January 22, 2015 § 3 Comments
I’ve been on the road a lot lately – putting a lot of miles on the Batmobile. Driven through cities, back country, suburbs, thousands of miles. And I wasn’t seeking this conclusion, but I came to it anyway: America is pretty much the same, everywhere.
Before you get up in arms about the uniqueness of your little hamlet (do we even have hamlets in the US? I don’t think so – chalk another one up to homogeneity), let me expound and clarify and thus placate your offended soul.
I’m from the South, but I’ve lived and visited other places. So I can first list for you the cultural differences between South and non-South, and then I can list for you the differences between my Corner of the South and my Former Corner of the South and your Corner of the South and even go into dialectical differences from city to city.
Don’t worry: you are special and unique. Except…you’re not.
America (and I mean the United States, having never been to Canada or any South American countries) is characterized by one underlying factor: space.
Space as in room, not as in NASA (although we have that, too).
In my international travels, I’ve always noticed this one thing: other places are a lot more crowded. Higher populations + less land. That’s why you have tiny bathrooms (shoilets, affectionately) in Europe and magnificent high-rises in Asia and decent public transportation pretty much everywhere except here and Iceland.
America is farmland and sprawling cities. America is single-family homes on at least 3/4 an acre. America is enough room in the yard to park your RV and your 5th car and a have a pool. America is empty roads for miles, dotted with the occasional ramshackle mom & pop, interrupted by sudden frenzies of chain stores and restaurants – all next to each other, never stacked on top, separated by parking lots.
We are really inefficient at using space. And why should we be efficient? We have TONS of space. Our houses are huge. Our closets are huge. We build everything so far apart that we have to drive to get places. There are too few of us, spread too far apart, to make any kind of public transportation worthwhile (outside of places like NYC, DC, Chicago, etc).
You might be thinking…Well, that’s just normal, isn’t it?
It’s not! The rest of the world is, generally, not like that. At least, not the parts that I’ve seen or heard about.
So it turns out you are unique, then, you special snowflake.
When you’re roadtripping the US, you’ll notice topographical changes (Louisiana is wetter than Texas and Texas is flatter than Georgia!) but it’s all just variations on the same theme. The theme of space: we live on the frontier. Our towns and our cities are roomy frontier towns, evidence of a sparse, young population cautiously rooting itself with plenty of room to swing cats. Even our cultural nuances point to our identity as a country of frontiers, like the ubiquity of boudin along the I-10 in south Louisiana (boudin is a type of sausage originating in France).
It’s not better or worse that we’re a spacious frontier, it’s just different. It does mean that we can get a wealth of experience within the US without culture shock – but it might mean that we can’t wrap our heads around problems that other countries have.
I suck at writing meaningful conclusions, so – the end.
January 11, 2015 § 1 Comment
The whole western world rallies behind France when 20 people are murdered in a terrorist attack in France. But who bats an eye when twice as many die in a suicide bombing in Yemen on the same day?
I can definitely tell you which of the two was the top story on January 7.
Last week Boko Haram killed “thousands” in Nigeria, by Amnesty International’s count.* Just yesterday, a suicide bombing in Tripoli, Lebanon left 7 dead.** But the Charlie Hebdo attack is still the top story. After all, what’s 7 more people dead in the Middle East or Africa? Aren’t suicide bombings just normal there? Wouldn’t reporting deaths by terrorism in the Middle East be like reporting deaths by heart disease in the USA?
Sometimes I get the feeling that that’s what western news outlets think. Sometimes I get the feeling that that’s what westerners think, at the very least subconsciously.
Like most people my age, I don’t read the paper. I get my news online, specifically from Google News. I realize that what shows up on my Google News page goes through a lot of different algorithms, based on most-viewed stories, my preferred news outlets, what’s most popular where I live, what I click on most, and what other people click on most. So, even though I put a high preference on World News and I frequently click on stories from/about the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, stories about Paris and Mark Zuckerberg still shoot to the top of my feed.
I’m not going to pretend to understand algorithms, I just want to share my observations. Also, I want to make really clear that I believe what happened in Paris was truly awful. What I’m trying to emphasize is that similar deaths in Yemen, Nigeria, Lebanon, and other non-western countries are also truly awful, and often much more catastrophic, yet they garner exponentially less outcry in western media.
I understand why Charlie Hebdo is such a big story, and a scary one at that. It’s geographically and culturally closer to us. How many of us have been to Paris on vacation, or dreamed of going to Paris on vacation?
I have a sort of hypothesis that I call the tourism principle: people only actively care about what happens in places they’d conceivably go on vacation or business. We don’t have enough energy to devote grief and empathy to every horrible things that happens in the world, so we have to choose, and we choose that which most directly affects us. I know that’s partly why I care so much about what happens in the Middle East: I’ve been there. I have friends there, and I want to go back.
I don’t have a solution. This is just my way to quietly call out what I’ve observed. What do you think?
New York Times, “Car Bombing Kills Dozens at Yemeni Police Academy,” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/08/world/middleeast/sana-yemen-car-bomb.html
*USA Today, “2,000 dead: Massacre Deadliest in Nigerian History,” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2015/01/10/nigeria-boko-haram/21552437/
**Haaretz, “Double suicide attack on Lebanese cafe kills at least seven,” http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/middle-east-updates/1.636306
December 1, 2014 § 1 Comment
Every once in a while I’m seized by a sudden inexplicable desire to “organize” and “purge” the boxes of random junk that have set up camp in my closet. Of course this means running across papers and things that I haven’t looked at in a while – embarrassing photos, embarrassing journals, everything is embarrassing, etc. Usually I rediscover my old college opinion column (oh yeah, I forgot I did that), leading me to rediscover that I was a mega smartass. This last time, however, while perusing those old columns, I realized with shock that I used to be funny.
I was legitimately funny. Not stand-up comedy funny, but clever and witty, in the strong flavor of snark. I don’t think I’m being overly biased here, either; I remember classmates telling me my column was funny. Back then, oh-so-many years ago, I knew I was being at least a little bit funny, but it’s the dry solemnity of my humorless old age that has given me perspective on the magnitude of my youthful wit.
What happened to me? Sure, I drop the occasional corny joke here and there and pepper my infrequent blogging with parenthetical quips. But it’s like I’m Severus Snape now, when I used to be the Weasley Twins (OK maybe I wasn’t as funny as them but I’m going for a dramatic contrast; end parenthetical quip). Is it because I don’t write as much? Or is there a direct relationship between smartassery and wit? Can’t I be a nice person but also be funny? I know people who are…what’s their secret?
Of course, I’m not asking to be the life of the party, anybody who knows me knows I would rather melt into the floor than that, but I wouldn’t mind being known again for witty and clever written commentary. I think it would make me feel young again.
October 5, 2014 § Leave a comment
I love North Georgia in autumn.
I say North Georgia because North Georgia is a very different creature from Atlanta or South Georgia or the rest of it. I tell people I’m from Atlanta because nobody outside of Georgia has ever heard of the Medium Town, USA that I grew up in, but in truth I’m from a slower, older, earthier place. Earthy I think is a good word for it, though many other words are needed to describe North Georgia.
I have arrived for a short stay the very same weekend that autumn has arrived. This morning early in the cold I had the quiet joy of driving a winding, familiar journey through farmlands and over tendrils of The Lake. Fog rose in wisps from the water, like a giant steaming bath, and the sun slowly burned through the mist that rested in the fields. Yes, I’m painting you an idyllic picture, but I promise, I’m not exaggerating. I couldn’t make this up if I tried.
I broke into a genuine grin yesterday when I caught my first sight of the mountain I grew up on. It’s short and alone, the very, very, very last mountain in the Appalachian chain. Geographers will probably tell you it’s not actually part of the Appalachians; they are mistaken.
This evening, on my way to a church picnic at a local farm market (read: farm market, not farmer’s market – there’s a difference), I saw a coyote trotting along the side of the highway. Blue mountains rolled before me. If I were a more sentimental person, I might tell you they whispered, “Keep driving, come on, don’t stop.” But that would be silly. Mountains don’t whisper, they sing.
I don’t look at this place through rose-colored glasses. I know it’s not perfect (when you know a place’s true beauty, you also know its true faults – maybe that applies to people too, but I think I’m getting overly philosophical) and I may not ever live here again. But wherever I live, whatever place I call home, the rolling hills of North Georgia will always be in some way, Home.
I think that if the blue hills, green fields, and golden fog of North Georgia are but a dim shadow of the beauty of the new heaven and new earth, then eternity will be very glorious indeed.
July 30, 2014 § Leave a comment
It’s easy to measure the change in our lives – our outer lives and our inner lives – when we look back over a period of time, the longer the better. “Three years ago, I would have reacted completely differently to this than I do now,” or “My life was so different just one year ago.”
Sometimes, though, there are experiences that mark stark inward change. First semester of college. The death of someone we love. Times spent in another culture. The change isn’t a choice, it’s a reaction.
When we change drastically on the inside and have to continue living in circumstances that haven’t changed much, it’s hard. Can I get an amen? Many of you know this much better than I do. You look the same on the outside, and people regard you as the same, but you’re different inside and you don’t know how to communicate that without being rude…but neither do you know how (or want) to live the way you used to.
The first time I went to the Middle East, the coming back was exponentially harder than the going. What I experienced there didn’t fit into the context of my old life, but my old life was still there, expecting me to continue. The first couple weeks back in the US (and after such a short trip) were ridiculously difficult. I didn’t know or understand how to cope with my worldview changing, or how to communicate it to others, and that was really depressing. It was partly reverse culture shock, but I believe it went much deeper. The Lord used that trip (and the painful re-entry on returning) as a catalyst for my life going a completely different direction than I had ever imagined.
But that’s another story.
I can share several examples of pivotal inner change in my life. Let’s talk about the present though, shall we? I recently returned from 6 1/2 weeks in Thailand. I changed a sight more than I expected, in ways that I definitely didn’t expect (God is sneaky like that – in the best way). I’ve had significantly less culture shock than I expected, I guess by virtue of a lot of international travel, but I’m different on the inside. Just different enough to burn a little on re-entry.
I also moved right after I got back (different apartment, same city) and I’m starting a new job. Wow, that’s a lot of change, how are you handling it? Thanks for asking, and actually everything changing slightly on the outside has been really nice. The change of outer context feels appropriate for the inner change; it feels right that my circumstances should be slightly different, since I’m slightly different. Yet, it’s not so much change that I feel overwhelmed.
This is a gift, because it doesn’t always happen so neatly.
Re-entry hasn’t been frictionless, though, and I need the grace of Jesus daily to understand his will for this time of my life.
I’m not sure all of this had much of a point, except maybe some of you have experienced something similar, maybe to a greater or lesser degree. Most of it is me processing, via the written word. Jet lag…
July 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
A few years ago I discovered John Coltrane’s album “A Love Supreme.” Fans of the Trane will know it, but if you’ve never heard it you ought to give it a listen. At least listen to the fourth movement, “Psalm,” because it’s what I’m writing about right now.
Go ahead…listen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f1xe7FDsQWY
“Psalm” is shockingly mournful, full of anguish. It caught me off guard the first time I heard it, in that way that only the best music does. It still catches me off guard. I guess I thought it would be more peaceful, and in a way there is a peace about it – but an uncomfortable peace. Do you know what I mean? I thought that something called “Psalm” would be less…difficult.
I had to memorize Psalm 23 when I was a kid. “He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters.” It was kind and poetic and I liked it. When I got older, though, it seemed platitudinous, like some nice sentiment. The Psalms in general seemed to be full of nice sentiments, either that or asking to be rescued from enemies. Since I didn’t have enemies and I was growing in cynicism toward comforting sentiments, I didn’t have much time for Psalms. To me (in my limited reading of them), they were fluffy.
After much more life (in years and experience, though comparatively little of both), I started reading Psalms again. It’s a much different picture. It’s a picture of desperation, even anguish. Of clinging to the Lord when there is nothing else left. David knows what I feel…he felt it too. “My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Psalm 63)
Green pastures and still waters seem unnecessary when you haven’t been to the desert. But when you’ve been there…
“For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling; I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” (Psalm 116)
I understand both “Psalm” and Psalms a lot better now that I’m a little older. Psalms isn’t a one-color, two-dimensional book; it’s not a book of affirming poetry. It’s a book of raw, even painful honesty and the Lord’s goodness to rescue us. What does it mean to walk before the Lord in the land of the living when you haven’t been in the grave? I get now why Coltrane called his melancholy, discordant song “Psalm.”
Maybe this all sounds very depressing to you. Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh, what’s wrong with Corinne? She sounds depressed.” Maybe your life is always sunshine and butterflies and you never get sad. My life isn’t always sunshine and butterflies, but the Lord is always good. His steadfast love endures forever. “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing I desire on earth besides you. My heart and my flesh may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (Psalm 73)