Wednesday, October 29, 2008

"That's how we do it in the South"

Okay...there are plenty of things that they "do" in the South that make my blood hot enough to boil peanuts. It is the South, after all, and two things they love dearly are their churches and their politics, neither of which I am particularly in tune with.

But the individual who made the comment in this particular instance was referring to something that I've mentioned a couple of times before--the simple act of acknowledging someone else. It typically includes the elements of (1) eye contact, (2) a slight movement of the head, (3) what could pass as a toothy-grin in Seattle (we've raised avoiding # 1 to an art form, so don't even bother about getting us to smile), and, especially in the smaller communities, (4) some version of the traditional greeting "hello". It happens in stores, restaurants, on the street, even at stoplights.

After living this for two full weeks, I noticed that instead of being disconcerted about this sudden influx of existential recognition on the part of 'strangers', I actually found it totally refreshing. So much so that 67+ hours since my return to Seattle, I'm discovering my answer to the question 'what did you like best about your trip?' "People" is my response. Don't get me wrong. I love Seattle. I don't think I've ever lived anywhere else that had such a sense of the importance of civic engagement. But sometimes, I think we lose the ability to see one another. My favorites are the ones who jam their iPods into their ears and start pecking away on their Blackberries on the bus or walking on the street (at 7 AM...REALLY??). Why don't you just write "eat shit and die" on your forehead and call it good, save yourself some cash in this harsh economic climate, and cut into some of that corporate greed you keep self-righteously bitching about?...

But I digress. I find myself, since returning, surrounded by what passes for "normal" in this Seattle life. And I also am finding that, while I can accept most of it as 'livable, if not dysfunctional, insanity', I can't continue to believe that it's normal to not see people. Or, if you do see them, to see them as something in your way, barely worth an "excuse me" in the tone of "get out my way." Heck, even in Manhattan people look at each other on the street. Although that may actually lead to an altercation, so maybe that's not the best example. In Birmingham (I'll call it a city), folks at the coffee shop look up from their laptops and give you the nod...don't fool yourself, you know exactly what I mean.

So I could simply slip back into that "normalcy" again, could just pretend that the person sitting next to me on the bus doesn't actually need help with their bags, could go on believing that it's best for me to just look down or straight ahead, and hope that someone else will smile, or help, or say "hello", so that I know it's okay to do the same. But that's not how we do it in the South. :-)

One of the themes of this election season has been 'how we can, how we should, be better than what we are.' I'm going to try to start seeing people again. I know it's not going to solve the energy crisis or increase my desire to open my retirement plan statements every quarter. But...ehh. Whatevs.

I'll occasionally post random pieces about the South on this blog, starting with the stuff below. Comments are always welcome. I'd like to keep it going just because I do plan to return to the South, and use this as a forum and travel log. This trip was about Civil War and civil rights history, and the Space Center (and volunteering, of course!). Next time, I'm thinking a 'musical history of the South'. I also got to eat at some great BBQ places this trip, and might try to do an actual 'great holes-in-the-wall bbq joints' listing next time. Although I need to devise an exercise regimen for that, too, so my arteries don't explode.

For your continued entertainment, a series on Alabama Racial Politics being run in the Birmingham Weekly (like the Seattle Weekly):


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