Thursday, June 12, 2014

Enter National Pride

I don't generally think of myself as very patriotic. In fact, much of my work critiques simplistic categories of social distinction (nationalism/race/class) and how news media and visual culture perpetuates simple-minded and often jingoistic and imperialist attitudes of misplaced racial/national/cultural superiority. Still, having just spent sixteen days driving across the country-- 3,177 miles and through at least 14 states and the District of Columbia later (IA, IL, IN, MI, OH, WV, PA, KY, NY, NJ, MA, CT, DE, MD and D.C.)-- I feel, oddly enough, very patriotic, proud, and grateful to be American. Let me explain by way of three of my favorite things: running, food, and art. These elements, shared with friends and loved ones, reminded me of the ideals and exceptional* qualities of this vast expanse of land and confederation of people.

Heartbreak Hill, Newton, MA June 8, 2014
The epic road trip began with a three-day stop in Chicago, and culminated in my running the Heartbreak Hill half-marathon just outside of Boston. Along the way I visited various museums, ate a variety of food with friends, and ran in beautifully managed urban and suburban landscapes. Visiting the museums was the rationale for the trip--I am conducting research on animals in the biblical prints by Rembrandt, and in paintings by Paulus Potter and Aelbert Cuyp (17th century Dutch artists). It strikes me that there are many museums with outstanding collections across the United States. These collections speak to (some) Americans' interest in and valuing of visual and material objects from across cultures and countries. Indeed, how some of these collections were shaped (for example, the Barnes in Philadelphia, Corcoran in D.C., or Isabella Stewart Gardner museum in Boston) show how individuals thought broadly (or narrowly) and desired to share their respective privilege. While in D.C., I was particularly struck by the ideals for access to education, culture and cultural capital, information, and government. Being able to walk down the Mall and visit art museums, history museums, government buildings and memorials all for the people and paid for by our taxes--so free in that they are all our shared cultural heritage and identity and responsibility-- provided me that constant reminder of just how rich culturally and financially this country is. It made me feel proud to be among tourists speaking many different languages who had come to D.C. to see the actualization of the ideals on which this country was built.

Lakeshore Trail, Chicago. Crushed rock/dirt good for the tootsies.
I had some amazing runs while I was in various cities: along the lake shore of Lake Michigan, along the Potomac River and into the National Zoo in D.C., up and down wooded trails in a gorgeous gorge in Philadelphia, and along the Charles in Boston. Here too, our municipal, state, and federal government with the aid of our voices and our taxes--help to create and maintain beautiful trails open to all to walk, run, bike, and enjoy. It is not lost on me either, that the highways and interstates on which I drove are also a benefit of this wealthy nation and the taxes we pay. Along some of those roads--particularly old Highway 40, the vistas are truly spectacular. The Dutch must have felt a similar pride and awe in themselves and their ingenuity in diking and claiming land and building trekschuiten. Certainly such thoroughfares aid in commercial transport, and they also contribute to the transport of ideas and people who intermingle and enrich each other.

File:Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway - Dumbarton Bridge.JPG
Rock Creek and Potomac River Parkway, Washington, D.C.

(The "Forbidden Drive" recreational trail in the Valley Green section of Fairmount Park, Philadelphia.  File photo)
Valley Green trail, Philadelphia
6 miles along the Charles River in Boston

Roads, managed landscapes, museums and cultural institutions--these are all spaces where many, many different kinds of people come together, both in real time (international tourists, citizens, local residents), and in museums, abstractly. Looking at architecture or at museums' variety of objects, we can trace how various peoples have interacted and exchanged ideas and shared what drives, motivates, and makes them--and how some peoples and their cultures have been suppressed, subjugated, or even eradicated. Food also tells this story of the gifts that are brought by diverse human exchange. In Chicago I ate donuts and pasta; these are not "American"--donuts, I want to say are Dutch/Scandinavian (poffertjes anyone?) and pasta of course, has origins in the Mediterranean, although today it is most commonly identified with Italy. It was immigrants who brought such delights here--and these were the cheap things to eat, for those who had little money for extravagance. I ate homemade lasagna with locally gathered mushrooms in Ann Arbor, and I appreciated the hours of labor necessary for such a meal. 

Delightful donuts in Chicago

Purely homemade mushroom lasagna in Ann Arbor
In Cincinnati, I enjoyed a tamale with fresh corn and tomato salsa-corn and tomatoes are "new world" crops--and so here too, food is an indication of the richness of the land and indigenous cultures, that while co-opted and often suppressed, still have hugely influenced "American" immigrants' diets--and diets around the world because of exchange and travel.
A delicious summer tamale at Senate in Cincinnati
More recent than the European immigrants of the sixteenth- through nineteenth centuries are immigrants from Ethiopia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia--the list goes on. I enjoyed Ethiopian and Thai food in D.C., and Philly too. Access to such a variety of food is largely taken for granted in these urban areas! Yet its availability is a result of our rich cultural diversity and relies upon the many different peoples who make up this nation, and broaden and enrich all of us even more.

Spicy and healthy Ethiopian food in D.C.

These reflections on trails and food speak to community and the importance of coming together and sharing the variety of qualities and ideas that fill our hearts and minds and enable each of us to "pay it forward" in turn. My trip ended with the half-marathon in Boston. I ran the Heartbreak Hill half because I wanted to run part of the Boston marathon course. I was deeply affected by the bombings at the marathon in April, 2013. I used to work in Watertown and many of my friends and family have run Boston. During the national anthem before the race, I actually got a little misty-eyed. This is not like me at all. Then, and as I climbed that last uphill before the finish, I thought of the tragedy a year earlier. Really, I thought of how resilient runners--and people generally--are.** The runners at this race were so very nice. I felt more community here than I have at events much smaller. It was as though, unspoken, we all were bonded by our awareness of the emotional and physical pain of the past that had been inflicted on some by others who had somehow lost hope, or felt disenfranchised. There was hometown pride from those running who hailed from surrounding communities, like Shalane Flanagan from Marblehead, and there was national and international pride as well. South Koreans waved flags, and I heard Spanish cheers on the course too. It is truly awesome that Meb Keflezighi won the Boston marathon in 2014-- an immigrant from Eritrea, he draped himself in an American flag at the finish. We all meld and blend and enjoy life in the throng of people together, running, cheering, encouraging, supporting. This throng, this strength in community, in our differences as well as our shared will to help each other--with food, hospitality, encouragement up a hill--this is why I feel so proud.

What can a road trip do? It reminded me of how interconnected and interwoven my identity is with every other person's, and that all of us are part of each other. We all know it--the major religions theoretically mandate it-- we must care for, respect, and love each other as we would care for and love ourselves.
Meb Keflezighi after winning the Boston Marathon, 2014

*That's not to say one should trot out American Exceptionalism in self-righteous explanations for unequal, unfair, exploitative, or bullying policies and practices around the globe.
** Read Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell. Review

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