Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

A Brief Digression on Southernism (Book Excerpt)

When my committee was reviewing my travel book, one of the readers pointed out, "You don't really capture the South in the Southern part of your trip, and I couldn't tell if this was intentional or not." I replied, "That's because I hate the south and have no interest in capturing it." He sugggested I address this question directly, and so I added the following paragraphs. Since none of you could have seen it the first time around, here it is. May it divert you entertainingly.

A Brief Digression on Southernism
At the store where I avoided the swastika hip flask, I also passed up the opportunity to buy a flask or a lighter with an emblem of the Confederate flag. Since I faced the same non-temptation when I was buying cowboy-style belt buckles, this seems as good a time as any to address the question of local charm. There exists a certain class of travel writers who try to find, wherever they go, expressions of the neighborhood culture—talking to locals, reading road signs that are oh-so-typical-of-Eastern-Pawtucket, etc. The resulting description creates a diorama you could frequently sell in the local Cracker Barrel, along with Precious Moments figurines and old DVDs of Disney’s Song of the South. You have to be a great writer—William Least-Heat Moon, for example—to avoid making it sentimental, and to turn a blind eye to the South’s worst qualities.

Frankly, I’ve got no interest in any of it. I’ve lived in Tallahassee for six years—arguably the most Southern of Florida’s major cities—and I’ve never learned to enjoy its distinctives. I’ve never liked the unsanitary nature of “fishin’” or “swimmin’ holes,” boiled peanuts literally make me sick, and the popularity of funnel cake is precisely why you want to avoid going to Southern beaches: everyone’s overweight and toothless. What so many people call “Southern culture” looks suspiciously like rural poverty and ignorance in a tourist-friendly display case. I grew up poor and don’t find anything charming about it. And that, more than anything else, may be why I decided to focus my travel on big cities. The modern highway system is such that you can, in theory, travel the entire length of the country and never eat anything but Subway sandwiches. And the only sign you’d have that you’re in the South is that the gas stations start to sell Confederate flag merchandise.

So can I just say I find the popularity of Confederate flags completely baffling? Particularly when I see the level of self-deception involved. In one gas station, I saw a bumper sticker that showed such a flag along with the caption, “It’s Heritage—Not Hate!” And I wanted to write next to it, “Can’t it be both?” Because surely the Confederate flag is about a heritage of hate. And this is why its presence everywhere makes me cringe for the Southerners involved.

Let me see if I understand this: the Civil War was a war of deliberate treason in the name of slavery. Its proponents were the same guys who killed Lincoln. And they lost badly. And then went on to commit the worst series of lynchings in our country’s history while—as an almost literal sideshow—being the first hosts to the war on teaching evolution. And then, a hundred years later, the flag went up over every Southern state that wanted to resist dismantling Jim Crow. Could someone explain to me what part of this is worth celebrating? I could understand “Southern shame.” Or, taking a cue from modern Germany, “Southern embarrassed silence about the late 1800s.” Or bumper stickers bearing the Confederate Flag reading “Never again!” But Southern pride? I’m sorry, but I don’t sport bumper stickers that say, “My forefathers massacred dozens of Indians! Yee-haw!” And I expect the same level of self-awareness from people with their own history of atrocities. Until they come up with a Confederate Flag bumper sticker that says, “We Can Do Better!”, I’m avoiding the allegedly real South, even if it means eating at Subways all the way to New Mexico.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm shocked. I know I'm not a redneck southern girl, but having been born and raised in the south I am a southerner. I do agree that the flying the confederate flag is a crock, but your "everyone’s overweight and toothless" comment was very interesting to me. True I am now over weight due to the 4 years of college cooking, I am most definitely not toothless. My use of the word Ya'll doesn't mean I'm not smart, (you know that) and a fondness of swimming holes and fishing are just a sign of enjoying nature. It's free entertainment. (You should appreciate that.)

Maybe you just never came to the right city here in the south, cause here big trucks, camouflage, sittin on the pouch and hanging out at the beach are just ways to make friends. We don’t like to live our lives in a rush, never getting to know our neighbors names. Southerners are friendly. They make eye contact, nod their head as you pass by and even smile at you just to say hi.

Of course there are the poor, lazy souls here in the south that have 10 kids, live in a run down house and as you said are overweight and toothless, but every city, state and region has its lower class. To say the south has nothing to offer just means you never gave it a chance. Sorry you missed out on all we have to offer.

By the way, boiled peanuts are my all time favorite. Ben doesn’t like them either. Darn Yankees!

4/12/2006 3:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I also spent have spent almost all my life (minus about 18 months) living in the South. I'll be the first to condemn the current predominent Southern mindset on many things: the Confederate flag, the Bible belt, the lack of progess in terms of civil rights for all, etc.

And yet I would never condemn the region in as blanket a manner as you do here. I do not believe that several years in Tallahassee, with a few brief visits to a few other Southern cities, counts as any sort of understanding of the South. As the previous commenter pointed out, the South is a friendlier, somewhat more leisurely paced place than the rest of the country. It also has some of the most gorgeous scenery in America. You may not like boiled peanuts, but have you had fresh Georgia peaches or Vidalia onions? Also: not a lot of snow.

I mainly stay in the south for the weather; if I was going to live somewhere for the prevailing cultural mindset, I'd be in Toronto right now. But I think there's much else to recommend the south, and I believe it's your own loss that you choose to dismiss the entire region so blithely.

4/12/2006 5:45 PM  

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