News? What news?

I get my news from Will McAvoy.

The fact that he’s a fictional news anchor and the events he’s reporting on are two years old is really immaterial.

Jeff Daniels in a not so "dumb and dumber" pose as the anchor of ACN "News Night with Will McAvoy." Daniels won an Emmy this week for his work in the role.
Jeff Daniels in a not so “dumb and dumber” pose as the anchor of ACN “News Night with Will McAvoy.” Daniels won an Emmy this week for his work in the role.

My good friend, Bob, gave me season one of the HBO series “The Newsroom” on Blu-ray for my birthday this year, and it took me and Carla all of seven minutes to get hooked.

The irony is that my recent engorgement on two full seasons of the show has revealed that many of the actual news stories reported on by the fictional cable news team at “Atlantic Cable News,” were only vague recollections in my mind.

I’m talking major events: Deep Horizon oil rig explosion, killing Osama Bin Laden, shooting of Gabrielle Giffords, two years of a campaign for president. All of these were dramatized in the show, and I was fuzzy on details.

A former newspaper reporter, I have developed news consumption habits that are very New South.

I don’t recognize myself any more.

Who is this person that looks at his smart phone every five seconds for news updates from Twitter or CNN. Why does this person only read newspapers in an email or website? How can he use podcasts played through his car radio from a Bluetooth connection on his smartphone to fill every minute of his daily commute? And why is it that he has trouble remembering news events from two years ago?

I used to read at least three newspapers every day, and by that I mean physically hold pieces of paper. I grew up with the evening news as the background noise to my evenings at home. My parents’ preference was Peter Jennings and his “World News Tonight” on ABC. Various cable news channels were once a staple of my media diet. Radio news, particularly traffic and weather, was always on in my car.

But somehow I’ve managed to tune all that out. News happens, I receive it, and then promptly forget about it. It doesn’t have the same stickiness it once had.

This week Harris Interactive released a new poll revealing that Atlanta was one of the most disinterested cities in the U.S. when it comes to the news. You can get the gist of the report online. Atlanta wasn’t as bad as, say, Los Angeles, but a full 12 percent of respondents said “I am not really interested in the news; there are other ways that I prefer to spend my leisure time.”

And there you have it. My hypothesis is that in the New South, which really has never been covered well by the major news entities based in New York and Washington, people are just too busy to care. And when we do stop to gawk at train-wreck types of stories, we don’t retain the details because we move on in 3.6 seconds.

I also understand that news these days has flavors. Everyone watches the news that puts the most palatable spin on it for them. We are selective, choosing networks and news outlets that tend to reflect our general outlook on the world.

This one-two punch has greatly impacted our level of “informedness.” With so much information at our fingertips, we’re still not really sure what happened in the world last week.

(There’s a war on in Syria, by the way, and the U.S. may soon be dragged into it. It’s worth paying attention.)

So rather than conduct a current events quiz like we all used to take in social studies in school, I’d like to conduct a poll of my own: Do you consume news? In what format (online, TV, radio, print, other)? Do you view yourself as a news junkie? If not, why not?

While I wait for the New South polling data to roll in, I think I’ll re-watch some episodes of “The Newsroom” and try to figure out why I trust fictional reporters more than the real ones.

Thank you for making New South Essays a part of your weekly… OK, occasional… media consumption. We’ll try to do a better job of keeping your informed. Just like the Atlanta Journal used to purport, “Covering Dixie Like the Dew,” New South Essays is your trusted news source for the new millennium. Now, leave a comment!

Words mean things

I used to work for a South Carolinian who issued colorful quips and witticisms the way most people speak casual greetings.

One of Ben’s favorites was “Words mean things.”

This week the Internet has been abuzz with the controversy surrounding the words used by Southern cooking diva Paula Deen. The brouhaha over Paula’s admission in a deposition that she used the “N” word 25 years ago and her public apologies has been front and center for a week now. In the media I consume, it has overtaken groundbreaking U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

This is a controversy born of the New South. As recently as maybe 15 or 20 years ago, this would not have been news. But in the New South, sensitivities to racial issues take on greater importance.

What is contemporary about this flap, is that people are retreating from Paula because of the perception that she hasn’t really gotten beyond the meaning behind words from long ago. Even while she is apologizing, there is a hint, an undertone, that Paula doesn’t really understand why people think she could be a racist.

NBC's Matt Lauer interviews Paula Deen on "Today" Wednesday morning.
NBC’s Matt Lauer interviews Paula Deen on “Today” Wednesday morning.

While Paula Deen has used a lot of words this week – probably too many – she has sent mixed messages. In saying “I’m sorry” and “I is what I is” she has given her detractors room to work, to interpret the meanings of these words in ways she may not have intended.

The setting here does make a big difference. Savannah is, in many ways, the capital of the Old South, and Paula is its ceremonial queen. If this former employee who brought the lawsuit wanted to bring Paula down, she has already succeeded whether or not her allegations of harassment are true.

Yes, we have all said things we regret. Yes, we all carry with us biases the origin of which even we ourselves cannot explain. And, yes, if on the defensive, any of us could sound unintentionally racist. But what I take away from this situation with Paula Deen is that once you have the racist label attached to you, it’s hard to convince people otherwise, no matter what words you use.

As this situation continues to play out, fueled by Paula’s missteps with the media, she will have her share of detractors and admirers. There’s nothing all that new or unusual about people lining up on opposite sides of an issue, particularly in these very partisan times.

Is Paula sincere? Yes, I believe she is. Does she understand why people are so upset? Maybe. Does she know how to get out of this mess and move on? No, I don’t believe she does.

The lesson from Paula’s downfall that all of us non-cooking show icons can take is that in contemporary society our words can more easily destroy than build up. And regardless of what offensive things we may say, if our comments reflect racism, it is nearly impossible to convince people otherwise.

Why can’t we all just get along? When it comes to race, there’s simply too much history. Words mean things.

Based on what I’m reading on other blogs and the comments on news stories, I ask only that as you share your thoughts on New South Essays, you do so respectfully. I’d love to hear why you are supporting Paula or why you can’t, and if you have any advice that could help her negotiate these waters any better. As always, thanks for your input!

Robertsons taking the New South by storm

They’re bearded. They’re quotable. They’re camouflaged. They’re armed. They’re wildly popular. They are the Robertsons.

Unless you manage to completely avoid all media – other than New South Essays, of course – then you have probably seen or heard about the Robertson family. The pride of West Monroe, La., the Robertsons are self-proclaimed rednecks who have turned a duck call manufacturing business into one of the most popular reality shows on television.

From left, Jase, Si, Willie and Phil Robertson are bearded Louisiana rednecks who are ruling the reality TV airwaves.
From left, Jase, Si, Willie and Phil Robertson are bearded Louisiana rednecks who are ruling the reality TV airwaves.

We discovered the Robertsons last year when my dad turned us on to “Duck Dynasty” while it was still in its first season. Not typically an early adopter, Dad was on board from the beginning after finding their duck hunting show “Duck Commander” on the Outdoor Channel. It seems that while searching for his beloved fishing shows one day, he stumbled onto the wise-cracking Robertsons . Although he cared nothing for duck hunting, he found them so compelling he started watching.

The Robertsons then found an unlikely TV home on the Arts and Entertainment channel when they premiered in March 2012. A little more than a year later, “Duck Dynasty” is A&E’s highest rated program. Renewal for season four is currently on hold until new contracts can be negotiated. The Robertsons are reportedly seeking $200,000 per episode.

The season finale airs this week on April 24 to mark the end of the third season. I’m trying to figure out why “Duck Dynasty” has caught on in the New South like no other redneck reality show, and there are many.

So why are the Robertsons so popular?

Not since The Waltons has a TV family consistently shared a prayer of thanksgiving at meal times. The Robertsons end each episode with a blessing, pronounced by Phil, the patriarch. They are obviously people of faith with their involvement in their church featured regularly on the show.

They also demonstrate a strong commitment to their family. The brothers squabble and their Uncle Si is a foil to all their well-laid plans, but in the end, they embrace, pray and pass the victuals.

Conservative Christians gravitate to the Robertsons because they finally feel represented. A family with their general beliefs is on television, and they are drawn to them.

Truth is, there aren’t many shows that we watch as a family. The kids watch their typical fare of Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon or Disney Channel, but with “Duck Dynasty,” we can and want to watch together.  There’s no cursing, and only the occasional expression of marital bliss between Phil and Kay can be considered “adult content.” It may be gross, but there’s a lot worse on television than an affectionate older married couple showing that their love still burns brightly.

The Robertson women, from left, Jessica (goes with Jep), Missy (goes with Jase), Miss Kay (Goes with Phil) and Korie (goes with Willie... or the other way around.)
The Robertson women, from left, Jessica (goes with Jep), Missy (goes with Jase), Miss Kay (Goes with Phil) and Korie (goes with Willie… or the other way around.)

My wife, Carla, fully admits to enjoying the segments of the show that include the younger Robertsons’ wives and children. She particularly likes seeing their homes, their choices in clothing, and how they parent their children, who just happen to be a mix of biological and adopted. She is fascinated by these beautiful, thin, well-coifed women and what drew them to their redneck husbands. Photos are circulating online that prove under their massive beards there are men who were once handsome enough to woo these lovely women.

Despite all these reasons for watching, the real reason for their success is that they are funny. We never fail to laugh when watching the Robertsons. I’m not so naïve as to think everything that happens is unplanned, but even with a sense that scenarios may be contrived, I can’t help but giggle.

Uncle Si trying to earn enough tickets at a local pizza arcade to win a stuffed purple gorilla is funny. Godwin, a co-worker at the duck call plant, shirtlessly scurrying across a path on all fours to see if he resembles a panther from a distance is funny. Willie and Jase taking their wives hunting and Korie dousing herself in doe urine is funny. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

“Duck Dynasty” may not be everyone’s blue Tupperware cup of iced tea, but the Robertsons have become heroes to a segment of the population that can’t find many in the media these days. We can debate whether or not they are role models, but you cannot deny they are trending.

It remains to be seen how many seconds are left on their 15 minutes of fame, but when the season finale airs Wednesday, as Si would say, “I’m down like a rodeo clown, Jack!”

What’s your take on the Robertsons? Do you watch and laugh out loud or do you cringe and avoid them like the plague? If you are a fan, what are your reasons? Leave a comment and make us “happy, happy, happy.”

Sick day

Raise your hand if you ever envied your sick child’s excused day of lying on the sofa watching cartoons and napping.

OK, so I’m the only one?

No? You say you have felt that way, too? You have been burning the candle at both ends until there’s no wick left and you still haven’t found a way to extinguish the flame?

know when to take a sick day billboard
Sometimes what you need to do IS on a billboard in front of you.

A week ago today I came home from a business trip to Pittsburgh to find Carlton vomiting. Welcome home. I can’t really complain because Carla had been dealing with it all day. The 24-hour stomach virus ended up lasting 72 and required at least four changes of bed linens. Seriously. Four.

The kid would run around all day without a symptom.  He would go 18, 20, even 24 hours without vomiting and we would think we were home free.  Then he would fall asleep at night, completely exhausted. Several hours into my own REM cycle, his cries would send us scrambling to his room where the evidence of his illness hit our nostrils before our eyes could adjust in the darkness. It was not remotely pleasant.

But Carlton was sick during the weekend. It was such a relatively busy weekend that I didn’t have time to envy him. Carla and I juggled him as we kept up our pace – she bought groceries, I went to a deacon’s meeting, she took Barron to youth group, I took Harris’ Cub Scout den bowling, and on and on, back and forth. We didn’t slow down at all.

Monday came and Carlton cleared the 24-hour hurdle. He was pronounced cured, so he could return to preschool on Tuesday. Carla’s day of teaching preschool was not threatened. We held our breath, hoping that our mandatory household hand-washing regimen and antibacterial wipe-down of every surface was enough to keep the scourge at bay.

Alas, at 3 a.m., Harris was knocking on our bedroom door giving off that now all-too-familiar malodorous clue that something was amiss. The cycle was repeating.

Fortunately, my two meetings of the day were such that I could phone in, and my very understanding supervisor permitted me the opportunity to work from home. This allowed Carla to carry out her plans for her preschool class without having to get a substitute, and everything else was fairly normal.

Harris was no distraction at all. After about 10 a.m., there were no more symptoms. He simply lay on the sofa with “Tom & Jerry” dueling in front of him. He ate a couple of crackers and drank a juice pouch at about 2 p.m. and seemed to perk up a little.

As I stood there conducting my visual scans for any hint of his condition an unfiltered thought burst into my consciousness: “Wow, I wish I could be sick.”

What? No. I didn’t mean that. No one would wish to have the awful stomach bug. It had completely paralyzed our family a couple of years earlier when we all shared it. That experience was seared into my memory. I couldn’t possibly want another dose of that.

I edited myself.

“What you meant to think was ‘I wish I could have a sick day.’”

See, public relations people even put words in their own mouths.

It’s not that work is overwhelming. I’m thoroughly enjoying my new job, and the challenges and fresh problems to solve and new people to meet have been invigorating.

It’s not that I don’t believe in service to my church. Serving as a deacon is a privilege, and every interaction with the families I care for is sacred and brings me closer to my community and to God.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy serving as a Cub Scout den leader. Those boys with their boundless energy and endless curiosity love tackling new challenges together and learning new skills.

sorry your sick day is due to actual sickness
Wouldn’t you rather get some rest before it comes to this?

It’s just that sometimes it all has to stop in order for me to get my bearings again. You know what I’m describing, right? It’s like when you’ve got nine browser windows open with at least two of them streaming sports highlights and one playing country music and your computer can’t process the data fast enough so the machine just locks up.

The real truth is that our bodies do the same thing. Whether it’s a head cold or a stomach flu or exhaustion, if we don’t have the good sense to slow down and rest, our bodies will force down time on us.

Rest is fleeting in the New South. Busy is the norm.

My wish for all of you is that it doesn’t take a sick day for you to find some down time. In fact, you should go ahead and plan on it right now. Go ahead. Put it on your calendar. Find a day. You need it more than you realize.

If you don’t, your body will.

If you couldn’t relate at all to today’s post, then great.  You are a better person than I am. But if you have ever been jealous of your sick child because they got to rest, then you’ve got a problem. Share your story by leaving a comment below, and then go take a nap. You’ll feel better. I promise.

Andy Griffith: One of a kind

After just a few whistled notes of “The Fishin’ Hole,” the immortal theme song of “The Andy Griffith Show,” I am transported to the carefree summer days of my youth.

Andy Griffith
Andy Griffith as Sheriff Andy Taylor

I memorized that tune, gained an appreciation for the show and developed a fondness for the characters watching midday re-runs in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Griffith’s passing from a heart attack at age 86 on July 3 put me in a reflective mood.

Pop culture has absorbed few Southern icons the way it has Andy Griffith’s television characters.

There are plenty of hayseeds and hillbillies played for laughs on the big and small screens, but these Southern-fried jesters aren’t elevated to the status of role models. These buffoons are anti-heroes at best, beloved maybe, but not respected.

It is my contention that Griffith will be the only Southern entertainer to occupy that lofty position.

In the 1960s, Andy Griffith and his cast of zany Southern archetypal characters inhabiting the fictional town of Mayberry, N.C., became part of American culture. Syndication will keep it that way in perpetuity. Griffith’s character, Andy Taylor, was likable in nearly every way: a widower trying to raise a son, faithful church choir member, shrewd law enforcement officer, dapper and available bachelor, a mellifluous singing guitar player and a patient friend and mentor.

When “The Andy Griffith Show’s” run was over, it appeared Griffith’s life on television was over, so strong was the impact of his portrayal of Sheriff Taylor. Conventional wisdom had it that he would be forever typecast. But Griffith had that quality that could be reshaped with a little aging.

Andy Griffith as Ben Matlock
Andy Griffith as Atlanta defense attorney Ben Matlock

By the time Griffith introduced us to Atlanta defense attorney Ben Matlock in 1986, we were ready for his reinterpretation of another Southern archetype – the wise but gruff older man whose experience gives him the advantage over brash adversaries who underestimate him.

As the nation aged and advertisers aimed their products at the World War II generation and the top-end of the Baby Boom, Matlock captured another zeitgeist and actually had a longer run than “The Andy Griffith Show.”

In the landscape of New Southern culture , there is no emerging replacement for Andy Griffith. This is an era of dark themes and Southern gothic storylines. We have an abundance of such characters as zombie fighters, vampires, detectives and football coaches. Lately, the trend has been toward reality TV shows that put Southern caricatures on display and give legs to negative Southern stereotypes.

But Andy and Ben were characters Southerners could be proud of. Yes, they became clichés in their own right, but being kindhearted, clever and musically talented aren’t attributes we Southerners mind.

These two characters, plus the many other memorable roles Griffith portrayed, will secure Griffith’s place in pop culture. Re-runs of “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Matlock” may even garner a larger ratings share now that Griffith has passed, and he will likely be so ubiquitous on cable that the question “Is Andy Griffith dead?” will be a popular Google search in a few years.

As the Facebook tributes and Twitter odes continue for this son of the South, it’s important to remember that Griffith was a person aside from his assumed TV personas. His passing causes grief, but more than that, it provokes gratitude.

Thanks, Andy, for giving the South – old and new – characters we can be proud of. I will appreciate you in reruns a little more knowing that you’ve left us.

What’s your favorite memory of Andy Griffith on television? Does the whistled theme song evoke childhood memories of eating supper around the television on TV trays on Monday nights? What’s your favorite Andy Griffith role? Were you a Matlock fan? Share your thoughts and memories by leaving a comment below

No more pencils, no more books

School’s out for the summer. Now what?

One thing is for sure: sitting around doing nothing is not an option.

Carlton at the park
Summer is play time.

It seems that in the New South, everyone has somewhere to go … all the time. Our schedules don’t allow for plain ol’ downtime. You remember that, right? Get-up-at-11-stay-in-your-pajamas-watch-TV-barely-move-off-the-sofa-all-day-kind-of-lazy?

Those days are gone. The way we “relax” these days is to go and do.

Our schedule this summer includes weekend getaways, swimming lessons, camps, Vacation Bible School, business travel with the family and, of course, our annual beach vacation. The dreaded “I’m bored” should not cross the lips of my children all summer. They will be busier than I ever was during my elementary school years. But maybe that’s the problem.

There’s simply too much to do these days. We have too many options.

In the push for giving our children new experiences, keeping them occupied and expanding their horizons, we fill every possible minute of their lives leaving them no time for creative play, true discovery or even just relaxation.

During the school year we go from school to homework to scouts to music lessons to church to bed. When our first two children were preschoolers, we swore we would not be that family. Now, with three kids, two of them in school, we have come to expect this kind of schedule.

But what’s more insidious is the way our summers have become just as over-programmed and jam-packed. We don’t know how to slow down or let our kids have any time to recover. We forget that less is more.

Don’t get me started on television. Television is the enemy. I get that.  I don’t want my children spending their summer in front of Sponge Bob re-runs or Phineas and Ferb any more than the next parent.  I also don’t want to be filling their time so that they miss out on the experience of having to come up with something to do. Some of the best play my brothers and I had growing up occurred when we had an unscheduled afternoon or even day, and we had to decide how to fill it.

To that end, I was glad to hear Carla tell the children yesterday that there will be no screen time during the day this summer.  She even instituted a policy for herself. She got up early, finished her computer time before the kids came down, and didn’t look at a screen again all day. After a morning of playtime and five hours at the pool, she felt justified in letting the kids veg in front of Disney channel while she cooked dinner. At the end of the day, she called it a success.

Nothing on your to-do-list
This is an acceptable summer day agenda.

Forgive me for lecturing, but if you have children and have already mapped out an activity for every day this summer, go back and revise your plan just slightly to work in a few pajama days. And for those vacations to the beach, don’t fill every hour with extreme sports and touristy excursions.

Let your children experience something that may be one of the most important life skills you can offer them: give them some space and let them figure out how to fill the time.

And if that degenerates into Wrestlemania XXIX, time out in their rooms accomplishes the same thing.

Happy summer and y’all be safe.

How are you spending your summer? How did you spend your summer breaks from school as a child? Leave a comment below and share your plans or your strategies to balance engagement and relaxation.

Just a swingin’

Childhood obesity. Video games. Television. Air quality. Bugs. Weather.

There are lots of circumstances that conspire against children playing outdoors these days, so much so that getting kids outside is one of the biggest challenges of parenting in the New South.

Carlton on the rope swing
Even the little guy can hold his own on the new rope swing.

Long gone are the days when barefoot children hit the screen door after breakfast and wouldn’t return until supper time. Now, you have to pry them off the sofa with a giant spatula, forcibly remove them from in front of a digital screen and lock the doors after them if you want them to spend any time soaking in Vitamin D or getting fresh air.

This spring I unwittingly hit upon a new weapon that has kept my kids outside more than in any previous year: a disc swing.

For eight years we’ve had a small, red disc swing hanging in a dogwood tree. Yes, I know, that’s the not ideal dendrological solution for a rope swing, but the swing is unobtrusive and bears the weight of smaller children just fine.

Harris on the rope swing
Not every ride is death-defying, though Harris may have you believe this.

But now that our oldest is around 100 pounds and there are three of them fighting over one swing, Carla and I decided it was time to either cut the “red swing” down or put up another one.

In reviewing some “before and after” photos of our yard, Carla stumbled across a photo of the back when we first moved in. There, hanging from the big tree in the center of the backyard was a fraying nylon rope, knotted in several places. It brought back memories of Barron, then 2, falling from the rope while my dad pushed him just a week after we moved in. That was the end of that. The rope came down.

But now that our kids are older, the idea once again had merit. So on a recent Saturday afternoon trip to the local home improvement store, we found a rope disc swing kit, bought 50 feet of nylon rope and created the solution to all of our couch potato problems.

The new rope swing hangs about 20 feet beneath a sturdy branch in a large tree I can’t identify in our backyard. The extra length of rope and relatively obstacle free swinging zone – not including the tree itself – makes the new swing a much better ride than the old one.

Perhaps more entertaining than the actual swing itself was watching me try to hang it. At first I attempted the lasso technique. I’m a lousy cowboy, so I reverted to tying the rope to the tailfin of a modified Nerf mini-football. The rope was too heavy and my technique was so poor I finally resorted to tying a string to the tailfin and connecting that to the rope. It worked like a charm, but it took the better part of an hour for me to figure it out.

Naturally, the boys now fight over the new swing, but it does give them an incentive to get outside. They race to see who can be first, and any time the swing is unoccupied, one of our boys is likely to dart outside – with our without shoes – and get some undisturbed swing time in.

We’ve had several backyard occasions this spring in which the disc swing was a huge hit. Harris’ Lego-themed seventh birthday featured an inflatable, a piñata, a sandbox and a Lego table, but it was the rope swing that was the main attraction. Likewise at our recent end-of-the scouting year den meeting.

Barron on the rope swing
This is “Batman Barron’s” preferred way to fly.

What makes this throw-back recreational device such a popular addition to our backyard?

First, it’s simple. It doesn’t require skill or strength or coordination. Kids don’t have to figure out how to use it. They get on, they push off (or they call for Daddy to come push them, more likely) and they go. It requires no batteries, no electricity.

Second, it provides a safe thrill. Sure, if they let go they can get hurt. Barron learned that lesson at age two. But not a lot else in the backyard can give you that giggle-inducing tickle in your stomach.

Third, it helps you attain new heights, literally. Kids love pushing boundaries and competing. Who can jump the farthest, run the fastest, hold their breath the longest? The rope swing gives them one more limit they can push: gravity. Who can swing the highest?

It’s been a great spring weather-wise in Atlanta. Carla and I have enjoyed the view of our backyard from our Adirondack chairs as the kids have laughed and swung and run and played for hours. When the kids are in the yard, it just feels like the way childhood is supposed to be.

What’s your secret to getting your kids to play outside? Perhaps you had a beloved rope swing as a child? Leave us your thoughts in a comment below.

Southern sports showcase

Last weekend was a convergence of televised events that treated channel surfers with more than the usual amount of Southern accents.

Matt Kenseth wins the 2012 Daytona 500
Matt Kenseth won his second Daytona 500 in one of the weirdest races of all time at the historic speedway.

Unless you were under a rock you know that last weekend was the 54th running of the Daytona 500, the official start of the never-ending NASCAR season. What you may have overlooked was that it was also the 2012 Bassmaster Classic at the Red River in Shreveport, La.

Yeah, yeah, the rest of the world had the Oscars to fuss over, but for true Southerners, it was a weekend to revel in the great sports that have found or are beginning to find a broader fan base.

Truth be told, I don’t watch much racin’ or fishin’ on the TEE-vee. A few years back, Barron had a brief obsession with NASCAR after he saw the Pixar film, Cars. That year, Kevin Harvick won the Daytona 500 by two-tenths of a second over Mark Martin in the closest finish ever, and Clint Bowyer crossed the finish line upside down and on fire.

“Whoa! What is this!” Barron said in a “where has this been all my life” tone as the race finished.

Once he realized there was a five-hour race every weekend for nearly 10 months and all races don’t end that way, he lost interest. But for a couple of years we were as much NASCAR fans in our household as the other neophytes sporting numbered trucker hats and T-shirts with such thoughtful slogans as “Boogity, Boogity” and “The surgeon general said nothing about smoking the competition.”

This year’s race was a logistical nightmare. It was supposed to gun on Sunday afternoon, but rain delayed the event until Monday night. Several wrecks chased fan favorites Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and last year’s winner, Trevor Bayne. Then, with 40 laps to go, something broke on Juan Pablo Montoya’s number 42 car. It swerved and hit a jet dryer causing an explosion and subsequent blaze that delayed the race another two hours. By the time Matt Kenseth crossed the finish line to take his second Daytona 500, it was Tuesday morning.

In driver parlance, it was a weird deal, man.

I don’t want to give away the outcome of the Bassmaster Classic because even though the event has ended, the three-days of weigh-ins will be televised on Saturday and Sunday on ESPN2. What? You say you don’t mind? OK, well, SPOILER ALERT! Chris Lane took the top prize of $500,000 by catching 51.6 pounds of fish in three days.

Chris Lane
Chris Lane holds the 2012 Bassmaster Classic trophy aloft and gives a celebratory yell.

What? You say you’ve never heard of Chis Lane? THE Chris Lane? OK, well, neither had I, but that’s not the point. As a guy who grew up with a bass fishing dad, I can still hear Jimmy Houston’s cackle and see Bill Dance’s pratfalls in my childhood memories. Bass fishing was something I never cared to watch on television, but grew to enjoy with my dad when we had chances to go.

So why are these sports inextricably linked to the South? We all know football is king down South, but people in other parts of the country play it, too – although that’s getting harder and harder to prove by watching the Bowl Championship Series games.

NASCAR and Bassmaster have several things in common: their origins are Southern, they are warm weather sports, their fan bases have some sense of participation and, most importantly, they have numerous corporate entities involved that wish to reach an audience with their products.

Ultimately, it’s sponsorships and advertising revenue that lands your sport on TV.

So before anyone claims the South has risen again based on the ascendance of its hallmark sporting events, think about your consumer behavior next time you pay $8.49 for a Strike King® Kevin VanDam Sexy Dawg Topwater lure or pick up a Diet Mountain Dew.

Did you really want that or did you just watch too much racin’ and fishin’?

Keep your hooks wet and your car off the wall, and have a good season. Second place is just first loser!

What do you think is the king of Southern sports? What makes a sport Southern? Leave a comment below and share your thoughts.

Another British Invasion

Like most trends in popular culture, Carla and I are late to the ball on the Emmy-award-winning “Downton Abbey.”

Downton Abbey
The cast of Downton Abbey, now in its second season on PBS but gearing up for a third "series" on the BBC in September.

After many friends and co-workers insisted we join the cult of Downton, we reluctantly re-subscribed to Netflix last weekend so we could go back and watch the first season of the early 20th century British family drama now in its second season on PBS.

The first episode was pleasant enough to keep us watching, but it’s still hard for me to explain Downton mania.

The opening sequence of the first episode is beautiful cinematography. Sweeping shots of the interior of the house as the servants prepare for the day spoke volumes about the characters, the setting and even the plot. The story begins in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic, and its impact on the heirs to the Downton estate.

It was hard to follow the dialogue at first. We had to tune our ears to the frequency that allows Americans to understand English spoken with a British accent and idioms.

The characters were interesting, and the interplay between the hired help set apart from the wealthy family had all the intrigue of a back-stabbing corporate drama. Like most of these British dramas, which Carla particularly likes in movie form, the plot seemed to turn slowly around relatively minor points.

It reminded me of the 1992 Oscar-winning film “Howard’s End,” which involved a similar plot about who would inherit an English estate. Perhaps I was too shallow back then to appreciate the story, preferring instead movies with lasers, explosions and car chases. My chief impression of “Howard’s End” was that it was overly long and less-than-exciting. The most compelling action in the entire movie was [SPOILER ALERT] a bookcase falling on someone.

But what enamored the Academy, if not twenty-something male movie-goers, is also true of Downton: the writing is brilliant and the characters well-crafted.

Dowton Abbey's servants
Wouldn't you like a staff of servants to help you keep your "estate" in order?

The way American television develops characters lacks subtlety. Writers and directors feel a need to stick to stereotypes and one-dimensional portrayals to keep things simple. With Downton, every nod or wink or wince keeps you guessing about what is really going on with a character. Is Lord Crawley going to dismiss his war buddy, Mr. Bates, because of his disability? The dilemma plays out slowly and with nuance, holding your attention to the very last moment.

However, I must confess that Downton feeds one of my many annoying habits: poorly imitating British accents and phraseology.

As I cleaned up our plates of take-out Chinese, I couldn’t keep myself from saying in the clipped and precise manner of Carson, the head butler, “Is that all, your grace?”

I got a courtesy chuckle from Carla, but I could tell her patience with the Queen’s English wouldn’t last very long.

So I guess we’ll be visiting Downton Abbey regularly, joining the rest of you people who insisted we come along for the ride. With such a dearth of decent programming on the telly, this is a welcomed weekly retreat we can enjoy after putting the kids to bed.

I’ll try to keep a tight rein on Anglicising my vocabulary, and keep an eye out for falling bookcases.

Cheerio!

Do you watch Downton Abbey? What do you love about it? You say you hate British dramas? What do you detest? Take a minute and share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

Center of attention

The only two homes I have owned – or, more accurately, been on my way to owning – have had a fireplace. And with the fireplace comes the obligatory mantel.

Fireplace and mantel
Our lovely yet forlorn fireplace and mantel.

I will explore the wisdom and necessity of setting wood ablaze inside your home in a different essay, but today I am concerned more about the sociology of home spaces. There seems to be a waning tradition of gathering around the fireplace in the home and sharing family moments together.

This seems particularly out of fashion on 90-degree days in the South, but seasonal timing notwithstanding, the mantel doesn’t seem to have the same place of honor that it once had in the Southern home.

It has been replaced.

Sorry, mantel, you responsible older sibling who was trusted to hold our most precious heirlooms and photographs. There’s an exciting little baby in the house now that’s stealing all of the attention that once belonged exclusively to you.  You have been superseded by a younger, hipper piece of furniture that appeals to our societal ADD deceptively offering the antidote to our every need: the entertainment center.

There was a time in our home that my wife’s taste was to keep that unsavory device known as the television hidden completely from view, unless you were watching HGTV. Then, you
could retrieve the television from its secret location and watch it.

We have several pieces of elaborate furniture once designed to hold clothing now providing cover for the design-challenged box of nonstop noise and images.

But the television has come out of the closet.

Christmas of 2009, we received a new flat screen, high-definition television as a gift from Carla’s generous parents. It wasn’t grandiose, and it wasn’t the top of the line. It was a nice television that helped us move closer to the digital age. We are not early adopters
technologically by any stretch of the imagination.

This new flat screen, like all of the TVs before it, was tucked neatly away in a cabinet, an old wardrobe Carla picked up at a junk furniture store in Macon for $10. It still had the bar in it from which you hung clothes, presumably.

Our dream for our playroom and its multiplying toys was shelving. One cannot possibly think of shelving in the New South without visiting Ikea, so over the course of several years and a number of on-again, off-again flirtations with storage units at the Swedish home store, we settled on a Hemnes TV unit with Hemnes bookshelves and a bridging shelf.

Entertainment center
Our 'media solution' from Ikea and its load of magical items to hold our attention.

Now, our flat screen television, DVD player (no Blu-ray yet!), VCR (still), digital cable box and Wii game console all sit front and center to capture our undivided attention. And we have plenty of shelf space for books and games and bins of art materials and DVDs and puzzles and on and on and on.

I’m not counting, but I’d guess that we spend about two and a half minutes a year in front of our stately mantel with its plates depicting Georgia history and about two and a half hours a day in front of the “media solution.”

Todd Alcott’s poem “Television is a Drug,” which my videographer friend Beth Fulton set to video last year, says it all: “Look at me!” the television cries.

And in the New South, we happily comply.