Saturday, April 19, 2014

Dispatches from the Midwest, Issue 10

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Towards late morning, it’s time for me to leave my friends in Mount Pleasant and head south (relatively speaking, anyway) to Ohio. I do so with some reluctance—the two days of pointless lazing about that I have done have been badly needed…and it feels like I could use a few more. But despite my friends’ best efforts (we all hypothesize that it’s quite possible that if they sat me down in front of the TV and put The Avengers on an endless loop, I would willingly submit to perpetual captivity), I pack up Optimus Prime and soon set off.

It’s a long, long, long drive down, even with the beauty of the grey clouds hugging close to the Middle American landscape. Still, I don’t mind; with one hand on the wheel and one hand extending my camera phone out, I just keep clicking, hoping that somehow I manage to capture a few good images of the snow-covered fields, the stalwart trees, the occasional barn. I remember an ex of mine who was born in Michigan once told me that this was “God’s country”, and while I have a pesky lack of belief, I do see this, over and over again. The beauty of this region is diminished not one whit by its simplicity, and there is a richness that goes beyond the fertility of the soil, and has something very much to do with the people.

In the late summer of 1985, my grandparents, my mother, my sisters, and I all got into a couple of cars and drove south from Cincinnati, Ohio to Florida. My grandparents had retired and decided to move to Florida, and because my mother was dependent upon them, we all moved, too. Since that time, I never, not once, went back to Ohio.

Last year, my cousin’s husband, who is kinda  a big fuckin’ deal in the military (at least I like to think so) got transferred to an airforce base just outside of Dayton. So they packed up their kids and moved again, and so it was that my cousin Lynne found  herself, once more, in the state of her birth and all of her childhood. And so it is, now, that I find myself driving down to visit Lynne and her family, finally, in the state of my birth. 

She’s waiting for me, Lynne is, in her house just outside of Dayton, and her arms are open and she’s ready to welcome me and  and be my family and give me thethe comfort of her company, whether or not she realizes the pricelessness of it.

It’s good to be home.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dispatches From the Midwest, Issue 9

Thursday, 6 March: Morning

To me, it’s maybe just a little miraculous that I’m able to rise so early the next morning, but there’s nothing for it; I have a long road trip in front of me. I need to make my way from Central Indiana to Central Michigan, and I have to be there before noon.

So as the weak, wintry sun rises over the fields and forests, it sheds light on Optimus Prime and me, both of us charging resolutely forward. The next portion of the trip is the one that’s going to be the  most interesting and unpredictable: I’m going to meet one of my Internet friends  In Real Life (IRL). I’ve met plenty of people through Craigslist and Meetup and the like, but never before have I crossed state lines to initiate contact. Should I be alarmed that this sounds something like a crime?

Thursday, 6 March-Friday, 7 March
Fortunately, my friend does not turn out to be a serial killer, or even a socially awkward person, and we spend a couple of pleasantly unremarkable days together. We read, we write, we watch Frozen and Rush, we drink a lot of wine. I dimly recall gleefully (and drunkenly) swatting at wickedly sharp icicles hanging from eaves, in order to keep them from lobotomizing unsuspecting pedestrians.

I also begin to realize to never, ever take high quality sushi or authentic Mexican food for granted again. Middle America, I love you, but there are some gastronomical delights you simply should not attempt to offer the world. We’re not ready. And neither are you.

Mount Pleasant, Michigan: who says there aren't any mountains?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Dispatches from the Midwest, Issue 8

 Wednesday, 5 March: Evening

The friend that I am staying with, Danielle, is possibly one of the few females I know who is actually more geeky than I am. She’s such a hardcore geek, she’s actually a gamer. While I am not nearly as committed as she and her friends are, I do miss having companions such as her…so when she tells me that I’ll actually be staying over during Weekly Game Night, I’m absurdly gleeful. And request a rousing round of Cards Against Humanity, of course.

When I finally get back to their place that evening, Danielle and Robbie are sitting down to dinner with one of their gamer friends. Two more soon arrive, and I spend a few minutes trying to explain why I’m spending two week of hard-earned vacation time traveling around the Midwest.

“It’s so beautiful!” I enthuse. “And fascinating! The landscape…”

“It’s boring,” says Friend #1.

“Yeah,” agrees Friend #2. “A barn…another barn…”

Of course, this gets me started on the barns. All of the barns. Particularly the broken-down ones. I’ve nurtured an enduring fascination for them since I first moved to the Midwest. Barns everywhere! Of every age and condition! I have always been in awe of how they endure, decade after decade, despite their encroaching decay. I’ve always  thought there is something noble and dignified in how they are still standing, all these years later. And anyway, why don’t the landowners and farmers tear down the old structures? Is leaving these barns standing a conscious decision? Is there a deep and possibly proud and profound reason why they leave them up?”

I’ve reached the end of my soliloquy about barns (and how often can one say a sentence like that) and I’m quite impressed with my own perceptivity. And then…I encounter a prime example of the unsentimental Midwestern practicality that I secretly adore:

“Well…” Friend #1 says. “What’s easier…tearing down a barn, or not tearing down a barn?”

I snort with laughter, because it’s so sensible and laissez-faire, but because I’m me, of course I look more into the seemingly dismissive statement. And let’s think about it: really, when you’re a farmer, tending thousands of acres of land and trying to hold your own in the Big Agribusiness Industry, do you really have a lot of spare time to be spent worrying about clearing out some old barn? Really, it’s the same as any beleaguered office, where we allow files to accumulate year after year.

And yes, I totally just compared a farmer to an office worker.

Much, much later, after we consume several bottles of wine between us, I pour myself into bed. I have to be up at the ass-crack of dawn to make tracks for Central Michigan, but I am loathe to abandon a game of Cards Against Humanity which gives gems such as this:

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Dispatches from the Midwest, Issue 7

Wednesday, 5 March 2014: Daytime

In Thanksgiving of 2011, my Aunt Carla died rather suddenly. She was the second of my grandparents’ children to pass away, and with her death, only my mother remained. I was 31 by that point, and had long lived far away from my family and from the Midwest, and so I was beginning to appreciate the precariousness of my family. The older generations were dying out. So as my eldest sister cooked the turkey and my middle sister yelled as loudly as she could at our near-deaf grandparents, I joined my mother out on the screen porch. As she smoked away, I talked to her, hammered her with questions, tapping away on my iPad as she recalled everything from the address of her first home to the foods she used to hate to eat. She endured and answered these questions for a surprisingly lengthy period of time, before finally saying with her slightly-amused, slightly-sad smile, “I’m tired of this.” So I put away my iPad, and she and I went back inside. All in all, I was rather satisfied—I had gotten a chance to ask her about her memories of her childhood, her family, her life, and she had given me a lot to go with. And there was still plenty of time to ask her more questions.

December 16, 2013: Time’s up.

No more chances to ask her anything. All I have are the things that she told me, and whatever information my family cobbles together in conversations. But I have my fancies, and I have my ability to conjecture and imagine. And I have Optimus Prime, too, and a pretty solid GPS. So we head out, and north on the 19, through little towns called Cicero and Atlanta. Soon we enter into Tipton County, and I cannot help but to get a little shiver. This is not only where my mother is from, but my grandfather, too. As far as I am concerned, this whole county is his old stomping grounds.
Soon I see the Tipton Water Tower, clearly visible over the flat, barren fields, and then the beautiful courthouse tower. And then, I’m in downtown Tipton, Indiana, where my mother and grandfather both grew up. I’m not crying, dammit, I’m not crying. It's just one more tiny-ass Indiana town, but goddamn it, it's mine. It's perfect.

I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t planned my day down to the T. First I go to the Jim Dandy Restaurant and chow down a behemoth Hoosier specialty, a pork tenderloin sandwich.

 As I do, I eavesdrop on the conversation of a few local men—farmers, late 50s perhaps or even older, predictably overweight. They could have gone to elementary school with Mom, I think to myself, but of course, say nothing.

After lunch, I follow my GPS to 425 North Independence Street. I make sure I have the right location, and park Optimus Prime, and trudge through the grey slush to the house up close. There it is—the old white house with the porch out front and the little old “carriage house” at back. There’s still a porch swing out front, just like Mom remembered, but this one is a modern contraption, and portable. This is it: her childhood home.

From there, I make my way to the town library, where I spend a couple of hours, and then I move on to the Heritage Center, which is an eye-opener. It’s a cramped building, filled to the brim with not only the usual historical documents but also a huge assortment of various odds-and-ends: generic objects like dresses and dishes and farm equipment and medals that were probably just ordinary or treasured belongings of Tipton residents over the last 150 years, but now are revered as part of the material history of one humble Midwestern county. I fucking loved every minute of it.

There’s a big-ass cemetery out behind the Heritage Center, and I can tell that many of my grandmother’s family—including her beloved mother, the much-renowned Stella Massey—are buried there. I get the data for the plot locations and trudge my way out to what I interpret to be their approximate burial plot…

…but forty minutes later, I concede defeat. The temperature is dropping, and all of a sudden, it’s snowing, and what the hell, it wasn’t supposed to snow today! Wearily, I throw in the towel, and soon after, Optimus Prime and I are on our way back to Noblesville.

It was a good day—sad yet comforting, rewarding, full of the usual sentiment. And a valuable lesson learned: when locating old family graves, know where you are going. And try to avoid looking for them at the end of one of the harshest winters in memory.

It's okay. I'll be back. Sooner rather than later.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Dispatches from the Midwest, Issue 6

Tuesday, 4 March: Afternoon and Evening

Shortly after I moved to California and became a librarian, I was flipping through a PW magazine one day, and something caught my eye: an article on small bookstore chains. It wasn’t the article itself that caught my eye, but rather the picture. To most, it was simply a picture of a bookstore. But to me, I knew it immediately as a seating area of my favorite bookstore, Half-Price Books in Indianapolis. I had spent many happy afternoons there, and although it had been a good long while since I had browsed there, I never forgot.

I still don’t forget. Every time I am in Indy, I go there, to the Half-Price Book Store on 86th and Ditch. This trip was no exception, and on my way up to see Danielle and Robbie in Noblesville, I stopped in at my old stomping grounds. The layout is different, but the atmosphere the same…as is my propensity to spend more  than I ought!

From Indy, I head north to Anderson, to the Library there. This the Library that my friend Danielle has worked at since we graduated. She’s now the Digital Services Coordinator there, and it looks as though she’s engaged and happy in her work. And then, on the way home after work, as we stop at the liquor store, Danielle mentions she won’t be drinking.

“Why, did Robbie knock you up again?” I ask absently as I search for the cheapest wine labels.

“Yup,” she admits sheepishly, and I squeal with delight.

At their house in Noblesville, a suburb (oh! Suburbs! My secret dirty love for you) Robbie and Danielle and I catch up, and I watch as they play with their son Jace, and then give him a bath and put him to bed before marching down for a dinner of pizza. It’s a quiet, Middle-American evening, and of course I cannot help but to wonder about roads not taken. And that pondering doesn't stop when I go to sign on to the WiFi and see Middle America's quiet acknowledgment of the modern suburban way of life:

So many WiFi networks! Too many WiFi networks!

Too many roads not taken.
At least Middle America still has an honest sense of absurdity.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Dispatches from the Midwest, Issue 5

Tuesday, 4 March 2014: Morning

I’m up early, for once, as I’m leaving Bloomington today. While I wait for Duncle to finish getting ready, I spend a few quiet moments sitting in his armchair, gazing out at the late winter morning, just taking the chance to relish the white-gold morning sunlight shining through the trees.

It’s exquisitely beautiful, and I hate to leave it, and so to comfort myself, I try to remind myself that if I lived here, I would take all of  this for granted.

I know this, because I did, after all.

Before I make tracks for central Indiana, I spend a few hours with Michael, poking around bookstores and the Game Preserve and Pygmalions and the “Christian coffee shop” and debate the nature of corruption in politics and the concept of privacy in post 9/11 society. We grab lunch at Yats (oh chili cheese crawfish etoufee, I miss you so!) and swing by Tracks so I can get one last good-bye from Duncle. And then I drop off Michael, and it’s time for Optimus Prime and me to leave town.

It’s impossible not to cry a little as I start the drive north on the 37. Each time I leave Bloomington, I’m a little older, and the memories are a little more faded—yet still, no less beloved and important. I think of Michael and Anna, and Duncle and Jo, and so many friends that will never be together again, and my heart twists and I cry a little more. And then, into my brain pops a quote that I saw on one of Anna’s books: “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.”

And then, fittingly, the best part of the day, and perhaps the trip, happens next. The Snow Patrol song “Run” starts playing on the car stereo, and I smile a little wryly when the song gets to the lyric “You’ve been the only thing that’s right, in all I’ve done…” Right after Michael and I broke up, I used to quote that line to myself, because it felt like that, that loving Michael and being with him was the one decent, beautiful, and right thing I had done in an otherwise unremarkable life. But I smile now, because I know that’s no longer true—if it ever even was. There’s been plenty that I’ve done right by this point in my life, and that’s something that I can hold onto for comfort as I leave Bloomington behind, once again.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Dispatches from the Midwest, Issue 4

Monday, 3 March 2014: Morning
It has finally finished snowing, and it looks very much like a late-winter wonderland outside. I spend rather a lot of time lingering by the windows, looking out at Aunt Jo’s birdfeeders, just enjoying the scarlet cardinals standing out so brilliantly against the snow. I’m not a very religious person these days, but I can’t help but to think that cardinals are what God gave to us to remind us of color during the winter.

When I’m not looking at the birdfeeders, I’m marveling at the fact that there are animal tracks in the snow. Real, honest-to-god wildlife! (I’m also becoming keenly aware that I’m a pathetic city-slicker.) Try as I might, I can’t figure out what one particularly intriguing set of tracks is. The  best I can come up with is some six-legged animal being chased by a creature of unknown origin...

Monday, 3 March 2014: Late afternoon and evening:
When Duncle’s mother (my grandmother) Lady Sue passed away, he inherited a huge trunk of various mementoes and memorabilia of hers—decades of correspondence, photos, and other odds and ends. He says that he and I had looked through it before, but I don’t remember. I was a younger person then, and took much—like mothers who were still alive, and the assumption that I would always be close by—for granted. So, as the winter dusk settles, Duncle and I pry open the trunk and spend several hours looking over letters and photos and newspapers and journals and even war ration books! Before she met my grandfather, she had a rather lively existence. It sounds like her dad ran off when she was young, and she eventually became a nightclub performer (she was an accomplished pianist)—in short, perhaps a bit of a gadabout.

I suppose Lady Sue was a bit notorious as an obsessive packrat, but as I peruse through her logs of nightclubs she performed at, places she traveled, people she met—I don’t think it’s at all ridiculous. I didn’t know her very well in life, but now that she’s gone, and so much of our family history with her, I’ll take these little scraps of her life where I can get them.