Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Tale of Three Cities, Two Rivers, and One Book in Particular, Part 2

           If you think Hannibal is dead, wow, you should see Cahokia. I hate to say it, but somehow I had never heard of Cahokia.  More accurately, I didn’t remember I had been told about it. Then my friend Frank Pool mentioned it in a Facebook response to our announcing we had landed in Saint Louis.  I looked Cahokia up on the interwebs and on our maps and decided that Frank meant to direct me to the state historical site and not to the suburban town with the French influenced architecture, but that might have been fun also.  So on our way to Southern Illinois, where I was planning to research my father’s side of the family, we stopped by the Cahokia Mounds in Collinsville, Illinois.

Monk's Mound
            For those of you as behind the times as I am, Cahokia Mounds is the site of the largest Native American city in North America. (It is also a UN designated World Heritage Site.) The brochure says “prehistoric Indian site,” but “prehistoric” here confuses me.  To me, “prehistoric” means something like ten thousand years ago.    Also, it does sound odd to write “city” in this context, but that is what this place is, the ruins of a city.  At one point, probably over 120 mounds covered an area up to 4000 acres. There were farms and logging operations and trade and sporting events and religious monuments—it was a city.   It fact, it was probably the largest city on the North American continent until American East Coast cities grew larger in the early 1800s.  Tribes began forming what we have come to call Cahokia around 700 C.E., but things really got hopping around 1050, and most likely achieved a population of 20,000 people or more.  Then things began to decline, and by the late 1300’s, zilch, kaput.  The party was over.

 Waller Grant had gotten a typical mid-morning start from the Casino, so the caravan pulled into the parking lot of the interpretive center around noon or so.  Colleen had planned ahead and called to make sure that the parking lot allowed ample room for our moving house (which it did) and had made sandwiches for lunch for us to enjoy when we arrived (which we did).  So we had a little picnic before the Tourist Hustle. The “tourist hustle” is what I am beginning to think is the required method for hustling tourists along:  Welcome us, pour us into a little theater, show us a little movie, pour us out to whatever exhibits there might be, gently guide us to the gift shop, and kindly say goodbye. Some efficiency expert somewhere is really proud.   My goal in these blog posts really isn’t to produce a set of reviews, but I can say that everyone at this interpretive center is lovely and helpful and the exhibits are excellent.  And I really learned something!  I have a hunch that this center, its exhibits, and the overall grounds are so informative and well maintained because at the helm of the preservation of Cahokia are academics, about sixty years of dedicated “dirt archeologists,” as Timothy R. Pauketat calls them in his excellent book, Cahokia:  Ancient America’s Great City on the Mississippi.  You should have seen Colleen’s face when she saw me at the gift shop cashier’s table with another book in my hands!  I highly recommend his chapter, “Ghost of Archeologists.”  It is a cheerful chapter for those of us who sometimes want to slow the bulldozers of progress to study the final exposed foundations of who we are and how we got here.  It also demonstrates how knowledge is built from the dedicated work of many people.  Academics as heroes:  what’s not to love?

            One of the things that impressed me the most is that basically this place told the truth as best as they can figure it out, so far.  And that means that there is something here to trouble everyone.  If you are a good Christian Conservative, you can get angry that we have a group of natives perfectly happy not to know Jesus.  In addition, the exhibits feature wax native women going about their daily chores without clothing on their upper parts.  I looked but I did not see one sign that said, “Warning. You might see boobies.”  See, I work in an institution that serves a general public—we’re always putting up signs that warn the Puritans to stay out of plays or art exhibitions or poetry readings cause we don’t want to have to listen to them complain about morals and corruption and taxpayer money spent on said corruption. (My college begins classes in a few days; maybe I already missing my job.)

            On the other hand, if you are a Pinko Commie Liberal, who loves espousing how sweet and lovely and kind and environmental all the native peoples are (and delivered as evidence about how awful we contemporary Americans are), you suffer yet one more blow at the hands of human nature.  First of all, these Native Americans built a city!  They altered the landscape by constructing these massive mounds; they erected houses, eek, suburbs; they cut trees for a fortress wall, thousands of trees.  They planted fields of corn and squash and other seed plants.  They probably studied the seeds, refined them.  I’m guessing, of course, but they might have sold out to Monsanto if they had had the chance.  Second, the social structure was hierarchical; they elevated powerful rulers and supported wealthy families; important people lived inside the fortress walls and lesser people lived vulnerable to attack by the enemy, whoever that was.  Third, they practiced human sacrifice, including the sacrifice of women.

Pauketat writes about the dig in what is called Mound 72, “This was on one of the most complex digs ever undertaken in North America, and the sheer numbers of bodies in pits had not been anticipated.  After the fifty-three women and various other people surrounding the beaded-cape burial were discovered, the excavation would uncover some two hundred more skeletons.  Several pits contained between nineteen and twenty-four women each, all apparently sacrificial victims. For several such pits, archaeologists were able to determine the victims’ final moments in sometimes remarkable detail.  The lives of most of those sacrificed, presumably, were extinguished nearby, and their lifeless bodies were then carried into the pit, some on stretchers, But the spectacle of human sacrifice had also happened right there, next to at least one open trench” (74).  There’s more:  we bleeding hearts can read it and weep. 

As always, Waller Grant didn’t get to spend the length of time we wanted at Cahokia.  We have to keep moving, and there are four of us, all with different interests.  But Colleen, Theo, and I did make time to bike over to the largest mound, Monk’s Mound (so named because French monks set up shop nearby in the early 1800s).  Colleen is beginning to think that much of our year will be spent climbing stairs—she and Theo climbed the many sets of stairs to get to the lighthouse in Hannibal. And here we were again climbing three long expanses of stairs to the top. 

The brochure tells me “Monks Mound is the largest prehistoric earthen construction in the Americas, containing an estimated 22 million cubic feet of earth.”  The mound itself covers 14 acres, and is 100 feet tall.  Back in the day, the big kahuna lived his fabulous life in his massive house and ran the show from there.  At that height, we could see more mounds, the ceremonial yards, examples of the fortress fences, a giant Stonehenge like calendar made of logs, and in one little corner a small tent, where we figured a couple of hard working dirt archaeologists were doing their slow business of digging the truth.  And that reminds me, now, to tell you when I first heard of Cahokia.  My son William worked here, maybe six or seven years ago, as part of a school project when he attended DePaul University as an anthropology major.  Once I pieced things together, I remembered conversations about trips to the St. Louis area and such.  After seeing Cahokia, I am thinking that his education was money well spent—or well, I’m glad we took the loans we continue to pay off. 

So what happened to Cahokia?  This is a mystery, a wonder, if you will.    I like to think that the citizens just said, “Screw you.  I don’t want to be sacrificed.” Or presaging Lincoln:  “As I would not be sacrificed, so I will not sacrifice,” and, like Huck, took off for the wilderness.  Cahokia was, I guess, the closest thing the Native American tribes had to a successful civilization, at least as we define “civilization” nowadays:  rich people, lots of food, entertainment, products from far away places, pomp and circumstance.  Which means it also developed, no doubt, a bunch of rules and regulations, accepted practices, unexamined reasons for doing things the way we always have even though it all seems kind of stupid and dangerous.  The Roman Empire died, Cahokia died, so can the United States.  The problem is there ain’t no more wilderness to light out to.

One last feature of Monks Mound and its stairs falls into the positive unintended consequences department.  As Colleen, Theo, and I climbed the stairs to the top, we noticed a man, whom I am guessing is in his middle thirties, with a very red face and sweat falling into his eyes.  He was definitely in better shape that I am, but his man boobs did show through his shiny black sportswear and his love handles were a little more giggly than most.  My theory is that he once weighed fifty or sixty pounds more than his current weight.  After we finished our survey on the top of the mound and prepared to descend, the man met us again on the stairs, this time coming up.  We nodded in that way that strangers do; then he headed back down ahead of us.  Then on the way down, as we approached the final set of stairs, the man was ascending once more.  This time we spoke, offering our support, and asking how many rounds he had completed. 
“Wonderful.  How many do you plan to do?” 
“Ten.”  He passed us going up.
“Good luck.  Do you have water?”
“In the car.”  He yelled back toward us.
When we arrived at the bottom of the last set of stairs and began unlocking our bikes, we noticed a couple of other men.  One, my age, with close-cut goatee just took off up the stairs.  He wore a bandanna over his short grey hair.  A second man, younger, maybe in his mid-twenties, was stretching, taking his time.  Colleen talked with him and learned that he comes out to the mound regularly for exercise.  He is a boxer and has made the stairs part of his training routine.  I don’t know, something about this situation makes me happy.  We Americans are a pretty crazy lot.  We save a thousand year old mound of dirt that some dude built his mansion on so he could survey “his people” and perhaps kill a few when it pleased him. One set of us, for no good reason at all, studies the heck out of it, writing books and delivering talks, and another set, again for no good reason, except to stay healthy because our daily lives don’t support that, runs up and down it to the point to exhaustion. It’s all pretty nuts, really.  But this day, I was enlightened and encouraged by both.  Now that I have read Pauketat’s book, it’s time to get on the bicycle.

Soundtrack.  Sergio Mendez:  "The Fool on the Hill."

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Tale of Three Cities, Two Rivers, and One Book in Particular, Part 1

In the late afternoon, Saturday, August 10, we pulled the Caravan into the grand parking lot of the Casino Queen in East St. Louis.  Then we moseyed off a ways to the RV park that sort of looks like a parking lot except for the complimentary tree and gravel patch between RV sites. I guess Illinois allows gambling because as quickly as you can get over the Eads Bridge out of Missouri and into the Land of Lincoln, you have an exit for the casino that glitters on the eastern bank of the Mississippi.  Colleen and I have never been inside a casino, and though she was sorely tempted, I am proud to say that we remain virgins.  Hands that touch the hand of a one-armed bandit will never touch my . . . . you get the picture.  And besides, thanks to the recommendation of my boss at ACC, Mike Midgley, I can’t get out of my mind the horror of Lost in America, and Albert Brooks’ discovery that his wife has a hidden gambling addiction and blows their nest egg.   “It’s called a nest egg for a reason!”  A word of advice—if our little adventure is inspiring you to try your own, watch all the movies you can about RV travel before you lay out your hard-earned cash for your home on wheels.  I don’t know of one that presents the “lifestyle” as blissful and carefree.

Theo with Tom and Huck

The next morning we headed out early—sans caravan—to Hannibal, where I had envisioned a happy American family wandering the streets of this historic town, Professor Dude and his charges energetically debating the life and works of Samuel Clemens.  But as it has a habit of doing, reality set in.  Because the adventures so far had been so full of 1) driving, and 2) sightseeing, and 3a) writing and trying to find wi-fi (for Colleen and me), 3b) texting with friends and playing Xbox basketball (for Jacob), Jacob and I still hadn’t found time to re-read either Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn.  Nor had Theo experienced Tom Sawyer.  That, of course, did not prevent me for discoursing brilliantly in the truck while Jacob earned hours on his learner’s permit. But no one has had the text in front of him in the past year, and really, isn’t that a requirement for a meaningful discussion?  Yet I waxed on about Hemingway—“American literature begins with Huckleberry Finn”—about Palefaces (Eastern establishment writers) and Redskins (Twain and local colorists), and about Twain’s compulsion to make money and his great talent for losing it.  And I waxed off about Twain’s biting sense of humor, about Hadleyburg and Twain’s criticism of upright and uptight small-minded middle Americans, about Twain’s racist heritage and his amazing development as a humanist, and Huckleberry’s astounding, everlasting No to racism written as the Klan and other forces were re-gathering following Reconstruction.  I also postulated my favorite theory of late that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its portrayal of the honor of youth has made possible the later adventures of Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and other child heroes of wit and skepticism of adult wisdom.

After a while, I figured I was beginning to sound like the Miss Watson, and the boys feel like Huck.  I mean, I had them as a captive audience and it didn’t much matter if they wanted to escape or not.  As Huck says, “She worked on me middling hard for about an hour, and then the widow make her ease up on me.  I couldn’t stand it much longer. Then for an hour it was deadly dull, and I was fidgety.”  Jacob had the advantage, since he was driving.  He had an excuse to divert his attention from great American literature.  And though Theo is the child most naturally like Huck, he also has an undying curiosity and loves to read.  Once we told him about Injun Joe and the murder and Becky Thatcher and the cave, he was hooked and wanted more.

So I had expectations.  But Hannibal couldn’t have been duller.  No wonder after all was said and done, Huck decided to light out for the territory.  Granted we arrived in town on a Sunday afternoon near the end of tourist season, but the only other group of tourists wandering its slow and tedious way through Tom’s house and Becky’s house and the law offices and all that was a group composed of the last living members of the Greatest Generation.  The most exciting thing we witnessed in our three hours there—most of which consisted in waiting for some average food, drinking an adequate IPA from Independence, Mo., and talking with a very nice waiter while Theo climbed on the stump of a fallen tree (before our visit to the tourist center) and then later in enjoying some very tasty gelato and chocolates (after our tour, right before we abandoned all hope and headed home)—was watching the old folks’ bus driver back his huge bus out of a tiny dead end street.  That was suspenseful!

I don’t want to sound disrespectful or such.  I did enjoy the exhibits and climbing the stairs up one way to a room with white plaster Mark Twain in it, and down another stairs to find another room with slightly different white plaster Mark Twain in a slightly different pose.  I appreciated the half-hearted attempt at creating a gift shop, because it did not inspire Theo or Jacob to the great revelry of souvenir collecting to which they are capable.  And while the whole enterprise on that particular day reminded me more of the good town of Hadleyburg and its few and serious citizens going about their good and serious work celebrating their serious and good town, I did occasionally wish they had learned a bit more from Tom Sawyer and somehow tricked me into having fun—painting a fence, for instance.

But life has its way of giving its little gifts.  First, we made a wrong turn and found ourselves crossing the Mississippi River into Illinois.  In my view, any moment one gets to “experience” the magnificent Mississippi River is a moment of splendor.  Second, since we had driven to Hannibal by way of Interstates; we decided, once we had regained the Missouri side, to return to St Louis by the smaller highway that hugs the Mississippi River.  On a couple of occasions, Jacob pulled the truck off the meandering highway and onto a scenic overlook, and if we could ignore the used condoms and empty beer cans, we could see the river stretching its body widely to the green banks and slowly reaching toward the gulf unconcerned by us gawking tourists a hundred feet above.  I began singing “Old Man River,” until the boys started howling and making fun of me.

Soundtrack.  Paul Robeson:  "Old Man River."

Friday, August 16, 2013

Defining Wonder

So we are calling this ambitious undertaking, our wandering across America the “Waller Grant’s Caravan of Wonder.”  For those just joining us, “Waller” is Colleen’s last name and “Grant” is mine.  Easy enough.  But this Waller Grant character is beginning to take the shape of a real character who has hitched a ride on this journey, kind of like Johnny Appleseed.  “Caravan” is an old fashioned word for “trailer” and still used, I believe, in England to designate the kind of vehicle that I am hauling around.  Also “caravan” makes me, at least, think of gypsies, and I rather like pretending I am an old-world sort of disreputable character, strumming the guitar and yelling “opah!”and scaring the citizens.  

But “wonder”?  Why “wonder?”  I can’t give you a full answer now.  And that is the point.  For me—and I will let Colleen speak for herself—the emotional texture of the word opens itself to, well, wondering.  It’s somewhere in the territory of awe, surprise, dreaming, curiosity, astonishment.  Less terrifying than awe, more purposeful than surprise or dreaming, less purposeful than curiosity, wonder is also more playful than astonishment. 

The word also takes me back to my youth and my college education and to a time when new ideas were confronting me like free beer at Wurstfest.  I received from my university exactly what a person is supposed to get from higher education—the shock that although one’s parents are decent and loving people, they are really limited in many ways and do not know everything that you need to know to become who you are destined to be. One of the things I learned about at the university and recognized that I needed terribly to be who I wanted to be was “wonder.”  And I learned about it in unlikely places—in two courses in the government department, the first on Classical Political Philosophy, the second on Religion and Politics, both taught by a young professor, Leonard Jonathan Lamm.  I was never smart enough to figure out what Professor’s Lamm’s politics were.  I am pretty sure he was not your typical neo-Marxist.  But neither was he your proto neo-conservative, either.  And that is when you know you have found the real deal, right?  When you can’t put someone in a box, when he is working, not from ideology, but from philosophy and some understanding of human nature. Professor Lamm’s classes shook this totally unformed, undirected innocent boy from Temple to my core.

Why am I talking about a professor from almost 40 years ago?  Because he did what great professors do.  He introduced me to two books that were very relevant to me then and, I believe, will be again this year.  Both were by Sam Keen, To a Dancing God and Apology for Wonder.  I don’t believe either book was an assigned reading; they were just books that he mentioned somehow in class.  Professor Lamm might have even disagreed with the premises of the books.  Sam Keen, a philosopher and psychologist, has a way of writing somewhat accessible books about a topic just as it becomes the next “in” topic.  He wrote about myth just as Bill Moyers made Joseph Campbell the next big thing.  And he wrote a book about men and masculinity just as Robert Bly and James Hillman created “the men’s movement,” which I am proud to say I was associated with.  Next following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Keen wrote Faces of the Enemy, and finally got the fame I assume he was searching for on PBS.  I guess you could say that Keen attempts to be a “public intellectual.”  Maybe I am being snarky when I say that he has been a little more “public” than “intellectual”; or maybe I am too much of an academic and haven’t fully digested his first two books. Maybe I am envious.

One of the basic raw facts about our trip that Colleen and I had to face early was that we could not take everything we wanted, and most likely need.  Both of us love books, but we reluctantly agreed to limit ourselves to one box of books each.  In my box are these two books by Sam Keen, the original paperbacks I read by at university.  I have started reading Apology for Wonder again. 

This is what I am learning—“Chapter One: The Anatomy of Wonder”:  There are two kinds of wonder.  The first type is “ontologic wonder,” which is simply just that astonishment that something exists at all.  “I didn’t know there was such a thing as this!”  I think of Darwin when he spied an iguana.  The second type is more mundane; it is experiencing something we know exists but we are surprised by its sensational aspects.  Think of the early European traders and trappers who travelled across the Great Plains and first saw the Rocky Mountains.  They knew mountains existed, but these, by God, were special.  Another type of the mundane wonder is akin to poetical revelry, when you notice that unusual quality of a very familiar object.  For me, it could be simply holding a baseball, feeling the shift in texture from hide to stitches, squeezing it to rediscover the firmness of the thing, the complexity of touch, the smooth leather covering that essential stone hardness of it.  “My, isn’t that just amazing.”

Next are the qualities of an object that provokes wonder.  Keen identifies these as contingency, mystery, and presence.  By contingency, Keen means that the object that we are wondering at and about does not immediately come “bearing its own explanation.”  At this moment, I am in a St. Louis RV park looking out my window at a children’s playground, swings, slides, the whole bit.  I look at it and think, “Yep, a playground.”  No wonder, on my part, here.  Then I look up and see a little further away The Gateway Arch, and I think, “What is that?”

Mystery is a trickier concept, and I am not totally sure why Keen chooses this word to name it.  At I understand it, Keen says we experience wonder sometimes when the lines between us (the subject) and the object blur.  We can know a great deal about the object and it still remain mysterious because we are so intimately connected to it.  I know a lot about Colleen, but she is still a mystery to me.  Keen uses the example of birth.  We know enormous amounts of information about how babies are created, gestate, and are born.  But if you watch your wife giving birth . . . wow, that is a wonder.  “How the hell did that just happen?”  The borders between me and that thing I witness are weak.  I know a lot about it, but I can’t get the distance and cool objectivity needed to separate myself from it, and thus to understand it.

A third characteristic of the objects that provoke wonder is presence.  Objects that inspire wonder stand there before us and somehow reach out to touch us emotionally.  Keen mentions Martin Buber’s concept of the I-Thou relationships.  In an I-It relationship, we (the subject) can look upon an object impersonally and treat it as if it were a mere thing.  We can behave so with people also.  The “it” is less than the “I.”  In the I-Thou relationship, we recognize the special individuality of the object.  The “thou” is equal to or greater than the ‘I.”   Buber’s concept comes loaded with religion and theological history, and Keen warns us not to assume all wondrous events lead us to experience God.  Wonder can, of course, be a completely secular experience.  If you want to see what I think Keen means by “presence”  read Richard Wilbur’s poem “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,”  which I want to re-title “Things Calls us to the Love in the World.”

Hoping that I am not taking the wonder out of wonder for you, let’s talk about what Keen calls “Subjective Aspects of the Experience of Wonder,” but do so by visiting the great St. Louis landmark, The Gateway Arch.    I had been to The Gateway Arch in St. Louis before. I can’t quite remember when, however.  I seem to recall being with my father but no one else, so I am thinking maybe we are talking about high school or college years.  And though I do not remember much detail about that visit, I do remember it fondly.  I remember “liking” The Gateway Arch.

This trip I stood in wonder at it.  The Gateway Arch was designed by Eero Saarinen (1910-1961), the Finnish American architect, who is also well-known for his designs of the TWA terminal at New York’s Kennedy Airport, the terminal at Dulles Airport, the John Deer Corporate Headquarters, and the Saarinen chair.  Saarinen is regarded as one of the great modernist architects, along side Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe.  His first designs for the arch date back to 1947, when he won a competition sponsored by the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Association.  Then while the slow machine of local, state, and national business and political interests chugged along, he fiddled with the design, which is based on a catenary curve. Construction began in 1962 and finally was completed in 1965. 

The arch stands more or less in the heart of downtown St. Louis, or rather the edge of the heart as it stretches along the banks of the Mississippi River.  Rising 630 feet, 63 stories tall, the arch is visible for miles as one drives into town.  We drove in on Interstate 44, pulling our house behind our like a turtle or a snail, rising and falling in the gentle hills to the west.  One moment we could see the arch, a half ring, a shining silver rainbow, above the skyline in the river valley, and the next it would disappear as we curved behind a hill.  But the reaction in the truck was “Look, look, boys, do you see the Arch!”  As Keen points out, one of the first ways we experience Wonder is surprise.  And then that surprise shifts into silence.  In our truck, the game unwittingly turned to now-you-see-it-now-you don’t, each phase provoking its own form of elation and disappointment.   

Besides surprise, Wonder also produces in us, according to Sam Keen, feelings of puzzlement, ambivalence, admiration.  If we hadn’t known the Arch existed and had not been looking for it, I am sure one of our reactions would be—“what the hell is that?”  There is nothing on this continent that prepares you for the Arch.  Far away and up close, it seems so unlikely that such a structure could exist.  Why would anyone build such a structure?  It has no use at all. As such, its only purpose is to call attention to itself as itself, to announce its presence and to intrude into your life. The Arch is so big, so outrageous, so (forgive the pun) over-the-top.  For me, this puzzlement just makes me enjoy and admire it even more.  If one were going to build a monument to this giant migration of human beings, their bravery and tenacity, I say make it large and undeniable. 

But in that bravado is contained the sin of pride, and thus ambivalence, like unwelcome flood waters, rushes in.  In all things great, massive, forceful is also contained some level of grief and pain and regret.  In the story of that great migration of Europeans and Eastern Americans is also the story of the annihilation of the Native American.  The way I see it is that there are a great number of “maybes” and “could have beens” in this narrative.  Maybe the White Americans could have stayed put.  Maybe they could have honored and respected the various treaties they made with the various tribes.  Maybe they could have found a way to live side by side, adapt to the migrant lifestyles of the Great Plains.  Or maybe Native Americans could have realized the force of the culture that was coming at them and accept the inevitable.  Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. All this is also contained in the Wonder of the Arch.  The world, this nation, we, I are/am far from perfect—And this perfect monument is a massive reminder of that.

Keen wraps up the first chapter of Apology for Wonder by describing how we humans react to the stimulus of things that provokes wonder.  One is curiosity and explanation.  A second is contemplation and celebration. I know I am simplifying human beings here, but one way to think about these two responses is the division between the sciences and the humanities. One is “how did they build that?” I certainly have that response.     What does one need to know about geometry and about materials to accomplish such a thing—to build a three-way skin of steel, concrete, and stainless steel section by section beginning from the two bases and moving toward the center until there is only one piece remaining, the keystone, and the two sections have to be pried apart to connect that final piece and the windows for the observation deck have can be only a certain size to withstand the pressure exerted on them.  That is a wonderment, and for the appropriately trained, can be explained. 

The second is “isn’t that amazing?”  Because of my nature and my education, this is my natural response, and this blog post is an example of it.   I felt fully alive with Wonder at the spirit and creativity of my species while biking around downtown St. Louis, walking under the Arch, eating a picnic lunch beneath it with Colleen and the boys.     The Arch as a structure is so simple and pure, the stainless steel so smooth and bright, the size so magnificent that I felt as I imagine a stranger, a wonderer, must have felt at the foot of the Parthenon, so many complicated and contradictory emotions, but perhaps the most important is uplifted. 
Soundtrack:  Louis Armstrong:  "It's a Wonderful World."

Friday, August 9, 2013

The State I'm In

Growing up in Texas, I didn’t learn much useful about Oklahoma. I learned that there was a university up there called the Sooners that we Longhorns played in Dallas every October at the State Fair.  When I was young, I believed we regularly and effortlessly beat the dickens out of them; when I became an adult, it seemed like they always beat the dickens out of us, cruelly and embarrassingly, I might add. To make matters worse, the wise ones who run the world thought it profitable to somebody to abolish the Southwest Conference and attach Texas to the Great Plains and create the Big 12.  In this way, Texas plays another athletic powerhouse in Oklahoma State, and now both colleges find joy in embarrassing us in the full sight of every tough guy with the NCAA football cable package.
Leaving Texas

            For some reason, I pitied the state.  After all, Oklahoma is not Texas.  It was not pretty in the way we are pretty; and it was ugly in new and terrible ways we had not contemplated.   It was one of those flat states that attract tornadoes; it was where our greatest modern homegrown terrorists blew up a Federal Building; it was the home of the Tulsa riots in 1921 upon which William Owens, my teacher, modeled the riot at the climax of his novel Walking on Borrowed Land. And Oklahoma is the home of Senator Tom Coburn and Representative J. C. Watts, for God’s sake.   Conveniently, I had forgotten a long list of miseries native to my home, sweet home.  What does one do with our floods and fires, the assassination of a president, the murder of James Byrd, and our gifts to national politics, George Bush and Rick Perry, except commit them all to a cultural amnesia?

            Then, I drove the Caravan of Wonder north by way of the Indian Nation Turnpike from Hugo to Henrietta.  Sure, it is a toll road and cost us something like $12 for our couple of hours, but we compared this to the thirty-minute ride on 130 east of Austin for the same price, and our hearts softened toward this pitiful state that doesn’t seem to think that free enterprise is substitute for all governmental responsibilities.   When, over the next couple of days, I noticed the lack of the monotonous commerce of billboard advertisements on several of its state and national roads, I began to contemplate proposing building a border wall at the Red River, now that I had crossed over, to keep all the Texans out.  (I know, very few people read these posts, but if they ever attract an audience, I can already hear the proud Texans muttering, “Love it, or leave it, dude.” We Texans are a proudly inept people.

            From Henrietta, we eased our way to Okmulgee State Park, where we spent two glorious nights in the air conditioned luxury of the Caravan—because Oklahoma is, regrettably, just as ungodly hot and humid as Central Texas.  At Okmulgee, our third and fourth nights on the road, we achieved several firsts—our first state park with the RV, the first meal cooked on the Weber grill, the first full use of our butane fuel tanks, our first hot water, our first bike rides on the trip,  our first playing xbox on the road, and our first changing of plans because it is just too difficult to do everything we hope to do.  We scrapped my plans to see Woody Guthrie’s grave marker in Okemah, the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, and the Will Rogers Museum in Claremore. 

            So what did we get to see?  The Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa.  Opened only four months ago in April, this two-story building in what appears to be a recently revitalized part of Tulsa is a wonderful tribute and educational center devoted to one of America’s great individuals.  Primarily known as the writer and singer of the great American anthem—“This Land Is My Land”—Guthrie is also a poet, painter, artist, memoirist, and novelist. He seems to be a strange mix of the long line of wandering singing minstrels going back to Europe that is somehow grafted on to the root stock of the great American do-it-yourselfer, the pull-yourself-up-by-your-own bootstraps guy, the go-wherever-the-job-is and do-whatever-you-have-to-do-to-make-it guy.  There were no silver spoons for this man, so he was always, it seems to me, a man on the make, looking for the break—after all, he traveled between America’s two centers of culture—New York City and Los Angeles—,married a dancer from Merce Cunningham’s company and published a book reviewed in The New Yorker.   He was a man of the people, but that did not stop him from desiring fame and fortune.  I think this is something we bourgeois want-to-be artists forget:  the poor do not think it is noble to be poor.  Why would one want to be a poor artist that no one ever reads or sees or listens to?  Let’s leave self-inflicted neediness to the preachers and social workers. 

            But Woody Guthrie’s story is a difficult one, because as the United States exited World War II, and money started  to flow, Guthrie began suffering from Huntington’s Disease that robbed him of his ability to create.  It is astonishing to think that this man had maybe only twenty years of solid creativity.  Every singer-songwriter from the nineteen-fifties forward has his or her roots in Woody Guthrie.  In a sense, Woody Guthrie and Ezra Pound form a kind of artistic pole of opposite respected elders in the nineteen fifties.  These two men, hospitalized in different ways, imprisoned in similar ways, received visits from young men, mostly, who wanted to learn how to become themselves.  Pound was a fascist, which we artists attempt to ignore.  Guthrie was by temperament and philosophy, though not card-carrying, a communist, which solid Chamber of Commerce types wince at.   Guthrie is famous for a guitar upon which he wrote; “This machine kills fascists.”  I don’t think he meant only Hitler.

            From Tulsa, we ventured to Muskogee.  Beside the University of Oklahoma Sooners about the only thing I knew about Oklahoma was a slew of songs, such as “Oklahoma Hills,” by Woody Guthrie, “Oklahoma” by Rogers and Hammerstein, “Take Me Back to Tulsa” by Bob Wills, and one I just discovered thanks to my friend Lance Worley, “You Are the Reason God Made Oklahoma,” by David Frizzell.  Have you ever noticed how there might be more songs about Oklahoma that any other state?  The song closest to my heart is Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Mukogee.”

We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don't take no trips on LSD
We don't burn no draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin' right, and bein' free.

I'm proud to be an Okie from Muskogee,
A place where even squares can have a ball
We still wave Old Glory down at the courthouse,
And white lightnin's still the biggest thrill of all

We don't make a party out of lovin';
We like holdin' hands and pitchin' woo;
We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy,
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.            

Leather boots are still in style for manly footwear;
Beads and Roman sandals won't be seen.
Football's still the roughest thing on campus,
And the kids here still respect the college dean.

            As sometimes happens, this tongue-in-cheek song became a kind of rallying cry for people on both sides of the cultural cleavage that still runs through the U.S.  I mean damn near every issue we argue about today has its origins somehow in the sixties.  The song was sung with the same gusto at Armadillo World Headquarters as it was, I assume, in the roughest red neck road house (which I would never dare step into).   “Sweet Home, Alabama” and “Red-Neck Mother” may have similar dual audiences.  For me, at least, I appreciate and yearn toward both sides of Haggard’s civil war.  I think it is right and proper to maintain a certain innocence and sweetness to lovemaking, and there is much I can wave a flag about.  Some of the saddest sites in the United States are the rundown and abandoned central squares where, we fantasize, happy, un-ironic citizens used to gather in mutual respect.  But here I am, at sixty, growing my hair long and shaggy, just one more time before I return to be a college dean, whom I hope deserves a little respect.

            But we didn’t drive to Muskogee so I could sing Merle Haggard to my boys—though I guarantee that they heard a few bars—we went to visit the Museum of the Five Civilized Tribes.  I have been going on a long time in this blog already, so I ought to wrap things up.  And the truth is that the most important part of my visit two days in Oklahoma is still working on me several days after we have left.  It is the presence of Native Americans.  Woody Guthrie said something like he became who he is because he grew up in Oklahoma where one third of the population was white, one third black, and one third Native American.  This division is not true in Texas.  Our illustrious governor Mirabeau B. Lamar, modeling himself upon Andrew Jackson, I suppose, exterminated or exported the tribes native to Texas.  To be continued . . . .      

Soundtrack:  J.J. Cale, "Okie,"