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Small town America and the Vote

9 Nov

When we drove home from Denver last summer, we stopped for two days in Cedar City, Utah; we had planned to visit Bryce Canyon and Zion, but we were both sick with colds, so spent the days sightseeing in the town itself.  This is, like nearly every other place one sees in Utah, a tidy, well-scrubbed Mormon town, overwhelmingly white. The town voted 65% for Trump, 14% for Clinton.  The town is the site of Southern Utah University, which hosts a renowned Shakespeare Festival every year, and houses not only a natural history museum and performing arts center, but gives the town a bit of diversity in a student body that includes black athletes and foreign students recruited by Mormon missionaries on their obligatory year of mission work abroad.  Everyone was unbelievably friendly, bent over backwards to be helpful, and engaged in their community, so much so that they stopped to ask if we needed help and would walk us to wherever we needed to be. The place just emanates serenity and security and well-being. I was ready to move there myself!

When you experience such tight-knit communities, almost always in America based on some overarching religious foundation, removed from the social dysfunctions caused by the clashing of cultures and diverse political, religious, and sexual outlooks, you can understand why and how we ended up with this president.  If you are in a happy, homogeneous environment, surrounded by people you know, and secure in your own little world, the implications of actions on a national and global level simply don’t affect you.  Add to that a constant message through the media and the civic leaders you have been told to trust that social situations “out there” are a threat to your cozy, comfortable life, and that change will bring about moral decay and degradation, and it is not surprising that these sweet, warm, intelligent people would not want to rock the boat by questioning what they have been told to believe.

These were thoughts I had when reading the following article, in the New Yorker. It brings up so many of those issues about those who stay and those who go, and why.  Fascinating to me that my reaction to these depictions of conservative, religiously rigid, communities is terror–get away as soon as you can!  But, then, I understand the pull of stability, too: where everyone knows everyone, you know your place in the community, and you know you will be surrounded by people you trust and can rely on.

I am putting up the LONG article here because the magazine won’t allow my Facebook friends to read it; this was the only way I could figure out how to make it available to them! I hope this isn’t breaching some unwritten code!



Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On
As America’s rural communities stagnate, what can we learn
from one that hasn’t?
By Larissa MacFarquhar

Orange City, the county seat of Sioux County, Iowa, is a square mile and a half of town, more or less, population six thousand, surrounded by fields in every direction. Sioux County is in the northwest corner of the state, and Orange City is isolated from the world outside—an hour over slow roads to the interstate, more than two hours to the airport in Omaha, nearly four to Des Moines.  Hawarden, another town, twenty miles away, is on the Big Sioux River, and was founded as a stop on the Northwestern
Railroad in the eighteen-seventies; it had a constant stream of strangers coming through, with hotels to service them and drinking and gambling going on. But Orange City never had a river or a railroad, or, until recently, even a four-lane highway, and so its pure, hermetic culture has been preserved.
Orange City is small and cut off, but, unlike many such towns, it is not dying. Its Central Avenue is not the hollowed-out, boarded-up Main Street of twenty-first-century lore. Along a couple of blocks, there are two law offices, a real-estate office, an insurance brokerage, a coffee shop, a sewing shop, a store that sells Bibles, books, and gifts, a notions-and-antiques store, a hair-and-tanning salon, and a home décor-
and-clothing boutique, as well as the Sioux County farm bureau, the town hall, and the red brick Romanesque courthouse. There are sixteen churches in town. The high-school graduation rate is ninety-eight per cent, the unemployment rate is two per cent. There is little crime. The median home price is around a hundred and sixty thousand dollars, which buys a three- or four-bedroom house with a yard, in a town where the
median income is close to sixty thousand. For the twenty per cent of residents who make more than a hundred thousand dollars a year, it can be difficult to find ways to spend it, at least locally. There are only so many times you can redo your kitchen. Besides, conspicuous extravagance is not the Orange City way. “There are stories about people who are too showy, who ended up ruined,” Dan Vermeer, who grew up in the town, says. “The Dutch are comfortable with prosperity, but not with pleasure.”
The town was founded, in 1870, by immigrants from Holland looking for farmland, and until recently almost everyone who lived there was Dutch. Many of the stores on Central Avenue still bear Dutch names: Bomgaars farm-supply store, Van Maanen’s Radio Shack, Van Rooyen Financial Group, DeJong Chiropractic and Acupuncture, Woudstra Meat Market. The town’s police force consists of Jim Pottebaum, Duane Hulstein, Audley DeJong, Bruce Jacobsma, Chad Van Ravenswaay, Wes Van Voorst,
and Bob Van Zee. When an Orange City teacher wants to divide her class in half, she will say, “A”s through “U”s to one side, “V”s through “Z”s to the other. Once, many years ago, an actual Dutch woman, from Rotterdam, moved to town with her American husband. She found the Dutchness of Orange City peculiar—the way that most people didn’t speak Dutch anymore but sprinkled their English with phrases that nobody had used in the Netherlands for a hundred years.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the question of how much Dutchness to retain caused a religious schism in the town: the American Reformed Church broke off from the First Reformed Church in order to conduct services in English. But, as the last Dutch speakers began to die off, Orange City took measures to embalm its heritage. The shops on the main stretch of Central Avenue are required to embellish their façades with “Dutch fronts”—gables in the shape of bells and step-edged triangles, painted traditional colors such as dark green, light gray, and blue, with white trim. Across the
street from Bomgaars is Windmill Park, with its flower beds and six decorative windmills of varying sizes along a miniature canal. Each year, at the end of May, Orange City holds a tulip festival. Thousands of bulbs are imported from the Netherlands and planted in rows, and for three days much of the town dresses up in nineteenth-century Dutch costumes, sewn by volunteers—white lace caps and long aprons, black caps and knickers—and performs traditional dances in the street. There is a ceremonial street cleaning—kerchiefed boys throwing bucketfuls of water, aproned girls scrubbing
with brooms—followed by a parade, in which the Tulip Queen and her court, high-school seniors, wave from their float, and the school band marches after them in clogs.

Every June, a couple of weeks after Tulip Festival, another ritual is enacted: a hundred of the town’s children graduate from the high school. Each of them must then make a decision that will set the course of their lives—whether to leave Orange City or to stay. This decision will affect not just where they live but how they see the world and how they vote. The town is thriving, so the choice is not driven by necessity: to stay is not to be left behind but to choose a certain kind of life. Each year, some leave, but
usually more decide to settle in—something about Orange City inspires loyalty. It is only because so many stay that the town has prospered. And yet to stay home is to resist an ingrained American belief about movement and ambition.

In most places on earth, staying is the norm. Mobility is regarded with ambivalence: leaving is turnover; it weakens families and social trust. But in America, a country formed by the romance of the frontier and populated mostly by people who had left somewhere else, leaving has always been the celebrated story—the bold, enterprising, properly American response to an unsatisfactory life at home. Americans were for a long time the most mobile people in the world, and this geographic mobility drove America’s economy, and its social mobility as well. Because Americans moved for work, mostly
from poor areas to richer ones, after 1880 incomes around the country steadily converged for a hundred years. But Americans are not moving as much as they once did: the number of people migrating within the country is now about half what it was forty years ago. In the mid-nineteen-fifties, nearly eight per cent of unemployed men moved across state lines; in 2012, two and a half per cent did. Workers used to
follow jobs, but now those who do move often go to places where unemployment is higher and wages lower, because housing is cheap. All of this has set off sounds of alarm. Why aren’t people leaving to find work, or better lives, as they used to? Part of the worry is economic: if people become less willing to move for work, unemployment will persist in some places, and jobs will go unfilled in others. People staying put is one reason that regional inequality has risen. But another part of the alarm is cultural. What does it mean that Americans are now moving less often than people in old European countries
like France? Has America’s restless dynamism run its course?
Since the 2016 election, staying has taken on a political cast as well. Because suspicion of those who move around—immigrants, refugees, globalized élites—is associated with voting for Trump, attachment to home has come to look like a Trumpian value. And, indeed, of white people who still lived in their childhood home town, nearly sixty per cent supported Trump; of those who lived within a two-hour drive of their home town, fifty per cent supported him; of those who had moved more than two hours from where they grew up, forty per cent. A survey, conducted in 2014, found that more
conservatives than liberals valued living near to extended family. The decision to stay home or leave is a powerful political predictor. For this reason, resistance to moving somewhere new can seem to be just resistance to newness as such. Where voting for Trump is attributed to economic despair, staying home is also.
Orange City is one of the most conservative places in the country, and those who leave it tend to become less so. It is not despairing, however, nor is it stagnant. Change happens differently in a place where people tend to stay. But staying is not for everyone.
Dan Vermeer left Orange City, although his roots in the area went back almost to the founding of the town. His great-grandparents on his father’s side emigrated from Holland at the end of the nineteenth century; his mother’s family came a generation later. His father, Wally, grew up on a farm outside town, one of eleven children; his mother, Joanne, was the third of ten; both were poor. In high school, Dan couldn’t wait to get out—he felt stifled by a moral claustrophobia. He hated the constant scrutiny, everybody knowing everybody else’s business. Gossip is the plague of most small
towns, but Orange City was especially judgmental. The Dutch were particular about behavior. They mowed their lawns often, but never on Sundays. Alcohol was considered unseemly; people would usually buy it elsewhere, so nobody would see them. Kids felt eyes watching them all the time. Adults worried constantly about appearances—were their houses clean enough, were their kids behaving nicely and doing well in school, were they volunteering for enough town projects, were they in church as often as they should be? The façades of the buildings on Central Avenue became a metaphor for the
way that people tried to hide any difficulties they had living up to these standards: they kept up their Dutch fronts.
But, even more than escaping the gossip, Dan wanted to leave because he felt wedged in. “You are who you are,” he says. “I am a Vermeer, a child of Wally and Joanne, the younger brother of Greg, Brent, and Barry, and in Orange City that’s who I am for my whole life. It’s not that I felt discriminated against—I felt known and loved. But I also felt that that was nowhere near all of me, and that to know who I was I had to define myself on my own terms.” By the day of his high-school graduation, in 1984, he had packed up his car, and at seven the following morning he left Orange City for good.
He enrolled in Hope College, a Christian college in Holland, Michigan. Away from home, he started to feel more intensely religious than he ever had before, and spent his first summer working for a Christian ministry in the Blue Ridge Parkway. He found himself alone there, responsible for delivering two sermons every Sunday for the campers in the park. On Saturday evenings, he drove around and let people know about the services. One man told him, with a smirk, You’re young, and I have a feeling you’re going to question this eventually. I used to be religious, and then some things happened in my
life and now I don’t believe it anymore. “That was like an arrow through my heart,” Dan says. “I thought, Maybe he’s right, maybe this is all going to collapse around me.”

The next year, it did. He took classes in world religions, studying Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, and the thought occurred to him that he believed what he believed simply because of where he was born. “I started to question not only my religious beliefs but also my political beliefs, and I had this incredible sense of vertigo, where I didn’t know what I believed about anything,” he says. “That was really hard for six months. But after I got through the crisis I had a sense of exhilaration. I felt that anything was
possible—that I could put together a world view that was truly mine.”

When he graduated, he got a mission assignment at a Christian crisis center for foreign travellers in Kathmandu, Nepal. He loved Kathmandu—the mishmash of Western and Eastern, old and new, real and fake. The crisis center was busy. There was a man from Turkey who’d heard that there were jobs in Hong Kong and decided to walk there, got as far as Nepal, and ran out of money. He slept in the bunk under Dan’s, muttering about all the people who had wronged him. There was a young woman who’d had a psychotic break on a hike and had tried to take off all her clothes and jump off the mountain.
There was an alcoholic Sri Lankan political refugee with four children. After six months in Kathmandu, Dan bought a ticket to Delhi and found a bed in a cheap tourist camp.
It was so hot there that he couldn’t sleep, and for ten days he walked around in the crippling heat in a daze of existential confusion. He realized that he had no idea at all what he was going to do with his life, and that the nearest person he knew was seven thousand miles away. He felt intensely anxious, but also hopeful. He realized that he had spent his first eighteen years becoming his Orange City self, and the next five years peeling off that self and letting it die. He had travelled halfway around the world to
slough off the last of it. Now he could start again.
Some of the kids who left Orange City left for a profession. There was work you couldn’t do there, lives you couldn’t live—there weren’t a lot of tech jobs, for instance, or much in finance. Not many left for the money; you might make a higher salary elsewhere, but the cost of living in Orange City was so low that you’d likely end up worse off. Some left for a life style: they wanted mountains to ski and hike in, or they wanted to live somewhere with sports teams and restaurants. But most left for the same reason Dan Vermeer did—for the chance to remake themselves. In bigger places, when you started working you met new people, and your professional self became your identity. But in Orange City you would always be So-and-So’s kid, no matter what you accomplished. People liked to point out that even Jesus had this problem when he tried to preach in his home town:
They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to
him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at Him.
But, while this was for some kids a reason to leave, for others it was why they wanted to stay. In Orange City, you could feel truly known. You lived among people who had not only known you for your whole life but known your parents and grandparents as well. You didn’t have to explain how your father had died, or why your mother couldn’t come to pick you up. Some people didn’t feel that they had to leave to figure out who they were, because their family and its history already described their deepest self.
Besides these sentiments, which were widespread, there was another crucial fact about Orange City that enabled it to keep more of its young than other towns its size: it had a college. Northwestern College, a small Christian school of twelve hundred students, affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church, was founded not long after the town itself. Northwestern offered a variety of liberal-arts majors, but was oriented toward Christian ministry and practical subjects like nursing and education.
Stephanie Schwebach, née Smit, graduated from the high school in 1997 and went to Northwestern to train as a teacher. She had never felt restless in Orange City. “I really didn’t have an adventurous spirit,” she says. “I’m going to stay with the people I know.” Her professional goal was to get a job teaching in the same school she’d gone to as a child. When she was growing up, she lived next door to her grandparents, and every Sunday after church her family went to their house for lunch, as was the custom then in Orange City. She met her future husband, Eric, in seventh grade, and they started dating in eleventh. Eric came from a huge family—his father was one of sixteen. Most of Eric’s many aunts and uncles still lived in the area, and if anyone needed anything done, like laying cement for a driveway, the family would come and help out. After high school, Eric thought about joining the military—he thought it would be fun to see a bit of
the world—but Stephanie talked him into sticking around, so he stayed in his parents’ house and went to a local technical school to train as an electrician. When Stephanie was a junior in college, they became engaged. He got a job with the manufacturer of Blue Bunny ice cream, and she started teaching. They had two children.

Some years ago, Stephanie and Eric were both working in Le Mars, a town twenty minutes away, and they considered moving there. But then Stephanie thought, It just makes it harder to stop in and say hi to your parents if you don’t live in the same town, and the kids can’t wander over by themselves—we won’t be close in the same way. Instead, they moved into the house that Eric had grown up in, on an acreage at the edge of town, and his parents built a smaller house next to it.

When Stephanie thought about what she wanted for her children in the future, the first thing she thought was, Stay close. “I want them to live right next door, so I can be the grandma that takes care of their kids and gets to see them grow through all the different stages,” she says. “Our kids have told us that once Eric’s folks are dead we have to buy their house so they, our kids, can live in our house, next door. And that would be fine with me!”
In many towns, the most enterprising kids leave for college and stay away rather than starting businesses at home, which means that there are fewer jobs at home, which means that even more people leave; and, over time, the town’s population gets smaller and older, shops and schools begin to close, and the town begins to die. This dynamic has affected Iowa more than almost any other state: during the nineteen-nineties, only North Dakota lost a larger proportion of educated young people. In 2006, Iowa’s then governor, Tom Vilsack, undertook a walking tour of the state, with the theme “Come
Back to Iowa, Please,” aimed at the young and educated. He threw cocktail parties in cities around the country, at which he begged these young emigrants to return, promising that Iowa had more to offer than “hogs, acres of corn, and old people.” But the campaign was a failure. In 2007, the legislature in Des Moines created the Generation Iowa Commission, to study why college graduates were leaving; two years later, a fifth of the members of the commission had themselves left the state.
The sociologists Patrick Carr and Maria Kefalas spent several months in a small Iowa town and found that children who appeared likely to succeed were from an early age groomed for departure by their parents and teachers. Other kids, marked as stayers, were often ignored in school. Everyone realized that encouraging the ambitious kids to leave was killing the town, but the ambition of the children was valued more than the life of the community. The kids most likely to make it big weren’t just permitted
to leave—they were pushed.
In Orange City, that kind of pushing was uncommon. People didn’t seem to care about careers as much as they did in other places. “Even now, my friends there, I’m not sure what many of them do, and I don’t think they know what I do,” Dan Vermeer says. “That’s just not what you talk about.” You could be proud of a child doing something impressive in another part of the country, but having grown children and grandkids around you was equally a sign of success. Go to Northwestern, Orange City
parents would say. And, when you get your degree, why not settle down here? There are plenty of jobs, and it’ll take you five minutes to drive to work. When you have children, we’ll help you take care of them. People here share your values, it’s a good Christian place. And they care about you: if anything happens, they’ll have your back. This pitch was often successful. Even some kids who left soon realized what they were missing.

Growing up, Joe Clarey had not liked Orange City; after he graduated from Northwestern, in 2009, he fled to Chicago, where he got a job as an analyst in a global investment firm. At first, he loved the anonymity of the city; he loved his job, too, and started putting in seventy-hour weeks. He worked with a portfolio manager with two billion dollars’ worth of business. At twenty-six, he became a portfolio manager himself. But then, just when he was right where he’d wanted to be, he found that he didn’t want to be there
anymore. He realized he’d ignored everything but work for five years, and everything else had fallen apart. He didn’t have a girlfriend, he had no friends other than colleagues, and he’d barely seen his family or his friends at home. Riding on the El to work, surrounded by strangers, he wondered, What am I doing here? Some relatives had started having serious health problems; then his brother had a baby, and although Clarey wasn’t good with children, he found that he wanted to know his nephew as
he grew up. He wanted to move back, but he was embarrassed. What would people say, after he’d gone on and on for years about how he couldn’t wait to get out of Orange City, and after his fancy Chicago job?
He decided to deal with the embarrassment and go home. He found work in a local financial firm, but it felt paltry now to be buying ten-thousand-dollar mutual funds. He thought, I’ve already made one giant change—why not another? One of his high-school friends managed a local Walmart; Clarey found a job in another Walmart, nearby, running the produce department. He discovered that he liked managing people and inventory as much as investments. Meanwhile, he was getting close to high-school friends again, and spending time with his family. “I just wanted a simpler life,” he says. “I’m a big golfer. I get off work at five o’clock, I’m home in fifteen minutes, I’m at the golf course in twenty-five. I fish all the time. I’m at one friend’s house for dinner two or three times a week.” He bought a house and settled in.
It was in large part because of people like Joe Clarey coming back to town, or sticking around in the first place, that Orange City was flourishing. Small towns usually competed with one another to recruit companies from across the country, but most of the industry in Orange City was founded by locals. Diamond Vogel Paints is the oldest industry in town, founded as Vogel Paint and Wax, in 1926, by a Dutch immigrant; it is still run by the Vogel family. A man from Orange City who started a medical equipment company in Texas moved his business back to town about thirty years ago, and now the
renamed company, CIVCO, manufactures ultrasound probes and patient-positioning devices for radiation and oncology. More recently, CIVCO spun off another business, Quatro, which makes carbon fibre composites for aerospace, medical-imaging equipment, and robotics. Ten years ago, the corporate headquarters of the Pizza Ranch chain moved to Orange City from its original location, in Hull, fifteen
miles away.
Orange City thinks of itself as a progressive town—not in the political sense but in the sense that it embraces change and growth. This growth is guided by a group of town businessmen who have known one another for years. Steve Roesner, the C.E.O. of Quatro, lives close to the C.E.O. of the town’s hospital; they played on the football team together at the high school, and both went to Northwestern. Another neighbor and friend of Roesner’s from Northwestern is the chief administrative officer of
Pizza Ranch. Roesner is also friendly with Drew Vogel, the third-generation C.E.O. of Diamond Vogel Paints. While other Iowa towns were trying to stave off population collapse, these town fathers had ambitions to enlarge Orange City’s population from six to ten thousand, so they were trying to make the town more attractive to outsiders.

There was nothing to be done about the winters, one of the main things people hated about northwest Iowa, and there weren’t any scenic lakes or mountains to promote,
but they could provide more things to do. There was already a swimming pool, a movie theatre, and a golf course, but live-entertainment options were limited, so they went in on a theatre with the Christian school. They bought an old sandpit pond and put in a dock so people could fish.

People were always talking about the Dutch work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit, but Orange City was in many ways a less than ideal place for a business. Because its unemployment rate was so low, it could be hard to find enough workers, and its isolation made transportation inconvenient and slow. This was why so many Orange City companies were founded by locals: you had to have another reason, a non business
reason, to be there. “If your motivation is only to maximize returns, then you go elsewhere, and ultimately that leads to moving to Mexico or Morocco,” Roesner says. “But it’s not always pure ‘maximize profits.’ ”
Roesner was not an Orange City native. When he was a kid, his father’s climb up the corporate ladder involved moving the family every couple of years; they moved to Orange City from Minnesota when Roesner was in eleventh grade, and later his parents left again. But Roesner married a Dutch woman from Orange City, and stayed. When he got an M.B.A. and started out on the executive track himself, he decided that he didn’t want to do what his father would have done—he didn’t want to go to Beaverton to work for Nike, or to Minneapolis for a job at Target, then move on somewhere else. “I
said to myself, ‘What is all this about?’ ” he says. “ ‘Is it just about me and where I can take my career, or is there something bigger?’ Here, you feel like you’re connected—that you belong someplace.”
The Orange City way of life was so stringent and all-encompassing, so precise and insistent in every aspect, from behavior to ideals, that, when you were in it, it was difficult to imagine other ways to be. Not many of the restless kids had much sense, before they left, of what it was they were missing. But their restlessness often led, later on, to different ways of thinking. People who began by questioning who they were ended up questioning other things, like their politics. If you lived in a place like Orange City, for instance, you weren’t used to dealing with people you didn’t know. If your car broke down, you took it to a mechanic who had fixed your parents’ cars for decades, and whose son was on your baseball team in high school. As a result, you were apt to find
strangers more threatening than if you had left. Also, if you moved to a larger place, you tended to become aware of poverty in a new way. People in Orange City received government assistance, but the town was small enough and prosperous enough that it was possible to imagine a world without it. If you belonged to a church and you had a crisis, church members would likely help you out. If you moved to a city, though, you saw a level of need that could not be addressed by church groups alone.

In a small town, you knew what people were up to most of the time; if someone did something strange or annoying, it often got to you, because it said something about the town, and, by extension, about you. The anonymity of a larger place, on the other hand, was more forgiving. To live in a city was to know that you were surrounded by far too many people to ever keep track of: there was so much that was outside your control that ignoring annoyances, human or otherwise, became a habit. Moreover, repeated encounters with people who didn’t think as you did could pry open a certain distance between your beliefs and your emotions.
Lynn Lail, who moved from Orange City to Texas twenty years ago and now works as a medevac nurse near Fort Worth, finds this sort of dissonance difficult, but has learned to live with her confusion. “I’m still extremely conservative,” she says. “Very old-fashioned in my morals. Down here, we have a huge gay and lesbian community, and some of my dearest friends are gay and lesbian, and that has been a struggle for me, because I was raised to believe that that’s not Biblical. But I love them unconditionally for who they are as people, and I don’t judge them.” Lail moved to Texas not because she wanted to
leave Orange City—she loves the town—but because being a medevac nurse in Iowa would have been boring. She wanted to be in a city, where the work was more intense; that choice then led her somewhere politically that she did not expect to go.
People often move for a reason that seems to have nothing to do with politics but then turns out to correlate to politics quite closely. According to a Pew survey, for instance, nearly eighty per cent of liberals like the idea of living in a dense neighborhood where you can walk to shops and schools, while seventy-five per cent of conservatives would rather live in a larger house with more space around it. After people move, the politics of the new place affect them. Those who move to a politically dissimilar place tend to become independents; those who move to a place where people vote the same
way they do tend to become more extreme in their convictions.
But there also seems to be something about the act of moving that disturbs people’s beliefs, regardless of where they end up. One woman left Orange City to attend college in a place that was, if anything, more conservative than her home town, but, even so, the experience changed her. “Both of my parents are vocally conservative, so I thought I was a Republican all these years, but my views have changed,” she says. “Living outside of a small rural town gives you a different perspective. When I think about
taxes now, what comes to my mind is school funding coming from taxes, which perpetuates poverty, because schools in lower-income areas have lower graduation rates. When I think about immigration, I think, We all immigrated at some point—well, most of us—can we not remember that? But abortion is what people vote on in the Midwest, especially in small communities. If someone says they’re going to
try to reverse Roe v. Wade, people will vote for them, regardless of what they say in other areas, regardless of how ridiculous.”
Orange City is just such a small Midwestern community. Opposing abortion is a deeply held religious principle for most people, and its importance is such that, for many, it is the only issue they consider when they vote. Orange City is in Iowa’s Fourth Congressional District, that of Representative Steve King, who is notorious for making incendiary anti-immigrant remarks. Even though voters in the Fourth District supported a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants by a two-to-one margin,
while King vehemently opposed it, they continued to vote for him because he was reliably pro-life. Yet although it was rare for someone from Orange City to change his position on abortion, if he came to consider other issues important as well, his politics shifted significantly. “I would still consider myself pro-life,” John Cleveringa, who left for Michigan to be a pastor, says. “But that has moved down the
list. Pro-life is about defending those who are not able to defend themselves, and there are people in this world who have been born and don’t have the ability to defend themselves, either.”
In the past ten years, a large number of Latino immigrants have moved into Orange City and nearby towns to work on the hog farms and the dairy farms and in the meatpacking plants. Although the change has been large and sudden—in just a few years, some school classes have gone from nearly all white to as much as thirty per cent Hispanic—it has been taken more or less in stride. Very few people in Orange City were worried that immigrants would take jobs away from natives; since most white workers didn’t seem to want to milk cows or butcher hogs anymore, it was clear that without the
immigrants local agriculture would collapse. On the other hand, the idea of breaking the law offended people. They wanted immigrants, but legal ones.

Occasionally, there were displays of overt racism. The next-door town, Sioux Center, had a weekly cruise night, when young people would drive around and around a park, and some of the cruisers had started flying Confederate flags on their trucks. A prayer vigil was organized in response—about a hundred people gathered to pray and sing in the park as the trucks were cruising. But most people in Orange City were too polite to show hostility. The problem wasn’t so much that people rejected the newcomers openly as that they tended not to see them in the first place. Most of the Latinos attended Catholic churches in other towns, so they were invisible. They didn’t exist. Because of this, a group of people at the Trinity Reformed Church decided that Dutch and Latinos
ought to get to know one another. They decided to host a potluck dinner at which guests would sit together at tables for eight—four Dutch and four Latinos. One of the sources of tension between the communities, insofar as they interacted at all, had been what was perceived to be their differing notions of time—the Dutch were reputed to be rigidly punctual, the Latinos to be late. So the hosts told the Latino guests that the dinner began at five-thirty, and told the Dutch to come at six. The evening of the dinner, the Latinos, knowing that lateness irritated the Dutch, turned up at precisely five-thirty; and the
Dutch, thinking to accommodate Latino norms, turned up half an hour late, at six-thirty; and so the Latinos had to wait around for an hour while the embarrassed hosts explained the situation. But, in the end, the dinner was a success: fifty or sixty guests came, and several made plans to get together again.
Last March, Steve King declared in a tweet: “Culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” Steve Mahr, who owned the coffee shop on Central Avenue, decided to do something. He wanted to demonstrate that not everyone in Orange City thought like King, so he organized a protest in front of the courthouse. Although it was raining that day, he was gratified to see nearly two hundred people turn up. Mahr didn’t grow up in Orange City; he came to Northwestern College from a tiny Iowa town sixty miles away. This was another benefit that
the college brought—yearly crops of young people to replace the ones who left. These arrivals came with fresh ideas, but within limits: since Northwestern was a Christian college, it tended to attract those who fit.
One day, someone asked Mahr and another young man who worked in the coffee shop why they had stayed in Orange City after graduating, and both of them said, Kathleen Norris. Norris was a poet who, after living a bohemian life in New York City, had returned in 1974 to live in her late parents’ house in a small town in South Dakota. Seeing how the Dakotas had been eviscerated by the loss of their young, she had come to respect the wisdom of the Benedictine vow of stability—which is, as Thomas Merton
put it, a renunciation of the vain hope of finding the perfect monastery, and an embracing of the ordinariness of what you already have. Norris spoke at Northwestern while Mahr and the other man were students there, and convinced them that moving to a new place was not the way to build a new self, because you brought your problems with you. If you didn’t distract yourself with moving around, but stayed where you were and put down roots, you gave yourself a chance to grow.
Mahr also had another reason for staying. He thought of himself as an agitator, albeit a gentle one, and he wanted to push Orange City to live up to its religious ideals. Although he now considered himself a progressive Democrat, he’d been raised in a conservative Christian family and used to vote Republican, so he felt that the people in Orange City were his people and he knew how to talk to them. He believed that Orange City Christians could be moved by certain kinds of moral arguments—ones that depended
on the sanctity of life, for instance, or the command to love thy neighbor. He had one such argument about refugees. Suppose you have a hundred babies before they’re born, he would say, and one of them might grow up to be a terrorist—should you abort all hundred babies just in case? Of course not, his interlocutor would say. Well, suppose you have a hundred refugees and one might be a terrorist—should you risk a hundred lives by turning them all away?
People in Orange City were apt to avoid discussing politics, because arguments could get personal, but Mahr thought he could keep things friendly over food and drink. He chatted with customers in his coffee shop all day, and in the evenings he held events to discuss things like race and immigration. When marriage equality passed nationally, he hung up a rainbow flag and put a sign outside —“Wahoo!! Congrats LGBTQ Friends!” One customer told him that she was offended by his sign, that marriage equality was a symptom of degrading morals, and that he had lost her business. He said he
understood her position, but he wanted his restaurant to be a place for everyone. Before long, she came back. “What are you going to do?” he says. “The town has one coffee shop!”
Mahr realized that in some ways you could engage people in politics more effectively in a small town precisely because everything was personal and there was nowhere else to go. It was harder to push people in a larger place, who could shrug off the sharp looks of their neighbors, and who didn’t feel personally implicated in the failings of their community. In his 1970 book, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” the economist Albert O. Hirschman described different ways of expressing discontent. You can exit—stop buying a product, leave town. Or you can use voice —complain to the manufacturer, stay and try to change the place you live in. The easier it is to exit, the less likely it is that a problem will be fixed. That’s why the centripetal pull of Orange City was not just
a conservative force; it could be a powerfully dynamic one as well. After all, it wasn’t those who fled the town who would push it onward, politically or economically—it was the ones who loved it enough to stay, or to come back.

Americans, Hirschman wrote, have always preferred “the neatness of exit over the messiness and heartbreak of voice.” Discontented Europeans staged revolutions; Americans moved on. “The curious conformism of Americans, noted by observers ever since Tocqueville, may also be explained in this fashion,” he continued. “Why raise your voice in contradiction and get yourself into trouble as long as you can always remove yourself entirely from any given environment should it become too
unpleasant?” A hundred years ago in southern Italy, many people were miserably poor, and there were a limited number of things they could do about it. They could emigrate, probably to America; they could join a militant labor union and start to fight; or they could accept the world as it was. Some who emigrated sent money home, which helped, but they were gone, so they didn’t have much ability to improve the
place. Many who stayed to fight, on the other hand, became socialists or syndicalists or anarchists, launched strikes, organized coöperatives and illegal soviets, and fomented revolution. People who lived
in areas where there was a lot of organizing—where there seemed to be a chance to change things—tended to stay; in places where the revolution didn’t catch on, people left. In Italy at that time, in other words, to stay could be an optimistic, forward-looking thing to do. Staying didn’t mean staying the same; leaving, on the other hand, left a place as it was.
Quite a few people came back to Orange City eventually. Some came back when their kids were little, because they wanted them to have the same childhood they’d had. Others returned when nieces or nephews were born, or when relatives got sick. Discontented kids leaving kept Orange City conservative; homesick adults returning brought a combination of perspective and allegiance that kept it alive. Vicki Schrock came back. Her family were Dutch farmers who had lived near Orange City for four
generations. She grew up poor on a small farm just outside town, the second of five children; she was born in 1979, at the beginning of the farm crisis that crippled the region for half a decade and forced many small farmers to sell their land. She thought vaguely in high school of wanting to go somewhere else for college, but her younger sister was only eight at the time, and she didn’t want to miss her growing up, so in the end she went to Northwestern and studied social work.

She met her future husband, Justin, there; they married the summer after her junior year. Justin was from central Iowa and was studying to enter the ministry. One day, Vicki saw a notice on a bulletin board about a Dutch Reformed church in California’s Central Valley that needed a youth pastor. She and Justin prayed on it and decided that God wanted them to go. They lived in California for three years. While Justin worked in the church, Vicki took a job at a Christian home for pregnant teen-agers, in Modesto. A few months after she started, one of the teenagers asked her to adopt her baby. The teen-ager wanted the baby to go to a white Christian family that would take the baby far away from Modesto, but she’d found that few such families would consider a
black child. Vicki was twenty-two and had not been planning to start a family for several years, but she felt that God wanted her to adopt. She called Justin, who, answering the phone in his car, was startled, but quickly agreed.
Some time later, while Vicki and Justin were on a vacation back home, people from her childhood church told them that they needed a youth pastor and wanted to recruit Justin. Vicki and Justin wondered what it would be like to bring up a nonwhite child in Sioux County, and Vicki wondered, too, if she wanted to raise any kind of kid in the blinkered and censorious atmosphere of Orange City, which she was now even more conscious of than she had been growing up. On a previous trip home, a
man had remarked to her how nice it was that they didn’t have teen pregnancies in Orange City as they did in Modesto, and she, dumbfounded, said to him, “Do you really think they’re not happening? I think people here take a different path.” After much indecision and praying, however, she and Justin chose to move home.

It turned out better than they’d feared—Sioux County was changing. In their
small church alone, there were nine or ten families that had adopted nonwhite kids, and many Latino families were settling nearby. During the next few years, Vicki and Justin had three biological kids and adopted biracial twin girls from Minnesota. After Justin had served a decade as youth pastor, they moved to Guatemala for a year and a half with the six kids to run a mission center. When they got back, Vicki went to work in a clinic,
and Justin took a job at a mentoring organization in town that counselled people in spiritual or material trouble—particularly the unchurched and those new in town, who had nowhere else to go.
Coming back to Orange City from Guatemala was considerably more jarring than coming back from California. They found the town’s prosperity newly astonishing, and they saw how Latino families in town were invisible to people for whom Orange City would always be Dutch. But it seemed to Justin that it could not be an accident that he and Vicki had returned home only to find dozens of people freshly arrived from parts of Guatemala that they had just spent time in. He figured this must be one of
the reasons God meant them to come back.

All four of Dan Vermeer’s siblings left Orange City, and only one of them came back. It was normal in town for some children to make their lives elsewhere, but to have five kids and be left with not a single one to show for it was embarrassing. “My mom asked all the time, What did we do wrong?” Dan says. The one who came back was the youngest, Dan’s sister, Julie, and no one was more surprised by this than Julie herself. She had always disliked the town’s tendency to consider itself a shining little
Christendom especially beloved by God. Even when she was a child, Julie had resisted Orange City’s equation of Christian and Republican. She
had always been devout; but in third grade she made Jesse Jackson buttons after she saw him on TV, speaking at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. When she was growing up, she assumed she would leave town after high school and never come back. But then, her senior year in high school, she got pregnant. She wanted to keep the baby, and she knew she couldn’t raise a child and attend college without help, so she enrolled at Northwestern and raised her daughter at home with her parents. She
met her future husband, Greg, in college. After they graduated, they moved to North Carolina so she could study Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School; she then got a job at a small Christian college near Philadelphia.
Julie and Greg lived in the Philadelphia suburbs for ten years. They tried to build a sense of community there, but it didn’t work. They had friends, but after a decade their town still didn’t feel like home. Around this time, when Julie was in her late thirties, her mother received a diagnosis of leukemia, and Julie went to Orange City to be with her as she was dying. She was struck by how many people came to see her mother. She noticed that some of these friends had money and others were poor, whereas in Philadelphia her friends were all very much like her and Greg. Julie thought, Here is a woman who has
accomplished basically nothing, professionally, and yet she has had an impact on so many people. And she thought, These are the kinds of deep friendships that we don’t have in Philadelphia. A couple of months later, her father also became seriously ill and she wanted to take care of him, so she called Northwestern to ask about jobs. She interviewed for the position of dean of student life, and Greg interviewed for a job as a marketing manager in a nearby town. They got the jobs—but in the
middle of it all her father died. Now they had to decide whether to go through with the move anyway. They decided to do it, and moved into the house that Julie was raised in. For them, this meant building their lives around relationships rather than professional ambition. Greg’s parents were still living nearby, and all around were people they’d known since they were kids. Julie also felt called by God to serve the town where she’d grown up and the college that had taken her in as a single mother.

She noticed almost immediately that the social world around her felt different. In Philadelphia, she’d had her close friends, and everyone else was more or less a stranger; in Orange City, there was a large middle category as well. She wasn’t close friends with all her neighbors or her acquaintances from church, but she knew that if she got sick they would bring food and run errands and take care of her children. Still, it wasn’t prudence that prompted her to move home, or even the desire for older friends:
structuring her life around relationships was a religious value as well. She believed that because God was a trinity, to be created in the image of God was to be created for relationships; so to make relationships the purpose of your life was to fulfill your human mission. She thought that her faith was a large part of why she’d returned to Orange City, while her brothers had not. Dan had found his way back to the church eventually, but not the one he’d grown up in—he and his family belonged to a progressive church in North Carolina, where he taught environmental business practices at Duke. Julie, though, felt that to grow up in Orange City was to inherit a coherent and beautiful world view, derived largely from the Dutch Reformed Church. At the heart of it was the idea
that there was not one inch of God’s creation that He did not claim as His—that all parts of life were sacred, even the most mundane. Pietistic traditions held that earth was merely a way station to Heaven, and all that really mattered was the state of your soul; Reformed Christians believed that God would return to raise the dead and restore the earth to what it was meant to be. Earth was the final home.

Dan was glad that Julie had moved back into their family house, but he never considered following her, even as he saw the sweetness of that life. “Every day after dinner, my dad used to hold hands with Julie’s daughter and go watch the horses at the neighbor’s house, and chat with him, and then wander back,” he says. “If you love Orange City, those small, idyllic pleasures become what you live for.” Because Julie moved back only after both her parents were dead, home did not feel idyllic to her in quite that way; but she realized that would have been so, sooner or later, in any case. Imagining that moving home could resolve your conflicts and fulfill your longings was as misguided as imagining that
leaving would do the same thing. Home should not be idolized, she believed—only loved. ♦

Priest Killer and the Owl

26 Sep


We have now made the journey by car from Pasadena to Denver via Utah a few times, and always look forward–after 100 miles of forbidding if fascinating landscapes with no service stops and no towns–to stopping in Green River, Utah. This tiny town of less than 1,000 has an excellent restaurant, The Tamarisk, sitting on the bank of the Green River, right at the spot where the famous explorer John Wesley Powell came rafting by during his expedition along the tributaries of and into the Colorado River in 1867 (he started this expedition in the OTHER Green River, in Wyoming). This momentous event is the reason that across the street from the Tamarisk is the John Wesley Powell River History Museum, with well-presented displays about the region and the river; it also serves today as the meeting-point for river rafters and other river enthusiasts. It is worth a visit.





The Museum also has a surprisingly good shop, with serious books about the region and the history of the rivers and its peoples, and authentic Native American jewelry and kachinas. I was happily astonished to find these kachinas here the last time we came through Green River, and at amazingly reasonable prices. I bought a Hummingbird kachina then for myself, which I love and keep on my goddess table at home.  This time I decided that these tiny kachinas would make nice gifts for Denver friends and family.

When I got to the shop, the woman at the counter was the manager and buyer. She told me that she gets all of her kachinas and jewelry from the nearby Utah Navajo reservation, where 5 families make the kachinas. As you can see from the photo above, they make larger ones, too, but I focused on the little ones.  Since every one had a price tag on the bottom–you can see the long stickers of the tag in the photo–I didn’t even think to look to see if the kachinas might have titles written on them. I just chose two that I thought looked interesting, and had some pretty feathers. The manager–who unfortunately did not know much about what the figures represented, so couldn’t guide me in my choices–was so happy I asked questions and bought not only two kachinas, but a wonderful kids’ book based on Native American stories, and some postcards of Utah’s wonders.  She wrapped the figures in white paper, so they wouldn’t be damaged in transit. I planned to give one to Max, and the other to our friends in whose house we were staying as a thank you gift.

It was only when Max unwrapped the one I had given him–having no idea which one was which–that we discovered that underneath the price tag sticker, the kachina maker had written the title of the particular image represented.  We were all a bit unsettled that the one I had given him was called “Priest Killer.” What on earth did that mean?  Having not enough knowledge of Native American lore, but having always assumed that kachinas were invocations for good luck or protectors of particular aspects of tribal life, we were rather taken aback by such an aggressive and seemingly violent appellation.


And so began the Google searching!  We discovered that this particular figure appears among the kachina made by the Hopi and the Navajo, but appeared in the pantheon of kachina forms first after the successful resistance to the Spanish among the Pueblo communities of northern New Mexico in the 1680s. Here is the description given by one of the makers of more elaborate Priest Killer kachinas, ones that actually include a severed head:  “During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Indians of New Mexico and Arizona revolted against the Catholic Church in an attempt to retain their religious freedom. Legend states that a Hopi named Yowe killed and beheaded a Franciscan priest. After this incident, the Hopi referred to Yowe or the Priest Killer as an Ogre Kachina who had the power to punish others.”  As far as I can tell in reading what I could find online, this figure was adopted by both Hopi and Navajo as an all-purpose symbol of resistence to the suppression and oppression of tribes by outside forces that forbade the practice of their traditional religion and foodways.

Wow. Not quite the idea of a protective spirit that I had envisioned–and in the case of a kachina for Max, who, although not Catholic, teaches at a Jesuit university, perhaps a little bit too confronting to be appropriate for his office or even for home! We traded that figure for our Denver friends’ kachina, which represents Owl, a symbol of protection of agricultural crops and of wisdom and intelligence.  Whew, that makes better sense for the family!

Priest Killer, as a metaphoric representation of indigenous rights and resistance to oppression, seems much more appropriate for our Denver friends, who are in every way supporters of such causes.  While not an inconsiderate choice as a house gift for them, I will be much more mindful in future of what kachinas represent before I buy them as gifts! This discovery has also led me to become more interested in finding out about the Pueblo Revolts, as well as more thorough understanding of the complexities of kachinas in the life of Native Americans.  A fascinating complexity.

My father Rudy

21 Jun


This picture is how I most vividly remember my father Rudy:  in a greenhouse filled with chrysanthemums, wearing Levi’s, a white t-shirt and (if dressed up) a plaid shirt. This photo was in a newspaper article about the moving of Shinoda Nurseries, where he worked, from Torrance to Santa Barbara in 1964, which must be why he was wearing the plaid shirt. When the nursery moved, so did we, which was fine with us: Santa Barbara was where Rudy grew up, where our beloved grandmother was who we visited every month , and where we had lived until I was 5.

He was born in Los Angeles of immigrant parents, his father from Prussia, his mother Norwegian, on the night Jack Dempsey knocked out Gene Tunney, September 22, 1927. (I know that last fact because my grandmother told my mother that they couldn’t find my grandfather that night, because he was at a bar listening to the fight on the radio.) He had a bit of a rough start in life, as did so many of his generation. Because his parents didn’t speak each other’s language, they spoke what was then referred to as “broken English”, so my father did, too. He was held back one year in kindergarten (!) so that he could learn to speak “proper” English; even as an adult, he still pronounced “under” as a German would. When he was 2, he had meningitis, and almost died; his eyes crossed, and he had to learn to walk all over again when he recovered. That he recovered is a miraculous sign of Teutonic hybrid vigor, I’m sure. He also grew up poor during the Depression, and ashamed of a much older and infirm father who didn’t work, while his mother supported the family at jobs as a housekeeper and cook.

My father’s salvation was that he had an enduring passion from the time he was very young: he loved working in the garden, and always knew that he wanted to do something with plants. We have photos of him still in high school, tending his mother’s yard and proudly showing off his vegetable garden. When he met my mother–on a blind date–he had just come out of the Army; it was at the end of the War, and he spent his 18 months’ service cleaning up in the Aleutians–a California kid who had never seen snow!

They got married in Santa Barbara in September 1948–as the saying goes, they “had to” get married, because I was on the way. They were both so young–Rudy was only 21 when I was born!–but that seems to have been the norm for that generation, along with, often, “having to” get married. And then in quick succession, they had three girls. Before he was 30, he had a houseful of females!  He really didn’t mind, I don’t think–he loved us all, and when he wanted to do boy stuff (he never completely grew up) he rounded up boys in the neighborhood to catch gophers or work on cars. When I was 3, he went back to college on the G.I. Bill; we moved to San Luis Obispo, where my sister Christa was born. He got a degree in Ornamental Horticulture from Cal Poly; I still remember going to his graduation when I was 5. Everyone was so proud of him. His first job out of college, secured through the aid of his favorite teacher Howard Brown, was as superintendent of the Santa Barbara Botanic Gardens. We actually lived in the gardens, in a little house that is now the Gardens’ Conservation Center. Sounds idyllic to me now, but my father wasn’t happy as an administrator, and my mother hated living in the Gardens because she couldn’t have a TV antenna. Rudy wanted to be, simply, a grower–the term he used throughout his life. He hated pretentiousness and high-falutin’ titles. We stayed in Santa Barbara long enough for my sister Robyn to be born when we lived in Pilgrim Terrace, a housing development built for returning soldiers which, in true 1950s fashion, was swarming with kids. I think my mother was happiest there, because there were so many wives and children.  But my dad soon found another job, as the grower for Shinoda Brothers nursery in Torrance. We moved there in 1954, when Robyn was a brand new baby, and Torrance was growing by 1,000 new people a week. We were quite poor, but so was everyone else in the new neighborhood where we lived. My parents were quite social, but having no money, they had friends over for card games and barbecues.

Rudy was really a big kid in many ways, and kids loved him. He would fly a kite on a 5-mile string, and let it fly until we couldn’t see it anymore; when he lost it, we would get in the car to find where it had ended up. On the Fourth of July, he would make firecracker rockets, then hurry into the house when the cops came so that only the kids were scolded. He loved to barter for services: he would landscape someone’s house, and they would put down a floor for us. He sang “Ramona” in the shower every night, and even let us have a pet gopher, his sworn enemy, as a pet for a little while, then let us release him into the wild, despite his endless battles with the creatures in his greenhouses. He worried constantly about money, and the only time I really saw him depressed was when he wanted to give us something that he couldn’t afford to give. He wasn’t into sports at all–my mother and I were the baseball fans–but he liked to go deep-sea fishing (even though he wouldn’t eat fish!), and occasionally went hunting with friends. He loved the Indy 500, and would take me to the movie house with him in the days when the races were shown live at the Arlington Theater in downtown Santa Barbara. He always worked very hard, and we had one of the most beautiful yards in the neighborhood.

Now comes the hard part. Let me just put up again what I wrote about my own battle with alcoholism:

One of my earliest memories–not THE earliest, but the earliest scary memory–is of being in the car with my little sisters while my mother is trying to get the car keys from my drunken father so she can take us all away. My youngest sister was just a baby, so I must have been about 6. I have no memory of returning home, but I think my father came to the friend’s house the next day, remorseful, and we all came back. She never did that again, but we spent many insecure days and nights dealing with my father’s alcoholism. He was never violent–he was a gentle, sweet man, and everyone loved him–and up until the end of his drinking, he always had a job, but there were arrests and some dangerous behaviors. Meanwhile, my mother was hysterical a lot of the time, and we all just figured out ways to get away from home as soon as we could.

My mother said that when she first met him, he only drank occasionally. But by the time I was 6 or so, he was on an alcoholic path. He was a classic alcoholic, hiding bottles all over the place, passing out in his truck, and in the end, losing jobs after the employer had given him chance after chance to come clean. We just felt helpless to do anything. I was gone away at college when the fights with my mother got really bad; my sisters bore the brunt of these battles. Finally, my mother kicked him out of the house, and he tried to begin his own business, while still drinking.  This situation lasted until my mother divorced him and he hit his moral bottom, doing things that appalled him when he sobered up. And so he did stop drinking completely. He lived in a trailer on his little nursery patch in Ventura, he took care of his mother, and he and my mother took vacations together. My sister Robyn, who was always his favorite, worked for him, and all seemed to be going fairly well. He was thrilled to have a grandson, our son Max, and was delighted to visit and see him. He visited us in New Orleans, where we were living in the early 80s, and helped us put in a garden in our nearly-underwater back yard.

These are the last photos I took of him, with Max at Audubon Park in New Orleans, and in his classic pose of watering a garden. It had been such a nice visit.

Whenever I remember my father, I hear his voice on the phone the last time I spoke to him. We were coming out to California for a visit, and he called to let us know he would pick us up at the airport.  A few days after that phone call, my mother rang with the devastating news that he had died of a massive heart attack. He was 57. We–my sisters and I–have never quite accepted the fact that this happened. This happened in 1985, and I still hear his voice.

While this little memoir doesn’t do justice to this good man, I did want to introduce him to all the people I love who never got to meet him. This Esau line died out with him. That’s why we gave Max the middle name of Esau.  Rudy, you were a sweet father, and I never let you know that.


Madrid, in less than 2 days

27 May


While I feel a bit remiss not writing about Bratislava, where we stayed for a very pleasant week before travelling south, these short hops now happening at the end of our travels mean I’m running out of time (and energy) to write very much. These kind of frequent-flying jaunts are also very wearing on our poor old bodies–I don’t know how people stand those “If This is Tuesday, It Must be Belgium” kind of tours. My thinking when planning these layovers was that this might be our last trip for a very long time, and so the only chance to see the one last museum on my bucket list, The Prado.  (Well, I would also like to see The Hermitage, but have no desire to go to Russia). While we had early on planned two weeks in Porto, Portugal, at the last minute I added a 2-day stopover in Madrid, just long enough to allow us to visit that famous site.

And as luck and serendipity would have it, we actually managed to be in Madrid when one of my Lawrence students who now lives in Spain could arrange to visit us. Tammy Teschner, who I hadn’t seen since her graduation day in 1987, journeyed with a Taiwanese friend from Torrevieja, where she lives with her husband and two boys, the oldest of whom is now a freshman at Lawrence! Talk about feeling old: my Lawrence students are now all hitting 50.  But never mind: it was just lovely to see her again, and to meet her friend as well.  I was sincerely touched that Tammy would make such an effort to come see me. Teachers are always happy to learn that they are remembered!

And how nice it was to have someone with us who knew where things were in Madrid! Tammy had recommended the hotel where we were staying, Hostal Madrid, right in the heart of the city, and at bargain prices for either a room or an apartment room. We met at the iconic restaurant across the street from the hotel–Museo del Jamon, the Museum of Ham! You can see the product in the background of that photo of us. Since we were all quite tired from our travels, we decided to go that afternoon to a smaller museum that Tammy  remembered fondly.  The Museo Sorolla, the studio/home of the society painter of the late 19th century, Joaquin Sorolla (1863-1923), is located right in the heart of Madrid. Beautiful grounds and lovely displays, not only of Sorolla’s paintings, but of his own collections of ceramics and furniture. My favorite part was the photographic display, including an extraordinary image of Sorolla done by the American Gertrude Kaesebier when the Spanish artist visited New York for his exhibition at the Hispanic Society in 1909. The image is as modern as an Irving Penn. And check out his painting of a woman with a camera! We’re always excited to find such images.

Since it is at this time of year in Madrid not getting dark until about 9 p.m., and given the Spaniards’ penchant for doing everything late, the streets around our hotel were packed with Madrileños doing the evening stroll and drinking at bars. Tammy persuaded us to visit the Plaza Mayor and surrounds, but that was about it for me that evening.  The plaza included for some reason a gigantic head of Goya, which I took as a good omen for the next day of Prado viewing.


And in the morning, andamos! To my complete surprise, the Prado was within walking distance of our hotel. I had always envisioned it as being miles outside of town, for some reason. (This isn’t the only surprise in my misconceptions of Madrid: it’s a much more open, bright, and elegant city than I had imagined. ) After a lazy stroll through the streets and a mandatory coffee stop, we made it to the museum.

And in one of my only direct bits of advice to other travellers:  it is completely worth it to buy Skip the Line tickets online before visiting the Prado!  The queue to get in when we arrived was already at least an hour’s wait long; we instead went around to the side entrance and got in immediately, no waiting at all. Definitely worth the 18 Euros.

I must say that the building was not at all what I envisioned; I was expecting it to be more along the lines of Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, a gigantic historicist structure with labyrinthine rooms. I had already told Tammy and Dee that I would head directly to the only works I wanted to see: Bosch, Velazquez, and Goya, with a few bodegones (Spanish still lifes) thrown in. And that’s what we did: we found on the guide the quickest way to The Garden of Earthly Delights.

At this point, I really didn’t know that in the Prado you are not supposed to take photos, even with out a flash. So I just started snapping away, until I was told sternly that photos were not allowed. Why, I do not understand: when other museums which I would assume are more uptight than the Prado about proprietary rights on paintings, such as the Kunsthistorisches, allow photos everywhere, I don’t see why this museum would continue to prohibit picture taking. Well, never mind, I continued to take them whenever I could get away with it. Unfortunately, the Bosch paintings are really meant to be studied for their phantasmagorical details, which are hard to photograph on the sly. I did get the cat and birds from the right panel of the Garden, at least. And Tammy was able to capture me in my natural element:  looking at paintings in a museum.


800px-El_Tres_de_Mayo,_by_Francisco_de_Goya,_from_Prado_thin_black_marginAlas, the Goyas were the most eagerly guarded, which is too bad, because by far the most moving, most arresting, most prickles-up-the-spine painting for me was Goya’s “Third of May.”  It was bigger than I thought, and in person, so much more affecting than in reproduction.  The first truly modern depiction of the insanity of war, with that almost assembly-line machine of death squads, and one anonymous illuminated figure before the instant he is shot to join the other dead on the ground beside him. How many lectures have I given on this work? It makes all the difference to see it in person.

But again, I wonder why the Prado won’t allow photos? This image, as with most others in the collection,  is in the public domain, so I can copy a photo of it off the web. I then thought perhaps it was because they want everyone to buy reproductions in the gift shop, in which case they should improve their game in that area. I was very disappointed at the quality and selection of post cards available there.

What I so love about Goya, and what the Prado demonstrates so effectively, is that he transforms so dramatically from an 18th-century painter of royalty and aristocrats at play to one of the most searing depictors of the darker sides of humanity. The museum’s second floor had a wonderful display of those earlier works, so Spanish and so realistic, of people at leisure, having picnics and dancing. But even here, in my favorite piece of maidens blanket tossing a doll (or is it a man?), one begins to see Goya’s transformation at the end of the 18th century to a commentator on the human condition.

And then, downstairs, an entire room is filled with his shocking “pinturas negras”, those exceedingly dark images that covered the walls of his house, the Quinta del Sordo (House of the Deaf Man). The most modern painter imaginable, having no illusions about man’s capacity for superstition, irrationality and violence.



Velazquez was almost impossible to capture, Las Meninas surrounded by school children and the magnificent giant portraits that so inspired Manet vigilantly watched over by a particularly grouchy guard.  But what a brilliant painting about the act of painting Las Meninas is! I would have liked to get closer and stay longer in that room, but we had masses to contend with by that time.

Finally, what would a trip to a collection of Spanish art be without a look at those spectacular examples of still life done by the bodegonistas Sanchez Cotan and Luis Melendez? I have no idea why I find these works so soothing, so contemplative, and so masterful in execution. The museum’s wall labels are good in pointing out that there is a difference in interpretive meaning between these painters:  some such as Sanchez Cotan and Zurburan, are often creating metaphorical representations in their depictions of fruit and ceramics, while others such as Melendez are presenting purely factual depictions of the objects in front of them. Guess which one is which.

After two and a half hours of non-stop masterpieces, we were sated with art.  We went to a nice restaurant where we had the menu of the day–Tammy informed us that by law, all Spanish restaurants must offer a reasonably priced daily meal, which makes it possible to eat in an nicer place for a decent price, which seems a great idea for a people who so love food.


Finally, our brief sojourn in the Spanish capital on a surprisingly hot day ended with a walk to the Mercado San Miguel, whence comes the photo of us at the top of this blog. Having friends around to take pictures which include both of us is a real treat!  The mercado was so crowded and so hot and so overpriced that we ended up sitting out on the plaza instead. But it was a great way to end our stay in this buzzing city. I completely underestimated its charms, and wish that we had had more time to see more of it.  On to Porto!

Backtrack: Budapest

19 May


Having come to Hungary chiefly because I had never been to Budapest, we did finally get around to driving up to the Big City, which was an hour and a half away from our place on Lake Balaton. Since we only spent half a day there and assumed we would return (we didn’t), we decided to focus our visit thematically: we would explore Jewish Budapest. This theme is in keeping with our visits in other cities, from Berlin to Trieste. And in Budapest this focus seemed especially appropriate:  before World War II, one in four Budapest residents were Jewish, and they were probably more accepted and essential to the city’s culture than in most other places in Central Europe. In the 1920s, 90% of bankers in Budapest were Jewish, 60% of the doctors, and 50% of university students. (I am not Jewish, but have a long, close relationship with many Jewish friends and have been drawn to Jewish history because of the years spent in German-speaking countries).

One can learn so much about a society’s cultural mores and its history by visiting its cemeteries, so we began our explorations at the Kosmas Cemetery, opened in 1893 and one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe.  It lies much further out of town than we had anticipated, and driving there brought us through less than salubrious parts of the city, past lots of those unfortunate Soviet-era apartment blocks, as well as a rather intimidating prison (we were stopped in traffic while prisoners were being escorted across the street, surrounded by viciously barking German Shepherds and what seemed like about 20 guards). Not the greatest introduction to one of the most beautifully-situated cities in Europe. But the cemetery’s grounds were an inviting venue of solemn calm. The entrance is where the domed building stands, now a bit dilapidated and having lost its gilt around the dome. The gates lead into a myriad of tree-lined paths extending for great lengths in several directions, with grassy expanses filled with gravestones.

jewishcemetery_schmidltomb2_budapest_may9Near the entrance are a number of extravagant tombs in all architectural styles:  the resting places for Budapest’s leading Jewish families in the period of their most prosperous and influential presence in the city, from the 1860s through the 1920s. One of the most impressive and flamboyant tombs is that of the Schmidl family, designed in 1903 by Hungary’s leading Secession architects Ödön Lechner and Béla Lajta and using Zsolnay tiles (we’ll talk about Zsolnay again in Pecs). One gets a sense in these elaborate tombs of a competition for ostentatious display among these prominent families, even in monuments to the dead. Evidence of happy, integrated times.

But then one is confronted here with the sorrowful fate of this shining world.

So many of the gravestones list a death date of 1944.  Most of these are memorial tombs, created to commemorate the loss of whole families in that hideous year, when under Adolf Eichmann’s direction, all the Jews of Hungary were sent to the concentration camps, or were locked up in the Budapest ghetto where they were systematically shot or died of starvation. (Hungary is the place, however, where thousands of Jews were saved from the camps by people like Raoul Wallenberg, for whom there is a memorial sculpture in the Jewish Museum.) The Kosmas Cemetery also has a Holocaust Memorial, on which, poignantly, names are still being pencilled in, as families learn more about their ancestors’ fate.

On that somber note–it rained only during our time in the cemetery, and cleared up as soon as we left–we drove into Central Pest, first to visit The Great Synagogue on Dohanyi Street (“dohanyi” means tobacco in Hungarian!). This is the largest synagogue in Europe (the largest in America, Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, is a direct copy of this one), built in a Byzantine Moorish Revival style by the Viennese architect Ludwig Förster in 1854-59. As is so often the case with 19th-century historicist buildings, Förster said he chose this revival style because he thought it was most closely aligned to Levantine styles and could not identify a specifically Jewish architecture!

If you look at the photo of the synagogue’s interior, you can see plaques with flags along the middle aisle. These identify where guides speaking each country’s language give explanations of the synagogue’s history. The biggest group sat in the English-language section. The grounds also include a memorial garden to the victims of the 1944 pogrom–many of whose bodies are buried here–and a stunning Holocaust memorial, a metal weeping willow with the names of victims inscribed on every leaf. (The sculpture was partly funded by Tony Curtis, who was of Hungarian background).

Next door to the Synagogue is a small Jewish Museum, which has been in operation since 1931.  Its exhibits change regularly, but we were able to see this artifact, which will speak for itself:

Another of our thematic goals on this trip is to document public libraries, and in Budapest we found a doozy.

The Ervin Szabó Library is housed in a 19th-century Neo-Baroque palace built by the Wenckheim family. When we arrived, we found a film crew had taken over the palace part of the building, so we were only able to enter the library section. But what a public library space!  One has to pay to buy a library card to enter the reading room, so we just admired the coffee shop and got information about the collections. It contains an unbelievealbe photographic archive of 120,000 images of Budapest, as well as 300,000 books and documents on the history of the city.  It is located next to the university, and the place was stuffed to the gills with students. Szabó was a social reformer who served as the library’s first director.

Budapest–or shall I say Pest, since we really only got to that side of town–is filled with some beautiful buildings, many of which are still in a lamentable state. Plastering is desperately needed!  They reminded me of what Viennese buildings looked like in the early 60s before war damage had been completely repaired. While the city has a bit of a hipster buzz–all the young folks speak English, there are tons of pubs and night spots–it’s obvious that money is only being spent to renovate the most touristy places, which is sad.  Let’s hope that progress will be made soon–it’s a shame to see these edifices falling into decay. And I am not saying they should be tarted up to gentrified levels! Just maintained a little bit.

So that was our whirlwind trip to Budapest! We also were able to visit the spectacular Central Market near the river, the mighty Danube River, which, as I had always been told, looks much more like the romantic waterway of song in Budapest than it does in Vienna.

Finally, as we drove past, we caught a glimpse of the phantasmagoric Museum of Applied Arts, with all those amazingly glittery Zsolnay tiles. Mention of Zsolnay leads into my next blog on Pecs; I had hoped to include that description here, but there’s so much to write, and so little time!  Next blog, I promise!


Guadalajara: one theater and one museum

13 Apr


We took the “Directo” bus into Guadalajara the other day, with the intention of seeing the interior of the famed Teatro Degollado (it wasn’t open when we were last there), and then taking the local bus over to the artisan suburb of Tonalá, where so much of Jalisco’s crafts are made.  We took a taxi to the Centro Historico, right next to the Teatro.

We were able to walk right in to the Teatro, and the attendants were eager to have us enjoy the beautiful interior. They even turned the lights on especially for us.  The ceiling depicts scenes from The Divine Comedy. It was built between 1856 and 1866–the height of Mexico’s most European-inspired phase and at a time of its greatest theatrical production.  As Spanish-speaking friends tell me, the word “degollado” means “beheaded”, a rather distressing name for a cultural center, but perhaps an appropriate title for a military general, which is who the theater is honoring:  Santos Degollado (1811-1861), who had fought alongside Juarez and who died while the theater was being built. Guadalajara’s Philharmonic performs here, as does the opera. I would be most happy to attend a performance in this space.

After this visit, we went back to the elegant Hotel Morales, where we had eaten before. Such an inviting and comfortable space, where we had a lovely meal at a very reasonable price. Accommodation in this historic hotel is also amazingly affordable.

As we sat there reading fascinating books from the hotel’s little library, I decided that instead of going to Tonalá, which is all about selling things that we really weren’t going to buy, I needed a museum fix.  So we looked at the Guadalajara tourist map, which led us to two museums right near the center of town. One of them–a museum of periodicals and graphics–is unfortunately closed for renovations, but the other one was such a gem that we were more than satisfied with our find.

The Museo de las Artes Populares de Jalisco (Calle San Felipe & Calle Pino Suárez) is housed in a delicately-stuccoed 19th-century villa about 4 blocks from the main plaza. “Popular arts” in this case means not only folk art, but also popular contemporary craft works. This was the museum that we thought we were going to see in Tlaquepaque, with the whole gamut of  Jalisco’s traditional crafts on display. The exhibits are delightful, with the best explanatory labels I have seen in a museum anywhere, in Spanish and English. Finally, we were able to place technique with product and location; the labels even highlighted the best artisans of each technique. Now I can go back and link up all those ceramic pieces from the Panteleon with the correct style.

The objects on display included work in wax, stone, yarn, and obscure techniques such as chilte, objects made out of the sap of the sapodilla tree. And look at this excellent descriptive label:

My favorite displays were of altars and rooms. The replica of a traditional Jalisco kitchen was particularly charming. The altars were for a ritual for Our Lady of Sorrows, and a particular version of a Dia de los Muertos shrine, including bread figures, but not adding  fruits or drink.

The Huichol people created a significant indigenous culture in Jalisco, and the museum has tremendous examples of their crafts and most revered images. The deer, which was most sacred to the Huichol, has been placed on the museum’s stairway wall, and yarn masks and beadwork occupy several rooms.

The reigning shrine of Guadalajara is dedicated to the Virgen de Zapopan, whose statue is the focus of a romeria, or pilgrimage procession, which takes place between June 13 and October 12 each year, when the figure travels to every church in Guadalajara. The museum naturally had a figure of this Virgin, festooned with sombrero and rebozo.

After such a rewarding afternoon of viewing objects of such tremendous skill and diversity, we decided that we would forego any other museum visits that day, and headed back to Ajijic. To our amazement, we found that this little jewel of a museum is not even mentioned in our Lonely Planet guide!  I have a feeling that Guadalajara has so much more to offer than we have been able to see, and we have been disappointed that our guidebooks, what few we have found, have been so lackluster in their descriptions of the history and culture of the region.  We’ll have to visit more often, and with natives who can show us the real city.

On that note, I will end with more images from the Museo, including, of course, a cat, this one of polished clay.

Immigration to Mexico

28 Mar

seal-of-mexicoIn keeping with my pledge to learn what I can about immigration to the countries we are visiting, in case family and friends wish, or are forced, to leave Trumpland, I have been greatly aided in Mexico by the fact that we’re staying in an ex-pat community. The Lake Chapala Society here in Ajijic has an immigration officer in the office every week to answer ex-pat’s questions!  She has sheets printed out with all the details of acquiring both temporary and permanent residency. The requirements are by far the easiest to fulfill of all the places we have visited so far.

First of all, it is possible to stay in Mexico on a tourist visa for 180 days. It is then possible to cross back into the U.S., stay for a few days, and come back again for another 6 months. As I understand it, one can even purchase property here while visiting on a tourist visa. If one wants to stay for more than 6 months, or is planning to move here permanently, it is better to apply for either a Temporary Residency or a Permanent Residency. Both require application via a Mexican consulate in one’s home country; the nice woman advising us at the Society said with a bit of embarrassment that each consulate has different interpretations of the requirements, and has discretion to change what is required to apply. But generally, the required documents and qualifications are as follows:


The notes on the sheet are mine, and have to do with application fees, which range from 5300 pesos ($278) for a 1-year temporary residency visa, to about 9300 pesos (about $490) for a 3-year visa. The proof of income figures are encouraging:  32,000 pesos–the monthly amount required to qualify for a temporary residency–is about $1700, and means that one must prove that one has that amount coming in every month for the last 6 months. For a permanent residency visa, that figure is about $2,000/month. To my amazement, according to the immigration agent, a temporary residency visa entitles you to work in the country, and to have access to Mexican health care. The only glitch for couples is that each spouse must apply separately and show proof of that income. But the agent explained that should one spouse not have the required income, arrangements will be made once the other spouse has qualified.

Bottom line:  if you have any assets at all, it’s pretty easy to move here and gain residency status. No wonder there are so many ex-pats here that own properties! The only other advice that this lovely immigration agent made involved cars. It is apparently more complicated to bring your own car here than to buy one in Mexico and insure it.

More information can be found at

¡Viva Mexico!