Friday, May 28, 2004

He's baaaack.....

Well, I'm back but not back with it, as you can see. They say travel broadens one, but I don't think broadening your waistline is what was originally intended by the phrase. But eight days on a train, taking in more scenery than you can actually absorb in that time, with surprisingly good food three times a day, will tend to have that beltline effect.

Thanks to all those who came back to see if I had; my return hit rate dropped to almost nothing while I was away, which is kinda to be expected when you tell folks you won't be around, but started to pick up again on Tuesday. So I'm flattered that people were checking and thank you for the attention. (On the other hand, my first-time hit rate went way up for a few days; I suspect it was because of what I wrote about the conspiracy theories surrounding Nick Berg's death, since "nick berg conspiracy" appear to have been the main search keywords by which people found the site. Oh, a sidebar on that, and another serious hit to the tinfoil-hat crowd: It develops that the orange jumpsuit Berg was wearing in the video is not standard issue US military prison clothing. Those jumpsuits have zippered fronts and breast pockets, neither of which Berg's did.)

There've been some things to deal with relating to work and personal life (yes, I do have one) that have kept me from jumping right back in, but no, I haven't disappeared and yes, I'm back safe and sound. Oh, and I'm not quite as derelict as it might seem: We missed a connection and so got back a day later than planned.

Riding through places ranging from cities like Chicago where you are just another single thread in the fabric - in fact, one that could be pulled with no damage to the whole - to small towns in northern Montana where frankly the daily passing of the Amtrak is still something of an event (Did you know that people still go out to wave at trains? How cool is that?), got me to thinking about the places we call home and their variety. I don't mean that in any "this great, big, beautiful land of ours" sense, but in an individual one, the idea that for each of us, there may be a place we feel we belong, a place that's home, not just a residence. John Denver said it in "Rocky Mountain High" when he referred to "coming home to a place he'd never been before." It's a place where we can, resorting to a cliche, set down roots.

It's not a matter of the size or the location, although they are part of it, it's a matter of the feel.

It occurs to me as I write this that this is something I've reflected on to one degree or another for a long time, not always to the same effect. In college, way, way back in the '60s, I wrote something I vaguely remember about a "rootless generation" emerging, consisting of young people who were not committed to a certain place and so were free - and I did present it as a form of freedom, something to be welcomed - to move about when, where, and as they would without being bound by things that were of their immediate environment but not of them. Their home, to put it another way, was inside them rather than around them.

In the years since I've come to wonder if I wasn't actually rationalizing my own sense of rootlessness. Well, not rationalizing, more like making a virtue of necessity. I've usually felt out of place everywhere I've been, like I didn't really fit in. I can come up with all kinds of Psych-101 reasons as to why (okay, I'm more adept than that; Psych-202), but they're really unimportant now. I remember once my first wife and I, while living in New England, visited her relatives at the Jersey shore (where we are both from). As we left one brother's house, she said something about "going home." I was somewhat taken aback, since we had planned to stay a few more days - until I realized she meant the motel. She was so adept at settling in wherever she was that she could refer to the motel where we'd been for three days as "home" without any seeming contradiction. I always envied that about her. Still do, in fact.

By contrast, I once said to her as we were arriving at our house after some errands, feeling unusually philosophical, that she had "no idea what it's like to look at the place where you've lived for seven years and feel like you don't belong there." She said "You're right - I don't." And she didn't. (I actually wrote something rather more personal about this whole feeling which I'm not going to include here; this is quite personal enough, thank you. But since I've gone this far, I'll offer to email it to anyone who wants for who knows what odd reason to see it.)

It may be - warning, more Psych-202 coming - that's part of the reason I like to travel: After all, when you travel it's natural to feel a bit out of place. That feeling of difference, of newness, hell, that's part of the allure.

There was, of course, a political side to these reflections as well, a side that hinted at a shift in perspective from my college days. This was written to a friend in the UK; the letter was dated November 29, 1993.
That, in turn, raises another issue which predates NAFTA (and GATT) but is closely connected to them: loss of community or, rather, the creation of what I call rootless workers. For a few decades now, capital has become more and more mobile, shifting from place to place more by electronic transfers than by the movement of actual bonds, bills, and coins. (You've heard of "virtual reality;" this is like virtual money.) Corporations have become freer than ever to chase around a country or the world, leaping from enterprise to enterprise, even industry to industry, in pursuit of profit. The result has been regional booms and busts as one area competes with others to see who could offer the most to Big Business in a downward spiral of self-flagellation that inevitably left the losers gasping for economic breath - and, often, the "winners" with a temporary if not downright pyrrhic "victory." (Consider Texas, whose "boom towns" of the '70s became the empty husks of the '80s; consider Korea, whose "economic miracle" of the '80s, built on the infusion of transnational capital in search of low-wage labor, is turning sour as corporations move on to the Philippines in search of even lower-wage labor.)

The corporate response to this undeniable reality has been to trumpet "emerging opportunities," "growth regions," and "market expansion." Implicit in all this staged euphoria is the notion that working stiffs, ordinary folks, everyday people, or whatever other folksy label we want to put on the 90% of us left out of the considerations of the powerful, are no different than the parts on a machine: replaceable, disposable, even interchangeable. And that the only way for us to survive in this bold new economic future is to be as mobile as capital - that is, to chase work around the country or the world as rapidly as money chases profit. We dare not attach ourselves to a place, a people, a community, or even a particular sort of work because we may have to abandon it on short notice for the sake of our own and our families’ survival, perpetually chasing behind - always, of course, behind - capital in what gives a new, more sinister meaning to "the rat race."

We have to drink the shallow economic water that runs on the surface of a local economy because if we dare to set down roots and try to drink from a deeper source, we may find the watershed pumped away to feed another, distant, plain, leaving the earth cracked, dry, and barren and ourselves (and the stable communities we hoped to find) to wither. We must, that is, become nomads - no, not even nomads, which implies purposeful ranging over well-known territory, but mere wanderers, emotionally isolated in order to be emotionally insulated against the constant risk and frequent reality of loss. We must be homeless, placeless, rootless.

If that sounds melodramatic it's because it describes not what's fully formed today but the end of a process that has been going for some time and will only be accelerated by NAFTA and GATT, which make the macroeconomics of transnational corporations and not the microeconomics of actual human beings not merely the central (that'd be nothing new) but increasingly the only economic standard of measure. On the other hand, if it sounds melancholic, that's because it is.
The melancholy was less in the sense of not having roots per se than in being unable to have roots - but still there was much more of a sense of importance of "place" than I'd had years before.

The truth is, I think what prompted all this was seeing such a variety of scenes and places in such a short time. (The route was Boston - Chicago - Los Angeles - Portland - Chicago - Boston or, put another way, industrial Northeast/Midwest, Central Plains, Southwest, Pacific Coast, Columbia River Basin, Northern Plains, and back.) In just about every one of them I could find something beautiful or intriguing or interesting or thought-provoking or something that could make that place one worth spending some time in. I could see what might attract people to the place. But I began to wonder if familiarity, if not breeding contempt, at least gives rise to indifference. The beauty of the Rockies, the ruggedness of the coast, the incredible sweeping openness of the plains, these are things that some people experience every day. Do they appreciate what they have? Or is there a point at which it becomes sameness? Do we, ultimately, only see value in the exotic?

I recall taking a cross-country bus trip some years ago. At a stop in Indianapolis, a little shop at the station had a poster in the window advertising its new fountain creation: a Coney Island. Now, growing up on the Jersey shore as I did, Coney Island was a place you never went because it was always noisy, overcrowded with tourists spilling beer and ice cream, and expensive. But, I realized, in Indianapolis it might have seemed an exciting, exotic place. Later, when we crossed the Mississippi, the driver announced the fact over that sort of crackling, hissy PA buses always seemed to have. Passengers were looking out their windows going "oooh!" And I was looking out my window going "oooh!" And a girl from East St. Louis was going "Yeah? So?" The situation was reversed: What to me was notable, to her was everyday, not even worth mentioning to the point where she was surprised anyone else would.

Which brings me to the wrapup of this meandering line of thinking, something that the trip drove home and clarified. I've been trying of late to take more notice of the things around me, the views and vistas that normally we let slip into the background because we're too busy, we're too distracted, they're too familiar, they're just town streets or a little hill, they're not grand or special or exotic. I've been trying, that is, to be more aware of place. Because I think, maybe it's a natural progression, maybe it's a matter of age, maybe it's always been there but is now emerging with force, but I think that I want to belong somewhere. I don't know where that is or even how to look for it, but what the hell, I'm here now so I may as well take a really good look around. After all, if I don't know where it is, it might just possibly be here.

And even if it turns out not to be, I may as well enjoy the scenery.

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