For the last month or so I've been riding my bike up the
entire length of the Mississippi river. This has not been a trip about amazing
scenery -- though there have been moments of breathtaking beauty -- nor does my
journey have any official theme or purpose. I'd been wanting to see the
"real" America for a while now, and riding slowly up the middle bits
seemed like a good way to do it.
Not that I haven't lived in the U.S. my entire life, but you
know what I mean. The real America is "normal" America, the one
politicians pander to, Fox News tries to frighten, and the one that comes to
mind when I (perhaps you) think of the idea, rather than the place,
I'm getting a lesson in my own culture. Mostly, I've been
deeply moved by our goodness and unhesitating willingness to come to the aid of
a sweaty, middle-aged woman in tight, garish Lycra, clackety cycling shoes, and
covered in bruises and chain grease. It's a deep part of our national character
that I'd like to see our leaders appeal to so much more.
That said, I've also been bored silly much of the time by
the unrelenting sameness despite having traveled nearly 2, 000 miles so far. In
the middle of Middle America, the aesthetic rarely changes. From the
capri-panted women, to men surgically attached to their baseball caps and
trucks, to the country-quaint decorations, to the criminally random apostrophes
and tortured puns of every craft store name ("I'll Bee Sewin' You"),
to the ubiquitous (and quite tasty at the end of a long, hot cycling day) Dairy
Queens -- well, at times I've felt stuck in a space/time loop.
I think this is what "normal" looks like here. And
I've wondered more and more if I was also seeing the American Way of Life that
I've heard so much about, whether it's being threatened by terrorists or gays,
or just the crappy economy. If so, it's the cultural equivalent of a grilled
cheese sandwich with the crust cut off. Sometimes it's just what you're in the
mood for, but you'll soon be desperate for a microgreens salad with goat cheese
and rosemary. I am, in any case.
Amid this sameness, occasionally something unusual springs
up, usually in a fabulously out-of-scale way (this problem with appropriate
scale also seems to be part of our American-ness). My fellow riders and I
screech to a halt to snap pictures of each of us posing in front of whatever
proud expression of individuality has appeared upon the landscape, such as the
fellow with the antique outhouse collection in his yard, or the enormous church
made entirely of scrap, or most recently, the improbably serious and well
funded Farm Toy Museum in Dyersville, Iowa. Each time something loudly breaks
up the monotony I quietly sing the Sesame Street jingle, "One of these
things is not like the others..." and smile.
Thank God for whatever guts it takes to express oneself so
joyfully, without any apparent concern about the irony or absurdity of it.
Honestly. As long as folks feel free to express themselves this way, then all
the normalcy becomes like a pleasant canvas to paint on. But without the weirdness, tedium sets in
fast, and despite how nice everyone is, I start to feel like a freak. The bad
kind of freak.
When those proud weirdos do appear, I feel like I belong
too. I don't just mean the ones with the oversized yard sculptures either. I
mean the boy who puts pink food coloring in his hair and lip-syncs Lady Gaga
tunes in the mirror, or the cashier at the Family Dollar store with the nose
ring and butch swagger (thanks for the knowing nod last week). They make me
feel like the right kind of freak.
To anyone who can't seem to relate to what's
"normal," or who dreams about going somewhere else one day -- sure, do
it, but remember that you are a beautiful part of the landscape today. You are
saving us from ourselves, even if the neighbors don't get it at all.