Monday, May 26, 2014

Accents


I overheard this conversation recently at a motel breakfast room in Missouri:

“Where are you from? I hear that accent,” a well-dressed gentleman asked a fellow in warm-ups and running shoes.

“Mississippi. Yes, I noticed your accent as well.”

“Me? I do not have an accent.”

I could tell the Southerner did not want to sound pedantic and explain that all human beings have some sort of accent, some “spin” they put on their native tongue based upon their parents and friends in their region. So, he just said, “You are from California, are you not?”

“Why, yes, I am. Did you see my license plate or something?”

“No, sir, I noticed the way you said the word ‘accent’ is a west coast pronunciation. It is almost as if you pronounce the word with an initial ‘y’ sound and the first syllable comes through your nasal passage.”

“Well, are you saying I pronounce the word incorrectly, then?”

“Heavens, no. We should never judge people by the way they speak. The only standard for language is, does it communicate. I knew perfectly well what you meant when you said accent in your way that seems peculiar to the Southern ear.”

“Are you a linguist?”

“No, I have studied English intently, though.”

“What are some of the other differences?”

“You say slippers and I say house shoes. You say soda and I say cold drink or cocola. You say half-past-five and I say five-thirty. You start sentences with ‘like’ and I never do. You say ‘amazing’ and ‘definitely’ a lot and I find other descriptors where possible.”

“You are getting a little insulting. I meant accent. What are some other words we say differently?”

“’You guys’ is your version of  ‘y’all’. You say ‘cahfee’ and I say ‘cawfee.’ You pronounce the word ‘hell’ as ‘hell’ while I say it this way, ‘hail’.”

“That is enough. I get it. I am now a little more conscious of variations in pronunciation. I know in New England, instead of asking for an ice cream cone at those drive-in places, you ask for a custard. Also, some of those people call a milkshake a cabinet. Where they get that, I don’t know.”

“Probably put everything in the cabinet in the drink, you know, like sweep-the-kitchen pizza.”

“What!”

“Never mind. I got to boogie.”

The Californian looked at the fellow strangely. I guess he did not know he meant he was in a hurry. They say that in Mississippi.”

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Work


The work ethic was certainly drilled into all the kids I grew up with. Of course, 16 was the legal working age, but if we wanted money, we had to find ways to earn it. This was especially true during the summer when allowances, scant though they may have been, dried up. I mowed a lot of grass, took soft drink bottles back to stores for the few cents of deposit money, cleaned up construction sites, washed cars and worked at anything else that brought a buck or two.

I knew some youngsters who gained filthy lucre by illegal means and, a time or two, I was given the opportunity to participate. I look back now smugly and think of myself as having had integrity, even though it was probably fear of what Mother would do to me that kept me honest. One opportunity to go wrong came when a boy notorious for his evil schemes wanted me to take the back seat out of my 1939 Chevrolet so we could “haul scrap metal.” It sounded like a pretty good deal until I figured out that the scrap metal he had in mind belonged to a drilling company. When I refused, he called me a sissy mamma’s boy, which is, in my estimation, better than being a bold jail bird.

Jobs were plentiful for boys that turned 16 in the 1950’s. Many got paper routes, some worked at grocery stores, others delivered for drug stores and a few got jobs pumping gas. Self-service at filling stations was unheard of back in those days. I got my job as a Western Union messenger boy because of my mother’s friendship with the boss man at that company. My Social Security records show that my income was meager there, but it was steady. I worked until dark after classes, all day Saturday and Sunday mornings during the school year and five or six days  a week during the summer. I was not allowed to deliver messages in my car and it felt a little funny to drive to work and then mount the bicycle for the duration. Also, I was a tad embarrassed when my classmates saw me riding through town on a bicycle while they drove by in their hotrods, but I just kept saying under my breath, “Money is money.”

I do not remember ever reflecting about having a work ethic, though. It was just part of the fabric of life. If you want to live, you have to work. Life did not owe me a living. Quite to the contrary, I owed life work. That frame of mind sustained many of my friends and me as it took us to attitudes of independence. Even in the military, we gave “the man” an honest day’s work, knowing all along that we owned our job—the job did not own us. In short, work was a means to an end, not an end in itself. I have never been a workaholic, but I know which side my bread is buttered on.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Contentment


Every time I see a cow sticking her head through the fence for the irresistible grass outside the pasture, I think of the saying, “grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence.” This aphorism is symptomatic of mankind’s plague of dissatisfaction, born of a deep indefinable restlessness of spirit, ever since we were kicked out of the garden. Remember, the Apostle Paul admonished early Christians to be content with circumstances, for contentment with godliness, he said, is great gain. Paul practiced what he preached and was content with clothing and something to eat.

But we are all infected with the “grass seems greener elsewhere” syndrome, aren’t we? I stayed on the same faculty 20 years, fighting my wanderlust by the rationality that comes from guaranteed security. I was on tenure, meaning I could only be fired for moral turpitude, gross neglect of duty, incompetence, or discontinuance of my department. It was not likely that my college would cancel the English department, so I felt rather secure. But security and contentment are altogether two very different categories.

So, after two decades at the same university, I applied for and received a similar appointment at another institution, almost the twin of the one I was escaping. The grass did, indeed, look greener, but when I had been in my new situation for a couple of months and the “new” wore off, I saw that the grass had the same bland hue. After three years of “same-old-same-old,” I started searching the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education for yet another pasture. Sticking my head as far as I could through the fence, I spotted a patch of luscious grass down in south Florida. I applied for a deanship down there and they called me for an interview.

The way the search committee chairman was supposed to spot me as I got off the airplane was as follows, in his words by telephone. “Dr. Ford, I will meet your flight at the airport here. Since I have no idea what you look like, carry in front of you the copy of our college catalogue which we sent you.” So, when I got off the great big airplane, I had my carry-on in one hand and the catalogue held in front of me, plainly visible. Well, I walked up and down after deplaning and I saw not a soul there to greet me. Just as I was about to go call a taxi and find a hotel, a disheveled fellow came over that could have been either a superannuated hippy or a homeless man, you know, bearded, soiled shirt, sockless, old-fashioned gold-rimmed glasses. He said, “Are you Dan Ford?” I told him I was, thinking some professor had hired him to meet me. Then he said, “I am Dr. So-and-so, chairman of the search committee.”

The greenness suddenly faded to a sun-scorched brown that evening, but the next day was eye-candy. What a beautiful setting for a college. And what great people! The committee chairman-greeter was not typical of the clean-cut faculty. I got the deanship and it was certainly the best position I ever had and we were as content as humans get, that is until four years later when the Natural State began to beckon with familiar greenness.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Importance of the Arts


The excellent De Queen Schools band concert Sunday afternoon reminded me once again of the importance of music and other arts in human development. The eighth-grade band and the high school band played wonderfully, many of them beyond their grade-level. It was obvious that the leadership was deeply committed to music as well as to the young musicians. I know that the directors would certainly agree with fellow Arkansans President Clinton and Governor Huckabee that participating in musical groups is very important. There is something wonderfully formative about cooperating with others to accomplish something beautiful. Thus, band may be one of the most important activities in our schools.

In my own case, I was minding my own business in eighth-grade study hall when the band director, Mr. Craig, came in and said, “I need a big boy to carry something for me.” I was always rather large for my age, so I raised my hand. I seldom studied in study hall (or anywhere else) anyway. Well, Mr. Craig wrapped a double-b-flat bass horn around my body and gave me a fingering chart for the scales. He said, “Tomorrow, instead of study hall, come to the band hall.” I did and became bass horn player all through school. My band experience was exceedingly positive. I got to dress up in a uniform, go on band trips, participate in parades, play concerts and develop friendships, especially with girls.

Also, when my voice changed, I noticed that I could sing the bass notes written in the hymnal at church and stay more or less on pitch. I was invited to sing in the church choir and, thus, became part of yet another group cooperating to accomplish something beautiful and often inspiring. I bought a bass fiddle and played it in several groups as well. I cannot say that these bands were accomplishing something beautiful, but there was considerable cooperation as we played at dances and other events. And, these ventures were somewhat lucrative.

Needless to say, when I was in the service, there were not many opportunities to sing or play an instrument. I missed an opportunity in basic training when the drill sergeant asked for anybody who played a musical instrument to step forward. I had been cautioned about volunteering, so I did not step forward. Most of those who did became part of the base marching band.

Anyway, at about the same time I got out of the service, my fellow bandsman, Kenneth Smith, got out, too. He became choir director at a church and, even though I was a bit rusty on all things concerning church, I joined his choir and really enjoyed getting back into the swing of such things. He had me sing a little solo in a cantata, “Lead me Lord.” That song became my prayer and I ended up in college choir where I met my wife. That college choir turned out to be the most important activity at college and truly led to something beautiful.