“Well, what are you doing all the way out…here? How’d you find this place?”
The question wasn’t fair. Billygail’s Cafe is only ten miles outside Branson, Missouri. Sure, it’s on a country road, and sure, it feels like you’ve found something special, but it’s listed on Trip Advisor and USA Today and showed up on an episode Man vs. Food on the Travel Channel. Use Yelp to find breakfast while you’re in Branson and you’ll get Billygail’s.
The real question was not what I was doing at Billygail’s. The answer to that was easy: I was there to muscle my way through a gorgeous 14-inch plate-obscuring sourdough pancake. The bigger question was, what was I doing in Branson?
The short answer is I was in Branson for a conference and to see a place I’d never been before. There’s little I like more than going somewhere new and finding out I’m wrong about it — and for a writer, no surer way to find a great story. My previous exposure to Branson was limited to a 1996 episode of The Simpsons. Bart, Milhouse, Nelson, and Martin take a road trip, detouring through Branson to catch a performance by Nelson’s unlikely hero, Andy Williams. I didn’t buy the Simpson’s vision wholesale. I looked at Google, too, and found plenty of references to the show scene — and to country music. I’d baked extra time in my trip to explore — and to catch at least one country music show.
“Yeah, you could do that,” said the conference organizer who helped me plan my travel. “And yeah, there’s music here, but there’s this… other thing.” She pointed me to the website for Sight and Sound, a 2000 seat theater that stages multimedia spectacles based in the Bible. The current production? Moses.
A bad West coast Jew, I know little of my inherited theology. But like many of my Jewish friends and family, I know three or four things about the story of Moses — kind of the cornerstone story of the Jewish faith. Plus, Passover — the holiday where we eat matzoh ball soup and recount how Moses led “the chosen people” out of Egypt into the Promised Land — happens to be my favorite holiday. So, while Dolly’s Stampede is the most popular attraction in Branson, and there’s plenty of wholesome country western cabaret, I couldn’t resist this opulent retelling of the history of the Jewish people.
Chippiparai dog at the streets of Tirupudaimarudur via Wikimedia
I wish I’d paid closer attention to breeds when I adopted Harley, a chihuahua mixed with something barky. I didn’t know that chihuahuas can be monogamous to a fault, making it hard on him when I’m not around. And I should have know better about the terrier influence. No matter how I try, he’s still shouty at everything that walks by the back gate.
Too late, too late, he’s very much my dog now, 12 pounds of shouty possessive loyalty on four legs. If I’d gone by breed characteristics alone, I’d have a very different dog sleeping next to the kitchen heater vent right now.
Doodles are so cheerful, retrievers are easy going, Australian shepherds are smart and good workers. No wonder they’re popular. But faddishness of dog variety has led to the decline of less common breeds. Scroll.inintroduces us to indigenous Indian dog breeds who have lost favor in their home country as labs and shepherds become the companion of choice.
In ancient times, Indian dogs were prized across the world and exported in large numbers for hunting prowess – travelling as far and wide as Rome, Egypt and Babylon – but they were shunned at home. The international demand for Indian dogs and the fact that their gene pool stayed relatively undiluted till about three centuries ago kept these breeds going. Baskaran tells us that in the 18th century, a Frenchman travelling across India identified 50 distinct dog breeds including one called the Lut, which was often a fascinating shade of blue.
The Lut is just one of several dog breeds that have not been seen in living memory, writes Baskaran. Based on four decades of research and observation, the author concludes that there are just 25 indigenous Indian dog breeds found today. The reasons for this decline are vast and complex. During the colonial period, British rulers settling into India for the long haul often imported dogs from back home. The arrival of foreign breeds resulted in cross-breeding and there was little government interest in preserving indigenous breeds and trying to keep their gene pool intact. The few Indian rajas who did have dogs as pets were more drawn to foreign breeds. The only attempts to protect Indian breeds were made by British dog enthusiasts, who had taken a particularly fancy to our indigenous dogs, especially those found in the Himalayas.
For many, it seems like an easy choice: You check the donor box on your driver’s license and feel a vague sense of philanthropy. “If anything happens to me, at least what’s left will be used in a meaningful way.”
Outside Southern Nevada’s suburban warehouse, the circumstances were far from comforting. In the fall of 2015, neighboring tenants began complaining about a mysterious stench and bloody boxes in a Dumpster. That December, local health records show, someone contacted authorities to report odd activity in the courtyard.
Health inspectors found a man in medical scrubs holding a garden hose. He was thawing a frozen human torso in the midday sun.
This is the “body broker” market. It’s different from the federally regulated tissue and organ donor market — the market that provides, say, a liver to a waiting patient.
The body broker market is a for profit industry selling body parts for medical training. Brokers often source those bodies — body parts, really — from the poor, offering partial cremation in exchange for the opportunity to sell off what’s left.
The industry’s business model hinges on access to a large supply of free bodies, which often come from the poor. In return for a body, brokers typically cremate a portion of the donor at no charge. By offering free cremation, some deathcare industry veterans say, brokers appeal to low-income families at their most vulnerable. Many have drained their savings paying for a loved one’s medical treatment and can’t afford a traditional funeral.
“People who have financial means get the chance to have the moral, ethical and spiritual debates about which method to choose,” said Dawn Vander Kolk, an Illinois hospice social worker. “But if they don’t have money, they may end up with the option of last resort: body donation.”
Few rules mean few consequences when bodies are mistreated. In the Southern Nevada case, officials found they could do little more than issue a minor pollution citation to one of the workers involved. Southern Nevada operator Joe Collazo, who wasn’t cited, said he regretted the incident. He said the industry would benefit from oversight that offers peace of mind to donors, brokers and researchers.
“To be honest with you, I think there should be regulation,” said Collazo. “There’s too much gray area.”
Coolgardie, Australia, Camel Team (photo in the public domain)
On The Monthly, Robert Skinner reluctantly agrees to join his parents on a camel trek in South Australia. While the participating humans walk, the camels pull carts that carry their gear for the trek.
My dad’s cousin Robyn had married a bushman called Don, and together they raced camels and went on wagon expeditions. This was the first time they were bringing other people along. There would be between 9 and 14 people on the trek. Being in such close quarters with strangers for ten days was not my dad’s idea of a good time. He would have preferred to be at home with a book or tinkering in his shed. But his own dad had a reputation for disappearing out the back door every time someone showed up at the front door, and my dad was forever trying not to be that guy.
The night before we left Adelaide he did that thing nervous parents do, where they start fussing over their kids instead. He looked at me gruffly and said, “Now listen, Bob. What are you going to do out there for entertainment?”
“I dunno. I brought a few books.”
“You understand that these are country folk we’ll be travelling with. They like different things to us.”
“Well, what about you? What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to look at the fire,” he said. “Don’t worry about me.”
Before traveling in Australia myself, I’d read two books by the Australian novelist Peter Carey — Illywhacker and Oscar and Lucinda. I did not quite believe the characters. I have since crossed the Outback three times. It is populated by the kinds of people that choose to live in difficult and remote places; it’s weird in its own rough way.
On one of my trips through I saw a camel cart, piled high with a living room furniture set. The last time across I met three ancient women sitting in low rocking chairs, knitting in the heat while a blonde girl child ran around in the dust underneath the raised house. I’d stopped to ask about short-cutting through their cattle ranch on the private road traversing their land. They were not at all surprised by my appearance and asked merely that I be sure to close the gates. I remain convinced that they were the fates, spinning my destiny in this flat treeless place, hundreds of miles from anywhere.
Thanks to my own adventures, I found this description of one of the camel drivers — and all the other absurdities in Skinner’s story — completely plausible.
Brian or Nat usually drove the main wagon. Nat was a bosomy powerhouse who raised a family, kept a menagerie of pets and broke in camels for a living. She wore the same singlet, shorts and thongs the whole trip. Even on frosty nights. One evening she reached into her bra looking for a cigarette, and I saw her pull out a lighter, a tobacco pouch, a packet of tissues, a hunting knife, $20 (in change) and a bundle of keys before she looked up and said, “Oh, here it is. It’s in my fucking mouth.” On the fourth day she got kicked full in the face by a camel and just started kicking it back.
Lawnmower Man by dumbonyc via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
It broke my heart when I left the heart of the city for the edge of the burbs. I’m a terrible gardener, so I never wanted a house with a yard. Yet that’s where I ended up when city living became too expensive.
My house came with a large swatch of (once) immaculately maintained front lawn — lawn which I ceased watering after the first bill. Now, late summer, it’s a dead brown with patches of dirt where eternal vigilance is not enough to ensure the absence of dandelions. For five months out of the year, I hate my lawn; the rest of the time I’m merely annoyed by it. Some day, when household economics allow, I will hire a landscaper to tear the whole thing out and replace it with xeriscaping — a no-water garden, low maintenance with all native plants, something that allows me mostly to forget about it.
Riddle: considered acre-for-acre, what is the most pesticide-, herbicide-, water-, labor-, and cash-intensive crop grown in the U.S.? Right. Your lawn. In America, turf grasses, which are mostly non-native, cover 21 million acres (think the state of Maine), cost $40 billion per year (more than U.S. foreign aid), consume around 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 80 million pounds of pesticides per year (which sometimes contaminate our groundwater and surface water), and slurp up an inconceivable nine billion gallons of water per day (at least half of all residential water use in the arid West is associated with lawns and landscaping).
All this is before we reckon the colossal time suck that lawns represent. Each year, Americans spend an average of three billion hours pushing or (even worse) riding mowers, most of which pollute at a rate ten times that of our cars. In fact, if a lawn were a car, it would be a Hummer: a resource-intensive, plainly unsustainable luxury item that looks cool but is environmentally destructive. As for biodiversity, forget it. Lawns are exotic, barren monocultures. While they are sometimes referred to as “ecological deserts,” this characterization is an insult to deserts, which are remarkably biodiverse ecosystems. Consider also the unfortunate symbolic connotations of the lawn. As food writer Michael Pollan points out, the American lawn is the ultimate manifestation of our culture’s perverse fantasy of the total control of nature. As Pollan put it so memorably, “A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule.”
On Terrain, Michael P. Branch calculates the time, money, and emotional angst (if you’re me) we invest on tending to our lawns. He mentions Thoreau’s disdain for this bulwark of American landscaping, even while confessing his own emotional attachment to the manicured green spaces of his youth. He rationalizes his own landscaping choices and admits his guilt in its pleasure.
I have a small back lawn too. I kind of love it. Mr. Branch, I feel you.
The food came in two categories: savory and sweet. He would try them all. He would eat them on sticks, with plastic utensils that would litter the grounds of the park long after he and his descendants had passed, he would pick them up and eat them with his hands.
From the Texas State Fair website, “Each year, State Fair concessionaires fry up tasty and unique foods for a chance to become a finalist in the Big Tex Choice Awards. Everything from Fried Beer to Fried Peaches and Cream have made the cut to become a part of an exclusive club.”
Do Americans have a unified identity and if so, how is it defined? I remember a summer party in Seattle where, under a twilight sky, a friend insisted it was television that provided our common vernacular. I’d been without TV for a while. Mine had burst into flames (really!) and this was pre-internet everywhere — was my American cred at risk? Travel in the flyover states has shown me how different I am — a textbook “creative class” lefty — from the restrained Midwesterners I encountered. Such disparate characters, yet the same American passports.
At The Guardian,Suzy Hansen considers American identity, partly through the lens of race, partly from the perspective she gained living abroad.
For all their patriotism, Americans rarely think about how their national identities relate to their personal ones. This indifference is particular to the psychology of white Americans and has a history unique to the US. In recent years, however, this national identity has become more difficult to ignore. Americans can no longer travel in foreign countries without noticing the strange weight we carry with us. In these years after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the many wars that followed, it has become more difficult to gallivant across the world absorbing its wisdom and resources for one’s own personal use. Americans abroad now do not have the same swagger, the easy, enormous smiles. You no longer want to speak so loud. There is always the vague risk of breaking something.
Some years after I moved to Istanbul, I bought a notebook, and unlike that confident child, I wrote down not plans but a question: who do we become if we don’t become Americans? If we discover that our identity as we understood it had been a myth? I asked it because my years as an American abroad in the 21st century were not a joyous romp of self-discovery and romance. Mine were more of a shattering and a shame, and even now, I still don’t know myself.
I’ve experienced excessive hotel luxury exactly one time, at the Hotel Imperial in Vienna, where I landed the lowest quality room at this self-described six-star hotel. The lowest quality room at the Imperial, with its heated marble floors, lush upholstery, and view down the Ringstrasse remains the nicest place I’ve ever stayed.
At breakfast the next day, the 70-something Viennese couple directly behind my husband began to speculate (in their Viennese German) how such sweater-and-jean-wearing riff-raff could afford to stay at the hotel. My Austrian husband smirked all through our meal, whispering “I’ll tell you later.” They’d decided we were Canadian oil money; we simply could not be Americans given our economy at the time. I still regret that he did not wish them a very good morning in his own distinctive Austrian accent upon their departure.
During our stay, the hotel staff were nothing but sunshine and discretion. As we prepared to leave the hotel, the lobby butler asked if we needed luggage retrieved from our room. We were carrying day packs only; our car was parked at a cousin’s house in a Vienna suburb. “No thanks,” I said, “this is all we’ve got.”
“That happens here too.” The butler shrugged and offered what appeared to be a genuine smile before wishing us safe journeys. Our status seemed of no concern to him, only our needs and that we felt welcome.
I could not do his job; I am too judge-y and can’t keep it to myself. I have more in common with those well-dressed Viennese seniors than they’d suspect. I am impressed by those who can pull off service work in a way that’s unobtrusive and helpful at the same time.
At Bloomberg, Brandon Presser joins the staff at another grand hotel, The Plaza New York, to see what it’s like to wear the white gloves. The requests are as silly and outlandish as you’d think. The discretion? Well, they don’t name names, until they do. (Spoiler alert: It’s Charlie Sheen.)
Over my short tenure, I delivered laundry to Middle Eastern princesses and fetched lobsters out of wishing wells—and listened to colleagues delight in the oddities of their jobs, from fielding requests for Viagra or comforting a weeping woman over spilled blueberries. Serving the world’s rich and famous, it turns out, plumbs the depths of an alternative universe that readily embraces the absurd without even batting an eye. And that was only the beginning of what I learned.
Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, Shine a Light tour by Egghead06 via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
I tagged along with a friend to see Joe Henry and Billy Bragg’s “Shine a Light” tour. I knew nothing about the project in advance but “Don’t Try This at Home” remains one of my favorite albums. I was so happy to see Bragg and his battered guitar on stage in a small Seattle theater.
“Shine a Light” is all railroad songs. From the stage Henry and Bragg told stories of the adventures they had recording the album and I thought, “Oh, what a great book this would make!” Bragg’s love for music and the messy tapestry that is America was so apparent. And it’s a steady companion to his leftist politics, his passion for the working man and woman.
I would occasionally have conversations with people like John Peel that led me to realize that skiffle had a huge effect on these people—Morrison, McCartney. Perhaps bigger than the effect punk had on me. The significant thing about the skiffle generation is that they’re our first teenagers. Our first generation to define themselves through their own culture. Previously, there were adults and there were children. Adults listened to crooners, children listened to novelty records, there was no intermediate space until Bill Haley and Lonnie Donegan came along in ’55. And that’s just a year after food rationing ends in the UK. I think it’s significant that this happens when the skiffle kids are twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old. John Lennon is fourteen when rationing ends. He’s had his entire childhood without being able to go into a sweet shop to buy whatever he wants. There’s that pent-up desire to escape having to wear hand-me-downs—because clothing was rationed as well—to get away from the rubble of the war, to make the future happen. And for that generation, the guitar was a symbol of the future arriving. The members of that generation were trying to escape their drab world, their past, by taking up the guitar and playing American roots music—which is paradoxically the opposite of what folk fans were doing in the U.S. In the U.S., they were trying to hark back. Groups like the New Lost City Ramblers were looking to reconnect with the past. The British kids were trying to escape the past as quickly as they could and the guitar offered them the best means to do that.
Sculpture by Jimmie Durham, Museu de Serralves, Portugal via Wikimedia
When I go look at art, I don’t read the descriptive text until I’ve decided the work merits my attention. The creations have got to stand on their own (in my subjective assessment) before I spend any time learning about the artist.
That’s why I missed the footnote about Jimmie Durham. The artist, who has a retrospective at the Walker Art Center, identifies as Cherokee. On the wall of the gallery there’s short paragraph below the introduction to the exhibit:
Note: While Durham self-identifies as Cherokee, he is not recognized by any of the three Cherokee Nations, which as sovereign nations determine their own citizenship. We recognize that there are Cherokee artists and scholars who reject Durham’s claims of Cherokee ancestry.
Talk about burying the lede.
The gallery footnote absolutely shifted my perception of the work. I found it all appealing on first blush, but the truth of his identity made his claim to be Cherokee feel like a self-granted license to appropriate — and it greatly undermined my appreciation of the work. I’d have called it wry and well constructed but upon further research into the artist’s background, it all felt stolen.
Every day I post and write about Native artists. That’s my job, and something I love doing since there are so many compelling Native artists whom the world should know about. But the ignore-him-and-he’ll-go-away approach has not worked or done anything to stanch the steady flow of articles, essays, and books positioning Jimmie Durham not just as a Native American, but the Native artist that the rest of us would do well to emulate.
In January, Los Angeles’s Hammer Museum launched an ambitious traveling retrospective, “Jimmie Durham: At the Center of the World,” which just opened at the Walker and will continue to the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Remai Modern. I waited and hoped for someone else to voice a protest, but finally James Luna (Luiseño), Nancy Mithlo (Chiricahua Apache), and myself all realized we had to speak up.
The Whitney Museum was recently the center of a protest about the work of painter Dana Schultz when the museum chose to exhibit a painting of Emmet Till. The artist, who is white, claimed license to paint Till — a black teenager who was lynched in Mississippi — as a figure that represents the pain of all mothers who have lost a child. Black families, artists, and activists begged to differ.
Durham’s retrospective is scheduled to go the Whitney next.