Tag Archives: An American Road Trip

Colorado Springs: The War at Home

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In my book Home Free: An American Road Trip, I devote most of a chapter to Colorado Springs. As with my similar decision to devote the book’s entire first chapter to Wisconsin, I did it for a blend of personal and topical reasons. I didn’t grow up in Colorado Springs – I don’t call it home – but my parents have lived there since 1986, when I was 21 years old. That means that, as I put it in Home Free, Colorado Springs has been exasperating me from afar for more than half my life.

So I trust you’ll understand when I say that I take Friday’s attack on the Planned Parenthood clinic there personally. We can, and maybe should, debate the morality and politics of abortion, but we’ve been doing that ad nauseum for decades. Of more immediate concern to me is that, when I called my mother on Friday to make sure she was safe, she told me that she sometimes shops at the nearby King Sooper supermarket where people took shelter during the Planned Parenthood attack. So in addition to concerning myself as a citizen with public issues like abortion and gun control, and as a writer with understanding what’s becoming of American society, I have to worry about the physical safety of my aging parents. I resent that.

My parents are not helpless. They’re both resourceful people, and they’ve done a good job taking care of themselves for nearly 80 years and of each other for 55. But how safe are any of us from some guy with a rifle and an axe to grind? I’m sickened that three people died on Friday in Colorado Springs, especially so because, at the same time, I’m relieved that none of the three was one of my parents.

Also sickening, and telling, is how Planned Parenthood has already been forced partially to retract its initial forthright statement that “extremists are creating a poisonous environment that feeds domestic terrorism in this country.” Republican congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois told CNN that the statement was “very premature” and that he “would fully expect an apology” if it turned out – implausibly – that the gunman was not targeting Planned Parenthood. He surely was, but so what if he wasn’t? Three people are still dead.

Planned Parenthood has amended the phrase “domestic terrorism” to “acts of violence,” but I wish they hadn’t. Every time something like this happens, we have the same non-debate about what counts as terrorism, and Muslims – many of whom are my friends, so I hear it directly from them – point out how they are forced to live in a state of perpetual apology for who they are, whereas white American terrorists are always dismissed as lone wolves. That double standard exposes an extremely volatile fault line within a deeply dishonest body politic.

And Colorado Springs is one of the front lines of that fault line. Right-wing extremists have been bullying and browbeating the rest of the community ever since my parents moved there. I don’t say that lightly or from partisan motives. I know whereof I speak, because my mother has been deeply involved in the city’s civic life all along, including a stint as president of the public library board, and was principal of two elementary schools in one of the most socially and politically conservative parts of town.

In Colorado Springs’ political life, there are three distinct breeds of Republican: the old-fashioned Herbert Hoover-type pro-business breed that underpins many cities’ local establishments; a distinctively Western libertarian strain whose largely admirable genuine core motivation is to live and let live; and power-mongering ideologues whose agenda is driven by the fundamentalist Christian right. Anyone who knows Colorado Springs knows that it has been a mecca for the third category since about 1980.

It’s fair enough for Republicans to say that they as an American faction should not be collectively blamed for extremist violence like Friday’s attack (just as Muslims should not be collectively blamed for events like the Paris attacks). But, if we insist on requiring Muslims to disavow Islamist violence, it’s fair also to ask conservative Americans to be honest and self-critical about the connections between our country’s poisonous environment and domestic extremist violence. Congressman Kinzinger’s words on CNN are an evasion. So is Colorado Springs mayor John Suthers calling the attack a “terrible tragedy.” It is that, to be sure, but we’ll get nowhere as a society until we call it the other thing that it clearly was: a terrorist attack.

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I know what Muslims are like

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I haven’t written many articles or newsletters this year. Part of the reason is that I’ve been busy on other fronts, in my personal life as well as working on a couple of new book projects, plus launching a modest book-publishing venture (the website is still a work in progress). But I also don’t think the world needs a steady stream of op-eds and tweets, opinions and “quick takes,” from me, any more than it needs them from anybody else. Part of our problem these days is that we all have all too much to say.

So I’m writing now to say something I consider important: that the Muslims I know are not like the ones you see on TV. Anyone who knows me either personally or through my writing knows that I’ve said that many times before, in different forms and venues. I really don’t know how to say it differently or better, or to write other than out of my own experience. My personal exposure to Muslim people began in Kashmir in 1994 and continued in Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Thailand and especially Pakistan, where my extensive travel culminated in a stint living and teaching in Lahore in 2003-04 and the publication of my book Alive and Well in Pakistan. Since then I’ve returned to Pakistan twice, in 2009 and 2011.

And since returning to live in the United States in 2006 I’ve put in a lot of time and air miles getting to know Pakistani-American communities from coast to coast. I can say that I haven’t agreed with or even personally liked every Muslim I’ve ever met, but then again I haven’t agreed with or liked every Christian or Jew I’ve met, either. Human nature is what it is.

So we have to deal with each other, and with ourselves. It should go without saying – but I’d better say it anyway – that the carnage perpetrated in Paris by Islamist radicals is appalling and utterly without justification. But I don’t want to live in an America ruled by fear and loathing, bullied by those among us who lack the self-control or self-respect to resist yielding to their lowest animal impulses. At the moment, I’m speaking in particular of the cretins who have been terrorizing an Islamic center in Irving, Texas by showing up there armed with automatic rifles, which unfortunately happens to be legal in Texas. Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean they’re not cretins and bullies.

And I take this personally because the same outfit, led by a coward named David Wright, has also published on Facebook the home addresses of Muslims and so-called “Muslim sympathizers” who spoke out at a recent Irving city council meeting against an unnecessary and incendiary “anti-shariah” Texas state law. Shame on me for the following, but I was especially brought up short by the fact that one of the addresses published was that of an activist named Anthony Bond, i.e. apparently a non-Muslim American just like me. That World War II-era poem about how first they came for the Socialists, then they came for the Jews, etc.  comes to mind.

You could object that bullies like David Wright don’t represent or lead mainstream America. But if they don’t, who does? And who among us will stand up against large, aggressive men armed with automatic rifles, for the principle that might does not make right? Well, Anthony Bond will, for one. “We have a right to disagree, but we do not have the right to target and cause … harm just because we differ in our beliefs,” he told the Dallas Morning News. “That is the goal of this post: to put a bulls-eye on the back of all the people that stood up against the so-called anti-Shariah law bill.”

The other crucial principle to stand up for in today’s America is that it’s not all right to judge or punish or intimidate people solely or preemptively on the basis of the religion they were born into. Perhaps I have an advantage in this, since I know many Muslims personally. And I know what they’re like: for better or worse, they’re just like you and me.

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Muslims Should Live, Not Die, in America

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Plymouth, Michigan, Feb. 11 – We don’t yet know what effects the Feb. 10 murder of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina will have on Muslims around America or elsewhere, or on the rest of us. For starters, it will anger many Muslims. It already has, and it should. No matter what wrong things some Muslims do, that doesn’t mean that other Muslims who have done nothing wrong deserve to be killed. If you want to know what Muslims are thinking and saying – and you should – follow the #ChapelHillShooting and #MuslimLivesMatter hashtags on Twitter.

Unfortunately, it’s all too predictable that some Muslims, as tragically disturbed and misguided as Chapel Hill killer Craig Stephen Hicks clearly is, will take matters into their own hands. That’s one thing I’m afraid of. But I’m also afraid of the opposite: that Muslim communities around the United States will be terrorized into cowering timidity.

It’s not for me to tell them that they should do otherwise. Each of us makes a perpetual series of moment-by-moment calculations about how to live in the world both safely and with integrity, and acting with public courage can be physically dangerous. And what we know about the backgrounds and aspirations of Deah Barakat, his wife Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha underscores a widespread and largely admirable fact about American Muslims: they want to get along, pursue middle-class professions, raise families, live in suburbs, make themselves useful to society, help the needy. Through my writing and speaking I know many American Muslims, including many students very much like the three who were killed, and my sense is that most of them would strongly prefer not to be doing things like marching in the streets.

But the parallel that was promptly rendered explicit by the #MuslimLivesMatter hashtag is too obvious to ignore. As DeRay Mckesson, one of the Ferguson movement’s most vocal leaders, told a writer for Salon magazine, “We still protest every day, because we know that not only will our silence not save us, our surrender won’t save us, a video camera won’t save us. It is not that we are willing to die, it’s that we are unwilling to live in an America where blackness equals death.” What implications Muslims might draw for their own public activities in American society is, of course, for them to decide. But one thing I know is that, in America, if you don’t toot your own horn, nobody else is gonna toot it for you.

Some Muslims that I know personally are already doing some of what needs to be done. My Pakistani-American friend Nadeem Iqbal, for example, arrived to study at – of all places – North Carolina State University in 1982, and stayed. Nadeem organizes an annual public Eid festival in the town of Cary, very near Chapel Hill. “The main motive,” Nadeem told me, “was that we live in America, we need to celebrate our religious festivals in this new environment, and we have to add that flavoring. We are celebrating it as an American holiday event.”

When I asked Nadeem why he felt such work was important, he told me:

My children and their children are going to live in this country, and they should be treated fairly. But the only way it can happen is for them and us to become part of the greater fabric. I’m not talking about assimilation, but about being able to participate in American society on an equal basis, without fear or compulsion. … Doing religious stuff is important from the religious point of view and the social point of view, but getting involved in the larger society is equally important.

A parallel challenge and opportunity exists for Americans who, like me, grew up in all-white or white-dominated small towns or suburbs. My friend Sarah Derry grew up in the town of Hubbell, pop. 1,105, in Houghton County in a remote part of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “It’s just in the wake of the old mining ruins,” she told me. “When they talk about small towns in America, this is one of them. It’s a pretty conservative place.”

A couple of years ago, when Sarah’s father was staying with her for a few months in a Detroit suburb, she took him to the Shatila Bakery, a well-known establishment in the heavily Arab-American city of Dearborn. “I found out about it from a guy I work with who’s Iraqi,” she told me. “My father is not the most open-minded person. As we were driving down there I told him, ‘Poppy, there’s a lot of Middle Eastern people there. They’ll be wearing a lot of headscarves, so don’t act all shocked.'”

An Arab man held the door open for Sarah’s father, and “they had a chuckle” because the man explained that it’s a tradition to show respect for elders. “We got our desserts and sat down,” Sarah remembers. “And when we left Poppy said, ‘Well, they seemed pretty nice. They seemed just like normal people.'”

While Sarah was glad to witness this “ah-ha” moment in her father’s life, she was also impressed that her teenage son was unimpressed, as if his grandfather’s insight were merely a statement of the obvious. “I’m glad I’m raising Erik in a place where there’s different races and cultures, because that’s the way the world is,” Sarah told me. “I want him to be a functioning member of society.”

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After Ferguson: driving and speaking around the Midwest

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Home Free: An American Road Trip by Ethan CaseyEthan Casey, author of Home Free: An American Road Trip, is planning a follow-up trip through the Midwest in the fall of 2015 to document the attitudes, aspirations and worries of Americans and in the wake of events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere nationwide since the summer of 2014. He will be writing an account of that 2-3-week trip to supplement Home Free. Along the way he plans to speak at colleges, high schools, civic clubs and religious congregations. Destinations will include Milwaukee, Detroit, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City.

Ethan Casey Saut d'EauTo invite Ethan to speak to your group during his fall 2015 Midwestern trip, or to learn more about his travels and writings, contact Ethan directly at ethan@ethancasey.com or through his Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/ethancasey.author

About Home Free: An American Road Trip:

Over  3 1/2 months and more than 18,000 miles between Labor Day and Christmas 2012, during and just after the presidential election, author Ethan Casey, whose previous books include Alive and Well in Pakistan and Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti, drove clockwise through every region of the contiguous United States, starting and ending in Seattle.

His purpose was to do what reporters and travel writers should do, and what he had done previously in books about Pakistan and Haiti: show up on the ground in person, seek out interesting and representative people, listen to their stories and points of view, take notes, then later sit down and stitch together a coherent narrative. His intention was to get away from the liberal echo chamber of his home city, catch history on the fly, and craft a nonfiction narrative account of America circa 2012 that will echo forward and remain relevant and readable for years to come.

Ethan’s itinerary included in-depth conversations with a few notable public figures such as the Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat in Miami and Enron scandal whistleblower Sherron Watkins in Houston, but most of the people he met were ordinary Americans from a variety of backgrounds, in every region of the country. What he found they all had in common was that they were struggling to make sense of the confusing and uncertain times we’re all living through.

Paul Rogat Loeb, author of Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While, says: “Ethan Casey listened hard and well in his books on Haiti and Pakistan. Now he’s listening to America.”

And Bill Steigerwald, author of Dogging Steinbeck, considers Home Free better than the most famous of all American road trip books:

Just as John Steinbeck did in 1960 for his classic Travels With Charley, in the fall of 2012 Ethan Casey set out by car to discover – and document – the pulse of America and its people. Steinbeck’s ambitious search for his country was a failure, as the great author himself admitted. But Home Free is travel journalism at its finest. Casey delivers a valuable snapshot of 2012 America and its most contentious political and social issues.  Best of all, he introduces us to a rich cross-section of good, smart and thoughtful Americans who tell their stories and express their opinions fully on everything from immigration and gay marriage to the death of Detroit. Home Free is, in a real sense, the American road book Steinbeck set out to write but didn’t.

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Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes across America

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CarsickEvery American road trip is different; thus every American road trip book is, and should be, different from every other. The beauty of such books done well has much to do with the nature of the country itself: so enormous and diverse, and so (if we’re honest) contingent and arbitrary in its history and geography, that any trip across or around it is bound to have as much to do with the personality of the road tripper, and the happenstances inherent in the act of traveling, as with any putative qualities of the vast abstraction that we call America. This is as it should be.

Still – and regrettably –  any of us who drive around America and write a book about it do so in the long shadow of a very famous writer’s very famous book. Reflecting on his own planned trip in his prologue, John Waters makes the requisite reference, though he makes it with an admirably critical eye and purpose:

Or could I just make up the whole book and say it was true? How would anybody know? It took years for scholars to figure out that John Steinbeck’s supposedly nonfiction Travels with Charley: In Search of America, a well-reviewed bestseller published in 1962 (and still in print), was in fact total bullshit. Instead of driving cross-country in a pickup, staying in campgrounds, and chatting up the locals, as the author claimed, he actually had company with him, stayed in motels and luxury hotels, and made up the conversations. According to writer Bill Barich, quoted in a recent New York Times article, Steinbeck was “discouraged by everyone from making the trip.” He was too old, “trying to recapture his youth, the spirit of knight-errant.” Uh-oh. Could that be me?

But – before I tell you how wonderful Carsick is, which it is, I’m compelled to take Waters to task for a sloppy reading of the New York Times coverage of the unmasking of Steinbeck’s fraud. Bill Steigerwald, the man who busted Steinbeck, is a friend of mine. And the reason he’s a friend of mine is that, after reading the same April 2011 Times article that John Waters read, I was so impressed that I made a point of stopping in Pittsburgh and taking Bill to lunch on my own drive around America for my book Home Free. Bill deserves credit for a genuine mighty feat of reporting, and he rightly seizes every opportunity to claim the credit that he deserves. It wasn’t the New York Times, and it certainly wasn’t the cozy coterie of scholars Bill dubs the Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex, who painstakingly read the original manuscript of Travels with Charley at the Morgan Library, then doggedly drove around America and documented Steinbeck’s specific failures and evasions in a wonderfully entertaining book aptly titled Dogging Steinbeck. It was retired Pittsburgh newspaperman Bill Steigerwald who did those things, and no one else.

So I hope that Waters sees fit to give Bill due credit in future editions of Carsick. That said, Carsick is a wonderful American road trip book in its own right. Apropos the passage quoted above, it really is three road trips in one: two fictional, one real. The book’s first section imagines “The Best That Could Happen,” the second “The Worst That Could Happen,” and the final section relates Waters’s actual trip. Waters would no doubt be amused to learn that a friend of mine (who is gay, which is relevant to much of the sometimes profane subject matter) read the prologue inattentively and got almost through the first section before realizing – or rather being told by me – that it was made up. The first two-thirds of the book is no less enjoyable for being fictional; in fact, both the “Best” and “Worst” trips are jaw-dropping, page-turning exercises in imagination (sexual and otherwise).

After all the shocking and appalling made-up misadventures, it’s a relief to read about Waters’s actual trip, which was plenty adventurous enough for a man of sixty-six, especially when you remember that Waters didn’t even drive but hitchhiked. Bill Steigerwald traveled at a similar age and also, as he puts it, doglessly. I agree with Steigerwald’s dictum that, if you’re planning to make an American road trip and write a book about it, you shouldn’t take either your dog or your wife (or, if we must be explicitly gender-inclusive, your husband/spouse/partner/whatever). What Steigerwald means is that traveling alone helps you stay alert. Steinbeck took both (though only his talking pedigree French poodle appears extensively in his bad book). The journalist and novelist Philip Caputo, well known for his classic Vietnam book A Rumor of War, took his wife and two dogs in a vintage Airstream trailer, and the effect in his 2013 book The Longest Road is of spending a very long evening at the senior center watching the vacation slides of a kindly but self-involved and dull retiree couple.

Caputo’s whole conceit is that the same flag flies over Key West, where he and his wife and dogs started their trip, and Nome, where they ended up, and isn’t that swell, with precious little reflection on how that fact illustrates that the United States of America is, effectively, an empire. My own very different summing-up at the end of Home Free  is that “while the United States, plural, might be in some sense a single country, they are also an archipelago of disparate communities. Whether the center would hold was an open question.”

Caputo’s book is not fraudulent like Steinbeck’s, but it is dreadful. Both show that being a Famous Writer doesn’t suffice to write a great, or even good, American road trip book. Carsick is a triumph because Waters had sufficient humility, sense of humor, and perspective on his own fame to turn it from an obstacle into a literary device. Throughout the book he frets alternately about whether he will or won’t be recognized, and he carries – and once or twice makes use of – an actual “fame kit” that he had his staff put together for him. “I just signed a book deal resulting from the shortest pitch ever,” he informs us at the beginning. “I, John Waters, will hitchhike alone from the front of my Baltimore house to my co-op apartment in San Francisco and see what happens. Simple, huh?”

The happy paradox is that it’s precisely by maintaining a light touch and not taking himself or his quixotic project too seriously that Waters has written what might well be something of a minor masterpiece. “The CHECK ENGINE light continues to add a touch of anxiety,” he writes somewhere in the desert in Nevada, near the end of the real trip, “but we’ve risen above that – just that we’re still moving is proof we’re okay.”

I could quote endlessly from Carsick, which tells you something. Enjoy it for yourself. Among its greatest pleasures are the many paragraph-length gems of narrative whimsy, so true to the reality of American road-tripping (and so very different from anything either Steinbeck or Caputo offers). Here’s just one from Waters, temporarily stranded in Bonner Springs, Missouri:

I see the dreaded Holiday Inn but don’t go near it. I stumble into a convenience store and buy two giant bottles of Gatorade and another bottle of Evian. Exiting, I spot a Taco Bell, the only fast-food joint I’m ever tempted to patronize in my real life. I enter, plop down my even heavier bags now that the liquids are inside, and get in line to order. I flash on Lana Turner, who, her daughter Cheryl Crane once told me, was an early financial backer of Taco Bell, and think how I couldn’t be any further away from Hollywood glamour than right now. All the normal people on their lunch break look like aliens to me. I’m almost jealous of their lives. I order two tacos and sit by myself in a booth awaiting my number to be called, hoping to be recognized, but customers just stare back at me blankly. I guzzle down an entire bottle of Gatorade, then another. I feel like sobbing as I walk up to get my order but control myself, sit back down, and eat my tacos. With lots of hot sauce, they’re pretty tasty. I hope Lana Turner’s estate made a small profit.

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Has America Spoken?

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Late in the evening on election day, unable to sleep, I posted on Facebook:

My friends on the right need to keep in mind that they live here in America with the rest of us, and that the rest of us are far from happy. And my friends on the left need to grow some self-respect, quit your bellyaching … and get out of bed tomorrow morning, and every morning thereafter, and figure out how to make yourselves directly useful in some way or ways, if you’re not already.

… and more in the same vein. My hope was to say something constructive at a moment when America’s destructive divisiveness had become all too glaringly obvious. My post got some “likes,” but it also brought out of the woodwork a few of my fellow Americans who had little more to say than “Ha! We win. Deal with it!” – although that didn’t keep a couple of them from saying that at some length. Most telling was a comment from Wayne Pimental of Summerville, South Carolina:

America has spoken, most Americans, some realizing too late, that our country is going in the wrong direction the past six years, change most didn’t want. Now, as Americans lets [sic] move forward and preserve the Constitution the way it was meant to be. Oh, now you know how some Americans felt after the last two presidential elections.

Home Free: An American Road Trip by Ethan CaseyWhat’s revealing is that Wayne seems to feel that America has spoken this time, but apparently didn’t really speak in 2008 and 2012, when it said things he didn’t want to hear. The truth, as I discovered when I spent 3 1/2 months driving 18,000 miles around America two years ago to research my book Home Free: An American Road Trip, is that America is far too big and various to speak with one voice. And that in itself bothers many Americans, because it’s complicated as well as ambiguous.

Near the end of my 2012 trip, as I turned the corner at Los Angeles on the home stretch to Seattle, I happened to be reading Lustrum, Robert Harris’s historical novel of Rome, whose narrator muses: “There are no lasting victories in politics, there is only the remorseless grinding forward of events. … Perhaps Caesar is right – this whole republic needs to be pulled down and built again.” Part of the grim fun, if that’s the right word, of Harris’s novel is that we know what happened next in Rome.

Come to think of it, America itself is like a big, sprawling multi-generational family novel, but part of our problem is that we want to skip ahead to find out how it ends. We also are haunted by the yawning gap between the abstract ideals we ostensibly cherish and the concrete realities that we actually live. “America in theory is so awesome,” the libertarian writer Lucy Steigerwald remarked the other day. “America in practice is terrified, Puritanical, and punitive. It is a nasty, bitchy teenage nation that can dish it out and can’t take it. This never fails to be disappointing.”

What I’d like Wayne from Summerville and others like him to know is that during my 2012 trip America spoke to me, and it spoke in many voices. When I asked Cathy Waller, executive director of the Republican Party of Waukesha County, Wisconsin, whether it was possible for people like her to find common ground with Madison liberals, she said, “I’m going to be honest: I don’t know if we can. We’re not going to get anywhere.” Democratic Party activist Elisa Miller told me about specific death threats and hangings in effigy of President Obama around Wisconsin and reflected, “This doesn’t just affect Obama. This is domestic terrorism. Volunteers are like, ‘You want me to knock on doors, when those crazies live out there?'”

“I told my parents that if Obama wins, there’s gonna be riots,” Lenny Miller, an African American airline pilot and entrepreneur in Virginia, told me just before the election. “There’s gonna be lawsuits, recounts, all that.”

“If you were President of the United States, would you be more vocal than he is?” I asked him.

“Oh, I would,” replied Lenny. “I’m Morehouse College. He’s Harvard.”

“Does the American system have what it takes to self-correct at this point?” I asked George Campbell, a thoughtful young Republican lawyer in Greenville, South Carolina.

“Yep, it does,” he assured me. “The system does. The question is whether the people do.”

No selection of American voices would be complete without the voices of immigrants, and one that I met was a Haitian teenage girl in Orlando, Florida. When I asked which presidential candidate she preferred, she said, “I would say Obama. The most point is, why would you choose somebody who’s already rich, that don’t have a clue what it’s like for the poor?”

America did speak this November 4. But what it said that day was not the last word; we’re all still subject to the remorseless grinding forward of events.

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