short essay #1
Thirteen years ago this month I was selling books at the Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore, Maryland. It was a time when retail was transitioning from saying “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays” and some customers didn’t like that. Since the store was located near a Jewish community, I decided to say “Happy Hanukkah” as I passed books across the counter. It relieved the monotony of running a cash register to watch people’s surprise, confusion, or amusement.
A former employee who had just started college in Michigan came back to visit. A current employee asked her, “What are people like out West?” and they had an entire, serious conversation on this topic, while I listened and wrapped books in the background. Out West? In Michigan? I thought. Sure, they were only eighteen, but I encountered older East Coast people who were indifferent or ignorant about the Western United States, too.
In the summer of 2012, I wrote a short essay called "Westerners.” I’ve been thinking of this essay again, as I’ve mentioned the Westernness of my novel when promoting People Along the Sand (there’s still time to buy a copy for Christmas!), and I recently chose a quote from Who Owns the West by William Kittredge as the epigraph for my forthcoming linked collection Bratwurst Haven. What does being a Westerner mean? I’m not sure it means anything, but sometimes I think it does. Here’s that old essay, in case you’re interested in this topic.
As I write this, I’m waiting. Waiting, while looking for a job in the West, after six years “back East,” as Westerners call it. Or maybe I am looking for a job “out West,” as Easterners call it. I’m unsure of my regional identity anymore.
During my last visit to the Northwest, a high school friend, his wife, and I visit Tacoma’s farmer’s market. While I wait in line for curry, a middle-age man approaches and asks where I’m from. “Grew up in Portland,” I say. “Now I live back East.” “Ah,” he says. “I’m from Boston. You hold yourself like an Easterner.” My friend and his wife deny his observation; I keep thinking about it. Do I? What does that even mean?
During my years in Morgantown, West Virginia, I’ve met two other people from Oregon. I’m an anomaly; someone expected to know good coffee, to explain Portlandia’s inside jokes, to be progressive. A handy evasive tactic helps me avoid stereotypical conversations. “Where’re you from?” a guy in a bar, a bus driver, a colleague, asks. “I moved here from Baltimore,” I say. “My,” they say. “Aren’t you a long way from home.”
Jobs are pending in Boulder, Colorado and Tillamook, Oregon. I talk to my dad on the phone. “You’ll figure it out,” he says. “You have to live with whatever you choose.” This strikes me, somehow, as a Westerner’s point of view, one in which individual exploration, decision-making, and responsibility are deemed necessary to any potential happiness, suffering, or self-improvement.
I’m on-call to substitute teach. My rent is month to month. With barely enough funds for a cross-country trip, I could, as I have a few times before, sell my furniture, pack my car, and take off, this time to home instead of, as usual, to another location. “Is waiting forever / always the answer?” the poet, Louise Gluck, writes. “Nothing / is always the answer; the answer / depends on the story.”
Western writer sellouts irk me. In my apartment, I lovingly reread Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion and Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams. At a bookstore, I flip through Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life in disgust. Wolff fawns over an elite society, the antithesis of the struggling individuals and/or communities that many Western writers consider integral to their art and life. So many people struggle to hold down jobs and keep loved ones healthy; why write about the petty jealousies of academic contests? To me, such topics are caviar, tasty but insubstantial.
I’m one of four finalists for the writer-in-residence fellowship at St. Albans preparatory school in Washington, DC. I go for an all-day interview, where I sit in the teacher’s lounge while ten or so teachers drop by and chat. All except one are hospitable and congenial. That one brags about how many senators’ kids go there, how many students attend Ivy League schools, especially Yale and Harvard. I stare at him with a Western cynicism. I viewed bureaucracy through the lens of The Wire a decade before that show aired—but I also didn’t understand what Ivy League schools were until college.
Working in Baltimore, I become friends with a colleague, a local guy who had refused a full scholarship to a prep school in favor of attending public high school. He, his best friend, and I hike together. His best friend, whose family moved from Seattle to Baltimore when he was twelve, feels displaced. “My family goes to a party,” the friend says while we traipse along Loch Raven Reservoir, north of the city. “And immediately, people ask my parents, what do you do? Nobody cared in Seattle. You could go months without knowing friends’ professions.”
Boarding school. Tobias Wolff ditched the Northwest to attend an Eastern preparatory boarding school. In the Northwest, besides a few exceptions, we reserve boarding schools for juvenile delinquents. Why else would they leave home at twelve? Where I’m from, being sent away is a punishment, not a privilege.
My brother-in-law, who is from small-town Connecticut, argues that the rural/city cultural divide has grown greater than any geographical divide. We are driving to the Oregon Coast for a family reunion, the car’s container fostering prolonged discussions. Rural people, he argues, are more likely to read the same magazines, visit the same websites, and watch the same programs on TV. Same with urbanites.
I consider. Rural versus urban is one of many divisions. Others include class, race, religion, and geography, as well as family and individual personality. When someone says, people from this place are like this, they are trying to communicate something, although maybe something so negligible and hard to define, it seems unimportant to many. To me, it is important because it is real. I try to define, and fail, and try again.
My freshman roommate from college and I renewed our friendship this year. She went to work abroad when I headed east, and now she works out of Washington, DC. Over dinner, we complain about our lack of dating material; too many hicks and bros in Morgantown, too many career-obsessed men in DC. We admit these are stereotypes, but also facts we’ve observed. After she broke up with a boyfriend, she joined a dating website. She says she’s sat through at least a half-dozen dates in which a man tries to impress her with his schooling or career credentials. My college roommate holds a master’s in international economics; she has lived and worked abroad; she is an intelligent and independent woman. But she also wants to talk about travel and family and food. If a man wants to climb the career ladder, that’s his business, and it doesn’t endear him to her. At the University of Oregon, we took the intelligent but down-to-earth men for granted. Now, we are here, and they are there, and, despite the world, through technology, shrinking, the Northwest is long way away.
Ignorant outsiders anger me. Last year, my boss sent me a link to an online article highlighting two graduate students who had made a “badass-nesss map” of Portland. Using factors such as pinball houses, food cart pods, coffee, and beer, they rated each neighborhood’s “badass-ness.” I wrote an email to the map’s creators in which I told them that their map represented and would appeal to a small section of Portland. I had just finished an essay in which I traced the loggers in my family back generations in the Northwest, and I planned to write a story on Vanport, a town on the north side of Portland where many Blacks lived who worked in the shipyards during World War II. So many different races and houses and history exist in Portland. To reduce it to food carts and pinball machines demeaned it.
One of the mapmakers and I emailed back and forth, and even had coffee the next time I visited my hometown. My brother, a residential real estate agent who has lived in Portland all his life, joined us. The mapmaker had moved to Portland a couple years before, and said he wanted our input on his map, if he were to expand it. We filled him in on history and neighborhoods, but he still described our hometown like a large playground, and I didn’t foresee his perspective changing.
William Deresiewicz published an article in the American Scholar entitled “A Jew in the Northwest: Exile, Ethnicity, and the Search for the Perfect Futon.” This New York intellectual, after living in Portland for two years, thought he had the right and insight to write that “the very notion of ethnicity cannot be said to exist in Portland” and that a “typical 40ish Portlander” has a “full beard, big sweater, innocent face.” Growing up, I interacted with Asian, Orthodox Jewish, and Hispanic communities. My parents and grandparents drilled into me a strong work ethic and deep knowledge of and appreciation for history, both which don’t exactly leave one innocent. After reading that article, and subsequently conversing with a snotty, provincial Brooklynite who had never left his hometown, I was ready to dismiss New Yorkers along with that other group Oregonians despise, Californians. But, as I wrote Mr. Deresiewicz, “I also love and hate certain things about the people in places I’ve lived. I try to observe and not judge, however, to analyze but not dismiss.”
Outsiders judging my adopted home places also anger me. Jamie Oliver, the British chef, “taught” West Virginians about healthy food. Between visits to Morgantown’s farmer’s market and working at my local grocery co-op, I watched his TV episodes with disgust. Yes, West Virginia has the highest obesity rate in the nation, but intelligent locals are addressing and will continue to address these problems; they don’t need some self-righteous do-gooder from Britain. The incident reminded me of another James, James Agee, who photographed families in West Virginia during the Great Depression, producing the book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Later, children photographed in the book, now grown-up, said their struggling families felt exposed and demeaned by Agee’s photographing.
“It is not merciful or decent to treat people as abstractions,” Wendell Berry writes in his essay “The Loss of the Future.” “It is not tolerable to treat people as one. . . . Who except a robot would have the impudence to confront another man . . . with the news that, by a decree of his government, he is to be considered a pauper?”
Who, except an arrogant person, with the audacity of youth or cynicism of age, would think that two years residence in a place gives them knowledge not only to stereotype a place, but to make judgments upon those stereotypes?
In retrospect, I think my relatives talked an inordinate amount about land. Not property necessarily, but land management. Which land the state or feds or Native tribes owned, which land was trading hands, which land was protected by regulations. My grandpa is proud of the trees he helped cut down. My dad is proud of Portland’s urban growth boundary. I am proud that the entire Oregon Coast is public land. And what catches my attention more and more on my visits isn’t the influx of food carts. After driving from DC to Baltimore to Philly to New York to Connecticut to Boston to Portland, Maine, what strikes me most about the Northwest are the quantities of protected land.
In New York, men pop up the Empire State Building. It’s the tallest building within eyesight. In Seattle, men pop up the Space Needle. Media across the state, and the nation, applaud it. But workers travel every day with the Cascades on the east, the Olympics on the west, water all around, and a fault line nearby, which, with the right, terrible circumstances could in minutes destroy themselves and all they’ve built. And how can you not remain at least somewhat humble in this atmosphere, if not consciously and individually, in the collective unconscious? How can you not acknowledge the innate existential nature of all endeavors? How can you not be generous and wary, naïve and cynical, uncertain and arrogant, intimate and aloof?
Thank you for reading! In January, I’ll share what has worked and not worked while promoting People Along the Sand. I hope you have a nice holiday season.