Aug 10, 2009

The Ambivalent Exclamation

Walking around the Northwestern University campus on Thursday with Katherine and Will--it's been more than twenty years since we were all there together. Impossible to believe. Now we've returned with four daughters between us. And I have to say: walking down Sheridan Road in sub-Arctic temperatures with a chilling wind and icy sidewalks and twelve pounds of books in my arms when I was 21 was somehow much easier than walking down Sheridan Road on a perfect summer day with two kids to herd away from traffic when I'm 45, especially when one of those kids is hell-bent on climbing everything that doesn't move. That would be Eden. Who I swear is part monkey.

As we neared the big bend in Sheridan that marks the southern edge of campus, we passed the Victorian house that was once the departmental office for Anthropology, which was my minor. And in the strange, associative way that memory works, I remembered taking a class in that building during my senior year with the legendary Navajo scholar Ozzie Werner, which then made both Katherine and I remember we'd been friends with his son Derek, which made us wonder where Derek is now, which made Will remember that Derek had once been on a campaign to get people to adopt what he called "the ambivalent exclamation point." Essentially, it was the top of an exclamation point with a comma (and not a period) underneath it, to denote a slightly less than enthusiastic response. Or a non-committal reaction. Or a passive-aggressive response, although I don't think we knew the term "passive-aggressive" back then. Kind of like what Alaskans would have put after the headline "Sarah Palin resigns," explained Katherine and Will, who are longtime Alaska Democrats. (Proving that's not an oxymoron.)

I hope the ambivalent exclamation point hasn't disappeared into oblivion. If I could find Derek Werner, I'd ask him to revive it. Or at least to cede rights to its revival to me. Because I think it's a brilliant invention. Imagine all the uses we could put it to. I, personally, would stick it at the end of headlines that interest other people but about which I have to work really, really hard to care. "Bush Lonely in Dallas." "Octomom Gets New Reality Show." It's a way to acknowledge other people's interest, while politely yawning at the same time.

Punctuation: it's both sorely underrated, and in need of invigoration. When did we last get a new punctuation mark? It's time.

Aug 2, 2009

Hooverfest, West Branch, Iowa, August 1

Yesterday we went to West Branch, Iowa, for the annual Hooverfest. West Branch is the birthplace of Herbert Hoover, 31st president of the U.S., and the last president to steer the country into a profound economic downturn. Perhaps only in West Branch is Hoover celebrated as a hero. Elsewhere, he's remembered as the president who got the country into a very bad spot and couldn't manage to get it out.

If not for the Hoover mark of distinction, West Branch might otherwise be synonymous with any small Midwestern town, postcard-perfect with its main street, Victorian clapboard houses, and wide green parks. Though we've spent the past six summers in Eastern Iowa, this is the first time we've gone to Hooverfest. Usually we hit Solon Beef Days and, last year, the Lisbon Kraut Festival, but having missed both of those this year due to Maya's camp schedule, we decided to give Hooverfest a try.

It was more of an outdoor fair than a carnival, with a plethora of historical booths and craft demonstrations lined up throughout the town's central park. We walked through the tiny two-room house where Hoover was born, and saw his father's blacksmith shop. (Little known fact: Hoover was orphaned at age nine.) The girls had the chance to grind cornmeal by hand and try out a two-handled saw. We had a long talk with the women representing the West Branch Historial Society, as well as with a man named Steve from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Burr Oak, Iowa. Apparently the Ingalls family lived for a year in Iowa when Laura was 8 or 9, but since this predating the Little House in the Big Woods time (Book 1), she never wrote about it. Who knew?

Like most small Midwestern town fairs, this one had a strong military presence, with tent booths representing the U.S. Army and various other military branches and posts. Normally I'd find this unsettling, lifelong peacenik that I am, but I also have a corresponding deep respect for those who choose to defend the country. Also, everyone was just so darn nice all day, even the guys in military regalia adorned with more buttons and pins than I could count.

At about 4:00 everyone started setting up lawn chairs on the grassy spread next to the Presidential Library so we wandered over to see what it was all about. A musical performance began, with what looked like about 20 youngish men and woman singing and swing dancing to 40s big-band music. About halfway into the performance, a simulated radio announcer came over the microphone and announced that Pearl Harbor had just been attacked by the Japanese, and the performers all stood stock still as if just receiving and taking in the news. I looked around to see if anyone else thought this was as strange as I did, sitting on a lawn on a sunny, green Midwestern day with Japan now a major trade partner across the ocean and just a connecting flight away, but most everyone else seemed to be watching the show intently.

The storyline became a little hard to follow at this point, but then one of the performers announced they'd now be doing a tribute to the various branches of the military, and invited veterans to stand when they heard their divison's song. A group of men four abreast in identical naval uniforms stood when the first bars began. When the music changed, they sat and a few other men peppered throughout the crowd stood up from their lawn chairs and faced the stage, where the performers were engaging in some kind of hokey marching-in-place routine meant, I suppose, to represent uniformity and endurance? None of the men standing on the lawn were younger than 50, so we're talking Vietnam War here, and even some World War II. It was impossible not to notice how straight all the men stood, with such expressions of pride, such a simple gesture but also so profound. It was humbling to watch.
And then another division's song started and an elderly man in front of us stood up. He balanced his left side against a cane, and with his other hand pulled off his baseball cap and started whipping it around in circles above his head in time to the music.

Something about this scene--the senior citizen who could barely stand on his own joyously whooping it up during his moment of honor on a green lawn on a safe and glorious summer day, was almost more than I could handle, and the tears started running down my face. (I have a long history of embarrassing my daughters in public with my random crying jags when I witness things that move me, so they barely even acknowledged this one.) And I thought, what a beautiful, crazy, complicated, mysterious, goddamned fantastic country this is.

As a writer, what can you do with moments like these, what else can you possibly do with them, except go home and try to make art?