Monday, November 15, 2010

What's in a Town Name? Or, That Cutoff Joke Was Too Easy

The South has a rich literary history, and that's reflected in something you might not realize – town names.

I haven't been all over the country, but the most interesting, funny, funny-sounding, and curious names seem to be attached to Southern towns. And the smaller the town, it seems, the odder the name can be. Town names are a form of literature, to me, in that they can say a lot in just one or two words.

Some personal favorites, most of which I didn't have to look up (unincorporated towns included):

• Cuba, Ala.
• Noxapater, Miss.
• Rolling Fork, Miss.
• Cutoff, La.
• Dry Prong, La.
(Those last two remind me of a Lorena and John Wayne Bobbit joke, but since this is a family blog...)
• Coffeeville, Miss.
• Denmark, Miss.
• Oddville, Ky.
• Gu-Win, Ala.
• Bald Knob, Ark.
• Green Frog, Tenn.
• Kiln, Miss.
• Toad Suck, Ark.
• Turkey Scratch, Ark.
• And my personal all-time favorite: Smackover, Ark.

I wonder, of course, how these town names came to be. I could do some research, but that'd be too much like work. So I'll take a stab at how some of the above towns became so named.

• Cuba, Ala.: Obviously Fidel Castro's top-secret American spy headquarters. Or just where he keeps a summer home. Bribes the locals to keep quiet with free cigars and large guns.

• Rolling Fork, Miss.: See, this one guy wanted to call it Rolling Fork, but another wanted to call it Rolling Spoon. They got in a fight to the death, and you can guess which utensil won out. (Rolling Knife guy suffered a tragic, and embarrassing, injury but later founded Cutoff, La.)

• Denmark, Miss.: The first and only Danish settlement in Mississippi is still a thriving community of tasty pastries.

• Bald Knob, Ark.: [CENSORED]

• Toad Suck, Ark.: You don't wanna know. Let's just say it's derived from some weird local custom involving warts.

• Kiln, Miss.: Originally named Crucible, then later Induction Furnace, and finally Kiln.

• Smackover, Ark.: In 1889ish, the mayor of the newly established town was set to reveal the name (as voted on by the settlers) at a well-publicized ceremony, but just as he was about to make the big announcement, a runaway mail carriage ran him smack over and killed him, so they went with that. Nobody liked that jerk anyway.

Weird town names aren't limited to the South, of course. There's Intercourse, Penn. There was the boomtown of Tombstone, Ariz. And the aptly named Peculiar, Mo. And let's not forget West Elbow, Mont. (OK, that place doesn't exist, but it should; there is a West Thumb, Wyo.)

Maybe that's why I find big towns and cities so boring. No character, no color, just names as cold as the concrete. I mean, how could you not love a place like Rabbit Shuffle, N.C.?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Is 'Greatness' Big? Or, Astronauts Are Overrated

My kids were watching PBS today, and somebody came on and started talking about "making big things happen," or something to that effect. They showed a kid dressed up as a doctor, another as an astronaut – you get the picture.

I've got no problem shooting for the stars, striving for mighty feats in whatever vocation or endeavor one chooses. Our country's rich history is full of stories of grand successes, from Ben Franklin to Andrew Carnegie to Neil Armstrong to Bill Gates. But our country was not built on "making big things happen." Which brings me to this question: What's wrong with striving to do little things, and doing them well?

The message of becoming great is pervasive in today's generation of children. "Believe in yourself!" and all that crap. The underlying message I get from it is that if you don't achieve great things – or at least try to achieve them – then you're nothing. You're a failure in a society that doesn't really grasp the true meaning of greatness.

Take me, for instance. Sure, I'd love to be a famous novelist or something, and yeah, I'm actually attempting to write a novel (it's hard!). In my profession, the normal course is for one to work his way up the ladder, eventually landing at a metropolitan daily or prestigious magazine (or these days, a major Web site).

I work at a 35,000 circulation small-town paper. Maybe that's where I want to stay. Society would largely frown on that, I believe. But if I love what I'm doing and do the best I can at it, that's worth more than trying to climb a ladder just because it's there.

I hope I can teach my kids that while chasing big dreams is OK, it's not the only option. Sometimes the big things we make happen appear little to the world. But those "little" things add up and make us stronger as a whole.

Today's Redneck Thought: "If you're doing what you're able/And putting food there on the table/And providing for the family that you love/That's something to be proud of." – Montgomery Gentry, "Something to Be Proud Of"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Understanding True Blessings

I hear the word "bless" used a lot, to the point where I've become rather annoyed with it. A sneeze is followed by, "God bless you." A common way of saying good-bye is, "Have a blessed day." And we all know that we should count our blessings, and certainly say a blessing before eating a meal.

But when a doctor used the word the other day, it hit me in a totally different way. I was sitting in my hospital room last week when the doc was going over my file from the car accident I was in Feb. 1. I suffered a broken collarbone, a cracked rib, a bruised lung, and a lacerated spleen. All seemed to be going well with my recovery, though, until Feb. 7. A blood clot worked its way through my heart and into my left lung, which became flooded by fluids.

Five days after that episode, the doctor looked at me and said, "You're very blessed that you're not dead." I knew it had been a close call, but the way he said it made it more real. And I found it curious that he didn't use "lucky" or "fortunate" – he said I was "blessed." And that helped me understand exactly what that word means.

Luck and fortune are capricious and impersonal, and I'm not even sure how much of either exists in this world. I don't believe our existence to be a series of random, undirected events. There is a purpose for each of us, and recognizing that helps us to recognize when a blessing comes along. A blessing is a gift, even if it's not what we necessarily want at the time. While not dying was certainly a blessing, I'd say the accident itself was a blessing (in disguise, if I may).

I've had a lot of time to myself these days, and it's helped me refocus on my relationship with God. I'm realizing how much I've been ignoring important things while ripping my hair out over worldly concerns. I keep forgetting He is in control, even when I'm spinning down a highway – especially when I'm spinning out of control, unable to do anything but shout his name and wait for the nightmare to end.

This situation has shown me just how blessed I am. So many people dropped by to visit, gave us food, helped watch and/or chauffeur our children. I was on prayer lists in four continents, and I even had some Lutheran nuns in Arizona praying for me. I could never have imagined so many people caring so much. That is what you call a blessing.

And my faithful wife, Rachel, stayed with me nearly every night in the hospital, tending to my needs and showing me just how committed she is to me.

A true blessing is not merely some random good happening to us; it's a directed action that produces massive spiritual and emotional ramifications. That my body was so damaged was a blessing; that the doctors and nurses were able to preserve my life was a blessing also. Those two blessings are forever intwined, and it's my prayer that they will bear the kind of fruit I never thought possible, fruit that will be a blessing to others. I hope it's as real to them as it has become to me.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Saints in the Super Bowl; or, It's Snowing in Hell (or New Orleans, Same Thing)

So the Saints, the team that used to be the epitome of NFL ineptitude, are going to the Super Bowl, thanks partly to some more Brett Favre "magic" in an NFC championship game. For a kid who spent nine of my formative years in Louisiana – albeit in the north part, a world away from N'awlins – who was quite familiar with the grocery bag-headed shame of Saints fans and the inability of them to win in the playoffs the few times they made it there, this is a stunning development.

This is almost like the Cubs winning the World Series, except that's actually been done before. So this is more like Paris Hilton grasping the Pythagorean theorem, or Uncle Kracker putting out a song that doesn't make me want to rip out my eyeballs, or Mark May making a valid point, or Miley Cyrus winning an Oscar, or Phil Fulmer passing on the buffet, or a Hollywood marriage lasting 50 years. Heck, four years ago the Saints were playing their "home" games in San Antonio and New York. Plus, they're the Saints. When they reached the NFC title game three years ago, that figured to be the zenith of their existence.

This is the team that normally turned in the kind of performance that once caused former coach Jim Mora to go off like this. Losing was in their DNA, and it kind of fit with the city that's long been the rectum of the South (for the record, Jackson, Miss., is the armpit). This was a team the freaks could embrace. They were destined to be losers for life.

Then Sean Payton came to town, and then Drew Brees, and voƮla, a real offense. Then they went 8-8 last year, and oh yeah, it's the Saints. Duh. So I sure as heck didn't see this coming, and it still doesn't make sense.

I've been hearing and reading the phrase "WHO DAT!" countless times over the past week, which means the next person that says it will likely receive an envelope full of anthrax from yours truly (just a joke, Mr. FBI agent!). But lots of my Louisiana friends are in a state of euphoria – and probably a state of extreme drunkenness – and I am happy for them. And I'm happy for the Saints, a team that I used to hate for reasons I now can't recall. I'm all about a team from the deep South representin'.

Following the game, Saints running back Reggie Bush said of the celebrating fans, "Hopefully, they won't destroy this place." Hopefully not, but I wouldn't be surprised if a few snowflakes fell in the Crescent City. It'd make about as much sense as the Saints going to the Super Bowl.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Drew metro