Pretty in pink

My general fashion rule for a sports coat is this: Navy only unless you’ve just won a golf tournament.

Pink blazer
Steve Jukes, former chairman of the Cherry Blossom Festival Board, sporting the pink blazer, in this photo at the announcement of Karen Jordan Lambert, a former Mercer colleague, as the new executive director of the festival back in October 2009. Festival founder Carolyn Crayton is also on hand.

As the 2011 Cherry Blossom Festival comes to a close this weekend in my former city of residence, Macon, Ga., I have been reminded of the proud tradition carried on by so many Macon patriarchs and men married to Macon matriarchs. The wearing of the pink blazer.

Southern towns and colorful festivals go together like pecans and Karo syrup, but seeing grown men in pink blazers can be startling. I’m convinced that the busloads of tourists who flock to Macon to see the more than 300,000 Yoshino cherry trees are most awed by the number of men in pink blazers.

This may be the reason I ultimately had to leave Macon. I had lived there 10 years and was approaching the point in my “Maconness” when I had a decision to make: Would I, too, succumb to the wearing of the pink? Could I be a true Maconite without it?

At a time of year when everything from pancakes to poodles turns pink, the pink blazer crowd still tends to be more mature. Unless you are hosting the Miss Cherry Blossom pageant, if you’re under 50, you probably don’t own a pink blazer.

Don’t hear me judging. I’m not qualified to comment on fashion in any way. It’s just something of a phenomenon that Southern men who are notoriously macho would succumb to a pink wardrobe so completely during the festival.

Here are my five best guesses at explaining this phenomenon:

  1. Civic pride. Nothing says “I’m proud to be a Maconite” like draping yourself in pink.
  2. Marital requirement. Why does a man wear anything? Their wives make them. Half the guys I know wouldn’t wear socks if their wives didn’t make them.
  3. A sense of style finely tuned over decades. Every man reaches that point in his life when fashion sense is replaced by stubbornness and personal awareness is replaced by apathy.
  4. Everybody else is doing it. That excuse never held water with my mom, but I offer it as a possible explanation.
  5. You are a “spring” in the fashion color palette. Nothing accentuates blue eyes quite like a nice, pink jacket.
Pink blazer on parade
Pink blazer on parade

So there you have it. The day I see a pink blazer on a man somewhere other than Macon during the 10-day festival, I promise to immediately update the blog with photos.

If you really want to throw people off, show up at church in a pink blazer about mid-February and listen to the number of people who ask, “Is it Cherry Blossom time already?”

Wear it with pride, my Macon brothers. I’m not man enough.

A different sort of madness

I live in a sports-obsessed suburb of Atlanta. A nearby public park where I run boasts a number of youth sports activities, and on any given night or weekend, you will find a parking lot full of minivans and SUVs adorned with stickers and magnets representing more sports than you’ll find in the Olympic games.

The most recent phenomenon is lacrosse. Although The New York Times noted this trend as early as 2005,  lacrosse has only made its way further South in the last five years.  During a recent Scout meeting with my oldest son, I learned that this Native American sport traditionally played in the Northeast has burst onto the scene in the Atlanta area in a big way. It’s now being played in area high schools and youth leagues.  A Google search for “youth lacrosse” produces a list of links dominated by Atlanta-area programs.

So what does the presence of lacrosse mean to the Southern landscape of sports? For years I have heard football traditionalists scoff at soccer as “the number one youth sport in America.” In the Deep South, the sports have always been football and baseball. Yes, the Appalachian states have basketball, but down here, girls play basketball.

Not anymore.

In this new, upside down Southern sports culture, kids play youth hockey. Tennis and swim teams are ubiquitous in the Atlanta suburbs.  Unprecedented numbers of girls are now playing sports.  Little league baseball is actually declining in total number of participants and parents are increasingly reluctant to let their kids strap on helmets and shoulder pads for the concussion-inducing blood sport known as American football.  Lacrosse is moving into the neighborhood.

A lot of 40-something dads must now learn a new game. Friends report the equipment is expensive, the game can be as violent as hockey or football and coaches in this region are still at a premium.

So what’s the appeal?

It’s different. American culture right now places a high value on uniqueness, even in the South where tradition is valued. Athletic kids like the ring of playing a sport that’s somewhat mysterious to their peers. My boss’s daughter is dating a lacrosse player, and he reports that at least some of the attraction is the “cool” sport the boyfriend plays.

My wife and I both have degrees from Mercer University—a historically Baptist college with campuses in Macon and Atlanta.  Mercer is continuing a reputation transformation that began in the late 1990’s, just before I went to work there in the University Relations department.  Part of that transformation? Men’s lacrosse.  Mercer recently played its first lacrosse game Feb. 12, losing to Ohio State.

As more universities in the Deep South begin to join the exclusive academic institutions who have been traditional lacrosse powerhouses, the need to develop players and the incentive to earn scholarships will cause it to spread. Of the 57 universities playing intercollegiate lacrosse on the Division I level, only six are located in the Deep South. But Division II now has a “Deep South Conference” with seven teams, and at least 10 of the Division III lacrosse schools would be considered southern schools.

Duke University lacrosse team scandals notwithstanding, it looks like lacrosse is here to stay.

Good Lord, we’ve given football players sticks!

What to look for

Life in the New South demands a written record. That’s my premise.

Growing up in Dallas-Fort Worth and central Florida did not instill in me a natural appreciation for all things Southern. That fascination, which sometimes borders on morbid curiosity, surfaced during my time as a features writer for The Macon Telegraph. During my first job right out of journalism school at Troy University, I was introduced to some of the most colorful stories Macon could conjure. This is my attempt to process what I think Southerness has come to mean in the contemporary South.

There’s nothing earth shattering or particularly inspired about what catches my eye. As the traditional Southern identity wanes and those who hold on to it are marginalized, there is a new Southern identity emerging. I find the new Southern identity intriguing. There are hints of the old, but it is definitely new.

My father and my oldest son were both born in Macon, Georgia. I met and married my wife there. I have connections to that town that run deep. In my journey from Macon to the Atlanta suburbs, I have learned that the distance between these two worlds is measured in years, not miles. In between, there is some interesting soil to till.

Not everything is political. Not every issue is racial. Not every cliché still has a connection to its root of truth. The South is no longer bounded by agrarian, familial or religious themes. The New South is not homogenous.

When Henry Grady coined the term “New South” as an attempt to attract industry and help the South overcome its collective hangover from the War Between the States, I doubt very seriously he had in mind what the South has become. But that’s OK. I’m not making judgments, just trying to capture a sense of what is.

So what is the New South? What would a chronicle of the New South contain?

Clues. Suggestions. Hints. Observations.

Discovering telling details of the New South is not always easy. The character of the New South isn’t always obvious. It’s much like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous opinion in the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision on obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”

Over time and with your help, the emerging Southern identity might just come into clearer focus. Maybe, we can understand ourselves a little better as a result.