Community leaders, institutions, and even entire communities can inspire us to do great work ourselves. They can serve as role models, spark new ideas in us, or provide us with a place to place our energy. There are a great deal of community members and places left unsung or only recognized by a narrow population and while we can never show all of the people that deeply affect and serve their communities, we hope to shine a light on and share the stories of some of those people and places and what they mean to their community.
March 21, 2018
Submitted by: James Riley
If you wait near the Westboro Baptist Church for more than twenty minutes you will see people pull up, get out of their cars, and take pictures of the house across the street with starry-eyed delight.
The oddest thing about the Westboro Baptist Church is that there are houses across the street. It is, for all it's infamy, just a house on a street corner. But all places must be on a street somewhere, even hate groups. Still, it is strange to sit in a car on some suburban street in Kansas and look up in one direction and read "GOD HATES FAGS" only to turn your head and see a house all painted up in rainbows.
I fiddle with my newly purchased iPod. I bought it at a garage sale, less than two miles from where I am sitting. The woman assured me it worked, though she didn’t know what was on it, except for "Thunderstruck," which she had just played for a man who had bought speakers an hour prior. For five dollars, even if it is a swindle, well, I have been swindled for more. I look at the rainbow house and I too smile.
Women, while I am there they are only women, arrive about every ten to fifteen minutes to make a pilgrimage and pay homage to the rainbow house. They get out of their car and snap a few photographs of the house, smiling, beaming even. They investigate the free lending library box. They coo over the community garden plot. They chat politely or not at all. But they never look back over their shoulders to what they know is there.
There is a short man here, but he was not a visitor. He looks like Jeff Bridges in a David Crosby biopic. He lives here or works here. I am not sure. He doesn't seem to be extraordinary forthcoming with who he is or what his connection is to the place and I don't feel any need to question him. We chat and he smiles with his eyes the way old hippies do. He does not seem overly concerned with any of the people going or coming.
But the woman who lives next door is more talkative. She has many barking dogs, but smiles at me. She seems pleasant enough, so I ask her, "Do you mind if I come talk to you?"
She is more than excited to do it. "Oh yes please! Meet me on my porch."
The woman comes out her front door with six bottles of water. "Here," she said and hands me one. It is a hot day in Topeka and I am thankful for the water but I doubt I could drink even my share of it, at least not without staying longer than I want.
At the door, on her porch, two of the three dogs bark and bark.
"They aren’t even mine," she says. "Well Bandit is. But the other two, they are my neighbor’s. I don’t know when she is supposed to get back, but I hope it is soon."
When I ask her what it is like to live here she calls it her "little piece of paradise." She had a rough time of it in her life. She alludes to some bad people that were perhaps her family once. She smiles and offers me water again, and apologizes for the dogs again. I say not to worry and sip on the first half-filled water bottle.
"But what is it like to live here?" I ask motioning to the twin temples across the street from one another. Polar opposites in form and function. She nods a little and says that it is different in some ways but really not at all that abnormal. She says that she supposed that everyone has their own sins to deal with and she couldn’t condemn anyone. They are just people after all.
"Besides," she says, "I get to talk to such wonderful and interesting people coming here just like you did."
"Is that so?" I ask.
"Oh yes. There was a lovely young man hear the other day who helped me plant tomatoes."
"Well, now I wish there was something I could help you with."
"Actually, now that you mention it…" Me and my big mouth.
After weeding a few rows of the garden, I dust off my pant legs. I think about how I am going to be sitting in them for the rest of the day, and probably several days after, driving through other towns and states. The woman thanks me, and I finish the third bottle of water. I say goodbye and start toward my van. I am about to get in, when I listen for the first time to a sound that I must have been passively hearing for a little while now. It is the uneven smack of someone shooting around on a basketball hoop. I realize that it is coming from behind the stockade fence of the Westboro compound. I think about the middle school boy who might well be behind the fence playing basketball by himself.
In truth, I know very little about the Westboro Baptist Church. I know that it is mostly one family, that of the founder Fred Phelps. I know that they have been denounced by many other Baptist churches. I know that there have been public defectors, like Megan Phelps-Roper, that have had to leave not just their ideological and religious beliefs, but their family as well.
But really, I only know them for the worst thing about them. I only know the Westboro Baptist Church, because the worst thought that they ever had is emblazoned on their home and church and on the signs they carry. And though I find their theology unforgivably grotesque, I can't say as I know about the rest of them. I know literally nothing else about them besides that one heinous belief which they seem delightfully proud of.
To look at something differently does not change the way that that something is. To look at a cloud and imagine it into shapes will not turn water vapor into a whale or a rocket ship. To stand on one's head will not reverse gravity. Likewise, I hope, this thought experiment will not diminish anyone's grief or anguish by seeming to excuse the hateful rhetoric and actions of this group and these people.
Imagine that the slogans these men and women sling on signs or shout at mourners were not a choice but a curse. That they were not designed to shock others into a warped morality but were a punishment for some unknown crime. Imagine these people were damned to wander with these chains proclaiming their worst belief, the worst thing about them, for all to see. Would that make them more pitiable? Would people look upon them as one would the leper or street urchin of their day? Or would they be just as hated as they are now? Might they even be more ignored?
Still further I wonder, as I begin to drive away, were I under that curse what would my house say? What would be my ugliest secret thought? What horrible violence have I done in the oyster-part of my heart with me the only witness, that would be brought up and trumpeted above my head in neon fire? And what if I, through some mistaken interpretation, believed it was my sacred duty to crow out this terrible thing, everyday and everywhere? How tragic I would find my lot. How lonely.
Then again, and here is where the thought experiment ends for far too many human beings or else lands too close to the bone. Many human beings grow up in a world in which the most shameful secret is not whom they hate but whom they love. Because of those around them, the most shameful thing about these human beings is not an ugly opinion but a core piece of who they are. And that is why the compassion for the hypothetical cursed we imagined above can only go so far. The questions become what if my most shameful secret was the type of person I was attracted to? The kind of human being I loved? And what if instead of being able to share it, I forced themselves to hide that away forever? How much more tragic would that be?
I am glad that rainbow house is on a street corner somewhere.
January 20, 2018
Submitted by: James Riley
In America, class is invisible. Class is a kind of odorless gas, that can not be held in your hands. Class can not be heard in the accents of the people, like it can in Britain or France. Most importantly, in America, class cannot be tasted. In America, class is taste. And I have a middle class palate.
I know I have a middle class palate because it is based on the diet my parents gave me when I was only a little child. It is what I was raised on. Some people know that they are lower class because they hate the taste of fresh vegetables. They develop a taste for the canned stuff only. I know I am middle class because I choose to see a movie by myself and eat as much crappy pizza as I possibly can. And I do it with glee.
When given the chance for a local adventure, when staying with a friend in Kansas City, when he is busy with work, when I have just an afternoon of freetime, when I can choose to see any part of a new city, I choose to watch Wonder Woman because I have never seen a movie alone before. I choose to jam as much Ci Ci's pizza in my mouth as I possibly can, because I never have before. I choose to see how many pizza slices I can sneak into my bag before I am caught, not by the uncaring minimum wage staff, but by my own sense of propriety or shame. All senses are just other words for class, in America. The things on my bucket list can be banged out in a unexceptional long weekend. That is how I know I am middle class.
The movie was good, I should mention. It may seem like I don't like it when I pair it with the cheap and crappy pizza of Ci Ci's, but it was good. It was the best superhero movie I have seen in a while, but nothing much more than that. But I have to admit that you can see in the movie another movie, a better movie, as you can see in most movies nowadays. Like most movies, the brave and unique taste of Wonder Woman was watered down by committee and more and more things were added to it until a delicate stir fry was turned into a beef stew.
Get your money's worth. That is the business model for the food of the middle class. And I chew on Wonder Woman as if I had something to talk about. But I saw it by myself. What am I going to say? It was a tight and pleasant movie but nothing new. It was entertaining. But in more ways than one, it was food not meant for me.
The middle class is the class that eats things that are bad for you not because they are decadent, but because they are so disappointing. The middle class are grazers. The poor are detritivores and scavengers and the rich are sharp toothed meat-eaters. But the middle class chew the grass of the Great Plains like the buffalo we replaced.
The pizza was worse than the movie, of course. But it was still eatable. Especially the buffalo chicken pizza. The buffalo chicken pizza was the most eatable thing I have ever ate. The jalapeno pepperoni moreso.
Of course, Wonder Woman wasn't for me. For me, it was like striping bamboo apart with my sharp teeth: something I can get fat on but nothing that will set my world on fire. But what about the little girl I saw with her mother? Thats who the movie is for, I think. It is milk. Something to grow strong on, maybe but a little less useful to me. Then again, what child wants to the murderous death of World War I. It is a shame that Wonder Woman, by the virtue of being the only recent movie I can think of with a female hero, has to be both gritty and juvenile. All things to all people.
But that is what we want. Not a little bit of one pronounced flavor or even a few well-balanced and well-blended flavors but all the flavors muddled together on one un-emptying plate. I run into this problem with build-your-own burgers or pizzas or any of those assembly line Chipotle-esque restaurants where you have the freedom to choose whichever and however many toppings you want. I end up putting too many things on it, so that they all turn out sweet, salty, spicy, all at once. These are truly fine, even sometimes tasty, but they are ultimately worse than what I really want.
That is the problem with the middle class taste. I don't know enough to know what I want. That is the problem with art by committee, the audience does not know what they want. If you ask a person what they want in a movie, they will say things like "funny" and "angry" and "action" and all the flavors that they know they like. But if you make that movie, it will be, more than likely, a muddled mess. While Wonder Woman is not a mess, it is not the movie it could be.
And sure, I eat a lot of things that are great, and divine and delecedible, and truly wonderful. But I keep going back to eat crap. I will always have a taste for food that is more quantity than quality. It is the invisible part of me that keeps me going back wasting my time on mediocre meals and art. Perhaps, it will be different for my kids.
November 7, 2017
Submitted by: James Riley
Sure, everyone knows the Mississippi river. Most people have read Huckleberry Finn in high school, or at least they were supposed to. Still, everyone knows that in a country of wild and wonderful rivers, the Mississippi is the uncontested king. Though the Missouri is technically longer, it is just a tributary to the wide and mercurial Emperor Mississippi. Sure, everyone knows the Mississippi river. That's what makes it so unfathomable.
The Mississippi divides our country in two, at least as far as radio stations go and what other metric is as important? It is a line, a demarcator and demarcation both, between the East and West. It is the earliest national boundary that we had. There was a time when from coast to coast meant from the Atlantic to the banks of the Mississippi.
It is a large river in itself, but positively massive when you judge it by its watershed. While not the largest river basin in the world, it does cover 1,400,000 square miles. The Mississippi is a collection of rainwater from all but three of the landlocked American states and from some coastal states besides. Here is an interesting aside: If you were to overlay the land from the massive Louisiana Purchase on that watershed, it is a near perfect overlap of the western side of the river's water basin. This is perhaps less surprising when you consider that human beings both like and are like water. Both collect and pool in very similar ways and places and neither will travel up-and-overhill unless compelled by great force.
The Louisiana Purchase was indeed a watershed moment in the expansion of the United States. Jefferson, fearing that Napoleon had interests in bolstering his European Empire with an American one, sent envoys to purchase just a little bit of land. Napoleon was all too happy to rid himself of all he could to fund his European conquest. Thus began (or continued) the great American twin traditional reasons for expansion: benefiting from the mass destruction of European Wars and a near paranoid concern of protecting domestic interests.
Despite their intense desire to keep foreign conflict off of American shores, the Founding Fathers failed. Firstly with the War of 1812, and secondly and more seriously with failing to deal with the original sin of America of slavery. It is worth noting that most of America's early military actions were against pirates, slaves, and natives, the very same population that was washed down the Mississippi to be deposited in the great American city of New Orleans.
The Mississippi was as equal and fair a distributor of wealth as you can find in American history. Taking minerals and culture and wealth and trash and strife, all equal particles to the dispassionate and uncaring river, from every corner of the unspoiled Arcadia and washed them into rich and arbitrary deposits. New Orleans is just one of the cities and towns that benefited from the river's capricious gifts, albeit in unequal shares.
Compare that relentless washing hand of the river to the vile and contemptible redistribution of human souls by man. The phrase "to sell one down the river" refers to this very river and to only the literal sale of human beings. The saying suggests what was an awful truth of slavery and what may prove to still be true in America today. Though it is used today as shorthand for betrayal, the subtext is that for black men and women in America, no matter how bad they have it, it could always get worse.
Going up the river from New Orleans, on the famous Highway 61, you will find yourself in a slowly shrinking town called Natchez, Mississippi. Natchez, in its earliest form, was a French Settlement and was once the capital of Mississippi, but now appears to be a necropolis of an ancient and barbarous people. Those that live there now seem only distantly related to them. The city of less than 16,000 people, is primarily known for its many tourable plantation houses. The chief symbol of this city of Mausoleums is the unfinished Longwood.
Known as "Nut's Folly", after its owner Haller Nut, this massive octagonal piece of Orientalism is an empty promise. Only the basement was finished, when work stopped in the significant year of 1861 due to the complications of the country no longer being one single country anymore. You can still walk around it today and see the unfinished upper floors. You may also tour the euphemistically named "servants quarters", a large brick building that seems smaller when you find out it housed 32 slaves. The whole complex seems uncomfortably small at that point. Such is the particular legacy of how those particular people chose to to spend their gifts from the river. The hermit crab-like descendants still scuttle about in the shells of the former estates and seem to live in real admiration of their beauty, while admitting to the horrors that made them possible, as one might marvel at the pyramids of Egypt. Though to what extent the shock at such horrors are feigned is certainly up for debate.
Moving a bit north up Highway 61, and quite a few years past 1861, near the crossroads where Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil, you will find the Delta Blues Museum housed in an old railroad depot. Outside of the museum, there is a town that seems tailor made to host a Blues museum. Like many American towns, Clarksdale, MS resembles a slowly dying fire, diminishing in intensity and size, but not yet burned out. Though this small fire heated the crucible that was the birthplace of musicians like Sam Cooke, Son House, John Lee Hooker, Rick Ross, Nate Dogg and many others. It is a fire that, like in many American Towns, caring citizens are committed to keeping lit.
Inside the Delta Blues Museum, you can see the artifacts of the men and women who forged the Blues. Their suits, their guitars, and, in the case of Muddy Waters, their homes are lined up for inspection. Inside what used to be a railroad depot, you can stand in what used to be the main room of a rude cabin, in which the man who used to be McKinnely Morganfield grew up. When looking at the wax statue of a re-invented man in a flashy suit and big guitar becomes just a tad too artificial to stomach, you can retreat to the far wall that displays the letters of incarcerated men. Sometimes rambling, sometimes cogent, each misspelling, each sentence with unique diction tells the story of some human being or other in trouble of one kind or another. The pathos of the words pushing past the image of the gnarled knucklebones grinding to work in the heat, past the image of a shrunken boney dirty drunk howling out from behind missing teeth, to the heart of shared humanity. If we have nothing else in common, we have all felt sad. That is the Blues.
Only in a country like America can misery be liquidated, and only in the hands of the creative underclass could it be spun into gold, as has been done time and again in jokes and songs and other American arts. And yet, only in America could that gold fall disproportionately into white-gloved hands. Continuing further up river, closer to the present day, you might find yourself on Beale Street in Memphis. Though you might be forgiven for mistaking it for Bourbon Street, so long as you never say it to a local, for all the faint smells of the more impolite human bodily functions. Beale is nevertheless an historic street. It was one of only a few streets in America which businesses were owned primarily by African Americans and as such, like Bourbon, was a musical incubator.
African American musicians began performing on Beale Street as early as the 1860s but the it wasn't until the 1920s that Memphis Blues became a known style. Blues is like Barbeque; everyone swears that theirs is the best but I can't really tell the difference. And just like Barbeque, the Blues takes the worst cuts of life and makes them into something tasty and worth chewing on. It is a meeting place that brings together the rich and the poor. As the the official Beale Street website romanticizes, these spaces are the places where "Stetson hats mingled with overalls."
Though in these rare spaces, where people were not separated, neither were they equal. It is exactly these same two articles of clothing that appear in Otis Redding's "Tramp" when Carla Thomas chastises Otis for wearing "overalls" instead of "continental clothes, or Stetson Hats." The difference between Muddy Waters and McKinneley Morganfield was just as simple as the money for a new suit. Otis and Carla recorded that for Stax Records 2 miles south of Beale Street, in Memphis.
If you travel north of Beale Street by a couple blocks you might find Sun Records, the place where Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Howlin' Wolf all recorded. And with them, a whole other wrinkle enters into the racial history of popular music. It was one of the birthplaces of Rock and Roll, which was called rhythm and blues when Black Artists invented it twenty years before that, and country when poor crackers tried their hand at it ten years later. Each new style and sound artificially categorized into a new group with a fashionable name, but to me it is all Rock and Roll.
It is impossible to ignore that both Stax and Sun Records were started by white men (and a woman) who got rich off of the work and culture of black men and women. Both record companies did a great deal to break down racial barriers in the music industry and in the larger culture outside of that as well. But there is no denying that popular music was then and remains inextricably tied to both race and class in this country. But Rock and Roll, or its more amorphous appellation Popular Music, is not about thinking so much as it is about feeling. And a Rock and Roll song feels like freedom even when it is about slavery. Popular Music is about hope, even when it is about suffering.
All Rock and Roll is the same Big Dumb Lie. It is a joke that gets caught in the throat jumbled up with the hacking laughter of someone still surprised by the punchline. All of Rock and Roll, albums, songs, bands, however you want to atomize it, is a flower that blooms, bears fruit, and rots in the self-same instant. Rock and Roll is a tesseract, undulating in three dimensional space, impossible and rhythmic. Like the Mississippi River, there is some sort of essential identity put on it, though it has never been the same river twice. Sure, everyone knows what the Mississippi River means. It means nothing - nothing but what you put on it. And even this, it shakes freely off fairly quickly.
October 17, 2017
Submitted by: James Riley
"Is it hard to talk to strangers?" she asked.
It was. It was something I was finding extremely hard to do. How did she know, I wondered.
"Yeah, I'll bet it is. That seems like the worst part of it. There was a guy who they paid to go around the US and write about what he thinks. And everyone got mad at him because he didn't talk to anyone. But you know, why do you have to? Why is that automatically part of it?" she said.
"You are writing a book right?" she asked.
I guess I am.
"I knew it," she said, "not that you said you were or anything but when Kent asked me what you were doing around here, I knew it was that."
It is a rare thing when a person understands a piece of you. When they just get it. Not the whole thing, but a piece. Perhaps there are people that do get the whole thing or at least several connected or unconnected pieces of you, but I haven't seen that yet. It is nice enough to have someone get a piece, big or small.
There is no real rhyme or reason to it. Affection does not make it easier to get. It is not love or comradery that leads to the instant transmission of this knowledge. It is not even similarity of attitude or outlook that allows for this preternatural connection. Sometimes with someone you just know something.
"You made that," I said pointing to her baby nursing at her breast.
"Yeah, it is pretty great," she said.
I look around her house as if to say, and you made all this, a life for yourself.
"It is pretty great." she said again.
We were young when we first knew each other. We drank together with and without other friends and worked together shelving and selling books. It was after college and as close to what I thought young adulthood was going to be as I am ever going to get. That feels like very long ago, now. I know because it all seems charming and pleasant, the way all but the most painful long ago memories seem with time. Later on her porch, we talked about the South. About schools and culture and what it is going to be like when her daughter grows up. I told her about how I had just made a fool of myself by eating the display black and white cookie from the pizza shop I stopped at. Her baby mashes a homemade popsicle into her mouth in the most adorable way. We watch the giant hole that was, up until very recently, her intersection collect rain. They tore all of it up. It was supposed to be fixed by the following day but that day it was supposed to storm all day, so who knows. She casually referenced the way she, in her own words "blew up her life." I never fully knew all the details of that and still don't. I do not recall being the most supportive and to be honest I kinda lost touch with her after that.
I wonder how she knew it was the right choice. I mean, how did she know that those beautiful blue eyes would be looking at her now, just so perfect.
We kissed one time. I often have thought about that. About how well-meaningly stupid I was to have not done more. I didn't want to blow up her life. I am glad I didn't. She might not have what she has now.
I wonder if she has thought about it since. About any of her past life. I am sure she has, but I don't know what. I do not need to know. You should see this kid's eyes. They have a way of shutting down such useless questions.
I overstayed my welcome just a bit to meet her husband. He is a friendly and funny man. We talked about Steinbeck and Travels With Charley. I said my goodbyes and I drove away north.
A woman's worth is not based on her ability to produce children nor her looks. Neither is her happiness dictated by such things. But when I looked at her from my van, she looked happier and more beautiful than I remembered her then. I wonder how she knew.
September 5, 2017
Submitted by: James Riley
Driving onto an island is weird. Driving onto an island at midnight and pulling over to a side street and sleeping in the back of your car hoping that you won't be woken up by the police for vagrancy is even weirder. Being woken up at six in the morning by the roosters that inhabit the island that you could not see the night before is weirder still.
The brightside of being awake on the southernmost point of the United States before the sun is up is literal. The sunrise is itself exceptionally beautiful. But just as interesting is driving around to the not yet open restaurants and stops. If you should ever get the chance to drive or walk around a tourist economy before everyone else is up, you should. The people who work there are up before the sun too, and to watch them get to work is like watching a theater troupe warming up and setting the stage for a show they know intimately. The people who actually do the working, living, and dying on the island are such a small percentage of the neighborhood that early morning it looks like a college town in summer, or a beach town in the off season. Peacefully deserted.
Of course, there is not really an off season in Key West. Sure some times are slower than others, but tourists are always eager to relax in the sun. Perhaps it is nearer the truth to say that Key West has no off season, because it is never on. The whole island feels a slow relaxation that is neither inauthetic nor indulgent. Key West is like your nice pair of shorts. Certainly not formal or glamorous, but not entirely without dignity.
Unfortunately, not even Key West is resistant to the slow and sure growth of crass tourism that infects all middle class vacation destinations. Where exactly that line is is hard to tell, even for the locals, who of course are transplants themselves. Like the frog in the slowly boiling pot, it can be hard to tell exactly how many ice cream parlors or kitschy bric a brac stores it takes to tip the scales from a neat community to visit to a full on tourist outlet.
Gus, my tour guide at Hemingway's house, expressed some slight concerns. Look, he said, we have always been a tourist town. We always will be a tourist town. But even within the past ten, even five years, it has gotten more crowded. He talked about how thankfully the encroachment of big box stores and chains had stopped just short of the island proper. But he acknowledged that they were right next door. No Walmart, he said. Thankfully, he added. Yet, he added more sadly. I couldn't help but picture Visigoths in blue polos waiting on the bridge to storm the island.
I am not sure how Gus would feel about my Ukrainian waiter and whether he was part of the crowding or not. I don't think Gus would begrudge Valdis a place in the community; after all, Gus was originally from Massachusetts. More importantly Valdis seemed to understand the character of the island and enjoy it. He seemed to value its spirit. The spirit of a small and somewhat wild community, which Valdis eschewed Manhattan and the West Coast for. He loved the same spirit of chickens roaming the streets and roosting in the trees. It is the same attitude that not only allows a horde of nearly feral cats roaming a literary and historical landmark, but actually believes that the cats are the primary owners.
But more than that, Valdis said the place was paradise. A small community where he could practice his English without embarrassment and get to and from his two jobs quickly. Valdis talked about maybe having a better place for his children than what the Ukraine is now. Vladis just hoped that Trump would grant him a green card. For my part, I do too. Key West, at least, would be a better place for it.
August 28, 2017
Submitted by: James Riley
Due to Florida's lax privacy laws, the first thing people generally think about the state is the wild and stupid crimes people get up to down there. These are simply reported, and do not occur, at a greater frequency than elsewhere in the US. But the second thing would probably be old people. That and tourist meccas. The main export of Florida is not oranges but fantasy. The fountain of youth could not be found anywhere else. It is not surprising then that the Fountain of Youth would be found in such a place. Or not found in such a place, as the case may be.
The idea of youth-granting water is very old and no one culture can lay claim to it. But where it concerns Florida it is a legend of a legend. The story is: Caribbean natives told Juan Ponce De Leon of a wealthy and glorious place with a fountain of water that granted an everlasting and youthful life. Ponce De Leon, a Governor of Puerto Rico, took this legend and sailed north. He landed on the site of what is today St. Augustine and he marched his men through sickness and forests for many fruitless years. Finally failing to find the fountain, he died an old and broken man.
Except, he didn't. The history is: Juan Ponce De Leon was charged by the Spanish crown to expand the empire. He did set out from Puerto Rico to discover lands that he would rule as Governor for life, but there is no mention of any fountain in his official charge nor any of his personal writings. He did land on Florida and he did name it, but there is no real consensus on where. What we do know for sure is that he died from injuries he sustained while trying to colonize Florida. Only after he was dead was any mention of the Fountain of Youth attached to his name, by, among others, Washington Irving. Irving was a fantastic liar about the Age of Sail and we still live under his story that people believed the world was flat in the 1400s. They didn't, not any more than today at least.
Yet the false story of Ponce De Leon is the truest foundation of Florida that we have. It is, pared down, simply this: an old rich man is told that Florida is a paradise and he comes to seize the opportunity to become even richer. Then again the true history is equally informative: A man comes to Florida to build something and is defeated before he can see it completed.
St. Augustine is home to Ponce De Leon's Fountain of Youth Archeological Park. Of course most of that name is, if not outright false, highly dubious. Juan had nothing to do with any fountain and he certainly never owned one. He might have never landed in St. Augustine and the Fountain of Youth has never had any serious archeological work done on it. It is simply that the title "Native Peoples and Early Spanish Settlement Archeological Park" does not have that special ring of total bullshit that makes something uniquely Floridian.
The recent history of the park land is equally fascinating as any fictional story. A woman named Diamond Lil originally bought the land and named it Neptune Park. She faked a few artifacts and began to tell townspeople that they belonged to Ponce De Leon. Much later, real archeological work was done on the land by Dr. Kathleen Deagan and it was discovered that it was actually the site of the earliest Spanish settlement. For nearly 140 year people went to the site of a bogus tourist trap when real history was right underneath their feet. To put it another way, Diamond Lil sold a lie about a lie told by Washington Irving about a legend of a fountain that didn't exist. It is a nesting doll of entertaining fictions.
Florida is a unique place. It is a land free from truth and lies, free from time, and free from either land or water. These opposites so essential in conflict everywhere else are completely indivisible and intertwined on this unthinkable peninsula. The history of Florida is the history of lies, come-ons, hustles, hoaxes, swindles, dreams and follies.
Florida is also the quintessential tourist destination. Per capita and by variety, Florida has the most tourist attractions for the most tastes anywhere in America. Science museums, museums of oddities, beaches of all kinds, clean family-friendly amusement parks, exclusive resorts, tawdry tourist traps, gatorlands, Marine parks, whorehouses, taprooms, taverns and decadent hotels all litter Florida's tourist history. Florida changes with the wind. Take the Kennedy Space Station, obsessively a science museum but with unmistakable flourishes of the theme park, no doubt an influence of the Orlando Theme Park explosion. More Theme Park than museum for Bob's, the man working the Imax theater, tastes. Before I could ask more about it, he had to help with a small popcorn emergency. To be fair, the standard bus tours do delve a little deeper into the actual history of the place. The deluxe bus tours that cost $25 on top of the $55 entrance fee are even better at touching on the actual history of the center.
St. Augustine itself, along with the serious historical and archeological work being done there, is a living museum to the changing tastes of tourists. It is home to the original Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum housed in what used to be the Castle Warden Inn, built by William G. Warden and later turned into a luxury hotel by author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and her husband. Not far from the Park Service owned Spanish Fort is what used to be a pedestrian mall that has slowly morphed into that all too common section of tourist towns that you find crowded with "unique" shops which you would never shop at if you weren't on vacation. A sort of a tourist outlet that slowly and inevitably grows into a cheesy and cheap collection of stores. It is the same kudzu of mediocrity which spreads and covers over the unique and interesting places, if they aren't carefully guarded. The economy will flip again and the tourist city will be reforged into something else entirely. What shape it will take is uncertain. But down the street, at least one building will remain in quiet grandeur.
To build a castle out of air is more naturally Floridian than raising cattle, growing oranges, or caring for octogenarian Jews. The Ponce De Leon Hotel is such a castle. It is one of the most exceptional buildings I have ever been in. Built in 1888, it was entirely wired with electricity and used massive 8,000 gallon water towers to provide running water for all guests. I could only see the courtyard and the lobby, but that was enough. It is a space that transports you to a different time. Maybe it is a time outside of time, when beauty and grandeur was a universal virtue. But probably not. It was a luxury resort after all, and thus only for a special class of people. Still, there is something about the building that seems separate from the rest of St. Augustine and separate from now and all the nows stretching back until it opened in 1888.
Now, for example, it houses dormitories for female students at Flagler College, named after Henry Flagler. Is there a time more free from time than college?
Prior to Walt Disney, the unquestionable king of Florida Tourism and Business was Henry Flagler. Henry Flagler was, like Ponce De Leon, a very wealthy man from somewhere else who saw real potential in Florida. Unlike Ponce De Leon, he was not a total failure in Florida. Though he did die before he could see what his work accomplished, Flagler built more castles out of air than any other man in Florida's history. Starting in St. Augustine, he used his Standard Oil money to built a series of hotels and railroads down the coast stretching all the way to Key West. If he had not insisted otherwise, Miami might be known as Flagler, FL.
Jules Verne predicted that either America or Russia would be the first to launch a rocket into space because both powers were strong enough, and more importantly had land close enough to the equator to achieve the escape velocity. Florida's truly unique geography also marks it as the place where people and places, if they don't explode on the launching pad, can escape the everyday into some other place and time. Even though, eventually, near everything that man has built in Florida will be taken back into the sea, some things may escape.
August 21, 2017
Submitted by: James Riley
You can tell a lot about a place by looking at its trees, if you can manage to see them. Trees are hard to see precisely because they are everywhere. It takes real effort to really see one. Or a tree needs be quite special to be noticed by any old fool. Trees are like birds. Countless pigeons, robins, and chickadees fill yards across the country without so much as a lingering glance from the breakfast table, but put a peacock in a garden and watch the tourist come with cameras to catch its glorious plumage. The trees of Savannah, just as ostentatious as any bird, are living texts that tell the story of the city both gracefully and beautifully.
Consider first the Magnolia. A sweet smelling summer blooming tree, the Magnolia is practically synonymous with the south. The elegant and large blossoms of the Magnolia mark it as a decorative tree first and foremost. It is somehow both dignified and grandiose. It, and the equally as beautiful and nearly as ubiquitous Crape Myrtle, encapsulate much of the southern assthetic, at least as far as stereotypes go. One thinks of Debutante Balls, drinking sweet tea on a porch, and watching the movie Steel Magnolias. The fact that I personally have never experienced any of those events does undercut my point, but only a little. The flower lends itself to such stereotypes and half-truths. There is an undeniable hazy dreamlike quality to the Magnolia flower, which has been blooming in the summer heat for millions of years. Whereas most flowers are pollinated by bees, or in rarer cases butterflies and moths, the Magnolia relies on beetles for reproduction. As a result the petals of the Magnolia are tough and leathery. The flower itself is large and relatively simple. It is a flower that predates us, like the land or stars, and like those things we project our ideas onto it. The magnolia flower isn't just a symbol that endures because it is striking, it is literally built tougher than other flowers.
Savannah is an odd fragmented city from above. Its jigsaw city limits are only made odder by the way that rivers carve up the land directly to the east of the city into various islands and beaches. Savannah itself is cut off from South Carolina by the eponymous river and it is on this waterfront that the Palmetto tree tells its part of the story loudest. The scrubby Palmetto indicates a climate that is on the border of tropical, that points to the Caribbean, but is not quite there. The Palmetto by its very nature indicates a history of colonial trade and by its location indicates the dark history of that trade. Looking upon the Palmetto one thinks of cotton and of cane. Of scarred backs and cut-off hands. Of blood red scars on black skin. You can practically hear the chains rattle on the sub-tropical breeze as you walk past the tourist shops of the waterfront. It is a history that Savannah does not ignore completely in its tourist districts but it is a history that is not completely past in the greater area of Savannah. Nor the rest of Georgia for that matter. Nor the rest of America. But in a city full of ghost tours, the specter of the slave trade looms larger than any other.
But it is the Southern Live Oak that is the quintessential tree of Savannah. The old city is divided into almost artificially charming squares of green spaces and the Live Oak is their undisputed centerpiece of each. This magnificent tree grows wider than it does tall and it positively drips with spanish moss. Like most oaks, it is long lived with some individuals growing for more than a thousand years. Unlike most oaks, it does not lose its leaves in the Fall. In the daytime it is beautiful and at night it is eerie. It is the biological embodiment of southern gothic.
The Southern Live Oak is the peacock of the plant world. It may not fan out quite so quickly, but when the twisted branches grow out in all directions like slow motion lightning its silhouette matches Hera's prized bird and is every bit as dramatic. To be sure, there are a great many plants more colorful than the Live Oak, but then again there are more colorful birds than the peacock (some at least). But there is more to beauty than color. And there is more reason to look on something than beauty.
Imagine you are a little girl with a chicken. This chicken is special, not just because it is yours and you love it but because it can do something uncommon for chickens. It can walk backwards. Now a newspaper man comes all the way from New York just to write about your chicken. You might begin to see the story in all things. You might want to tell the stories of all the chickens learning to walk backwards, for any human to have grace is as uncommon as that. It did instill in one little girl a lifelong love of fowl that culminated in her procuring the king of birds: the peacock. Flannery O'Connor loved her peacocks in the purest way, because they never loved her back.
I do wonder if Flannery O'Connor ever looked at the trees of her childhood home with the same attention and admiration she had for peacocks. She once wrote, "Once or twice I have been asked what the peacock is "good for" � a question which gets no answer from me because it deserves none." So it is for trees. And so it is with art. O'Connor also said that art "is not for everybody; it is only for those who are willing to undergo the effort needed to understand it." These things, living and nonliving beauties, are a good within themselves, not just because of what they can give us. But they do give us so much if we earnestly put our whole selves into seeing and hearing them. The trees were here for all of our history and they record our stories as well as those of others. Although not everyone can hear them, they speak for themselves.
August 9, 2017
Submitted by: James Riley
On the edge of the National Park land of Roanoke Island, past the accurately re-created historical earthen fort, right up against the water, there is a giant and gaudy theater. It looks like a Renaissance Faire reproduction of Shakespeare's Globe mixed with a Disneyfied pioneer fort. It's palisades feature, among other things, large signs for wine and beer with a large arrow pointing the direction to concession stands just inside. The amphitheater would be more at home in a local theme park as a marquee show, a nice musical with repertory players singing about pioneer life, than a main attraction for a National Park.
When I first saw it I assumed that it was just another cheap attempt at edutainment that museums seem hellbent on these days. A sign of the waning confidence in public attention and interest in pure history. But the advertisements that showed the suspiciously ornate costumes of the players also claimed to be celebrating 80 years! I had to ask someone just what in the hell was going on.
Sue, a very nice women working in the gift shop, gave me the lowdown. As it turns out, the stage predates the National Park use of the land. It was built by the community for a local and singular use: The performance of The Lost Colony, a play written in one night by the Pulitzer Prize winning author Paul Green, about the rise and fall of the the first English colony in America. Furthermore, Sue informed me, this play has had a summer season every year since the first performance in 1937, save for four years during the war. Fire, flood, and loss of power from frost have all threatened to derail the season, yet the show, as the adage indicates, has gone on. The theater itself has been rebuilt at least twice.
The play gatherers some notoriety amongst colleges, or so I am told, for summer stock. It has been the start for many fine actors, including Chris Elliott, Leon Rippley and Andy Griffith. Andy, in fact, was so grateful to the show for giving him his start that he returned every year to announce the start of the season. He was a dear friend of Sue, who seemed genuinely choked up thinking about his death.
I must now admit, the stage itself is quite impressive. The exterior aside, the actual stage is beautiful and must be a treat to work on. It is a multi-layered and multi-leveled set evocative of a colonial village. The lighting system, from what I could tell, is exceptional for an outdoor theater. It looked like a place that one could have great fun as an actor or a member of the crew. It was neat just to stand on when the theater was empty. I can only imagine how much more exciting it is to be there with hundreds of people watching you.
It is an experience that each matriculating high school senior shares with the actors, for the use of this stage is no longer solely dedicated to the show. I was told that the community comes together every year to watch the graduation ceremony for the local high school on Waterside Theater. On an island we have to support each other, Sue told me. But this feeling of community support does not end at the water's edge. On the Outer Banks archipelago there are three high schools but there is not an abundance of roads. Therefore, each school coordinates its graduation with each other in order to minimize traffic and maximize attendance of each ceremony. People on the islands try to come out for things, Sue said, even if they are not your thing. We have to take care of each other.
For the record, I did not see the show, but I hear it is really something special.
August 4, 2017
Submitted by: James Riley
Kristen Recine is my best friend. She is not my closest confidant, she is not my partner in crime, and she is not my bff. But out of all the people I have ever met, she is the best at being a friend. She might be the best person I have ever met period. I have many wonderful friends, and to them I apologize if this is an insult. I hope they can take solace in the fact that they too can have her friendship, if they meet her but once. If you haven't had the pleasure, I do highly recommend. Kristen would be a friend to even the Devil.
I have always been insecure with friendships. I have often felt like Frosty the Snowman, a person in the same state of arrested development, coming to play with my friends but finding them, increasingly, a year older, a year wiser, a year changed and grown. It is true that I have a certain level of immaturity. I am foolish and not as preoccupied with the more practical aspects of adulthood as many of my peers are. I talk too much, I drink too much. I have urinated in places I shouldn't. I am often embarrassed by the things I have said and done. I am constantly pushing away the idea that just after I leave the room, the scene receives the popular alternative New Yorker caption: "Christ, what an asshole." But never, not once, have I doubted Kristen's friendship.
Aristotle said that a friend to all is a friend to none. Just another in a long line of examples of why Aristotle was wrong about everything. Morrissey said it takes strength to be gentle and kind. Which is just another example of my working theory that Morrissey is a better life guide than Aristotle in every way. I would add that being kind and gentle also takes bravery. Love is not diminished by giving it out gratis. Scooping it out to others does not empty the carton nor make it taste any different whether you are sharing it with ten or ten thousand. What kind of monster would keep love exclusively for those that deserve it and from those that need it the most? A coward like me looks at the bravery of Kristen with true envy.
It is one thing to want to love, and quite another to radiate it. It is one thing to ask what you can do to help and another to know and just help. Kristen has the kindest heart I have ever witnessed up close, but it is also the most effective and seemingly effortless. There are other people that want to love, want to show it, want to feel it. Kristen is it.
I am currently embarking on a long trip and sitting in a Taco Bell outside of Norfolk, VA thinking that I have made a terrible mistake. But I have just read a note that Kristen has given me and without her possibly knowing it, it was exactly what I needed when I needed it most. I wanted to read it on the massive bridge in the Chesapeake Bay, but I missed the turn for the gift shop. Picturesque, I would have expounded about the wide openness of journeys and oceans, of connections, and all that crap. But now, that I am full of doubt and alone, the note, like a gift given by a wizard or elf queen out of some sort of fantasy book, is a light to look on in dark times.
It would come as no surprise to those who know me personally that I was deeply hurt by the past election. I have been angry. I hate everyone who made the stupid and dangerous decision to hand over the control of this country to a deeply ignorant hateful bully, the same way that I would hate them if they drove drunk and hit a loved one of mine. Perhaps you understand that, perhaps you don't. But I do not like that about myself. I do not like that I am afraid of letting go of that hate, because I do not want to think that unacceptable behavior is acceptable.
Kristen, here too, has given me a light. Part of my trip is trying to find a way to come to terms with the fact that I woke up on November 8th and found that there are more literal monsters in this country than I thought. Thankfully no one who I directly care about was, but many of the relatives of those I do did make that horrible choice. I must ask myself, "What if instead of my loved one being hit by a drunk driver, my loved one was a drunk driver?" It could happen. Anyone could conceivably make such a terrible mistake. I have been drunk. I have made bad decisions. I certainly would still be mad at them, even hate them. But there would be a part of my heart that would, if not forgive them, at least try to love them again.
Kristen showed me around Bryn Mawr College, the place where she earned her master's degree and made herself part of the community. We met again later at another wonderful friend's birthday party. That was at Dickinson College, the school Kristen and I attended as undergraduates together. Kristen was in fact one of my first two friends at the school. More than that, she introduced me to many of my best friends there. If she had not introduced herself to me, I would have had a much lonelier time at school. I could have very well been miserable for four years. I can never thank her enough for saying hello.
The rejection cost of talking to strangers is not high. Someone somewhere that you will never speak to again might think you are a weirdo. But the potential reward is so high that it seems strange that so many of us do not make the investment. It can be even harder to reach out to strangers you have reason to distrust, because they have nothing in common with you or your worldview. Still, it might be worth it.
Kristen Recine is my best friend because even when she is not she is.
June 12, 2017
Submitted by: James Riley
Everyone knows that the largest mall in America is the Mall of America. Good thing too, or else that name might seem foolish. But it is only the largest mall because it has so many un-mall-like things in it. Things like roller coasters, post offices, and aquariums. The second largest mall in the United States does not waste its square footage on such silly non-retail pastimes. In fact, if we judged mall size strictly by retail space, King of Prussia Mall would be the largest.
We do, of course, judge a mall on space, retail or otherwise. Which stores occupy space in the mall. What the mall does with the common space between stores. It is impossible to walk through any mall in America and not judge it. Malls, like families, are always rising and falling in America. Your local mall, as you have undoubtedly noticed, is no different. It has changed.
In a mall, space is both a marker of success and of failure. Dying malls and thriving malls are remarkably similar but you would never mistake one for the other. Both have shuttered stores, empty lots where there ought to be retailers. But walk through a mall and see: are the closed spaces announcing things to come, teasing with anticipation of delights to be consumed? Or are they asking, practically begging, for tenants? Look too in the stores that are there. Are they sparse with little or no merchandise or are they tastefully spaced out with an expensive lack of variety? The distinction is subtle but unmistakable. Very rarely do you see the stores of the old malls, crowded with middle-class sensibilities and merchandise. The middle class is disappearing from our malls as well.
Closer to my home there are two malls, Christiana and Concord. They are the malls of my youth and adolescence and while Christiana Mall was always bigger, they always seemed comparable. Not anymore. Christiana has grown wide and strong as Concord has withered on the vine. In outfitting myself for this trip, I went to both and I saw the Concord Mall in a slow state of decay, attracting cheap stores or none at all. The Christiana has sucked it dry.
The Christiana Mall has gone the way of most thriving malls. It is, like King of Prussia, a luxury mall, focusing on high end retailers. Outside the mall, restaurants are springing up, as are specialty stores. All retail power is being funneled to the area creating a shopping complex that covers nearly a mile. Going to the luxury mall, like its cousin the outlet, is now a full day event.
As I walked through King of Prussia I found myself walking through many different malls. This is literally true, as what is now King of Prussia used to be three separate malls that have merged into one. But it is also figurative. Thriving luxury malls are microcosms of that favorite topic of armchair city theorists: gentrification. There are huge swaths of mall which contained intimidating stores with expensive things tastefully spread out and attended by well dressed staff members with trendy haircuts. They stood ready to help anyone who might walk in. Nobody did. This was during the middle of a Wednesday in June, so take whatever meaning from that you can.
I wandered the top floor completely, noting that even the food court seemed prohibitively fancy. When I went downstairs, I started to recognize the mall a little better. It was not a clean cut between the two, a glorious upper mall built upon the sleazy undermall; after all, Tesla has a showroom on the bottom floor. But the only section in the entire mall that felt as crammed with value as the middle-class malls of old was there and it was jarring enough for me to think it was dirty. Though it was just a Lids, a Gamestop, a food court and a handful of other stores, the change in aesthetic was arresting.
The young man working in Gamestop seemed unconcerned about the imminent threat I sensed. I asked him how business was; Gamestop, after all, closed more than a hundred stores this year. That is by design, he admitted. When Gamestop bought up all other similar video game stores years ago, it did not close any of them. It waited to see which stores did better than others and now it has a policy of closing a certain number of underperforming stores a year. I do not know if it is true, nor if I would be so confident that my store, sitting directly underneath another Gamestop, was so far from the chopping block. I do know that that is what Simon Property Group, the company that owns King of Prussia and a great number of other outlets and malls, does to its property. It sheds the weak and invests in the strong, fulfilling the oft cited adage the rich get richer and the poor just get the picture. You know, but for malls.
What then is left for the dying malls? Well, I don't know. But by gum, I will tell you what should happen. We don't have a money problem, we don't really even have a space problem. We have an imagination problem. Why does the mall have to be a strict retail space. Why can't an anchor store be an art museum? There are of course the malls whose buildings have found second use as medical centers, hockey rinks, high schools, and churches, but why not more? Imagine a mall with a Cinnabon, an open public space, an escape room, micro-library sights, startup offices, a senior center, and painters' studios. What if the food courts were salons and there were afterschool programs running engineering and robotics clubs out of what used to be Radio Shacks? What about showers for the homeless or collection facilities for recycled electronics or distribution centers of food banks or community greenhouses? Why not a historical society next to Hot Topic? Why can't malls meet any other need of the community besides retail? If it works for Mall of America, why not for the rest of the malls of America?
March 6, 2017
Submitted by: Lisa Riley
I, as so many, have been completely despondent since the election. Besides knowing what a poor imitation of P.T. Barnum the president is, I work with many Donald Trump supporters, and I am having a difficult time understanding how they could fall for this very badly done con man. I find it difficult to look them in the eye or include them in a story or joke. I feel they have jeopardized my well-being, and in extension the world's well-being.
When I first heard of the Women's March on Washington, my younger son and I decided at once we would go. So, with my antibiotics for my infected sinuses, my orthopedic inserts in my shoes, and a purse full of tissues off we went to the Wilmington, Delaware, train station, the one named after Joseph Biden.
Getting on the train was the first of many emotional hits of the day. Completely packed! Every seat in every one of the 11 cars. We sat with the conductors who told us that Amtrak was able to put on 3 extra trains for the day. Each one of those were also sold out. It was a lighthearted ride with the excited conversations around us, including the conductors who were so happy with everyone's behavior and jovial attitude.
We walked from Union Station, helped across the street by a traffic cop swinging her pink hat, just following the crowd. Somehow we ended up behind the stage. At only 10am, the time the speakers were to start, I already felt like the Mighty Python soldiers, walking into a wall. We turned around, tried to get down another way and found the same thing. This was all done without pushing or shoving or tempers. People would just kind of reverse course and try a new way. It did not take long for us to figure out we were not getting to the stage, still don't know where it was, so we headed down the mall, our nation's mall.
Having been to the Smithsonian Museum many times, I was familiar with the area, but never had I seen it so beautiful: People, all kinds of people, all ages of people, just moving. There were things left from the inauguration still on the grounds: tents and some chairs and many port-a-potties. Although we were able to find one out of the way that was opened, we found out that all the port-a-potties left from the day before had been PADLOCKED. I cannot at this time think of anything that explains this new administration as well as a locked toilet. There seemed to have been someone with clippers that got about 20 of them opened. Feminine ingenuity.
We saw no food trucks and the wait for the caf� in the Smithsonian visitor center line seemed endless. But there were chocolate bars in the gift shop. With sugar and caffeine, I was set.
We kept heading to the Washington Memorial thinking that the march would have to come by us. It looked like the march had started and we joined the flow. It was not too long before the flow became a slow moving current. We timed the walk for one block to be 36 minutes.
I am making note of the inconveniences only to make the point that none of it mattered. There was no grumbling or complaining. Everyone just made the best of what was happening and all of us enjoying the moment. For the first time since November 8th, we had a purpose and a voice, and yes, even a smile.
There were all generations represented, but the majority were young. It was the young people that gave me hope. To be witness to their passion and dedication to do the right thing, that gave me hope. Even if the right thing to do is put themselves between a couple of anti-choice protesters and a very determined and very angry woman who wanted to walk through them. (Yes, that woman was me.) Those young men and women, so much more in tune with the spirit of free speech, saved me from embarrassing myself.
I think it was then that I realized we will be ok. It is going to be a long, dark battle to come. The war on ignorance and apathy is a most difficult fight. We, as a society, have become lazy in our job as citizens. We have sat back and allowed those less informed and less inquisitive to hijack what it means to be a successful American.
Size seems to have become the way the society has measured success. How big of a house, how big and fancy of a car, how much money can you get and how little do you need to give back to society or government. Although the size of the march was enormous, that was not the measure of success for me. What I saw that Saturday in DC was a younger generation teaching a clinic on citizenship. We cannot sit back and let others push this country in a direction we don't agree with and think an election every 4 years is the only recourse. We need to be active - in your face and loud. Unacceptable behavior is just not acceptable. Unacceptable policies are just that, unacceptable.
Before I went to Washington DC on January 21, 2017, I was worried and scared of what would become of this country under this administration. I am not anymore. These children of ours will teach us a new meaning of success, that community is not just your family and where you live. Community is the country and our place in the world. If they don't have a house bigger than the one they grew up in, if they don't take elaborate vacations, if they don't do the job their parents did - that is not a failure to them. Instead they seek to become the heart and mind of a democracy. Let the office holders know when they do something good, and let the world know when they have done something unjust. This young generation might just find a whole new way to measure success. I, for one, am in awe of them and hope they just let me to continue to walk beside them.
January 27, 2017
Submitted by: James Riley
On Saturday January 21st 2017 I, like nearly 3 million human beings across the globe, attended a Women's March. I, in particular, went to the one in Washington D.C. with my mother. It was crowded and not altogether especially organized, I could not find the stage let alone hear the speakers, and it was the first time I was happy in nearly three months. The following are the top 4 questions that I frequently asked myself on that day.
Will this march matter?
This, I think, is the biggest question. After the march, walking away from the White House, after the secret service pushed the crowds back, I saw the streets filled with people and more crowded than any city I have been in. They were people both young and old, radical and moderate, moving out in all directions. There were people within a range of political views but ultimately united under the idea that all human beings deserve rights and that those rights are more important than anything else. And yet despite the feelings of hope and excitement that I felt that morning, I left with doubt.
As I headed back to the train station, I saw young women and men, riding the feelings of the carnivalesque power they were wielding, be inconsiderate to motorists and people not in the march by stopping cars and walking in the streets that the march had no permits for. Though they were ultimately non-threatening and non-violent, it still gave me pause to see. It made me question if they were there for the same reason I thought we all were. Then, it made me question if I knew why I was there. It made me question as I did all day if I should even be there. To whom does this fight belong? Which are the voices that we should listen to? Are the young men and women blocking traffic the actual leaders of this struggle? Am I judging them by another standard for a different time and place? Am I simply too moderate and complacent to be of any use at all?
I am sure that the hearts of the people of the march were not uniformly tolerant. I do not believe that every single one of them had the same import of what the event meant, or even agreed on the purpose. Each person, if interviewed, could not necessarily articulate the problems facing the trans community, nor explain the threat of climate change in a fully informed way, nor claim a true and long lasting solidarity with Black Lives Matter. But each of them, I believe, has the potential and willingness to grow in the ways that they need to. More importantly, I saw real desire in the hearts of the women I spoke to, many of whom had never done this sort of thing before, to do the work that is coming. Most importantly, I believe that each of them cared about something and to listen to them talk about what that was would be worth anyone's time.
What is my role here?
From the moment I boarded the Amtrak train packed with women and girls, one of three extra-long trains added just for that day in order to supplement the average Saturday run, until I boarded the train home, equally filled with tired and sleeping women, I felt, if not out of place, at least keenly aware that I was a man going to a women's march.
What exactly was my responsibility in the march? What was I allowed to do? Should I be there at all? I made a conscious effort not to start chants but to only answer them, to let others walk in front of me, to yield whenever possible to each person that I thought would, at any other time, be made to yield to someone like me.
It can be paralyzing, the political arithmetic it takes to figure out what to do. What do I do as a white man, who can neither lead a charge for, nor sit out from, the civil rights movements of marginalized groups.
At one point, someone yelled out, "Whose lives Matter?" and I started sweating like I was in a calculus exam. Certainly, it is true that all lives matter, but to answer that is a deep undercutting of the Black Lives Matter movement. Or it could be. Can I even chant "Black Lives Matter"? Not unless I do something else about it. What about "Trans Lives Matter"? Is that a co-opting of a movement? Should I say that? Should I be able to? Can I even use the word "woke"? (I think the answer is a technical, yes I can, but I really shouldn't.)
I have heard some push back against the ubiquitous pink pussy hats from the protest. People of color and trans women have expressed that the hats are an exclusive symbol and are a prime example of how white feminism is not intersectional enough. I have no choice but to believe them. They are the experts on their feelings and I do not know their experience. And yet I would be lying if I said that it didn't make me defensive on behalf of the women and men wearing those hats. We still live in a world where not every person counts themselves as a feminist and when a man wearing pink is a meaningful signifier and something noteworthy.
I cannot help but wonder if this is precisely the infighting and defensiveness that keeps us apart. I cannot help but wonder what faux pas I am committing, completely unknown to my well-meaning but ignorant self. I cannot help but feel a fraud and a goon because I do not know the right way to speak, the right way to move, the right way to be. And though I know how important it is for me to listen and learn and to not speak sometimes, I also do not want to run the risk of silence or compliance. And to be honest, I do not want to be silent. I want to have a seat at the table in the new world. I don't want to feel like I am not cool enough to sit there. And yet, maybe I don't deserve a seat because someone else who has been standing for too long needs to sit down and there is only so much room.
I guess, if I were wearing a hat like that, or a safety pin, or any other sign of allyship, I would feel really bad if someone made me feel like I was the problem instead of a person trying to help. I would feel worse if I did hurt that person. Then again, I would feel even worse than that if people like me were continually excluded from all discourse.
It would do me a lot of good, and I suspect many other people a lot of good, if we listened to each other and gave everyone the benefit of the doubt and only after they have shown a complete disregard for others and a total unwillingness to grow, should we know that they are the problem. There are plenty of those people. America's current President is one example. But not everyone who disagrees with us is.
Should we choose our neighbors?
We met a group of three older women who were kind and wonderful and talked to us for a long time while we marched. And as we marched, even though they were indeed very generous and kind human beings, it became apparent they were not anomalies in the crowd. Every person and group that we spoke to, and much of the individuals we did not, were obviously patient and kind and ready to share what they had with others. One of the three women we marched with asked us "Wouldn't it be great if these were your neighbors? Wouldn't it be great to have any one of these people be the people living on your block?"
She was right to point out the exceptional kindness around us. Everyone was kind and caring here, at least for the day. We exchanged stories with the three women about people we had seen. They talked about a woman they saw clipping open the locks that someone had placed on all the porta-potties the night before and another woman handing out water to anyone in need. In the Smithsonian Visitors Center's gift shop we saw a man give his hat to a woman because it was more important for her to have it. She in turn bought him the lunch of candy bars he was waiting in line for. There were more examples anywhere you cared to look.
And I thought about that question more and more. I suppose the answer is yes, but it made me think of my neighbors and how I don't know them. I thought of the neighborhoods that these women must have come from. Or any of the women from deep red towns, counties, and states. I imagined the people they must be surrounded by, who make them feel like anomalies, like loudmouths, like loons.
That day felt like that special class of day in which the normal rules do not apply. It was the type of day that you talk to strangers. It was the type of day you dress in costume, that you walk in the middle of the street and speak loudly to everyone all at once. It was the kind of day that defines what is normal by exploring what is not.
But it was also a coming together of people in the face of disaster. It was women and men looking out for each other because they were scared and angry. We see this in all neighborhoods with floods and storms and fires that destroy homes and take lives. You see all people pitching in then. It takes an event of chaos to help us see the real purpose of the order we have imposed through laws and customs. We set about re-establishing a deeper order of communal love before time puts things back to normal and puts distance back between neighbors. The only difference is that the people at the march see the Trump administration and the other abuses of human rights as the disasters they are, while others do not recognize it yet.
I thought about what kind of neighbor I am to my neighbors. I am still thinking about it. Do I know their names? Do I speak to them and ask them how they are? Do I show them the same kindness I would show to the people in the crowd? No, I don't. But are those people any less deserving of my kindness? No, they aren't.
In theory it would be nice to move to a place where all the people think like I do and a place where I never feel alone, but ultimately it is a blessing that I do not choose my neighbors. The work that needs to be done is right here in our hometowns. If I were asked again "Wouldn't it be great if these people were your neighbors?" I would answer "Wouldn't it be great if when we get home tomorrow, we were the neighbors we are today?"
Is that the best sign I have seen all day?
Protest signs are now a place to express originality, cleverness, and creative abilities as well as a place to share your ideology and message. Nearly everyone I noticed had clearly crafted not just their signs but their bodies, clothing, and hair for the spectacle of solidarity, each woman and man wanting to bring attention to themselves and therefore the movement in which they participated.
I do not just mean the pink hats, but the serious stoic faces of Queer rights advocates, the funny slogans and costumes, the solemn black dress of those in mourning, the T-shirts emblazoned with challenges to politicians, fascists, and each other, were each a symbol and a marker purposefully chosen to play a character in the demonstration, even if not consciously so. Even the everyday choices people made to their appearances prior to the march such as tattoos or beards helped form a type for the ritual play. It was an example of the oldest and deepest ritual in which humans engage in: the exorcism of demons and the driving away of bad spirits.
I said "I like your sign" to many people and though they were different signs held by different hands, each person was genuinely pleased for the recognition. They had crafted the signs and the signs were, at least for that moment, a thing that each protester desperately wanted to express and an extension of their inner mind. Though some were funny and seemed lighter than others, each was a deep form of communication.
It might be that my slight alienation from the event sprang from my lack of a sign. I had no burden to carry, no cross that marked me as one of the persecuted or accessory to the march. If things went bad, I could have turned and walked as if I wasn't even there. And yet, I choose my shoes (my "special event" chuck taylors), my shirt (one satirically placing a yelling Donald Duck in the place of Trump above the line "Donald 2016"), and even my coat (a Carhartt hand-me-down from my dad) to say something about me. It is hard to imagine that there was anyone there who did not put some thought into what they were wearing. To put it another way, all fashion is politics.
As I said, I told many people that I liked their signs but there was one sign above all others that compelled me to approach its holder. When the march was starting forward, lurching and stopping like the most tolerable traffic jam imaginable, I saw it and little by little and with only a little intentional effort, I merged next to the group with the woman holding it. They were young black men and women, clearly excited and enthusiastic. I told her quickly "Excuse me, I really like your sign. I really like it a lot." She smiled and said "Well, thank you." The crowd shifted and we marched on separately.
I do not know if I was slightly tired of the cleverness or cheekiness of the other signs (of which there were many wonderful examples), or if it really hit me as deep as it felt. It was simple: black foam board with white or gold paint marker on it, I cannot with certainty recall which. On one side #BLM was written and on the other the phrase Ain't I A Woman? with no quotation marks. bell hooks and Sojourner Truth and the man who rewrote her speech in Southern stereotypical vernacular, even though Truth was from New York and spoke Dutch until she was 9, and the whole complicated farcical tragic history of gender and race in this country converged on that small sign.
The phrase on that sign encapsulates the struggle for inclusion while pointing out the inherent problem with a struggle for equality that is not intersectional. It is a serious sign held by a young woman who will have fun later but is getting to work now. And it is a question that is a sentence for me and all the other people like me who have profited off the systems I don't want to admit I profit from. But it is gentle, not a punishment. An invitation to admit that I was wrong without shaming me, which is the kindest gift a person can give. It was an invitation to be a better neighbor, to fulfill my role as a listener, to do things that matter. It is an invitation to answer that question, with both word and deed, an emphatic YES, you are a woman and that is a powerful thing to be.
January 20, 2017
Submitted by: Paul Riley
The most important way to understand one's own humanity - one's own desires, dreams, fears, passions, aspirations, weaknesses - is through the humanity of others. Hearing the stories of others allows us a chance to reflect on our own lives, finding commonalities in the buried details of anecdotes where on the surface we saw only difference. In fleeting glimpses of others, we notice that which separates us: different hometowns and religious beliefs; variance in hues of skin; the gender of the hands they hold; buttons promoting our political rival on their shirts. But by stopping to listen, we can let the stories wash over us and wear away our own barriers to connection. We discover that they too have celebrated personal success or mourned what once had been. We learn that they who once seemed so different care about what we do: being connected to others in a healthy community.
In the United States, we have used technology to connect ourselves to others, both old friends and strangers, in incredible ways. Seconds with a touchscreen bring us face to face - or text to eye - with people on the other side of the country. We are linked in ways unimaginable to most of us only twenty years ago. Yet while we've reduced the distance of communication to the nano level, we remain emotionally and spiritually miles away.
Pinpoints is working to change that. Pinpoints is a gathering place, both online and in person, where people can share their passions, creativity and politics. We seek to use the powerful technological tools available to us to build stronger communities in this country, outside of the digital realm. There are millions of people whose daily work brings people together. They're the small businesspeople whose stores are lighthouses, guiding people home again. They're the musicians whose voices overcome language barriers. They're the travelers who seek the unfamiliar, the thinkers who teach others about the complexities of life. In telling the stories of everyday Americans, we shine a spotlight on what is possible through simple acts.
We also know that people will act when asked. By promoting a wide variety of political causes and actions, we aim to tear down the barriers to participation. And by providing the individual human perspective on each cause or action, we encourage others to act.
Our goal is to document the lives and communities of our people, to provide them an opportunity to share their part of the world and the work they do in it, to promote the issues they're most concerned with. We will share these stories through video documentaries and promotion of their work on this website, illustrating their connections to each other and to the visitor. In doing so, we intend for everyone to recognize the ties that bind us to one another: a love of friends and family; a respect for one's neighbors; hope, faith and effort we show in closing "the distance between the American promise and American reality."*
*This quote comes from Bruce Springsteen's remarks at the Vote for Change Rally on the Ben Franklin Parkway, October 4, 2008