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Blood and Thunder + Hillbilly Elegy

I recently finished two quintessentially American books. I had been working on Blood and Thunder since I got back from hiking in Desolation Wilderness with my father. After closing that historical epic, I picked up Hillbilly Elegy, planning to just read a chapter or two. Well, I ended up tearing through the book and didn’t get to sleep until after 3am.

Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West

Blood and Thunder uses the life of famous frontiersman Kit Carson to track “the Conquest of the American West” (so declares the subtitle). Author Hampton Sides describes the role that Carson played in various quasi-scientific mapping expeditions, the United States’ wars with Mexico and the Native American tribes of the Southwest — especially the Navajo — and the general aftermath of white settlers claiming land previously occupied by indigenous tribes. The book is well-researched but not academic, so it’s both edifying and gripping.

The sub-topic I found most fascinating was the mutually fraught relationship between the Native Americans and the settlers (both Mexican and migratory American), which focused on the New Mexico Territory. Plenty of racism was involved, but before the army came west the white residents of New Mexico were not holding their own against the Diné (the Navajo’s word for themselves), the Utes, or other local ethnic groups. Native American raiders stole scores of sheep from the settlers, and slave expeditions went back and forth between the New Mexicans and the tribes.

This is not to say that fiat United States aggression against the Native Americans was justified — it was a continuation of European Americans’ protracted genocide of indigenous people. Kit Carson himself, though he had personally killed many Native Americans, attributed their worsening plight to white violence. However, the escalating atrocities were mutual, even after the Navajo Long Walk, which I didn’t know. It goes to show that the situation on the ground is always more complex than the neat narrative that comes out of it.

In keeping with the theme of moral complexity, Hillbilly Elegy is fundamentally about how poor Appalachian whites bear some responsibility — ultimate responsibility, author JD Vance might argue — for their own demographic’s sorry state. The book is 75% memoir interspersed with 25% social analysis. I bought this after reading an interview with Vance and seeing Hillbilly Elegy praised by Nils Gilman. Vance’s story and commentary were very, very good.

Photo by renee_mcgurk. Rusted-out truck in the woods.
Photo by renee_mcgurk.

Vance uses his own life as an example and a lens. He describes the loving chaos of his extended family, punctuated by mutual abuse among the adults, and the recurring trauma of his immediate home life. Vance attributes his later success as a Marine, college student, lawyer, and husband to the constant, fiercely loyal, and raucously affectionate presence of his grandparents. He describes the importance of being taught to believe that his choices could matter, that he could influence his fate by working hard and being diligent.

“The long view, inherited from my grandparents’ 1930s upbringing in coal country, is that all of us can still control some part of our fate. Even if we are doomed, there’s reason to pretend otherwise.” — JD Vance

I am more liberal than Vance, but I agree that we’re each responsible for how our own lives turn out. There’s politics and then there’s reality — I belong to myself, and you belong to yourself. We must strive for survival and success. Especially since the systemic change comes slowly.

But hey, another thing we should strive for is making the government serve its people more than the opposite arrangement!

Go buy Blood and Thunder and Hillbilly Elegy. If you have to choose one, Hillbilly Elegy is more “essential reading”!

King Of The Road (Podcast Review: Neighbors)

I claimed that I wasn’t a podcast person, but I was wrong. As it turns out, I enjoy listening! This is a well-timed discovery because I just acquired a commute.

a bunch of people
Illustration by Giovana Milanezi.

Most recently, I played an episode of Neighbors while walking the dog. Neighbors is about connecting “ordinary” people — of course, the hidden point is that each of us is quite special. (Trite but true.) The episode “Purpose” is part of Neighbors’ series of interviews with homeless people, called “Sans Houses”, which producer Tasha Lemley has been conducting since 2006. I was particularly struck by Cowboy, who recited this poem:

“The old man used to speak
of the portraits he’d seek,
now he lives in a room
where they pay by the week.

His saddle’s all tattered;
his pony’s gone lame;
his bones always ache
when the sky feels like rain.

I know his last mountain’s two flights of stairs
and his saddle’s turned into an old rocking chair.”

These words are lyrics drawn from Chris Ledoux’s “There’s Nobody Home On The Range Anymore” (Songbook of the American West, 1991).

After reciting the last couplet, Cowboy said, “I don’t wanna be like that, you know? I don’t wanna lay up in that room and die layin’ up in the bed. You know, I wanna go out in a gunfight or something.” A little later he explains, “I’ve always been active, in whatever I did. If it was wrong or right, I was active doin’ it, let me tell you what!”

I love that line. “If it was wrong or right, I was active doin’ it, let me tell you what!”

Let me tell you what: I’ve only listened to one episode of Neighbors so far, but I deem it worth my aural attention.

I also loved the “Drivers Wanted” episode of Anxious Machine — it made me want to see Mad Max: Fury Road a third time, except that might make my heart explode.

Priceless Fashion Guidance From Fran Lebowitz For People With Short Attention Spans

I know very little about Fran Lebowitz, but I know that Kathleen Hale’s interview with her is fantastic. Choice quotes:

“American women think that clothes fit them if they can fit into them. But that’s not at all what fit means.”

“Shirts don’t go bad, they’re not peaches.”

“I wish that real estate were cheaper and clothes were more expensive.”

“If you’re 18 right now, you think you invented platform shoes. You think you’re doing something new. You think you’ve invented something so ugly that it’s beautiful.”

“Designers now, they all have these things called mood boards. I suppose they think a sense of discovery equals invention. It would be as if every writer had a board with paragraphs of other writers—’Oh, I’ll take a little bit of this, and that, he was really good.’ Yes, he was really good! And that is not a mood board, it is a stealing board.” (YES. This is how I feel about Pinterest.)

“What’s so great thing about clothes is that they’re artificial—you can lie, you can choose the way you look, which is not true of natural beauty.”

Note to self: learn more about Fran Lebowitz.

Gonna Go Down In Flames

screenshot from "Style" music video, Taylor Swift

Manipulated screenshot from the music video for Taylor Swift’s “Style”. In case you can’t tell, it’s trees and sunset. (Sunrise? Hard to know which.) I made this ages ago and I forget why I wanted to post it. Here’s what the scene actually looks like in the video:

Taylor Swift music video screenshot

“Style” is my favorite song from 1989. In general I think the album is pretty mediocre. Still, I can sing along. “Blank Space” is appealing, but it’s no “Mama’s Broken Heart”. I love me some crazy girl chic but I also like dynamic… dynamicness. Dynamitude? And more than one clever lyric. My favorite is a mashup of “Style” and “Blank Space” by Louisa Wendorff. Her version combines the good parts of both songs, and the arrangement is lovely.

Now I’m listening to “Mama’s Broken Heart” and it’s just sooo much better than “Blank Space”. Miranda Lambert singing, “Run and hide your crazy, and start acting like a lady”—that breaks my heart in the right way. See also: “Better Dig Two”. Crazy vengeful country ladies make me feel better about the world.

Wheels Rumbling On: Notes From The Road

The following was written on January 21st, 2015, when I still intended to make a second issue of my perzine Semi Sonya.

I just got back from a long road-trip with my boyfriend Alex. It wasn’t the longest road-trip that anyone has ever taken, obviously, but for me it was really long. January 4th to January 19th, from the San Francisco Bay Area to Seattle and then back again. By the 15th I was like, “GOD, I’m so tired, I wanna go home, let’s get out of here!”

Traveling can be exhausting. But the trip was also brave and interesting and I loved spending that much time with Alex. I’m glad that we went.

Great Oregon Outback
Photo by Sally.

Last night was the first time I’ve slept alone for more than two weeks, and while it’s nice to thrash and drool without worrying about the other sleeper, I missed my warm cuddly man. I texted him good night but it wasn’t the same, you know?

Anyway, here are two of my first journal entries from the road, lightly edited for readability:

1/6/2015, early evening

I haven’t been journaling as much as I wanted to, as much as I thought I would. Road-tripping is busy busy busy, driving around and seeing people, like Adi [one of my close friends] and Alex’s family. I am tired. Plus it all seems somewhat mundane. Occasionally I notice a moment and think, “I can describe this like a scene in a novel,” but mostly life just feels… normal. Ain’t that always how it goes?

1/7/2015, 10:30am

Currently waiting for Alex’s friend to pick us up and take us out for a pizza lunch in Keizer, the town where Alex grew up. It’s a suburb of Salem, where his parents live now. Their house is walking distance from the Oregon State Hospital, where One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was filmed.

I watched that movie in my high-school psych class, after we learned about the guy who invented/modernized the prefrontal lobotomy (ice picks in through the eyes, basically). In the movie they break into Jack Nicholson’s skull and saw off part of it, which always bothered me because there’s no way that the doctors actually would have chosen the more laborious and dangerous version of the procedure.

I said “where” a lot in that previous paragraph and I think it indicates that this sprawling trip has me thinking about space, about geography. The placement of people, memories, and experiences. The process of searching, of finding, and hopefully of stumbling onto what you didn’t know you’d find. What you wouldn’t have guessed was on your path!

Alex mentioned that there are parallels between our journey and the archetypal hero’s quest. What goes against the trope is our lack of a specific goal, and the fact that we’re a duo with no protagonist/sidekick hierarchy. Of course, we’re each the main character in our own minds, but we’re determined to hold hands and walk side-by-side, or at least to switch off leading when we’re marching single-file.

I’m disturbed to find myself using military language, disturbed to notice the less romantic parallel to colonial Europe’s “discovery” of America. I don’t want to be a traveler who arrives at each destination full of ideas and even requirements, but to a certain extent it’s inevitable. I was about to say, “At least the Pacific Northwest is a lot like home,” but maybe I just don’t seek the experiences that would be novel and edifying.

Hence the importance of stumbling along the way. I am a romantic again, wanting to trip and be caught by strangers who will show me how to tread securely on local land.

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