Monday, September 28, 2009

the relativity of 'of course'

I didn't learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn't a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It's also a source of hope. It means we don't have to continue this way if we don't like it.
--Kurt Vonnegut, In an Interview

when we were getting ready to move to germany, lots of people pointed out that 'unfurnished' means something different in europe than here. i kept thinking, thanks, but i get it already. i know about there being no closets.  why else would IKEA sell all those wardrobes? and all those british kids keep popping out of them in stories?

when we landed, we had a place to live for the first month in a furnished apartment in giessen that was owned by the university. it had two bedrooms & a bathroom and worked more like a guesthouse, even though it looked like an apartment building - we had to clean the floors and do all our own food and all, but linens were even provided. we didn't want to be there very long, however, and so we quickly got to work looking for a place to live.

our friend lutz took us to view the first apartment we wanted to see. it was in wetzlar, a nearby town that was much more attractive (sorry, giessen, for bombing the holy hell out of you in WWII). it was a beautiful old building, with three floors; each floor was its own apartment. a surprisingly young woman, the owner, met us all there - all four of us, and our german friend/guide/translator - and began to give us the tour.

now i've looked at lots of apartments over my life. viewed them in various states. i know how to disregard the current furniture, and all that. so we were going through, visualizing the living room empty, that sort of thing, and just generally admiring the hell out of it. then we came to the kitchen. 

i think i said something totally generic and innocuous, like: "this is nice".

then one of the germans - either lutz or the owner - seemed to realize what i was thinking and said, "yes, but you do know the kitchen is theirs, right?"

the kitchen was theirs. it belonged  to them. yep, all of it. the cupboards. the cupboards on the wall. the cupboards on the floor. the counter top. the stove. the fucking sink. when they moved out, it was all going with them. the kitchen would be just like all the other rooms - a bare box, only with a drain hole in the floor and a big outlet for the stove on the wall.

feeling pretty taken aback, we went back into the living room, which looked so nice partly because the floor was a dark pergo-type instead of the dark blue carpet that was in the rest of the apartment. i think at that point in time i commented on how nice that was.

can you see where this is going? i couldn't. turned out the floor was theirs. they had put it in, and they were taking it with them when they moved out. it was pergo laid right on top of the carpet. then we learned more, and it kept getting worse. those lovely overhead fixtures? those belonged to the tenants, too. we would be treated to entirely bare rooms, with just some wires hanging down from those charming 12-foot ceilings. my brain was suddenly in overload, redefining 'bare' and contemplating how a family of four, new to the country, not speaking the language, without a car and with only the contents of 6 suitcases between them, was going to get overhead lights and a ladder tall enough to install them on the day we moved in. not to mention - a sink.

we went back into the bathroom. feeling a little desperate, i asked, is the toilet and bathtub going to be here? the germans laughed. "of course!" they said, like i had said the funniest thing they'd ever heard. the idea of anyone taking a toilet! 

of course? of course, my ass! of course the sink would be there. i had never contemplated a world where the sink was not immutable. in fact, in my world, the sink is so damned immutable, that it's a phrase used to express when absolutely everything else is gone. 'she took/sold/packed everything but the kitchen sink'. the kitchen sink never goes. in a bad divorce you might take the shower head - but no one even contemplates taking the kitchen sink. the kitchen sink will be the last thing standing, the last thing in a house, always. 

then it hit me - turns out that's why ikea sells all those kitchens. turns out that the existence of a kitchen sink is a matter of faith, not truth. cultural relativity, in a very unexpected, small, yet concrete way, hit me like a ton of bricks.

i try not to say 'of course!' too often now.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"everything is so amazing..."

we just got back recently from a nine-day tour of southern oregon & northern california national parks & monuments. 2 adults, a 14-year-old, and a 5 and 5/6ths year old. to his credit, the 14-year old didn't complain too much once we got on the road. and to his credit, the 5 year old didn't ask "how much longer?" more than 4,326 times.

this post could have a lot to do with place, but it doesn't. it's about wildness instead. what got me thinking was when we were driving in between lassen national park and lava beds national monument. suddenly J (the 14 year old) realized we were in cell phone range. 'cool', he said, 'maybe we'll have coverage at the campground'.

here's where i don't go all curmudgeon-y. in fact, i'm a little tired of people my age and older constantly complaining about how connected kids these days are and what dire consequences for society and face-to-face interpersonal communications that will have. how it signals the decline of Western Civilization, Since They Will Not In The Future Be Able To Communicate At All. i remember vividly the days of not being connected. of arranging call times with friends, racing to pick up the phone after one ring so as not to disturb the parents, dragging the phone with the 20-foot cord to the bedroom and closing the door (until the time the irate parent picked it up and said, 'get off the phone!'). am i a better person for it, with better communication skills? i kind of doubt it.

it is amazing, though, that these days even camping does not necessarily mean disconnected. used to be that heading out on a weeks' vacation with the parents meant absolutely no contact with your friends. it was like exile, really.

and what if that's not such a bad thing? used to be that we all dreamed about being out there - you know, beyond the reach of anything. in the true wilderness. you against the land. my side of the mountain, and all that. totally alone...well, except all the jet trails crossing overhead. these days, there's no such illusions. maybe it's only appropriate that teens these days have no expectations of wilderness, of being truly alone. they don't consider it an option. they are - always connected. and, with 6+ billion people on the planet, i'm wondering if that won't be an advantage, survival-wise.

humans are incredibly adaptable. without adaptation, without societal evolution, my only option in life would be to be an uneducated breeder. i'm thinking that teens these days - who don't ever mind being utterly connected, who never expect otherwise, who can find privacy in the midst of crowds with ipods and by texting as opposed to phone conversations that can be overheard - i'm thinking that they might be better positioned for our crowded future than we are, with our archaic expectations of wilderness and solitude.

maybe i was most amazed at my reaction to his comment. when he said that, i didn't really care. turns out he'd been with us for a week already, and had never complained about lack of contact, lack of cell coverage. he had, in fact, hiked 5 miles a day with us. he had been duly, and i think truly, impressed by redwoods and volcanoes, fumaroles and mud pots. he had hiked down to the beach in northern california where there were no other humans in sight the entire time - from start of hike, to exploring the beach, to the return. all this, without complaint. he was just saying hey, it'd be ok with him to once again be in contact. i can't really begrudge him that. i saw him at that moment as a supremely adaptable human. i was reminded of a video clip i love of Louis CK, talking about someone on a plane who was disgruntled at a momentary lack of wireless service - "Everything is so amazing, and no one is happy". everything is so amazing - redwoods, a secluded beach in california, craters, and texting in the middle of a lava field. i guess i'd rather seek out the good, and be happy, than decry unequivocally the decline of culture*.

*especially since it doesn't matter a bit which i do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

the best book about where i'm from

"And for another thing, there was nothing, not a thing! about the country that made a man feel Big and Important. If anything it made a man feel dwarfed…Important? Why, there was something about the whole blessed country that made a soul feel whipped before he got started…The flora and fauna grew or died, flourished or failed, in complete disregard for man and his aims. A Man Can Make His Mark, did they tell me? Lies, lies. Before God I tell you: a man might struggle and labor his livelong life and make no mark!"
--Sometimes A Great Notion, Ken Kesey
the best book ever about the oregon coast range is without a doubt sometimes a great notion. it's not the best book ever. in fact, i'm not entirely sure it's even a great book, or even successful in what it's trying to do. Kesey's best, by far, was one flew over the cuckoo's nest. that is a gem of a book: succinct, powerful, unforgettable. SAGN, on the other hand, wanders too long, uses a shifting narrator perspective that is insightful at its best and distracting and confusing at its worst, and is so verbose and wordy that many don't stick with it. one of the main characters is not even all that likable.
"For what profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun if the trees and the brush and the moss strive everlastingly to take it back? Strive everlastingly until a soul felt that the town was only a sort of prison cell with green prison walls of brush and vine and he had to labor everlastingly, day in and day out, just to hang onto whatever pitiful profit he might have made, labor everlastingly day in and day out just to hang onto a floor of mud and a ceiling of clouds so low sometimes he felt he must stoop…Floor and ceiling and a green prison wall of trees."
but there's no better book about the oregon coast range. i've never read any prose that can capture better the suffocating feeling of the heavy grey skies, the rain, the enormous trees; the stifling, small-town interconnected community; the pride of woods workers; the incredible richness of the fauna that covers everything.

"For this land was permeated with dying; this bounteous land, where plants grew overnight, where Jonas had watched a mushroom push from the carcass of a drowned beaver and in a few gliding hours swell to the size of a hat – this bounteous land was saturated with moist and terrible dying. Saturated and overflowing! The feeling haunted Jonas’s days and tortured his sleep. O, Jesus, light of life, fill the darkness. He was being smothered. He was being drowned. He felt he might awake some foggy morn with moss across his eyes and one of those hellish toadstools sprouting in the mist from his own carcass."
that's exactly how i felt growing up. feel that everyday and maybe, just maybe, you wind up thinking that place matters. it's the only place where i feel utterly, truly, at home and like i belong.
in addition to being the best book to capture the feeling of the coast range, kesey's book is all about place. he is obviously a person for whom place matters. the main oregon characters - hank & henry - are inseparable from the forest environment. they have lived and worked in the woods their entire lives. furthermore, thier relationship with the place - the human community as well as the environment - was partly in response to thier ancestor jonas's hatred and disconnect with the place.

so, it's got place, and more specifically, my place. no wonder it's one i turn to almost every year. when the rains start and the geese start honking overhead i know it's time to loose myself once again in the battles of hank, henry, the union and wakonda pacific...

Photo from eyeliam, flikr creative commons, of the poster used in a portland stage version of SAGN.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

and how did you celebrate statehood day?

for those of you living under a rock and/or in another state, oregon this year celebrated its sequi- sesci- somegodaweful thing -centennial. in other words, oregon turned 150 on february 14th, 2009.

i wouldn't even necessarily know that oregon's statehood day is february 14th except that, while growing up, our class had a couple of jehovah's witnesses in it, which meant we could not celebrate any holidays. so our teacher in the 6th grade had a 'statehood day' party, instead of a valentine's day party. i guess it did firmly fix 'statehood day' in my mind.

turns out this is how i celebrated oregon's sesquicentennial this past 2/14/2009 with my friend holly (that's the correct spelling, i looked it up). the tree tattoo i got years ago while i was in forestry school. adding the state - and lincoln county, where my heart is and always will be - along with other things i think of as truly oregon (salmon and trillium) seemed a good fit.

damn, i love oregon. what is it about this state that inspires such weird loyalty among people? there are others like it in terms of loyalty - i've seen texas tattoos, and california. but those states are icons, if you will - giants both geographically and culturally in the overall american landscape. oregon is a bit player, really, when it comes right down to it. a professor once said, talking of economics, that oregon was about 1% of the nation as a rule of thumb. my jaw dropped, but he's totally right: we're 1% of the population (3 million out of 300 million), and our state economy is about 1% of whatever comparable national measures. 1%? that's nothing!

there are a few other places that are completely unimportant in the national scheme of things that, nevertheless, have a unique pull on the people living there - montana springs most readily to mind. people there are very attached to being Montanans, and always will be. but there's lots of other states that struggle away in relative obscurity and unimportance, and fail to inspire the allegiance of residents. maybe i'm wrong but - can you imagine a delaware tattoo?

note: it's entirely possible that, in fact, oregon does not inspire great loyalty. since i am speaking only from my personal experience (n=1), it's possible that, in fact, i'm just a kind of overly-attached freak, and if i had grown up in deleware, would have in fact a delaware tattoo.

Friday, September 11, 2009


i am a 100%, through-and-through, died-in-the-wool, American.

i'm not saying that that's a good thing, but it's the truth. and really i should say not just an american, but a Westerner; and not just any westerner, either, but an Oregonian.

way back in high school i became dedicated to 'seeing america first' (and not just because i was a fan of cole porter). deep down inside, i was a raving europhile. but i had no resources to fund a 6 week or 8 week soul-searching, backpacking/eurail pass adventure of the type i dreamed about. so, i pleaded the moral highroad of "america first!". gas was cheap, i had a small car, and i could drive all over the west - which is so full of amazing natural places that it was easy to justify.

culturally, though, i still struggled with our western-american-inferiority complex, and saw europe as the center of all - or at least, new york and europe in combination. american history, world history, art, architecture, museums, opera, music, dance - it flowed from there. then i finally got a chance to live there, in central Germany, from 2005-2007.

i moved there at the height of my own anti-american stance. but in the process of living there is when i fully understood that i was an incurable american - an incurable westerner - for good or ill.

this blog is going to be just a sort of series of reflections mostly on what that mean to me, observations about life in germany as an american, thoughts about the west in general, and about rural life. i don't pretend to have any answers or new insights. but it's stuff i like to think about. since i have 2 kids and a partner, there'll no doubt be some random family waffle too.

i was thinking of titling this blog 'americans and other freaks of nature' at first. but probably not everyone revels in our freakiness, so that may sound too negative. but what do you call uncivilized people? wild? we aren't wild anymore; not even in the west. half-wild though - that seemed appropriate.