The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

October 5, 2015

Down Home Homes — The Flamboyant Cowboy Vernacular of Chip and Joanna Gaines

Why do we go home?  I mean, why do we bother?  In New York City, given the price of an apartment, most of us live in confined spaces with the purpose of being able to fall out of bed and hit the clubs, the trendiest restaurants, and most importantly work.  We live in New York to work.  Home is an afterthought ,a place one arrives late at night and which one leaves early in the morning.  Life is at the gym.  Life is in the office.  Life is at the amazing cultural event where we saw the cultural icon and actually said hello to her, and she nodded in a vague recognition — yes, she nodded at us!  Home is a closet with a bed that pulls out.  It is a refrigerator more for wine than for food.  It is a window that shows a brick wall in front of it but which lets the light in.  If we are wealthy enough to own a space in New York where others might be invited for a gathering, the chief purpose of the space is to impress others, not to be a great comfort.

The rest of America, particularly the South, understands home quite differently.  When Southerners go home, they go to a place that comforts.  Home is a place where food falls off the fork into the mouth of the laughing family.  Home is a place where the couch gives a hug to the potato. Home embodies a set of values that work could not contain, however worthy that work is.  Home is the place in the South where facades come down, where real conversations happen, where some powerful truth is lived.  It is not a hangar for a plane itching to take off and away.  The adventure of life happens in the Southern home, not outside of it.

This mixed-race, non-sexist couple are design stars of the New South.

This mixed-race, non-sexist couple are design stars of the New South.

Into this philosophy we see inserted the design discourse of Chip and Joanna Gaines, renovators and decorators unapologetically from Waco, Texas, not New York.  They have restored a lovely farm for their growing family in a style that embraces the American ranch house traditions of Texas, the celebration of cowboy and Rodeo, of football elevated to sacrament, of Lone Star and encouraging scripture rendered into logo as well as sentiment.  They understand the black light velvet posters of Elvis and Jesus that somebody’s granddaddy put above his work bench out back.  They understand the room turned into a shrine for a team.  They understand Indian rugs, bull heads on walls, wagon wheels, and saddles as art pieces.  That said — they reject all that is tacky in the aforementioned design choices.  They understand that all those choices, while idiosyncratically Texan, rendered the home-owners provincial and narrow-minded.  They reject the stereotypes of architectural Texan sprawl and interior design that looks like the owners of the home are insular hicks.

A vintage sign, cabinet doors unhinged, and a modern feel to an old concept.

A vintage sign, cabinet doors unhinged, and a modern feel to an old concept.

Instead they remove popcorn from the ceilings in Waco.  They expose brick and original beams.  They do the thing that Willie Nelson famously sang in an anti-litter campaign long ago — they treat Texas like someone they love, all the houses in Texas that they touch like a place of love. Instead of being a cautionary tale of tastelessness — remember that Willie Nelson warned mommas not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys — they transform people’s homes into welcome embraces of Texan personality without any of the Texan stereotypes.   Instead of bull heads mounted on walls, we see antlers transformed into chandeliers.  Instead of a wagon wheel coffee table, we see a kitchen that uses a vintage tin sign over a farmhouse sink.  Everything is big in Texas, and the Gaines keep it that way — all the sofas are ample, the chairs wide-armed and overstuffed, and yet the rooms feel airy and uncrowded because in their Texas, less is more. ranch-house long tables become family dining room statements under farm lamps.

elegance without pretense

elegance without pretense

This decor is not ostentatious in the way that a New York townhouse can be ostentatious, and neither is it a Bauhaus-inflected austerity, as a penthouse may be in the City.  Rather, the Gaines’ welcome us home at the end of every episode of their HGTV Show Fixer Upper, and the design has the aspiration of a New South that keeps the comfortable but eliminates the ignorant, that keeps the hay but makes nobody a hayseed.   When they fix up, they repair our broken American dreams.  They somehow eliminate bigotry along with rotting floorboards (the Gaines’ are a mixed-race couple with a non-sexist-yet-traditional marriage partnership).  They make home a place a modern person can go to without being painted into a corner.

They are why I like living in the South, why apartment life, though exciting, can not easily tempt me back again, and why I want to curl up with a good book on a large couch and pet the cat while I look out into a warm space filled with light. Let us aspire as their design aspires, to be chic without pretense. May we all be so fixed up and so rehabilitated as the old ranch houses they gut and remodel.

Advertisements

September 21, 2015

The Texan Tale of Ahmed Mohammed and Who Southerners Think is a Bad Guy

Last week, America looked at a situation in a high school that worked like an ink blot on our culture, and our divergent perceptions reveal the central problem of American culture today.

We’ve all heard the story of Ahmed Mohammed, the fourteen year-old who was perhaps a bit nerdy and excited about building a clock, which he took to school.  I think none of us would have been surprised if any nerd had brought a clock to school, showed it to everyone, and then ended up getting beat up by the junior varsity football squad in the parking lot after lunch for being a massive nerd.  We would have been able to sympathize that the student in question had underestimated the social consequences of proud nerdiness among the Spartan youth that gets favored in American high schools, perhaps particularly in Texas, over the people who might have ended up working at Texas Instruments back in the 1970s. Such a story could have happened to any American nerd, and we would not have been so engaged with that narrative as a nation.

This is what they did to the boy who might have been their 2019 Valedictorian.

This is what they did to the boy who might have been their 2019 Valedictorian.

Instead, it wasn’t the footballers that beat up Ahmed. The administration and faculty of the high school, the very people ostensibly in charge of encouraging him to pursue his nerdiness for the good of humanity despite football squad pressures to conform, who crushed his spirit.  We need people like Ahmed to become inventors.  I am rooting for today’s Ahmeds to become the future inventors of at-home liposuction kits, high heels that don’t hurt your feet, and automatic dog-walkers for snowy days.  Instead, if our President had not Tweeted as he did, we might not have seen Ahmed inventing anything after last week.  Why would he ever want to express his gifts if they get him arrested?  I have confidence that Ahmed Mohammed will explore his abilities to the fullest now, and he must rest assured that the majority of us are not inclined to discourage his success.

But here’s where I think we have a huge problem.  It’s worse than I thought it was.  Nobody who accused Ahmed feels inclined to apologize to him, and members of the Right are actually fabricating bizarre and apocryphal versions of the well-documented incidents of Mac Arthur High School’s day of infamy.

First, the Principal of the school sent out a completely offensive letter to parents congratulating himself for having taken appropriate measures to protect the school from danger.  He wrote this after he knew full well that Ahmed’s clock was not a bomb.  He then condescendingly told parents they ought to speak to their kids about bringing suspicious objects to school.  Are clocks suspicious objects?  Would they have been suspicious in the hands of a blond nerd named Tyler?

Then the mayor of Irving, Texas said she stood by the principal. She had made local news earlier this year by complaining about non-existent problems of Sharia law in her town.  Then, Sarah Palin, who hates a lot of people for a professed Christian, including the entire Northeastern Seaboard of the United States, whom she claimed when running for VP was not really American, said about Ahmed’s clock that if it was indeed a clock, she was the queen of England.  As a real Queen of England is supposed to have said, We are not amused. There is nothing amusing about calling someone guilty who is clearly, with a Texan law enforcement thumbs-up, entirely innocent of all wrong-doing.

Then, after Ms. Palin’s — let’s call them cultural contributions — a barrage of conspiracy theories hit the lunatic Right-wing Internet and were instantly believed by the already-converted, including:

  • The clock was ticking backwards like a bomb clock when the English teacher spotted it.  It wasn’t.
  • The little white packet pictured by the clock was plastic explosives. I shake my head.
  • That Ahmed didn’t invent a new clock, he just used parts he got from other devices, and this is cheating.  It’s not cheating.  There was no assignment to cheat on, and it’s really not in dispute.  Of course at age fourteen he didn’t invent his own digital interface! He participated in the time-honored tradition of American nerds of going to junk shops and Radio Shack for tools with which to create one’s first works.  There is nothing cheating in this.  And his work was mighty impressive for a fourteen year-old.
  • That Ahmed orchestrated this false arrest himself to cover up a real conspiracy to blow things up.  I ask if this idea is a product of a meth-addicted paranoia.
  • That Ahmed orchestrated with his family his false arrest so that he could sue the city of Irving.  They are suing now, and since they have received no apology for an outrageous error of judgment, I hope they walk away with the deed to City Hall, because the officials should be ashamed of themselves but aren’t.

It has gotten to the point where a certain portion of white people in this country look at an incident like this where, I repeat, there WAS NO BOMB and see a bomb, and a terrorist,  and a conspiracy.  If the facts don’t support them, it’s only because all of us — the President, the CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg, the MIT professors, and the supportive members of the intelligentsia are lying to the good folks of the American heartland.  We must be in favor of bombs in schools.  We must want Sharia law since we hate Christianity so much, all of us — except we don’t.  We embrace empirical evidence as a source of information about world events.  Where a boy’s clock is investigated by a bomb squad and found just to be a clock, just like he said it was over and over again, we believe the boy and the clock.  The clock is ticking forward.  It’s the increasingly ugly racist Right that wants it to tick backward to prove that their views are not backward.

The rest of us, when we look at Ahmed Mohammed, see a smart nerd and a science project. It’s like we can barely discuss events in front of us because one smaller group sees a world of dangerous, swarthy hordes with Paladins defending a narrow front line, and the rest of us see a relatively harmonious multicultural coexistence disturbed by a few fascists.  When we see videos of white cops hurting people of color, we don’t assume we have just missed a segment where the ghost of Nat Turner swooped in and killed a cop after the African-American police brutality victims summoned him.  We don’t blame the victims of government violence and institutional racism.  We don’t understand how those RIght-Wingers don’t see what we see.

How do we get past this? I want America to value American values again, including diversity, tolerance, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression, and for Ahmed’s sake — I want us to embrace invention instead of treating it like a threat.  We used to do that very well.  How do we get the clock to move forward on that once more?

March 30, 2011

Is This Feminism? I Don’t Know. This is Texas.

Earlier this year, I wrote about young women who are learning at a disturbing antebellum pseudo-reenactment to be Southern belles of a highly disempowering kind.

Check out this photo of my wonderful step-daughter Alissa, and notice that she is not exactly behaving like a hoopskirted and helpless young lady:

There's a time to talk feminism, and then the time for talking ends.

Now, Alissa has not attended a consciousness-raising encounter lamenting the violence against women.  She did witness physical violence in her home — her mom with her step-dad — bad fights.  Her father (my husband) is a wholly non-violent guy, but her mom preferred another man with whom she used to have physical fights regularly.  Alissa learned about violence, and she will have none of it, and she has not chosen any kind of consciousness raising support group that might be the choice of a woman from the Northeast to achieve this clarity of purpose.  Is she a survivor?  You bet.  Could she also shoot to kill?  You bet, without apology, if necessary, to protect herself.

Is this feminism?  I don’t know.  This is Texas.

Alissa is in a relationship where she and  her future husband (they’re engaged) talk like the most traditional of Southern couples.  Toby, her guy, thinks of himself as the man of the house, and she understands herself as a lady.

But just look at her — would you mess with her?  Don’t try breaking into her apartment late at night, because even if Toby isn’t home right then, she will mess you up but good.

A lot of women in the South, particularly in Texas, use the rhetoric of Southern belledom, but what they really mean is never quite what their ancestors meant.  They mean more what Molly Ivins meant.  They mean more what the late governor of Texas Ann Richards meant.

Texan women refer to themselves as ladies, but don’t mess with them.  They are women, too, and as they say down South, they ain’t too saved to whup yer hide.

Alissa has a job where she earns more in salary and benefits than her fiance does at present.  This is a problem for neither of them, at least in the short term.

She intends to wear a  poofy white dress on her wedding day.  All shot guns may be left at the door.

An armed society is a polite society, a male friend of mine from Texas often remarks.  If you get an invitation, you’d better RSVP.  If you RSVP yes, you’d better bring a nice gift.

Here comes the bride.  Go ahead, make her day.

September 11, 2010

Who is really King of the Hill?

The cartoonish pair of us on our wedding day

I have come to a shocking realization — my husband and I are suspiciously cartoonish, or rather we suspiciously resemble the cartoon characters of Mike Judge — Hank and Peggy Hill.

Might we be two-dimensional caricatures of the American dream?

Here’s the evidence that compels me to bring this possibility to the attention of  local authorities, such as yourselves, of the bloggosphere:

  • Chuck and I are living in the South.  Peggy and Hank Hill live in a different part of the South, but Arlen, Texas and Vicksburg, Mississippi are the same size.
  • My husband speaks with a slow Texan accent, and so does Hank.
  • Hank sells propane and propane accessories, and my husband, as a petrochemist, makes propane.
  • Peggy Hill is a substitute teacher of Spanish in the Texas public school system.  I teach English in Mississippi colleges.
  • We have a ranch-style house that resembles, but for the surrounding landscape, the Hill house in King of the Hill.
  • Hank has an old hunting dog.  We have a yellow lab.
  • Chuck has been known to hang out with guys, not say much, and drink beer, although not in some alley near the house.
  • Peggy is a Boggle champion.  I am a poetry slam semi-finalist.
  • Hank played high school football, then quit football afterwards.  So did Chuck.
  • Peggy wears a large shoe size.  So do I.

There are dissimilarities, of course.  Between the two of us, we are better educated than the Hills.  We would not squash the creative ambitions of a son to be the greatest prop comic of all time.  We do not have a Lu-Ann, Laotian neighbors, a friend who is an exterminator, and when Chuck mows the lawn, he does so with an upright mower.  Peggy actually can’t speak Spanish worth a dang.  I speak French fluently.  I pray to God that my hair is not a tenth so bulbous, even on my worst hair day, as Peggy’s. The house may  be ranch-style, but we are surrounded by land, and I’d like to think that the interior design reflects my devotion to HGTV and exquisite taste — not Peggy’s completely irony-free mid-century rut.

How little or much are we like these two-dimensional figures?

Perhaps the “coincidence” here is only that Mike Judge is clever and insightful.  Perhaps the series’ success stems from his keen eye for real Americans.

Still, I don’t know if I can accept that answer.  I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but I wonder, somehow, if I am a figment of Mike Judge’s imagination.

Mike thinks, therefore I am.

For all this this time, I have been on a quest to be a better person.  Perhaps, like Jessica Rabbit, whatever my flaws, they are not my fault — I am just drawn that way.

Our cartoon yellow lab, here in Vicksburg/Arlen, is chewing on a paper cup she found in the trash.  In a minute, my t-shirt clad, bespectacled propane-knowledgeable husband will come in here, his jeans oddly low on his body, and take it from her mouth.

Perhaps the proof of my non-cartoon existence comes from my politics.  Chuck and I voted for Obama.  Hank and Peggy Hill wouldn’t have probably done that, I think, at least not Hank.

I admit it would take a lot of pressure off us if we turned out  to be cartoon characters.  PhD-level deconstructionist theory readings would  become existentially sound, as I, too, would be fictional.  A lot less would be messy if we were animated instead of lethargic but life-like.

I had better get back to my readings of literary theory.  Perhaps an end note to one of my assigned articles will point to me.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.