Sunday, May 29, 2011

Other Americas: Outside Albuquerque, 1999

If you’re not a native, you won’t come close to the other Albuquerque: the land grants deeded centuries ago by the King of Spain to loyal subjects and then by them to others. Their descendants stayed, and many generations settled into smaller and smaller, more and more intimate semi-communal homes as their numbers grew, but the land did not.

We met Rafael as Ralph, a tour bus driver for the Herrera Company. We knew his first name because it was on a nameplate pinned to his uniform shirt. He was a wonderful driver—fast, smooth, safe, alert but always calm, good-natured. The bus he’d been given was brand new, an upgraded design, with a CD player and an engine better suited to the higher elevations and the mountain grades. Outside of Gallup, at the truck stop on I-40, the door autolocked as Ralph was standing beside it, waiting for us to return from a bathroom break. We could see the keys, sitting on the dashboard in front of the steering wheel. After debating the long delay while Herrera sent out a car with a second set of keys, our guide, Karl, volunteered to climb to the roof, pry open the emergency hatch, and drop into the bus. We found a ladder somewhere—probably from one of the very amused truckers who had begun to cluster around the group at our rest stops, drawn by the ebullient women from Uzbekhistan, Turkmenistan, and other breakaway republics in the southeastern portion of the now-defunct Soviet Union. In their glittering high heeled sandals, always impeccably turned out in sundresses and exotic baggy pants and silvery tops, these women were more than comfortable buttonholing cowboys, tourist families, and truckers for questions and pictures. They chirped and clucked at Karl, and with their encouragement he scampered up the ladder onto the white-hot top of the bus, prised the hatch to its open limit—about 10 inches—and wriggled his way, feet first, into the bus. Minutes later, the door opened, and everyone applauded, even the truckers. Shortly thereafter, flush from his victory, Karl miscounted the group, and we left with our smallest, most vivacious Kazak participant still flirting with a ring of truckers, all of them hitching up their jeans over their bellies and leaning into her string of flutey talk. It took us fifteen miles to find a crossover so we could come back and get her, and when we did, she was only a little glad to see us.

When you come back down to Albuquerque on I-25, there’s a long stretch of what should be prime real estate on either side of the Interstate, a nice freeway rush-hour commute from the city, but there’s nothing there. That’s because it’s land owned by the various Pueblos, or by the feds. For an hour or more, as the sun sets and the lightning strikes the mountains on one side or the antenna towers on the other, there’s not much to see, except the periodic brilliant glow of an Indian casino complex, with its parking lots, hotel, gas station, restaurant and tourist shop.

Ralph and I were talking quietly in the front of the bus, about development along the western lands on either side of the Rio Grande River. Ralph suggested we’d like to see the area closer up, once we got in toward Albuquerque. My family has some land down there, he told me. Then he made a few calls on the cell phone, and we exited the interstate.

Turning into a walled compound past the cottonwood groves, Ralph opened the window and called out to a man and a child walking on the dusty street. They spoke Spanish to each other, and Ralph became Rafael. While the little girl waved systematically at every window of the bus, Ralph took the microphone and announced that his family had arranged a small feast for us, with dancing, but we had to promise that we wouldn’t talk about this to the Herrera people, as they might count this time as work hours and take him off shift. At that, he unpinned his nameplate, loosened his tie, and announced that he was now officially off the clock and we were his guests for the evening.

It was a memorable night. We all took turns getting driven around the land grant in Rafael’s uncle’s low-rider, a brilliantly chopped and channeled ‘40s Merc that had always been my dream car. When I told him that, it made us friends, for in America, cars mean more than almost anything else. We talked about carburetors and exhaust systems, and the question of tires. By the end of the night my hands were covered in grease and the back of my shirt was dusty from having scooted under the Merc to admire a chromed tailpipe hangar.

The others were eating and drinking at the houses of Rafael’s family, an extended clan of descendants from a conquistador of the seventeenth century. The community had long since lost its center in the hacienda and the plaza. Most of the houses were essentially similar: packed dirt floors, the earth so old and so hard that it resembled concrete, topped with rugs, often of the type you might see sold in tourist markets—Aztec warriors, stylized Puebloan and Navajo symbols, famous revolutionaries and banditos. On the walls, too, tapestries with similar motifs covered the cinderblock. The houses were low and dark in the early evening light. Windows were narrow, high under the roofline, to keep direct sunlight and its heat from entering the house during the day. Usually the houses had a single large room combining kitchen, dining area and living room, with a tv, a couch, and a couple of big chairs. Behind this was a back area, usually with two and sometimes three bedrooms and, at center, a bathroom. The bedrooms were often added on, a bit helter-skelter, as need demanded.

From the outside, the houses looked something like the low-slung pueblo compounds, like Acoma and San Ildefonso. The cinderblock had been clad in what was sometimes stucco, sometimes adobe, sometimes concrete. Often it was painted or dyed earth-brown, but the new additions tended to be gray, almost wet-looking, as they leached their newness before the final coating went on. The rooflines were flat, with desert chillers on top.

It took quite a while to assemble the entire group to leave. Rafael was reduced to honking the horn and revving the engine of the bus to get the last few hustling out of houses at some remove from our original stopping point.

Driving back to the hotel it was nearly midnight; at 6 am we’d be on the plane to Charlotte, South Carolina. Rafael had repinned his nameplate and was Ralph again, but as we headed back, he put on a CD of one of his family’s many bands, playing something close to conjunto. And we danced, illegally, in the aisle of the bus, and on our seats, as the lightning crackled along the horizon and the rains began.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Feral Dog, I-10 and I-610 Merge, Houston

Feral Dog, I-10 and I-610 Merge, Houston, November 17, 2002

In Houston, the freeways are so ubiquitous and there are so many of them that a dominant feature of the natural landscape, a great deal of parkland, exists where the freeways intersect. In most cases, these aren’t traditional cloverleaf interchanges. They tend to interchange both horizontally and vertically: roadways sweep high over each other, and the addition of HOV lanes, separately built, running parallel to the regular freeway, often above the median, results in a complex disintegration of space that leaves pieces of land that often resemble fleurs-de-lis. Because the growing season is nearly perpetual, the rainfall steady and profligate, these swards are lush and they include not just grass and shrubs planted by T-DOT but tall stands of trees.

Into these, highway crews descend to mow, to prune, to replant. Houston has perhaps the best highway parklands in the nation. They are constructed to be looked at, to be seen as the constituents of an interrupted green narrative in the peripheral vision. High curbs separate them from the roadway shoulder, and unless you have a high pickup truck you’d best not try to get into them. Most people wouldn’t, anyway. The wet rains make the soil sodden, spongy at best, a quickmud concealed beneath the greensward.

If you want to take the risk, you should ‘scope out your terrain well beforehand. Reconnoitre the ramps when the traffic’s not too bad-- early afternoon on weekdays. On Sunday mornings, early, you can slow your car enough to nose cautiously over the curb and park.

Down the hillsides there’s an irregular declension from civilization to wilderness. At the apex of the long triangle between the arc that calls you to bear left to go west on I-10 and the more efficient double-lane to go east and Downtown, the grass is intertwined with the shards of wrecks: plastic, metal, glass. In the early morning, if you turn back eastward, you can see it sparkle under the green, as it takes the angled sunlight of 7 am. Where the shoulder ends– what there is of it, mandated by federal regulation– the cheap thin blacktop layer has crumbled and mixed with the residues. Below that, about 10 feet down the hill into the declivity, the grass is dense and pristine. Walking away from the sharp angle is simultaneously walking in and down. Before you there’s a stand of tall sawgrass, live oak, dense wild shrubbery thick enough to be impassable.

Turning back to watch the shadows of the high lane, noticing that the dew had dried where the sun had struck but the inner shadows were still wet, I saw a dog moving uneasily, obliquely, from the highway to the woods.

He was large and barrel chested, mixed brown and black, with a thick businesslike head. From a distance he observed me; his stance, the gravity of his stare, told that he’d been doing so for some time, watching as I swept the terrain the way an evidence technician might, watching as I lifted the heavy metal camera on its high tripod and sidled awkwardly a bit to the left, a bit to the right. He’d seen me as I put on and took off the black cowl and peered into the ground glass. He wasn’t unnerved, and he wasn’t capricious; he wasn’t waiting to fawn. He took me in the way coyotes do, the way foxes do, in places less civil and bounded.

He behaved as if this were a small part of his territory. For a moment it wasn’t clear to me that I wasn’t prey. He was large enough for it. When I moved toward the camera, parallel to him, he remained quite still. He knew the way things stood: he’d placed himself between me and the car. When I headed back up the incline, he startled late, and moved quickly and decisively to the side, leaving me room to pass. While I was up by the shoulder, he took the opportunity to lope down to the camera. When he moved from the shadows, I recognized him. He was a Rottweiler, a purebred, without collar, in middle years, strong, lean but not starved. As I headed back down, he turned and trotted into the brush.

To an Easterner, or to a visitor from Europe, Houston's landscape logic escapes. Immediately to the west of that multilane, multilevel intersection, with their back windows right up against the roadway, there's a string of buildings that hints at America's travail over the past few years. There's Fairway Medical Technologies, a manufacturer of high-end medical tools, and Transtech Medical Solutions. Next to it is the Loan Modification Center of Greater Houston. Across the street is The Forum at Memorial Woods, a high-rise "graduated living facility" servicing "seniors" from independence to full-on nursing, with dementia and Alzheimer's "neighborhoods." Next to that is a franchise modeling academy that's legendary for its hard-sell to girls hoping to hit the big time. A few years ago, this particular branch sponsored an "open casting call" for the Disney network; the crowds were treated instead to a marketing campaign, and the Better Business Bureau dropped its rating to an F. Girls in Houston need glamor, attractiveness, poise, and The John Robert Powers Academy will sell them the secrets. Up the street is The Women's Resource Center, which "expands opportunities for women and girls to become independent, productive, and financially stable;" that's where you go after you've been flimflammed.

Cut directly eastward, though, to the other side of I-610, and you're in the lush greenery of the Houston Polo Club; tucked up almost underneath I-10, the Katy Freeway, is the Memorial Park Hunters, where young equestrians train in English riding and steeplechase. The next street east is Crestwood Drive, where the houses range from mock-modernist to mock-Tudor, and are crammed into small lots that belie their million-plus valuations.

Perhaps the Rottweiler strayed from that neighborhood-- some time ago, judging by his demeanor. Heading west, through the lush growth of Memorial Park, through the Polo Club grounds, he skittered across the Katy Freeway, ending up in that wilderness pocket, where the squirrels and rabbits were unwary and there was roadkill to forage in the early morning hours.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Landscapes of Fear

I had waited for the skies to clear and while I waited I started supper. By the time I was ready to turn off the stove, it was 4:15 and the thunderheads had begun to assemble to the west, boiling up over the Catskills. I took the Kriplebush-Krumville Road, because it rises long and hard so even a short ride is good training. The Serotta has a compact crankset, so you can climb with your heartrate just below its max, and coming down, by the end of the season, when your courage is up, you can break fifty on the downhills.

Once you get over the top, where the peace sign is painted on the granite face and the POW-MIA flag is lashed above it, there’s a quick descent that takes you past the maple syrup place and the abandoned ‘20s gas station, and then you’re in and out of what the weekenders call scenery. For them, a double-wide isn’t quaint. Strings of ranches and raised ranches, many of them now in foreclosure, their lawns unkempt by the bank that is holding the paper: these aren’t quaint either. So they tend not to take this road, which makes it good for riding.

Down past the small lake where two people were unloading plastic kayaks from a Jeep Cherokee, past the red barn that was once converted into weekender studio and has had its Mary Collins Realty sign tacked to the siding for a year or so, the road turns abruptly and climbs hard, again. By this time I could see that the thunderheads were coming straight on. Past Willem Dafoe’s rubber house, long on the market, you get a good view across Martin’s place and that was when I decided I’d better turn back.

Down the long sweeps, I was hitting 34 and 35 miles an hour, but the rain still caught me, small hard pellets, close to hail, that pinged off the helmet. Down at the base, where the Kripplebush Fire Department sign announced the Memorial Day weekend flea market and the Sunday pancake breakfast, I turned, for the storm had moved easterly and I was over on the west side of the cold front.

Once you pass Paul De Grazia’s Christmas tree farm and the odd wealthy weekender’s farm for pensioned-off race horses, you come to the Osterhoudt place, where Jasper and his wife sell their grass-fed Angus beef out of the freezer in their basement. Jasper is a big man, nearly as big as his steers; the last time we were in to get meat, he was sitting in the kitchen with a three-pound can of cashews, digging in with gusto while reading a farm implement catalog. Yesterday, he wasn’t out where I could see him, though the laundry was on the line and there was a Kia in the driveway that had passed me earlier—locals stopping in midweek to pick up the steaks and hamburger for a Memorial Day cookout.

213 takes you along the aqueduct that runs from Ashokan Reservoir down to New York City. Periodically, the berm rises up above the road, a strangely regular, geometric form, always well mowed. There are signs in the woods warning you off the land—Property of New York City Department of Environmental Protection.

Ashokan Reservoir has a troubled history, but it is one of the most beautiful sites in America. It resembles Lago Lecco or Como in the Italian Alps. From the causeway, the Catskills march backward behind the Reservoir, and their dense green presence stills the water, which reflects the intense blue of the late afternoon sky and the white, grey and black of the thunderheads.

213 deadends into 28A, and the causeway is about a half-mile up the hill. Yesterday, though, the last 50 yards of 213 and a stretch of 28a was stripped to gravel. The NYC DEP has been cutting into the forest and periodically blowing up granite ledges in some obscure project that began shortly after September 11, 2001. It’s been a steady irritant to the locals and the tourists alike; the hardwood stands cut down, the earth stripped to ugly clay that sheds stormwater and erodes the downhill meadows until they’ve come to look like reclaimed strip mine sites after the Massey Company abandons the area.

This was a new stage, though, and as I maneuvered the thin tires of the road bike around mud hills and gravel washes, I was passed by a man on a mountain bike, wearing baggy shorts and a polo shirt. I asked him how far it was unpaved and he gestured back toward the curve below the intersection. When I commented on the mystery surrounding this long and undirected project, he let loose in an accent that was part Brooklyn, part Puerto Rican, part Olive Branch local. This was DEP at its best, he reported. Wait till I saw what they were doing to the causeway.

We turned, past the unoccupied guard house with the halogen lights, past the pole barriers, past a DEP cop car that cruised up to us and then stopped, its two uniformed occupants, stony-faced, staring straight ahead, as if waiting for the barriers to melt away. When I looked back, I saw that they had; the center sank down into the earth, the cops drove past, and the barrier rose up again.

That wasn’t what so angered my companion. There, on either side,new poles, perhaps thirty feet high, marched at regular intervals down either side of the causeway. They were going to raise the new huge spotlights, stadium lights, he told me, that would illuminate the causeway and the Reservoir. They’d be on 24/7, he said; no more sunsets, sunrises, no more Northern Lights in the winter. This was it, he said disgustedly; all my life I lived here but this takes the cake. If you want to invite the terrorists, if you want to show them the best place to bomb, the best way to disrupt the City, you couln’t’a picked a more perfect plan. All my life I lived here-- he repeated, and then he rode off ahead of me.

America has always been a country pocked by fear. Indians. Germans. Irish. Negroes. Anarchists. Communists. And America has found a knack for responding in a way that will damage or destroy some part of the best it has to offer itself and the world: liberty, democracy, tolerance, enthusiasm, confidence, welcoming hands and friendly voices, lands so beautiful you believe in God.

There isn’t anything to do to stop the destruction of Ashokan and the desecration of one of America’s most beautiful natural sites. If you search for the Ashokan Reservoir security plans, or the DEP’s proposals, you won’t find them; they’re kept hidden because even the stony-faced fear professionals are less than eager for a fight. They’re cowards, afraid not of swarthy terrorists in burqas but of disgusted citizens starting a campaign against their projects. As my fellow rider pointed out, loudly, and within hearing of those cops in their car, these are the guys who need the terrorists-- or they prove themselves, and their ideologies of fear and their regimented response to fear, irrelevant.

On the way back up 213, another storm hit, and though I knew it was sentimental, the rain on my face felt a little like tears.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Air America

Yesterday afternoon, I took The Woman to the airport to fly back to Chicago. She wasn't happy about it. There were tornadoes in Missouri, and thunderstorms ran northward from there most of the way to Chicago and even eastward. She was changing planes in Detroit, which meant both of the planes were small. The first was a 2+2, which meant that many of her fellow travelers would be thinking they could cram their oversized carry-on wheeled suitcases into the overhead bin, but they wouldn't be able to. There would be cries of outrage, stalled lines as the flight attendants tried to maneuver the passengers into handing over their suitcases so they could be put in the hold, and surely a late departure.

She was right. The plane was just late enough leaving to ensure that she couldn't catch the earlier flight from Detroit, so she'd have to wait a couple of hours for her scheduled booking. When she got to the gate, the flight wasn't even listed. On the big board, it was already set to leave two hours later than scheduled. Over the next hours, that departure was pushed back and back, as the airline waited for its plane to leave Omaha and fly into the teeth of the storms.

Airports are netherworlds. They are quite literally neither here nor there. Philadelphia Airport is listed on most maps as being not in Philadelphia, not even in Pennsylvania, but in New Jersey. Chicago's O'hare Airport is many miles from the city proper; to keep its tax revenues, the older Mayor Daley had annexed a strip of land, making an out-of-synch dumb-bell of urbanism that had only its manifest corruption to declare its urbanity. International visitors coming in to Washington, DC find themselves hours from the city, in a lush, humid Southern landscape.

Detroit airport is older. Built originally in the '20s, it has undergone a number of renovations, most recently around 2000, just at the point it was clear that Detroit was going under but before the politicians had to cede the city to entropy and decay. That upgrade had the effect of making the airport a not-site; it was reorganized as a "hub" port for Delta Airlines, a place where people got off one plane to get on another, without ever going near the city itself.

And the design of the new version was equivalently placeless. It looked, and looks, like every other hub airport-- with long subterranean walkways enlivened by light sculptures, a streamline-style tramway mimicking the monorails at Disney Land and Disney World, and Mies-like chairs at the gates, directed not at the windows and the hubbub of taxiing aircraft, fueling trucks, catering vehicles, baggage trams, and headsetted attendants with bright green and orange jumpsuits and vests, but front-to-front so you look at your disgruntled, overweight, overpacked fellow passengers as they spill ketchup on their shirts and brush the crumbs of pastry off their suitcoats and onto the floor.

The lighting, too, is sickly and surreal. During the day, the greenish fluorescents in the ceiling contest weakly with the filtered blue blare from the high windows; at night, there is some attempt at a more gracious evening or night-time quality, but it fails. You are left with not enough light to read the paper, too much light to sleep.

The flight left, not at 8:15 but close to midnight. There was an urgent bustle at the gate, with the attendants verging on rude as they pushed the passengers onto the plane in time to fly out through some brief window of permission not spoken of by anyone. The plane taxied fast, turned, and gunned forward, lifted quickly between two high ominous thunderheads flashing lightning from cloud to cloud and cloud to ground.

This plane was smaller-- a 2+1, so there was no pretense of overhead compartments or carry-on rollerbags. Everything went below. Volatile, responsive to the weather outside and hypersensitive to the pilots' small adjustments, this plane danced the way a schizophrenic does: all possible movements, no discernible rhythm or order.

There was lightning all the way and no one got out of their seats, not even the flight attendant. They dropped toward O'Hare through a band of violent storms. Then they were down. It was after midnight but the airport was strangely crowded, packed with people moving erratically, unsure of their destinations, their futures, their pasts. The taxi-line was very long, and the stragglers were outside in the rain, shuffling forward toward the half-protection of the taxi stand far distant.

At 2 am. or so, I got her message. She was home.

By air-miles, the distance between the farm and Chicago O'Hare is just a little less than the distance from Warsaw to London, just under half the distance from Tokyo to Beijing. From above, on a sunny afternoon, the flight begins with the spectacle of the Catskills and the Hudson River, and ends with the industrial sublime of the western edge of Lake Michigan, from the exploding chimneys of the steel mills in Gary, Indiana, past the dense cluster of highrises and the visible traces of Burnham's Plan of Chicago, northward to the dense greenery of the wealthiest suburbs in America-- Winnetka, Kenilworth, Highland Park, Lake Forest. In between, the orderly rectangles of large-scale factory farms demarcate the old grid of Thomas Jefferson's Northwest Ordinance of 1785, which divided the region into plots of a square mile; from the air, you can see the roadways marking the blind, linear thrust westward, and the whole of the landscape looks like a sheet of graph paper upon which a child has scribbled the erratic and disorderly inconveniences of topography: river, hill, valley, ridge.

But it isn't always a sunny afternoon, and the reassuring promise of an orderly schedule, a timely leap from place to place, efficient, technocratic, and bland, hesitates and stutters, and the rupture of the system shows itself, just before you slide down through it into uncertainty.

We believed the land was made for us; it was our right and our destiny to declare dominion over the earth and all that dwelt thereon: great grasslands, sweeps of bison, small bands of native peoples with their settlements and trading paths, the irregular markings made by the snakes and the complex calculus of the hawks rising and dropping to take their prey who run, crazy, erratic, hopeless, from their talons.

We are above all that.

What is left of it cannot be seen from above, where the video screen drops down and the jerky gestures of a primetime tv comedy rerun begins, and you hear the canned laughter tinny in your seatmate's earphones. Crammed into the seat, crammed into the schedule, you have been promised that your surrender of opportunity and its dangers at the Security Gate will give you certainty in return, that your job is secure, your cubicle safe, your family immune from outbreak, your life mapped as certainly as the grid you'd see below if your seat wasn't a middle seat and your aisle wasn't directly over the wing, where the drone of the engines drowns out even the routine announcements from the flight deck that everything is, indeed, just as it should be.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Long Drive

There is a wasp on the inside of the screen in the studio.

Returning to the farm from Chicago, there are always a few days of adjustment to different symbioses and different neighbors. In both cases, we are asked to be tolerant of the habits and beliefs of those around us, and diffident about our own ideas. In Chicago, we live in Ukrainian Village, but not the hipster part, where the Art Institute grads and the fixie riders are. We got our apartment because the Woman's name is Pskowski. We are among the very few for whom English is not at best a third language, after Ukrainian or Polish, and then Russian. On the corner, there's a four-story block of smaller one-bedroom apartments, almost entirely occupied by older immigrants who sun themselves on the small porches, gossiping across the brief divides. When we walk by, they tend to grow silent; their conversation quiets, their gestures fade from the emphatic tense to the passive or the wary. They wait for us to pass, and then they begin again. None of them speaks English; they depend on their sons and daughters, and their grandchildren, to negotiate with the Social Security Administration and the City of Chicago Office of Senior Services. They shop at a Ukrainian-Polish market on the corner of Iowa and Western, where we cannot, for we speak no Ukrainian, Polish or Russian.

Their children own the two- and three-flats that surround us, or perhaps the old ones own the buildings, and the younger ones rent, caretake, and manage. Anna the cop glowers at us when she stops by on her lunch hour to check on her parents; she parks her big Chicago Police SUV in front of the house after driving the wrong way down the street. She knows just by looking at us that we do not respect authority, that we are suspicious of uniforms, that having a relative who's a cop is not a sign of pride for us.

Her father and mother don't like us because we walk our dog along the sidewalk in front of their threeflat. Old as she is, Georgie sometimes does her business on their lawn, and though we carry our plastic bags and are quick to scoop, we affront their property, and the whole block watches, disapprovingly. The lawns are spectacularly well-kept, the flowerbeds obediently uniform and regular in their displays. In the mornings, the women sweep the fallen blooms from the young maple trees the city has planted. A week ago, one of them commented, emphatically: "they drive me crazy these damned trees." I was shocked she'd spoken directly to me; I looked around to see who deserved her attention more than I. She said nothing more. She turned on her heel and continued sweeping, her back to me.

Anna's grandmother, though: she likes us. She likes Georgie. When she is on her porch, she comes down to pet her, and they are a pair: both arthritic, both well-mannered, each intrigued by the other, friendly, ready for a chat. Anna's grandmother gets picked up twice a week to go to bingo, and once a week to a senior center for an entertainment of some sort. While she waits for the car, she talks to us. It's how we know something of the neighborhood, and of our neighbors.

These are reticent people. They are suspicious of outsiders. Where they came from, wariness was a survival tactic, silence a necessity. They are not believers in the American melting pot. They are here because they, or their parents, conceived a way to leave the Soviet Union, to come to the States, to join relatives and friends already here, to enter the underground economy if they were illegal, or even if they were legal, because to do otherwise would have meant giving up their identity. The Catholic church on Oakley and Augusta has multiple services: Ukrainian, Polish, and English. In the big cathedral 2 blocks south, the priest says mass only in Ukrainian. On schooldays, the children come by in clusters in their school uniforms, speaking Ukrainian, on their way to the parochial school behind the cathedral, where they may learn English as a second or third language, but all the rest of the instruction is in Ukrainian.

We do our best to coexist. We are not effusive, overfriendly. We don't ask what it was like before they came here. We don't expect them to welcome us, or to treat our American lives as models for their emulation. Our presence breaks down their community, and the best we can offer is to move through their midst as if we were ghosts, or foreigners there on sabbatical or assignment.

The wasp has left. He has settled somewhere among the books, the guitars, amplifiers, computers, scanners and printers. I didn't try to kill or capture him.

I am out here after spending the early afternoon removing everything from the shelves of the cupboard and the larder, washing each cast iron skillet, casserole dish, springform pan and carafe, and then vacuuming up the mouse droppings and wiping down the plain wooden shelves. When we arrived last night, tired and exhilarated after the 15 hour drive through rainstorms and construction zones, we found a container of cornstarch knocked to the floor, its white powdery contents strewn around it, marked with small pawprints. The Woman doesn't like the field mice-- that is to say, she thinks they should stay in their own place and not come into ours, stealing and messing and making work for us when, in the spring, they once again leave the house for the hayfield. I am not so sure just who is host and who is guest, who the native and who the foreigner sojourning temporarily here. When I find the wasps' nests, I will probably knock them down and crush them. But not without disquietude.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Driving America

On Friday, The Woman and I will drive Georgie The Dog to The Farm. We will leave very early-- 6am-- and so we'll see the industrial landscapes south of Chicago in a hazy early-summer morning light. Then we'll start the longest and flattest segment, passing through Indiana, then Ohio.

Normally we stop outside Youngstown, Ohio, where the Best Western motel accepts pets. This time we're going straight through. The dog is dying, very slowly, and we want to get her back to the hayfield and the creek so she can spend her last days and weeks surrounded by the smell of deer and coyotes, ducks, hawks, mice, voles, and all the others who share the hayfield, the woodlot and the creek with us.

It is hard to explain this longing we have for that place, that topography of ridges, hills, lowlands, rivers and creeks, ground down mountains that we are in the midst of back there. We were raised there, both of us, and the smell of forsythia, mowed haygrass, cow manure, and dried leaves is deep inside us. We have been visitors to the Midwest for decades, attentive and observant visitors, each in our own way. The Woman sees the space laid out as if a painting, or a tapestry. She calls it the Place of Weather. Weather is topography in the Midwest. You can see it coming from a great distance. The extremes of cold and heat, tornadoes and blizzards, deluging rainstorms and long browngrass droughts are the features to which one had best be respectfully attuned. It is, in other words, a topography of time; it is space laid out as time, space so open and uninflected that it serves as a gessoed canvas upon which we paint our broken narratives.

Those narratives are narratives of passing. My Puritan forebears settled in Connecticut, but failed; moving westward, they failed their way across New York, Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin, sojourning for a few generations in the frigid plains of western Minnesota before my grandfather's stroke led them to California for his health and they found their small paradise of orange and lemon trees, wisteria and roses, sufficient to allow them to set aside their predestinarian anxieties and believe they were, indeed, of the Elect.

My Mormon forebears came here from England, Scotland, Ireland, promised by the missionaries that free land and passage to America, a new community and a promise of prosperity in this world and in Eternity would follow the small gesture of accepting a huckster's cosmology. Driven out, they pressed further and further until they passed through the flatness to the mountains and, surviving the passage, they settled where the bones of the continent thrust up behind the settlements: Springville, Provo, Spanish Fork.

On both sides, then, my family came to the Midwest so as to pass through it to a promised land. And now we are doing the same. In a year, perhaps less, we will empty the rented house in Ukrainian Village, pack the books crammed into the office at the university, hand over the spreadsheets and loan forms for the Roy Lichtenstein show and for the shows thereafter in the Modern Wing at the museum, and we will resettle fully back at the farm, to write, paint, weave, compose, plant, weed, tend and harvest.

The myth of American movement is an eternal westering. We are restorationists. The demography of the future is, again, following that vector, this time not to California, bankrupt and bitter, but to the hot stretches of the arid zone, to Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and Utah. Those lands are gorgeous. They are technicolor extravaganzas; outside the townhomes of Tucson, wild pigs root among the cacti and the bare mountains loom behind; from the panoramic windows at the back of the houses in Santa Fe, the scrub pine leads up into the foothills of the Rockies. Those are places where we white people can feel our newness, flaunt our dominion, until the water runs out and the power grid fails, in a decade or a century.

We are going against that tide. Back east, the drone of the tractor as Harry hays the field will temporarily override the bustle of the creek and the buzz of the flies batting futilely against the screen door. Long after she has been turned to ash and strewn across the hayfield, there to mingle with the ashes of my mother and father, the dog will snuffle in her sleep, and we will hear her. It is not a bad thing to return, and it is a good place to return to.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Welcome SUSI 2011 Alumni!

Well it has been almost 10 months since we said goodbye to each other! Since then, a wild variety of superb "teaching moments" have come and gone, or come and persisted. The economic struggles of Americans have sharpened and clarified the gulf between two antithetical economic models-- the Keynesian social-welfare-state model, which we expected would return with renewed energy under President Obama, and a laissez-faire model, which has surged back into play in the past few months. It is quite surprising to see that the economic models we taught you in discussing the American 1880s and '90s are back with almost no modernization: anti-union, anti-taxation, celebrating the extremes of wealth, blaming the poor and dispossessed for their plights, and a general backing away from what we have called "the public sector," but what I called, in my lectures, "the commons"-- shared spaces, services, and resources that must be protected by a super-arching institution or government, so that individuals are regulated in their desires to acquire or use these common goods exclusively for themselves.

But you will also remember that we argued that American politics and American beliefs tend to vacillate between poles in times of crisis and tension, and these have certainly been times of crisis and tension in the States. And you will also remember that the isolated pockets of extremes on either side tend to stay huddled among themselves rather than passing fluidly through the body politic or the public sphere, where they might be introduced to those who believe differently than they do, and as importantly, see conditions different than their own. Urban kids, you remember, often think bread grows on bread trees and cheetos and doritos are harvested on farms. Rural kids can't imagine taking a bus or subway, seeing vacant lots and burned-out buildings, or going to a free concert in Millennium Park.

Already, the extremes seem to be fading a bit, and the empathic middle is emerging. This middle isn't, as politicians often mistake it, a common denominator, and it isn't even a set of shared ideas or beliefs. The American middle is often more accurately a group who hold fast to their core beliefs, but understand, and are sympathetic to, the differing core beliefs of others. Then there is the struggle to find a way for multiple beliefs to coexist in the public and the civic sphere. This is what's going to go on over the next few years, I predict, and you can hold me to it!