I’ve been enjoying the past couple weeks doing something I haven’t had any real time to do for awhile: Writing fiction!
A good chunk of it has been going up over at the other site, mostly Stone River Walker stuff, which is one of my favorites to write, even when no one reads it. One of the things that struck me about the United States when I was traveling down all those back roads, back and forth across the country, was the odd mishmash we have of culture, legend, and history that pervades the place. It turns out when you take people and transplant them from the homelands to somewhere far away and different, the old culture sorta shatters into all the little pieces like the bits of colored glass in a kaleidoscope, and gets mixed in with all those other bits and pieces of all those other cultures. Weird things happen, like Celtic and African musical traditions getting all mixed together. The old stories and the new stories have odd little story children. The best part is, you go a little down the road–any road–and the kaleidoscope gets twisted, and the pieces form some strange new image that you’re just not quite sure what to do with. Pretty soon you end up with airplanes, rhythm and blues, breakfast burritos, and people walking on the moon. You’d think, young as this place is, it would have a history more rooted in truth than most, but it doesn’t, and it’s much improved by it.
This is the land of “Okay”, the world’s most used word, but we can’t seem to agree on whether it came from African slaves, the Choctaw tribes, or lazy Bostonians. This is archetypal example of what might be called the American Experience, where stuff comes from somewhere, but at the end of the day it’s anybody’s guess where, or how, or why. Or if it was ever real at all. It’s the Stone Soup approach to history and identity, where we unwittingly use words stolen from twenty languages on a daily basis and whine about how nobody’s bothering to learn English, whilst speaking a dialect of it assembled in the style of Junkyard Wars. It’s almost unquantifiably entertaining to get caught up in writing about pieces of it, because the American dialect makes my job fun; it pulls from a dictionary where it’s a panther in Florida, a catamount in Appalachia (where it can also be a lynx or bobcat), a cougar in the West, a mountain lion in the Northwest, a puma on the border–unless it’s a slightly lost jaguar (which can also be a panther, particular if it’s melanistic).
You get bits of Aesop’s fables running headlong into skinwalkers and wendingos, Loki and Coyote trading places day by day, and across the water come the traditional ghosts, fairies, and idiosyncrasies of a thousand folklores. The real life oddballs get in on the fun, too, then their own legends take over and suddenly Johnny Appleseed‘s got a pot on his head and jug in his hand, and he’s wondering what he’s doing in a history book. Gunfighters and cowboys who were always few and far between inform the identity of the nation. Jackelopes and hoopsnakes hop/roll out of wherever they’ve come from, and the wilds of the West fill up with Russian thistle and Arabian horses, only we call them tumbleweeds and mustangs, and then make them so iconic that people the world over watch a video of either and hear whawhahwha–you know what I’m talking about:
All those, too, become part of the mosaic. The Devil’s at the crossroads, with fiddles of gold, and Mahaha walks the frozen northern wastes. Paul Bunyan walks out of an advertising campaign, through Disney studios, and into the lexicon, right next to bigfoot/sasquatch. Then it gets stranger, because some things that must certainly be true end up being myths after all, and some things that can’t be true, well, they are. The oddness gives rise to a place with room and tolerance for Hatfields, McCoys, Emperors of San Francisco, and bicycling airplane inventors–or was that airplane inventing bicyclists?
Somehow this all gets lost in the monolithic sense of the One Modern World, where Starbucks’ and McDonald’s are everywhere, and they both have free wifi. It distracts from the twin truths that this is strange, strange, land, with an identity assembled from patches of truth, legend, and big question marks where the people who knew one from the other have past on–and it’s getting stranger. The WalMarts that sprout like mushrooms and form the hubs of the modern small town community are a thin veneer of corporate domination, but the truth bleeds through: This is a place where you can sit at Wyatt Earp’s bar, drinking beers from half a dozen countries, and watch cars driving down the Mother Road, Old Route 66. It’s a place where 150 years ago, on the day of my writing this, the battle that ensured it would remain a single country began, hung by a thread, and, at this point, looked much like it was headed in the other direction.
In many ways, it’s like anywhere else; full of hypocrites and heroes, who is which varying from one moment to the next. It’s a collection of quasi countries spread across a continent, and from the tropics to the Arctic circle, containing republics, commonwealths, a thousand tribes, kingdoms, and the the former territories of half a dozen countries and a handful of self-proclaimed empires. People get all bogged down in how dysfunctional it all seems and lose sight of the simple truth that our original existence was an odd fluke, and our continued existence in downright weird. It’s a place where a third of a billion people rudely and powerfully disagree–not just any people, but the a group more capable of armed uprising than any other on the planet by an order of magnitude or so–but it continues to function, mostly peacefully, most the time, and sometimes you look around and wonder, How the hell does that even work? Other times, it all seems inevitable, the strange thing’s that more places don’t work this way.
It’s a strange place. Strange to live in, strange to travel, strange to write about, and if you’re not on board with that, you’re missing out, because it’s all kinds of fun.
Often I think American culture is cheap, which I suppose isn't entirely fair. It's just familiar, and I can dissect it into a thousand tiny parts that I hate. It's good to be reminded that in order for anything to have parts, it must be layered, and that the whole picture is often much different than the thing I decide to focus on.
If you'd like another example of the myth and reality getting up and going another round, here's one regarding the bicycle mechanic/airplane inventor link. Shortly before you were born, an aeronautical engineer and part-time sailplane (glider) pilot named Paul MacReady teamed up with an amateur cyclist and hang-glider pilot named Bryan Allen and a team of students from MIT to build the first human-powered aircraft. They flew the Gossamer Condor around a figure-eight course, covering 2,172 meters, winning the first Kremer Prize, then flew the Gossamer Albatross across the English Channel to win the second. The same design team then built the Monarch-B, which won the third Kremer prize by completing a 1.5 km. triangular course in under three minutes, this time piloted by Frank Scarabino, another bicyclist.