Sunday, April 21, 2013

Speed is a Way of Life

(and not the only way, it seems)

I’ve noted several things about life in South Carolina that perhaps didn’t surprise me, but seemed noteworthy nonetheless: the ubiquity of iced tea (which is always sweetened unless you specify otherwise), the necessity of waving at passing cars, etc.  What I hadn’t noticed so much until recently is the attitude toward speed limits.

In the DC area, and as far as I know pretty much every metro area north of it, those white rectangular signs really designate the lower limit, not the upper one.  If the sign says 55 and you’re not going at least 60, there had better be a traffic jam slowing you down.  Otherwise, people are going to honk and blow past as though you were standing still.  They might gesticulate creatively at you as they fly by.

Here, it seems, 55 is more of a suggestion of something to shoot for if you’re in a hurry.  There are speeders around here, certainly, but what I seem to see more of is what we might charitably call “slow pokes.”  Going 50 in a 55 zone is not only acceptable, it seems to be the norm.  People will pass a car plodding along at 45, but no one seems to get upset over it.

Not long ago I was driving on one of those little two-lane highways that are so curvy the double yellow seems to go on forever.  The speed limit was 55.  Very soon I came up against a minivan in front of me going not 50, not 45, but 35 miles an hour. 

Of course I was in a rush—something of a rarity for me.  I slowed to a crawl and watched that double yellow wind lazily by me with no end in sight.  We approached a broad curve, the kind that’s marked with a yellow caution sign suggesting 35 m.p.h. as a safe speed.  You know, the kind of sign they don’t even bother to post on city roads because they know nobody would even look at them.  We entered the curve—and the minivan’s brake lights came on!  Heaven forbid it should encounter this road hazard actually traveling at the suggested cautionary speed!

Well, suffice it to say that eventually the highway straightened out, I passed the minivan, and I was ten minutes late for my meeting.  But what struck me about this incident was how very differently country people and city people think about time.  I won’t even say it’s southern versus northern, but in this part of South Carolina, there still exist people who are not in a rush.  I think a New Yorker might suffer a coronary just watching that minivan go by, much less getting stuck behind it.  I know my blood pressure went up in those few minutes, and I consider myself a patient person.

Maybe I have something more to learn from this area than how to enjoy tea for the first time in my life.  Maybe it’s worth remembering that, even if we can’t stop and smell the flowers, once in a while we can at least drive by them at 35 miles an hour.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Medieval Myrtle

I’m fortunate enough to have parents who didn’t mind my crashing their Myrtle Beach vacation this past week.  With temps in the 50s and wind in the double-digit knots, it wasn’t exactly swimming weather, but how I did enjoy watching the tides come and go from the balcony of our hotel room!

I’m also fortunate enough to have parents who were willing to take me to Medieval Times, the dinner-and-tournament show in which spectators eat with their hands while watching a live joust.  As a medievalist by training and an equine enthusiast by nature, I was extremely curious about this much-touted spectacle.  I was not disappointed.

Medieval Times is a uniquely American combination of kitsch and drama.  The cinderblock “castle,” in which you mill around for an hour being tempted by pink princess hats, fairy statuettes, and dagger-shaped letter openers, looks like something out of Disneyland.  All the six-year-olds running around with wooden swords and bucklers only contribute to the theme park atmosphere.  The arena around which you’re finally seated smells of horses—ambrosia to me, but I don’t know what it might have done to other people’s appetites.

There’s not much effort at historical accuracy—I don’t know enough about medieval armor to comment on the chain mail worn by the jousters, but I’m pretty sure the “serving wenches” of the Middle Ages didn’t wear such colorful and low-cut barmaid dresses.  They also didn’t call themselves wenches.

But the whole experience isn’t really about historical accuracy; in fact, medieval folks didn’t much go in for historical accuracy themselves, so it’s hardly in the spirit of the thing to nitpick over details.

It’s likewise pointless to protest that eleventh-century Spain didn’t have tomatoes to make soup out of or potatoes to roast, or that the half-chicken served as the main course would probably outweigh a medieval goose.  Because Medieval Times performs a miraculous modern transubstantiation, and what we’re actually being served is dragon’s blood, dragon eggs, and baby dragon.  They don’t bother to transfigure the Pepsi.  A soda is a soda, and it’s that or water.

But amid all the kitsch, there are the horses.  First, the stunningly beautiful Andalusians trained in the art of dressage—dancing, flying carousel horses.  I’ve been to see the Lipizzaner stallions several times, and these Andalusians could hold their own even alongside their more famous cousins.  In fact, their beautiful performance left me breathless; it was my favorite part of the show.

But the joust is the center of the evening’s entertainment.  I think there was a storyline—the king and princess up on the dais did a good deal of talking, and at one point there was a Viking warlord threatening to take over all of Spain—but that was all rather secondary to the sporting event itself.  And of course I know that the joust was fixed, but when it comes down to it, I don’t care.

I don’t care if the Green Knight knows when the Red Knight is going to smash his shield with a mace: he’s still smashing his shield with a mace!  And I don’t care if the Black-and-White Knight’s “fall” is obviously a well-timed leap from his galloping horse: he’s still jumping off a galloping horse!  The athleticism of the knights was impressive (one of them did, in fact, end up really bleeding), and their partnership with their horses was well-schooled and genuine.  It may have been theater, but I’d watch theater like that any day of the week.

If I’d been a boy, I’d have wanted to grow up to be a knight at Medieval Times.  And as it is, I wouldn’t turn down a spot in their dressage show, even if I had to dress like a squire.