Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Church of Camo…Believing without Seeing

The other day two friends separately discussed their experiences with wearing camo to church. Full camo, I might add. Michael had worn full camo once to a Wednesday night service, while Will had been out of town hunting and had nothing but camo gear to wear, so he showed up to a Sunday service decked out in just that. I believed them, but there was a small sliver of doubt which pricked my unbelief…I didn’t think I could truly believe until I saw such an entrance with my own eyes. I didn’t have to wait long, because tonight I saw a walking forest saunter into church about 30 minutes after the casual evening potluck and teaching had begun. The 6-foot-something thicket of brush (who’s name was Mark) made his way over to the buffet table in a full one-piece camo jumpsuit, and then dug into his pulled pork and macaroni casserole as if nothing was out of the ordinary. I had to suppress not just a giggle, but full-scale laughter. “Oh help me in my unbelief”, I thought…”WHERE is my camera???”, followed only shortly after!

At Home in a Land Far, Far Away...

All right, so I take it there’s been a few of you waiting to hear about the Cash festival. To sum up the evening, attendance was meager at first, but as the night wore on, the bands got better and the crowds got more enthusiastic (aka drunk). Both of these things made for more interesting photos, which was my real reasoning for making an appearance.

What was really ironic about the entire experience was that Johnny Cash was arrested for public drunkenness and there everyone was, celebrating his official posthumous pardoning with a beer in hand in downtown Starkville. Interestingly enough, event organizers had been hoping to focus more on redemption as the theme of Cash’s life, rather than his blunders, so Sunday morning they’d scheduled a Redemption Service with gospel worship lead by Johnny’s sister Joanne. Liz & I slept in which, we figured, was redeeming enough.

Liz & I have been making the most of this week (doing a LOT of talking and catching up) seeing as how her husband Michael has been off hunting in Ohio. When I arrived at their house late last Wednesday night, the entire house looked like he’d just returned from a Mossy Oak shopping spree (Mossy Oak is a chain of hunting supply stores which I’m sure proudly outfits most of the locals with, as I’ve been told, ‘all things camo’. Visit if you’d like to ‘Join the Obsession’). The morning after Michael left for his weeklong buck-hunting adventure, Liz told me that he’d woken her up sometime during the wee hours of the morning to ask if she knew where his favourite deer-skinning knife was. I’m fairly sure she had no idea.

Now camo, skinning knives, and the quest for a ‘monster buck’ are not strange concepts to me seeing as how I grew up in a hunting family. Our family hunting trip to Wyoming was a favourite childhood memory of mine, and I can also recall the fall season being that special time of year when large, skinned animals were strung up from the rafters of our garage. My friend Stacey, with whom I share a penchant for all things redneck, loves to tell people about the moose that were strung up from the family swing set. I guess it’s good to have a friend who boasts about equally strange and wonderful childhood memories (that we both hope to replicate for our children one day!).

The thing with the south that differs from hunting culture in Canada is that here it’s not unusual for hunting paraphernalia to be seen en masse and in town. The night of the Cash concert I counted dozens of men, women, and children sporting camouflage gear…and not in the styles or patterns you’d pick up at Old Navy either! I spotted teenage girls pairing their daddy’s oversized hunting jackets (complete with elastic waist and wristbands) with cute jeans and low-slung heels. Here in Starkville, camo shows up on both the black man and the white girl, at the Walmart and in the trendy Italian restaurant. I stood in line at the grocery store last night reading the back of one man’s t-shirt that claimed: ‘Southern by Birth, Deer Hunter by the Grace of God’. There was part of me that wanted to be shocked that someone’s t-shirt would exhibit such a slogan, but then I had to remember that my dad has his own collection of redneck t’s…ones that he’s created himself using his own colourful imagination. It’s pretty strange realizing that my own upbringing and surroundings are what make me feel oddly at home in this southern state!

So far one of the most blessed things about Mississippi in the fall has been the weather. Blue skies every day and balmy southern temperatures, not to mention the lack of humidity and absence of mosquitoes this time of year, have made each day fantastic. Flip flops and t-shirts every day have definitely put a perpetual smile on my face. Due to the climate, the need to embrace the outdoors has definitely overwhelmed me at times, however, parkland within the city limits seems nonexistent. In search of a place to sit and relax outside, I discovered that the university campus was a great place to retreat to, and so on Sunday I hit the vast, green expanse of the Drill Field armed with books and sketching supplies. I settled into the centre of campus to sketch one of the stately old facades, then moved to wear the sun’s rays still warmed another portion of the quiet campus. There I pulled out the first book on a list of required reading that I’d been given. I figured reading about Mississippi before writing too much about it was a wise thing to do, so I started off with Willie Morris’ slim anthology of southern tales as a recommended introduction to southern literature. Before I’d even finished the first chapter I was hooked, but I was also reminded of my very first night in Mississippi which brings me back to my initial visit over seven years ago.

Immediately following my final exams in 2000, I was flown down to Mississippi as a graduation gift from my parents. It had been over a year since I’d first met friends I’d made while on a missions trip to Russia, and my first stop was to visit my dear friend Liz (Shehane) Stewart in Starkville, Mississippi. I knew nothing about the state except for what I vaguely recalled about the south from movies; stereotypes which I was sure Hollywood had grossly exaggerated. Over the course of my two week trip, however, I was stunned to find that many of my stereotypes were matched by the realities of the south and I quickly became obsessed with all things southern. But back to my first night in the Deep South.

When Liz picked me up at the airport in Jackson, the state’s capital, I initially reacted to the extreme humidity as an entity which one could chew…I felt myself working to swallow the air and felt that with each gulp I was most likely fogging up my lungs. The only other recollection I can muster up from our drive to Starkville was the mind-boggling amount of kudzu (a kind of creeping vine) that Liz claimed was, “eating up Alabama”. By the time we reached her family’s home and the warmly lit porch that welcomed us in, the sky had become black but the humidity had not lessened. As I stepped from the air-conditioned car into the sticky night I stood riveted in one spot by the sound of something I believed I’d never heard before. “Don’t you have crickets”? Liz asked as I stood wide-eyed in the dark. “They don’t sound like THAT!” I replied, somewhat taken aback that a chorus of insects could raise such a ruckus.

Later after Liz and I had settled into bed for the night, I lay very still listening again to the mildly soothing racket caused by the crickets and decided that there was something about the crickets, porches, kudzu, and humidity that when combined, blended into a rich cultural cocktail that had the potential to inspire a great deal of creativity. I made the promise to myself that if I should ever choose to write for a living, I would return to the south to do so, because it was the only place I knew of so richly endowed with inspiration. Apparently I was not the first to come to that conclusion, as I discovered on that first trip that a great deal of renowned writers and musicians had their roots buried deep in Mississippi’s fertile soil. A year after my first visit to the south I finally put my finger on what made Mississippi so unique, (at least in my opinion) and that was that natives who were born and bred in the state often had the innate gift of story-telling. Always a sucker for a strong narrative whether tall or true, I haven’t tired of seeking out southerners’ favourite stories to tell, and doubt I ever will.

If you have a hankering for a bit of classic southern story-telling, pick up a copy of ‘Good Ol’ Boy’, by Willie Morris and I can guarantee that you’ll catch a whiff of the south without having to plow through one of those dry and dusty ‘classics’ that we’ve all been told are good for us. You’ll also be thoroughly entertained, especially if you’ve grown up in a rural setting where you were forced to create your own fun. Believe me, it’s a keeper. Oh, and read it barefoot…preferably on a porch swing or near a pond if you can locate one!

Well, that’s all for now…glad you’ve been enjoying the blog so far! Stay tuned for highlights from this weekend’s much anticipated (and my first ever) college football game between the Mississippi State Bulldogs & the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Classic Cash

Well I couldn’t have picked a better week to show up in Starkville…unbeknownst to me until I stepped into the local Book Mart on Main Street, Starkville is hosting the first ever Johnny Cash Festival which kicks off today! Miss Barbara and Miss Jimmy (that’s right, Jimmy is her first name) at the Book Mart kindly filled me in on the unprecedented event which is officially labeled the ‘Johnny Cash Flower Pickin’ Festival’ in honour of the Man in Black’s notorious one-night stay in the Starkville City jail after he’d been found inebriated ‘pickin’ flowers’ (so he claimed) in someone’s garden following a gig he’d played here in 1965. Ironically enough, I already knew the story, seeing as how just that morning I’d perused Wikipedia (dependable resource that it is) in search of local facts and figures, and happened upon this humourous anecdote. As I drove into town I noticed a sign for the Dark Horse Tavern, which is where Cash had played that night, and only a block away, the city jail…incidently where my friend Josh works as a jailor. Only in Mississippi!

If you’re just starting to realise why this college town’s name seems familiar to you, and it’s not because you follow NCAA football, then it might be because Mr. Cash’s stay in the slammer inspired the tune “Starkville City Jail” which you may also know was performed at the San Quentin State Prison. Here for your enjoyment are the lyrics:

Well, I left my motel room, down at the Starkville Motel,The town had gone to sleep and I was feelin' fairly well.I strolled along the sidewalk 'neath the sweet magnolia trees;I was whistlin', pickin' flowers, swayin' in the southern breeze.I found myself surrounded; one policeman said: "That's him.Come along, wild flower child. Don't you know that it's two a.m."They're bound to get you.'Cause they got a curfew.And you go to the Starkville City jail.Well, they threw me in the car and started driving into town;I said: "What the hell did I do?" He said: "Shut up and sit down."Well, they emptied out my pockets, took my pills and guitar picks.I said: "Wait, my name is..." "Awe shut up." Well, I sure was in a fix.The sergeant put me in a cell, then he went home for the night;I said: "Come back here, you so and so; I ain't bein' treated right."Well, they're bound to get you, cause they got a curfew,And you go to the Starkville City Jail.I started pacin' back and forth, and now and then I'd yell,And kick my forty dollar shoes against the steel floor of my cell.I'd walk awhile and kick awhile, and all night nobody came.Then I sadly remembered that they didn't even take my name.At 8 a.m. they let me out. I said: "Gimme them things of mine!"They gave me a sneer and a guitar pick, and a yellow dandelion.They're bound to get you, 'cause they got a curfew,And you go to the Starkville City Jail.

--by Johnny Cash
At first I wondered if this festival was a big deal in the minds of locals more than anything, but when I stopped in at the local Chamber of Commerce to find out more, the woman who’s dark and generous hands enveloped my skinny l’il white palm, and who’s name (Latasha) seemed to somehow compliment her red lacquered nails, informed me that the festival had garnered the media’s attention not just in neighbouring Tenessee, but in New York and London as well. When I sat down to lunch with the local paper I read that festival organisers were expecting upwards of 20, 000 people to show up for the event! And when I jumped online to google the festival a flurry of articles arrived at my fingertips. Check out this article by the BBC:

What’s the real big deal about this whole thing? Well first off, of course the music should be amazing, with members of the Cash family showing up to perform and other renowned artists taking to the stage of Main Street, USA tomorrow. But the highlight of the weekend is the official pardoning of Johnny Cash which will take place at 8:05 pm Central time and will no doubt draw quite a crowd…after which I will leave tired, happy, and eager to upload photos.

Oh, and here’s the real great part about all this: from the ages of 10-12 I wore a lot of black…so much so that my mom started calling me Johnny Cash. I didn’t know who Johnny Cash was or why he wore black, but I had already started reading ‘Vogue’ and instinctively knew that black was classic. Mom’s response to that: “Not on a 10-year old.”

Catch ya on the flip side of the Cash Festival...

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

On the Road Again...

Glad to see you’ve reached the JLaur Files! After many months away from the blogosphere I’m returning once again only to leave once more. This time I’m off to Mississippi where I’ll be hanging out in the college town of Starkville for the month of November. I’m currently in Vancouver, so settle in with a latte or a Dynamite roll, and I’ll share a few pre-departure thoughts (and reexamine my packing list) before I check in and find my gate…

For serious Westcoast adventurers who confidently assume that the following will assist them in their travels anywhere across the globe, think again, because the requisite anti-malaria medication, puffy North Face vest, Gortex footwear, bag of trail mix, and Lonely Planet guidebook that should (almost) never be left at home, will do you no good in the Deep South. Considering a major hike to break in your new boots from MEC before you head out? No need…you won’t walk far enough to develop a blister before someone offers you a lift. Contemplating a detailed itinerary for your journey? Throw it out the window…you can’t plan it, but I can almost guarantee that any number of folk will insist you join them for their mama’s chicken fried steak, a Sunday church service, or the Big Game (college football if you’re confused). Got that? Now scratch the typical travel items and routine preparations off your list and carefully read the following advice.

Dietary Planning: Prior to travel in the Deep South, be sure to consume mass quantities of salads and sushi. Let their freshness seep into your soon-to-be clogged arteries because before you know it you’ll be staring straight into the eye of a deep-fried catfish surrounded by hush puppies, wondering whether or not the only veggies you’ll encounter during your trip will come in the form of ‘slaw…coleslaw that is!

Learn the Lingo: First off, I know you’re wondering what exactly ‘hush puppies’ are, so here’s the first definition for your southern lexicon: hush puppy “a savoury, deep-fried ball of cornmeal (about the size of a TimBit for you Canadians) often served up with catfish and ‘slaw, and washed down with sweet tea.” From culinary vocab to football jargon, age-old idioms to cultural forms of address, familiarize yourself with the lingua franca and you’ll have a much easier time interpreting the local vernacular. Want to avoid sounding like a total foreigner? Widen your vowels and avoid ‘eh’ as an expression of choice. Stay tuned to this blog for a growing list of southern colloquialisms and definitions that I’ll be collecting throughout the month.

Dress for the Occasion: Wanna look like a local? Check out the local university’s campus store and walk out sporting the school’s colours. Nothing exudes local pride more than the home team’s logo, colours, or motto. Take caution, however, when traveling further afield lest you wind up in rival territory decked out in another school’s colours. For those of you most comfortable in skate shoes and flip flops, emo style or surfer gear, be forewarned that running shoes and golf shirts reign supreme in the south, but note that no one will mind if you pack your Lulu Lemon pants or Chucks…maybe just avoid wearing them to church…

Football Frenzy: College football in the southern United States is taken just as seriously as, if not more so than, religion (at least by some). Long-standing rivalries, spirited fight songs, classic marching bands, traditional (and not-so-traditional) tailgate parties and die-hard football fanatics all packed into one pulsing stadium could probably cause even the most intense Canadian hockey fans’ jaws to drop and eyes to pop! Check out ESPN’s recent feature entitled “Southern Living: A Weekend in the Life of the SEC” (Southeastern Conference) for a taste of football frenzy both on and off the field.

Grab a Guidebook…If You Can Find One: If you’ve been scanning the shelves of your local bookstore for the ubiquitous blue spine of a Lonely Planet guidebook that reads ‘Mississippi’ in bold, white lettering, your search ends here. Why? Because Lonely Planet has never (to my knowledge) published a guidebook on Mississippi. Known for sending its writers to the most obscure points on the map, LP is trusted the world over by both beginner and seasoned travelers looking to avoid the tourist traps. Of course I was not surprised that, for obvious reasons, Lonely Planet has omitted Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Chechnya from its vast collection of travel guides. Also excluded, but for reasons less obvious to those who’ve never visited (especially in the dead of winter): North Dakota and Saskatchewan. And while Mississippi may not be the most majestic of states or contain the most enticing of attractions, I was surprised to find that Lonely Planet did not credit the Magnolia state’s rich history, southern hospitality, and musical legacy as worth writing about. I did find another publisher who felt differently, (Insiders’ Guide) and has published a book entitled, “Off the Beaten Path: Mississippi (6th Edition)”, by Marlo Carter Kirkpatrick, but tracking down a copy in Vancouver has proven to be impossible. Barnes & Noble has a copy in its Jackson, MS store, however, so I may have to procure one after I’ve arrived in Dixie.

Bringing it Home: Aside from leaving extra room in one’s bags to bring back souvenirs like pickled okra and bbq sauce, my favourite way to give folks back home a taste of the south is through photographic imagery. That said, there is no telling how many memory cards or rolls of film it might take to do just that, so adopt the southern spirit of shooting everything that moves and keep a sharp eye! (Okay, that was just a jab at a stereotype…don’t get all politically correct and sensitive on me now…this is just the beginning!)

All right, well I think that’s all the travel prep I can muster up! If you’re up for more from Mississippi, then join me for the ride…this is your final boarding call. Y’ALL COME BACK NOW, Y’HEAR?!