Twenty-one-year-old Me and Sixteen-year-old Me have a lot in common. I would even go so far as to say we are the same person, and the reason I bring this up is because I think that I am alone in my opinion that I haven’t changed a lot since high school. Granted, it’s been a while since I called up my best friend to tell her that I would “ruin” her for an indiscretion with so-and-so’s ex-boyfriend who turned out to be gay anyway, and I am infinitely less ugly (so, if you find me unattractive now, just imagine what I looked like back then), but for the most part, I am just as stubborn and critical and passionate and loyal as I was half a decade ago. Also, I still love Harry Potter, I still laugh at penis jokes, and I still have my friends rehearse talking points with me for first dates.
My sixteen-year-old self, who is not so distinct from my twenty-one-year-old self, arrived in Johnson City, where my existence was validated at a childhood friend’s place. Carter lives in a little house with posters of musicals and Star Wars lining the walls. He lives with his roommate and his cat, Charles Manson, who is a very chill cat. Musical instruments clutter the floor space into the hallways, so that I could not get to the bathroom without stepping over a guitar case or two. He assured me he was located proximally to his favorite bar, but we did not go. Instead, we spent an hour or so frozen in thirteen-to-sixteen years old, sitting on the couch, watching TV, and insulting each other. A day hadn’t passed since June of 2004, when I attended his annual end-of-year bonfire flashing a henna tattoo on my lower back (because the year was 2004) and we played frisbee and set furniture on fire as the Michaels battled it out on the Dance Dance Revolution console in the basement.
While I am immediately tempted to wax philosophical about how some things change and some things always stay the same, I’ll resist plucking the low-hanging fruit. The aspect of this whole long-standing friendship thing that I find more compelling is the idea that ours was formed before we had mastered the art of being truly terrible to another human being. We performed no calculus in offering up our friendship to each other. We judged each other before we had the capacity to be good judges of character.
Most people like to eschew outwardly the transactional view of relationships, but everybody keeps tabs on friendship, and it’s just a matter of if and when you want to close out your tab. Everybody keeps tabs on friendship, except for the Friend of Your Youth, whom you befriended when neither of you knew what in the hell you were doing.
For all I cared, Carter could have evolved into an ax-murderer, or worse: a communist. (He was already a dirty tree-hugging, granola-crunching, Birkenstock-wearing, banjo-strumming, pinko-liberal hippie.)
In the morning, I declined his suggestion that we dine at Cook Out for breakfast, because I’m trying to fight obesity in America. And so, I surveyed the town in the daylight on my own. This consisted of making several wrong turns at ill-marked street signs, because, again, my sense of direction is as robust as a chimpanzee’s ability to form a coherent English sentence, or Rush Limbaugh’s feminist proclivities. Yet for all the hype surrounding Johnson City (namely, its reference in the Old Crow Medicine Show song, “Wagon Wheel”), I found it only mildly less depressing than driving through Arkansas, but with fewer armadillos.
Next, I embarked for Memphis and promises of Tennessee barbecue. One great thing about having been involved in the Jefferson Society in college, I have found, is that I will always have a friend in every major city. In Memphis, I was lucky enough to have another close friend, who, despite not befriending me in his youth, evidently managed to turn off his character judge-o-meter for the duration it took to cultivate a relationship with me. (And now, if he tries to leave me, I will find him.)
I arrived and we reposed in his living room, reflecting on all the mistakes I made in college so as to supply him with a framework of what not to do as he progresses in his higher education. In retrospect, here is the advice I would give anyone still in college or contemplating enrolling in college:
- Do what you love and what comes easily to you. That way, you will have less stress, and more time to devote to bourbon, wine, bourbon, debauchery, bourbon, Epicureanism, and bourbon. Further, you will achieve more while you are consuming bourbon, and in general. I got As in every 400-level politics, history, and writing course I took. Imagine what I could have accomplished if I had focused my energies there.
- Get involved in a variety of different activities. That way, when the shit hits the proverbial fan in one club, you can just hop on over to another social group until the storm blows over. Especially useful if you run in circles where backstabbing and social politics are not only common practice, but are celebrated.
- Don’t do anything just to prove someone, a group of people, or an institution wrong. It’s a waste of your time, and they probably won’t even notice or care. I’m sure you can be a rocket scientist if you tried hard enough, but do you really want to try? See #1. This is more easily said than done, especially if you are an unapologetic contrarian like me.
- Corollary: If a class has a reputation for being exceedingly difficult, and it is not required for your major(s), just don’t take it. I know first-hand the temptation to run headfirst into a challenge just to prove that you’re better than everyone else. And I probably sound jaded, but it’s just not worth it. If you care that much about gleaning ALL OF THE KNOWLEDGE, go to the library, join the robotics club, sit in on a class you’re not taking, or teach yourself online. The Khan Academy has beautiful, concise lessons on virtually every topic (shameless plug: I wrote about it in my article, Arpa-Ed and the Future of Education Innovation). The Real World doesn’t care that you took a risk and tried to broaden your intellectual horizons; it just wants you to have a perfect GPA and a perfect MCAT and LSAT and GRE and credit score and bank account balance. You have been, and always will be, a number. Unless you go into a very specialized field, most graduate schools and businesses don’t care what your degree was in, just that you have one and you excelled at it. That is a reflection on your ability to learn new skills and be productive. I wish someone had told me that when I enrolled in college and still wanted to prove to everyone that I was a mental gymnast but was too burned out from high school to put in the requisite work to do well with an excessively rigorous courseload. In the very least, you owe it to yourself to set yourself up for success.
- Don’t move in with anyone you’re dating, and don’t date anyone you move in with. Under no circumstances should you date multiple housemates at the same time.
- Never go into business with your friends, nor any creepy old men. Always sign a lease. Always sign a lease that clearly outlines expectations for both landlord and tenant. Keep both a written and photographic record of the conditions of your living space, utilities bills, and any other bills that may accumulate. My own notwithstanding, I have heard countless horror stories with this theme, so it bears mentioning.
After I had heard enough of the sound of my own voice (actually, who am I kidding?) and adequately explored an old Southern house (it had air vents in the floorboards because it was built before air conditioning!), we drove to Central Barbecue, a crucial battleground in the Barbecue Wars. I was instructed to order the dry-rub rather than the sauce with my ribs, and for the first time, I was able to conceptualize the Tennessee Barbecue Doctrine, which states that barbecue is about the meat rather than the sauce. This school of thought flies in stark contradiction to the Carolina School (vinegar-based) and the Virginia School (tomato-based). In Texas, barbecue emphasizes brisket, whereas in the other southern states, pork is the religion.
Later in the evening, this topic was fleshed out in greater detail and scrutinized with the aid of bourbon. A guy in a pastel-colored button-up argued, at full-volume, for the implementation of sauces. He continued to slur that pulled pork was superior to ribs, to the protests of my friend, who held that ribs were superior to pulled pork at Central, though the opposite was true for the other Memphis barbecue staple, Rendezvous. One of the girls posited that Rendezvous was only worthwhile if you knew the owners, but I was unable to compare, as they are closed on Mondays, so it was a non-issue.
To me, arguing about why food is awesome is a little bit like trying to explain why America is the greatest. (Amurca!) You know that it’s true, but you can’t offer a cogent argument as to why that cannot be refuted easily. To state the obvious, food is an intensely personal and cultural experience. On one hand, the drive for sustenance seems so primal. On the other, the manner in which we humans prepare our food—this thing that we need to consume to survive—contributes to defining our identity and group affiliation. It’s like we take this basic procedure and compete to see how intricately we can embellish it, until the original procedure (re: biting into a live rabbit, as I am now envisioning our primal ancestors doing) is unrecognizable. And then the new procedure is a part of what makes us special. Bearing witness to a Barbecue Debate was sort of like listening to a mother defend her child, only drunker.
If this blog is really an essay about the South and what distinguishes Southern culture from the culture of other regions in America, then my thesis is that the South has the strongest regional identity in America, and the first sub-point in my thesis is that the South can be distinguished by its food. Of course it would seem as though I am grazing over the most influential factors of all, but just bear with me; I will get to the “War of Northern Aggression” and the land. Besides, food is inextricably linked to the land and resources, and I suspect that that’s one of the reasons food culture in the South has evolved in the nuanced manner it has.
The concept of regional identity as it relates to food redefines the aphorism “you are what you eat.” So, I ask the perennial question: What is a Southerner?
 Jeff told me I wasn’t allowed to quote Penn Warren anymore. Considering Jeff is basically my target audience, I felt pressure to oblige. However, as a student of Honor, I am bound to give credit where credit is due. Thus, this talk of the “Friend of Your Youth” is another reference to All the King’s Men, specifically the following quote:
The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he does not really see you. He sees in his mind a face which does not exist any more, speaks a name–Spike, Bud, Snip, Red, Rusty, Jack, Dave–which belongs to that now nonexistent face but which by some inane and doddering confusion of the universe is for the moment attached to a not too happily met and boring stranger. But he humors the drooling doddering confusion of the universe and continues to address politely that dull stranger by the name which properly belongs to the boy face and to the time when the boy voice called thinly across the late afternoon water or murmured by a campfire at night or in the middle of a crowded street said, “Gee, listen to this–‘On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble; His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves–’” the Friend of Your Youth is your friend because he does not see you anymore.
And perhaps he never saw you. What he saw was simply part of the furniture of the wonderfully opening world. Friendship was something he suddenly discovered and had to give away as a recognition of and payment for the breathlessly opening world which momently divulged itself like a moonflower. It didn’t matter a damn to whom he gave it, for the fact of giving was what mattered, and if you happened to be handy you were automatically endowed with all the appropriate attributes of a friend and forever after your reality is irrelevant. The Friend of Your Youth is the only friend you will ever have, for he hasn’t the slightest concern with calculating his interest or your virtue.
 If you are unfamiliar with my ironically jingoistic ways, or Stephen Colbert philosophy, take this comment with a grain of salt. For all others: If you don’t like it, you can just GIT OUT. ‘MURCA!