Monday, March 31, 2008

Flying Teeth

Spring has come to Mississippi, and the flora and fauna are once again stirring to life. Dogwoods are in full bloom, adorning the newly-green forests with their creamy white lace. Trillium and yellow coreopsis bloom on the edge of the piney woods, punctuated by Queen Anne's Lace and bluebells. Wisteria grows wild, weaving itself with abandon through the mayhaw, sweet gum, wax myrtles and cedar elms, adorning them with lusciously fragrant purple clusters that surprise and delight the eye. Fields are sprinkled with wildflowers and bordered by banks of azaleas in hues of fuschia, magenta and crimson. The briars that were entwined unnoticed through every shrub and hedge have now burst forth in bloom; roadsides and manicured landscapes alike are lavishly strewn with the fragrant white petals. Calves and kids cavort in lush and verdant pastures, and birds trill from dawn until dusk. Alas, the bugs have also awakened.

Every region of the United States has its own particular insect nuisance, but Gulf Coast bugs are...well...special. Since Hurricane Katrina wiped out most of the local bat population--and therefore natural population controls--they've been particularly nasty.

Last summer's weather conditions made it a banner year for mosquitoes. We were more than happy when several geckos were discovered in the house, and let them stay. The children have been taught to never, ever swat a 'mosquito hawk' or 'skeeter eater' that finds its way indoors.

Midges, otherwise known as No See-Ums or "Flying Teeth", are perhaps the most aggravating. They look like this,

but they feel like this:

Despite its microscopic size, this nasty gnat boasts a ferocious bite. It measures only about 1/32 of an inch in length, and can easily slip through the mesh of screen doors and windows. You might not see 'um, but you definitely feel 'um. When the midge feeds, it slices open the skin with a razor-sharp mouth designed especially for the job. Then it injects the wound with secretions from its salivary glands to keep the blood from clotting while it has its fill, chewing up a small area of your flesh.

It's enough to make your skin crawl, itch, blister, bleed and scar--and it does. A small, intensely itchy bump will appear about a day after you've been bitten. Scratching and digging at the bump, as you will doubtless do, only makes it spread and itch worse. Don't worry; bites fade in just a few days, unless you are one of those who does not react well to the anticoagulant agent--in which case you will be blistered and exquisitely itchy for at least two weeks, and should invest in one of these nifty suits:

When I was six or seven years old, I always used to wonder why biting insects exist. I couldn't come up with a single use for them, except human torment. It turns out that the Flying Teeth actually do serve a purpose. In Costa Rica, they pollinate the rubber tree, the cacao bush, and the mango tree. Without cacao, you would not have chocolate. Most southerners could do without mangos, but chocolate is an altogether different matter.

If you're coming to south Mississippi, be sure and eat plenty of garlic on a daily basis and don't forget to take your B-vitamins. Both are supposed to help to make you less appealing to the winged, biting hordes...unless you're me, in which case it apparently makes you taste better. If you make it as far as my house without being eaten alive, you're welcome to try an herbal repellent I'm cooking up. According to a study done by the military, one of the ingredients is more effective than DEET at repelling the nasty critters. I'll be sure to let you know how it works.

Tune in next moth...I mean, month...for another episode of "What's Buggin' You?"...

Friday, March 28, 2008

Angels Watching Over Me

No evil shall befall you, nor shall affliction come near your tent, for to His Angels God has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways. Upon their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone. Psalm 91: 10-12

This is a story of our guardian angels' providence, and my song of gratitude in response. You don't have to live in the rural South for that.

After having driven about 620 miles on my way from Annapolis, Maryland to Atlanta, Georgia, I heard a sound that every parent dreads emanating from the back seat of my car. I quickly pulled onto the shoulder of the road, but not before my daughter threw up all over herself and the rest of the back seat. I simultaneously consoled her and mopped up. Thirty minutes later we were moving again.

My cell phone battery had died an hour prior to this episode, but I wasn't concerned. Although I did not have a car charger for my phone, I had one for use in a household power outlet and I planned to charge the phone once we got settled for the night.

"No", I heard a voice firmly say. "Pull over at the truck stop and buy a car charger."

I dismissed the thought, negating the need for that expenditure.

"Pull over at the truck stop and buy a car charger", I was persistently nudged.

I have lived long enough, and lived through enough, to know that some proddings should be obeyed without too much questioning. I took the next exit, spent $10, and plugged in the phone to charge. We drove another hour without incident, and were treated to a spectacular sunset. A bit further on, my daughter enjoyed seeing lights twinkle in skyscraper windows as we skirted the metro Atlanta area after dark.

About ten miles from my in-laws' house, interstate traffic was solid and busy, flowing along at 90 mph. I was doing 80 mph in my little Honda Civic, when without warning I lost control and the rear end of my car swung into the lane at my left, nearly hitting another vehicle. I began to react, but it is hard to compensate accurately at that speed. The rear end of the car then swung into the lane at my right and was nearly clipped by a tractor-trailer before I straightened out. At the same time I was decelerating, and the tractor-trailer behind me barely managed to brake enough to avoid going straight over the top of us.

Having regained control, I finally heard the telltale sound that indicated a blowout in one of the rear tires. I put on my hazard lights and leaned on the horn. Traffic was still barreling past us at high speed, we were approaching a major split in the interstate with no emergency lane in sight, and I needed to pull over...NOW. "PLEASE!", my heart's urgent request shot heavenward.

The three lanes to my right were suddenly clear of any approaching vehicle, as if all traffic had just been erased. Rumbling on a bare metal rim, I limped over to the side of the highway. Although I was on an overpass, there was a wide shoulder and I could safely get out and assess the damage.

Back in the car, my knees began to shake like jelly as I looked to my left at the metallic river rushing forcefully past. I took a deep breath to regain composure, and found myself looking at the fully charged phone. Silently mouthing "Thank You!", I picked it up and called my father-in-law.

When he heard what had happened, he told me to sit tight. I put down the phone, and my daughter's voice gently reached out to me in the darkness: "Mommy? All those other cars are moving, but ours stopped. Why?" "Well, sweetie", I replied, "our tire broke, and Grandpa is going to come and fix it." Reassured, she promptly fell asleep.

Ten minutes later, he arrived with a jack, a tire iron, and a cup of hot coffee for me. What a thoughtful angel of mercy! I've changed my own tires before, but he told me to relax and he would take care of it in a jiffy, which he did.

Traffic parted again to allow us to access the exit ramp, and we took back roads to the house. By the time I parked the car, he had already written down the tire information so he could call around for the best price the next day.

My daughter and I slept soundly. We were safe, and I was grateful. The next morning, I had no sooner poured my second cup of coffee than Dad had secured me the best deal on tires in the metro Atlanta area. Pops, you're an angel.

It has been said that there are no coincidences, only God-incidences. There were many on Monday night:

  • The 30-minute stop to clean up after my daughter was sick kept us out of even heavier traffic.

  • The nudging to buy that charger, and my heeding it, enabled me to call for help.

  • We were not involved in a collision, in spite of the close calls and the traffic speed and conditions.

  • The inexplicable parting of traffic allowed me to pull over safely.

  • There was a safe place to pull over--an oasis among miles and miles of construction with no hazard lanes or shoulder on the interstate.

  • The blowout happened a few miles from my in-laws', and not out in the middle of nowhere.

  • That I have a husband to whom the safety of his wife and child are paramount...the rest is just "stuff".

For all of these, and for all of my blessings, I give thanks.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

I Agree With Morgan Freeman

I first became aware of Morgan Freeman when I was four and five years old, watching The Electric Company. I loved to hear the smooth and mellow tone of his voice sounding out words far more than Rita Moreno's or even Bill Cosby's, though I loved them all for bringing my favorite thing in the world--reading--to the television.

As a young adult, I began to respect and admire not only his acting skills, but also the roles he chose and the reasons he chose them. "He will be another Sidney Poitier", I mused to myself at the time.

Now 40, I realize that--thankfully--he will forever be "just" Morgan Freeman. I have incredible respect for the man. For the last few weeks, in the menu bar at right I've had a link to a book forward that he wrote, Why I Call Mississippi Home. I identified with many of his reasons for loving this state as he does.

This is not plagarization. His essay inspired me to share with you some of the reasons I, too, live in Mississippi.

  • I have travelled all over the U.S. and all over the world, and Mississippi is no more or no less racist than the rest of it. Those that do harbor racist sentiments are at least up front and honest about it. I'd rather deal with a person who is honest about what s/he believes, no matter how distasteful it is, than those who conceal their prejudice with politically correct terms.
  • Mississippians of all leanings are blunt, forthright and unapologetic about who and what they are; if you don't like it, you can go your way in peace. There is no pretense here.
  • I can sit on my porch, gaze across 2 acres of lush green landscape that I can call mine, listen to birds singing and frogs chirping, and be at peace.
  • I can see stars at night...LOTS of stars.
  • I can lay out in my yard watching them all night long without worrying about becoming a criminal statistic.
  • I don't have to lock my car in the grocery store parking lot. Better yet, I don't have to lock it when it's parked outside my house.
  • For that matter, I don't have to lock my house while I'm inside it. Nor do I have to lock it if I'm going to the store for milk.
  • I am far from smog, the frantic pace of city life and the stresses of trying to cope with it, and the loneliness of never really knowing who your true friends are.
  • People I encounter are friendly, courteous, helpful, generous, polite, and often extremely funny. They know how to relax and have a good time.
  • I am far enough from my neighbors that I can't hear their conversations or their vehicles.
  • I am close enough to my neighbors to reach them in less than a minute if they need help.
  • My neighbors have come running in less than a minute.
  • For that matter so did passing EMTs--when a controlled burn jumped its firebreak on our side acre last summer. They helped us fight the blaze until the fire department arrived.
  • Neighbors cooperate and work together to make the most of what they have.
  • So do businesses.
  • Mississippi isn't anything like the stereotypes I've always heard. Rather, it feels like the home for which I have always longed.
  • I live here because I can live anywhere I want to...and this is where I want to live.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

There's No Place Like Home...

I drove 2,747 miles last week.

My three year old and I went to Maryland to visit my beloved oldest three children over the Easter break. She was an amazingly good traveler, and her observations made for lively company as the miles rolled on. She noticed changes in foliage ("Look, Mama, there are not so many pine trees any more"), changes in temperature ("Mama, why is it so cold here? It's supposed to be springtime!"), changes in local cuisine ("Why can't we get grits here?"), and even changes in road kill ("Where did all the squished armadillos go? Only the squirrels are squished now."). Most of all, though, she noticed changes in the demeanor and comportment of the people around us: "How come nobody is smiling? How come that man didn't open the door?" Mama, he pushed. That's not nice!"

After my first foray North in a year, I had to agree with her: I like Mississippi better. Like the sign at the state line says, "It feels like home".

While I was in Maryland, the brake trouble light in my dashboard display came on. I checked the brake fluid, and it was a little low. I went to the nearest auto parts store, selected a three dollar bottle of brake fluid, and placed it on the counter. Before the clerk could ring it up, a man with his arms full of gadgets shoved in front of us, nearly stepping on my daughter and pushing her off balance, and plopped his stuff on the counter. "Excuse me...sir?" I started. The cashier looked bored, and began ringing up his purchase. I raised my voice. "SIR. Shoving me aside to put your stuff on the counter is one thing; pushing over a toddler is another. Could you please be careful?" He treated me to a string of expletives. "Mommy, those are BAD words", my daughter sagely observed. I had to agree.

At last, the boor left, and it was our turn. "That's all you're going to get?", the clerk rudely queried. "Yes, ma'am", I replied. The look of astonishment on her face told me she'd never in her entire life been called 'ma'am'. I paid, and we went to the parking lot. My daughter climbed into her seat, and I added brake fluid to the reservoir.

As we drove away, I shook my head in disbelief at the utter rudeness we had just experienced. I couldn't help but contrast the episode with my last visit to an auto parts store in Wiggins, when I had gone to pick up an extra quart of oil for my husband. A man with his arms full of heavy parts was approaching the checkout counter at the same time I was. I told him to go first, since his arms were full. "No", he replied, "you only have one thing, ma'am. You go." After I had paid for the item, the clerk asked whether I needed him to add the oil to my vehicle. "It's no trouble at all, ma'am", he offered.

There may be more blue collar workers in the South, but they are a lot more cheerful than the ones we encountered up North. From service stations to restaurants to grocery stores, smiles and well wishes started fading from South Carolina on up the interstate. By Virginia, they were pretty sour; by Maryland, everyone was downright rude. Thank the stars our destination wasn't New Hampshire.

People who travel long distances miss their loved ones and the comforts of home. We were no exception, missing my husband/her daddy, the rest of the kids, our beds, our home, our land, and home cooking.

We missed trees, too. The farther North we got, the more concrete surrounded us. A lush green landscape restores my soul. Maybe if so much of it hadn't been paved over up North, people would be happier.

My daughter missed grits. Sure, the Cracker Barrel in Maryland served them...but "Mama, they're not done right", she protested.

We both missed friendliness and courtesy. My daughter amazed people wherever we went in Annapolis with her cheerful waves, "Hey y'all"s, "Yes, ma'am"s, and "No, sir"s.

We missed a slower, kinder pace of life. I found myself admonishing my daughter to quicken her steps and keep pace with the flow of foot traffic in the hotel lobby. She slowed down even more and pouted, "I'm all done with this rushing, Mama". I stopped cold, looked at her thoughtfully, and decided, "Me too!"

We also missed warm weather, having gone from 80 degrees to below-freezing mornings.

After a wonderful and all-too-short visit with our precious ones, we made it home safe and sound. We had a very happy reunion with my husband and the rest of the family (not to mention a fabulous welcome-home dinner). We are once again in shorts and flip-flops. My daughter had "right way grits" for breakfast this morning, and we're about to run out to the store, where I'm sure we'll meet at least five people we know and will tell them stories of our adventures in the wild and uncivilized North. There's no place like home...

I'm a Real Boy Now!

My 12 year old stepdaughter recently noticed that a construction site in Wiggins had made some progress and a building was taking shape. Out front, the sign said, "Coming Soon! Waffle House". She couldn't have been more excited if it was Christmas morning and Santa Claus had just put the latest Disney teen pop idols in her stocking: "Oh, boy, Mama, we're a REAL town now!!"

You'll recognize a Waffle House by its distinctive shoe box architecture and Wheel-of-Fortune-letter-tile sign. I've never understood why they haven't updated their look like some of the other classic national restaurant chains. Garish yellow and shoe box lines aren't even retro chic; they're just ugly.

Down South, though, it is a familiar and beloved ugly. Along with sweet tea, hominy, fried green tomatoes and grits, it is one of those those Southern Institutions that defines the culture. Only hamlets of a certain size are graced with a Waffle House, mind you. If you happen to live in a crossroads, a holler, or a town of fewer than 4,000, you're out of luck.

Since Hurricane Katrina, Wiggins has been growing due to an influx of people who can no longer afford insurance rates down on the Coast. Small town living with at least some amenities has its own appeal to disillusioned city folk, too. Our little town of 3,500 is projected to more than double in size over the next ten years, and the development of several planned communities totaling 3,000 new homes plus strip malls and schools have been approved. In five to ten years, our rural country lifestyle will be a memory. We'll probably have to move farther out to get away from traffic.

We are accordingly being rewarded by the Corporate Powers That Be with yet another auto parts store, a Lowe's, an even bigger Wal Mart, a bowling alley, two strip malls, and that hallmark of Southern Cityhood, a Waffle House. I'm beginning to feel like Pinocchio...

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Signs and Wonders, Part 2

I wish I had my camera with me on the drive in to school this morning. Taylor's Food Store is a little country grocery store/butcher shop just around the corner from the college, and it is owned and operated by some wonderful, friendly Christian people. There is a sign board out front, and every week they put up a new inspirational message. Today it read:


It struck me as funny, and I laughed all the way to my parking space. "The words 'hump', 'celebrate', and 'marriage' probably shouldn't be used together in the same sentence!", I mused aloud.

One of my classmates asked me why I was chuckling, and I told her. She accused me of having a dirty mind. If I do, I must not be the only one in Perkinston. By the time I got out of class an hour later and headed over to Taylor's, the sign had been changed because of multiple comments on its suggestive nature. (This isn't just the Bible Belt; it's the buckle of the Bible Belt!)

The owners were suitably mortified. Me, I can't stop chortling. It's been one of those days!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Fairies Danced Here

I found this "fairy ring" growing in my favorite grove of trees on our property. The way the light reflects off the grass, it glows as if it's on fire.

Fairy rings are the product of the spreading mycelia of one of 40 or 50 varieties of mushroom growing in wooded areas, either above or below ground. Fungi can deplete the soil of readily available nutrients like nitrogen, causing plants growing within the circle to be stressed. This leads to plant discoloration. Some fungi also produce chemicals that act like hormones called gibberellins, which affect plants by causing rapid, luxuriant growth.

In Celtic folklore, fairy rings were said to be where fairies had danced the night before. If a human steps into the ring he or she is compelled to join the fairies in their wild dancing, which would seem to last for a few minutes but in fact lasts for seven years or more. The unfortunate mortal dancer can be rescued by having someone outside the ring grab hold of his or her coat-tails.

So far, I haven't had to pull any of the kids out. :-)

Lost and Found

In the local newspaper:

"The McNeil Volunteer Fire Department is looking for its Jaws of Life.
That's the device used by police and fire departments in an emergency to cut through a vehicle and rescue people trapped inside.

This past Saturday, while heading to an accident scene, the Jaws of Life fell out of the back of the McNeil rescue truck. The driver was not aware it had fallen out.

Some witnesses report seeing a person in a white Ford truck pick up the piece of equipment and drive away. The McNeil Volunteer Fire Department is asking the person to return it.

If you have any information about this, please contact the McNeil
Volunteer Fire Department at (601) 798-7065. "

The Jaws of Life, as you can see from the photo, is a pretty large and heavy piece of equipment. I can't imagine it falling off the back of the truck and the driver not noticing; it would probably sound like the transmission dropped out.

I wonder how the guy who picked it up explained his find to family and friends. Does he even know what it is? "Hey look, Ma, trimmin' the hedge won't take no time at all now!"

Monday, March 3, 2008

Signs of Spring

I awoke this morning and looked out my window to find, under a gray sky, this beautiful harbinger of spring where yesterday there were only bare branches. I love surprises, and this one will have me smiling all day.

"The forest trees have yet a sighing mouth,
Where dying winds of March their branches swing,
While upward from the dreamy, sunny South,
A hand invisible leads on the Spring.

His rounds from bloom to bloom the bee begins
With flying song, and cowslip wine he sups,
Where to the warm and passing southern winds
Azaleas gently swing their yellow cups.

Soon everywhere, with glory through and through,
The fields will spread with every brilliant hue."

-George Marion McClellan