Friday, May 25, 2012

Memorial Day Edition: The Only Living Girl in New York, in Vermont

The Revelations of Travel, Hosting a Traveler

Miss O' on the porch of Pratt Hall, Montgomery, VT, 5-18-12.
Photo by special surprise guest George Lightcap.

No sooner had I returned from a long weekend in Vermont than my friend Rina arrived from India via Vancouver, in town to work for a few weeks on her Ph.D., interviewing people at the United Nations courtesy the good people at Columbia University. So with almost no time to prepare for her, I answered the phone at 8 AM, gave directions to her taxi driver, and greeted her when she quickly arrived with too much luggage (as usual); too many ideas of what to do (ditto); and no organizational strategy. A typical Liberal.

I say this with affection. She’s also a Marxist scholar, one who upon having the luggage dropped in her room and the tea poured, says, “So, Lisa, what are we to do about Wall Street? What do you think of Obama?” You know, small talk.

Rina takes tea in the New York kitchen of Miss O'.

Just so in Vermont: Upon arrival in Burlington after ten hours on a train, I was greeted warmly by my old Bread Loaf friend Rebecca, and after dropping my backpack into the trunk of her Mini and pouring my too-ample ass into the passenger seat, we recounted our respective trips (hers to the station from her home near the Canadian border, mine from New York); shared our theories of being single vs. married; expounded on our need for travel, the uses of distance in relationships, our growth since graduate school, our pursuit of art and careers…you know, bullshitting to kill time. Typical Liberals.

The author with pal Rebecca, Bread Loaf graduation 1994.
Photo by Jean LeBlanc.

I say all that with joy, with relief. My friends and I do not exchange brands of coffee so much as how the coffee comes to us. Is this obnoxious? Exhausting? For some, yes, it is. For me, it’s just heaven. So that when we reach their wood house on the massive brook resplendent in waterfalls and deliberate light as well as the light of the stars, we—I, Rebecca, and her husband—are rooted in place by shared values. We find the common ground over midnight walks, red wine, a repast of bread and cheese and berries. Talk, too, fertilizes our ground; out of this soil can now come art.

With Bob and Becca and Becca's wood sculpture.
Photo by George Lightcap.

I hope that doesn’t sound fatuous. Ah, well. (Excuse: Rina also arrived with a cold and cough that has only gotten worse, and two hours ago I started feeling all her symptoms: Unwilling to admit of illness, Rina would remark, “I think the air on the plane has made my throat sore,” or “Perhaps the sugar in the tea is not agreeing with my throat,” or “I think it is dust” after a sneeze and nose blow. Typical…[finish that thought], but I’ll just say it: I have a fucking cold.)

I'll get back to Vermont, but here’s what I’m really thinking about: Florida.

When I got back to New York and looked up the ol’ Huffington Post, I read that Republican presidential candidate Romney has a “slight lead” over incumbent Obama in one important state: Florida. And it got me thinking about this state, which is perhaps the single most powerful state, politically, in the nation. I could not help but contrast it with Vermont, which perhaps might be the single least powerful state in the nation, politically, except that it is HUGE in vision and ideas. And the voice of Bernie Sanders.

The Role of Landscape

Allow me to generalize broadly and without restraint: Vermont and Florida are “vacation” states, though there the similarity ends: Vermont has mountain lake people in summer, skiers in winter; Florida has beachcombers, retirees, and theme park goers all year round. And they attract entirely different full time residents, too.

Vermont vs. Florida

Vermont is sparsely populated, has outlawed billboards, promotes organic stuff, outlawed fracking, supports people who “live off the grid.” People who move to Vermont value seasons, challenging terrain, rugged beauty, thickly greened spaces, individualism. Moose. Dairy cows. Winter is a bitch (beautiful, but man), and summer is the payoff, as my friend Rebecca points out. People who vacation in Vermont go there to walk up hill. They climb rocks. They swim in cold lakes. They have to chop wood to build a fire each night for warmth. They do this on purpose. It’s not diverse in ethnicity—it’s really, really white—but it is diverse in personalities: hikers and artists, maple syrup makers and farmers, tavern owners and choir teachers, all bonded by the land.

Florida, by contrast, is densely populated, with highly developed, highly commercialized coasts and cities (and orange groves and farms and a fishing industry). People who move to Florida value ease, warmth, sunshine, comfort. Winter might include a freeze or three, but is more or less a continuous summer. People who vacation in Florida go there to take elevators, walk flat lands from the condo to the shore, lie still on soft towels on soft sand, feel sunny warmth on lotioned skin, eat seafood, sleep. (I guess people swim and waterski, but you know.) The density of the population, and the diversity of age and race, is made mushier by the sunshine, sand, and surf, I guess.

Compare and Contrast: I have dear friends in Florida, but I can't help it: The place could be wiped out by a hurricane at any time, and when it threatens and happens, it’s national news (!!!)—and all of our homeowners’ insurance premiums go up because of Florida. Somehow no one seems to be bothered by the fact that flood insurance is no longer possible to get from a private insurance company as a result of Florida (and other coastal states and towns built on flood plains, but this is about Florida). By contrast, when blizzards bury Vermont every winter, no one remarks on it. It doesn’t make news. When Hurricane Irene hit and decimated Vermont, it was in the news for about 2 days, and then Vermont got on with it. Of course, Vermont doesn't grow oranges.

Vermont will never turn a national election, and yet the people there think deeply about politics, the environment, the future. They quietly banned fracking the other week. Not much in the news. They get on with it. By contrast, every little event that occurs in Florida, from a tropical storm to a freeze in the orange groves to a slight lead in an election, makes national news and stays there. All those people, all that sunshine makes them popular—and, unlike Vermonters, they seem to welcome being news.

What I’m Really Talking About

Our lousy Republican presidents are elected because of Florida. Soft, sandy, warm, flat Florida.

Our really interesting Independents and Liberals are elevated in Vermont: Rugged, wild, steep, cold, green Vermont.

Guess which state Miss O' would rather live in?

Rina Visits from India: We Always Talk Class

Rina always asks me about class in this country, remarking usually that unlike India, America is “classless.” I always have to set her straight. We are hugely class-oriented in the U.S., and it’s not just about money, but it’s about money.

We say we celebrate the rugged individual, the can-do original, the person who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps, the self-made man.

Really? (In Florida?)

Let’s look at Republicans, who tell that story to themselves and then promote George W. Bush.

Bush/Romney: Rich, privileged, they act as if they made it on their own—and people buy it.  They both got into Ivy League schools, sure, but family connections as much as (or, in lieu of) “merit” played a significant role. They both had rich dads who ran for office first, and both used their dads’ money to make their ways in the world. We pretend it makes them mavericks.

Let’s look at Democrats, who tell themselves the story of the self-made man…and actually are telling the truth.

Clinton/Obama: Actually made it on their own, the products of single moms in impoverished circumstances, considered “trash” (and still are "nothing but trash," according to several Republican friends). They benefited from what America does best: They made opportunities where none would seem to exist, and through hard work and education, were able to change their lives while (oh, sure, ego is here, but still) cultivating a desire to serve rather than choosing professions to make a lot of money. Unlike their Republican counter-candidates, Clinton and Obama are called “elitist” (can I hear an "uppity"?) by detractors (media enemies) because of their Ivy League educations—so how is it the same educations that upper class Bush/Romney received are disdained when received by lower class students? Huh. Classism. In America. Go know.

What Do Travel and Landscape Have to Do With All This?

I traveled to Montgomery, Vermont, (yes, there should be a comma after a state when named with a city within a sentence) last week to read my Facebook Status Updates about New York at Celebration of Expressive Arts (CEA). This event was created by my Bread Loaf friend Rebecca Cummins, and is heartily supported by, set up with, and photographed by her husband, Bob. Both are retired educators who love the arts. Rebecca herself is a writer, and very shy. Her joy has been in bringing to her communities (here and in Illinois) a monthly artistic event featuring a musician, a writer, and a visual artist to share a stage with what they have to give.

Rebecca introduces singer-songwriter John Nicholls  at CEA, 5-18-12.
Photo by Robert Cummins.

Miss O’ shared her special evening with musician John Nicholls (remember that name--his band is Near North) and painter Dierdra Tara Michelle (remember that name, too--amazing). We talked about what we did, and we did it. We did it with wild confidence and with no idea how we’d be received.

Miss O' tells her tales of NYC in front of a painting by Dierdra Tara Michelle.
Photo by Charlotte Rosshandler for CEA.

It turns out that the whole room had a New York connection. Some even had Virginia connections (the tavern owner had gone to UVa). All the presenters loved music, incorporated music into their art, somehow, and stories into the songs. We brought diverse worlds into a hall in Vermont and had something to say to each other and the audience. The audience had stuff to talk to us about afterward. It was just awesome.

Rina, who had to hear all these stories, is from India and lives part of the year with her husband in Vancouver, getting to New York whenever she can. She works in the field of international relations. I have hosted her ever since a former student of mine in Virginia suggested she live here when she was in New York in 2007. Rina brings me news from the outside world. New York and I, in turn, keep her apprised of social issues like Occupy Wall Street and the latest in Gay Rights news. I’ve got her reading Dan Savage. She has me reading Marshall Berman. (Yeah, I had to Google him, too.) 

The outside comes inside, is what I'm saying. I think this is a good thing.

Diversity v. Homogeneity

Landscape is common ground, and each landscape invites certain comers. When you can choose to live in a place, the choice reflects something vital about you.

I love the land in Virginia. I'm glad to be from therehistory and hills, family and friends and memories—even as its politics do not reflect me. One day I knew who I was, where I wanted to be, and could do something about it. I now live in New York because I like mixing it up. I want human life to be in my face. This is not always enjoyable. It often smells. (That said, I’m afraid to travel to Delhi, no matter how much Rina begs me. I have limits to what I will endure, and it has to do with toilets and toilet paper. I’m a fan. (This is not about alien lands: I won’t hike the Appalachian Trail with my friend George for the same reason.) If this makes me less of a person, so be it.) But I need to be surrounded by people who don’t necessarily think the way I do, or live the way I do, or like what I like, but who want to BE where I do. We are willing to be challenged by each other, and fascinated by each other, face to face, on a daily basis, in order to be on this turf. It’s a question of values.

Stay and change a place you no longer feel akin to? Or go? (Is it ever fair to generalize a place? Is it useful to play the "I'm superior" card? No and no: I'm telling you where I am. And I'm aware that choices of where to live take money and balls, and sometimes balls and even money aren't enough--life gets in the way. So go with me.) Again, it's a question of values, including quality of life.

People who choose to live in Vermont or in Florida or in New York—in the country or the suburbs or the city—do so because of their values. Values are important to define. What do you value most? Why? If you could live anywhere you wanted, where would it be? Where have you felt most at home? If you have not been able to travel, what place has captured your imagination? These are the questions I started asking myself, and ones my friends asked of me, when I started thinking about a move.

Years ago, when I first lived here, my Aunt Mary (who died just about a year ago) looked at me while down on Canal Street, staring at hucksters and listening to foreign tongues and being bumped by the oddly dressed, and said, marveling, “Why, you can be just anybody you want to here.” And a new perspective was born. A student on a field trip to New York once said, upon disembarking from the bus in front of the hotel, "Now I know why I've been unhappy all my life." Landscape can discover you.

We travel to other places to have our values put to the test. If you are unwilling to have your values tested, you actually don’t have values: You have FEAR.

So when in doubt—or better, when you are absolutely sure—get out there: Share your art, talk to a stranger, listen to a person whose views frighten you, have coffee with a homosexual. What I mean is, BE where you ARE, and get out of there sometimes. Go THERE. Have that experience, is what I am saying. And then who are you?

Rina keeps talking to me from the kitchen as she fries cheese curd and cumin seeds: “Lisa, what do you think about being rumored to be gay when you aren’t gay? If I am teaching diversity and tolerance, how can I care whether or not someone is rumored to be gay, or if I am rumored to be gay? I just shrug.” She laughs. Her laugh is music. ”What else is there to do?”

What to do in the face of accusations that should be observations merely? in the face of hate, prejudice, classism, racism, stupidity, apathy, intolerance? And what of the preference for eternal sunshine and sand over steep climbs and cold rocks? (And really, who can blame you?) Wherever you find yourself, or whatever your choice of landscape: Know where you are and why. Figure out how it could be better. Keep talking. Share stuff. Laugh. And don’t live in fear. Otherwise, what are we fighting for?

In Memoriam

To all the soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen, doctors, nurses, and civilians who have sacrificed their lives and their sanity to help keep the rest of us safe and well—and who traveled to parts of the world they may never have imagined they’d see—this blog is the best I have to offer you today. Love and thanks.

(Art from Google Images)

P.S. May 31, 2012: Florida is purging its voter rolls of immigrants, the elderly, Liberals: If it outrages you as much as Stephen Colbert's brilliant SuperPac, sign the petition:

And thanks.


  1. Lisa, that was absolutely beautiful. I have tears in my eyes...