When I was younger…actually a kid, now that I think of it, Pam and I were dating and I was in pilot training at Columbus AFB, Mississippi. It was a sweet time for us and, believe it or not we watched The Waltons every week. It was the antithesis of sophistication, slickness, or cool. It was just sweet, sad, funny sometimes and very much about living life in hard times. The theme song is what snagged me initially. Innocent, hopeful…and sad. A bluegrass fiddle has that capability more than any instrument I know. And I honed some of my philosophy watching it. There were times when John Walton would get angry or up against the wall, or pissed at God and he expressed his emotions simply and honestly. Of late, we’re much more sophisticated and the world is much faster…
Scroll ahead, and there was another series, set not in the south but north in Cicily, Alaska. It was called Northern Exposure, but the powerful truths were the same. If you missed it, I would be honored to suggest it to you. It is perhaps my favorite series of all time, for a variety of reasons. Humor, sadness and integrity all stirred into an incredibly simple little world. The premise was simple, a New York (Jewish) doctor who gets stuck doing his residency in the outbacks of Alaska.
The juxtaposition was always spot-on and once again, you learned important things watching it. John Corbett played the hippy-dippy Chris in the Morning radio show and his voice-overs gave you sometimes profound wisdom, laced with humor. These two shows, though seemingly much different, had a common thread to them, which I’d forgotten about. And now Pam and I are down here in this strange bubble that surrounds Asheville, North Carolina. We wandered into daily episodes of The Waltons and Northern Exposure and are relearning things we long ago knew, but put aside. The writer-part of me has been trying to break the code of what it is living down here and I’m beginning to realize things about myself…that I’d either forgotten or just forsaken.
The Value of Laughter: I couldn’t quite put my finger on it for a couple weeks, but then the light bulb began to glow dimly inside my brain. To a man, woman, teenager, or old codger, everyone down here LOVES to laugh and they indulge in it hourly, daily. Maybe it’s because some of these folks had, or have a little tougher life. If you can make your eyes twinkle, spin a good yarn and make somebody happy in the process, you are already home. It’s that simple. Everything...everything is just a little bit different down here. Even the creatures.
As birders, Pam and I have watched the gamut up north and know how birds act. They act differently down here. Last night, a red-tail hawk dived from his tall perch, screamed toward the ground, which they are inclined to do, but then, she went into what’s called terrain profiling if you’re in a jet. She glided, twelve inches above the grass for the length of our front yard, about 1500 feet, then did it again, seemingly just for the hell of it. Man, it looked like fun. The snapping turtles are different, too and there are skinks and, well I could go on just on this one category. Across the board, the people are different. To boil it down, they are more open, right from the start. You can begin a friendship and learn the life story of a person in the time it takes the sun to set behind the trees.
A comparison: Before we left, I needed an hour or so of legal advice up in Bucks County, PA. The gentleman’s secretary informed me that the first hour/ initial meeting would be between $1200 and 1500…depending. I bit my lip and agreed. Conversely, I made an appointment with a gal in Marion, NC to go over some drilling rights on some land. She hadn’t set the parameters soooo…when I sat down, I asked, “When does the meter start ticking?” She replied: “It doesn’t. Not today. This meeting is to find out how I can help and what you actually need.” The meeting lasted over two hours and, yes, I believe I have met a very intelligent and special person in the process.
Down here it’s really easy to type-cast….and be 100% wrong, mostly because people are who and what they are…so much so, that you can’t believe it. We have a crew of guys working on our little house down here. Each one has his story and they’re fascinating to talk to. One of them, however, threw me off. He’s southern, but I noticed a bit of a Cajun patois in his voice and a huge twinkle in his eye. Looked like an actor from the 50s, and I was pretty sure I’d need hip boots to wade through the bullshit. That was only partly right.
On a short break from tearing down a non-load bearing wall, Jeff noticed my prideful poster on the wall, depicting all the books I’ve written. He took a slug of Pepsi, mopped his brow and said, “Sooo… what’cha workin’ on now?” Here’s where the northern smugness began to trickle the tiniest bit in. I said, “It’s a novel, but it’s one of those bookish concepts that a lot of people don’t understand right away.” He didn’t take offense, but he did say, “Sooo what exactly is that bookish concept you’re workin’ on?” I said, “It has to do with some breakthroughs with the concept of Quantum Entanglement,” which is usually a show-and-conversation stopper.
But Jeff started laughing like he’d heard the funniest joke. Then he looked over. “When I was in college, I had a prof. who was kinda like that guy, Richard Feynman. He could go in deep with a concept, but he was smart enough to make it sound simple. But we got into a big to-do over Quantum Entanglement versus the assumption that you can’t exceed the speed of light…at all.” I had drastically underestimated his knowledge of physics and while he was tearing down sheet rock we forged some new territory. It goes on and on, but I am continuing to learn my lesson over and over down here.
Droppin’ the “g”s on the end of your sentence doesn’t mean you didn’t go to college. And I think I’m just beginning to understand why. Seriously… I was raised, with the gs, and with a formality in my voice and there’s a time for that. But the southern patois, the accent that’s so easy to underestimate, isn’t what you think it is. They are, for the most part, putting their sentences to music. They are…singing. And singing is a lot more friendly when you’re talking to strangers. “Thank you kindly and we hope to see y’all again,” just comes across more smoothly, more friendly, than a terse scowl. If you’re not careful, y’all can get used to it.
The offer still stands to our friends planning to come and visit. Right now the main house is torn up a bit… as we tear down walls to make bigger rooms. But the living is good and we really lucked into a property that I’d put up against any I’ve seen. The only decision we can’t quite make is whether one particularly huge snapper in the pond should be “cordially invited to leave.” He’s so damned big, Pamela has nick-named him Gameron.
One more thing if you’re planning on coming down: When I was little, my dad taught me how to shake hands. The goal isn’t to see how many bones you can break, BUT you are transmitting something about yourself as well as your relationship. Down here, the handshakes are strong and when you shake on something, it’s as good or better than ten pages of paperwork. I kinda like that.
P.S. When we were first looking at the house, at one point we went out to the garage that would ultimately be my new studio. It’s 30 feet by 30 feet and I immediately noticed that there were no windows whatsoever. Zero. I also noticed that the roll-up door had no windows…except for what looked like two tiny gun slits in the third row. I looked around and tried to make a joke. “Meth lab?” I asked. “No,” the realtor replied, “they have a different smell. Someone was makin’ moonshine here.” Little do they know how much I know about brazing copper tubing.