Thursday, January 24, 2008


The idea of home is a recurrent theme in my thinking, something I've written about before. Feeling at home isn't something confined to your house. I'm intrigued by what defines the boundaries of home, and I think about it in a couple of different ways.

The first time I drove from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the summer I toured the country in my Geo Metro--which I'd converted into a micro-mobile home by taking out all but the driver's seat and replacing them with a bed, cooler, and all my stuff--I had a startling experience when I got back to Columbus, Ohio. For two months, I'd been continually barraged with the new. Covering 11,000 miles through the Northeast up to the eastern tip of Maine, all the way across the country to the northwest tip of Washington, down the coast to San Francisco, back east across the desert and plains, I was, except for in a few previously visited spots, constantly experiencing sights I'd never seen before. I got used to not being used to anything. Constant newness became normal. So when I started heading up I-71 from downtown Columbus, a road I'd traveled hundreds of times, suddenly, unexpectedly I realized I wasn't exploring anymore. I recognized every exit sign, though I'd never been conscious of them before. For a few minutes familiarity was strange, since strangeness had become familiar. Home, I realized, is where you aren't exploring, where things aren't new.

Home is about familiarity, but familiarity doesn't have to be literally knowing a place, as in the above example. It's true that on that long unfamiliar drive I felt a little bit at home when I passed through places I'd been before, even if it had been only once, like Canon Beach , Oregon. But I also felt at home when I got to new places that only seemed relatively familiar. Without planning, I drove up into Quebec for one night, where the signs weren't just in a different language that needed to be translated at 120 km/h, but were different shapes and colors from the US and even the rest of Canada, where the roads were laid out differently, and everything seemed generally confusing. It wasn't entirely unexpected, but it was disorienting. When I drove across the provincial line into Ontario the next morning, things suddenly seemed normal again and I felt strangely at home, though I wasn't even in my own country. The same feeling hit me when I crossed the border from the roadless desert of Bolivia and suddenly found myself on a perfectly modern, paved, striped, signed, guard-railed highway in Chile. Even driving from the Rockies in Colorado, across Kansas and Missouri into Illinois, at some point near the Mississippi, as the trees get larger, the summer air gets more humid, I've been struck with a feeling that I'm in my own native environment. I remember as a kid driving into Ohio on family vacations, and my parents reminding me that we were not home yet. But Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio all look and feel pretty much the same, so when you've been far away for a long time, the feeling of home starts to creep into you hundreds of miles ahead of the destination, where things become familiar even as they remain unknown.

California, my more recent home, is not the Midwest. Driving back here a few weeks ago on I-8, I crossed the Colorado River into California at Yuma, Arizona. In the confusion of traffic I didn't even notice a sign or realize I was in California for several minutes. Even then I drove for another half an hour before I thought, "Oh, California, that's where I live. I'm home!" Driving the highway between towering sand dunes in warm winter air, I felt like I was still in the midst of adventure. Though I love the variety of landscapes, I don't imagine I will ever be able to think of all of California--deserts, mountains, beaches, fields and forests--as home. It's really only when I pass the wind turbines on the Altamont Pass, standing as sentries at the entrance to the Bay Area, that I start to feel like I'm getting close. It's the view from the Bay bridge, passing the Abercrombie and Coke billboards, zigging by Potrero hill, down the branching Cesar Chavez/Bayshore ramp, around the back of the hill and over Cortland that makes me know I'm finally home.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Southern Radio

I decided to avoid the mountains and stay warm on my drive to California, so I had to drive through the Deep South. I risked the high blood pressure and listened to some local radio across Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas so I wouldn't run out of podcasts on my 1GB iPod Shuffle when I got to the big empty places where there aren't any radio stations at all.

The first thing that disturbed me was Christian political talk radio. In California, people know that religious conservatives exist, but the media maintains some sort separation of Church and State. You just don't talk about God while you're talking politics. Even in the Midwest, people seem to have their beliefs and have their politics, but at least pretend publicly that law is some sort of civil contract not determined by religion. But driving through the South, I heard talk show hosts openly explain that their pro-gun, pro-war, pro-death penalty, anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-immigrant politics were right because that's what the Bible says. One caller to a Christian political program suggested that we should deal with "illegals" by deporting them and forcing them to sign a "contract" that says that if they are ever caught in America again, they'd be executed. The explicitly Christian host didn't think that was going far enough. He said we should implant them with chips like they put in pets, except explosive, so that if they ever cross the border, the chip will instantly explode and kill them. I took a deep breath, prayed my car wouldn't break down, and switched to a music station.

There apparently is a whole genre of ultra-backwoods country music that's popular way down south that I was completely unaware of, despite living in the hills of Southeastern Ohio for a decade. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The lyrics speak for themselves:
(Song titles linked to Videos on YouTube, which you have to listen to, though the videos sort of ruin the hillbillyness of the songs with their Hollywood slickness.)

A Different World by Bucky Covington
A song of nostalgia for lead-based paint, getting the belt, and prayer in school.

We were born to mothers who smoked and drank
Our cribs were covered in lead-based paint
No childproof lids
No seatbelts in cars
Rode bikes with no helmets
and still here we are
Still here we are

We got daddy's belt when we misbehaved
Had three TV channels you got up to change
No video games and no satellite
All we had were friends and they were outside
Playing outside

School always started the same everyday
the pledge of allegiance, then someone would pray
not every kid made the team when they tried
We got disappointed but that was alright
We turned out alright

No bottled water
We'd drink from a garden hose
And every Sunday,
All the stores were closed.

It was a different life
When we were boys and girls
Not just a different time
It was a different world

International Harvester by Craig Morgan
Kinda catchy, even if he's proud of the 3-mile line of cars behind his combine.

I'm the son of a third generation farmer
I've been married 10 years to the farmer's daughter
I'm a God fearing hardworking combine driver
Hogging up the road on my p-p-p-p-plower
Clug-a-lug-a-lugin 5 miles an hour
On my International Harvester.

3 miles of cars laying on their horns
Falling on deaf ears of corn
Lined up behind me like a big parade
Of late to work road rage jerks
Shouting obscene words flippin' me the bird

Well you my be on a state paved road
That black top runs through my pay load
Excuse me for trying to do my job
This year ain't been no bumper crop
If you don't like the way I'm driving
Get back on the interstate Otherwise sit tight and be nice
And quit your honking at me that way

Cause I'm the son of a 3rd generation farmer
I've been married 10 years to the farmer's daughter
I got 2 boys in the county 4-H
I'm a lifetime sponsor of the FFA
Hey that's what I make I make a lot of Hay for a little pay
But I'm proud to say
I'm a God fearing hardworking combine driver
Hogging up the road on my p-p-p-p-plower
Clug-a-lug-a-lugin 5 miles an hour
On my International Harvester.

Well I know you got your own deadline
But cussing me won't save you no time Haus
But this big wheel wide load ain't going any faster
So just smile and wave and tip your hat to the man up on the tractor

What do ya think about that by Montgomery Gentry
A true expression of the love-your-neighbor, do-unto-others Southern Christian culture.

Heard it through the grapevine
My new neighbor don’t like my big red barn
’47 Ford, bullet holes in the door
Broke-down motor in the front yard
I've got a mind
To paint a plywood sign
And nail it up on a knotty pine tree
Saying "I was here first,
This is my piece of dirt
And your ramblin’ don’t rattle me"

Some people care about
what other people think
Worry ‘bout what they say
Let a little gossip
Comin’ from a loose lip
Ruin a perfect day
Saying “blah, blah, blah”
Just a-jacking their jaws
Gotta let it roll of my back
I don’t give a durn
What other people think
What do ya think about that?

I wear what I want to
Overalls, work boots
Crank my music up loud
Like to sling a little mud
On my four-wheel drive
Trick on into town
Shoot a little eight ball
Down by the pool hall
Drink a beer with my friends
Don’t judge me and I won’t judge you
‘Cause we all get judged
In the end

You know, I don’t give a damn
What other people think
What do you think about that?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Latin America's got nothing on these politics

Going through all the mail I missed for the past six months, I found my ballot for the November San Francisco mayoral election. I was amused by the list of candidates, which lists occupation along with name. Besides a profesor, a doctor, a couple of journalists, and some other boring jobs, the following people wanted to run the city:

Michael Powers - Nightclub Owner
Grasshopper Alec Kaplan - Taxicab Driver
John Rinaldi - Showman
Harold Hoogasian - Florist/Coffee Farmer
Gavin Newsom - Mayor of San Francisco

The guy's name is "Grasshopper"? What's the heck is a "showman"? You can grow coffee in California? "Mayor of San Francisco" just fits right in there, doesn't it?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Negative Stars

I write this from perhaps the crappiest hotel I've ever stayed in (besides that place in Uruguay with thousands of cigarette burns on the floor), the redundant "Budget Inn Motel" in South Tucson, Arizona. (Incidentally, in South America, a motel is a place that "rents rooms by the hour.") I'm 1900 miles into the hard push across the US to get from Asheville to San Diego in two and a half days. The highway roars just outside the window. On the back of the door, there's painter's tape, and someone has scrawled in both sharpie and crayon "Ck out tme 10: AM." A heating vent has been taped over. A thin layer of spackle barely covers boards, nails, and tape patching a 2-foot hole in the wall. Someone thought it wise to paint the tiled shower, which is now peeling, just like the plastic trim along the floor. A hole in the ceiling reveals where there used to be a light fixture. It's not only run-down, but years of repairs have been quarter-assed at best.

But I don't mind. I really just need a place to sleep for a few hours, and the bed is fine. I passed up the $40 chains to save $15 knowing what I'd be getting into. The only thing that disturbs me is that the places I've stayed in South America, usually for $5-15 per night, were almost all nicer than the local budget motels of America, even ones much less crappy than this.

Driving through El Paso, I got one clear view of a residential hillside in Juarez, a slum of border-town hovels that could not exist in the US. As a prosperous nation, that level of housing isn't allowed. (If you can't afford any better, you have to live on the streets.) I would expect that the bottom rung of short-term accommodation in the US would also be held to a higher standard than in Latin America, but apparently not. I know hotel rooms are going to cost more here. What I don't get is that if such run-down dumps can stay in business here, where people expect an elevated standard of living, why do South American hotels owners keep there places so much better maintained in a place where people are used to living much more modestly, and how do they afford the upkeep while charging 80% less?

I'm sure there are answers in labor costs, competition, the relative costs of starting a business, and my own culturally-adjusting expectations, but I just thought I'd point out the paradox before being lulled to sleep by the woosh of cars and trucks on I-10.