Saturday, April 24, 2010

Immortality in the Margins

My father, like many old men, has grown fascinated with his own genealogy.  Indeed, the intensity of his fascination seems to rise commensurately with his age.  When searching for his Christmas present last year I considered this and decided trace his family tree.  Hell, it's about time I put those two history degrees I've acquired to work!  I gathered what information he had, spoke to a few of our oldest living relatives, and started digging around. 

Granted, there were a lot of lacunae, and I took a number of educated guesses about who fathered whom.  But in the end, I managed to put together a mostly reliable and relatively interesting family tree that stretched from Louisiana to Lorraine.  In fact, I was so satisfied with both the hunt and the product that I decided to research my mother’s family’s background. 

Unlike on my father’s side of the family, my mother’s side had done quite a bit more record keeping over the years.  Considering the socio-economic differences between these two sides—my father’s tree includes a number of property owners and doctors, while my mother’s side is populated heavily with illiterate French-speaking peasants—this seemed strangely counterintuitive.  To date, I’m still mostly stumped by this apparent paradox.  But, getting back to the story here . . . .  

Paw-paw Logan, as my last surviving grandparent, was the logical person to speak with first.  And, even at 91 years old he’s sharp as a tack.  The man is still racing his Ford around Abbeville, eating Sausage, Gravy and Rice for dinner most nights, and still telling mildly off-color jokes about how dark the natives were in Borneo—something about how coal would leave a white mark on their skin.

Together we dug through several crates and wooden chests to find every old picture he had in his house.  Along the way we turned up many interesting documents, like my grandmother’s baptismal certificate, his marriage license, his Army discharge papers, and a few records from the Billups Station he managed for so many years. 
However, the most interesting document I found during my search was a census record that recorded the name and address of my great grandfather Louis Sarazin Mathiue in 1900.  This was a huge find.  With it, I now knew for sure that he was neither literate nor English-speaking.  Also, since he was living with a Chiasson family at that time, I confidently deduced from this that his own family had likely either died or were so destitute they could no longer support him.  Without this single page, this aspect of Louis’ life would be lost forever.  And all this was possible because over one hundred and ten years ago some poor guy went from door to door in backwater Acadiana (undoubtedly accompanied by an interpreter) asking people a few simple questions.  

Now, I dig this shit.  (Hell, I better dig it, because it’s an interest that promises neither wealth nor even work.)  But, because of this interest, I’m always conscious of the marks I’m leaving on history.  I’m aware of my own immortality, if you will.  How much of a trace will be left of me when I’m gone?  What impression will some future historian or genealogist get of me when he/she discovers this or that bit of my life?  What will one learn of me through my writing, my passports, my many addresses, my criminal record? 

This year Heejung and I filled out our own census form.  And, like usual, my predilection for leaving a historical trace piqued my interest in the situation immediately.  Just like when my great grandfather Louis lived for a short while as a Farm hand in his benefactor’s home, we are also in a transitional place and time.  Years from now (hopefully not 110 years later) one or a few of our distant progeny might stumble across a record of us (a Korean national and a Coonass) living in a house we don’t own in rural Virginia, and he’ll come to a few conclusions.  He might learn finally, (if he was wondering) why his eyes are a little longer.  He might pause for a minute to consider our lives and times.  He might imagine what it was like to be so peripatetic back in the “good ol’ days.”  At least I hope he will.  I’m leaving him the fucking breadcrumbs for god’s sake!!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Gawd Damn!!! It's WORSE than I thought!

 I usually leave the politics off this blog. But this is just horrible!  This video hit me in so many ways; it was fascinating, disturbing, depressingly funny, awful, scary, puzzling, hurtful, shocking, real, and real fucking stupid!!!

God, help US!!

Monday, April 19, 2010

This Ain’t Yo’ Father’s Walden Pond! Part IV

Living on this peaceful mountain it’s easy to get lost in it all.  I’m surrounded by the fresh smell of spring each morning.  I wake up to the crisp, chill breeze hitting me in the face as it sweeps across Appalachia and out to the Atlantic.  I amuse myself by watching the squirrels dance from tree to tree, the birds flutter from branch to branch, the bees buzz from flower to flower, the deer stroll up to the road at dusk, the springs trickle gently down the hills, and, when the wind whistles through the mountains, I watch the tops of the trees sway romantically from left to right in dazzling Technicolored, hyper-realism. 

Yet, amongst all this dreamy “Bird on my Shoulder,” Song of the South bullshit, it’s easy to forget that this place was once the base for a large Confederate partisan group.  Col. John S. Mosby, the “Grey Ghost,” controlled this area from 1863 until the end of the Civil War.  He and the 43rd Battalion, 1st Virginia Cavalry were camped up in these hills, making raids on Union forces nearby, blending into the local farming population, and, in general, just waiting to march triumphantly into Washington, D.C. 

As everyone knows full well—save for maybe the current Gov. of Virginia—there was no triumphal march; there was no victorious South.  For the most part, things didn’t go at all the way the “Grey Ghost” would have hoped; and he lived long enough to see it.  

I confess, however, that I don’t know exactly how his soldiers met their end.  I imagine that many of them did what they had been doing throughout the war; they blended into the population, worked the land, and let the bitterness of defeat eat at their souls for years.  I’d like to think that not all of them went this way.  I think many of them slept and bleed on this earth.  Some of them, I’m sure, died up in these hills.  And, quite a number of them surely buried their friends, brothers, and fellow soldiers under these rocks and trees.   

So, essentially, I’m living in a confederate graveyard!  As I hike the AT each morning (which by the way skirts the Eastern Front of Mosby’s Confederacy), I’m always on the lookout for some remnant of this place’s violent past—some name or bit of misspelled vulgarity chiseled in a rock, some chunk of lead buried in the trunk of a tree, some old, half-buried skeletal hand still clinging to the slaves it never owned and a vision of the South that’s so romanticized and so idealized that it scarcely ever existed in the first place.  

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Dharma [bare] Bums

A friend of mine has recently begun a year-long experiment in religious studies.  From the web diary he’s putting together it seems he’s planning to follow the doctrine and traditions of 12 major faiths (each for one month at a time).  So, since the first month is Buddhism, I thought I might do a little research on my own.  It didn’t take long before I found out what Buddhism is really about.  SHOCKING, is the only word I can use to describe it.  

Have a look!!!  

And what happens to the children?  Lord Knows!!

Monday, April 12, 2010

This Ain’t Yo’ Father’s Walden Pond! Part III

Seventeen Steps to Accomplishing Nothing

1. Get up early to brush teeth, stretch, and get some fresh air.

2. March around the brush surrounding the house to find Heejung the perfect walking stick.

3. Shave off all the bark from the stick and neatly carve HJ in the handle.

4. Help Heejung prepare 유부초밥 and 깍두기 to bring with us.

5. Fill water bottle, get Heejung’s shoes out of the car, and gently encourage her to hurry up.

6. Load newly carved walking stick, packed backpack, and ourselves into the car.

7. Drive one mile down the road to the Appalachian Trail public car park.

8. Park, unload, cross Hwy 55 and head south on the AT; Destination, beautiful clearing at the top of the mountain about 45 min away.

9. Hike into woods about three minutes.

10. Two minutes later listen to Heejung’s complement about the trail’s natural beauty.

11. One minute later hear Heejung SCREAM WITH HORROR!!!

12. Turn around to see that I just walked over a small Ribbon Snake sunning itself on the trail.

13. Move snake off the trail and try to convince Heejung to continue on.

14. One minute later, realize this is futile and guide her back to the car.

15. Eat 유부초밥 and 깍두기 on a picnic table at AT car park.

16. Drive home having accomplished nothing.

17. Take a nap.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

This Ain’t Yo’ Father’s Walden Pond! Part II

Growing up in Baton Rouge, I’m familiar with the many cultural eccentricities and idiosyncrasies that always tend to flower in relatively sparsely populated areas with high numbers of blue-collar, lower-middle-class small home owners.  Yet, of the many fascinating phenomena, the most intriguing to me has always been the tendency for an increase in paranoia over crime amongst groups that live in areas where criminal activity is quite rare.  One would think that anxiety about crimes typically associated with inner-city life (robbery, carjacking, home invasion, gang violence, etc . . .) would be less intense in areas far removed from the city sprawl.  Indeed, that these specific crimes are so common in the city is the reason most commonly given for why people move out to the suburbs and beyond.   But, it’s the people that live on backwoods, gravel roads that are the quickest to grab their gun when there is a late-night knock at the door; it’s the people that live hundreds of miles from any housing project that seem the most concerned with incidents of gang violence; and it’s the people that live on acres of land, far from the next house that will have the most NO TRESPASSING signs at the entrance to their long driveway.  As I hiked out from my cabin in the woods to the main road yesterday I couldn’t help but notice the many “this home is protected by ACME Home Security,” BEWARE OF DOG, and NO TRESPASSING signs.  So where does this come from?

I’m sure that the concentration of irrational paranoia in these areas is in many ways a process of self-selection.  This is to say that the people who have the highest levels of anxiety about inner-city crime are the most likely to move out to these areas.  But I’m not convinced that this process accounts for all of it.  Some of it might be a natural, almost atavistic, reaction to solitude.  Remember when you were young and afraid of the dark?  It wasn't merely the absence of light that frightened you; the darkness only emphasized the real fear, that of being alone.  The dark loneliness could make things and ideas that would ordinarily seem, well, quite ordinary, seem frightening.  Something very similar happens when people live removed from regular human contact.

The first time I remember thinking about this strange phenomenon was when a young Japanese exchange student was shot on the doorstep of a Baton Rouge man’s semi-rural home.  It was in ’92 or ’93, and I was a high school student at the time.  The poor boy was shot dead because he had the terrible misfortune of knocking on the wrong door.  The man who shot him—a law-abiding, blue-collar everyman—didn’t think twice about grabbing his gun at the sound of an unexpected, early evening knock at the door.  Why he decided to shoot after seeing that it was a high school student, is still something of a mystery to me.  But I have to believe that the anxious, evening-news-filled paranoia that likely drove this man out into the sticks in the first place and stoked his fears every night had a lot to do with it. 

While I’m sure he spent some time in prison, I honestly don’t remember exactly what happened to that man.  (Though I do, however, remember then President Bill Clinton apologizing to Japan for the incident.)  But I’m reminded of him, the Japanese boy he killed, and the strange, uniquely American rural paranoia that made that tragedy possible each time I walk down this mountain road.  “No Trespassing,” indeed!!

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

This Ain’t yo’ Father’s Walden Pond! Part I

After over two months in a cramped New York City studio, my wife and I are now living eight miles from Front Royal, eighty miles from DC, high up in the Blue Mountains, off a gravel road, and in a “not so rustic” cabin in the woods.  This detour was less planned than pleasantly fortuitous; less vacation than a practical consequence of moving back to DC on short notice.

The plan is to stay here for two months as we look for an apartment and make the slow transition back to DC.   But the bayou-raised Coonass in me is just diggin’ the scene and goin’ with the flow!  Since we’ve been here I’ve started wandering around the house half naked and scratching myself; I’m constantly looking for a good stick to carve; I’ve been looking for two good trees to roast a pig between; I feel like rolling up my pants just above my ankles, digging my toenails into the dry dirt, sticking a wad of chew in my lip and spitting out the juice as I talk to add emphasis to the strange folksy things I seem to feel like saying now.

Who knows?  We might decide to stay out here for years.  I could get a pickup truck and find some coal mine to work at.  Or I could write a recipe book all about dishes prepared with squirrel.  I’m thinkin’ it over.  

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"To" Russia with Love

As a child, my image of Russia was colored by Hollywood. Red Dawn, Rocky IV, Spies like Us, and a host of other films and TV series filled my mind with a pixilated, snow-covered, grey, dreary, broken, and mostly reassuring image of Russia.

Russia, I found out a few years ago, never fails to disappoint! Moscow was much cleaner than my cold-war-tainted visions allowed me to imagine. The streets were swept clean; the high-end jewelry and clothing stores were bustling; the subways were scrubbed to a shimmering polish; and the Kremlin literally sparkled. I recall searching the structure in vain for a single flake of peeling paint or a rogue weed sprouting from some crack. Nothing!!! The damn place was solid as a rock and clean as a bourgeois fantasy.

I prowled the streets and back alleys looking for remnants of that crumbling monster of my youth—the kind of place where you could trade a few cans of Coca-Cola, an I Heart NY T-shirt, and an Eight Track of punk rock for a rusty used Lada and some plutonium. I sat for hours one afternoon near the Aleksandrovskiy Sad drinking cold Dutch beer from impeccably clean pint glasses as I waited for some sign of the bitter, downtrodden masses I was convinced Russia was overflowing with. Where were the starving, toothless old women fighting over moldy bread in the street? Where were the AIDs-infested prostitutes being kicked by pimps and police? Where’s the dictators, the rat soup, the crying children, the smoke, smog, and goose-stepping soldiers? Fuck, I thought, who do I have to bribe around here to see a little corruption?

And then I saw it. Groups of large heavily intoxicated men with casks of vodka under one arm and toothless whores under the other. Ahh-ha!!! Yes, I thought; here they were!! I knew the Russia of my imagination couldn’t have been that wrong.

And so I watched as the park filled with more and more of these groups. All the men were enormous, wearing white and blue striped long-sleeve shirts; and every last one of them was shitfaced, violently drunk. As more and more flooded into the park—hooting and hollering as they did—and as I continued to drink more and more beer, panic set in. Was this some vodka fueled revolution? Am I about to be swept away in a violent throng of Slavic testosterone? What would Dr. Zhivago do? Flee to the Urals?

I didn’t have to wait long before a group of the enormous blue and white striped death machines sat down at my table.

“What’s the occasion?” I politely asked.

“Special Forces day,” he shot back.

Hmmm, I was immediately intrigued. “Are you all in the Special Forces?” I probed further.

“OF COURSE,” he replied a little too emphatically.

“So what’s it like being in the Russian Special Forces these days?” I continued undeterred.

He eventually warmed up to me, and I let him lead the conversation. Our discussion shifted from killing people, to women, to shooting guns, to women, to killing women, to women. And, then it took a hard left turn I was completely unprepared for. He became quite critical of the US’s new imperial role in Afghanistan and Iraq; and he wanted to let me know about his frustration. He made a few wild accusations about US intentions, a few clumsy historical analyses, and some rather poignant speculation about where all this could lead. At one point I did interrupt him to remind him that Russia was in the process of trouncing the Chechens, but he ignored my comment and continued on. (a word of advice, when you’re surrounded by seven-foot-tall Russian soldiers drinking their weight in vodka, be prepared to show a little humility.)

This one speed bump out of the way, the night continued merrily on—a Commie and a Cajun just shootin’ the breeze. I bought him a beer, he gave me some vodka; I showed him my American Flag tattoo, he let me wear his Special Forces Beret; I offered to cook him some gumbo, he tried to sell me his wife. In the end, I stumbled back to my hotel with a new vision of Russia and Russians, one that will last, I hope, until the next traumatic disappointment.

As Moscow now reels from the social damage wrought by two successive terrorist attacks, I remember that evening even more fondly. I wonder if that guy is preparing to go off to start a few of those imperial adventures he was so critical of five years ago (or if he’s spending time in prison for selling his wife). I guess we’ll all find out.

Good Luck, You Lovable Commies!!