Some Common Cents for September 1, 2017

September 1, 2017, by John Norris

Recently, someone said to me: “with everything that is going on in the world, I bet there is no shortage of things for you to write about.” To be sure, it seems as though we are tearing ourselves apart at the seams, with Mother Nature lending a helping hand. However, there is a difference between headline stories and what actually impacts how we live our lives and conduct business.

There are times when living in a place like Alabama is actually good for you. In the past, I likened it to a scene during the opening sequence of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Here it is:

Tevye: And in the circle of our little village, we’ve always had our special types. For instance, Yente the matchmaker, Reb Nachum the beggar… and most important of all, our beloved Rabbi.

Leibesh: Rabbi! May I ask you a question?

Rabbi: Certainly, Lebisch!

Leibesh: Is there a proper blessing… for the Tsar?

Rabbi: A blessing for the Tsar? Of course! May God bless and keep the Tsar… far away from us!

Such is the local, long-standing zeitgeist regarding the Federal government: May God bless and keep Washington….far away from us! However, there is one significant deviation from the Rabbi’s prayer: “as long as Washington keeps its military bases here and the banks still cash the checks.” Is this hypocritical? Well, gee whiz, when you put it like that. Is it still reasonable? I would say without question it is.

As the rest of the nation seems intent on escalating its differences to heightened levels, Alabama sings to a slightly different tune. You see, there are two questions people in our state ultimately ask when they meet a stranger: 1) where do you go to church, and; 2) who do you pull for? Obviously, I seem bent on ending sentences with prepositions today, but I didn’t get a start on this until late.

The best way to answer the first question is with, drum roll please, the actual name of the church, synagogue, mosque, or temple you attend. As I have heard many people around here say: “it doesn’t matter where you go, just make sure you go and go often.” The second best way of answering, and the best way if you are not particularly religious, is to make up the name of a Lutheran church, because the chances are at least 99% the person asking the question won’t know any Lutherans to contradict you.

Don’t get offended, just answer the question. Even if you are agnostic or atheist, you can pretend to be a Lutheran for 3-5 minutes, can’t you? If you don’t, your 3-5 minute conversation is going to turn into a 30 minute one, and you won’t like it one bit. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

As for the second question, you might be able to get by with State, A&M, South, or UAB depending on the city. However, what the asker really wants to know is: do you root for Alabama or Auburn? It doesn’t matter if you graduated from Wake Forest, Wofford, Birmingham-Southern, Sewanee, Davidson, Tulane, Duke or Virginia, etc. Again, do you root for Alabama or Auburn? It is a pretty simple question.

If you are new to the state, look at a map and find the county line between Autauga and Chilton Counties. With a ruler, draw a line straight across the state going east to west (or west to east). Below this line, outside of Mobile and perhaps Baldwin Counties, your best bet is to say you are an Auburn fan. Above it, you should probably say you pull for the Tide. In those other two counties, it gets a little granular, as the team of choice varies by zip code.

Let me give you an example: imagine you have just moved to Birmingham from Scranton, Pennsylvania. You haven’t gone to church in years, you graduated from Bucknell, and your football team of choice is the Philadelphia Eagles. How do you respond to the two questions any Alabamian will ask you? I will give you a little help here. You go to St. [take your pick]’s Lutheran Church out in Shelby County and you pull for Alabama. Don’t question this, just do it.

Hey, folks in Alabama aren’t alone in asking personal questions like these. When I worked in Baltimore, the prevailing one was: “where did you go to school?” We are talking high school here. However, the real question, the crux of the matter, was: “how well connected and wealthy is your family in the Baltimore area?” Trust me, after answering Mountain Brook High School about twice, I learned to respond: “I didn’t grow up around here.” When they found out I was from Alabama, well, that settled that, and any invitations I might have had to go to lunch at the Maryland Club went out the window. Ha.

Trust me, the folks who attended, say, PS 146 (not a real school BTW) weren’t the ones asking where you went to school. Nope. It was generally those who attended places like Gilman, McDonogh, Latin, or, occasionally, Calvert or Loyola.

To be sure, I had some buddies up there who went to a few of the more ‘prestigious’ schools. However, make no mistake about it; the where did you go to school question was not an inclusive one, even if it was a good one for the intended purposes.

For instance, if you answered Gilman, there was a very good chance, like greater than 95%, you attended a Top 20 national university (preferably an Ivy League one with Princeton and Penn being apparent favorites at the time) or an elite liberal arts school like Tufts, Amherst, or Williams, etc. IF you were working at Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust Company (also known locally in certain circles as THE Mercantile), it was likely to get a few years under your belt before going to Wharton to complete “your MBA.” That sort of thing. Laughingly, I had a friend who went to Gilman who said he “bucked the trend” and went to, gasp, Duke.

I go through all of this, because at this time of year, for all its many faults, Alabama seems to pull itself together. College football unites this state, even if the rivalry between the two SEC schools is intense and a little bizarre to outsiders. Frankly, while hard to understand and explain, it is fun.

You can ask any number of people, and they will tell you something along the lines: “Heck, that guy couldn’t have found his way to Auburn, Alabama, with a map and a compass when he moved here from Los Angeles. Found his way? Shoot, I’m not sure he had ever heard of it, or football for that matter. But, look at him now, dressed from his head to his toes in orange and blue headed to the tailgate.”

This isn’t hyperbolic.

Trust me, the two questions Alabamians ask strangers are inclusive ones. Believe it or not, the intent is to find common ground with the other person, not exclude them. We/they are trying to find something that unites us more than just our species and physical proximity. Further, it doesn’t really matter if you answer the questions completely “correctly.”

To that end, if I were to move to Dothan, Alabama, I would definitely be in a small subset of the population: Presbyterian and an Alabama fan. However, this is the way it would go down: “Heck, he might not be an Auburn fan, but at least he likes college football. Further, being a Presbyterian, he’ll probably even bring over his own beer as opposed to sneaking mine. I say we invite him.”

The reason why you might have laughed at some of this is because: 1) you are from Alabama, and; 2) you know what I have just written is absolutely true.

Obviously, this piece today is a departure from the normal economic stuff, or would seem to be so. The thing is, I have long maintained our biggest problems are societal and not necessarily economic in the absolute sense. They only turn economic when society collapses, and history has plenty of examples of this.

With this in mind, depending on your preference, you can turn to Abraham Lincoln’s House Divided Speech, the Gospel of Matthew, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, and even Sam Houston (which seems somewhat appropriate this week) for the following:

“A house (nation) divided against itself cannot stand.”

Let’s remember that, and try to find more things that unite us, as oppose to those which divide. In the long run, this WILL lead to much greater economic growth than what we currently have. Laughingly, the country would be a better, happier place if we could just make Auburn or Alabama fans out of everyone. Wouldn’t that be great?