Tag Archives: America

The Cost of Being a Regular Ol’ American Place

AP Photo/Seth Perlman

Some places have easy-to-describe landscapes: Southeastern California is hot and dry. Southern Mississippi is swampy and green. Culture is something else, though — even though the Midwest’s flatness seems to define it, people mistakenly conflate its geography with its culture, which eludes easy description.

In The Hedgehog Review, Phil Christman recounts his struggle to make sense of his native Midwest after he moves back there with his wife. People call the Midwest “flyover country” and “the American breadbasket.” They comment on its orderly grid of roads and towns and its endless fields. But when locals tell Christman this is “the middle of nowhere” and “just like anywhere,” he not only realizes a place can’t be both anywhere and nowhere, but that viewing the region as average and normal works to the Midwest’s own detriment. As he wonders what normalcy in America even is, he questions what effect the Midwest’s sense of its own average American-ness has on people, including himself.

What does it do to people to see themselves as normal? On the one hand, one might adopt a posture of vigilant defense, both internal and external, against anything that might detract from such a fully, finally achieved humanness. On the other hand, a person might feel intense alienation and disgust, which one might project inward—What is wrong with me?—or outward, in a kind of bomb-the-suburbs reflex. A third possibility—a simple, contented being normal—arises often in our culture’s fictions about the Midwest, both the stupid versions (the contented families of old sitcoms) and the more sophisticated ones (Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, that living argument for the value of banal goodness). I have yet to meet any real people who manage it. A species is a bounded set of variations on a template, not an achieved state of being.

I took the first option. As a child, I accepted without thinking that my small town, a city of 9,383 people, contained within it every possible human type; if I could not fit in here, I would not fit in anywhere. (“Fitting in” I defined as being occupied on Friday nights and, sooner or later, kissing a girl.) Every week that passed in which I did not meet these criteria—which was most of them—became a prophecy. Every perception, every idea, every opinion that I could not make immediately legible to my peers became proof of an almost metaphysical estrangement, an oceanic differentness that could not be changed and could not be borne. I would obsessively examine tiny failures of communication for days, always blaming myself. It never occurred to me that this problem might be accidental or temporary. I knew that cities existed, but they were all surely just Michigan farm towns joined together n number of times, depending on population. Owing to a basically phlegmatic temperament, and the fear of hurting my parents, I made it to college without committing suicide; there, the thing solved itself. But I worry what would have happened—what does often happen—to the kid like me, but with worse test scores, bad parents, an unlocked gun cabinet.

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The Lawn is a Lie

Man on a lawnmower on a large swath of grass
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.

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How Did HGTV ‘Stars’ Become Celebrities?

Chip and Joanna Gaines (Photo by Mireya Acierto/FilmMagic)

Home and Garden Television, better known as HGTV, has forged a reputation as a television ratings giant in the past couple of years, more than two decades after the channel launched in 1994. Late last year, Kate Wagner noted the timeliness of the channel’s launch, given its niche — real estate as reality television programming: it surfaced amid the Clinton administration’s push for “huge mortgage reforms in order to stimulate growth in the home-building sector and provide more housing for lower-income Americans.” As home sales spiked, HGTV offered a glimpse into “the national home-buying and home-selling fervor,” Wagner wrote.

And interest in the channel’s offerings has not waned. Last year, an academic design journal devoted an entire issue to “Learning from HGTV.” An academic paper in American Quarterly in 2012 noted that HGTV briefly “became the object of public scorn” in the wake of the collapse of the housing market, as Americans found the programming “complicit” for its tendency to depict homes as “investments.” But it survived, and even thrived, as the players in its shows land celebrity magazine cover after cover.

Brooks Barnes, in his monthly “Scene Stealers” column for the New York Times Style section this weekend, noted that Tarek and Christina El Moussa, the couple in one of its hit shows, Flip or Flop, were featured on the cover of In Touch Weekly at least 14 times, with more than 90 articles on them.

“Puzzled, I asked a few Hollywood publicists if they could explain why the celebrity news media cared so much about the El Moussas. The head of publicity for one big studio responded, ‘Is that a fragrance?’” Barnes wrote.

Barnes sees the El Moussas as “fascinating — not as newsmakers, but as a window into the evolving celebrity news business.” A former US Weekly and Hollywood Reporter editor tells him the evolution is due to “the effects of a culturally divided America.”

Barnes explains President Donald Trump is divisive; tabloid magazines catch heat for putting him or his relations on their covers. The Kardashians’ ratings “have plummeted,” and “most movie stars have little tabloid tread left on them,” he adds, noting that Jennifer Aniston is still not pregnant. Plus, there’s the hunger for clicks in our age of digital news: “If there is no news, just glom onto something tiny. In Touch recently did an entire article about a basic Instagram post by Mr. El Moussa. (See it here!’),” Barnes wrote.

Over on The Ringer, Amanda Dobbins wrote late last year, in a piece titled “The End of Celebrity As We Know It,” that more than three million people regularly watch Flip or Flop, “which is more than the number of people who saw Will Smith’s most recent movie or bought Lady Gaga’s album.” She interviewed Lindsey Weber of the podcast Who Weekly, which regular discusses HGTV stars: “Anyone can do anything on the internet now. So now we have all these people that just exist because we have a democratic platform where anyone can do something that makes them notable,” Weber told her. Dobbins concluded, “If you are looking for a career change right now, you could do worse than midlevel celebrity; the market has never been more open.”

But is the rise of HGTV celebrities a window into, or a reprieve from, a “culturally divided America”? Read more…

The Essay Will Feel Like It’s Killing You

Photo by Curtis MacNewton (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Catapult, Porochista Khakpour reflects on her desire to write — about anything other than being Iranian-American. Deeply conflicted about speaking from her perspective as an Iranian-American, she says, “Remind yourself that when the performance is honest two things happen: The essay will feel like it’s killing you and the ending will not be what you thought it might be. Learn to respect more than resent those parallel planes of living and the rendering of living.”

Begin by writing about anything else. Go to the public library in your Los Angeles suburb and ask for all the great books people in New York City read, please. Wonder if the reference librarian knows a living writer and ask her what would a living writer read—and an American one, please. When she realizes you are still single digits and asks, Where are your parents, young lady? don’t answer and demand Shakespeare and take that big book home and cry because you can’t understand it. Tomorrow, go back to reading the dictionary a letter at a time and cry because you can’t learn the words. (Ask your father if you will cry daily for the rest of your life and remember his answer decades later: When you are older you will care less about things.) Pray to a god you still believe in that you will once more avoid ESL with all its teachers who look to you with the shine of love but the stench of pity: refugee, resident alien, political asylum, immigrant, foreigner the only words you know that you don’t want to know.

Write about it and make sure you keep writing about it. Plan out three more books and call it the end; each and every one is about Iranian-America. Write all the secrets like every essay is a suicide note: one that reveals your Zoroastrian name is a fraud and you are a Muslim and watch everyone applaud it, from all sorts of people online to your own father who gave you your name. Wonder if anyone is reading properly. Put “Iranian American refugee” in your Twitter profile, the way all the other refugees are doing. Question if this is empowering. Imagine you’ve been throwing yourself off a cliff every time you’ve been writing, but it’s hard to know if you are killing yourself or trying to fly. Wonder if a cliché like that is all you’ve got. Wonder if the death you’ve been imagining is just you becoming a bad writer.

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The High-Water Mark: The Battle of Gettysburg, the Jersey Shore, and the Death of My Father

Dane A. Wisher | Longreads | April 2017 | 36 minutes (10,142 words)



* * *

“What kind of commie bullshit is that?”

“I’m telling you, listen to the album again.” I jam my finger into the bar top for emphasis.

“I don’t need to. It’s called Born in the USA. It’s about good, honest American people. You’re defiling a New Jersey hero.”

“It is about America. But the flag and blue jeans on the cover, the upbeat sound on the title track—it’s all ironic.”

“Here we go. It’s ironic.

“It’s the definition of irony. Apparent surface meaning conveying the opposite of the actual underlying intent of the message. The album is about how people can’t catch a break, how hollow all the patriotic fanfare is.” My speech sounds less pompous in my head.

“This is just like your thing with Forrest Gump.”

I roll my eyes. Forrest Gump has become his latest culture war litmus test. Still, it’s good to see my brother. I’ve been teaching in Qatar for two years and he works odd hours as a cop at the Monmouth County Prison and so the nights when we can shoot the shit are rare. When we do, we eat a lot and drink a lot and tell a lot of stupid jokes and get a sick enjoyment out of fighting with each other. Read more…

Why Populism Will Not Make America Great: The Making of a Mexican-American Dream

Photo by Michael Dougherty (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At Pacific Standard, Sarah Menkedick profiles Vianney Bernabé, exploring what it means to be second-generation Mexican American today — a person with deep roots in Mexico and feet and future planted firmly in America. Educated, ambitious, and principled, Bernabé is destined for success. Menkedick posits that if America cannot reject this myopic resurgence of nativist (white) populism to embrace the skills and culture of Bernabé’s generation, it does so at its own peril.

Vianney embodies two fundamental American traditions: the dream of triumphing over adversity to achieve success, and its nightmare shadow of xenophobia, fear, and hatred.

What these young Latinos become will be determined not only by their own struggles and achievements, but also by the willingness of many Americans to rethink their fundamental conceptions of Americanness, to recognize the dangerous fiction of an essential, unchanging America defined solely by white culture.

Mexico gave Vianney what the United States could not: the ability to believe in herself. It did this not by granting her unequivocal acceptance or answering the persistent questions of belonging posed in the U.S., but by forcing her to come to terms with her ambivalence. It allowed her to acknowledge that she was American, but an American for whom Americanness did not mean unquestioning assimilation into white institutions, but solidarity with the many people excluded from these institutions. It granted her a new faith in herself in spite of the hatred and oppression. It familiarized her with in-betweenness, a state deeply and violently resisted in the U.S., where patriotism is feverish and flavorless, where you are with us or against us, where, at this moment in time, simply speaking Spanish or wearing a hijab is enough to elicit righteous white rage.

She returned to the United States in August of 2016, when the message being blared to Latinos was precisely the opposite: Not only were they not good enough, they were rapists, drug dealers, “bad hombres.” Vianney, with her hard-won confidence in herself, and her renewed commitment to help those left out of American progress, came home to the feverish chanting of Build the wall! Donald Trump’s victory in November — despite his losing the popular vote by a historic margin — has legitimized and strengthened a vision of the United States in which only white people belong and have ever belonged. The most popular, foundational myth of the United States as the land of freedom for the world’s oppressed has been eclipsed by the ever-present but thinly buried myth of white dominance and superiority.

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On Fighting Terror, Trump Got It Totally Backward

Photo: markarms

“Experts say that if we’re truly concerned about terrorism, one of the most compelling strategies for diffusing the threat lies in welcoming more refugees, not fewer, and helping them assimilate, because refugee camps and purposefully isolated immigrant neighborhoods can be potent incubators for radicalization. Before he was ambassador to Iraq, Christopher Hill worked on the Bosnian peace negotiations in the late 1990s and saw what a powder keg the camps can be. ‘You try to police that activity, but there’s nothing to do in refugee camps, so that kind of proselytizing has been present in every situation I’ve seen,’ Hill says.”

-From a fantastic 2016 story by Luc Hatlestad in 5280 magazine, about one refugee family’s journey from Iraq to Colorado.

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Junot Díaz on What It’s Like to Be an Immigrant in America

Photo by ala_members

I mean, the solitude of being an immigrant, the solitude of having to learn a language and a culture from scrap, led me to the need for some sort of explanation, the need for answers, the need for something that would give me – that would in some ways shelter me, led me to books, man. I was trying – as a kid I was very, very curious, kind of smart, and I was trying to answer the question, first of all, what is the United States, and how do I get along in this culture, this strange place, better? And also, who am I and how did I get here? And the way I was doing it was through books, man. You know, I just – I found books – when they’d showed me the library when I was a kid, a light went off at me in every cell of my body. Books became the map with which I navigated this new world.

-Author Junot Díaz, in a 2008 NPR interview, on the American immigrant experience.

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Just One of Millions of American Immigrant Stories

This is me, just as I was about to immigrate to the United States. Before 1965, it was legal to ban immigrants based on nationality, and Asians in particular were targeted. It was actually referred to as an Asiatic Barred Zone. Then, Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, banning discrimination on the basis of national origin. For all who believe everyone should be treated equally, please contact your representatives.

-From a Facebook post by my friend, journalist Mary Green. …  Read more…

Between Their Arab Past and American Present

With each leg of my grandparents’ journey—from Damascus and Istanbul to New York and finally Los Angeles—the markers of their previous lives fell away: my grandmother’s first language, the Koran, the prayer rug, the community of Arab émigrés in Brooklyn. Though certain customs remained: Neither of my grandparents ever learned to drive, and they always spoke Arabic at home. They preferred my grandfather’s Syrian cooking to what they called American food, and didn’t cotton to eating in restaurants or taking vacations. In Los Angeles, they were content to live apart from the mainstream, within the bounds of home, family, and the community of Armenian and Lebanese immigrants who, like my grandparents, found California’s weather and geography agreeably familiar.

In the assimilation that took place between the first and second generation, the tensions between the old and new were constant. When my father came of age, he didn’t care to be matched with the young women my grandmother called Syrian girls. His brothers felt the same, and the result was four intercultural marriages, each a hybrid but uniform in its shedding of Arab identity and customs. None of the grandchildren in the third generation were taught to speak Arabic. Nothing of the religious or cultural identity was passed down. This, more than anything, brought about the break with our history: the missing knowledge of our ethnocultural past. Without it, there was only the sense of our difference, one that was at once deeply rooted and unfamiliar.

In Catapult, Lauren Alwan narrates her family’s migration from Syria to California to explore how people’s evolving identities help gain them a foothold in America and create unintentional tensions across generations.

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