September 2004


It’s true: it’s here. The change that all of New England awaits every year with hushed breath has begun to transpire. When the leaves start to turn, will the Leaf Peepers be far behind?

Whether or not the tourists have caught wind of it yet, the trees along the Ashuelot River here in Keene have begun to turn. Before you think that these photos come from some secluded wilderness spot, let me explain that the Ashuelot River Park is in the heart of metropolitan Keene (such as it is). The main entrance to the park is on West Street next to the Blockbuster Video store and behind the new Starbucks. Colony Mill Marketplace and a homogenous strip mall are across the street. When you think of Keene, you have to understand that a river runs through her, and this river slices right through the heart of Keene’s business district with its parking lots and chain stores.

I stress this point for the sake of those aforementioned Leaf Peepers. They presumably think that Keene’s parking lots and chain stores are somehow more amply blessed than their own, that the maple in my front yard glows a more neon shade of salmon than the maple growing in their own. Although it’s true that New England autumns are, for various complex meteorological reasons, more brilliant than those of anywhere else in the world, the trees on a secluded New Hampshire hillside aren’t necessarily going to be brighter or more spectacular than the trees behind the supermarket. And yet over the next few weeks, droves of folks from neighboring New England towns will motor through my backyard to see how my trees compare to theirs. Have they ever noticed the maple in their own front yard; do they even care?

Forgive me for sounding crotchedy: it’s not like I have a problem “sharing” my backyard with strangers. But like the older brother of a blossoming beauty, I feel a bit protective when strange eyes start ogling “my” little girl. The gangly tomboy who was all but invisible to outsiders all summer long has suddenly, surprisingly, transformed into a Babe, and all the neighbor boys have started to sit up and take notice. Now even unmowed weeds and unkempt roadsides are beginning to shine with beauty; now even insect-eaten leaves are wilting in a particularly aesthetic fashion. The irony of autumn beauty, of course, is that it is the pall of death we so admire, the process that makes leaves change color being the very act of their death and desiccation. Autumn is a reminder that Nature ultimately does not care. These leaves are not baubles bedecked to tempt and allure but the sallow, sunken shades of decay, Nature being careless enough to cast off without thinking leaves and lives by the bushel.

That Nature is in the business of dying–and that she deals out death with abandon and aplomb–should be no surprise. The whole year ’round, creatures are born only to die inevitably thereafter, the cycle of life being an endless conveyor wending toward the Hereafter. What is surprising about autumn–the real change that transpires this time of year, every year–is that for once humanity is in step with Nature’s death-wending course. When else but in autumn do you find people, enthusiastic tourists, flocking to funerals? For Leaf Peeping is nothing more than a huge landscape-sized wake, the bodies set out for viewing being numerous, colorful, and so common as to be found under virtually every foot.

Although the leaves are starting to turn here in Keene, my heart is still processing images from this weekend’s trip to Ohio. The last time I visited my family in Columbus, I was thoroughly disoriented when I returned here to New Hampshire: seemingly overnight while I was gone, the landscape had gone from winter sterility to summer fecundity. This trip home, the seasons similarly switched while I wasn’t looking: since returning to Keene on Monday night, I’ve started wearing long sleeves and shoes (versus shorts sleeves and sandals) in recognition of autumn’s arrival.

Apart from seasonal fluctuations, however, there are other, deeper reasons why visits home are disorienting for me. My life in New Hampshire and my life in Ohio are entirely distinct from one another. Whenever I return home, my parents treat me as if I never graduated and grew up: in their mind, it’s as if I am still a moody teenager holed up alone in her bedroom, venturing out only for meals. My parents’ world and my world are hugely different: whereas I don’t own much less watch a TV, my folks are perpetually glued in front of one of several; whereas I literally live much of my life online, both writing and teaching there, my folks don’t own a computer much less understand this nebulous notion of the Internet. I read voraciously; my parents don’t read at all. I despise country, the only music my parents can tolerate. Try as they might, my parents still can’t understand how a Ph.D. in English hasn’t bagged me a “real” job yet, and I’m completely at a loss to explain to them how it is that I’m qualified to teach college but not high school. (This latter fact is rather mystifying, come to think of it, which might be why I’m entirely ill-equipped to explain it to my parents’ satisfaction.)

More troubling than my inability to explain my New Hampshire life and lifestyle to my midwestern parents, though, is my inability to explain Ohio to New England. Although Ohio and New Hampshire aren’t too terribly estranged–there are plenty of people here, for instance, who listen to country music–the life I lead here in Keene is completely divorced from my parents’ working class roots. Here in New England, I am an academic, someone scrambling her way upward into the Educated Elite; in Ohio, I’m just another truck driver’s daughter living in a seedy neighborhood filled with strip clubs and junked cars. My family has never been to New England to see the likes of Harvard or MIT, and my grad school friends and professional colleagues have never been to Columbus to see the “ghetto” neighborhood where I grew up. As the saying goes, you can take a girl out of the streets, but you can’t take the streets out of the girl…but what that saying leaves out is how strongly and entirely a girl can shut out the streets, the doors of denial being heavy and close-fitting.

Over the years, I’ve encountered many writers–most of them people of color–who write about the “doubleness” of crossing from the seedy to the sparkling side of the tracks. Like bell hooks, in college I often felt I had more in common with my school’s janitors and cafeteria workers than I did with my professors; like Richard Rodriguez, I know what it’s like to be a “scholarship girl” who saw straight A’s as being a way out of a dead-end situation. Like John Edgar Wideman, I’ve felt like a traitor to my family when I consider the “academic self” I present to my professional colleagues: I know, for instance, that the way I talk when I’m around my folks is different from how I talk around other professors and live in perpetual fear that my uncouth, “uneducated” background will slip out when least suspected.

When you’re a working class girl who finds herself with pen (and digicam) in hand, this question of loyalty becomes particularly pronounced. When should you speak, and when should you keep silent? Do you dare show the world where you really come from: will the world despise you for your low class ways, or will they chuckle behind a cultured hand at the “white trash” you consider kin? In The Business of Fancydancing, Sherman Alexie explores the “doubleness” that a Native American writer feels when he decides to betray his fellows by leaving the reservation and becoming a successful poet: how can you live with yourself when you know you’re making money off of other people’s stories, and how can you go back home after casting your lot with the outside world and its acclaim?

This fall, my freshmen at Keene State College are reading and discussing the memoir Ecology of a Cracker Childhood by KSC Writer-in-Residence Janisse Ray. Growing up in a junkyard in rural Georgia, Ray felt shame about her “white trash” upbringing only after she ventured away from home to go to school; only after moving north did she learn that Yankees mock and despise Southerners. In Ray’s case, the secret to understanding and embracing a childhood that involved poverty, mental illness, religious fanaticism, and physical abuse lay in an over-arching ecological vision: if you learn to love a place, you’ll see how that place and its creatures are intrinsically connected. Mourning as much for the demise of Georgia’s long-leaf pines and the environmental degradation of its landscape as she does for the family members she has lost over the years, Ray points to how place is connected to identity. In a culture where trees are valued as mere commodity, is it any wonder that we’d allow our interactions with other humans to be colored with prejudice, fear, and inequality?

To paraphrase an old saying, east is east and midwest is midwest, and never the twain shall meet. And yet I carry both flatlands and mountains, simple uneducated folks and upper class academics, in my heart of hearts: coming from and living in both places, I recognize the impress they each have on the shape of my soul. At the end of the day, the sun sets on white trash and educated elite alike; the grass is equally green on both sides of that fence. When the Pentecost spirit rained down like fire from the heavens, it fell on rich and poor man alike: should sunshine or enlightenment be any different?

Suburban street

Here’s another glimpse of a quintessential residential street on the east side of Columbus, OH. After driving all day yesterday, I arrived back here in New Hampshire at 7:00 pm last night, right before dark, so today’s pictures are from Sunday morning’s stroll around my parents’ neighborhood. Few people in my parents’ Columbus neighborhood walk their dogs–that’s what large fenced yards are for. So as Reggie instigated a minor ruckus by causing all the yard-bound Pit Bulls and Rottweilers to bark and yowl at the strange sight of a leashed, walking dog, I tried to snap some surreptitious photos. It’s rare enough to see a white woman walking in my parents’ neighborhood; it’s even rarer to see a white woman walking a dog while snapping photographs.

Parked

One way to tell the socio-economic status of a neighborhood is to observe the kind of cars you see parked there. In some older New England neighborhoods, for instance, you’ll see beat up cars parked in front of large, impressive houses: those houses, apparently, were bequeathed to folks who presumably wouldn’t have the wherewithal to buy them outright, judging from the kinds of cars you see parked out front. Similarly, in large cities the size of one’s apartment or condo doesn’t necessarily bespeak the size of one’s investment portfolio: the brownstones in Boston’s tonier neighborhoods, for instance, might not look big, but their price tags certainly are. But when you consider the throngs of new BMWs, Saabs, and Volvos parked along the streets of places such as Beacon Hill, you know the folks living all but on top of one another in those brownstones chose to live there, the cachet of their address being worth the hassle of wrangling for a winter parking space.

Carport

Since Ohio is a land of wide roads and expansive parking lots, you’ll see lots of large cars there. Not every Ohioan drives a Cadillac, Lincoln, or Crown Vic, but you’ll see more such cars in Ohio than you will here in New Hampshire. Here in New England, Subarus are everywhere: their all-wheel drive and “drive ’em ’til they drop” dependability make them a popular choice for navigating our notoriously snowy winters. In Ohio this weekend, though, I can’t recall seeing a single Subaru, a car that my parents lump together with other “foreign” (meaning simultaneously “strange” and “un-American”) cars such as Fiats and Pugeots. (To this day I don’t think my Dad understands or has forgiven my sisters for buying “toy” cars, believing that the size of your car is directly connected to the respectability of your lifestyle.)

Years ago when we first moved to Beacon Hill, Chris and I (well, make that Chris) drove a passed-down Buick. In one of the more memorable moments of our marriage, we had driven–on New Year’s Eve, no less–the first hundred or so miles of the trip back to Ohio in a slowly dying Ford Tempo, intending to sell it when we arrived to pick up Chris’s grandmother’s old car. What made that New Year’s Eve so memorable is the fact that the Tempo’s heater coil was shot, so we had no heat…and the windows kept fogging with vaporized antifreeze. As we continually wiped down the windshield in order to see the icy surface of the Mass Turnpike ahead of us, that damn Tempo slowed several times to a dead, entire stop. After learning the hard way that AAA will not make service runs on the Turnpike, we (again, make that Chris) literally pushed that car into the nearest service plaza where a bottle of gas treatment (temporarily) fixed the problem and got us safely to Ohio.

Car as potting shed

Although that Ford Tempo was a junker, at least it tried to blend into the Beacon Hill neighborhood where we were living at the time. (Before you judge our investment portfolio by our then-address, let me hasten to add that we lived in a cramped, dimly-lit underground “garden flat” that was a carry-over from the days when Beacon Hillers had live-in servants.) When we arrived back in Boston with our boat-like Buick, we immediately realized why we’d never seen one cruising the streets of Beacon Hill: it was impossible to park. The street-yacht that had seemed so sensible on Ohio streets was all but entirely untenable in Boston…but Chris at least (briefly) relished the cachet of being the only person for miles around to be driving a “ghetto car.” All he needed was a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from his rearview mirror and a fur-upholstered steering wheel to complete the image of the ’90s latest white rapper: White Boy Slim, denizen of the mean streets of Beacon Hill.

Enshrouded

I think my fascination with the old, decrepit, and seamy underbelly of places like Keene derives from my childhood in Columbus. Everyone naturally enjoys the beauty of a brand new, brightly shiny car…but there’s a certain genuine character about old junkers that contain so much of their owner’s personality (and stored belongings). Some have (rightly) argued that you can tell a lot about a person–or a family–by looking at the sorts of things they display on their refrigerator: those tacked-up soccer schedules, children’s drawings, and shopping lists communicate our truest, least primped selves, the things we really value, neighbors’ opinions notwithstanding. I’d take this notion a step further to argue that our cars say a great deal about who we are, what we value, and where we come from. The person who threw a blue tarp over their already-rusted car also has meticulously tended flowers in front of their bland, cookie-cutter house: they might not be able to afford a new BMW, Saab, or Volvo, but they try to make the best with what they can afford.

Foggy windows

In a place like Columbus, after all, people spend a good deal of time in their cars: the suburbs at least aren’t designed with pedestrians in mind, so the best way to navigate sprawl is behind the wheel of a vehicle. If you spend enough time in a car (and believe me, after yesterday’s all-day drive, I speak from experience), its metal hull becomes a kind of exoskeleton, a chrome and metallic excrescence of your own True Nature. In my case, I’m frugal and practical: although I rented a newer car to make the drive to and from Columbus, what I typically drive is a 1993 beat-up blue Subaru with 230,000 miles on the odometer and too much dog hair in the backseat. She ain’t pretty, my newly body-worked Little Tank, but she’ll get you there and back again no matter what the weather. Although my chosen make of car isn’t characteristically Ohioan, maybe the values behind that choice ultimately are.

Here’s where it all began…the neighborhood where I grew up. The wide street, green lawns, and benignly dilapidated ranch houses are quintessentially Columbus, at least on the east side where my folks live. Is it any wonder that I feel disoriented whenever I travel from quaint and crowded New England towns to the wide and sprawling neighborhoods of suburban central Ohio? Here in Ohio, you need at least a half-acre for every video store parking lot: space in Ohio is a seemingly limitless commodity, so everything sprawls accordingly.

I’m driving back to New Hampshire tomorrow, so I’ll be offline until Monday night. In the meantime, sweet green dreams.

I’m as earthy-crunchy as the next tree-hugger…but even I was stopped cold by the sign on the other side of this porn shop here in Columbus, Ohio. “Recycle Your Porn,” one sign exorts while another proclaims “We Buy Used Magazines and Videos.” Uh, does anyone really want a used porno mag, given what such magazines are usually “used” for? And do I even need to point out the wry double-entendre apparent in a porn store sign that advises you to “Enter in Rear”?

Ahem. Next slide, please.

My folks’ neighborhood is seedy by just about anyone’s standards. Although the names have changed over the years, the strip club on the corner of my parents’ street has been there as long as I can remember, and the porn shop on the street where we used to live has been there since I was a child. It’s a given that the Mirage (or the Driftwood, or the Oasis) will be hiring dancers whenever I come home: in the past, in fact, Chris and I have joked that this would offer me a reliable fall-back career if the whole professor thing doesn’t work out. (For the record, if anyone saw Teri Hatcher trying out her pole-dancing moves on Jay Leno last night, let me assure you that I dance just like that. Or not. I’ll leave you to wonder about that.) It’s a sad commentary, I think, that the three most “booming” businesses in my parents’ neighborhood are a porn shop, a strip club, and the various “freelancing” ladies who strut their stuff on Main Street looking for “customers.” Do we really need to recycle such seediness? It seems there is a never ending supply.

Today’s Photo Friday topic is, fittingly enough, Furry. This photo, snapped early this morning, shows why it’s impossible to sit on my couch without getting covered with dog hair. Yes, I should brush and vacuum my couch more often…heck, I should brush and vacuum the dog more often. Instead, I let Reggie luxuriate on the couch rather than wrestling with him for the bed. Who says it’s a dog’s life?

As soon as I post this and pack my bags, Reggie and I are off on an 11-hour, 700-mile drive to Ohio to visit my family. I’m taking laptop and books to keep in touch with my online classes while I’m gone, so I’ll probably be blogging from my favorite Internet oasis, the Cup O’ Joe dessert and coffee house across from the Bexley Public Library. (Yeah, the library has machines with Internet access, but I need to be able to connect with my own laptop. And the library doesn’t serve dessert.)

I’ll rely on my folks to “dog sit” while I head out in search of Internet access. After all, Cup O’ Joe welcomes me and my laptop, but they won’t serve Reg. He’s too damn furry.

It’s probably safe to assume that Walmarts across America are selling boatloads of pumpkins as Halloween approaches…but here in Keene, it’s an even safer bet to conclude that even the mangiest of these pumpkins will find not only a home but a lot of friends at next month’s Pumpkin Festival. If I were a Walmart pumpkin, I’d certainly want to be shipped to the store where I might help break a World Record. If you’re doomed to be carved and gutted anyway, why not be carved and gutted for a reason? Instead of seeing these ‘kins as being lined up for the slaughter, isn’t it more fun to think of them as being gathered for a big party?

These days I’m still buried in work: I’m feeling much like a pumpkin at the bottom of the pile. Although I always eventually find my internal compass, the first stage toward this is usually undifferentiated dread, an inarticulate feeling that things are somehow going to go bad, quickly. I can’t accurately describe this feeling other than to say it’s the emotional equivalent of the tired, drained feeling you get before getting sick: although it’s too early to tell if you’re coming down with a cold, flu, or something worse, you have an indefinite achiness that signals something is not right with you physically. Right now I’m feeling like I’m on the emotional edge of something: it might be a bad case of the mopes, it might be a massive crying jag, or it might be an outright and entire nervous breakdown. Whatever “it” is, I feel it lurking in the shadows…or maybe I’m just being paranoid. It’s entirely possible that full-blown psychotic delusion is in the cards: I hear that’s going around these days.

I’ve already mentioned that the weeks heading up toward November 2nd, the day that would have been Chris and my 13th wedding anniversary, will be emotionally challenging. Whereas Chris has always dealt with emotional turmoil by burying himself in work, I’ve always responded to psychological static by becoming less focused. I always believed that my “stuckness” with the dissertation was largely emotional: because there was “other stuff” brewing with the marriage, I found it difficult to keep directed on a writing task that demands a huge amount of focus and determination. These days, Chris has a big upcoming recital to keep him distracted from details of the “D” (one of these days, I’ll bring myself to write the word, something Chris has already done for me). As strange as it may sound, I sometimes wish I were the workaholic type who finds solace in a full plate…instead, these days I just feel full.

Maybe being carved and gutted is exactly what I need?

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