A 35-year woman at a Manhattan dinner party. She wears pearls, sparkling earrings, and a jade silk dress.
I’m always happy when something strikes me as “Southern.” My sister works in a retirement home in Ridgeland, Mississippi. A 95-year old resident gave her a little frosted-plastic, crystal-looking Christmas tree to sit on her mantle. Inside it, a soft glowing light gently cycles through the color spectrum. My sister said that the next time she went to work, the old lady who gave her this lovely object asked, “Did ya watch it change colors?”
We laughed about that over the several days I visited. I don’t know if the old lady herself is a native to the South, but the way we laughed about “Did ya watch it change colors?” felt VERY Mississippi.
Outside of the South, the old lady would probably have worded the question differently: “Did you NOTICE that the Christmas tree changes color.”
Of course, the real purpose of this question would be to ask, “Did you LIKE the gift I gave you? After all, I bothered to give you something, so maybe you could SAY something about it to make me feel good.”
She could have given me a loaf of banana bread. Did you like the chocolate chips in it? Maybe I didn’t eat it. What if I say “yeah, I loved the chocolate chips” and there were no chocolate chips?
What if I say “Yeah, I noticed that the color changes” and the color doesn’t in fact change?
However, the literal meaning of her question is to ask whether I was AWARE of this color-changing feature. Maybe I ripped open the package and didn’t read the box: “No! Holy shit! I DIDN’T notice that it changes color! I’ll rush home now and put in the batteries. Gosh, I feel so stupid.”
But here’s the thing that goes back to my point about the South. If old Mrs. Buchwald at the New York Retirement Home asked me “Did you notice it changes color?” I probably wouldn’t think to relate it to you as a “funny story.”
I don’t know. Maybe Mrs. Buchwald is very haughty. Maybe it occurred to her that I might be an idiot. I wouldn’t know about the color-changing feature and would think that she just gave me a piece-of-shit plastic statue. No, no, no, it’s a thing that DOES something. God forbid you think I actually believe the plastic statue … in itself, without this changing light … has any value!
I might tell you THAT as a funny story. Vain old woman!
But what if Mrs. Buchwald in the New York Retirement Home actually used the words: “Did you watch it change colors?” That would be a little more unusual.
Maybe I did read the package. I put in the batteries. I turned on the light. HOWEVER, I walked away before actually WITNESSING the colors change.
On the contrary, Mrs. Buchwald! I did indeed WATCH the colors change in the little Christmas tree.
Am I obliged to tell her how long I watched the tree? Is there an acceptable duration?
But back in Mississippi, my sister and I know what Mrs. Eubanks was really asking. She was asking: “Were you AMAZED? Did it blow your mind?” She was treating the gift as a piece of groundbreaking technology. A light that changes color inside a semi-transparent object! Goddamn!
Or maybe it was more about the concept of using the technology this way. Finally, it occurred to someone … to some GENIUS … to use this astonishing technology to enhance a holiday ornament.
Either way, what are you supposed to say to this question? Was I amazed?
Back in New York, if I believed that Mrs. Buchwald really and truly thought that this plastic Christmas tree was some advanced new product from Bell Labs and that I had never dreamed of seeing a light that changed colors in a Christmas tree statue, I’d feel a twinge of pathos. Poor old woman has lost touch with reality. When I tell you the story about her asking “Did you watch it change colors?” we might chuckle but with a bit of reservation out of respect for the dementia of the aged. It’s both funny and sad that this old lady thinks that anyone would be amazed by this color effect.
What would be more unusual in New York would be if Mrs. Buchwald, knowing full well that she gave me a cheap plastic gadget, PRETENDED it was an advanced piece of technology and expected me in turn to play along. It would be weird to feel socially obliged to pretend to be amazed. It would be weird to feel like I had to act genuinely astonished over the plastic Christmas tree when Mrs. Buchwald knows good and well that I’m not.
But that’s what my sister had to do with Mrs. Eubanks! Yes! I did watch it change colors! Wow!
If my sister wanted to be rude, she could’ve sat Mrs. Eubanks down and asked, “Now, you DO know that I’ve seen a lot of tchotchkes like this, right? You DO understand that you aren’t the first person to give a color-changing Christmas ornament to someone, right?” Mrs. Eubanks would surely get a sour look on her face and say, “Honey, what’s wrong with you? Why you gotta be ugly? You think I’m a moron?”
A key factor with this plastic Christmas tree is how the colors change SLOWLY.
You glance at it. It’s glowing deep violet. Then you turn away to do other stuff. You’re not really thinking about some tree on the mantle. Then you glance at it again. It’s green. But it doesn’t hit you that it hasn’t ALWAYS been green. Because, again, you aren’t really thinking about it.
But this shifting reality … first it’s violet … then it was green … now it’s orange … it strikes your subconscious enough times to bubble up into your conscious brain and you think: “Now wait a minute! I could swear that tree was blue!”
So … finally … you give it your conscious attention for more than a glance. You WITNESS the transition. You WATCH it change colors.
Yes! Yes, Mrs. Eubanks, I watched it change colors!
So what 95-year old Mrs. Eubanks is really doing is EXAGGERATING the effect that the subtlety of the transition has on you. The color change seems a little sneaky, so you have the fleeting impression that you have to catch it in the act.
But “fleeting” is the operative word here. You’re not really thinking much about the tree either way. Then for like a nanosecond out the corner of your eye it blips through your mind “Oh, it changes color.”
For zen-master Mrs. Eubanks, this nanosecond is an eternity, I suppose. Catching that sneaky tree in the act of changing colors is an event.
But her question “Did ya watch it changes colors?” made us realize that subliminally it was just as much of an event for us!
Nanosecond or not, there was a brief instant where we thought, “Damn, it changes color!”
That’s the funny part.
But in the South, one of the luxuries of aging is the right to say the obvious. We’ve all heard a grandfather or some senior relative say, while pointing at the TV, “Why, she’s twirling that baton while it’s on fire.” Yes, the baton is in fact flaming.
Or “Ha! Barney’s taking the bullet out of his pocket!”
Or “Look at Garth! He’s swinging out of over the audience on a rope. Looks like he’s flying.”
Superficially, this might look dumb, but I think culturally the humor of stating the obvious is pretty sophisticated. Or maybe I’m dumb.
But, more important, to me anyway, is how this way of looking at the world enriches life.
In New York, someone might take me to a restaurant and say, “Oh, try the asiago cheese balls. They’re really good.” Okay. Mmm. Yes, they do taste good.
In Mississippi, my host will take me to some random little restaurant and say, “Taste that fried okra. You have never in your life put anything that good in your mouth!”
And, really, that’s how it feels when you taste something good. For a fleeting moment, that taste is the ONLY reality. For a fleeting moment, nothing else has ever tasted that good. Ever.
So … in the South … you SAY it: “This is the best food I have ever eaten.”
To think, WHILE you’re biting into something, “This country sausage is not as good as some other country sausage I’ve had at some point in the past” is to be disconnected from that moment of being in space and time.
Sure, it’s how our screwed up brains work. You might even theorize that this is what we mean when we say we are spiritually in a fallen state. In the Garden of Eden, when Adam bit into country sausage, he fully merged with that culinary reality.
I’m glad to have a Southern hack to short circuit too much thinking: “Damn, no one makes ribs this good!”
What? No one? On the planet? The art of barbeque has become one of the great culinary contests of our age. “Who makes the best ribs?” is question that starts fist fights. Thousands of restaurants have made it their mission to win this title.
Yet here I am in some strip mall in Mississippi saying, “No one else … on the face of the earth … makes ribs as good as this anonymous little joint.”
How can I just SAY that?
Well, because in that moment it’s true for my mouth.
And, yeah, in that fleeting moment when my brain realizes that this Christmas tree is turning from red to green, it is truly amazing. Somewhere deep in my brain, my primate self leaps around like those monkeys in 2001 freaking out over the monolith.
Hell, yeah, Mrs. Eubanks, I DID watch it change colors.