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.

Tanglewood wildlife

June 15, 2014 8pm

My Father’s-Day day started a bit early. Friday, I was able to pick up the kids from school on their last day of school and so we headed out to Tanglewood Park, an estate owned by the Reynolds tobacco family now donated to the county, and went on to Mallard Lake. I wanted to take them out on the paddle boats. After some cajoling and then threatening to maroon them with the concession-stand staff if they did not board the paddle boat, I got us underway.

The lake surface is glass-smooth. It’s broken only momentarily by the wakes of water-skeeters careening, whizzing and spiraling out of the boat’s way; it’s like watching time-lapse photography of window-frost forming and sublimating away. I only mention all this because Scarlett is pointing this out to me.

Jack and Mac are seated in back watching their own show, now and then asking to go backwards to look at something closer, something just under the water—nominally a gator but usually just some branch or rock submerged and appearing to gently bob, breaking the surface predatorily.

We are all alone on the Lake except for a Great Blue Heron1 watching us pedal closer and closer, casually dipping its head into the water and then looking sideways at us. Eventually we get too close and with a flap or two of its wings it sails a few hundred feet away in ten seconds that took us 10 minutes to pedal across.

Scarlett, of course, is up front and alongside me; she is furiously pedaling and trying to steer the boat along the shore and underneath the overhanging tree branches where the shade is cooling and welcoming to us after being baked in our life-vests crossing the middle of the lake, devoid of all breeze, the sunlight hitting us full-force.

We trawl along the shoreline quietly, eyes-peeled for any surface-sign of what lies beneath. The kids imagination are primed to be played with and so every ‘plop’, ‘kerplunk’ or loud ripple becomes a shark swimming underneath the boat— “You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat,” I tell the kids— or a mysterious wave is really a Burmese Python come north from Florida.

Eventually, even I start to believe what I’m telling the kids is in this lake, because at one point I see a pair of frog-legs the size of my arms zip by. Of course, none of the kids see it but they believe me. Soon, Mac suggests it’s time to head back to shore. Our hunt for Nessie over.

Getting off the boats, the kids then start walking along the shoreline. We spot a turtle that is repeatedly diving under and then a minute later popping its head out, looking at us and then diving again, sometimes popping up closer, sometimes farther from us and does appear to be surreptitiously tailing us. I don’t understand what I am seeing until Mac asks if we can get some bread we brought along from the Jeep and soon the kids are chucking grape-sized globs of bread at the turtle who is plucking them from underneath. Of course. Lots of kids come to this lake and this turtle knows it’s feeding time.

So for a few minutes this goes on until I notice a couple of ducks waddling towards us from over the hill near the playground—An American Perkin duck and a Wood duck. They are headed straight for us. Soon the kids are being aggressively panhandled by the pair, like seasoned grifters working Times Square. Again, lots of kids have been here and the ducks know a mark when they see one. They must have cleaned up the playground, working the crowd and then saw us and decided to check out the action. The ducks are not exactly violent in their pestering for bread from the kids, but if a duck can—and these two can—they convey a roughness, a coarseness, like two hobos on the lam.

To wrap up, we ran out of the bread and the ducks adios us and we head to the playground and the kids find other kids to play with and even Mac who tends to go solo plays well with others. The playground equipment is alternatively turned into a spaceship that has run out of fuel or a pirate’s ship run aground needing urgent repairs.

Envoyé de mon miniPad

  1. which I only thought lived in Oregon that I took as a good omen back then and take as such here now []