Thursday, July 9, 2015

empty utah (the suburban turn away)

we are staying with my parents in utah this summer. every day i feel two sorts of emptiness, one i crave, the other i detest. the emptiness i hate is the controlled emptiness of house fronts and front yards. it is just display without welcoming, showing off without any compensatory flair or friendliness. blankness is the ideal, erasure of uniqueness and difference. if one has to venture out to the street, one hopes one doesn't have to run into other people. humans are just bothersome here, unless of course one knows them. with the high turnover in this suburb, strangers are pretty common. if only one could totally ignore them -- and one does as often as possible -- but when they are very close, well, it looks un-nice to not look or say something to the pitiful things. 

i recall our first summer here, in 2012, the people across from us succeeded in going the entire summer without once looking at or saying anything to any of us. well, i think one of them finally broke -- was it the old man who slept in his car, or the mother? anyway, it was remarkable. eye contact here and in the walmart we often shopped at was significantly less than in the connecticut suburbs we had come from.

if people's demeanors are closed tight, people's yards say nothing about them either. every yard, a tightly managed, anonymous grid of sprinklers, grass, mulch, shrubs, and flowers, is more or less like the others. how did this nation fuelled by freedom come to detest difference, even trivial differences like the sort of grass one grows, so much? i don't think it is because everyone has the same tastes. it must have something to do with the historical growth of the housing market after world war 2, when house values were tightly rigged to sameness (including racial sameness -- no black folks in levittown). so to enforce and maintain this value, an unimaginable rigidity is complacently agreed to. people from the HOA come around with cameras, scanning for weeds, brown patches in the grass, any sign that one's discipline is slackening. and then they send letters.

it is only because mom and dad, in their 80s, received a warning letter recently that i have begun pulling weeds too, in odd moments tending the kids outside. 'weeds.' yes. infiltrators from nature.

the two little boys hang back from the wild emptiness of sky and skyline -- they're not used to it, especially pax, his first time in the US, stands on the porch unmoving, staring out at the valley. does he see the mountains beyond the lake, darkening blue under clouds, the lake a milky grey green? or just the sun-blasted blankness of grass and asphalt?

but i love this emptiness, total exposure to the sky, i can see for miles and miles. thank god there are a few empty lots left -- they are filling up fast in saratoga springs -- for here i can admire the wild plants that occupy them. this morning i suddenly realized i was standing near a thistle bush taller than myself! it was magnificently prickly, older leaves withered and grey with dust, purple heads nodding from thirst, an incredible life force in this dry place. gazing over their many colors in the waning light of the sun as my boys play in the sand, my eyes lift to the yards around us and wonder at their utter drabness and uniformity, flat green, sharply defined boundaries, all 'weeds' promptly eliminated. at least here and there these extravagant and spiny and fragrant 'weeds' may still flourish, in every hue.

and the sky. oh it wells with massifs, from horizon to horizon an ever-shifting array. clouds that touch, frighten, beckon. wild winds whip up, and i love that too -- a brown bag whips over a rooftop, a trash can booms to the ground. i feel for the people seatbelted in those gleaming silver tubes that pass unceasingly overhead -- but down here the sky and wind is a glory i feel deeply. if only i didn't need to look down at those closed-tight houses and pinched faces. even kids -- skateboarding, riding scooters -- only allow themselves furtive glances. we're  a free people indeed: free to maintain property values, free to keep our yards absolutely weed-free.

if i could buy a house it would be one of those tiny square ones in provo built after the war, so charming, i don't believe builders today would ever allow themselves to think humans could actually survive in such confined space. we americans have ballooned not just in body but in spatial expectations. back then these little houses were just 'houses,' an ordinary living room and ordinary kitchen, space enough to do what needed to be done, and that was enough. it's all anyone really needs, right? . . . . gradually class gluttony set in. cross the lake back to where i stand, and the result is clear: massive houses beyond any real need.

and a turning inward that allowed reagan and his (non) conservative values of selfishness to triumph, a revolution whose repercussions reverberate even now through this cruel society, a society which in huge living rooms before huge televisions can allow itself to imagine that all those black men languishing in prison and shot down by police must have deserved it, whatever violence was done to them. they're violent people, right? the suburban turning away from others -- especially different others -- furthers this cruel indifference. invading foreign countries on the pretext that they 'threaten' us is another dismal result of the suburban revolution. it's always the same excuse: we feel scared! doesn't that just justify everything?

but it is a fear that is only sustainable by not knowing about the world beyond, by fearing the poor and weak enough to avoid them -- and so believe them dangerous. the emptiness between us is politically crucial to our empire. without this emptiness and separation, no ignorance, without ignorance no fear, without fear, well, i am afraid budgeting priorities would, what can i say, shift a little, right? at least during the cold war the USSR was a real rival, a powerful enemy. now bands of ragtag terrorists here and there, with a combined GDP in the territories they rule generously estimated at that of wyoming, can fuel -- with the addition of that amazing additive, fear -- weapons systems worth trillions of dollars that run over decades and do nothing to stanch our fear!

this emptiness is not mine. but for seven weeks before going back the way we came, to china, i'll drink in the wild emptiness that remains above me, swirling, conspiring, soaring -- brooding. this sky, this dear utah sky, sky that is my religion.

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