What Just Happened?

The decision to leave Texas, change careers and go back to school was, and sometimes remains, wrenching, but this voluntary submission to upheaval and uncertainty (or possibility, to look at it in the better light) has brought opportunities whose significance will only grow with time. In the netherworld between my time teaching and the beginning of graduate school I’ve gotten to know the U.S. in ways deep and varied. In the process I’ve enriched my understanding of everything from the quirks and charms of this country’s people to the paradoxical intimacy and indifference of the American landscape. I’ve become what I always most wanted to be: a student of places, put in his place by the complexity of a nation.

There are many ways to know a “place” (a term that is awfully vague), and they don’t all involve traveling. I’ve seen the U.S. in a variety of ways, beginning with family road trips when I was a kid, but for the first time I’ve been able to combine in a four-month period ten-thousand-mile road trips with short and cheap regional excursions by bus; flights from northeast to southwest with plodding three-day rail journeys from the Atlantic to the Pacific; solo travel with family and group travel; planned itineraries with figure-it-out-as-you-go jaunts; long stays in one city with quick dips into many. In this time I’ve gone through thirty-three states, run into more than a dozen nationalities, encountered essentially all four seasons in a matter of days, and talked politics with people on both ends of the ideological spectrum. I’ve seen, for the first time, our largest metropolis, New York, and, for the second time, our largest natural feature, the Grand Canyon and the emptiness that emanates from it into five states (thinking conservatively).

I highlight all of this only because the compression of so many experiences into so tight a temporal space provides a rare opportunity for contemplation and comparison. Why? Because I don’t think I’ll ever again have so many different and ostensibly contradictory experiences in working memory at the same time. I’m bewildered by the unending nuance and vast extension of a place that claims me as a citizen. Such confusion might militate against productive thought, but then maybe confusion is the most honest starting point for understanding something that is relentlessly complicated and slippery. So to end on an anticlimactic note, I’m effing confused, but the confusion I feel is of the type that enthralls for being so obviously inevitable. It’s no wonder we Americans can seem so loony. Or maybe that’s just me.

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