Friday, September 23, 2005

The Little Wonders of Fly-Over Country

Romans 12:15-18 (New Living Translation)

15 “When others are happy, be happy with them. If they are sad, share their sorrow. 16Live in harmony with each other. Don't try to act important, but enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don't think you know it all!
17Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Do things in such a way that everyone can see you are honorable. 18Do your part to live in peace with everyone, as much as possible.”

Our longest day on the road during our recent vacation was the last one. We drove from Indianapolis to Emporia, over six hundred miles. As we drove the last fifty of those miles I began to feel more and more at home. At mile marker one fifty-five there was the truck stop at Beto Junction on the east side of the highway. At mile marker one forty-eight it was Lebo. At mile marker one twenty-seven, there was the familiar sight of the Taliban vintage tank that guards Emporia from unwanted outside influences. As we exited, off to my south I could see the faint outline of those wonderful Flint Hills that have become one of the treasures of our life here in fly-over country. And, finally, there to indignantly greet us when we pulled in to our driveway were Brudder and Maizey, two our cats. Their body language and their curt “meows” said it all. We’d been gone for two weeks and they weren’t at all pleased with having been left behind.

By late last week my homecoming was complete, made so by a visit to the Commercial Street Diner for breakfast on Tuesday and lunch at the Three Fool’s Café on Thursday. The sight of cowboys eating eggs covered with hot sauce, farmers in bib overalls wolfing down biscuits and gravy, and the taste of a roast beef sandwich packed down with horseradish were more than enough comfort for me after what seemed to be endless hours on the road.

While it was wonderful to visit with family and friends, it was especially good for us to be back home in Kansas.

This morning I took one of my daily walks, this one to the “liberal” side of town, which actually requires me to move to the right when I leave the safety of my front porch. The first few times I made this little morning journey it was a bit disorienting, but I’ve gotten used to it over time. I just keep reminding myself that in the philosophy of the left, up is down or that bad is good. Knowing that has made the walks quite pleasant indeed.

As I sit here today another national crisis is churning toward northeast Texas. The sight of millions fleeing to safety before Rita is compelling. Millions are leaving homes, now probably wondering if they’ll ever see them again. Breathless reporters are reminding us almost constantly that there will be fuel shortages and national ramifications to Rita. They’re following every move political leaders and public servants make with as much gusto as they’re tracking Rita’s projected path. Just a while ago one of the media’s pretty faces noted that some of the levies in New Orleans had once again been breached, flooding areas of the city that had just had Katrina’s flood waters pumped from them. “If only the wind were blowing in the opposite direction,” she intoned. “Then the waters wouldn’t be blowing over and through the levies.” As I listened I made a mental note. In a week or so it will be someone’s fault. The recriminations will surely follow. Either Ray Nagin, Kathleen Blanco, or George Bush will probably be found culpable for not being able to control the wind or blow thunderbolts out their ‘arses.

All of this makes me very glad to live here in Emporia, out of the media glare, with the really important people flying over us as they scurry from story to story. Here in Emporia even the media, while tilting about 140 degrees to port, are willing to be a bit magnanimous. This past Monday, Patrick Kelley down at the Gazette, with just a few mild jabs, conceded that George Bush actually had a compassionate heart:

“It would have been nice if Bush had made the speech a few weeks earlier, but an earlier speech probably wouldn’t have been the same speech. As the country has been going through great changes in the weeks since the storm, so has the president.”

“Somewhere along the way, he seems to have lost much of the defensiveness that, in the past, has tied him to incompetent advisers and locked him into flawed policies. He seems to have found the compassion that has for so long been lacking from compassionate conservatism.”

I suppose the boys at the Gazette are able, from their hobby horses, to do the things mere mortals can’t. The presses absolutely reek of nobility and emanate the thunderbolts presidents, governors, and mayors can’t. But, with its tones muted to suit local customs, the media sound and fury here in the Flint Hills is still more manageable than it is when it comes from the really important venues located in the really important cities off to our east.

Now that I’m back home I’ve picked up a few books that I left behind. One of them is Thomas Frank’s “One Market Under God.” This morning’s gem, coming on the heels of the news filling the airwaves these days, follows:

“Jack Welch, the CEO who has transformed General Electric from a manufacturer into a service conglomerate, probably represents the clearest-cut case of a manager who has done the bidding of Wall Street at the expense of what used to be called his ‘stakeholders.’ Through an endless program of layoffs, downsizing, outsourcing, and move-em south deindustrialization, Welch managed to deliver miraculous reward to his shareholder and poverty and unemployment to many of the towns and people who used to work for him.”

Interesting! Frank has carved out an image of himself as a man of the people, due in part for his “uncanny knack” for defending the “common man.” He’s been called a “Voice in the Neon Wilderness,” and is known as a latter day Moses to his adorning fans. Around here his most famous work is “What’s the Matter With Kansas,” in which he railed against the intellectual deficiencies of its citizens for having fallen prey to greedy capitalists:

“What we are observing, then, is a populist movement that has done irreversible harm to the material interests of the common people it professes to love so tenderly-a form of class animosity that rages against a shadowy “elite” while enthroning a new aristocracy of bankers, brokers, and corporate thieves.”

“In the burned-over districts of conservatism the right-wing class war grown so powerful that it has taken over the environmental niche once held by the left. It is the dissenting movement out there, the voice of the hard-done-by, and in places like Kansas it draws headlines with its high-profile campaigns against evolution and abortion.”

“This is what's the matter with Kansas, and with America. From the air-conditioned heights of a suburban office complex this may look like a new age of reason, with the Websites singing each to each, with a mall down the way that every week has miraculously anticipated our subtly shifting tastes, with a global economy whose rich rewards just keep flowing, with a promotion and a bonus every year, and with a long parade of rust-free Infinitis purring down the streets of beautifully manicured planned communities. But on closer inspection the country we have inhabited for the last three decades seems more like a panorama of madness and delusion worthy of Hieronymous Bosch: of sturdy patriots reciting the Pledge while they resolutely strangle their own life chances; of small farmers proudly voting themselves off the land; of devoted family men carefully seeing to it that their children will never be able to afford college or proper health care; of hardened blue-collar workers in midwestern burgs cheering as they deliver up a landslide for a candidate whose policies will end their way of life, will transform their region into a "rust belt," will strike people like them blows from which they will never recover.”

He came to Emporia a few years ago, stayed for about twenty minutes, and declared us a wasteland. It’s taken us a while, but I think we’ve overcome the blow.

He’s not without his detractors, as witnessed to by this from Rob Walker:

“Because Frank is more of a critic than a reporter, some of his offhand observations are maddeningly vague. For instance, he makes a short and unconvincing argument that in general American corporate managers have been rewarded “in proportion to the amount of power and security that workers lost,” and elsewhere he matter-of-factly attributes the whole of Jack Welch's success at General Electric to layoffs.”

“Finally, there is something about Frank's idea of a kind of revolution from above that I find unconvincing, partly because I think it lets Main Street off the hook a little too easily. He trumpets the multiple by which Welch's income exceeds that of a typical worker, and the latest statistics about increasing wealth inequality, as if these were covered-up facts that will surely galvanize the reader. But will they? They haven't up to now.”

Having lived in this world that seems to be so far from Frank’s ideal state (some sort of benign socialism, I take it) for over six years now I’m hard pressed to understand why he doesn’t understand what motivates us out here. Nancy and I spent years in the corporate world, reaping its rewards. We’ve both got modest pensions. They’re not even close to the rewards Jack Welch got from General Electric when they dumped him. But that’s alright, I’m not jealous. Nor am I jealous of the royalties Thomas Frank gets from peddling his jaded populism. To be honest, I’m quite content to be where I am. I’ve never felt the need to ascend to the pinnacle of the corporate world like Welch, nor have I felt the need to build my life on class envy like Frank. Our modest pensions and my social security check, Tuesday mornings at the Commercial Street Diner, an occasional bowl of tomato soup at the Three Fools Café, quiet walks along Commercial Street at dawn, sitting on my front porch, listening to Nancy play the piano in the mornings, or watching hummingbirds and monarch butterflies dance as they feed in our back yard, are rewards enough for me.

A while ago I read a short essay by Lee Harris of TCS. At one time in his life, Harris noted, he was hard pressed to understand “Middle-American values.” But after having a conversation with a waitress in a Woolworth’s store he saw the light:

“Perhaps one day the critics of Middle America will begin to recognize the humanity they share with people they so quickly label as culturally backwards. Perhaps one day they might even begin to listen to them, and to learn from them, the way I did so many years ago, while eavesdropping on the waitresses at Woolworth's.”

You see, folks like Nancy and I are quite content where we are and no amount of cajoling from our “betters” will change us. In the scheme of things we’ve got more than Jack Welch, with his millions, or Thomas Frank, with his litrary savvy, could ever dream of having. We’ve got something worth more than the millions Welch has accumulated and Frank decries, all the while collecting royalty checks for his critiques.

Nancy wrote a short poem about our life here in Kansas some time ago. I think she’s expressed, in lyric terms, the true value we’ve found beyond the affluent glare. It expresses, in Nancy’s gentle way, the value of life here in the shadow of these wonderful Flint Hills, value worth much more than money could ever buy:

A Quiet Night in Kansas

“It’s a quiet night in Kansas, as most of them are
The air conditioners hum their steady defense
Against the early June heat,
But not so loud as to overwhelm the coo of the dove
Or the twitter of the martins searching out their twilight feast
Even the basset hound two doors down
Has toned down his incessant barking.
There are no sounds that alarm.”

“Across the wide expanse of sky, Kansas winds
Blow a few golden sunset clouds to their destination
Then swoop down closer to the earth
To whisper through the cottonwood trees.”

“In the distance you can hear the lonesome whistle of a freight train
But there are no car alarms, no sirens, no airplanes roaring overhead.
It’s a quiet night in Kansas, as most of them are.”


: JustaDog said...

Yes, be very careful around that liberal side!

dog1net said...

Again, well thought out and presented argument. You are certainly skilled in the art of rhetoric. But I also like the personal touch you add: "The sight of cowboys eating eggs covered with hot sauce, farmers in bib overalls wolfing down biscuits and gravy, and the taste of a roast beef sandwich packed down with horseradish were more than enough comfort for me after what seemed to be endless hours on the road."
What a great image that captures both the community and the people who live there.

I also like how you ended with Nancy's poem. It reminded me of the sky at night that I marveled over when I lived in Kansas.

Hard to believe another monster of the sea is bearing down on the Gulf Region. The news tonight reports NO is flooded again. And they want to rebuild? Penny wise and dollar foolish will be the outcome of that.

prying1 said...

That poem makes me want to click my heels and say, "There's no place like home."

Jay said...

Isn't it interesting how some folks in our state can embrace the image of John Brown...but somehow lack the conviction he had and, in fact, seem to oppose the liberal ideals he died for?

Gone Away said...

Isn't it interesting that everyone outside of America can see where its strength comes from, that middle America with middlin' people with middlin' ideas, whereas inside the States they're laughed at and regarded as bumpkins?

ME Strauss said...

Hi Phil,
It's Liz.
I know it's about time I got over here.

I love hearing "no amount of cajoling from our 'betters' will change us." Those words are like home to me. Throw in a "I don't want to be "beholdin" to anyone and I'm sitting right next to you.

I understand what Scot says about how well you present an argument working it thoroughly through. Your thinking is laid out as art on view.

Thank you for this fabulous read, and thank Nancy for the lovely poem as well. I'm the daughter of a Kansas girl.