On Snow, Language and the South. Sort of

January 22, 2016 7:18 pm
Clemmons, NC

A car catches fire in Raleigh, North Carolina as drivers battle heavy snow on Wednesday, February 12, 2014.
A car catches fire in Raleigh, North Carolina as drivers battle heavy snow on Wednesday, February 12, 2014.
Yesterday, everything closed because it was reported we were going to get snow today. And so around 3am this morning, it started snowing and by 6am when I left early for work, the roads were already slippery. Luckily, the only other people on the road were people like me trying to beat the onslaught of clueless drivers who only ever drive on snow/ice once or a twice a year and have to be reminded, catastrophically so, what it means to have snow in the south.

I’ve learned that snow here is not like the snow that you and I grew up with which was crunchy like styrofoam and could be scooped up and thrown as snowballs or be sculpted into snowmen. The word “snow” here means something very different than the rest of the country’s usage. It’s more akin to the Southern phrase “Bless your heart” meaning anything but. Having had the phrase said to me in most variants, I propose that if one could fully explain all the nuances of the phrase “Bless your heart” then one would grasp the frustratingly complex character of certain Southerners I have come to know (you know who you are.)

So, Snow here is not “snow.” The closest thing it is is ice. And then it’s not like the ice you see hanging from trees in intricate and delicate shows of filigree. Here snow/ice generally is more like gritty sand. Sometimes folks here will call it “sleet” but again it not what you or I would call sleet which i tend think of as being wet and splooshy and behaving more like thick, very cold rain. Instead, “sleet” here is granular and pelty, as in to be pelted in the face with. This sleet falls frozen and stays frozen, quickly forming nice laminar sheets of inch-thick ice that is as impossible to drive on as you trying to imagine me skating gracefully on a rink.

When people laugh about the Southern Snowpocalypse of 2014 and the seeming ineptness of cities like Raleigh and Atlanta, I want to remind them (oh people of Colorado) that their hubris is misplaced because they are comparing apples-to-oranges. Northerners would do no better if they were subjected to the same conditions Southerners were and are. As I spend more time here, I learn this is true of more and more things. That’s all I have to say about that. For now

So, I stand outside with the kids and see them try to play on and with the “snow” which can’t be used to make snowballs or snowmen because it behaves like dry sand. Nor can it be sledded on because the snow then functions like an Olympic Luge track; the kids accelerate too fast and have to bail/eject from the sled to avoid certain doom.

Nonetheless the kids and I are having fun. There is nothing like a Certified Snow Day in which the World decides that while yes, it’s going to pummel you, it’s also going to equally pound everyone else, which makes days like this have a certain lightness of spirit, where the daily grind and load lessens because you can not go/do anywhere/anything or you will end up both literally and metaphorically in a ditch, which I think gets at something about what it means to live in the South where its rules and language aren’t readily apparent to me and even when they seem clear, may not actually be what is really going on. But with the help of some people down here, I have learned that the World is in fact not Hobbesian nor Malthusian, or Darwinian. And that’s a good thing to know. Even if they don’t actually have real snow in the South.

Excerpt from road trip

[June 15, 2015 Part of Our roadtrip to coastal North Carolina]

June 8th, 2015: On NC-99 between Plymouth and Pantego, NC Somehow we’ve ended up in Indiana.

We’ve come upon commercialized farmland which I haven’t seen since Indiana—flat, seamlessly planted fields that run to the horizon. The roads drop away plumb-line straight and like infinity, tend to hypnotize. Any sense of speed is suspended. We aren’t driving so much as floating while the landscape sluices by. There is no point of reference to compare our motion to other bodies. It’s like being, I would imagine, on a vast calm ocean or an interstellar voyage–everything is far away, your relative motion all but imperceptible. The road and the fields are unbroken, undemarcated lines that make it hard to judge speed in the same way judging a mile-long train’s speed: they seem stationary until they go blaring by like tornadoes. Without landmarks, I can see how someone can easily break 80, 90 miles an hour and not be aware of it

I yell at the kids in the back to look out their windows at the view and they do look up from their ipads and wonder what I am trying to show them. They are used to hills and trees and houses and here they only see geometric planes of browns and greens; I might as well be showing them a gray-laden, blank sky. To me it speaks of where I grew up and reminds me of my long trips between Chicago and southern Indiana during college breaks, hours of riding a road through unbroken cornfields that numbed friends mad from lack of scenery. But you drive it long enough and you learn to appreciate—what I later learned is called—the “negative space” of the scenery, which is the space around and between things, sort of like Indiana; it’s a space between other states in the Midwest—which I learned some people think includes all the states until the Rockies, which really are called the Great Plains—and likewise the way the Midwest is, to some people, all that space between New York and say, San Diego [hmm, Leslie.] Needless to say, they don’t bring the needed baggage to understand or appreciate industrial-grade farming for its austere and glacially-paced beauty.

T-ball and Mac

August 7, 2014.
W/S, NC

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It is Oct 26, 2013.
It is a crisp, clear Saturday morning. I am at the Clemmons YMCA, leaning against the chain-link fence, looking at the t-ball field and watching the kids take their positions to play. The pitch, and the ball is hit hard. It’s a fast grounder, a real daisy-cutter, and normally it will shoot pass two or three kids, but instead there is an audible gasp from the crowd. What’s happened is that the ball has smacked straight into the glove of the pitcher and everyone—parents, teammates and the pitcher—is momentarily stunned. The pitcher has gotten down hard to trap the ball, shutting it down and after taking a second to realize he’s caught the ball, smoothly turns to throw the ball to the 1st baseman, who is still looking to the outfield to see where the ball went but turns around in time to catch the ball. An out at first. It’s such a cleanly fielded ball that another dad grins and says to me, “Was that your kid?” and I smile back, surprised, “Yeah. It is.”

I’m proud which surprises me because I’ve never had much interest in sports and never understood the fanaticism. It’s never made sense to me because there are more important things, and yet I can feel the surprise on my face and my wide smile spreading further and I think, “My kid did this?”

It is April 21, 2012.
I am watching Mac who is literally lost on the soccer field. The scrum of kids chase the ball, moving up and down the soccer field, except for Mac who is rooted to the ground, faced screwed up in a grimace, eyes squeezed shut at the chaos surrounding him. Jenn and I exhort him to just chase the ball like the other kids at which point he wanders off the field, intermittently trying to snag passing butterflies or kneeling down to pick up clumps of grass and dirt. When this happens, I feel he’s in a glass-bowl, completely cut off, incapable of communicating to others kids or to us. There is only so much yelling you can do before the other parents start staring and none of the yelling ever helps. Ever.

Because I am co-coaching, I focus on the rest of the kids playing, trying to keep Mac in my periphery, making sure he does not wander completely out of sight. After the game, I look for Mac and see him standing under a tree holding something out to me. It is a four-leaf clover and he tells me he picked it just for me. That day, April 21,2012, I remember clearly thinking how the hell did he find a four-leaf clover on the field with the game going on all around him?

It is Sept 14, 2013.
It’s Saturday, mid-morning.
I am with Jack and Scarlett who have just finished taking their team photos and we are now walking back to the t-ball field. As we approach the field, I notice that Jenn is holding herself too still. I get closer and I hear another mom say,“Just look away,” to Jenn. “Just look away and stay calm,” she repeats.

Oh-oh.

Mac is having a titanically bad day. Mac has been told he can’t play with his toy, because it is his turn to bat. At home plate, he is not looking at the pitcher but instead is looking back at the dugout, straight at Jenn. He has a tremendous scowl on his face that would be comic but here it’s tragic because his whole team is cheering him to hit the ball. He “swings” at the ball and misses. How to describe his swings: They convey multiple attitudes most of which I can’t put in print. They don’t belong on a seven-year old, let alone a seventeen-year old. If there is a way to swing a bat in the most I’m-not-going-to-even-attempt-to-hit-the-ball-despite-the-entire-team-rooting-me-on way, he does it, four times in a row before they bring up the tee.

He continues to look at Jenn and then bashes the tee, knocking it down. He does this at least five to seven times and just keeps staring at Jenn. There is nothing that we can do to change his mood or make him play like the other kids. Jenn is so mortified that Mac has ground the game to a halt she is ready to commit filicide. She is seething. As soon as she sees me she tells me, “You need to take over. I need to walk away.”

I go up to try to calm him, but Mac accidentally hits the ball and proceeds to run, so slow it feels like he is going backwards. You can literally read this paragraph faster than Maconnell can run to first base. And so with everyone, his teammates, coaches, and parents encouraging him on to first base, he quits midway and schlumps to the dugout. He has not heard anything anyone has said to him, nor appears to care, and nothing can be done. Mercifully, he is the last batter and so the team takes to the field.

It gets no better. He is placed between 1st and 2nd base and of course all the balls seem to be hit right at him. He is covering his face with his glove, standing backwards most of the time. If he is facing the batter, he will just stare ahead as balls roll right by his foot; a few times adults have to retrieve the balls that pass him. Clinically he looks retarded and spastic on the field, refusing to do anything on the field, appearing to have serious, psychological problems. The behavior is distressingly odd, unexplained and inexplicable to me. He looks mentally ill. It’s the worst thing to see. Jenn wanted to pull him out of the game and take him home and right now so do I. But again the mom says, “keep calm.”

I go through several philosophies of child-rearing in those few minutes watching Mac. Mac’s behavior is the reason corporal punishment was invented and it is the reason it is banned. To his credit, when Mac realizes Jenn has walked away furious, he slowly gets his head on straight and finishes the rest of the game, some fielding, some batting without theater.

I think back to soccer episodes, the catatonia on the fields, his perplexity on the playground with other kids and I have to remind myself we did decide soccer just wasn’t his thing and that we had picked t-ball because he seemed to enjoy it. At least with t-ball, the difference was noticeable. Although completely befuddled and confused by the rules and still wandering around the field, picking up and/or kicking dirt, he did not stand out to be any worse or initially more disconnected than any of the other kids. Oh sure there were a couple kids who had watched their older siblings play and knew how to throw a ball and where to stand, but he was, sad to say, not the worst kid out there. I noticed one or two other kids who—inconceivably—were actually worse than Mac on the field. I can not stress to you how bad I feel to say that this fact gave me hope.

It is Sept 28,2013.
Out of the blue, an honest-to-goodness play occurs when Mac fields the ball. And then with everyone cheering, he throws the ball which is caught by the baseman and the batter is thrown out at first. I’m sure it’s happened before but this is the first time I’ve really seen it.

Thinking back, it must have happened slowly over the t-ball seasons. At first, little kids walking onto the field, like chicks newly-born to the world, uncertain and unsteady, not understanding what they were supposed to Be/Do. Sometimes not even leaving the dugout, not leaving mom. I remember watching the kids stepping out on the field for the first time, placing themselves in no relation to the lines or bases of the diamond, and the coaches picking them up and setting them down in position like bowling pins.

With more practice, more time, the kids gravitate to positions that give an open view of the batter and the oncoming ball. During that time, if there was any conscious action, it is group think, everyone swarming every hit ball, a massed heap of cleats, gloves and hats. Most of the time, the balls scoot past them as they look for mom or dad in the bleachers.

They grow a little. They get out on the field faster, but still with no direction, like dandelion florets blown across the field. They learn more. Begin to understand that the ball is going to be hit to them and they are to fetch it. They now occasionally stay at their assigned positions. As the ball gets hit again and again, you start seeing patterns of familiarity of what baseball is supposed to look like: kids no longer colliding and smashing in a free-for-all to get the ball, instead you see kids backing each other up, balls being thrown in the direction of the basemen.

As the weeks and months (years?!?) go by, I see more glimpses and suggestions of cohesion, of organization as the team resembles a team. Kids manifest themselves in small and distinct ways: this one always taking an extra two steps to throw a ball, another always wiggling their wrist before the windup, little tics already distinguishing themselves, nigh clones in their hats and uniforms, only the names and numbers differentiating them at this age, height and build not nearly so disparate as it will later become.

And like the team, Mac is transforming in front of me. His randomness of Thought&Action now less so and more directed to the ball’s motion, the positions of the other players and the runner. For a few seconds, you see all of them moving in concert, synchronicity of thought then action. All these marvelously complex systems, aligning just so, requiring tolerances of a few millimeters at best to allow actions in the right order with the right timing. Until one day (Sept 28,2013) the ball is hit and Mac crouches and the ball runs true into his glove and he throws it to first while the baseman is not looking away. Because the ball is thrown in the more-than-general vicinity of the 1st baseman’s glove, and because among other things, the wind has died down and the Coriolis effect is mild, the ball is caught and then not dropped and the bag is tagged, and because all this occurs before the batter can run to first, the batter is thrown out at first. QED

To see randomness become ordered, chaos transformed into a play at first, to see Mac play in and with a team—and to remember what was the case before—is as close to seeing a miracle as I will get. It is revelatory only to me. These tiny miracles of t-ball occur hundreds, maybe thousands of times on beatific Saturday mornings. They go unremarked on except in the minds of parents who’ve never seen their kids perform in ways unexpected and unanswered until then. Even the first time I saw Mac run—really run the bases—was a simple joy. Yeah, it’s mundane, even maudlin, but these little miracles arising out of strewn and scattered kids on a baseball field can be seen only once, before it gets normalized and lost. No longer to be looked on in wonder or in awe, they become commonplace, neglected miracles, because you forget this wasn’t always so.

I am not kidding when I tell you it is a revelation to watch Mac play. For a long time I’ve have struggled to understand Maconnell. Not just in baseball, but in most all things. I could not understand the what or the why. He was a mess of dots that would not connect for me. I’d read my notes and make no sense of them; it’s why I’ve written very little about Mac. At some point I made the hard realization that he could not be put into a neatly labeled box and I would need to stop trying to analyze and categorize him, before I drove both of us nuts.

But of course, I couldn’t because of the four-leaf clovers. Mac’s lack of attention to almost everything just didn’t jibe with his fantastic ability to find quatrefoils, until I read about how some people have such a facility:
From an August 5th, 2010 NPR segment:

Ms. PRAETORIUS: I think most people don’t look, thats the interesting thing. Because if you see somebody who’s lucky or – in some way it seems like luck is just this random thing thats streaming through that some people intercept and, you know, other people just don’t. But I guess I think its a little bit more like the people themselves are actually engaging or intercepting that luck.

SHAPIRO: For Praetorius, the four-leaf clovers of the world are like little mirrors, reflecting back to her a sense that shes on the right path, that she’s making her own luck and creating opportunities. Just before we parted ways, she gave me a four-leaf clover as big as my nose.

So then I got to wonder how exactly he is finding these four-leaf clovers: of course he is looking for them, but I’m looking for them too. The difference is he is seeing them. But, what is it that he sees that I’m not seeing? The simple answer is he sees the clovers, but the complicated answer is also that he sees the clovers. He literally sees the world in a radically different way; the world must present to him vastly different than it does to me. And so, some things start to make sense. I’d be staring at the grassy fields too, if they were covered in four-leaf clovers, instead of just looking like smudged browns and greens. But for him, I suppose it’s like seeing a field full of easter eggs just for you. If this was case, I’d be dysfunctionally distracted, unaware of other’s or their cares. Something in me starts to calm and exhale. You see, there’s been a long growing unease and I’ve only recently put my finger on it and that is the worry—that all parents have—for and wish that our kids find a place in the world. I know for some of us, it’s been a very tight, ill-fitting squeeze and for others, an acceptance from the world has yet to arrive.

Seeing him find those clovers and learning that he can not only function but grow in t-ball makes me relax a little. I need not try to so hard; let Mac show me who he is. Just like an autosterogram that is just a mess of dots until you learn to quit looking and let it snap into focus showing you dolphins leaping. Mac is presenting himself to me and the World as best he can. Sometimes I’ll be able to see what he is showing and then wonder what more is to come and what I’ve already missed. But maybe and probably, he’s so complex that I’ll never truly understand him but now I realize that’s ok because Mac’s going to be OK; he is making his way in the world whatever that may be. My real work is to accept it and him.

It is Oct 26,2013.
It is the last day of the t-ball season.
Mac is up to bat again, his third time at the plate. He’s two for two with base hits and this is his last at-bat for the season. I am watching him with a ridiculous grin on my face as he makes another base hit. Three-peat! Only your kid can give you this felicity of spirit. I hope not to forget it. What’s even better is seeing Mac beaming as he runs the bases home.

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