That’s Just Not Natural!

I posited at the end of my last post that my perspective on time derives from my disconnect with nature. Of course I would be ok with Daylight Saving Time–I unplugged my body from nature’s clock at a very early age, just as I unplugged from its TV, its radio, its realtor, its grocery store, its… well, you get the idea.

I get all my stuff manufactured. pre-packaged, and human-made. I bought into DST just as I’ve bought into numerous other products over the course of my life, at the expense of a meaningful knowledge of the natural world.

My earliest sense of being unSouthern was the disorientation I felt in one of my earliest homes: North Springs, Tennessee. My parents, in a crushing irony, moved me out to the country before I was a year old. Previously, they had lived in Nashville for many years, but they felt they owed me a secure, unsullied upbringing far away from the evils and distractions of the city.

They returned to the tiny hamlet of North Springs as a sort of compromise between their two neighboring worlds. My father had grown up in the same county, only a couple miles away on Haydenburg Ridge, which is exactly as scraggly and remote as it sounds. My mother had grown up down the road in the more developed town of Red Boiling Springs, just across the Jackson County line in Macon County. (When I lived near there, Red Boiling Springs had almost 1,000 residents!)

North Springs nestled itself in a valley at the foot of the ridge where my dad grew up. From a development standpoint, it was literally a wide place in the road, with about 80 people, two general stores, and a church. It seemed to me everyone who lived there at the time was retired, except for one family that farmed and the two that owned the stores. A couple of the women may have been teachers in area schools. My dad was the preacher of the church. We were enveloped by rolling, lush, green hills, and I was surrounded by all of nature’s splendor. It was the first world I knew.

But to me, that world was unfinished and foreign and unrelatable. My earliest memories of it are not of a fond attachment, but a surreal detachment. The something I really wanted was further down the road in Cookeville, the nearest medium-sized town, with its *mall, its Rose’s department store, its Shoney’s and other restaurants; and especially in Nashville, which was a vast metropolis I would never fully explore. (Seriously, to this day, there’s chunks of Nashville I have never been to and probably never will.)

Until we finally moved to Nashville when I was 12, my mind never stopped fidgeting. Small-town life fit me like a shrunken tank top and annoyed me like the itchy label in back. I was relieved to cast it aside in time for my teenage years.

Consider the following instances:

  • I remember the shared fascination and horror I experienced at the age of 5 when I realized that the chicken I had been eating was the same as the chicken that clucks in a henhouse. I had assumed it was all just a big con-flew-ence and that we called them chicken legs and wings because that’s what those pieces resembled.
  • I dreaded walks outside, even in my own backyard, where I could pick up chiggers and ticks and get sweaty. The inside had wall-unit air conditioners that would blast the sweat clean away like a frigid hair dryer, and TV to watch. None of these things made you itch or feasted on your soft tissue, which was a big mark in the pro column.
  • I knew of grass and trees, and I read the books about chlorophyll and how energy was produced and consumed in nature. But I tuned all the way out when I was faced with catalogs of leaves and blades, delineating one from the other. Ditto with birds, frogs, and snakes. Even the most casual taxonomy blew right past me–to this day, I know about five types of flowers by sight and only after much research am able to distinguish one bird call — the mourning dove. All others are just a blur of birds chirping and pretty petals.

I revisited North Springs and many of my other childhood homes on my 30th birthday, and I kicked myself for not realizing what a beautiful place I had grown up in. Of course, I would have kicked myself harder had I attempted to spend more than a few minutes there. I was wise to admire the beauty, take a few pics, and keep driving to Cookeville, where there was a semblance of urbanity.

Now that i have clearly diagnosed this disconnect, what is there to be done? Has my life suffered from this lack of connection to the bounty and diversity of nature? Should I attempt to re-establish it?

Part of the unSouthern project is getting to these answers. But right now, my answer is: nah, I’m good. When I am ready to accept these things into my life, they will come.

Occasionally, I will do something for myself that feeds my inner outdoorsman. I go to Unicoi State Park here in Georgia once every few years and walk the trails. I love visiting Chattanooga and soaking in the riverside parks. When we cruise, I usually take one excursion that plunges into the lush tropical interior of one or another of the Caribbean islands or nations we visit.

I know my limits. I take my nature in small doses. I always have an air conditioned hotel room or cabin to scurry back to when it’s over. Most importantly, I focus on immersing myself in the beauty and serenity of the setting while I’m there, and not on judging myself for relishing the comforts of a spoiled American urbanite.

Plugging into nature is not my default, and maybe I suffer several syndromes because of it. But I like my life, with its synthetic time, its barcoded produce, and its high-speed internet.

Call me detached, but at least I’m connected.

*mall – this is one of my favorite memories of all time, a memory that I share with one of my loyal readers and friends. On a high school trip from Nashville to Knoxville for a Latin convention, we stopped at Cookeville for food. Cookeville was a big town to me growing up, so it was jarring to hear a busload of kids making fun of how small it was. The topper, though, happened as a result of our bus being parked next to a side entrance of the town’s tiny mall. The sign over the entrance was entirely too large and bright for its modest purpose. It loudly proclaimed “*mall” in what I remember as thick blood-red lettering. My friend, judging the size of the sign, interpreted it to be the main entrance and therefore drew the conclusion that the name of this shopping center was simply *mall. In a town this small and remote, why bother giving it a name? My friend exhausted herself laughing about the poor nameless mall for several miles down the road and intermittently for the remainder of the trip.

Time After Time

This week not only begins Daylight Saving Time, but also marks one year since a lot of the world shut down due to COVID lockdowns. We were hopeful it would only be a few weeks and then blow over, but we all know how that went.

My preoccupation with time on unSouthern this week is not even close to being original. It seems every other social media post and news story is either about what we were doing or saying one year ago as we entered the unknown of a pandemic standstill, how that year went, or how much more time it will last. And a lot of the other stories and posts this past week discuss Daylight Saving Time.

One “timeless” topic, though, is the assertion that time is merely a social construct. I based a lot of my position piece from Monday on that very assertion. Slate, the same day, ran an interview with Jay Tea, a standard time activist, who right off the bat takes issue with that position: “A lot of people say time is a social construct. That’s not true. There is an actual objective meaning to time. Noon is supposed to be when the sun is halfway across the sky at its highest, most southerly point. But with daylight saving time, we just completely obliterate the connection to nature.”

That’s a fair point, and my intent is not to argue with it, or really any of his points, which are well-taken. Disruption of the circadian rhythm can lead to disorientation, health issues, and additional consumption of natural resources. Asking people to abruptly begin to carry out their daily routines an hour earlier can and will have those effects.

Before this becomes another post on the exact same topic, though, let’s shift gears. What has your experience been of the past twelve months? The common answer I read and hear is that it felt like ten years and one really long day, all at the same time. The compartmentalization of time, as spent in distinct spaces at different times of the day, week, month, and year, all help us mark and measure time in ways that feel mentally consistent.

My personal routine was that I woke up at home, commuted the better part of an hour to work, which was a tall office building with lots of other professionals halfway across town, where I soaked in that environment until 6pm or later each day. Then I would commute back home and spend the evening relaxing and procrastinating about writing. On Thursdays, I would treat myself to dinner out and an evening at Starbucks, where I would read, relax, or just sit absently, think, and people watch. Saturdays and Sundays were for sleeping in, shopping, and catching up with friends and loved ones.

More often than not, I would plan a trip toward the end of the month. Holidays meant specific types of celebrations in specific settings.

Each day, week, month, and year worked in an internally consistent flow, and I figured out how time worked in my life. Then COVID hit, and all of my routines were impacted. For a couple of months, the entire set of routines collapsed, as it did for many of us. Everything was reduced to hunkering down and riding out the lockdown.

Then, around May, there was rumbling about a “new normal” that replaced the prior concept of a temporary lockdown. I ventured out to the grocery store and started riding public transportation, all while observing mask-wearing and social distancing precautions. In a remarkable stroke of luck, I was under contract to buy a condo as a secondary residence when the lockdown began, and by May there was enough furniture there for me to begin working remotely, so I “commuted to the office” each day to stand in for my prior routine. I got to leave the house! Every day!

Holidays came and went with scaled-down or nonexistent guest lists. I took shadows of vacations, venturing a few miles from home and staying in nearby hotels for two or three nights, to experience being somewhere else and to break up the routine.

All these things helped, to be sure. But they weren’t the bold, bright lines I used before to mark my time. They were grey, dotted lines. “Going to the office” where your only live contact is with a cat (even a beautiful, precious kitty like Mr. Amir) is not the same as going to a busy office with dozens of coworkers. Staying at a Hampton Inn near Cumberland Mall is cute, but it’s not a real vacation when you live 10 miles away.

And then some things couldn’t be faked. The Starbucks Thursday was probably my most cherished personal routine. Being in a public place where it’s not weird or awkward to stay put for three hours is golden for me. I love being around people, out in the world, without the expectation of being sociable with them. Starbucks is the dream hangout for a conflicted introvert.

So while I created some separation in my world, my sense of time over the past year was the same amorphous blob I’ve heard others describe–mostly one long stretch of disconnection, with blips of normality around the edges. I see the lockdown as more disruptive than DST, which after all, is at least consistent in its semi-annual disruption.

Time is a highly personal experience, which is why I believe it’s way more than a scientific marker in the sky. Multiple layers of factors sway the way we “feel” time, and a number of them don’t involve circadian rhythms. For me, I have never paid enough attention to the cadence of our world to feel slighted by DST, so maybe my conciliatory attitude toward its unpleasant jolt has much to do with my disconnect with nature.

A disconnect with nature is one of the most unSouthern topics I can think of. Remind me to tell you more about it in the next post.

Daylight Griping Time: The Notorious D.S.T.

You will never find anybody who can give you a clear and compelling reason why we observe daylight saving time.” – Dave Barry

As we bid adieu to winter and look forward to warm weather ahead, we also slam into the speed bump known as Daylight Saving Time each March. To be sure, “spring forward” is only a mnemonic device–no one embraces the idea of suddenly having to get up an hour earlier with that degree of enthusiasm.

And just as predictably, each March, the complaints rain down like April showers. We invoke our fragile biorhythms. We invoke the wisdom of Native Americans. We invoke the unchanged feeding schedules of our pets. We declaim the commodification of time itself, as we scoff at the futile efforts to project the will of economics onto a dimension of our reality that simply is–the very idea of saving daylight and bending time itself to our feeble human whims! Harrumph!

I identify with some of the annoyance and disruption; I am not a morning person, and I expect I will arrive at work late at least one day this week, if history is any guide. I also understand that we can’t make time different just by passing federal guidelines. And yes, I know that the amount of daylight does not increase by virtue of our collective hat trick–it simply moves to a different part of the day.

But folks, c’mon.

We all have our gripes. I know I do. And some people have legitimate medical and emotional needs that stand to be disrupted by this seasonal jolt. I do not in any way wish to minimize the impact of the time change on those people. However, for the rest of us, I think we may be a little harsh and hypocritical when it comes to our friend, the Notorious D.S.T.

Time doesn’t change, but our ways of dividing and conquering it are inescapable in today’s world. Each inconvenient manifestation represents a compromise–it sucks a little, but it keeps our planet interconnected in a consistent and efficient way.

DST is far from the only time-bending exercise we humans collectively agree to. Time zones create magical time-travel dotted lines where it’s one hour earlier on one side and one hour later on the other. We slip in an extra day every four years; where does February 29th go during the other three years? The powers-that-be also add extra minutes and seconds when we aren’t looking to keep the solar year from gradually shifting from the established cadence.

And don’t get me started on the International Date Line. How many people have felt their sense of reality taken from them after hopping on a plane on Sunday and traveling for 14 hours into Tuesday? Not to mention the poor people whose hopes were dashed when they realized it wasn’t a service for meeting their life partner.

I someday hope to actually turn into Dave Barry. As you can read, I have a long way to go. However, I can’t say that I agree with his assessment, tongue-in-cheek or not. Once I shake off the fog of getting up early this first week, I expect to retrieve all the stated benefits of DST: a sense of there being more time in the day, late sunsets (especially here in Atlanta, where we are far west within the Eastern Time Zone), and more time to be out and about than I would otherwise.

No doubt that DST helps commerce and gets to the economic root of the practice, but if there’s anything that we can say is popular this week, it’s an economic stimulus, right?

If you think about it with a philosophical bent, DST is a ham-handed but effective way for us humans to do what we’ve always done: chase down time, corner it, and juice every drop of energy, joy, and life from it. It’s the same reason we practice mediation and go on vacations–we want to enjoy our limited time by being fully involved in as much of it as we can.

Daylight is a metaphor for life itself, and planning our days around its ebbs and flows is just as natural for us as it is for time to not pay attention to our silly theatrics and to keep flowing as it always does. DST is the act of humans being humans, imposing our awkward innovations on an indifferent nature.

My ask is that we do not unduly deride Daylight Saving Time because its artifice is not so neatly concealed as our other inventions, and because its unfortunate focus is on our morning routines. Maybe none of us are morning people, after all, and taking an hour of sleep from us is the most annoying thing any “innovation” could hope to achieve.

I’ll grant you it’s annoying. But I am ok with the payoff.

Taking Control of Daddy Issues

This is a story about control. My control. Control of what I say, and control of what I do. And this time, I’m gonna do it my way.” –Janet Jackson, Control

In 1986, the year that Janet Jackson became my role model, she provided a template for breaking free from a domineering father in the dramatic nine-minute “Control” video. Be strong, be firm, and be excellent–that was her message. For a timid 13-year-old kid, Janet’s message and her soft-spoken delivery of it helped to engender a devotion that has lasted 35 years.

Rereading the posts of the last couple of weeks, I noticed a subtle, recurring motif. What about the Britney Spears documentary compelled me to devote an entire entry to it? Why do I care so much about how women are treated in the South? What one song did I link to when discussing Southern music? (So that you don’t have to scroll back to it, it was “Daddy Lessons” by Beyonce´.) What’s really going on here?

Well, as it happens, I have daddy issues. My father has loomed as an influential figure in my life. I’ve tried not to be like him even more than I’ve tried not to be Southern. (The overlap between the two should go without saying.)

The issue of the treatment of women resonates with me because there were mistakes I saw my father make with my mother. I see Jamie Spears yank Britney into a conservatorship, and on some level I think of the amount of control my father tried to exert on my life. Even years after his passing, I default to driving to Nashville using Briley Parkway instead of directly through downtown because he insisted that I use that route when visiting him.

My father had wonderful qualities, and he passed to me a love for knowledge and discourse. Our relationship, though, was fraught with disconnects–on worldview, on morality, on politics, and most importantly, on character. At no point could you convince my father that he didn’t have all the correct answers and all the correct feelings for everyone in his life and in the world. His answers were absolute. His feelings centered on control.

I’d never thought about the resonance of the Control album for me as a function of my relationship with my father, but I have written about my daddy issues before. I have called my dad a bully, and compared his M.O. to that of our most recent ex-president. To some who knew him, this depiction may seem uncharitable at best and slanderous at worst. But it is and will continue to be the way I see the relationship.

My advocacy for social equality and the value of personhood, along with my frequent detachment from all things Southern–these tentpoles have gone up, at least in part, in response to my father’s way of looking at things.

This post is fair warning for those of you who believe in honoring one’s parents and speaking well of the departed. I refuse to gloss over my difficult relationship with my father. I assure you, his presence will continue to loom in these posts. (Which, in a way, is great, because he always wanted me to write about him. Wish granted.)

The irony and the justification for this uncompromising position is that my father was the same way–determined to speak his peace in the face of headwinds. Like I said, I did learn a few things from him–but as with being Southern, some of them I learned in the negative.

How not to be is also a valuable lesson.

Who Run the World (and the South)?

March is Women’s History Month, and Monday was International Women’s Day. It was not my plan to celebrate women in this space during this time, but with chivalry being the hot-button topic that it is to me, and with my viewing of the Britney Spears doc last weekend, the blog has taken on a theme of gender issues of its own accord.

The presence and influence of Southern women is undeniable in all aspects of American life, and nowhere has their influence been so fully realized as in popular music. I don’t have any gut-punch social message to deliver this time around, just a lot of individual talking points to support this assertion.

It might not be obvious that Southern women hold such an outsized role in pop music. For instance, when Billboard used the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Hot 100 to rank the Top 60 Female Artists of All Time in 2018, only a couple of names jump out as Southern icons: Brenda Lee and Faith Hill are among the very few. But there’s a lot going on under the surface.

  • Country music – country music is one of the cornerstones of rock and folk music, which means that everyone from Janis Joplin to Joan Jett to Wilson Phillips have the musical stylings of the South, and the Southern women who helped shape that sound, to thank for how their music sounds. Not to mention the legends, such as Loretta Lynn and Reba McEntire, who remained powerhouses while never overtly extending their reach into pop music.
  • Black music – Black music traditions are the other cornerstone of rock music and the precursor of just about every type of popular music that has existed in the last two centuries in the U.S. Whether you are discussing ragtime or jazz or blues or reggae or hip-hop or dance, it’s all pretty much based in Black music. Country music itself is a blend of blues and various folk musics. And the roots of Black music are in the South.
  • “Closet” Southerners – although it may be more biographically correct to say that Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston are from New Jersey and that Diana Ross is from Detroit, many of the most influential Black American female singers are only a generation removed from the South. Others, like Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin, who were both born in Tennessee, achieved such transcendence that their Southern background is not always acknowledged. (Yes, I am familiar with the song “Nutbush City Limits;” I’m just not sure everyone else is.) Britney Spears, as discussed in the last post, also falls in this category.
  • Superstars with a Southern pass in their back pockets – speaking of transcendence, Janet Jackson and Beyonce´, two members of the pop and R&B firmament, have registered firm acknowledgments of their Southern roots via their more earthy alter-egos, Damita Jo and Sasha Fierce, respectively. Damita Jo is actually Janet’s middle name (names?), and she created a whole album (the one whose launch was ruined by the blacklisting following the Super Bowl incident) around that identity; her parents were born in Arkansas and Alabama. Beyonce has always shown Houston hometown pride, and with the Lemonade project she explored her Southern roots more explicitly with sonic textures and stunning visual treatments. (“Daddy Lessons” is a jaw-dropper if you haven’t heard it.)
  • Adopted Southerners – Linda Ronstadt, Taylor Swift, and Anne Murray are among the non-native women who have inhabited the Southern musical sphere and have sometimes become transplants in Nashville and elsewhere in the South.
  • Dolly Freakin’ Parton – Dolly has had a seismic impact of popular music and culture. I will save you the tired recitations of how she has made the world a better place, but yeah… Dolly Freakin’ Parton.

But I’m sure I didn’t need to convince you, dear reader, that Southern women, and Southern women at heart, are pretty darn influential in the music biz. Just make sure you spread the word.

And for all of my friends, you can click your stopwatch now. It took me two weeks and two days to hold out mentioning my girl Janet in the new blog.

Not A Girl, Not Yet a Human

The women in this family are very strong-minded and have their own opinion, and they wanna do what they wanna do, and as much as I admire that as a guy, being, like, one of two guys in this entire family, it kinda sucks, man.” -Bryan Spears, brother of Britney Spears, responding to questions about his sister’s conservatorship

There were a number of jaw-dropping moments in “Framing Britney Spears,” the latest installment in the New York Times documentary series. For me, the above interview snippet stood out to me for its fig leaf of political correctness (“I admire that as a guy”), inadequately covering naked chauvinism. The very idea of a young woman having an opinion–just so exhausting for the men-folk!

After exploring chivalry and the differential treatment of women in the South last week, I watched the documentary this past weekend. The renewed interest in Spears centers on her unique legal situation. Britney has remained in a financial and personal conservatorship for well over a decade, managed primarily by her father, Jamie Spears (the other guy in the “entire” family of five). This means that Britney, a high-functioning 39-year-old woman, can’t make many independent financial or personal decisions. This set of circumstances, to understate, is problematic. Reflecting on her background, though, it’s easy not to be surprised.

Lest we forget, Britney is a Southern gal, born in Mississippi, raised in Louisiana. She might even qualify as an iteration of the unSouthern ethos. Her accent and demeanor easily betray her background, but her high-gloss music videos and polished pop princess presentation make it easy to forget again. And unlike her Texas neighbor Beyonce, who is only three months older, she has never attempted any meaningful injection of her heritage into her music. She’s played the glittery Hollywood role, albeit with an increasing amount of irony as her career has progressed, without breaking character on stage or on record.

Being a woman from the South does not mean being subjugated. It does, however, often mean having to fight the assumption that you’re going to do what your daddy wants. Showbiz fathers with Southern backgrounds don’t exactly have a sterling track record of letting go and letting their daughters shine (see Joseph Jackson and Matthew Knowles). It takes deliberate poise and self-awareness for women to navigate the imposed expectations of both their actual fathers and a paternalistic culture in general.

If the narrative spun by the documentary is to be believed, Britney fought the good fight in this regard. The media coverage started to swallow her whole in 2002, progressing over the course of years: at first, examining her body and her sexuality, then questioning her mental health and her worth as a mother. Every detail of her life was dissected and consumed as another pop culture nugget.

At first she tolerated, then objected, then railed against these intrusions. When her railing became uncomfortable to watch, she was declared incompetent, and her father swooped in from nowhere and took control of her entire life via the conservatorship.

It’s a classic dramatic story arc–drive someone to the brink of insanity, then blame them for their condition and express relief when they are relieved of their independence. I recall being drawn into that narrative at the time. I did not want Britney to become another victim of paralyzing superstardom. Any outcome that did not involve her demise was a good one for me.

It is probable that Britney needed intervention during the sometimes scary events of 2007 and 2008. The case the documentary makes is that the constant, unyielding, unforgiving gaze of the media and the public made this a predictable and even an inevitable outcome.

Imbedded in most of the conversation and gossip around Britney Spears during that time was a sense of disapproval with how she presented herself to the world. The scorn was by no means limited to Southerners; Americans in general struggle with the girl/woman, madonna/whore dichotomies. It is possible, though, that Britney leveraged her Southernness to juxtapose those supposed opposite states in a volatile way.

Southern women are often groomed to drift effortlessly from sweet to sensual, and the idea of young Britney playing with that kind of fire may have been too much for too many; the snowballing resentment from the sexy Catholic schoolgirl character of the “Baby…One More Time” video may have indeed culminated in the conservatorship. That’s one heck of a dramatic story arc, with a ten-year payoff, but it is not difficult to connect the dots. And for the most part, we played into the story, acknowledging Britney’s guilt for her along the way and then accepting her penance by way of ceding her life to her father.

However, it wasn’t Britney who was going mad–it was us, for ogling her nonstop for a decade until she nearly broke.

Life on the Farm

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” –George Orwell, Animal Farm

As a lifelong Southerner, I’ve been inundated with implicit and explicit lectures on the sanctity of femininity and the veneration of the elderly. By virtue of their biology and life experiences, women and seniors in the South, and beyond, are afforded baked-in courtesies.

Women are given free admission and beverages on Ladies Nights at social venues. Between Early Bird deals and 55+ menus, our elders can get the same food for a value price at dining establishments. Strangers offer their seats freely in public accommodations. Parents caution their kids and their uncouth spouses not to curse and act unruly around them. Everywhere there is a bubble of concern that shields women and seniors from stress, strain, and duress.

To be sure, this bubble has a much smaller radius than it did a generation or two ago. The old courtesies have begun to fade as we adjust to a world that is less formal, regimented, and performative in its kindness. But the bubble still exists and boasts a fierce core of supporters. Those supporters represent tradition and decency.

And, by most accounts, they are conservative.

By definition, to be conservative is to believe that the way things are is the way they should continue to be. To continue to adhere to codes of chivalry and respect for elders is emblematic of core conservative values.

To the extent that conservatism embraces values of kindness and consideration, I think it’s a great thing. If you read my other posts a little too quickly this week, you may be surprised to read such an endorsement, but I promise it’s true.

The essence of chivalry is kind regard of others. Because women have occupied a rarefied social status for the better part of the past few hundred years in Western society, chivalry has fixed its steady gaze of regard on them. Because the elderly are seen as both our collective parentage and our collective future as time moves forward, we venerate them, as well.

The only thing I ask is that we find reasons to honor and regard the other people with whom we share our world, because the reasons are there. Honor young people because they have fertile imaginations and boundless enthusiasm. Honor people of color because of their valuable perspectives and their patience and grace while living in a society that was not built for them, a society that often mocks them and thwarts their efforts at success. Honor men for meeting the demands of a quick-changing society and navigating confusing messages about gender roles and expectations. Honor gay and transgender individuals who must scale an impossible mountain of misunderstanding about who they are and what they want from the world. Then circle back and honor women and the elderly again because they must deal with people who opt for the anti-chivalric approach and try to take advantage of them because of their perceived weaknesses.

I don’t think it’s a big ask.

The irony I have been skirting here, the punchline I have been withholding all week, is that the staunchest conservatives, the ones who save a special dose of venom for those who espouse “progressive” values of social justice, are playing the same game as those they loathe.

What is there to say about a social order that puts women at the front of every line and gives financial incentives to seniors, strictly on the basis of a demographic identifier? I’d call it affirmative action. I’d call it an utter disregard of merit in lieu of an unearned handout. Dress it up and call it tradition, and you’re golden. But if others extend that empathy and goodwill to groups of people you deem unworthy, it’s radical left nonsense.

To be sure, there are nuances of this discussion that I have not explored. But I do think it is helpful to expose the false narrative that kindness and regard is the exclusive domain of backward-looking or forward-looking perspectives on society. Instead, common human regard is a bedrock of most people’s stated belief systems.

But to paraphrase George Orwell, some people are more human than others. And that’s why common human regard is often not as common as it could be.

Veneration is Old Hat – A Meditation on Aging

Shady Pines, Ma.” –the ever-hovering threat to place one’s parent in a retirement home, as delivered by Dorothy Zbornak, The Golden Girls

After over a week of pulling quotes from my favorite TV show for each post, finally, we have a topic firmly in the show’s wheelhouse–the subject of the elderly.

Geriatric issues are not among my pet topics. (Part of the genius of The Golden Girls is that you don’t have to be old or especially fond of old people to enjoy it.) But in the South, along with the zealous regard for the sanctity of womanhood, there is a veneration afforded to the elderly. So let’s ask the tough question again: is the differential, often preferential, treatment earned?

If you witnessed my brutal takedown of chivalry in the last post, you may be expecting another hatchet job, this time on the topic of honoring older people. You can rest assured, though, I’ve only brought pruning shears this time.

Certain abilities tend to fade with age. It’s not an immutable rule that one’s physical and mental aptitudes will decline, but biology makes it more difficult than not to maintain or improve one’s condition over time.

Because we associate aging with decline, we offer deference to the elderly, whether that means offering them a seat, a discount, or free rein to curse on national TV (like Jane Fonda did). These acts of deference are our gifts to them, in honor of their long lives and in consideration of their generally reduced abilities.

I’m OK with that. That’s reasonable, thoughtful, and not too presumptuous. My one caveat is that I sense everyone peeking at the horizon as they are showering these benefits on their elders.

Age is the one demographic no adult spends their entire life inhabiting, so there’s the nifty factor of planning ahead that’s involved in our regard for the elderly. We want to treat them the same way we wish to be treated when we get there. Karmic insurance, if you will. Or psychic social security.

In a way, this makes honoring the elderly something akin to a mass delusion, whereby if we all buy into it, it makes it so. Not to get overly macro, but the same can be said of society as a whole. We all acquiesce to a common set of social rules that benefit us broadly; in turn, we come to think these rules are reality, when they are in fact only conveniences we have constructed that allow us to live more securely.

In short, I can agree to treating old people well, but I won’t agree that’s how nature or God “intended” us to act. It’s part of how we cope with aging and choose to create order and security in our worlds. As someone who is committed to social justice, this approach resonates with me.

The tricky part for me is when we wade into the thorny territory of wisdom. The “wisdom of the elders,” in fact, is a subject which has plagued me throughout my life.

When I was a child, I fretted over the mind-boggling responsibilities of being in high school, college, or, God forbid, being an adult. How did they do it? As I passed each milestone, I acknowledged the rough patches of personal growth, but largely shrugged my shoulders. No task or signifier of adult life was anywhere close to the draining, superhuman ordeal I thought it would be.

Slowly, over the years, I have come to realize that life is just life. There is no young life, adult life, and old life. Life happens in a steady stream. You adjust some things here and there, but it keeps coming at you whether you adjust or not. Some people are good at making these adjustments and become “wise.” Some repeat the same mistakes into advanced age. These I will uncharitably call “old fools.”

The only wisdom I’ve gained as I’ve gotten older is that getting older doesn’t make one wise. Most of the people I’ve known or observed who were myopic or ignorant have remained that way for years on end. Some people do change, but that depends on the person. It’s not about age at all.

Which brings me to my Golden Girls quote. “Shady Pines, Ma,” is one of the best known from the show, and to me it’s a delicious riff on “you’re not too old for me to take you across my knee.” Except in this case, it really drives the point home that you can never be too old to be put in your place, whether that’s in a corner with your nose against the wall when you’re eight, or in a retirement home when you’re 80. It’s an egalitarian sentiment that makes me hopeful for my twilight years. For whomever associates with me at that stage of my life, I would ask to be treated like I have some sense, to call me out when I don’t, and to not worship at my altar because I managed to not die while time passed.

That’s no accomplishment. That’s just life.

Oh, Chivalry!

What has become of chivalry, when men used to open doors for you, pull out your chair, tip their hat, kiss your hand, help you down out of your carriage, leave calling cards on little silver salvers?
So how far back do you want to go Blanche? I mean do you still wanna be able to vote?” –Blanche Devereaux & Dorothy Zbornak, The Golden Girls

I gotta say, I’m with Dorothy on this one. If there’s one topic where I’m unambiguously, unapologetically unSouthern, it’s the topic of chivalry.

By way of definition, when discussing chivalry, I am referring to the specialized usage whereby men are honor-bound to treat women in certain very specific, even ritualized, ways. I see chivalry as the companion of hospitality, just with fixed gender roles.

Now that we have the figurative housekeeping out of the way, let’s talk about literal housekeeping. A woman’s place, in traditional Southern contexts, was in the home, either keeping house on her own, or supervising the staff that carries out the housekeeping.

A Southern lady, especially a lady of a certain status, also wore mobility-limiting clothing that connoted elegance, with a soupçon of helplessness. (See corsets, petticoats, and dainty shoes.) If you live in this type of social setup, it makes sense to have a code of chivalry. Women, much like the house pets we coddle today, were not fit to interact in the full reality of the world and had to be protected, followed, and escorted.

But that was then, and thank goodness, this is now.

There’s no middle ground for me on this–chivalry is part of a flawed, gendered social hierarchy that rewards people for ritualized manners and not genuine kind intent. I have no use for it. It works my last nerve whenever I see it in the twenty-freakin-first century. I give two examples below. Watch me seethe.

Exhibit A – elevator etiquette. My favorite part of working remotely during the pandemic is not dealing with the daily office ritual of men allowing women standing behind them in the lobby onto the elevator first. It’s inefficient, it’s vapid, and it’s useless. There’s no “best place” to stand in an elevator. And even if you find such a mythical place, you often have to adjust your position as the elevator fills. And you don’t get to your floor any quicker because you were escorted onto the elevator first. What is the damn point?

Exhibit B – self-righteous practitioners of chivalry. My favorite story on this point occurred at the Lindbergh MARTA station here in Atlanta, where a group of about two dozen of us were waiting to board a bus that had just pulled into the bus bay. An older man, who I admit may have been suffering from a mental impairment, began directing traffic, herding all the women to the front of the line and onto the bus in front of all the men, proclaiming “Ladies first!” and holding out his hand to bar entrance to the men closest to the front.

I don’t make scenes in public as a general rule, but I imploded so thoroughly in the bus situation that a scene may have been the preferable option that day. The amount of anger I felt toward that man was unreasonable, but his actions struck at the core of my sense of fairness and rationality.

Should we not treasure women? We should. More importantly, we should treasure all women. Chivalry was designed for a certain class of women. The archetypal act of chivalry is the laying down of one’s coat so that a lady can glide over a puddle. Such an act, though, requires that the man involved owns a coat. And if he does own a coat, he should also have one that he could afford to be ruined to prevent a minor inconvenience for a woman.

Chivalry requires the luxury of sequestering the women in one’s life into turrets and onto pedestals. It’s not for washerwomen and servants. It’s not for the marginalized or the poor who have to earn a wage to survive. And if a “true gentleman” actually recognizes these lowly, dingy females as worthy of the gesture, then the gesture itself becomes inadequate beside the uplift that is needed. Why single out a woman for a gesture that makes her feel special once, while doing nothing to fix the system that makes her not feel special always?

Chivalry does work for me in the more generic sense of being kind and considerate to people of all genders. Holding open a door for another person is a polite gesture; it saves the person some effort. Gesturing someone into a space first when there’s no clear order means that you aren’t so hurried that you can’t pause and allow someone else passage. Shielding someone you care for from traffic or rain is kindness in action. Gendering such consideration, though, is an arbitrary relic of a time when all kinds of things were gendered, things most of us wouldn’t endorse gendering today. (To Dorothy’s point, things like voting.)

If you’ll pardon the pun, I think the time is nigh to say “Good Knight!” to chivalry and just start being kind to people.

Animals are people, too?

“I want to take Baby’s temperature. Although I’m not sure what the normal temperature is for a pig.”

I know a ham turns out nicely at 325.”

–Rose Nylund & Sophia Petrillo discussing their new porcine charge, The Golden Girls

One of my best friends grew up in Carroll County, Georgia. Only a short drive from Atlanta, it’s a world away. The dynamic is not unlike that of my childhood homes in and around Macon County, Tennessee. Geographical proximity to a city is no guarantee that you will experience anything resembling urbanity. Nashville was next door to me as a kid, but it wasn’t until I moved there that I knew what it was to live in a city.

My friend is upwardly mobile and loves city life, yet he dragged his heels in the dirt of his hometown when he moved to Atlanta. I, by contrast, floated in air to Nashville, and then to Atlanta, like a cartoon character transported by appetizing smells.

One way that you can tell the difference between my friend and me is when he comes over to visit me. The various animals of the house greet him, and he receives them with varying degree of pleasant disdain. Don’t misunderstand–he likes seeing them. Still, I’m reminded of a monarch deigning to meet his subjects.

Meantime, my partner and I are having full-on conversations with the same animals, paying attention to their reactions, apologizing and bargaining and validating them like we would human children.

Our animals are named (in no particular order): Julian, Nevaeh, Aries, Boris, Natasha, Evander, Ginger, Eva, and Zsa Zsa. If my friend were to inherit them, I’m certain they would be summarily renamed: Fido, Girl, Rex, Spot, Pretty, Fluffy, Big Girl, Pretty Bird, and Polly.

And they’d live in a barn.

My friend grew up on a farm, and to him animals are animals. There were no illusions about their place in the world (beneath) and what rights they had (none). You had your good times with them, and then they were gone, either from natural causes or because they were “farmed.”

My partner and I have succumbed to the spell of indoor animals who demand respect and a voice in how the household is run. It’s hard to argue with them. There’s no logic more compelling than the pitiful mew of a hungry cat.

The South by default is defined as rural, so the idea of relegating animals to an inferior status is associated with more stereotypical ideas of what Southerners are. Suffice it to say that Southern hospitality is not traditionally extended to its four-legged citizens.

This more traditional view, of course, is correct in a way that our faux-egalitarian household is not. We exert absolute control over the living conditions of Boris; his human-sounding name will not allow him to emancipate himself or sneak out and get a drivers license. We buy beef from the supermarket from a cow who could have worn an ear-tag with the name Queen Elizabeth, and her royal title would not have saved her.

But it makes us feel better to treat them that way. They are like smaller, less complicated versions of ourselves. They are kids who will never grow up. There’s even a school of thought that modern pet ownership, viewed in a broader historical context, is an abusive fad that forces animals into a juvenile dependence on humans.

This past year, I had to deal firsthand with the implications of this negative side of keeping pets. My cat Amir (the handsome one in the pic above) now lives in a condo that I bought as a second residence and workspace. We kept him and his siblings in our basement when their mom took refuge to birth them three winters ago. Once we had them fixed, they were released outside but stayed close by.

Amir was always especially attached to us. Taking up part-time residence on our porch, he cuddled and head-butted his way into our laps and our hearts. Unfortunately, there is a lot of risk in introducing a new animal into a crowded household, so we could not take him back in.

However, when the condo deal closed, I was confronted with a dilemma: do I protect this special kitty from the elements, the vehicles, and the mean animals of the neighborhood by cat-napping him and taking him to the condo, where he can have shelter, access to food, safety, and security? Or do I let him roam and be free, enjoying the endless activities of the outdoors?

It is impossible to make such a decision without self-interest. I decided I could not bear the day when he just didn’t show up. Given the life of an outdoor cat, this would almost surely happen within a couple of years. I needed more time with him, and I thought if he could understand, he would want more time.

It was awful watching him struggle to escape the cat carrier we forced him into last June. He was terrified. I did not take the decision lightly. And as much as I enjoy his company, I wonder if he’s happy. The past eight months with him have been magical for me, and I hope my high-minded, citified humanization of him did not inadvertently make him bored or miserable.

Usually, my habit is to close a post with a conclusion, a takeaway, or a lesson learned. Not so here. What is the correct perspective to keep on animals, even the ones we know and love personally? It is an open question for me.

I will also ask Amir after I read the post to him.