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

February 12, 2012

On Missing the Dixie National Rodeo

Even if we had gotten tickets to the Dixie National Rodeo, we would have missed the real rural Western experience.

Last night, my husband Chuck and I found parking behind some horse trailers in an alley a walk away from the Jackson State Fairgrounds.  We walked between stands selling cowhides and saddles and stands selling lariats and posters of country music legends to the north entrance of the coliseum.   I was wearing brown boots, blue jeans, a red gingham blouse with a kerchief, a  denim jacket under a sheepskin coat.   We met two other couples there, both living in Vicksburg like we are, and we were planning on buying cheap seats up in the rafters so that we could watch the bull riding, the barrel racing, and who knows what-all.

However, when we  got to the box  office, we realized that they had sold all the tickets already.  We were not going to the rodeo, after all.  Instead, as a sextet, we went to a Japanese restaurant down the street and had a lovely evening, anyway.

So what’s wrong with this picture?  Nothing, but the experience the rodeo promises to people like us, people with graduate degrees and uncalloused hands, would be unattainable even if we had seats so close we could feel the breath of bulls on the back of our necks.

The image may be western, but the viewers are removed from the realities of settling the West

Almost the second the West was won, America developed a sentimentality about cowboys.  Buffalo Bill ‘s Wild West Show was just a show, not wild at all, for people who would never be cowpokes, unless poking a cow can be extended so far as slicing into a New York strip steak.

The people who back their trailers up to the Coliseum in Jackson, Mississippi may indeed have learned to straddle the agrarian image of America that Thomas Jefferson gave us and the contemporary realities of cell phones and Facebook status updates just like they wrap their thighs around the back of an angry bull, but the rest of us, the ones buying, or trying to buy the tickets, we have no such capacity.  We are products of a society that dishes us up true grit on a salad bar where we can pick and choose between morsels of culture.  All six of us, the ones who went out to dinner instead of the rodeo, we are all white folks, so we are no more Japanese than we are cowboy.  So to what do we really and truly belong?

One of the women who ate teriyaki with me last night told me she was from a small town called Hot Coffee, Mississippi, and I am sure that she comes from more rural digs than I do in Brooklyn, but she and the other woman lamented the disappearance of a sign welcoming outsiders to Hot Coffee that looked like someone was pouring coffee off a sign post.  The other woman remembered that her father used to woo women by walking around where he came from with a pet goat, and somehow, in the vocabulary of this particular rural region, that was like having a nice ride in Hollywood.

But we, the educated people — lawyers, professors, computer scientists, chemists — we don’t have goats.  We may come from Hot Coffee, but we are not stuck there by land battles or other forms of economic necessity.  If we use a lasso, it’s not for livelihood — it’s a rope trick, nothing more.  So who are we?

This boy from New York City was adventurous but ultimately more Republican than Bull Moose

People often say of those who move away and move back that they can never really and truly go home again.  I furthermore say that any of us who refine our minds can never truly be present for The Dixie National Rodeo.  We are too aware of other things, and our options are too many.  People who get up to milk the cows at 4 am usually do so out of necessity, not out  of romantic transcendental ideologies.  As for Dixie, that country no longer exists; indeed Dixie, as opposed to the real Confederate States in secession, was as mythological as Atlantis, for no one who has picked cotton for no money sings happily about how they wish they were back in the land of cotton where old times are not forgotten — look away.  So moving South — which I undoubtedly did — it has not made me any more a Southern Belle than Teddy Roosevelt made himself a cowboy when he bought guns in Manhattan at Tiffany & Company (Yes, that Tiffany’s used to sell guns, silver plated, apparently, along with the rest of their jewelry) and moved to the Dakotas.  Teddy Roosevelt mastered the skills of a cowbpoke out on the range very impressively, but he always could count on other forms of income.  He managed to inhabit the rough neck culture, but he himself remained a city slicker inside.  He could hunt in the land of grizzlies, form the rough rider brigade in the bar of the luxurious Hotel Menger, but this was a bit like Marie Antoinette building herself a Hameau to play at being a peasant girl.

I will never be a cowgirl.  I might learn to shoot a gun, Tiffany silver-plated or otherwise.  I might learn all the manners of  a Kappa Kappa Gamma.  I might learn to inhabit this culture with thorough fluency, but somehow, I’ll end up eating foreign cuisine, reading a marvelous book, investigating arch Machiavellian realities or corn pone frontier humor from a consumerist, internationalist, twenty-first-century intellectual distance.

It’s a shame we missed the rodeo.  I think we would have had a terrific time.   The truth, though, is we missed the rodeo over a century and several libraries ago.

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.

January 24, 2010

America’s hidden autobahn

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune—I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Strong and content, I travel the open road. — Walt Whitman, from “Song of the Open Road”

America has a secret, all you New York commuters, carefully finding a place in stop and go traffic.  That secret is the joy of a two-lane highway with nothing behind and nothing in front.

I discovered Whitman’s open road in Alabama on my way to Vicksburg — one lane going my way, no smoky to my bandit, and I drove for hours at 85 MPH on an absolutely empty straight shot toward my destination.  I might have hit a possum in my haste, had I hit anything, but in fact I hit nothing.  Not even a leaf was taken  out of its path in the wind by my one-lane drag race with myself.

New Yorkers don’t really believe this American possibility — good, empty road with nothing in our way, not even in rush hour, but I promise you in the deep South, tax dollars have built solid highways where there are no blizzards and no mass commutes.

They are a joy — roads with speed minimums.

However, I discovered a darker aspect of the lovely isolation of these paths last Wednesday night.

I was on my way home — three hours from one place to another, with nothing in between — and it was dark, a dark New Yorkers have never experienced on the road.  The emergency broadcast system interrupted my Mississippi Public Radio “All things Considered” listening.

This was not a test.

I was in an area where I was in danger of golf-ball sized hail hitting and shattering my windshield, tornadoes — As a New Yorker, I have every strategem under my belt about avoiding potential muggers, but tornadoes?  What does a gal in designer shoes do with that kind of danger? — and a definite promise of a severe lighting storm destined to fell trees and wreak havoc, let loose the dogs of war.

If I had been hit by a tree or some golf-ball ice, nothing would have heard me scream before I  died.

Undestand that on this stretch of road, the only settlement of humanity I saw was a bunch of RVs amid the pines hung all of them with the Confederate Flag — yes, I thought it was a KKK compound (Kompound?), too.  Honestly, if they were parked in this mess, they were in more trouble than I was on my way home, now slowed to 50 MPH, despite all emptiness, because I couldn’t see in front of me or behind me except when the sky lit up with dracula-movie lightnihg, only there was no Transylvanian castle in which to spend the night.

I prayed loudly to myself as I drove for the next hour and a half home.  The emergency broadcast system interrupted me several more times to let me know the many ways I might just die right now or in a few minutes,  but I pushed forward, really having no better alternative than to outrun the storm such as I could.

On a clear day, Whitman’s open road is the American dream. There is nothing in one’s way.   As he says, I myself am good fortune on these roads.  However, after some warning signals and dire computerized-voice cautionings, I am my own malediction on this road in stormy weather.

The German’s autobahn links large populations together, and they collectively speed between them.

Our highways with no hindrances are between little places, clusters of humanity nestled together between places, were you to fly over them at night, enveloped in unrelenting shadow.

America is its roadways. The dream is a clear shot wherever we’re headed, but forget about rescue in a time of extraordinary adversity.  Rescue will come too late to save us, unless it descends from God.

I thank God for my safe return home, where my new husband poured me a  glass of Jack and covered me with a blanket.  I was weeping.

I’m looking forward, however, to my next foray on that highway.  The weather report predicts promising clarity.

I am an American, after all.

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