March 12, 2008

Being Nebraska

My Heritage and My Contrary Nature.

The Sand Hills of Nebraska are vast, wild, and above all, free. It is a place where the ocean forgot itself and sank beneath the dunes of what was once a great inland sea. It remembers every now and then, when the great spring thunderstorms wake it and it bubbles up into wet meadows, marshes, and springs. The grass lives there, and tames the restless nature of the sand, which always wants to follow where the wind blows. It waves in homage to the rhythmic patterns of water, long since gone. The rain comes in the spring and turns it bright green. The sun comes in the summer and burnishes it to a sharp, golden gloss. The snow comes in the winter and protects it under a thick white blanket. And all year round the cattle roam much as the buffalo once did.

To others, what seems to represent emptiness, loneliness, and hopelessness, to me represents infinite possibilities, limitless beauty, and all-encompassing freedom. Standing out on those wind-kissed hills, listening to the grasses speak in their rustling language. I would envision the blue mountains to the west, far beyond my sight, the hot deserts to the south, and the endless plains of Canada to the north. To the east was my family’s home, among the rolling fields of eastern Nebraska and the great sprawling cities which nestle up to the Missouri River’s banks.

The Sand Hills are not home for me, but they are my heritage. My mother and father both grew up there, among the ranches and small towns. My grandparents dwelled there, while they lived, and numberless kith and kin. My mother’s family is stoic and steady, ranchers who don’t believe in making a fuss. My father’s family is loud and fractious, they believe in making a fuss just for the fun of it, but rarely any other reason. I was shipped off for weeks each summer to stay with alternating relatives.

The Sand Hills were my summer playground, where I could walk just over the rise of the hill, down the next vale, and be totally and completely alone. No sound but the wind. No sight but the grass. No companions but the birds and prairie dogs. I would imagine a person lost here could wander endlessly and die of thirst never knowing a ranch or town or lake lay just beyond the next rise. The prospect never frightened me.

Now I make my home amidst towers of brick, stone, and mortar in the heart of downtown Lincoln, our capitol city. The Sand Hills are hundreds of miles to the northwest. My lawn in the capitol lawn just beyond my west windows. My streetlamp is the great tower capped by a shining dome and ringed in thunderbirds.

In the morning, the sun rises slowly, touching the golden dome first. I can step outside and walk surreal streets still in shadow, wide boulevards empty and quiet. The capitol alone glows golden in the light, the color of prairie grasses in late summer. From the four hundred foot apex, that was all that could be seen in 1927. At that time, an ingenious city planner planted hundreds of oak trees. Now there are at least three squirrels for each of those giant, patient trees. They talk to me as I pass by. I listen and smile. Squirrels are the comic relief of the animal kingdom, here to put us in our place.

The trees grew as the state grew, with love and care, reaching ever higher and deeply rooted. Nebraskans exhibit a simple wisdom and enshrined a simple government – one governor, one court, and one house, non-partisan and open to public and press alike at all times.

“The salvation of the state is watchfulness in the citizen,” they inscribed above the great iron doors which lead into great mosaic halls. Navajo hymns, Pawnee songs, and Sioux sayings are carved into the stone beside the words of Aristotle, Plato, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln. I read them as I pass, heading west, always west.

The stage of my waking life predates even the capitol building. Architecture Hall remains the oldest building on the campus of the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, built in 1890. My mother and father met while attending that university. My father studied business in preparation for running one of his own. My mother studied archeology, but did not graduate, choosing instead to follow my father back to the Sand Hills, choosing marriage and children, namely me and my older brother Brandon.

Brandon, like the unbroken generations before him, was born in a small Nebraska town, Valentine, where my father had grown up. Valentine is the metropolis of Cherry County, where today the population density is still less than one person per square mile. In nighttime satellite photos of the United States, when the cities shine like the stars in the sky, you can see a dark spot in the center of the country, just a little north of the middle. That is Cherry County. A small string of cities sits along it’s north border, just miles from South Dakota, along the paved asphalt run of Highway 20. They range from Sparks, population five, to Valentine itself, population twenty-five hundred. Ironically, both towns have rodeo arenas.

Valentine is the town by which I judge all other Nebraska towns. Its main street is lined with brick storefronts. The street signs are red with little hearts on them. Quilt stores, antique stores, insurance agents, florists, the JCP catalog shop, photographers, dentists, Nelson’s Furniture run by my father’s first cousin, hardware stores, the fire station, city hall, and the public library all sit on main street. The First National Bank has a stunning brick frieze of buffalo and wagon trains. We still buy the hard to find jeans for my brother and cousins, tall and thin like cowboys of old, at Young’s Western Wear. Every year, my grandmother would go in and request gifts for her sons and grandsons and Young’s would box them up without even asking the sizes. They know.

Highway 83 runs south out of Valentine for seventy-five miles without another town. It runs through the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, an area where the sand sits particularly thin atop the great Ogallala Aquifer. The marshes and little lakes are perfect for thousands, millions, of nesting birds. The mighty dunes which run between still provide adequate forage for cattle and the newly returned pronghorns and elk.

Before entering the town, Highway 83 joins Highway 20 and crossed the beautiful Niobrara river. I have canoed that river, and tubed down it, floating the day away on the inner-tube of a tractor tire stretched over with canvas. I have swum in it and stopped to wander up the dozens of little feeder creeks, finding hidden waterfalls throwing rainbows like stained glass in leafy cathedrals.

We took my sister-in-law there, when she was new to the family. We showed her the buffalo and prairie dogs at Fort Wildlife Refuge. Then we took her to Smith Falls, seventy-five feet of ethereal, cascading glory. Shoes off, we waded in the crystal water, cleansed to perfect purity by the largest sand filter on earth. Only when she stood smiling under the pounding chill of the falls did we concede “Now, you’re family!”

I dragged my best friend Melissa up to Valentine a few years ago. She was city born and bread, never having seen the greater part of the state. I took her to Snake Falls, a wide and thundering fall. It is on the Snake River just after it is released from Merritt Reservoir, the lake my family vacationed on throughout my childhood, gathering the clan every August. Snake Falls is on private land, unlike the manicured boardwalks of Smith Falls State Park. There is a little restaurant there, set back off several miles of dirt road. It is a place you only find if you know where it is. When you order French fries, they peal the potato. We signed the guest book and traipsed down the worn trail.

Melissa was a little taken aback by the weathered wood sign warning us of rattlesnakes, but I managed to coax her along. It was a wonderfully sunny day and any snakes were long since hidden in their cool dens. Despite her fear of snakes and heights, I managed to lead her down the ragged sandstone bluffs in order to get closer to the falls. She cursed at me the entire way. The bluffs require some work, but it is an easy climb, with plenty of foot and hand holds. Sand stone weathers quickly, geologically speaking, wind and water carving out many niches and pockets with rough surfaces perfect for gripping. At last we stood before that roaring curtain of white and grinned at each other. It was worth it. Even with the climb back up.

These things I remember from visits only. Before my birth twenty-two months after my brother’s, my parents moved to South Dakota to start their own business. I was born there instead of Nebraska. That should have been a tip-off. We lived in the small town of Trip only until I was four years old, yet I remember much from that time. I remember the big, old house with the crab apple tree in the back yard. I remember the grouchy old lady who lived next door. My brother and I loved her without reservation and gleefully basked in her cantankerous nature. I remember the elementary school across the street where my brother got to go, but I did not. That simple experience embedded in me forever a demand for equal treatment, much to the despair of my parents. They saw differences, in age, gender, status, where I saw only people.

I remember once sitting with my mother. Our shaggy, white dog Andy was gnawing on a rawhide bone. When I reached out to grab it from him in a fit of toddler mischief, he growled and gnawed on me instead. When I pitifully cried to my mother that Andy had “bitten” me, cradling the smooth, white, unblemished skin my tiny hand, she calmly inquired “Well, what did you do to him?” From her I learned everything I ever needed to know about animals, everything that would enable me to learn from them in the future. I learned to respect fur-people as persons in their own right.

When I was four, we returned to Nebraska. Like so many families before us, we moved to the city in search of work. I was raised in the suburbs. I attended public schools. I ran wild in the backyards and wide residential streets. I went to church on Sunday with my family and 4-H club on Saturday with my brother. Both parents worked. My mother eventually got a degree in accounting by taking night classes. My father played basketball and watched football. My brother liked the Dukes of Hazard and computers. My life was unremarkable in every aspect save one – me. That may sound vain, but in truth in advertising. My parents followed the instructions on the box and instead of a cake got a hedgehog.

Recently my Dad dragged out all of his father’s slides, photographs, and negatives. For more than a year, he relentlessly scanned them into his computer. He came upon one of Brandon and I. Here we were, Brandon a sandy-haired four year old, already looking like my father with is wild hair and my mother with her cheekbones, and me, a flaxen-haired waif of a thing with big blue eyes, a plastic ray gun almost too large for my hand, a smug on my cheek, and my cap on sideways. It was always sideways, never straight forward, never straight backward, always sideways. The story of my life.

I sat in chairs upside down. I did things which people told me not to do, not because I wanted to spite them, but because I wanted to figure out why they had told me not to do it. I suspect there was a time when my grandmothers were pleased to have a granddaughter, I being the only one for both sides. I do recall a few outfits lovingly made with lace and ruffles. They were soon disabused of those notions, however. I never wore shoes and I climbed every tree I could manage. I was often told I would cut my foot or fall, but I never have.

I hated school from the moment I set foot in the door. I never failed a grade, despite never getting a passing one either. I found myself in the gifted program and bringing home report cards full of F’s and pointed comments from my teachers. When I was in third grade, I didn’t like the plot of the book I was reading, so for the report I just made up my own story. My dislike for school extended to Sunday school, but my mother came to the rescue and soon had me helping teach the younger children. I liked that very much. I liked feeling useful.

My parents shifted me to a different school district when I started junior high. In eighth grade, I spent two weeks on in-house suspension, sitting in a little office behind the secretaries. Again, it was over a book report. I hadn’t cared for the book that much the first time I read it, and I certainly wasn’t willing to read it again simply to write out chapter summaries. In my opinion, if the teacher was that interested in the plot, she could read it herself. The vice principle was not so inclined to follow my suggestion. When I graduated that was still a record at my school, along with the record for longest consecutive detentions (two years.

By the time high school rolled around, I had managed to get out of detention. In tenth grade, I wrote my term paper for The Scarlet Letter on “The Stupidity of Puritans.” I got a B, as I recall. I parlayed the reputation of loser and outcast into eccentric, intelligent, and not to be troubled with lightly. On academic decathlon my junior year I simultaneously had the lowest grade point average and highest test scores on the team. I finally got straight A’s on my first report card of senior year, despite having missed enough classes to merit an academic warning. If I was finally meeting my family’s education standards, I was beginning to disappoint in other ways.

It was all of a piece, as it were. I always questioned too much, never took anyone’s word for anything. “Because I said so,” was a reason which had never worked for my mother. I couldn’t stand that Brandon was allowed to stay up later than me or get a bigger allowance than me or anything else just because he was older. It caused a lot of tension when we were children. We fought constantly. Once, I was walking home from elementary school in the days when children still walked home from school. It was about a half a mile down quiet suburban streets. Two older boys were picking on me, calling me names and pushing me around. I probably didn’t weigh half as much as either of them. Brandon came over and tried to protect me, despite being a gangly twig of a thing barely able to protect himself. I did a horrible thing. I yelled at him. I told him to go away. I could protect myself. He never tried again. I think I must have also scared the bullies, because they went away too.

When Brandon was ten and I was eight, he told me how sex worked. I didn’t believe him so I looked it up in the encyclopedia. (Yup, it’s in there.) I think our parents would have reconsidered that investment had they known the use to which we would put it over the years. Despite our antagonism, we did present a united front to our parents. Mutual blackmail can do that. We got away with a lot which to this day I doubt they have an inkling of.

As a child I loved the movie Dirty Dancing, but my mother didn’t think it was appropriate. It took me all of ten minutes to find where she had hidden it on the top shelf of the closet under the stairs. I must have watched it a dozen times trying to figure out what she thought was “inappropriate.” It wasn’t until years later that I realized it depicted sex, unplanned pregnancy, and abortion. I never had understood that scene with the bed and Patrick Swayze in his underpants, but the dancing sure was the stuff of legend.

The most common image I have of my mother or my father involves a book in their hands. As soon as my mother came home in the evening, she would settle on the blue couch in the living room and read straight through the newspaper. I knew better than to bother her. After dinner, my father would head for a recliner in the basement. The Packers might be playing on Monday night football, but it was Meredith Zimmer-Bradley he had propped up on his chest. Even Brandon read, zipping through Tom Clancy before he was even in high school.

I read Nancy Drew, The Black Stallion, and the Hardy Boys books for years until they finally all started sounding the same. None of us could live without books, it was one thing our parents had never begrudge us. After moving to the city when I was little, my father had been out of work for a while. He and my mother sold enough books at a nickel and quarter a piece to make the rent. Sometimes they lament that. “We used to have….It’s the third in the series but now it’s out of print.” Thank goodness for the internet and used book sellers.

When I outgrew teen novels, it was to my mother I went. She took me downstairs, to our finished basement which took advantage of the walls unbroken by windows for bookshelves. She handed me Anne McCaffrey’s first novel about the dragon riders of Pern. She should have known better. I swiftly flew through all of McCaffrey’s works and moved on to Tolkien then McKiernan then Feist then Clark then Weber.

Denis McKiernan especially made me think. He wrote the books Tolkien would have written, had Tolkien been a professional author and not a professor of dead languages. In each book, no matter the fantastic setting, he introduced a philosophic concept, which the characters would debate throughout their long, exciting journeys. What is the nature of good? What is the nature of reality? Or what Brandon and I called the “brains in vats” theory, predating the Matrix, going all the way back to Socrates himself.

Over time his questions became my questions. Each book I read became another question. Science fiction, fantasy, mystery, suspense, it didn’t make any difference. Each book I read lead to the same question. How can I judge the truth of any book? Even “The Book”?

I had tried all my life to be a good Christian. It was probably the one thing my parents had asked of me at which I really, earnestly tried. We belonged to the United Methodist church, which is fairly laid back as far as churches go. They only had one important criteria – to believe in God and love The Lord Jesus Christ. They told us that if we loved God and sincerely asked the Holy Spirit to come into our heart that we would feel the presence of Jesus Christ’s love.

I lay in bed at night, silently crying, because when I said my nightly prayers and asked Jesus Christ to come into my heart, I felt…nothing. I felt not a single ounce of divine presence. For years, I assumed the fault was mine, as children are wont to do. I assumed there was flaw in my heart, some hidden reservation or doubt. So I focused my efforts on being a good Christian and following the word of God.

But the seed was there, and it never went away. In time, the very word “faith” choked in my throat. In the end I decided this was not the faith God, if there was a god, had intended for me to have. I was a “doubting Thomas” and if faith was the all or nothing proposition I had been lead to believe, then for me it was nothing. I was fifteen.

I had a knock down, drag out, yelling, screaming, door slamming fight with my mother, of course. My father, the wonderful teddy bear that he is, took it more calmly. Soon after they stopped being able to force me to attend church, my brother stopped going as well. One thing my mother is not, is a hypocrite.

Of course, this was all the gossip at school. “You’re an atheist? How can you be an atheist? Well, who do you think made the world?” I didn’t mind the questions, even though I didn’t have all the answers. The more they asked, the more I tried to find the truth for myself. Their challenges served a purpose. Once in a debate on capitol punishment, I cited Biblical passages.

“You don’t even believe in the Bible!” my opponent cried.

“No, but you do,” I countered. “They do,” I said, gesturing to the rest of our class.

My mouth has probably gotten me in an out of more trouble over the years than anything else. My mother had always told me, if I ignored the boys who teased me, eventually they would go away. Parents, never tell your children this. They knew I was a loner and Ricky used to tease me every single time I walked into ninth grade history.

“Hey, baby. You and me. After school. My house,” he would say.

One day I looked him straight in the eye and said, “Sure, baby. You bring the whipped cream. I’ll bring the handcuffs.” He turned bright red and never bothered me again. Soon my sharp tongue was feared the school over. I never fired the first shot, but I usually fired the last. With my school mates at least, I had been sharpening my skills elsewhere for years before then.

My mother and brother got the worst of it. I think got most of my teenage angst out of my system by the time I was ten. Since then I only recall two major tiffs, one over religion as mentioned, and one over smoking. Although, I did kick a hole in the wall of my bedroom after a particularly dreadful fight with our Ukrainian exchange student, Lena. Who knew drywall was so flimsy? Mom didn’t find out about that one until years later. By the time I was in high school I we were more or less getting along, even my brother and I. Today, Brandon and I are close, and any exercise of sharp wit is done in the name of fun and keeping our skills honed, which is a certain improvement.

Once, when I was about thirteen, I had really been chewing on my mother’s last nerve. Finally she lashed out. My mother, who never got angry, who never raised her voice, revealed where I had gotten my smart mouth from. It wasn’t those dratted Hoffman’s on my father’s side like she had always claimed, either.

“Just because you’re a smart mouth doesn’t mean you’re smart!” she flung at me.

“Well, you don’t hear stupid people saying this stuff,” I quipped back. She was not amused.

It wasn’t just that I was a smart mouth. I lied. All the time. About everything. At first, I did it to avoid things. To get out of doing homework. To keep my parents from being disappointed when I got in trouble for not doing my homework. For attention. Mostly, I lied about school. When school started getting better, I realized I had a problem. I was lying about things that wouldn’t have gotten me into trouble in the first place. Sometimes my lies were even worse than the truth. I resolved to change that.

So much in my life has pivoted on my resolve. I resolved to stop lying, and I did, mostly. I was scared to death of jumping head first off the diving board, until one day resolved not to be. It’s not that I resolved to do it despite my fear, I just resolved not to fear it. After years of driving my mother nuts (notice the trend?) by biting my nails, I resolved to stop.

I watched the popular kids in high school. I noticed they were all outgoing, talkative, and genuinely seemed to care what other people thought of them. (The ultimate refuge of the outcast is the false claim: “I don’t care what other people think of me.”) I resolved to become an extrovert. That hasn’t worked out quite as planned, but I have learned to fake it well enough to satisfy the intended goal.

My ability to look someone in the eye and hold a casual conversation were part and parcel of a larger change. Sometimes, I think my parents raised me too well. They wanted an intelligent, driven, independent daughter. I don’t suppose they bargained on that being synonymous with a free-thinking, liberal, tree-hugging, vegetarian Buddhist. In the spirit of familial love and the tradition of not making a fuss, they have gotten over it, or at least become resigned to it. “That’s Monica.”

Oh well, I shrug. At least I live up to the most important family tradition of all, that which is epitomized by my ninety-four year old great-uncle Lavern who will in the same breath yell at you to get out of his house and invite you in for breakfast. I am contrary. And I have it in me to be just as ornery as the rest of that misbegotten clan!

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