Two minutes later, and she’s got the scoop.

Posted by: e/m | July 8, 2010

The Long Hot Summer

This is the third day in a row that the summer temperatures have made the front page headlines in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. And these aren’t just tiny briefs – they’re lengthy articles with full-color photos, and they’re above the fold. “Richmond’s sweltering skyline” reads the title above today’s photo; “Is hottest yet to come?” The University of Richmond, too, has done it’s part: “Extreme High Temperatures,” reads an email sent to all students, faculty, and staff. As if this wasn’t obvious.

For three days now, it’s been over 100 degrees. ‘Sweltering’ doesn’t cut it. Try ‘scorching,’ ‘stifling,’ sultry,’ ‘steaming.’ ‘Blistering’ might be a good word if you were sun tanning or walking about. But you can’t even go out. We’re passed out beneath the fans.

There’s record temperatures all up and down the East Coast, and I know 104’s breezy compared to what’s out there in the Southwest, but I persist: Virginia heat’s nothing to mess with. Let me clarify: this is not searing, dry heat. This is a swamp.

Walk outside and you’ll hit a wall of heat: thick, blurred air that hums around your head. Try to take a step forward, and you’ll find yourself pushing, wading with your hands and arms and legs. The humidity is exhausting. Trying to go anywhere is like trudging through honey.

I am dizzy almost immediately. I step outside and my head spins. The cicadas don’t make it any better. That off-key buzz in the recording? That’s they. I can imagine them swarming in a great big mass, filling the air with their shiny, crackling bodies. In most circumstances, cicadas can’t be bothered with humans. But I still find their sound ominous. Like the air is too still.

I know I’m a writer, so I’m bound to dramatize things, but I swear: You know those stories where the heat drives people crazy? Yeah, well, this is why.

Posted by: e/m | July 5, 2010

Welcome to Ole Virginney

I am a Virginia adoptee. I know this because, in the three years I’ve been here, I’ve changed “Elizabeth” for “Liza,” developed a fondness for ham and egg biscuits, and accumulated a wardrobe full of candy-colored clothing. No offense, Lilly Pulitzer, but I’m highlighting this fact because, as much as I like pepto-bismol pink, it’s not natural to have more than ten articles of clothing in this color. I also want to note that I don’t think your loyal customers appreciate your terming of this color “hotty pink.” It’s unseemly.

I make these jokes affectionately. After all, they’re aimed at a group of people that includes myself. I am an adoptee because I’ve chosen to be, but Virginia also has a way of sweeping you in and making you feel right at home. I’m called “sugar plum” or “sugar baby” or “sweetpea,” nicknames that vary neither with increasing age nor decreasing interpersonal familiarity. I’m frequently offered sweet treats, and several times I’ve been offered free stays in houses. Wherever I go, I’m greeted with open arms, sometimes literally. I find myself hugging people I don’t even know.

Visible friendliness is a big deal. Over the weekend, I went to brunch with a Virginia couple my parents knew when they lived here. I’d been away for two months and had a hankering for cheese grits. The waitress seated us and asked if we wanted any iced tea. I looked around. All the other tables had a glass of tea at every place. The packets of sweet’n low were going like wildfire. My Virginia hostess asked if I wanted any. No, I said, and she reported this to the waitress, adding, “but we’re sure glad you asked!”

My hostess’ gratefulness was particularly high because she’d recently had an uncomfortable dining experience at her local Subway. As she explained it to me, the server just wouldn’t say a word. Try as she might to get him to speak, he was determined to be silent. “And I just thought, What in the world?” she told me. She just couldn’t understand why this man was so apparently unfriendly.

Fortunately for her, most Virginians aren’t like that. She certainly isn’t. When I stopped by to see her after a three-month hiatus, she threw open her arms and said, “So good to see ya’, honey bunch!” Virginia is always ready to take the role of Home.

One of the central questions of this project is not just how communication reflects but also how it affects identity. Does communication shape a place or vice versa?

In Texas, it’s especially complex. Like many people in other states, Texans are proud of their state and make a conscious effort to honor that heritage. While television has largely neutralized American accents and expressions in much of the country, it has not made a clean sweep. Folk expressions surface to great applause. If you’re slow, you’re told to “get your wiggle on,” and if you’ve made a mistake, you’re “up your tree.” An entertainer or interesting character is a “hoot” or a “riot,” and any nonhuman noun can be replaced by or accentuated with the word “deal:” “You mix that up and serve it with one of those corn-kit deals.” “He was talkin’ ’bout digital systems and optic fibers and this kind a deal…” “Well his has one a those phones with the deal on the top so you can see the pictures.”

Then there are phrases that are similar to but not rooted in common speech. Dinner will be served “after a while” rather than “in a while.” People who don’t care to pay attention to something don’t want to “fiddle” or “fool” with it. The social consideration behind “How are you?” takes the form of “What do you know?” These expressions are part of Texans’ personal and geographical history, and they add humor, character, and color to one of the best known places inside and outside the United States.

Problems arise, however, when the media and disenchanted tourists edit the types of communication in this state. Yes, there are hillbillies and cowboys. Yes, there are undereducated people. Yes, there is prejudice, zealousness, and conservativism. But this is not the whole state. Indeed, most of those labels and attitudes can be applied only to a small minority of Texans, and even then, not necessarily strung together.

These widespread misconceptions are rooted in the state’s complicated mix of formal and colloquial communication. While folk sayings are grammatically correct, they perhaps recall old wives’ tales and the accidental ignorance that accompanied them. They are also reminiscent of small town life and lingering ideas of anachronism and suspicion of what has been so cleverly termed as ‘progress.’ Accents do not abuse grammar rules, either, but their association with the stereotype of the poorly educated southerner doom them to supercilious suspicion, if not blatant prejudice.

But the largest problem is the persistence of the word ‘ain’t.’ Not only does ‘ain’t’ suffer from being grammatically incorrect, but unlike other grammar abuses – ‘yinz’ in Pittsburgh or ‘you guys’s’ on the West Coast – it’s the victim of choice in grammar textbooks across the nation. Whereas other grammar abuses remain unmentioned eccentricities of place, ‘ain’t’ has been firmly entrenched as an ugly indication of illiteracy. Most people can forgive folk expressions as momentary detractors from a person’s “underlying” intelligence, but ‘ain’t’ is taken as a sure sign of asininity.

This is a gross misunderstanding.

The majority of people know that ‘ain’t’ has no place in proper English. Unless their parents somehow managed to escape the law and keep them home from school, there is no way they would be unaware of this rule. Almost immediately upon entering school, children are taught that ‘ain’t’ is incorrect. Forever after, any uses of the word are impassionately corrected. What people need to realize is what they don’t want to realize, because admitting this would seemingly be admitting that the American population chooses to appear uneducated: People who use the word ‘ain’t’ choose to use it.

For Texans, ‘ain’t’ is both tied to historical southern slang and a complex system of nuanced attitudes. While proper to be verbs suffice for most sentences, they often don’t convey the particular tone that speakers want to express. Contrarily, ‘ain’t’ can signal everything from playful anger to pent-up frustration.

I am not a proponent of the word ‘ain’t.’ Personally, I find it an unattractive and useless word when the alternative is just as easy and much more orally beautiful. But I want to emphasize that it does not necessarily reflect a poor education. In fact, it seems it rarely does.

Therefore, on my last day in Texas, I end my time here and the first phase of this project with a reflection on perception, misperception, and identity: People are not who we think they are, but who they know themselves to be. Communication plays an active role in our impressions of people and places, and indeed, after having spent a month in Texas, I remain convinced that communication plays an instrumental role in creating and revealing geographical identity. But communication, like identity, is complex. It cannot be understood in a few encounters and certainly not from a distance. For an attempt to understand communication is, fundamentally, an attempt to understand people – people that must be treated with gentleness, inclusiveness, and respect.

This project is hardly sociological, but in that I have the opportunity to do so, I’ll end with a plea: Do not judge a book by its cover, or by its accent, or expressions, or use of modern or historical slang, but in recognizing the differences of speech, recognize the similarities of humanity. We are not only the judges but also the judged, not only the hope of the future but also the prelude to the past. Let us not forget our larger identity. We are, all of us, products of time and place, and whether we are accidental or purposeful communicators, we are living the same great quest, the same great dream. Let us embrace our diversity, and then, let us remember that we share this life with one another, that we are all learning, working, and raising families – and that in the process, we are all seeking to be understood.

Older Posts »