beautiful sights in “Rust Belt” America

I put the term in the title in quotation marks because it often connotes ugliness and depression, and while it’s certainly true that much of America’s Midwest has experienced economic decline over the past decades, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t beauty–in all its senses, including aesthetic beauty–to be found throughout this region.  Here are a few word pictures of beautiful sights I saw in Ohio and western Pennsylvania this past weekend.

The Laurel Highlands with a dusting of snow: I always say that the temperature drops five degrees as soon as you cross into Somerset County, PA, and it sounds like a joke, but it’s a real weather phenomenon that others besides me have observed.  Last Wednesday as I drove west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Somerset County–the crown jewel (or the frozen heart) of the Laurel Highlands–was the only place where a powdered-donut coating of snow lingered, from a previous shower, on the trees and hillsides along the road.  I’m glad no new precipitation fell during my trip, but the snow coating added to the festive feeling of driving home for Thanksgiving.

Entering Pittsburgh through the Squirrel Hill tunnel in daylight: On Saturday, my dad and I took a day trip west to Ohio.  It was a sunny day, and when we hit Pittsburgh around 9:00 am, the city appeared to advantage, with the sun glinting off the rivers and the colorful bridges, which are always striking no matter how many times you’ve seen them and no matter how much bridge maintenance is occurring at any given time.  I remarked to Dad that Pittsburgh is fun to drive through (as long as traffic isn’t too heavy) because it’s a little like a roller-coaster, with tunnels, bridges, level changes, and exit ramps in odd places.

Patchwork farmland in Holmes County, Ohio: I’m not sure if Holmes and its neighboring county, Tuscarawas, actually count as part of the Rust Belt because they’re rural areas that have always (as far as I know) been rural and home to large Amish communities.  I did see a factory as we were driving, but even it looked old-fashioned and charming, with brick chimneys instead of metal.  Anyway, around 4:00 as we were leaving the retirement community in Walnut Creek where my grandfather lives, and the sun was just starting to think about setting, I remarked that the scene in front of us should be on a calendar (and it probably has been at some point).  Ohio has a gentler topography than western PA and West Virginia, with rolling hills rather than mountains.  At this time of year, the fields have been harvested but the pastures are still green, and the trees still cling to some leaves as they make architectural shadows against the hillsides.  The landscape isn’t dramatic, but the colors are, especially when the sun hits them just right.

Entering Pittsburgh through the Fort Pitt tunnel at night: There was a Penguins game Saturday night, so traffic was a little backed up going into the city, and Dad and I were musing about whose great idea it was to make tunnels the only non-aquatic way to enter a relatively major city.  The tradeoff, of course, is the breathtaking view when you exit the tunnel and immediately find yourself in the middle of a light show, with the bridge lit up above you, the skyscrapers lit up in front of you, and lit-up boats on the rivers on all sides.  On Saturday night, the effect was heightened by the gleaming yellow bowl of Heinz Field, where all the arena lights were on (apparently in preparation for Sunday night’s Steeler’s game?), and there was also a large, lit Christmas tree below us to the left.  The whole experience was like driving through a Christmas tree.

There’s beauty everywhere, and contrary to popular belief, it isn’t that hard to find in Western PA and Ohio.

Advertisements

Silobration: more than just a lot of shiplap

This past weekend, I traveled with my mother and sister to Waco, Texas for Silobration 2017, a festival marking the third anniversary of Magnolia Market at the Silos, the anchor location of the home decor and lifestyle empire of HGTV it couple Chip and Joanna Gaines.  Waco is a small city that seems to be in the middle of economic revitalization, surely due in large part to the jobs created and tourism attracted by the Silos and other businesses that would not exist if not for Fixer Upper–such as Harp Design Co., a boutique in a residential part of town that probably has never been fashionable.  Waco is in what used to be (and maybe still is, though I didn’t see much evidence of it other than a ton of hamburger joints) cattle country, in the middle of the rural space between Dallas and Austin.  The city is home to Baylor University, museums about Texas Rangers, prehistoric mammoths, and Dr. Pepper (which was invented in Waco), and what used to be, a long time ago, the tallest building west of the Mississippi (the Alico building familiar to those who watch Fixer Upper).  Yet none of those attractions–even at the now-past height of the Baylor football program–could bring in a crowd the size of what we saw this past weekend.

Why did all these people stand in the blazing heat to wait in line for cupcakes at the bakery, push through crowds in the Magnolia Market itself to buy #shiplap t-shirts, and stand on tiptoe during Friday and Saturday nights’ concerts to see Chip and Joanna on stage?  Something about this couple–their laid-back yet charming aesthetic, their work ethic, their countercultural emphasis on family and hospitality–has struck a chord with Americans of a surprisingly wide range of ages, ethnicities, and styles.  (And there were a lot of men there too.)  I’m not going to wear a t-shirt that says, “Love me like Chip loves Jo” (I saw several of those on people, though it wasn’t sold in the store), but I am on the Magnolia bandwagon.  And if nothing else, I’d like to go back to get another grilled cheese sandwich from the Cheddarbox food truck permanently stationed behind the Market.  I think grilled cheese is a bandwagon we can all get on.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

With apologies to the Christmas season (which I do love), the time of year when I typically experience the greatest and most consistent sense of well-being is the mid-to-late spring time period we are in right now.  Here are some reasons why:

  1. It’s warm, and the days are getting longer.  In case you care, here are my favorite seasons in order: spring, fall, summer, winter.  I like change as long as it’s regular, predictable change, so the seasons in which the weather, plant life, and day length are going through obvious transformation are my favorite.  Of those two, I prefer the spring for the obvious reason that everything is coming back to life.  It’s not just the symbolism; I actually feel physically and mentally healthier (aside from pollen allergies) when the world is waking and warming up after the seemingly interminable winter.
  2. It’s a time for celebration.  This is the most exciting time of year in my world of academia.  I’ve always loved graduations, probably because I’m secretly British and therefore really enjoy pomp and ceremony (also “Pomp and Circumstance,” the graduation song).  As a Harry Potter fan, I also appreciate long robes and funny hats.  So even though I’m not a fan of crowds or of wearing heavy black garments in the blazing May sun, I enjoy putting on my doctoral regalia (for which I paid a hefty price in both effort and actual money) and marching around as a symbol of intellectual weightiness.  Even more, I enjoy seeing graduates celebrate with their loved ones and anticipate the future with joy and hope.  (Crap, I’m starting to cry!)  I especially like the opportunities this time of year provides to see students share what they’ve learned and what they’re passionate about.  (See my post on this from a couple of weeks ago.)
  3. I’m about to be a lot less busy.  Another good thing about working in academia is that, for most of us, there’s not as much going on in the summer.  I don’t truly get the summers off because I’m also an administrator and therefore on a 12-month contract, but I don’t teach on campus in the summer (I’ll have one online class), and the cycle of department, committee, and student meetings slows way down.  So I’m looking forward to reading the backlog of books I’ve bought over the past few months, spending lots of time outdoors, going to bed early more often, and having adventures (or just passing time) with my favorite people, near and far (because I also have more time to travel in the summer). I got a little taste of that this past weekend when I had only a few children’s lit papers left to grade.  Friday night I read a little bit of Jurassic Park (the book I’m reading for fun right now) and then went to bed at 9:30, with my windows open and my Thomas Newman Pandora station playing.  Saturday morning I got up at 5:30, threw some clothes on, got an iced caramel mocha at McDonald’s, and headed to a local park, where I spent three hours.  I did some yoga on the lake pier, walked around the lake (it’s more of a large pond), read my Bible and another book, and did some journaling.  That may not sound like a fun morning to you, but I had a great time.  And I still had the whole day ahead of me when I was finished!  This is why I sometimes fantasize about being retired.  Anyway, although point #3 has been, strictly speaking, about summer, I still count this as a reason why I love spring, because right now I’m just beginning to enjoy–and still anticipating–all the delights of the coming season.

Do you enjoy this time of year, and if so, why?  (That feels like an essay prompt.  It’s also final exam time.)

I’m a church lady.

I hinted last week that I might post about Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them this week, but after watching the Blu-Ray, including the deleted scenes (which were enjoyable  but didn’t fill in any of the story gaps I’d hoped they would), I found that I don’t have a whole lot that’s new to say about the movie, except that I still love it, story gaps and all.  I will briefly mention, however, that I now have a favorite sequence: the one in which Newt and Jacob work together to catch the Erumpent in Central Park.  It starts off with that lovely little scene in which Newt does the Erumpent mating dance, showing that he has no problem making himself look ridiculous for the benefit of his beloved beasts (and making us love them too, vicariously).  After that, it’s a well-paced, purely fun caper through the park that solidifies the partnership between Newt and Jacob–at the end, the latter puts out his hand as if they’re meeting for the first time and finally says, “Call me Jacob.”  The music is also perfect in this sequence; it’s beautiful and sounds like something that should be in a ballet, but it has just enough of a sense of humor to fit the tone of the events.

But that’s not the topic of today’s post.  Instead, I want to write a little bit about the wonderful time I had this past weekend at my church’s women’s retreat at the Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove in Ashville, NC.  I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog that I’m a mountain lover, so it should come as no surprise that I enjoyed my surroundings, especially the feeling of being enveloped by the woods while zip-lining on Saturday.  I also enjoyed The Cove’s gourmet meals, the music and teaching sessions, and getting to sleep in almost total darkness and quiet.

But my favorite thing about the retreat was looking around and realizing just how many women from my church I recognize and, of those, how many I can call my friends.  This is significant to me not only because I belong to a large church, but also because for a long time, I didn’t think I was a “church lady.”  During college and for a number of years after that, I did not consider myself the type of person who would go to a women’s retreat–nor who would attend a Beth Moore Living Proof event (which I did last fall) or who would wear a piece of jewelry inspired by a book from a women’s Bible study I participated (and I love my necklace pendant that looks like the bird’s nest on the cover of Ann Voskamp’s One Thousand Gifts).

Now, when I look back on the period when I thought I wasn’t a church lady, I realize that my attitude largely stemmed from pride and prejudice.  (I promise that was not an intentional Jane Austen reference, but I decided to run with it.)  I had a very narrow definition of what a church lady was.  Although I couldn’t have pointed to one person who fit this description, my stereotyped mental image of a church lady didn’t like to read non-Christian fiction, hugged everyone who came across her path but didn’t really know them, would have considered me unspiritual and just plain weird for liking Harry Potter and rock music, and used Bible verses in all of her decorating.  She was also, although I may not have ever articulated this is a verbal thought, intellectually and spiritually inferior to me.

Of course, I was wrong, not to mention lousy with pride.  My erroneous thinking derived from two main problems.  First, I was forgetting that the true definition of a “church lady” is any woman who belongs to Jesus Christ, even if she lives in a country that doesn’t have a single Lifeway.  Second, I didn’t know very many women from my local church.  It took me a long time and some deliberate actions–serving in various ministries, becoming an official church member, deigning to attend Wednesday night Bible studies–before I really started getting to know some of them.  Now, in my church, I have running buddies, I have fellow Harry Potter fans, and I have women who may not have any superficial interests in common with me but with whom I can have a genuine conversation about life.  It was beautiful to look out over the crowd in our sessions over the weekend and realize that.

More Beauty and the Beast thoughts: Be my guest

Sorry, I just really wanted to use one of those cheesy thematic post titles that I told you last week I wasn’t going to use.  Before I move on to other topics (such as, possibly, another Fantastic Beasts post next week, since the Blu-Ray is coming out tomorrow!), I want to share a few more observations about Beauty and the Beast  (the live-action Disney adaptation released earlier this month, as if I needed to clarify that).

  1. Last week I wrote about literacy, which crops up a number of times in the film, and I later posted on Facebook that the literacy issue is also an issue of wealth and poverty.  Many of Belle’s fellow townspeople would probably argue that they are too busy working to have time to read or even learn to read, and there’s also an access issue: clearly the town has a shortage of books and of educators (and the limited resources that do exist are allocated almost exclusively to boys).  Meanwhile, the Beast in his castle can afford a magnificent library and, as a member of the leisured class, has plenty of time to read the books it contains.  Maybe I’ve just read A Tale of Two Cities too many times, but the castle storming scene in this film had definite French Revolution overtones for me, especially when I remembered the Prince’s pre-curse ball we witnessed at the beginning of the film– lavish and luxurious almost to the point of being laughable, and very Marie Antoinette-style.  I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to make a political point necessarily–after all, the Beast isn’t really the bad guy, and it’s hard to pin down the exact time period (as it should be in a fairy tale)–but the contrast is definitely there.  Two more things to consider on this topic: a. The Enchantress is portrayed as an impoverished outcast.  b. On the other hand, it does appear that the Prince’s castle was a source of steady work for some people in the village.  We learn at the end of the film that both Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth were married to townspeople.
  2. If you’ve read my review of the Walt Disney World restaurant Be Our Guest, you know it really bothers me that in the original animated film, Belle doesn’t get to eat during that iconic song.  I argued that this results from the misguided idea that a fairytale princess could never be seen to eat because eating is somehow a coarse, unfeminine, embarrassing activity.  So I was happy to see that in the new film, Belle at least appears to be hungry (she frantically reaches for several dishes as they dance by), but disappointed that, in the end, she still doesn’t get to eat anything–and that she walks away from the table seemingly okay with that.
  3. Before the film was released, someone told me she’d heard that Belle has to save the Beast in the wolf attack scene.  This is not true.  The scene plays out almost identically to the parallel scene in the animated movie.  The Beast is perfectly capable of saving himself (he is a beast, after all), but Belle does have to help him get back to the castle.  So rather than an in-your-face attempt to make Belle a proper 21st-century feminist, this scene is actually a lovely example of two people caring for each other in a budding relationship (well, a relationship that’s about to bud).  Because Belle was already such a strong character in the animated version, there was really no need to update her to make her extra tough, so I’m glad there was no attempt to do so.  The reason Disney’s Belle is still one of my fictional role models is that she’s both brave and kind (like Disney’s 2015 Cinderella), capable and feminine.

Please continue to send me your thoughts about the movie!

This is going to make a good story.

Last Tuesday night–Wednesday morning, technically–between 2:00 and 4:00 am, I found myself driving around Bedford and Amherst counties, including brief stints on the Blue Ridge Parkway and the ominously named (and very dark and narrow) Father Judge Road north of Madison Heights.  I saw a lot of deer and a raccoon, and I almost hit a small waddling creature that I didn’t have time to identify.  This isn’t the place to go into why I was doing all this nocturnal driving, but I assure you that it was all legal and mostly safe, and I wasn’t up to anything unsavory.  My point in sharing about this adventure is that although I was in a constant state of frustration, with occasional moments of mild terror, a small part of me–the creative part–was having a good time, because it kept thinking, “This is going to make a good story later.”

Because I spend a large percentage of my waking time reading, watching, and interpreting stories (and some of my sleeping time dreaming stories–I had a really stressful one after going back to bed at 4:08 Wednesday morning), I tend to see my own life as a narrative, with some experiences standing out as particularly excellent story material.  I’m a pretty decent storyteller, I think (actually, someone told me that last week, and I was flattered), and I have to admit that I enjoy keeping an audience entertained and feel like I’ve failed when my stories don’t have the impact I’d imagined they would.  And of course, there’s always a temptation to make my stories a little bit funnier or more shocking by altering events a bit.  Telling stories always involves editing–deletion, highlighting, etc.–but I try to avoid crossing the line into fabrication, not least because I find it satisfying to think that my real life (just like your life, reader) is stranger than anything I could make up.  I don’t think it’s an accident that some of my favorite–and most popular–blog posts have simply been stories about stuff that happened to me, like when I almost choked on the fumes of some spicy soup I was cooking or when I got angry and went all Hulk in my office.

Another occupational hazard of being a storyteller, even an amateur one, is the compulsion to come up with a lesson at the end of every story.  So bear with me while I draw a spiritual parallel here: We can see our lives as a lot more bearable, exciting, and significant if we keep saying to ourselves, “This is going to make a good story later.”  One of the hallmarks of a Christian worldview is the idea that God has written and yet somehow still is writing a story in which our planet is a major setting and every human being is an important character.  The theological implications of this are too gigantic to even be broached in a short blog post like this, but I’m just asking you right now to think of yourself as a character in a story.  That means a number of things: the decisions you make are significant, you are significant, and there’s more story to come.  Isn’t that exciting?  Even more exciting than a 3:00 am drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I’d say.

This is my brain on the first day of classes.

Although I warmed up by teaching an intensive class last week, nothing ever really prepares me for the first day of a semester.  Today, after teaching a maxed-out children’s lit class (there’s a waiting list–not because of my popularity, but because it’s a required course for education majors), conducting a meeting while hungry (I hate that), and answering the emails that kept pouring in–plus the ones I neglected over the weekend–I barely have enough brain function left to make a cup of tea, let alone craft a memorable blog post.  But I think it’ll be easy enough to list some of the things that made me happy over the weekend and today.  So here we go.

  1. Saturday-Sunday, I went camping, backpacking (though I barely carried the pack a quarter of a mile, since our campsite was so close to the car), and scrambling up a popular local rock face known ominously as Devil’s Marbleyard.  Although I love hiking and being outdoors, I’ve rarely camped and never backpacked. Fortunately, I was with a friend who is a certified wilderness EMT and adventure guide and I don’t know what else, so she showed me how to set up a tent, boil water for hot chocolate (very important) in a Kelly Kettle, and wash dishes with hippie soap (it seriously had hemp in it) in a freezing cold creek by the light of a headlamp.  The part I was most worried about was staying warm at night, but with a zero-degree sleeping bag and a lot of those Hot Hands packs that are popular with hunters at this time of year, I was downright cozy.  As for scrambling up the rock face, I just pretended like I was Frodo or Sam traversing the Emyn Muil–just without the elven rope.
  2. Last night I went to see Hacksaw Ridge (side note: I went out last night wearing leggings as pants, and I was regretting that style choice all the way to the theater and thinking, “Wow, I’ve really let myself go.”  Immediately after getting there, I saw at least three women wearing leggings as pants.).  If all you’ve heard about Hacksaw Ridge is that Andrew Garfield has a bad accent in it (he really doesn’t, though, and he is adorable), you should give it a chance.  It’s about Desmond Doss, a WW2 medic who refuses to carry a gun due to his religious convictions and past traumas, but ends up saving dozens of lives in one night, under relentless attack, through his (figuratively) insane work ethic and (literally–almost) insane fearlessness.  It was especially poignant to watch the film in Lynchburg, VA, where Doss grew up.  (We actually drove on the PFC Desmond T. Doss Memorial Expressway while coming back from the mountains yesterday.)  If you think you’ve seen enough WW2 movies, see this one anyway; you’ve probably never seen one about a conscientious objector.  They tend not to make movies about conscientious objectors.
  3. After the movie, I rushed home to watch the second half of the Steelers-Chiefs game.  I rarely write about football on this blog, and I won’t take the time to start now, but since I’m listing things that have made me happy, I’ll just say that I’m happy that the Steelers won–and, like all good Western Pennsylvanians, sick with apprehension about next week.
  4. Finally, my students, as they so often do, have made me happy today.  My children’s lit students seem to think I’m a comedienne (I try), and most of them appear to be totally on board with the Walt Disney World-style character breakfast I’m planning for the last day of class.  Meanwhile, a student from last week’s class sent me a Harry Potter article and a recording of Neil Gaiman reading A Christmas Caroland he told me that I’m currently his go-to person to discuss Harry Potter with.  Just what I’ve always wanted to hear.

Time to go outside and try to clear my head with fresh air.