Monday, December 14, 2015

In Search of "Peace On Earth, Goodwill Toward Men"

Anthropologist, Wade Davis wrote, “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

If more people opened their hearts to that reality, “Peace on earth, good will toward men,” would be more than a Christmas season platitude.

That Biblical pronouncement from angels on the first Christmas has moved people throughout the ages. It’s served as a reminder at the celebration of the birth of Christ to let go of mistrust, grudges, and bigotry and seek kinship with people around the world.

Some Biblical scholars have argued that, “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” was a greeting from God meant only for the Christian faithful. A couple of popular online dissertations express condescension toward those who use the phrase to urge peace and understanding for all mankind. Their tone suggests: “Peace on earth and good will toward . . . only those who worship as I do.”

It’s heartbreaking and a little frieghtening to see such a fundamentally good ethic turned upside down and backwards, because that’s a prescription for not just political and social strife, but war. If you don’t believe me, turn on the evening news.

A few years back I went to hear the Dalai Lama, the world’s Buddhist leader speak at an event in Bloomington, Indiana. He said that we wouldn’t have world peace until we each, “disarm ourselves from within.”

Isn’t that what, “peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” means - disarming ourselves of not just mistrust of those who are different, but also the arrogant belief in the exclusive superiority of our own personal experience?

We're in the season in which chirpy TV news anchors ask, "How's your Christmas Shopping Coming?" And of course all of us are still marveling at a year of unprecedented political hatefulness. But I’ve stopped listening. As Christmas gets closer I’m thinking about what the Angels, the Dalai Lama, and Wade Davis had to say. Obsessing over buying shit, ogling at other people’s transgressions, and wallowing in fear all feel like a journey in the wrong direction.

The world has 2.2 billion Christians, 1.3 billion Muslims, 350 million Buddhists, 25.8 million Sikhs, 870 million Hindus, and 13 million Jews, while 16% of the world’s population is agnostic or atheistic. The fastest growing religion in the world is Islam.

Some in each faith category no doubt believe those who lack their faith are doomed to damnation. Some Christians believe other Christians who don’t practice as they do are destined for hell, just as some of the Islamic faith – Shiites or Sunnis, believe adherents of the other sect are doomed, or evil, or unclean.

Yet each faith also calls on their faithful to care for the well being of others – all others! In ancient text and poetic language they each echo “Peace on earth, goodwill toward men,” and a mash-up of Wade Davis and the Dalai Lama: Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you. They are unique manifestations of the human spirit. Disarm yourself of the arrogant obstacles to that reality and love everyone.

On my Facebook feed is a regular stream of complaints of a war on Christmas. When I was a kid, people freely said, “Happy Holidays.” Now it’s politically incorrect in some circles to dare say it, to open up your well wishes to people of all religions in this, “season of giving.” I think of comedian John Stewart’s sarcastic quote: “You have confused a war on your religion with not always getting what you want.”

It’s like we’re acting out that Seinfeld episode where George’s father, Frank creates his own December 23rd holiday called, “Festivus,” which includes a ceremony called, “The Airing Of The Grievances.” Across our social and political landscape this season, it seems people are armed to the hilt with misjudgments, unfair accusations, resentments, bigotry and rage.

Peace on earth, goodwill toward men. That is my wish at Christmas time. It’s more than a wish for me or those I love, but for this entire world and all the people in it. And they need not all think what I think or worship as I worship. I don’t care if they’re Christian, Muslim, Jewish, atheist, gay or straight, black or white, conservative or liberal, rich or poor. I wish it for them all the same.

“Kurt Meyer’s The Salvage Man is a gentle Midwestern fantasy made up of one treasure after another. Part historical fiction, part love story, and part rumination on modern day life, this novel asks hard questions about the world we live in and the world we leave behind. I couldn’t put it down.”
Larry D. Sweazy, author of A Thousand Falling Crows

Click to buy Kurt's first novel, Noblesville

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”
Susan Crandall, Author of Whistling Past the Graveyard

Monday, December 7, 2015

What Is A Hoosier? Understanding Hoosiers Via an 1890s Economic Boom

In my first novel Noblesville, David Henry is a 21st century high school history teacher who travels to 1893 and experiences firsthand what he’d been teaching his students about – a still young America, hopeful and ambitious, both aspiring to and rejecting its European heritage.
I worked hard to give Noblesville a strong sense of place – the feel of Indiana and a Hoosier accent. In the 1890s, Indiana was a shade different from the rest of America in superficial ways. It had the smallest foreign born population in the nation, and sure, folks talked a little different here – they might ask, “Do what?” instead of “Pardon me?” and refer to bell peppers as, “mangos,” but there were deeper character traits particular to the Midwest and Indiana. America’s ambivalence toward its European heritage was uniquely filtered through the Hoosier experience and Indiana's self-depricating reflex.
The Tescher family on their front porch in 1890s Noblesville. The adults in this photo were living what amounted to the good life – raised in the three decades after the Civil War, trying to solidify a status of a maturing nation, state, and town. They had achieved what was then rare – upper middle class status. This was admired and envied, so long as you didn’t act superior – there was no greater social crime in 1890s Indiana.
The world's then largest known natural gas field was discovered under central, eastern Indiana in the late 1880s. In the resulting gas boom economy in 1890s Noblesville, the homes that lined the streets were reimagined versions of European architecture – French Second Empire, Italianate, English Gothic Revival, and Queen Anne. When folks from the Midwest went off to Chicago World’s Fair in the summer of 1893, they marveled at the fairgrounds filled with reproductions of Greek and Roman architecture. And midwestern towns like Noblesville mimicked the cathedrals of Europe with stately stone and brick courthouses anchored by impressive bell and clock towers.
In that decade, ladies in towns as small as Noblesville subscribed to magazines that showed the latest fashions from Paris, simplified for mass produced and available on the courthouse square or in downtown Indianapolis. Artist’s renderings of the latest European fashions regularly appeared on the pages of Noblesville newspapers.  Pretty fancy, huh? Yet, the town’s fathers were middle-aged men who had fought a brutal, insanely savage Civil War. Many of the grandparents who sat at the dinner table or taught Sunday school had been raised in log cabins. So though telephones and electric lights had freshly arrived and automobiles were being invented not only in Kokomo, 35 miles north of Noblesville, but also in various places in America and Europe that year, there was still a ragged, primitive edge to any small town like Noblesville and truly raw primitive living was a vivid memory for many residents who wore those memories like a badge of honor.
These realities created glaring contradictions, but more accurately it was two competing ideals resting side by side in the American, and Hoosier mind. Americans of the 1890s hated Europe’s class system, yet aspired to be upper class. This was especially true of Hoosiers. Intellectual refinement was to be pursued but not at the expense of forgetting your roots or pretending to be better than others with less. Hoosiers of the 1890s would delight in a refined, elegantly dressed young woman willing to do somersaults in the grass with small children or a college educated man ready to roll up his sleeves to fix a machine or tend to an injured animal. Get it too far one way,  you’re a backwoods yokel. Too far the other way and you’re a self-important snob.

Pointing To The Future: Think we've lived in a time of great change? Consider the ladies at right. The child is Edith Tescher with her grandmother, Cornelia Bauchert, photographed in Noblesville, circa 1895. Cornelia was born in the 1840s. When she was Edith’s age trains were a rare oddity and there was no electricity, telegraph, telephone, canned produce or indoor plumbing. None. Native Americans still occupied the western half of America and the dominant architecture of Indiana was the log cabin. 50 years later Edith was being raised  in a town with paved streets lined with European-inspired architecture, an electric plant, ice delivery, 2 rail lines that connected the nation, running water, and sea food and seasonal produce shipped from across the country. The west was tamed and the native population on reservations. Edith would become a woman in a time of airplanes, automobiles & radio. The heart of the Hoosier spirit in the 1890s was to respect the foundation of Cornelia’s world while aspiring to Edith’s future.

Hoosiers of this time admired and envied both the grand houses and the well-educated, but would tease you as a snob for putting house numbers on your home (“C’mon, everybody knows where you live!) or ended words like “coming” or “going,” with the full “ing” when comin’ and goin’ would do just fine, which might earn you a sarcastic eye roll – “Well professor, you sure talk in a refined manner.”
The Hoosiers of the 1890s longed for the cultural permanence of Europe, but admired the promise that you could reinvent yourself by going out west and “grow up with the land,” as they called it in those days. As fast as they could they were building European inspired homes and installing indoor plumbing and telephones and paving dirt streets with gravel and brick, complete with electric streets lights overhead. At the same time many of those same upper middle class townies took time off work or closed their offices for a week in the fall so they could go to nearby farms and help family or friends bring in the crops, butcher livestock, barrel apples and potatoes and do the canning. In this time middle class women actually hid their store-bought canned goods so people wouldn't know they weren't canning their own food.
In the late 1800s and turn-of-the-century, Indiana was a politically important swing state, divided roughly along the National Road by Democrats to the south and Republicans to the north. During presidential elections, folks on the east coast waited outside telegraph offices to hear how Indiana voted. And between about 1880 and 1920, the only state whose authors sold more books than Indiana's was New York. It was a bit of a backwater state, but still had to be reckoned with.  
Consider more recent Hoosiers and you can see how these qualities echoed down the generations. From Hollywood legend James Dean, to jazz legend Wes Montgomery, to basketball legend Larry Bird, they each had/have the gentle quiet of that old Hoosier demeanor and even a discomfort with fame. In fact, in nearly every famous Hoosier of the past century you can find an undeniable thread of quiet and self-deprication. You also see that when you've been raised not to take yourself too seriously, fame is an uncomfortable suit to wear. 
Despite his confident, on stage persona, Gary, Indiana's Michael Jackson was soft-spoken and painfully shy and was finally consumed by a failed battle with notoriety. Fame ate him alive. Despite his feral, throat-punch vocals, Lafayette's Axel Rose, who could be making a fortune doing reunion tours with his old band mates from Guns and Roses, has instead withdrawn into reclusive, quiet isolation. Even though Indy's David Letterman is known for his harsh, frat boy guffaw, he's always saved his most biting and cruel humor for the likes of Madonna and Cher - stars who take themselves too seriously – the greatest sin in Hoosier culture. Seymour native John Mellencamp's "Little Bastard" nickname seems odd for a guy who paints, records rootsy music and lives quietly just outside of Bloomington, Indiana instead of Malibu or Manhattan where other aging rock stars make their homes and party, hoping for trash magazine coverage. And famed Indy author Kurt Vonnegut, though known as a witty curmudgeon, was always in a carefully negotiated, arms-length standoff with his fame, in stark contrast to his southern literary contemporaries like Truman Capote and Thomas Wolfe, who both sought and played to the limelight. 

That vital Hoosier quality was revealed most beautifully by Ernie Pyle during World War II. As American families lost sleep at the heart ache of wondering about the well-being of their sons on battlefields across the world, Dana, Indiana's Ernie Pyle wrote the most popular newspaper column in the nation. It was syndicated across the nation and globe. Pyle reported from fox holes, battle fields, lonely barracks, bombers, troop transports and aircraft carriers around the world, telling the story of the American soldier, how he was doing, what he was thinking, what he was fighting for, and how much he missed his family and girlfriend back home. Perhaps no humble voice brought more comfort to America during than that of Hoosier, Ernie Pyle.
You can apparently take a Hoosier out of Indiana, but you can't take the Indiana out of the Hoosier. And true, John Dillinger was a Hoosier, but every rule has its exceptions.
This Hoosier tone takes many shapes. Former Indiana Pacer, Mark Jackson once shared a telling observation about the amiable soul of Hoosiers, noting the difference between sports fans in Indiana and his native New York. He said that when a New York team is doing poorly, it's not uncommon for fans to boo them angrily, shouting profanity-laced insults at players, but when an Indiana team is playing poorly, Hoosier fans do not turn ugly. Instead, they cross their arms and suffer silently in their seats.
Novelist L.P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country.” In my novel, Noblesville, David Henry certainly finds this to be true. The Midwestern trait of self-deprecation – to pursue greatness and deny it at the same time is nothing new to him, but its extreme application in a younger Indiana astounds, amuses and inspires him. This duality is the hallmark of Midwestern values in general and Hoosier values in particular. Humility wasn’t just the Hoosier ideal, but the mandate. And though perhaps to a lessor degree, that trait still defines Hoosiers to this day.

“Meyer turns the pages of history with gentle care and a warm heart, creating a story I’ll remember forever. Thank you Kurt Meyer for opening a door to my beloved town’s past and allowing me to travel the streets and meet the people of Noblesville 1893.”
Susan Crandall, Author of Whistling Past the Graveyard & 
The Flying Circus

“Kurt Meyer’s The Salvage Man is a gentle Midwestern fantasy made up of one treasure after another. Part historical fiction, part love story, and part rumination on modern day life, this novel asks hard questions about the world we live in and the world we leave behind. I couldn’t put it down.”
Larry D. Sweazy, author of A Thousand Falling Crows

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Too Much Stuff

The attic light is dim, the plank flooring uncertain, and everything’s covered with a thin layer of black, dry rot wood dust filtered down from the 130 year old roof structure. In a stack of photocopier paper boxes I lifted yet another lid to reveal English and woodworking textbooks from the early 1980s and a couple of my ex-wife’s high school yearbooks. I put the yearbooks in the save pile and the rest in a trash bag. That box, along with others had been carried to the attic 20 years ago this past fall and never opened again.

The ‘90s were apparently a hopeful time, a time when we thought we’d need that box of books, intended to refinish that old piece of furniture, intended to sort all the children’s clothing and share it with neighbors and Goodwill. Somebody told me once the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Cleaning out all this shit is starting to feel like hell.
View of the newly organized Cherry St. attic. 

I text my ex-wife to say I’ll be leaving a couple more boxes on her front porch. “More baby clothing?” she asks, sarcastically. “Yes,” I sheepishly reply. “I just don’t feel competent judging keepsakes from throwaways.”

I’d already carried down a 30-year collection of Old House Journal magazines, my hard-copy archive before online databases made it pointless, those boxes of children’s clothing my 20-something kids wore 20-something years ago, worn luggage with broken zippers, two large trash bags filled with plush stuffed animals my sisters and parents had lavished my daughter with – sent up here when she outgrew them, a bin of ice cycle lights that once seemed a good idea on the front porch, framed drawings I bought my grandmother in Paris 30 years ago that came back to me after she died, and inexplicably, a trash bag filled with dirty, worn out tennis shoes. They have the wear marks of a skate boarder. I texted a photo of the shoes to my middle son, Jack in Denver. “Oh, yeah, I had a plan for those, once.”

I'm just scratching the surface of what's been packed into this Cherry Street house.

All of this caps two years of cleaning out the bedrooms and closets of my grown children, the garage, endless cabinets, vanities and drawers filled with endless boxes and handfuls of crap, the garage attic, and, oh yeah, the basement. Aargh! I've spent hundred of dollars boxing and shipping things to the kids in Denver and Japan. Every time I think I’ve got it all cleaned out, I open another cabinet and find yet more stuff that was saved years ago and is utterly useless or unneeded now.

I have a theory about stuff in storage: Our need to save things is bound only by our ability to do so.  It’s often said that gold fish will grow to fill the size bowl they live in – in a tiny bowl, they stay tiny, in a big tank, they grow bigger. Storage space and the stuff that fills it works the same way.

I accelerated the clearing out to prepare for my new wife, Andrea and step-kids to move in. But preparing her River Road house for sale included packing another entire house of personal belongings, cleaning out an attic, a basement, a 30 x 60 pole barn, and a 2-car garage-sized artist studio. 

Those two sentences are short, but it took months.

This year included garage sales, a filled 20-yard dumpster, Facebook garage sales, endless trips to Goodwill, shit given to neighbors and friends, a steady flow of stuff carelessly thrown into the blue trash bins behind the Cherry Street garage, and a couple days before the closing of Andrea’s house, a final desperate call to a contractor to haul a trailer full of stuff to my garage and a second trailer full to a landfill. And, oh yeah, all the things I put on the curb with a sign that said, "Free."

At least nobody took the sign and left the stuff. That's actually happened to me before. After all, the sign did say, "Free."

Along the way I’ve been reminded of something an Englishman said to me years ago: “You American’s buy cheap shit at Wal-Mart, then put it in a garage sale a year later, then go to Wal-Mart and buy more cheap shit. You Yanks are really into ‘THINGS,'” he sneered, jabbing air-quote fingers like pokes in the eyes.

The recently cleaned out garage is full again.
More hard choices.
I was insulted at the time, but the dude was 100% right.

It’s not just that we’ve bought and saved too much shit. We’ve been trying to consolidate two households into one. By the time we closed Andrea's River Road house sale earlier this month, the Cherry Street garage was filled to the gills as was a 14’ x 14’ storage unit. The cleaned out attic and basement, refilled with new stuff.

We set aside some nice rugs from our combined houses, a nearly new love seat, lamps, TVs, coffee tables and patio furniture for our sons in Denver. We loaded it all up last Wednesday in a small U-Haul and drove 1,100 miles to Colorado. I woke Friday morning in cold, snow-piled Colby, Kansas and looked out the motel window at our U-Haul full of the possessions we were now dragging across the country, pondering all this . . . STUFF!

Having been in Japan just a month ago, I’m still considering the mammoth gulf between America and other nations and our status as the world’s master consumers and hoarders. I keep waiting for the planet to start wobbling and thumping like an imbalanced car tire, all from the amassed weight of the United States.

But perhaps the next generation will be better at this than mine. As I was texting photos of things that could be loaded on the truck to Denver, Jack replied at some point, “Will it hurt your feelings if we don’t want something you’re bringing?”

Smart boy. But I should have saved and brought him that damn bag of tennis shoes and hauled them to his attic.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Double Stuff Oreos Symbolize Everything That's Wrong With America

I grew up taking the Oreo for granted. Like the tablespoon and measuring cup, the ratio of chocolate biscuit to creamy filling was a fixed measure with no need for adjustment. But like all other things American these days, the set standard isn't enough. So after some 90 years after the original Oreo, the Double Stuff Oreo was born.

That’s America, the land of the Big Gulp, the Hummer, endless breadsticks, and McMansions. It would be admirable if we were reaching for ever more greatness, but we're not. We're just gluttons reaching for more. 

In Japan a couple weeks ago visiting my son, there were ample reasons to ponder this. At the grocery store I found no such thing as a family-sized bag of Ruffles or Doritos. They sell both chips in Japan, but everything is sold in smaller amounts. The largest latte I could get at the local coffee shop was the equivalent of a standard small or “tall” latte in America. And the largest bag of Oreos available is well smaller than the standard package in the U.S. Poverty does not guide their choices. They’re simply different than us.
A typical pack of Oreos in Japan, with 3 sleeves, each
holding 9 regular Oreos. 
But make mine a diet, please, I'm cutting back.
When I was a kid back in the '60s, 6½ ounce cokes were still in vending machines. At restaurants and soda fountains there were small and large Cokes. The large was about the size of the modern-day fast-food small. Sixteen ounce, 8 pack bottles were available at the grocery story, but they were meant for sharing. Getting one entirely to yourself was a rare treat – when mom and dad were away and you could obscure the guilty party. This was not a time of poverty. America's economy was booming. People's expectations were simply lower. Now days the 6 ½ ounce Coke is a quaint historic artifact and the 32 oz. large is ubiquitous at fast food outlets. 

A study showed that Double Stuff Oreos actually only contain 1.86% times the stuffing of original Oreos. This is also very American: we’re never satisfied with what we have, and when we get more, it’s not actually what was promised.

And there’s the IPA, which stands for India Pale Ale, a hoppy beer created by the British in the early 1800s, a bit bitter with an alcohol content around 4 or 5%.  I learned to like this light-bodied beer while studying in London in the ‘80s. But at about the same time American craft brewers started tinkering with the IPA. Though it had served England pretty well for 160 years, it wasn’t . . . well . . . enough for us. Today the American IPA is far hoppier than it’s original English counterpart.

But even that’s not enough. Soon came the double IPA, the triple IPA, and yes, the quadruple IPA, hellatiously hoppy beers that tend to have names like “Sink The Bismark,” and “Hop Deranged,” with 10-14% alcohol. Even quadruple IPAs taste good – at first, but eventually the bitter bomb makes your tongue feel covered with dirty, cigarette-stained indoor/outdoor carpet.

Despite all the fun and creativity our fledgling craft beer industry has introduced to the previously boring American beer landscape, it’s penchant for useless excess reminds me of a little kid at the all-you-can-eat buffet, putting more and more sprinkles on his ice cream until the ice cream is at the decided minority.

And sadly for Americans, ice cream with mega sprinkles and a quadruple IPA don’t pair well. But who am I kidding? The "Ice Cream Sprinkle IPA," or the "IPA Ice Cream" can't be far away. Oh wait, I just googled it, there are recipes out there for IPA ice cream. I should have known.

The average square footage of an American home has doubled in the past 40 years. In my day job as a Realtor, I routinely show houses to middle class families who insist upon multiple “social spaces,” a 3-car garage, and that each of their children have their own bathroom. In their childhood, our own parents would have found this an unimaginable luxury. 

Sitting at my local coffee shop in the morning (with my medium-sized latte), I watch the moms drive by in their urban assault vehicles, multiple video screens hanging in front of the back seats so the kids won’t get bored on the way to school. I’ve asked lots of locals over the years why they drive such big cars. The standard answer: safety. This always blows my mind. We live in one of the flattest places on earth, in a county with not one single gravel road, and in wealthy communities with some of the best snow plowing equipment in the world. And yet more ridiculous, big trucks and large SUV’s tend not to make lists of the safest vehicles (being top heavy they roll over more easily in evasive driving situations).

The truth is pretty simple. Big is a fashion. Big is our style. Big is what we do. In America, if your stuff ain't big, you’re a loser.

What does all this do to us? The average American emits twice the carbon dioxide pollution of citizens in other developed western nations and we're twice as likely to be obese than a citizen of Europe and six times more likely than the average Japanese.

“We’re #1. We’re #1.”

And of course the Double Stuff Oreo wasn’t enough. Now we have the Mega-Stuffed Oreo. Where will this all end? You have to assume that ten years from now will we all be solo commuting to work in our own private busses, drinking Septuple IPAs, living in 10,000 square foot homes, and eating burger-sized Oreos.

Buy Kurt's new novel The Salvage Man

Buy Kurt's first novel Noblesville