I’ve been rather busy the last two months. The way consulting works is you spend six months in terror of impending destitution, then you get a year’s work of work that you have to finish in eight weeks. Hence my absence from the blog, the twitterverse and everything else in my life. I was stunned to find out this morning that I had a wife and a dog.
Early in this period I did have a vacation of sorts. Okay, it wasn’t a vacation, but the fulfillment of an obligation. My wife dragged me to Arkansas for her family reunion and even with my heavy workload, she refused to give me a pass. So, after fourteen hours in what passes for an air transportation system in the United States, we arrived at Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, drove the rental car to President Clinton Avenue in downtown Little Rock and found our hotel (no, it was not the Chelsea Inn).
When I visit a city, the experience imprints an emblem on my mind. Sometimes it’s an obvious landmark, like PPG Place in Pittsburgh or Puerta del Sol in Madrid. Sometimes it’s a gestalt of the experience. When I think of Atlanta I think of freeways and Waffle Houses. When I think of Milwaukee I think “pointy brick buildings.”
When I think of Little Rock, I’ll think of parking lots and really bad coffee.
They’re trying to spruce up downtown to take advantage of the tourist attraction that is the William J. Clinton Presidential Center (which should be renamed The Clinton Center for Unabashed Self-Promotion). It looks like they have a promising downtown renewal plan, because they really need one. What I remember most about walking around downtown is lots and lots of half-empty parking lots.
The people are friendly and polite, as is true of many places in The South. They can’t make espresso to save their lives, and the food is so bland I can’t even remember what I ate. We spent a couple of days there before heading off to the reunion.
This family gathering took place in a crumbling town of about 3,000 souls in the Ozark foothills. There’s a downtown area that would take about five minutes to walk, and even less to go into the shops, most of which were closed or near-death. The haute cuisine consists of a McDonald’s and a Pizza Hut.
Summer is spent avoiding the omnipresent heat, humidity, violent thunderstorms and insect swarms. When the residents are active, which is a rare occurrence outside of the need to cut the grass that grows a foot in a week, they go to church. There are about thirty churches, all some variation of Christian fundamentalist. As that’s about one for every 100 residents, some of the congregations are on the small side. One of my wife’s relatives told me that he used to go to a church that counted eight souls in its flock.
The reunion centered around a pot luck, consisting of various forms of inedible goop in casserole dishes. The primary topics of conversation were Jesus, who’s dead and who’s about to become dead. Several times I heard people talk about next year’s reunion and end the conversation with, “Well, if you can’t make it, we’ll all see each other at the pearly gates.”
What was most remarkable about this gathering of a hundred or so human beings was their stunning lack of mobility. Eighty percent of them had been born and raised there and were planning to die there. Most had never ventured out of the immediate area and none expressed the slightest desire to do so.
For a boy born and raised in California, this was a world turned upside down. I remember numerous times in my life where I’d be with groups of people and find out I was the only one actually born in the state. All of my family members have moved far away from our Silicon Valley hometown, modeling my mother who, ironically, was born in Arkansas. I’ve been to something like twenty-seven different countries and many of the people I know are eager world explorers. Even those who haven’t been anywhere dream about other lands and plan fantasy vacations.
Even more jarring was the absolute certainty that all of these people wore as a badge of honor. They had never seen any other part of the world and had only been exposed to other cultures through satellite television, which is usually tuned to a 24/7 Christian station anyway. They were absolutely committed to living their entire lives in a sealed vault. Their belief in the good book had given them an ironclad certainty that they knew everything there was to know in life, so it was pointless to venture beyond the nest.
Many of them are connected with farming in one way or another, and I did feel envious that their life rhythms are tied to the passing of the seasons. In my hectic modern world, I often don’t even notice what month it is and all the seasons tend to run together. What I certainly don’t envy is their complete lack of curiosity and their complete obedience to ready-made solutions for any problem that life has to offer. As far as these people are concerned, the world might as well be flat.
My wife said it all as we drove past the roadkill on our way back to Little Rock. “The scary thing is that all of those people vote . . . religiously.”