Book Excerpt: RED STATE OF MIND by Nancy French

Name of Author: Nancy French
Publisher: Time Warner Books
Release Date: October 9, 2006

Red State of Mind

Chapter One

Once, in a fit of ambition, I teased my hair, put on blue satin and pink eye shadow, and entered the Catfish Queen beauty pageant- unaware that my lack of poise, fish knowledge, and cleavage would present serious obstacles in my quest for the coveted crown. Every third week in April, seventy thousand people converge on my hometown of Paris, Tennessee, for the World's Biggest Fish Fry. It was probably best I lost the contest, since the Catfish Queen had many responsibilities I couldn't have mastered- including serving fish in the Fish Tent (where five tons are consumed in one week) and maintaining perfect posture while perched atop a slow moving convertible during the climactic parade down Eastwood Street.

The biggest draw of the parade was the celebrity grand marshal, for example, Porter Wagoner or Patsy Cline's third-grade teacher. And schools were dismissed so we could walk up and down the road and shoot silly string at the floats. The Fish Fry Festival gave us a sense of being a part of something bigger than our typical small-town life, but when it was over, farmers went back to their tobacco, kids went back to school, and committees started work on next year's floats.

Yet even after the tourists left, you never felt lonely in Paris. Just a casual drive through the town was a community experience, requiring the following unspoken rules of etiquette not taught in driver's ed. Obviously, the cardinal rule was to wave at passing vehicles (not a formal Queen Elizabeth but just a relaxed steering wheel salute) whether or not you knew the other driver. Most of the time, you did.

Just as important was the rule for funeral processions. As in most places, police cars escorted a meandering line of cars to the cemetery after a funeral. In Paris, however, the driver of any car that came upon the procession pulled off the road, put on his hazard lights, and bowed his
head slightly as it passed. The ultimate measure of a life well lived was how many miles of traffic you could shut down on your way to the Pearly Gates.

Of course, if you passed a police officer hiding in a speed trap, you dutifully flashed your headlights on and off to alert oncoming traffic-the vehicular equivalent of the Golden Rule.

And lastly, a four-way stop in Tennessee was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate one's Christianity. The driver who arrived first at the intersection, though entitled by law to go first, often motioned "after you" to the other driver. This made fourway stops long, ambiguous pageants of humility and thankful waves (as opposed to the four-way collisions that any
such traffic configuration causes in New York).

In other words, people in Paris watched out for each other well before anyone articulated the notion of it taking a village. It was also before we knew airliners could be used as missiles and before anyone had heard of Columbine.

Perhaps in retrospect, it was a little odd that my junior high actually encouraged firearm use by replacing seventh grade science class with a mandatory hunter's safety course. I vividly remember our football coach standing in front of the class with an array of rifles and shotguns,
showing us how to take lethal shots from the deer stand and how to gut deer properly. We even had field trips to a shooting range where I earned the distinction of being the best marksman in my junior high school. Three skeet. No misses. And I'd never shot a gun before.

This was much more practical than dissecting a frog, since we students had arsenals in our homes that made Saddam look like a beatnik (and we could dissect frogs in our own backyards). It never dawned on me that I was a redneck. Even when my friends and I entertained ourselves by going cow tipping- which involves stealthily sneaking up on sleeping cows and slamming
into them until they tip over-I just figured we were participating in a classic American pastime. (Yes, cows sleep standing up and have a terrible sense of balance. Cow tipping is illegal since, sadly, some cows can't recover from the sudden shock.)

Luckily I had plenty of opportunity to ask God to forgive me. In Paris, churches were packed on Sunday mornings, and smoky bars were packed on Saturday nights-sometimes by the same folk. On weekday mornings, the retired men sat for hours in local diners smoking Marlboros and analyzing Tennessee football. Younger men were judged by the size of their trucks and their
skill at fixing them. Women, on the other hand, were kept busy by hairdos that defied gravity and required architectural skills surpassing those of the builders of the Eiffel Tower-a sixty-foot replica of which was the pride of our county.

Even though it sat beside a dilapidated park near the soccer fields, I thought our little tower was beautiful. After all, my daddy had grown up in a two-room Appalachian house with seven brothers and sisters, brushed his teeth with a branch from a tree, and learned the alphabet in his twenties. So living in Paris felt like a truly cosmopolitan experience.

Then one day the phone rang.

I could tell from my dad's oh-so-casual tone that it was the recruiter for a small Christian college in Nashville. Again. My parents had saved all my life for me to go to this school, which had mandatory curfews and daily chapel, and they arranged for a recruiter to call me every twenty-seven minutes during my senior year in high school. With each phone call, my enthusiasm for the school waned a bit more. One day, instead of passively listening to their I'm-your-best-friend sales pitch, I decided to fight back. I made something up.

"Listen, I want to be a lawyer," I said. "And no decent law school has ever heard of your college."

The recruiter paused for dramatic effect. "My friend David just graduated from here last year and is in his first year at Harvard. Is that decent enough for you?"

Before I hung up the phone, I had agreed to talk to this David about his undergraduate experience at Lipscomb University, which terrified me since I had no real intention of going to law school, nor was I even sure how to spell Harvard. For a week, I read up on the place. And when the phone rang, I was armed with more trivia about the Ivy League than Ken Jennings
knowsabout Norwegian fjords.

"Hello, Nancy. This is David. You're interested in law school?"

When I heard his voice, I knew this conversation was going to change more than my choice of college. He was charming, he was funny, and his idea of a good date didn't involve a cow pasture and two bottles of Michelob. Suddenly, this small-town girl longed for some place else.

For three years, that disembodied voice on the telephone grew to symbolize that place. One day, walking down a sidewalk in Nashville, I met David face-to-face. He'd moved there after law school and was leaving a client's office when we were formally introduced. Six weeks later we were engaged. Three months later, we were living in Manhattan.

That definitely qualified as some place else, and I was in for the surprise of my life: evidently not all Americans enjoy Sunday lunch at MawMaw's. This book is the story of the exploration, frustration, and adaptation of a girl taken from Paris, Tennessee, and planted in the middle of the liberal Northeast. It's not an academic tome nor an exhaustive investigation into
the culture war. Instead, it is just one red American's story about what it's like to live in the blue states, when all she'd ever known was biscuits and church three times a week. Shockingly, I wasn't quite as sophisticated as I'd thought, even though I'd grown up in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

So years later when I moved back to the South, did I happily readjust to the slower pace of life and the old-fashioned hospitality?

No. Suddenly, I was irritated at the Wal-Mart cashier talk- ing to a customer about her aunt's arthritis for twenty minutes before ringing me up. Not to mention the serious scarcity of good Vietnamese restaurants.

What had happened to me?

I'd developed a deep appreciation for and frustration with both areas, which was as awkward as being friends with a couple after a divorce. Especially since society constantly categorizes people into different camps (Bush or Kerry, Coke or Pepsi, Bo or Carrie), it's easy to forget both sides
have traits we can all enjoy-or at least quirks we can all ridicule. Consider this book a celebration of these cultural idiosyncrasies and enjoy the journey into the dysfunctional family known as America.
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