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Entries in culture (4)


Blue Highways: Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia

Unfolding the Map

The events of the past three weeks, particularly with gun violence in the US, stirred me to write this post as I did.  My intent is to add to the national thought surrounding the recent tragedies, not to stoke antipathy among any readers.  Of course, I have my opinions and I share them with you as a thoughts and reflections for myself.  William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) laments the loss of boys' ability to play war.  I lament the loss of boys and girls in Newtown, Connecticut and other places because we as a society can't seem to come to terms with the violence that permeates our culture.  At right is the Virginia state bird, the Northern cardinal.

Book Quote

"Three children raced from under the oaks out over the grass to reenact the battle with guttural gunshots from their boyish throats."

Blue Highways: Part 10, Chapter 1

A memorial to Ohio soldiers killed in the Civil War battle at the Spotsylvania Court House. William Least Heat-Moon remarks on the names of some of these men in Blue Highways. Photo by "cowpie21" and hosted at Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to host page.

Spotsylvania Courthouse, Virginia

As I write this past, the day after Christmas in 2012, the holiday joy has been saddened by recent gun violence that have shaken the nation and could create a sea-change in how Americans perceive and regulate gun ownership in the United States.  Or not.  I will admit that I've only chosen part of LHM's passage to fit this post.  The full quote goes on to lament that in the age of the nuclear weapons, boys who want to play at war will have to find their inspiration elsewhere.

There has been a lot of carnage over the past few weeks: twenty schoolchildren and six school staff killed by a disturbed young person who then turned his gun upon himself, in Newtown, Connecticut; firefighters lured to a fire by a deranged man, who then shot four of them as they got out of their truck and whose note said that he was doing what he loved best - killing people.

It occurs to me that boys have found other ways to inspire themselves to play at war, sometimes with tragic results.  The United States, so prudish about sex, has glorified violence to the extreme.  Movies and television have pushed the extremes of violent depictions.  The cartoon violence that I grew up with has turned into graphic depictions of throats slit, bullet wounds, spurting blood and separated body parts.  A recent study of the James Bond films has determined that seriously violent acts in the long-running series have doubled.  My wife and I recently started watching an HBO series called Game of Thrones, and we see at least three or four extremely violent acts such as beheadings and bludgeonings per episode.

Video games provide kids with another access point to violence.  First-person shooter games such as Call of Duty and Halo are extremely popular.  I am not going to moralize on the games other than to note that there are some, perhaps with addictive personalities, who spend a lot of time on these games where death simply means that one can get back up again and continue shooting or start a new game.

When these cultural influences are mixed with our gun culture in the United States, it can become a very volatile mix.  There has been much written about the interpretation, or what "should" be the interpretation, of the Second Amendment of the United States Constitution.  The actual text of the Second Amendment reads: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."  Does the right to bear arms as spelled out in the Constitution simply apply to the time when the US did not have a standing army and therefore arming volunteers was key to keeping the fledgling Unites States secure?  Or, did it intend to help the citizens of the United States defend themselves against a potentially tyrannical federal government?  Did the amendment intend to allow people to keep and bear any arms, or can the federal government infringe on some rights and not others.  Unfortunately, the answers to these questions have not been clear and our inability to come to any meaningful answers has had a direct bearing on our culture and our public and contentious moral quandary comes front and center after every new tragedy that involves the procurement and use of weapons hits the media.

I think that at the root of our problem is America's addictive personality.  We may be addicted to violence, and addicted to the tools of violence.  People who are addicted to anything, whether the addiction be to drugs, alcohol, sex, or anything else, gradually increase their tolerance and also become numb to the effects of their addiction.  An addiction over time means that those who are addicted usually want more of what they are addicted to and at the same time, are unaware of the chaos that they bring to those around them.  Often loved ones, family, and friends wring their hands over what to do to help the addicted person, and yet are afraid to confront them, fearing their erratic behavior and possible rage.  It's easier to turn away than deal with the problem, especially if the problem is also partly enabled by the behavior of those who want to help.

As I watch the debate unfold over the latest tragedies, I see addiction.  We have enshrined the right of the purveyors of violence (video games, television, movies) to continue to provide their product in the name of Constitutional free speech.  Some propose that the solution to the problem is to provide more tools of violence, weapons, to everyone or at least well-trained individuals to protect us.  To me, this is similar to a an alcoholic arguing that he or she will be okay if they just get another drink to steady their nerves.  On the other hand, nobody in the United States seems to want to confront the hard problems of addiction and mental illness.  In the 1980s, the government cut funding for services to the mentally ill and since then those who would have previously been in treatment have had to get by on their own.  When our own failings as a society are brought to light, it's often easier to blame our "gun culture" than consider some of the deeper problems we have.

I am not blind with naivete.  I grew up with guns and saw the best and worst of them.  I also grew up with addiction and to this day I'm surprised that, when these two things mingled in my family, nobody got killed.  I still remember insisting to my father that he let me carry the gun when he demanded that we go on an evening deer hunt and stumbled out of our camp and into the hills.  When my father died, the Savage Model 99 rifle, along with a shotgun for hunting quail, stayed in a closet in my mom's house until she decided to give them to a cousin.  I have a twinge of regret that they are gone, but I don't really miss them.  I benefited from having guns in the form of venison meals and quail dinners, but I realized how dangerous they could be in the hands of individuals who, for whatever reason, should not be carrying them.

As we go through another round of debates, I would encourage us to not only debate the proper use and scope of the tools of violence, but also add the deeper roots of our cultural addiction to violence to the conversation.  And I encourage us to remember the martyrs of our societal moral quandary: the Newtown 26, the Rochester firemen, the Columbine dead and wounded, the Aurora dead and wounded, the Tucson dead and wounded and all the others who have been killed in our culture of violence.

Musical Interlude

Robert Earl Keen's version of the song Sonora's Death Row is a great illustration of the tragedy that comes with combining our various forms of addiction.  The rough and wild Old West was a gun culture, and full of all of the temptations of substance and sex money could buy, and it sometimes didn't end well.


If you want to know more about Spotsylvania Courthouse

National Park Service: Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania
Spotsylvania County: Spotsylvania Courthouse
Wikipedia: The Battle of Spotsylvania Court House
Wikipedia: Spotsylvania Courthouse

Next up: Cuckoo, Virginia


Blue Highways: Lakewood, New Jersey

Unfolding the Map

Travel, people!  Go to places that you've never been and even never thought of going!  That's the overwhelming message of this post.  As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) eats in a diner and waitress tells him not to go someplace, don't listen.  I'm telling you to go wherever you want and don't let anyone persuade you not to go.  You'll thank me later.

Book Quote

"When I paid the waitress, she filled with motherly counsel.  'Look, you're a nice boy.  Go to the shore.  Go to Atlantic City.  But for godsakes don't go to no middle.  The Pineys breed like flies in there.  Live like animals.'

"I'd heard those words across the country.  It was almost an axiom that anyone who lived off a main highway was an animal that bred like a fly...."

Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 8

I couldn't find a real exciting picture except for these storefronts in Lakewood, New Jersey. Photo by Kevin Knipe and hosted at City Data. Click on photo to go to host page.

Lakewood, New Jersey

When I was a little kid, I guess I was typical.  Whenever my mother or father told me I couldn't do something, it just made we want to do it more.  "No, Michael, you can't jump off the roof."  "No Michael, I won't let you walk down to the ocean by yourself."  "No, Michael, you are too young to go hunting with your dad."

Each time I heard "No" or was told "You can't..." I immediately didn't hear the rest.  I didn't hear the reason why I couldn't do something, which usually (though not always) made perfect, reasonable sense.  I blocked it out as my affronted brain feverishly tried to work out a way that I could do it, and would do it.

Luckily, I grew up.  Luckily, my frontal lobes finally developed, giving me (usually) a healthy sense of caution.  While I am not always risk averse, and like a good adventure, I'm not foolhardy either.

But when faced with a situation, especially when I'm traveling, where I'm discouraged to go somewhere or try something new, I still get like that young, past self of mine:  I start trying to figure out a way that I can do it.

I've heard it a lot in my life.  "Why would you want to go there?"  Or, even better:  "Don't go there, it's (place appropriate adjective here) and not worth your time."

I usually don't take heed.  There have been very few places that I've gone that I haven't found something, or some reason, to have made it worth my while to go.

Like LHM's waitress, most people measure the worth of a place by comparing it to what they know.  If it matches somewhat, with maybe a few differences, they are happy.  It is this mentality that leads people to always choose Applebees just off the interstate regardless of what culinary delights might be just five minutes drive into downtown.  We know what we like, and we stay with it.  As I write this post, I am eagerly awaiting a global music festival in Albuquerque, Globalquerque, which starts tonight and is one of the best things about this city.  It brings the world to our little corner of the desert.  Yet most people in Albuquerque don't know about it, and many of those wouldn't go because they aren't willing to open themselves up to something new.  Their rationale is, quite possibly, "I won't like it, and so I won't try it."  That's not me.

If I had that mentality, I would have never gone to Bangladesh.  I wouldn't have had the thrill of being scared half to death by a crash and a pair of gleaming eyes in a tree as I went from a hut to the outhouse very early one morning, only to realize that it was a giant fruit bat.  I would have never experienced the countryside, in the space of two weeks, fill up with water as the monsoon unleashed its fury.

I would have never gone to El Salvador and experienced the kindness of most of the people and also the fear that pervades the capital as dangerous drug gangs roam the streets.

I would have never gone to Northern Ireland as an observer during the parading season, where Protestant Irish groups parade with huge drums, desperately holding on to a tradition based on subjugating Catholic Irish groups because it's the only tradition they have.  I would have never seen the might of the British police and military apparatus, supposedly protecting the Nationalist communities from encroachment by more radical Protestant marchers but whose intentions were not trusted by anyone.

I would have never gone to Milwaukee to do volunteer service, lived in the inner-city, lived in Texas (you can't imagine how many "why would you want to move there?" questions I got then), lived in New Orleans, or visited half of the places that I've gone to.

Yet each place I've been, even if others think I'm nuts for going, has given me something precious.  Bangladesh was my first true immersion into a developing country, and the curiosity and generosity of its people, as well as the sheer mass of people, gave me an appreciation for where I live and where I am from as well as an overwhelming admiration for those who somehow, some way eke out a living in very, very difficult circumstances.  El Salvador gave me a respect for a people who, politically, were starting to come out from under the heel of decades of paternalistic and autocratic governments as well as many memories of trying to learn how to communicate with people with less than adequate Spanish.  Northern Ireland, even in the midst of hopeless division, showed me that even the hardest cases can have deep cracks that will one day open and that where hope seems small, it might only be the tip of the iceberg.  It too had fundamentally good people who were trying to find a way out of a decades-long nightmare.  Had jobs not called, I might have made Milwaukee my home base.  I came to love Texas.  I still see New Orleans as a spiritual home.

I'm not trying to elevate myself over everyone else in this post.  I don't think of myself as superior simply because I'm open to trying new things or going places that others say I shouldn't or would never think of going themselves.  However, I believe that those who isolate themselves into certain routines, that play it safe, that always stay with what they know probably have a narrower world view than others.  There is a cartoon that I found that, while a bit over the top, captures this spirit.  It shows an obvious racist Klansman-type with home decorations consisting of various fascist symbols.  Someone hands him a ticket for an around the world trip.  It shows him meeting new people of all ethnicities and doing new things in various countries.  Finally, when he comes back, his extremist decor is replaced by mementos from his trip, and he is placing a picture of himself with some African kids in the center of his bookcase.  I believe that challenging oneself to do things, even a small thing like trying a new restaurant or tasting a new type of food, expands our horizons.  I believe that travel, especially going to places that in some ways challenge us, opens our minds and helps us appreciate not only the places we go and people we meet, but also ourselves and where we live.  It gives us perspective.

I always take inspiration from my grandmother, who was a self-described "backwoods bunny."  Yet well into her fifties and sixties she made two trips of a lifetime to Europe to visit family that she had found in Austria.  She hated to fly, but she did.  Her photos and stories of Austria inspired me to travel there too.  I waited until I was in my thirties, but I did, and once I did there was no stopping me.  I'm a better person for it.  As my wife told an audience she was speaking to recently, "I like who I am when I travel."  I'll go her one further.  I especially like who I am when I travel to places I never thought I'd go.

Musical Interlude

I had a song for this, but I couldn't find it.  Oh well.  Terri Hendrix singing "Take me places I've never been before" will do.

If you want to know more about Lakewood

Township of Lakewood
Wikipedia: Lakewood

Next up: Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey


Blue Highways: Quanicassee, Michigan

Unfolding the Map

I feel like carping on a few things in this post.  Okay, I'm really going to be carping on carp, while also reflecting on my lack of enthusiasm for fishing.  All of this, in context of Blue Highways, takes place near Quanicassee, Michigan.  Drop some bait on the map and see if you can hook Quanicassee's location.

Book Quote

"Near Quanicassee, canals draining the wet land to make farming possible flanked the highway.  In the ditches, mile after mile, violent flashes of polished bronze roiled the murky water.  I stopped to see what it was.  The hot, muddy banks frothed with the courtship of eighteen-inch carp.  Males, flicking Fu Man Chu mustaches, metallic scales glittering like fragments of mirrors, orange tails thrashing, did writhing belly rolls over females as they demonstrated the right of their milt to prevail."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 15

Framework and Chimney. Photo of an abandoned house in Quanicassee, Michigan taken by The Gallopping Geezer and hosted at Flickr. Click on photo to go to host site.Quanicassee, Michigan

I was never much of a fisherman.  I remember taking a fishing pole and some fish eggs down to the river at some property we owned in Northern California and sitting and trying to get the fish to bite.  The fish were river trout, and they were small fish.  I remember that when I hooked them, pulling them out of the water was always interesting because they went from a greenish color in the water to gray and silver in the air.  They always seemed to be bigger in the air than in the water too.  I would watch them gasp for breath as I removed the hook and then I'd throw them back because rarely did we get a large trout in the river.

Lately I'm reminded how little interest I really had in fishing, which might seem strange since I have two uncles who were commercial fisherman, another uncle who was a sport fisherman, and a brother-in-law who likes to fish both ocean and fresh water.  I just never got into it, which is funny since I'm a relatively introverted person and fishing is a somewhat solitary pasttime.  It's an activity that encourages an inner-life in some people, and a zen-like calming solitude in others.  But it's never been my thing.

Which again is funny, because I love eating fish.  I think that there's nothing better than fresh fish, especially if the bones are removed and you can really enjoy the meat without picking needle-like bones out of your mouth.  I'm relatively picky about my fish, and my mother even more so.  For her, fish had to be so fresh it had to be almost wiggling on your plate.  Any fish that had a hint of fish taste for her was bad fish.  While I can get by with fish that has been flash frozen, for her that's an extreme no-no.

Nor did I ever get interested in other things about fish.  I never had an aquarium, and never learned much about the types of fish, fresh and saltwater, that live in the world.  I enjoyed looking at fish in aquariums, but never truly considered taking it up as a hobby.

Yet fish are a huge part of our existence.  Our evolution may mean that we are ultimately descended from fish-like creatures that crawled tentatively out onto the sand and ultimately adapted.  Fish have been a staple food source for eons of human diets.  Some of our most compelling stories have been about fish.  Jonah may have been swallowed by a "great fish" or whale depending on how one interprets the text.  Aphrodite and Eros, in escaping the terrible god Typhon, either turned into two fish and swam away or were saved by two fish whose images were immortalized in the constellation PiscesJesus fed a multitude by multiplying loaves and fishes, and exhorted his apostles to be "fishers of men."  In an Indian story, Manu was instructed on how to save himself from the great flood by a fish.  Beautiful mermaids, half woman and half fish, are said to lure men to their watery doom. 

I knew that goldfish and koi, types of carp, are considered to be important symbols in Japanese and Chinese culture.  In Japanese legend the carp was the only fish strong enough to swim to the top of the waterfall where it then became a dragon.  Therefore, in Japanese culture, the carp symbolizes strength, bravery and going against the current as well as the benefits of attaining one's goal.  In Chinese and Japanese culture goldfish and koi, both members of the carp family, are used, either in the form of paintings or with their physical inclusion in environmental surroundings, as elements leading to what the Chinese consider good Feng Shui.  Koi represented in a home symbolizes the desire for more happiness, better success, prosperity, good fortune and energy.

Unfortunately, Asian carp in the United States are now a pest.  Originally imported by Southern farmers to clean their ponds, these invasive species have been multiplying and adversely affecting the environment.  They can be dangerous too.  One species of Asian carp, the silver carp, is easily frightened by boats and leaps high out of the water as they pass by.  It has been known to cause injuries to boaters.  Here's a montage of some people trying to bowhunt Asian Carp as they jump out of the water.  It can be pretty frightening, as you can see, because these flying projectiles can really hurt a person.

It's ironic that in the U.S., carp, a fish that is seen in Asia as lending balance and harmony to life, is such an agent of imbalance in our environment.  It is literally screwing up our national Feng Shui.  Furthermore, it is maintaining its symbolism for strength and meeting goals in the worst possible way.  How did this happen?

It happened like everything else that is besetting the embattled fish populations of our world.  We, humans, are the ones that put everything out of balance.  In the oceans, we are overfishing as sushi has become a must-have food in the United States and elsewhere.  That overfishing has led to entire salmon seasons along the West Coast of the United States to be severely restricted if not canceled some years.  Five of the eight species of tuna are feared to be in danger of extinction.  We have, sometimes with good intentions, introduced non-native species like Asian carp into rivers and streams in an attempt to accomplish some good, but the lack of natural enemies has let those populations explode and crowd out the native species. 

Somehow, humans need to discover that our actions affect the balance, the Feng Shui, of the world for better or for worse.  Is there a way that we can meet our goals and be strong, like the carp that scaled the waterfall and turned into a dragon, but also create balance and harmony, like the koi?

Musical Interlude

The musical interludes in this post are all about my sister Pauline.  She was a big fan of this first song, Fisherman's Blues by The Waterboys.


She is also a very close friend of Chi Cheng, the bassist of The Deftones who seriously injured with traumatic brain injury in a car accident.  Though I've never met Chi, my inclusion of this song, Street Carp, co-written by Chi, is dedicated to him and hopes that he will recover.

If you want to know more about Quanicassee

Wikipedia: Wisner Township

Next up: Caseville and Port Austin, Michigan


Blue Highways: Grand Forks, North Dakota

Unfolding the Map

At Grand Forks, we say goodbye to North Dakota and look toward Minnesota ahead.  I passed by Grand Forks once.  While William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) gets his water pump fixed, I'll use this opportunity to reminisce about how the city seems to herald civilization at the edge of the Great Plains.  To see where Grand Forks does its duty, head to the map!

Book Quote

"Who in America would guess that Grand Forks, North Dakota, was a good place to be stuck in with a bad water pump?  Skyscrapers from the thirties, clean as a Norwegian kitchen, a state university with brick, big trees, and ivy.  On Monday morning the pump got replaced in an hour for $37.50.  I had expected to be taken for three times that figure, but I met only honest people."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 10

Downtown Grand Forks, North Dakota. Photo by David Stybr and hosted at City-Data. Click on photo to go to host page.

Grand Forks, North Dakota

I remember Grand Forks vaguely, kind of like a dream that appeared in the midst of the flat farmland of North Dakota as we (my fiancee and I) made our long drive from Dunseith, North Dakota to Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The city just seemed to pop up out of nowhere, and the large buildings that LHM describes, the "skyscrapers from the thirties" stood out in stark contrast to anything else that we had seen up to that point.

To me, just as St. Louis once signaled the end of civilization and the beginning of the frontier, as memorialized in its massive and spectacular Gateway Arch, Grand Forks seems to signal for travelers passing toward the east the onrush of civilization again from the sparse emptiness of the West.  First Grand Forks, modest in size and scale but seemingly gigantic after a thousand miles of prairie and farmland.  Then Minneapolis/St. Paul, the twin cities, positively cosmopolitan on opposite sides of the Mississippi River, one seemingly frozen in time with older architecture, the other with sleek, modern, glassy buildings reflecting the sunlight from a distance.  Then Chicago, which veneers a rough, wintery, no-nonsense type of grit with its own combination of past and present architecture.

But Grand Forks comes as an initial shock to the senses.  It almost seems, after all the miles and all the flatness and the sparseness of North Dakota, like it shouldn't be there.  It's buildings shimmer in the hazy distance like a mirage that you expect to disappear until you are right upon it and discover that indeed, it is there.  It has sprung, like a flower (or a weed depending on your perspective and your like or dislike of civilization), and persists despite the blazing summers and the freezing, blizzardy winters.  It persists despite the devastating floods along the Red River of the North that occurred in 1997, inundating the downtown and neighborhoods and causing the destruction of many buildings and the displacement of many people.

LHM refers to the hardiness and toughness of the people when he makes a reference to "Norwegian."  With typical midwestern and old world industriousness, the people of Grand Forks cleaned up after the floods.  They demolished some old neighborhoods to put in a levee system, and made a riverfront park to buffer and secure the city from future flooding.  In other words, nature gave Grand Forks its best shot, and staggered it, but the flower continues to sprout on the Great Plains, welcoming people back from the hinterlands to civilization.

Yes, I remember Grand Forks, which after a long drive through North Dakota, past flat farmland punctuated by occasional trees and missile silos, seems to sit as a beacon on the plains.  I was grateful to Grand Forks for providing something besides the occasional water tower to arrest my sight.  I wish that I had time to stop there and visit and experience the "honest people" that LHM mentions.  Perhaps one day I'll get to all the places I want or feel that I should have seen.

Musical Interlude

I've been waiting to use this song, and now that we're moving out of Grand Forks and North Dakota, I have to use it.  Lyle Lovett's North Dakota is a winsome and melancholy song, juxtaposing the loneliness along borders, and the search for and loss of love.

If you want to know more about Grand Forks

The City Beat (blog)
City of Grand Forks
Dakota Student (student newspaper of University of North Dakota)
Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau
Grand Forks Herald (newspaper)
Grand Forks Life (blog)
High Plains Reader (alternative newspaper)
Travel North Dakota (blog)
University of North Dakota
Wikipedia: Grand Forks

Next up: Oslo, Minnesota