Saturday, June 28, 2008

Hey, You Missed a Spot

Dear Eric Weiner:

I enjoyed your book The Geography of Bliss more than you will ever know. It is, in fact, at the top of the list of Books I Have Read in 2008. I've checked it out twice from the public library and read some chapters many, many times.

Your quest to find the happiest places in the world was a curious one because who among us hasn't wondered if we live in a place where we are enjoying maximum happiness?
Would I be happier living near a beach, in a downtown loft, along a lakeshore, in the woods, in ANOTHER COUNTRY? After reading your book, I couldn't help but compare my city, my home, to the cities and countries that you visited.
Unlike Iceland, central Alabama doesn't have entire seasons of darkness. We may sometimes be accused of living in the dark or being stuck in the Dark Ages, but we have a nice balance of day and night. When it comes to Reykjavik's hip factor, we probably don't compare. For instance, we still use words like "hip."

You describe The Netherlands as "a nation where, it seems, the adults are out of town and the teenagers are in charge. Not just for the weekend, either. All of the time." But here, in central Alabama, marijuana is illegal and prostitution is sort of frowned upon.

As you describe it, culturally starved Moldova may be the unhappiest place on the planet. So by contrast, you might be surprised to learn that here, in central Alabama, we have it ALL. Despite what you might have heard, we have museums, clubs, parks, attractions and a rich history full of things you read about in history books. Our history is chock full of Indians, slaves, agriculture, industry, railroads, Civil Rights, folk artists, writers. If The Good, The Bad and The Ugly have a home, it's probably here. But these are the things that have made this place what it is.

And, really, Qatar??? A country so awash in New Money that you aptly described it this way:
"I read somewhere that Qatar is 98.09 percent desert. I wonder what the other 1.91 percent is. Mercedes, perhaps."
Here in central Alabama, depending on the suburb and neighborhood, New Money lives right alongside (or around the corner from) Old Money. They may sneer at and joke about each other, but they generally get along. And unlike Qatar, this part of Alabama has a strong representation of Some Money and No Money. We all get along pretty well, considering the socioeconomic differences, and we tend to help each other out from time to time.

Switzerland. Unlike the Swiss, we are generally not an uptight people. In fact, we could be defined as the antithesis to the Swiss. (Say that fast, five times.) You write that the Swiss are "efficient and punctual." Efficiency is highly overrated, and we're on time only if it's necessary.
You also add that, according to your friend Susan, that the Swiss are "culturally constipated" and "stingy with information." I've already covered the culture factor, so let me move on to interpersonal relations.
Here in central Alabama, we'll butt into anyone's business without the bat of an eye. Not too long ago, my husband dropped me off in front of the grocery store and sat in the parking lot while I ran in to "pick up a few things." Forty-five minutes later, I opened the back of the van to unload my bags, and all I got was "Where the heck have you BEEN?"
"I stood in line behind a woman who was on her way to Augusta, Ga., with her 19-year-old daughter who had suffered a stroke some time ago. Oh, and the daughter also had a tiny baby. And the drive to Augusta would take a LONG time, so the daughter would have to use a travel potty because the only way they could fit the wheelchair into the Toyota Tercel was to load it FIRST, under all the suitcases and the baby's stroller. And without easy access to the wheelchair, navigating a rest stop would be impossible. Same for restaurants. That explained the plastic knives and forks, jar of mayonnaise and sandwich stuff, all of which was lined up next to the toilet paper."
So when my husband asked, "How did you find out these things?," all I could say was it must have been the odd collection of things arranged on the conveyor belt. Maybe I said something like, "Looks like somebody's going on a picnic!" I don't remember.
Another time, in the middle of the dairy section at the Wal-Mart Supercenter, a woman noticed that I looked a little, shall we say, "ticked off." Maybe I had just yelled at one of my kids and was holding my temples. Something I had done got her attention, and she and I struck up a conversation, and before you know it, she bowed her head and prayed for me right then and there. I never got her name.
Why does a trip to the grocery store or Wal-Mart take an hour and a half? "Because we interview people wherever we go," my friend Jeanie explained. I just nodded. She was right -- I just had never thought of it that way. The Swiss wouldn't understand.

I won't go into the comparisons between central Alabama and Bhutan because I can't find Bhutan on a map.

The place where we part ways with the nice people of Thailand is quite obvious. It's what you describe as the "excess of pleasure." You see, we're sort of against that.
One of your sources stated: "Thai people are not serious about anything. We don't take anything seriously. Whatever it is, we can accept it." I think we can all agree that we in central Alabama have a reputation for being a less tolerant lot. We draw moral lines in the sand and are, for the most part, happy to point them out to anyone who asks ... and even to those who don't. Naked pole dancers from Bangkok would have sort of a hard time finding their place here. Not that they wouldn't be welcome; they would just be subjected to some harsh looks and probably some prayer in the dairy section.

The only English people I have known practiced graciousness better than any Southerner I have ever known. So imagine my surprise when I read your take on Great Britain -- a view that the English could stand a happiness boost. The exit of Tony Blair could, I agree, be to blame. What a happy guy!

Because of our Baptist contingency and general Christian ways, I don't relate to the Hindu Way of Life. But thanks to your accounts of India, I am intrigued. I think the prospect of visiting an ashram would probably frighten me, but the state of deep thought that seems to permeate the country could be a nice change of pace, albeit temporarily. I don't often have the opportunity to complete a thought.
The unpredictability of India, you learned, is what brings people to India again and again. That's a hard pill to swallow for people in these parts, though. You pointed out the reason very well: "We in the west think of unpredictability as a menace, something to be avoided at all costs. We want our careers, our family lives, our roads, our weather to be utterly predictable. We love nothing more than a sure thing." You got that right.
So, Mr. Weiner, excellent job. But if you write a sequel to The Geography of Bliss, I hope that you will consider an extensive visit to the Southeast and central Alabama, in particular. We'd be happy to have you. But we're a fairly happy group anyway.
Amy Cates

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Quote of the Week


"Southerners think all Yankees are Carpetbaggers who came down there and stole all their coin silver, and now they're in the process of getting it all back through eBay."
-- a source from Massachusetts whom I interviewed earlier this week; the story will appear in Victoria this fall; this quote, however, will not, and that is a shame because it is AWESOME

Monday, June 23, 2008

Summer of 42

Bill Clinton, during his gubernatorial days in Arkansas, circa my age (42) ...youthful, sane and surprisingly organized. Say what you want about Clinton, but he made 42 look EASY.



In just a little more than one week, I will celebrate my 42nd birthday. As a friend recently pointed out, Bill Clinton was well on his way down a short path to running this country when he was my age.


The comparisons are ... non-existent.


In 1988, at the age of 42, Clinton was serving as governor of Arkansas and facing a possible presidential nomination by the Democratic party. Four years later, he was in.

How is that possible? How is it possible that someone my age can run a country or a state, and I have trouble deciding whether to return a phone call. Or knowing what to do with a package of chicken breasts. Or whether I have already read this book that I just checked out from the library. Is this Monday or Tuesday? It feels like Tuesday.

If I were running the country, I'm afraid I might sound a little like George W. Bush. Employing plays on words that make absolutely no sense, laughing inappropriately in sensitive situations, appearing either startled or lost almost ALL THE TIME. As president, I would require an entire team of assistants to remind me why I came back to the Oval Office from the Green Room ("Mrs. President, you forgot your shoes") or to alert me, AGAIN, that it isn't Tony Blair waiting for me in the Rose Garden ("Mrs. President, remember? This is Gordon Brown, who replaced Tony Blair? Ring a bell?").

At the dinner table recently, we were saying our fallback blessing -- one of the rote memory prayers where you eventually forget what the words even mean. I started with "God is great, God is good," and somehow ended with "Don't forget to go to Wal-Mart tomorrow." I opened my eyes and found five pairs of eyes staring back at me. And then all five LAUGHED at me. I may have had a stroke, or maybe I was speaking in tongues. For a few days, I thought it might be the Midol, which I have begun to consume like popcorn, or M&Ms. For an entire week each month, Midol sustains me. If I could freebase it, I would. But the 3 million grams of caffeine may have been taking their toll, and my synapses were firing all over the place like the Fourth of July. I hope God understood because I sure didn't.

Was my mind going away, or was it just going too fast?


How did Bill Clinton navigate his 40s? Did he take Midol? Let me put it another way: Why was he so lucid and able to manage an entire state as he planned to lead the entire Free World, and I (at roughly the same age) wake up each morning looking forward to an afternoon nap?

Not that he wasn't without his share of problems, but still.

When it came to his mental clarity, maybe Hillary was to thank (or blame), depending on how you feel about Clinton. Maybe it was the fact that he had only one child, no mortgage and a fairly certain political career. I'm not sure. Even if I wasn't his biggest fan then, I am certainly one of his strongest admirers now. But that could be age (and the Midol) talking.