Saturday, March 5, 2011
March 5, 2011 [Tribute Post 6]: The World as a Classroom
In honor of my current, first-ever visit to the City of Big Shoulders, the Windy City, Chi-Town, and whatever other clichéd nicknames you’d like to add to the mix, I’ve been thinking about some other cities that I have visited only once (thus far) in my life and yet that in that brief time taught me something significant about America, each in its own very unique way. Here are the top 5, in ascending order of just how much each place likewise reflects what I’d say are defining American qualities:
5) Rome: I was fortunate enough to spend a summer month in Rome, for a graduate course, and certainly much of what made that time so memorable was just how different it was from anywhere I’ve traveled within the United States. Yet perhaps the most exemplary such difference actually helped me to understand something that America could do much more successfully—live with our past. I was struck in Rome by how much the truly ancient historical presences there abut and even converse with the most modern ones—you’re walking down a 21st century street, turn a corner, and there’s the Coliseum. Parking lots run right up to the edge of centuries- (if not millennia-) old ruins. You can dip your feet in fountains that might well have been built by a Caesar. Compared to our American tendency to curtain off the “historical” parts of our cities, to treat them as monuments to be visited and impressed by and then left behind as we return to our modern lives and settings, I think the Roman version is infinitely more accurate to the continuing presence and meaning of the past, and potentially a lot more healthy and productive for a society.
1) Las Vegas: And now for something completely different. I didn’t spend much time in Vegas, my family and I flew in and out of it on a trip to visit Western national parks and stayed there for, I believe, just the one night of our initial arrival. And I was only 12, so what made the most of an impression was the newspaper vending machines on the Strip that contained advertisements for escort services; perhaps there’s an AmericanStudies lesson in that, but if so it’s a bit too bleak for me to contemplate. Only slightly less bleak, though, were the interconnected two lessons of the One Armed Bandits: first their ubiquity, there were slot machines immediately past the airport’s boarding gate (ie, as soon as they could legally be there, there they were), in the Denny’s where we had dinner, you name it; and second their destructiveness, as I watched (during the literally five minutes we spent in a casino) a woman win a couple thousand dollars in quarters on a slot and, without pausing, start feeding them back in again. One of the first times I truly understand just how willing Americans are to feed into the worst situations of their fellow citizens, especially those who can least afford it; probably a human lesson, but certainly one that appears far too often in our national history and identity.
3) Los Angeles: But don’t worry, not just in the potentially bleak ways that could continue those Vegas lessons. Sure, LA, where my wife and I spent a couple days prior to a Southern California wedding a few years back, features prominently the Hollywood Sign and everything that it represents, and in the couple hours we spent walking up and down Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards I felt plenty of that gilded surface and saw plenty of the contrasting, darker realities lying just beneath or beside it. But we also visited the site of the La Brea tar pits, which now features a museum that provides some pretty in-depth geological and paleontological examinations of the pits and the world in which they existed; and as we strolled around the site with our two-month-old younger son, we ogled the life-size recreation of a dying mammoth alongside three different elementary school class field trips: one composed largely of Hispanic American kids, one a mixture of African American and Asian American kids, and one that could have come straight out of an Iowa farm town (and maybe they did, although that’d be one heck of a field trip). Only in LA, no?
2) Sitka, Alaska: I spent a week in Sitka with my wife, who was starting a month-long visiting medical residency there. That residency alone, and the work it enabled my wife to do with the largely impoverished and mostly Native American population whom the hospital served, was an inspiring American idea and practice. But even the guy who was just there to see the sights and work on the revisions of his first book got to experience a pretty amazingly American morning: I started by visiting the historic fort, which had belonged first to the Russians and then (after Seward’s folly) to the American settlers; then walked down to the site of the Aleut community that had existed in an uneasy (and far too often violent) relationship to those European settlements; and ended by kayaking out into the harbor, where we got a very overt reminder of the kinds of natural power that the American frontier had always offered and still offers in Alaska: a couple thousand pound sea lion surfaced just a few feet away from our kayaks, said hi (I think), and then moved on with his evening. All four of those communities—Russian Americans, Anglo Americans, Native Americans, sea lion Americans—still occupy Sitka in one way or another, and it’s better and more American for the mixture.
1) New Orleans: I wrote about New Orleans through the lens of Cable’s The Grandissimes (1881) in one of my first few posts, and much of what I said about Cable’s novel, and especially its multi-lingual, multi-national, multicultural, multi-perspectival mélange of histories and peoples and governments and stories, is what likewise makes the Crescent City such a pitch-perfect American space. We visited in the winter of 2004, just about exactly a year before Katrina hit, but certainly that event, both in the horrific inequities and brutalities it exposed and in the inspiring ways that the city has begun to rise from that watery abyss, only amplifies how centrally American, in the worst and the best ways, New Orleans has always been and most definitely continues to be. Makes we want to go back!
I should, and hopefully will, return to all of these places, with the possible exception of Vegas. But in that city, as in each of these cases, what happened there most definitely did not stay there—I brought it home with me, and with it a more complex and layered and meaningful understanding of America and all that I have yet to learn about it. Let’s see what Chicago can teach me! No academic work in progress post tomorrow, but back to regularly scheduled programming on Monday with the belated post on the divided Exposition.
PS. Not gonna try to provide links for all five of those places! But I’ll ask another question for which I’d love some answers from you guys: what have you learned from the places you’ve gone?