Tuesday, May 24, 2011

i've been silent on this blog, a kind of time of mourning for joplin missouri, which i haven't even seen for maybe eighteen years, but which nevertheless played an important part in my life for a time in the late eighties and early nineties when we lived in pittsburg kansas, a town about forty miles northwest or so; my memory may have dimmed a bit. joplin was one of those towns that was on the edge of everything: ozarks to the south, flat fertile farm country to the northeast, windswept plain in our direction to the northwest, and a major trucking route cutting right on down through it, a road that connected st. louis to tulsa, oklahoma city and the wild west.

i used to drive students down to the airport there, and sometimes i'd pick them up; they'd fly in, maybe tokyo to chicago to kansas city to joplin, with that last flight on a tiny little plane where they'd ask you your weight and you had to duck your head and sit exactly where they told you or you'd throw the weight off and everybody'd be doomed. They would have two outsized enormous suitcases, their limit, jammed to the gills with everything from rice to rice cookers on the assumption, generally true, that nothing useful could be found way out in the wilderness; everything had to be packed. so these suicases would be 1.5 milligrams less than the legal limit and i could just hear the pilot mentioning how it might throw the whole plane out of whack and be the doom of everyone, making the two or three passengers extremely nervous and accentuating the little bumps and turbulence they would experience. students would come into the airport white as a sheet, and wonder what was next, or if it could get any worse.

no sooner would i load them and their suitcases into the car than a fairly sparse town of joplin would turn into windswept plain, and a full twenty minutes later or so, or more, we'd come upon the town of asbury, a virtually boarded up vacant sort of place that was halfway or so. there were maybe two or three buildings there, and never a soul around; maybe a convenience store that was often closed. sometimes it would be raining or worse, raining hard. i could see them wondering what they'd gotten themselves into, without saying a word to them.

years later i remember almost nobody in the town of joplin itself, god rest their souls, and i remember very little of anything i actually did in joplin, although the temple and rare quaker meeting were among our stops. once on the way to a quaker quarterly campout down in arkansas, i went straight through joplin and down to a revivalist church on the highway south; i'd stopped there because it was simply too far to make it all the way to the quaker thing, and, being somewhat isolated in kansas, i needed something, someplace to go. inside a revivalist preacher promised new life with the new highway that was due to come through anyytime; i thought of this place when i heard all this stuff about the rapture: the hope, the belief that a new world was dawning. days after the "rapture" came and went, we were all in a tornado shelter again; these storms just keep coming up, and they all keep coming from down that way, and i could see on the map that joplin was getting more of them, in spite of just being pounded, almost destroyed.

another time i was taking two african guys to joplin for their return trip back home, after a couple of years in pittsburg, and they were speaking most of the way in an animated way but in their native african tongue, which was probably hausa-falani or some dialect of it. it so happened that i knew one word in that language, gaskiya, and i heard it; i even heard it repeatedly. it meant "truth" so apparently one guy was agreeing with the other when he used it. when i pointed out that i actually knew that word they were overjoyed, and accepted me as a complete brother; they even later gave me some of the things that wouldn't fit into their overstuffed suitcases. the ironic thing was, it was just about as we were rolling through asbury that this happened. but they were somewhat like me: as opposed to seeing the place for the first time ever, and assuming that this is what the hinterlands of all the usa looked like, they, like me, had been here for years, and tended to barely even see a place as inconsequential as asbury,a blip on the screen, a nowhere place, halfway to another.

to the people of joplin: it doesn't seem quite right to just pick up, and go on with our life, even way out here on the other end of the state, when so much of your lives have been ruined, rent asunder, in such a random and brutal way. it's been a busy time, and i wake up, go to work, and am swamped for hours on end, getting classes started, getting life underway with a new term; too busy to think, or to read a news report, or get the whole story, which in many ways, would be too scary anyway. deep in my heart, i ache for you. we here got in the shelter one more time, maybe our fourth or fifth, in a recent warning. it's been a long season; most of us are ready for it to die down a little and just give us the usual sweltering, brutal summer. we send you our thoughts and prayers. gaskiya...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

two vacation days dawn cool and glorious, whereas mid-may in this area is usually steamy, already unlivable. i don't know what accounts for our luck; i for one am so exhausted from the previous term, that all i can do is take a big fat cup of coffee, go out on the porch swing, which is now under our garage eave, and sip it slowly. let the world roll on down the river, its relentless crest disrupting life all the way down to the lowest bayous.

our local county seat, a town about a quarter as large is ours, is on the big muddy river (not to be confused with the mississippi, which it is a tributary of) and thus is flooded; about a week ago the road from the old highway that we take, into the town, was covered by a couple feet of water; now, the water is a couple feet below it. in grim fascination i am drawn that way as know how devastating and sickening a flood is; maybe 5 or 10 percent of the town's lowest residents are under water. sometimes i have only the thinnest of excuses, like the fact that its mcdonalds, of the six or so in the area, has the best play structure. it's an opportunity to take the young guy and cool off a little, drink a shake maybe or watch him make friends with a fairly diverse crowd. but actually this town is dying; many of its beautiful old buildings are vacant, including the regal huge laclede hotel; it seems as if the lawyers and the judges are the only ones who remain, fighting over what's left of the property, and constantly putting young men in jail for meth-related (probably) murders and crimes...in any case, in spite of the fact that it has maybe four times the number of pretty old houses and buildings that we do, it doesn't seem like people are actually enjoying the environment, of course this could just be that the river is thirty or forty feet too high. in any case it all comes together in this one interior hallway of mcdonald's, where unhappy people tend to congregate and scowl at us as we walk by, and my usual patient nature, whereby i would say hi to these people, regardless of having virtually nothing in common, gives way to a certain impatience with the scowls and the occasional disrespectful burp. must be all the good nutrition; most of them are a hundred pounds overweight, and make a guy like me, only thirty over, look like a steel rail. this is our world. the play structure is friendly enough; most people with kids have the same benevolent need for a little rest as i do. the manager of the place is nice enough too, and there's a whole, light-filled dining area that i never explore, but i'm sure it has a completely different feel to it. it's just that you have to walk through this interior hallway, you have no choice, you can't go around; and, it's a kind of regular problem.

the morganza spillway is opened up, flooding the atchafalaya, the vast lowland bayou country that supposedly, by allowing itself to be flooded, will save the larger cities like new orleans. we'll give the river what it wants, say the engineers, who scramble around trying to figure out what's best, and i'm sure, using the best of their current abilities to save as many lives as possible. there's been a little too much rain up this way, for a while, all spring; it floods all the low spots, and shows no signs of stopping. lots of crops ruined, and barge traffic was stopped today which puts a huge burden on the transportation system of the whole country: no telling how much corn, and oil, and beans, and all that stuff, generally goes up and down the river in better times. the system is busting at the levees; yet another megathousand pound barge might break the whole system. they made the right call, i'm sure; i wouldn't want to be responsible for the kinds of disasters that ensue when they don't.

at home, the cool weather and the rain has made garden, flowers, onions & leeks, bloom like crazy. it's a wild jungle of green and maybe the poison ivy and the stranglevine families are doing as well as any of them. they'll work to reclaim young trees and bring everything down into a wild smelly strangle of poisonous stuff that gives you rashes for months just for breathing it. yet it has the same red glow in the morning sun, the same vitality; it wants to live too, and live well, and spread. i spend my time with the onions and leeks; i weed them, pick and cook them, and i might work to propagate them a little, so that i'm a kind of onion farmer; but, i'll have to let someone else at that poison ivy, namely my wife, who seems to be able to handle it ok. i seem to get rashes from just looking at it, might even get something from sitting here writing about it, though by now it's what, five or six steps removed. time for another cup of coffee: break is just starting, and i'm thinking about my novel.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

i'm not an expert on any of this stuff, because mostly i just write these huge quizzes and vocabulary exercises, and my students, many of whom are saudis, ask me what the heck is going on with the u.s. and bin laden, and what do i know? i don't watch the news, i'm not on the media, even facebook is confused because i haven't been on there for a day or two, so it can't find much beyond the first page. it's been raining and raining here, to the point that lots of people have to go 'round, just to get to their own car, or get to the store, or get wherever they need to go. you look just off the road at the rising water and everything looks so soggy, like all kinds of crops might be ruined. but the big news of course is down at cairo (pronounced karo), about seventy miles south, and the deepest south part of illinois, so far south, it's south even of paducah and half the places in kentucky.

and down there they have what is known as bird's point levee, cairo-new madrid, and a plan which was they were to blow it up if the water got over 61 feet, which the water did, and they did, they blew it up, blew a hole in it, and the water flooded all this farmland in missouri but they were hoping that further upstream, in cairo and in towns in illinois and kentucky and indiana, it would relieve some of the pressure and give the water somewhere to go.

the town of cairo is legendary in southern illinois, and it's amazing that i've never been there even after seventeen years here, but i've heard plenty of stories, as has everyone. it was a big city once, and could have been bigger, being at a major confluence of the ohio and mississippi, but that honor was given to st. louis as cairo faded into the river and its frequent lowland-flooding problems. it's down to only 3000 souls now, down to 1/5 of what it used to be, and even those folks are gone now, having been evacuated by the flood. stories are told of how trees grow right up through old houses in cairo; from here, it seems like the place seems to take whatever the rest of the state can give; academics go down there, do studies, and get mired in the hopelessness of the situation, never to return or write anything again. a songwriter did that too; made a good cd, but then i never heard his name again.

anyway it had the possibility of a racial issue, with cairo being predominantly black and the farmers on the other side predominantly white, but everyone kept their cool and the corps knew they had to blow the bird's point after it topped 61 anyway and just did it without looking back, so now a large swell is heading down the river toward new orleans, and taking lots of topsoil and history with it. meanwhile the rest of the world is bonkers about bin laden and my students are saying, why are people dancing in the street, or reacting about some bizarre thing they may have seen on tv or on the internet. with grim fascination they see the racism of the u.s. play out in a kind of sad and pitiful dance since the guy is, after all, very dead, and we've spent what, 500 billion now to the point that we're arguing whether to pay our teachers, or keep playing football, and started three pointless wars on his behalf. so yes, i guess these students would be a bit confused, but i didn't have time to straighten them out. and as i began the tornado warning went off, though it was just your tuesday morning test-siren, but they said oh yeah, what was that with the airport, and with 400 dead here and there and the worst tornado season ever...? turns out they're a little shook up about this tornado deal too though it's partly because, being from saudi and all, they don't know a tornado from a crack of thunder and a constant hard rain that never goes away, just keeps overflowing the gutters and giving you something to play banjo under. lots of cracks of thunder these days, lots of hard constant rain, coming up from the bootheel, filling up the curbsides.

i said yeah, we're a little worried about the weather too; more and worse tornadoes this year than ever, and they're all staying south, which is why so many people die, because they're not used to them, and don't know to find shelter fast, when they get the warning. or, they don't get the warning. or, they have no shelter. i won't look at pictures of trashed out towns or trailer parks, don't want pictures of bin laden either, or pictures of cairo, or flood inundating 100,000 acres of missouri farmland.

instead i look at pictures of louis sockalexis, famous penobscot indian guy who took baseball by storm in 1897, his rookie year and only year, when he ended up on the cleveland spiders baseball team, tore up the league, but fell victim to alcoholism and never returned after that. he was such a sensation, and the nation was so wrapped up in him, that the team became known as the indians from then on, not, because there were ever any other indians in the cleveland area. books were written about him, though i haven't read them. the indians are hot this year; they've won quite a few in a row; to me it brings up this sockalexis dude just on principle. you'd say, this team is doomed; it has a small market; cleveland can't handle a winner; the ghost of sockalexis will haunt the place forever and something will happen. but no, hope is eternal, it may have been a bright burning fire only once or twice, a few short seasons, a time people only talk about, but no longer remember; it may be deep in the folds of history, but history will not be forgotten. we will survive, we will be back; when the rivers go down, and the sun comes back, there will be daylight again, and the rains will pass, so will the water, breaching the bird's point and shooting down the great muddy river. there are more stories; you'll hear a few now. some have to do with where water chooses to go, on its relentless way down to lower spots. i guess, for the moment, i don't really want to know.