Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide: #9 (Dancing with Drivers)

June 12, 2012 · Print This Article

My father in-law drove me to the Milwaukee airport a few weeks ago on the Wednesday before Memorial Day. I’d never seen so much activity at Mitchell International Airport. Typically, at 7 PM on a Wednesday, it feels like a private airstrip. This time it felt like, well, LaGuardia, save for the number of travelers in Green Bay Packers jerseys. As it turned out, one of the Packer players, Donald Driver, won the television dance competition “Dancing with the Stars,” the night before and everyone was on a cloud. Half the airport had Driver #80 jerseys and the other half was toting the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel with its supplemental front-page inset hailing Driver’s victory.

Because of traffic my father in-law couldn’t drop me off curbside and had to stop instead in the far lane. I ran across traffic with my luggage like a digital frog, dashing and darting abruptly until a Chevy Suburban slammed on its brakes and stopped me in my tracks. The New York side of me expected a physical altercation or at least mighty insult, but instead the middle-aged dad politely waved me on. For his generosity, I beckoned him to go first. He then waived me on again..and back-and-forth for a good minute. I imagined we looked like those two overly polite Disney chipmunks, Dale and Chip. After a few more seconds of dancing, I finally made a dash..and so did he. And the Chevy’s massive grill put my luggage into the fender of a cab five feet in front of us. It was a clean hit; all luggage and no flesh. My suitcase was upended but in one piece. Still, the driver got out and it turned into a scene of excessive brotherly considerateness. No honking, no screaming, but an embarrassingly intense rush of Packer-jerseyed Samaritans coming to my aid.

 

 

“No worries…I’m fine”

I grabbed my rolling bag from the asphalt and hurried into the terminal before the benevolent suffocated me in compassion.

I jogged all the way to the security line, which was as long as I’d ever seen it in Milwaukee. Almost as long as the average one at LaGuardia, though, as always, much slower moving.

In addition to the tendency for Wisconsinites’ to be exceedingly thorough in performing routine tasks, the process of getting through MKE security is gummed up by a state-of-the-art body scanner that everyone must pass through one at a time. To boot, I was behind what appeared to be the University of Wisconsin girls’ softball team. I had to consider that if I had been selfish enough to walk out in front of the Suburban without hesitation when he waived me on, I would have overtaken the Lady Badgers and saved a half an hour. Oh well.

In line, people started getting anxious. As the chatter escalated and people began sharing their thoughts with strangers – the beginning of any revolt – I mentioned the absurdity of Milwaukee possessing a top-notch body scanner when they don’t have one at LAX or LaGuardia. A guy behind me claimed that the scanner was made possible by the “generosity” of the recent economic stimulus as well as a surplus due to the airport’s good financial management.

By that logic, if Peoria, Illinois had a budget surplus and a little bit of irrational insecurity, the city might just erect a surface-to-air-defense system at the airport whether they needed it or not. Meanwhile LaGuardia, the financial sieve that it probably is, would continue use something like the honor system that make its lines go so fast.

After a good 45 minutes I made it to the conveyors. Super efficient; no belt, no loose change, slip-ons and keys in a pocket of my shoulder bag. After going through the body scanner I waited for my effects when an agent asked me to follow him to a back area. He was holding my shoulder bag in his right hand and a small black case in his left.

It was an open pack of 100 razor blades.

“Why on earth are you bringing these through security?”

“They were for an art project and I forgot to take them out.”

“Razor blades…for art?”

“An accessory to art making, actually.”

“Hmm,” he said in the most stoically judgmental way. The way only a good Lutheran can.

After talking about it with a supervisor the man came back and told me I could go but that he would be taking the blades and that I shouldn’t try anything so foolish again.

His disapproval aroused my shame.

I cowered into Nonna Bartolotta’s to order an Irish whisky before the flight and help forget the experience.

As I sipped Bushmills, I ranted on the inside:

“I once traveled from JFK to Charles de Gaulle via Heathrow, post 9-11, with a box cutter in my coat pocket, and THIS guy at Milwaukee airport is going to bust my chops about some razor blades…I made it through security at LaGuardia with a bottle of turpentine, and he’s going to treat me like I returned his daughter late on prom night with her sweater on inside out?!?”

Later, calmer, I landed at LaGuardia, deboarded and went to meet my wife who was waiting with the car. Outside, I saw her  waiving at me from across two busy lanes of traffic. I tried to dash across, but I couldn’t catch an opening. From the curb I threatened to lurch out with my body, sort of playing chicken with the cabbies, but it was clear they’d run me down if I tried. New York driving is a free-for-all and its drivers don’t conform to any informal social welfare system for the greater good. Systems are New York’s only ensurance of  greater good, and because of this there are rarely accidents caused by people expecting another car to stop out of pure kindness.

Walking fifty feet up to that safeguard called the crosswalk, it occurred to me that Wisconsin, which just confirmed its support for a conservative, some might say, socially insensitive governor, is partially regulated by an informal, de facto welfare state where everyone considers – perhaps a little too much – the well-being of the next guy. Chicken-or-egg, who knows, but it seems government regulation might be undesirable to some in Wisconsin because most are so busy regulating each other informally that any more imposed order on top of all that Chip-and-Dale politeness might inspire people to run into oncoming traffic to regain a sense of liberty and individualism.

My wife drove us home in some pretty nasty traffic. We finally reached our exit at Morgan/Meeker on the BQE and stopped at a red light at the bottom of the ramp. She was anxious from the white-knuckled driving and I leaned over to kiss her forehead. As I did, the light changed and a symphony of impatient car horns sounded. No informal, unwritten civil code; just rules penned by politicians and enforced by public officials. Green light means it’s time to devour those who hesitate for a split second, like “hike” means it’s time to annihilate the opposing team in football. Good will is irrelevant when you’re playing to win and you’ve subcontracted all your rules to referees.

I’m sure that our Wisconsin license plate and the Green Bay Packers bumper sticker didn’t arouse any sympathy, either.

Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide: #8 (Umlauts)

May 28, 2012 · Print This Article

Mos Eisley Cantina

* The country of Iceland is smaller (pop. 317,398) than Wichita, Kansas (pop. 382,368), but I can name dozens of Icelanders making avant-garde art and music and can’t name one from the entire state of Kansas (pop. 2,871,238).

I fear the culturati in New York often fetishize strangeness, obscurity and diversity – and any other challenge to homogenized, corporatized, late-capitalist existence – rather than appreciate it. I’ve said too many times in polite Northeastern company that an artist with a few of those Norwegian Ø’s or umlauts in his name has an edge in getting into a summer group show on the Lower East Side than a Molly McEverybody from Peoria.

This is obviously anecdotal analysis, and perhaps slightly cynical, if they do reflect a real trend, one needs to consider both the possibility that Kansans tend to eschew the high-cultural and that Icelanders and Norwegians actively embrace it.

Holland Cotter, one of the foremost champions of multi-everythingism in the art world, holds that the degree of cultural diversity is an indicator of its vitality. I agree, but it’s only an indicator, not necessarily a cause. Like, the number of Mercedes in a neighborhood is a good indicator of privilege, but giving a Mercedes to someone without money doesn’t necessarily make him privileged. Or, many of the best restaurants, drinking establishments and art galleries happen to be located in alternative and edgy areas, but that doesn’t mean you can serve my grandmother’s green bean casserole in a cool guy’s closet in Ridgewood, Queens and have it taste avant-garde.

I love diversity and uniqueness as much as the next guy. Probably more than the next guy. I’m writing these words from a hotel lounge outside of Toledo, Ohio that I chose by sight from I-80 based solely on the chance that it might look something like the Mos Eisley Cantina on the inside. Incidentally, it doesn’t. I’m one of three people here and the other two are a couple with matching Crocs, quietly sharing some super nachos.

On my way to Brooklyn last week in the truck I’m now returning back to Wisconsin, I stopped for an interview with a small Lutheran university. It was my second meeting. The first one was the standard HR routine; this one was for real, with the head of the art department. He had my resume on his desk and from it served up a steady stream of questions.

“Did you live in Providence when you taught, or did you drive to Rhode Island from New York?”

“I commuted. It was actually rather enjoyable. I listened to courses on tape for eight hours each week. If I had gotten credit for all of them I might have a B.A. in history from Yale.”

“Looks like you’ve been showing in New York.”

He read some of the galleries on my resume. It was clear none of them had any significance to him. It seemed only the number mattered.

“Ten shows last year, you were a busy guy.”

Was I? I felt I could’ve given him a list of ten Arena League football teams and it would’ve stood up to his scrutiny. I could’ve given him the name of ten independent coffee shops in Oshkosh and he might have hired me on the spot. Who the hell knows? If I was a Ph.D. in biochemistry we’d be discussing the same journals and publications, but not in the wild west (east) of the art world.

Maybe the milestones on my CV symbolize my migration into obscure territory  too devoted to umlauted avant-gardists and, generally, non-Kansans and non-Wisconsinites. Or maybe flyover culture is all too happy to be whitewashed. It is a fact that I graduated from Shawnee Mission South High School in Overland Park, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City packed with Costcos, PetSmarts and lots of white protestants who don’t put anything as strange as contemporary art high on their list of worldly interests. Did I voluntarily leave the reasonable center, or did they?

I was dwelling this quandary when he launched into his dismount.

“How does your faith influence your teaching style?”

I was caught off-guard but gathered myself in time to save an awkward face-off. It seems I had checked a box on the application that indicated I was a Lutheran, which is technically true through marriage.

“I believe art, like faith…like love and like golf is about withdrawal and submission. ANYONE who wants to control their way to God or art or a perfect relationship will ultimately find their own ego and not salvation.”

“I read a book about the spirituality of golf.”

 

Golf and Faith

 

It was clear my answer satisfied him profoundly.

And it disappointed me to the same depths. Not because of any indignation about my professional bona fides nor because of his faith. I’m not spiritual in any supernatural sense, but still the answer I gave him was as pure and true as anything I know. I could relate to his version of art and culture, yet I felt to him mine remained an unintelligible morass of strangely named art spaces, arcane publications, esoteric theory, obscure locations populated by heathens. I can’t decide whether this is my fault or his.

Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide: #7 (Burn Notice)

May 14, 2012 · Print This Article

 

When I was young my dad used to school me at Trivial Pursuit every time we played. I went on thinking he was a singular genius for a couple of decades.

My reverence flagged only when I realized all the questions in the game were written by baby boomers; the answer was always Jefferson Airplane, G. Gordon Liddy or Robert McNamara. At some point, probably when I started teaching college, I came to realize that his McNamara is my Condoleezza Rice; his Liddy is my Linda Tripp; his Syd Barret is my Jeff Mangum, etc., etc. Generations are structurally parallel to each other.

My students don’t know this yet, and as a result they treat me like I’m Doris Kearns Goodwin when I reveal what is a fairly superficial knowledge of George W. Bush’s cabinet, or the cast of various John Hughes films.

And that’s one of the best aspects of aging: ordinary, trivial information gleaned by osmosis eventually passes for legitimate historical knowledge.

I’m more aware of this osmotic knowledge when in New York. I don’t watch any scripted television or queue up for summer blockbuster movies, but I still know about shows like Psych and Burn Notice only because I wait for subway trains. A fragmented and superficial education in contemporary pop culture comes with one’s New York address.

In Wisconsin I’m blind to pop culture. There are no subway posters and where I live, no billboards. If I stumble into a Gap for some socks I may be forced to learn a new song by the Shins or Snow Patrol, but otherwise I have no connection to what others in the world are up to if I don’t turn on a television or open a magazine.

This topic came up with some friends in New York. It turned out that we had all heard of the show Breaking Bad but couldn’t say anything about its nature other than the guy in it was also in the movie, Drive. It occurred to us that we didn’t even know people who knew people in New York who watched Pscyh or Corazon Caliente, yet everyone at the table knew both shows to the depth that I do Condoleeza Rice, which is to say, not very.

The question of who was watching shows like Burn Notice and Breaking Bad simmered in my head for a few weeks when some acquaintances in Wisconsin urged me, without my provocation, to watch Breaking Bad. 

“It’s amazing, you gotta check it out. It’s totally unique.”

After the recommendation, all five of them dove into a conversation about Breaking Bad’s merits and left me in the dust.  I contemplated the elegance and ease of five individuals sharing consciousness through a television show. I was momentarily jealous that they had a conversational topic to share, so sat out the round sifting for pumpernickel chips in the bar snack mix. The mix had been removed of all the good stuff leaving mostly pretzels and some goldfish crumbs. This forced the revelation that in a place like Cedarburg, Wisconsin, where the culture is relatively homogenous, sharing consciousness is easier than it is in New York.

I interjected having seen a poster of Burn Notice on the Nassau subway stop where someone had scratched a vagina in ball-point pen between the legs of its star…whose name I didn’t know.I didn’t realize for several beers that I had my shows confused.

Writing this from a subway platform at Nassau and Manhattan Avenues, under a poster for Rock Star beverage and a superhero movie set to explode, an eclectic crowd mills on the platform. Asians carry Asian-language newspapers under their arms; Polish women tote the Polish daily Nowy Dziennik, and kids of a million backgrounds are drinking various energy drinks.

 

I’m about to shoehorn onto a train with the most diverse cross section of individuals on any train in the world, who themselves live within most Byzantine network of pop-media advertising anywhere else. I wonder how elegantly all this diversity interfaces. Does anyone know who watches Burn Notice? How much consciousness do we share in New York versus a one-bar town in Iowa? How much of this NYC multitude ends up inside of me superficially through osmosis, and how much through engaged scholarship?

I have no idea what “Nowy Dziennik” translates to, nor will I ever know what Burn Notice is about.

They always say that New York is a melting pot, but I think sometimes it’s more like the lava lamp on Grace Slick’s nightstand.

I should probably ask the woman to my left how to say “hello” in Polish.

Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide: # 6 (Tenure)

April 3, 2012 · Print This Article

I just heard another New York peer round up to the decade when asked how long he’d been in New York. His first response was an efficient, “Ten years,” and then went on to say he moved to New York City in the middle of the Kerry/Bush election. It was probably an innocent fib, perhaps even a mathematical oversight, but it marked the bazillionth time I’d heard someone padding their New York tenure, and I’ve taken to recognize the move.

Moved NYC in April ’05: ”Been here about a decade.”

Moved in June of ‘04: ”Been living on the Lower East for the better part of the century.”

Implants in New York are like kids dying to have a double-digit age, or one too eager to become a teenager: “I’m almost 13”

“I’m starting big boy school next year.”

When I mentioned this to my wife, she told me that it was just as petty of me to scorekeep as it was for someone to embellish. Perhaps, but I can’t be punished for merely noticing a trend, can I? It’s hard to tell when one is over-vigilant because it feels exactly the same as observation. I would say I keep an objective mental inventory of all food in our house and she would say I focus more heavily on the number of squares on the chocolate bars that come and go. And to the contrary, I would say that it is she who notices me noticing the chocolate because she’s the one with the issue.

The point is that it’s hard to distinguish between impartial observation and vigilantism..and also that what one is looking for often says something about who he or she is.

I understand the impulse to compete in NYC though. New York is the only city I’ve ever spent any significant amount of time in that has a learning curve steeper than acquiring a language that has a totally different alphabet. There is a genuine satisfaction in finding a suitable apartment and to memorizing the neighborhood’s alternate side parking rules. Knowing how to negotiate the Brooklyn Bridge from the tangle of D.U.M.B.O. sidestreets will give a humble man a full-chest. And knowing how to get navigate Flushing, Queens to get good dumplings makes many an implanted New Yorker feel like Maro Polo.

No one has ever one-upped me in Wisconsin by claiming they’ve been in Fond du Lac for longer than I, nor has anyone bragged that they found an “undiscovered” neighborhood that was yet-to-be gentrified. People don’t chronicle time spent in a particular place in Wisconsin because time isn’t in itself a measure of valor.

If aliens came from a galaxy far far away and were looking for a place to live in the U.S., they might choose to lay anchor in Cedarburg, Wisconsin: the roads are paved smooth, grass grows green in open fields everywhere, food is (too) plentiful, the people are kind, and the living is comfortable even for the marginal citizen. And being from so far away, our aliens would probably be on the margins. But as long as said aliens didn’t exoticize or flaunt the culture on their old planet, no one would question when their ship landed in Cedarburg, just that it chose it willfully and respectfully. And that it didn’t try to stand out too much – Wisconsinites prefer formal over temporal continuity. They’re György Lukács to New Yorkers’ Bertolt Brecht.

Living in Cedarburg part-time for 7 months and 5 days, to the hour, I thought I’d left the tenure pretense behind. A student asked me today how long I’ve lived in New York and I reflexively said “a decade,” even though I only moved there in August of ’02.

In the moment I couldn’t tell whether the slip was due to efficiency or overdetermination. I thought about correcting the technical error, but he was looking at me like I was a painted warrior from the East.

“Really, why’d you come all the way out to Fond du Lac for?”

I avoided quicksand by asking him how long he’d been in Fond du Lac.

“Since I was born..but my family’s been here for almost 200 years.”

Thoughts from Across the Cultural Divide: #5 (Bald Eagle)

March 19, 2012 · Print This Article

Pale Male and Lifepartner

After a decade in New York City, I saw my first undomesticated roadkill yesterday. That is, unless it was a pet raccoon. I tried to take a picture of it as I passed it and nearly caused a pileup on the BQE, so just take my word for it.

I spent the entire traffic jam from the Kent/Wythe exit to downtown Brooklyn wondering where a raccoon could hide out in Brooklyn. Did it flop in McGolrick Park, chainsmoking brown cigarettes, drinking Spirytus by day with the clochards? Did someone throw it out of the back of a van rolled up in a carpet, mafia-style? The raccoon equivalent of Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy..got sick of the Catskill woods and moved to the Big City only to have his plan unravel?

One morning commute last fall I counted 16 expired deer along highway 41 in Wisconsin. Most of them were painted with large fluorescent “X’s” meaning they were tagged for pickup by the DOT. Imagine: there’s so much road kill, the state of Wisconsin has dedicated a bureaucracy to its removal. I brought up my road kill observations in class and it turned out a good fourth of my students were chomping at the bit that very moment to go hunting. They mentioned that the number of dead deer on the highway wasn’t a sign of deer depletion but proof of their overabundance; a problem they would shortly take on with rifles as their fellow SUV footsoldiers fought them on a second front with fenders.

The episode forced me to recall a Red -tailed Hawk that became a cause célèbre when it took up residence on Central Park West a few years ago. There was even a PBS special about “Pale Male,” as he was called, in which local Upper West Siders were interviewed about their relationship with him. One resident glorified Pale as a sublime natural wonder; another regretted its habit of eating pigeons in front of children too young to process life’s cruel lessons. Most spoke about it as if they were taking cues from Hakuna Matata in the Lion King, as if The Upper West was a natural ecosystem only with Grey’s Papayas instead of watering holes. After showing my class a clip from the show, their overwhelming response was, “Why are they treating it like a unicorn?!”

Apparently Red-tailed hawks are everywhere in Northern Wisconsin. No one would bat an eyelash if one swooped down and took a muskrat right in front of them. Someone suggested that if a Bald Eagle swooped down for a housecat it might be worth a double take. I said if a Bald Eagle came to Central Park they’d suspend alternate side parking for the week and change the colors on the Empire State Building for a day or two.

I recounted traveling to the Aldrich museum with two art collectors and a dealer a few years back. Along the way we saw some Canada Geese congregating off the road. One of the collectors excitedly referred to them “wildlife.” At the time the remark smacked as the kind of gross generalization that would start wars if said about a subgroup of humans. When I told the kids about the story, they guffawed and asked why rats don’t get the same reverence.

It was a good question. I said geese have a better PR firm, and you don’t see them dragging slices of pizza down the street backwards.

Later in class, I was going through slides I had taken at New York art galleries. One of my more observant students noted the vogue for forest dwelling creatures, antlers and rural rustica. That’s why I love teaching: naïve eyes are often the most objective. Eureka! When you live in an environment paved in asphalt and skyscapers block the sun, it skews one’s perception of what might be considered threatened wilderness.

I went on to note some of the dozens of artists I know who are engaged in mini-crusades to stem development along the New York waterfront or to expand green space in the city. This is usually in the form of portentous post-apocalyptic paintings or photos of unusual trash in the East River. All of it was anathema to my students, many of whom actually tend livestock in addition to going to school. Whatever the actual state of environmental degradation in the world today, it is safe to say that in Central Wisconsin there’s a justifiably lesser compulsion to announce the falling of the sky.

I told the students that I occasionally see a Red-tailed Hawk in my local park, too, but Greenpoint Brooklyn isn’t as glamorous as Central Park and doesn’t fetch the same press. I did mention that they film movies in McGolrick Park all time and it makes parking a bitch because they line the street with Haddad movie star trailers that take up ten parking spaces each.

“Movie Star trailers!!!! Wow, do they really have those? Do you ever see real celebrities just walking around?”

“Well if a Bruce Willis swooped down and grabbed a falafel from a halal food cart, it might be worth a double take.”