Monday, February 16, 2004


Once again I am reminded that I am a slow learner. But I have learned three things, at least. Two of them come from the movie The Princess Bride, the third occurred at Lorianne Schaub's Hoarded Ordinaries.

If you have ever seen the movie, you know that the Princess Bride lessons are these: (1) Never go up against a Sicilian in a battle of wits when death is on the line; and (2) Don't get involved in a land war in Asia.

This is the lesson Lorianne taught me: (3) Don't engage the Zen mama in Dharma combat.

You've been warned: the Zen lady kicks butt.



I just received the most recent issue of the 25c ECHO ECHO from Ivan Burgess of Smith Center, Kansas. Smith Center is the Kansas "focus community" for my Vagabond project. I met Ivan last March when I visited his community.

Oh, I suppose it has been about fifteen years that Ivan has been publishing his weekly little 4-page newsletter-size summary of the REAL news in Smith Center. Some people might think that Ivan is a little peculiar (and some, I think, have told him so), and some might think his paper is a little peculiar, too. But don't let those folks fool you: Ivan gets it about right at least half the time. He is old enough to be retired from whatever he did for a job; he keeps doing the paper because he thinks it's fun.

He issues the Echo from Last Legs Publishing Co., 501 W. Third, #12, Smith Center, KS 66967. Each issue of my subscription costs me 25c plus another 37c for the stamp needed to mail it; that's what your subscription would cost, too.

Let me cite two examples of Ivan's perceant astuteness from the recent issue:

"Can you imagine," Ivan writes, "just how naive we were when we were kids. You wouldn't be pullin' this kinda stuff on the modern kids... When we were kids in school the over-achievers, the brains, the teacher's pets, got to be 'monitors.' That meant that they got to clean the easers, wash the blackboardboards, and do other menial tasks. Us under-achievers, when the last bell rang, we got to go home."

"Well," Ivan reports, "that Janet Jackson bare-breasted incident at the half-time of the Super Bowl was discussed at length at Paul's Cafe the other morning. All the participants in the discussion, with the exception of a female waitress, whose opinion didn't count, were virile members of the male specie. There was a definite line drawn between opinions - some were offended and some were titillated and some were non-commital. In other words the discussion was kinda tit for tat."

You can read more about Ivan on-line in my interview with him at the Vagabond newsletter.



by Michael Martone
University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia

Michael Martone's collection of fourteen middle western essays, The Flatness and Other Landscapes (University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia), invites the reader into the life of our region. Originally from Fort Wayne, Indiana, Martone understands the flatness: "The geometry of the fields suggests a map as large as the thing it represents." He thinks of the middle west "as a web of tissue, a membrane, a skin." Staring back at the flatness, "We begin to disassemble the mechanisms of how we feel. We begin to feel."

Ha, poor Riverside, Iowa. It is the future birthplace of Star Trek's Captain James T. Kirk. Kirk – "hardworking, honest, independent, loyal," and Iowan. Yet the TV series is no longer being made. How do you speak in the future tense of something that no longer is?

"I imagine that the windmills that look so natural on the farm today looked pretty silly when they were put up late in the last century, the newest item from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue," Martone says.

In the dairy barn, "All of a sudden the pipes are flushed with white, pulsing," Martone says. "A strange thing to say then, that nature abhors a vacuum. Maybe better to say it is consumed by it or consumes it."

Salesmen with their glossy aerial photographs "point out to the farmers how they have gotten the angle right to hide the trash pit behind the stand of trees."

"Every patch of ground has its stories," Martone says. "The world is old, and people, the animals who tell stories, have been everywhere on it now.... And now, you, like the recipient of a virus, know of another patch of ground because I have told you of the loess hills of Iowa, of Turin, a field called Cottonwood, a young man named Eric who at this moment is probably harvesting corn in that field, listening to the cab radio and remembering the time he went to help an awkward city slicker named Michael."

"It is a great drama," Martone says, "community and claustrophobia on the one hand, freedom and rootlessness on the other – my one grandfather moving north out of Kentucky hauling its flora with him, my other grandfather leaving Italy and landing on Brandruff Street in Fort Wayne, Indiana, never to move again. It is my story, of course, but America's as well."

"Iowa has that tended look of a train set," Martone says. "The buildings of the small towns and farms were pre-fabricated, shipped in parts, ordered from catalogues, giving the landscape a generic, standardized look. Barn. House. Windmill. Water tower. Tree, even. Assorted animals. Townspeople."

Martone remembers that when he was living in the Poagston Arms apartment building in Fort Wayne, "the city was still destroying itself to save itself."

"I know there are people riding above me who consider this place, the Midwest, and the people who inhabit it 'the Flyover,' meaning to dismiss it," Martone says. He wants to "let altitude then be the best defense and let the mid-westerner wear the mantle of 'the Flyover' as a kind of camouflage."

"In Fort Wayne," says Martone, "as in many midwestern industrial cities, the factories were all built on the east side of town. The prevailing winds are from the west, thus the location of a city's smokestack industry is downwind."

"I accepted the invitation," Martone says, "on the strength of that turn of phrase, 'walking beans,' which had conjured up in my mind the visual pun of me leading legumes around by a leash."

"I was always groggy," Martone says, "an occupational hazard of working nights, a condition Pete and Dave assured me would wear off after three or four years."

The midwest comes to us, Martone says, "with its own fractal geometry where the smallest of its parts replicates itself on ever larger scales. All the efforts of politicians and surveyors to net up the region in knowing has not begun to capture the spaces between the weave. To write about the Midwest is to cast a web in those spaces and then wait patiently for things to begin to stick."

This is a book for shopkeeper and field hand, mechanic and banker, truck driver, librarian, whoever breathes – not just in the middle west but all across our land. There is wisdom here for all of us. He sees the beauty we walk past.

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