Tribeless in McDonaldsland

Golden arches, a redhead clown, over a gazillion hamburgers served. McDonald’s — a prime symbol of Corporate America — and a big chunk of my cultural heritage. The white-privilege powers of my childhood wanted such things for me — symbols of progress, financial success, the American Dream. Back then, people believed in The American Dream enough to sacrifice the bulk of their inherited culture to it. The American Dream is a beautiful dream, that’s for sure. It’s a wonderland where if you work hard enough, you can have everything you want, and if you have it, you deserve it. And the more you have, the better off we all are. Growing up, I was told I was part of this dream.

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The sagebrush in my front yard lives quietly among neighbors’ daffodils and bluegrass lawns

I didn’t realize that when they said “part of it,” they meant I was part of the hired help. The American Dream only fully belongs to elite white men, those born above the glass ceiling who will do anything to stay there, or those few select others willing to sell their souls to get there. The American Dream never really belonged to the rest of us, and it never could. We’re support beams, cooks and cleaners, carpets, ego-props, wanna-be’s. We can try, but most of us aren’t allowed to be anything else, because the American Dream needs a lot of support in order to exist. So the best many can hope for is to be ballast at the bottom of the pyramid. The very best others can hope for is second place, even if they are brilliant and born into privilege.

The culture I inherited is a trademarked, artificial culture, peddled on cereal boxes, milk cartons, and billboards, by housekeeping magazines and smiley television spokesmen. It’s a culture that will feed you laboratory chemicals, and you will like them. You will even ask for them. As I grew, I came to question this culture, reject it, stand against it. That’s one thing the American Dream culture really hates, and I was punished for it, like a sagebrush is punished for sprouting in a suburban yard.

The powers of my childhood wanted me to be a daffodil. I was dressed up and primped, taught the correct placement and usage of dishes and utensils at the table, directed to use polite words and sharply forbidden to use others, and as a girl, thoroughly instructed in the arts of deference and obedience.

No matter how hard they tried, it didn’t stick. I couldn’t be a daffodil, and I couldn’t figure out why. I tried, I really did, but later learned that my efforts were doomed to failure. I was a sagebrush, not a daffodil. Ironically, wild sagebrush, an iconic part of the American west, don’t fit into the American Dream. If domesticated and corralled in ceramic pots or botanic gardens, sagebrush can be tolerated. The best I could hope for was to be tolerated. I was in good company. I was tolerated — or not — along with other mentally ill, with atheists, people of color, indigenous, contemplatives, lesbians, philosophers, and a rainbow of others.

So, rather than keep trying to change who I was, I set out on a journey to reject the American Dream and as much of the culture that went along with it as I possibly could. But what culture was left? What had my parents and grandparents lost by embracing McDonaldsland? In my veins is the blood of Algonquins, Irish Clans, Gauls, and Vikings. Going back far enough, all human beings come from such indigenousness. This indigenousness was the best weapon I had to do battle with McDonaldsland. But how could I embrace it without the culture, language, and connection to my ancestors? What could I do, cut off from my power? How could I survive when the dominant culture was still trying to eradicate sagebrush, even as its unbreakable connection to beautiful things like sage-grouse was becoming apparent? 

I’m still asking this question, still digging for clues, still searching for indigenousness, unearthing and embracing snippets of the cultures I lost. And when I find a snippet, I treasure it like a person who finds an unmelted piece of beloved jewelry in the wreckage of their burnt home.

You Can’t Stop Evolution

… even if you don’t believe in it. You can try to get in its way, but you can’t stop it. It’s like trying to stop a hurricane by closing your curtains and making a cup of instant coffee. You feel better for a while, but you don’t stop the hurricane. And unfortunately, you have your back to it  when it arrives.

So I’ve asked myself what the future United States might look like. What might we evolve into as a country?

One thing isimg_0632 for sure: despite political promises, it won’t be filled with millions of coal and petroleum industry and internal-combustion-engine-automobile-manufacturing jobs. It also won’t host teams of men who cut down old-growth forests or slaughter vast herds of wild bison for their tongues and tenderloins. These resources are on their way out, or they are already long depleted, reduced to island populations across our continent. Only so many ancient organisms were long ago turned into coal and oil beds. Their number was vast, but now they’re depleted, too. Like the bison. Like the old-growth trees. It’s a simple fact, no matter how many curtains you draw or cups of instant coffee you brew. Whether you “believe in” global climate change or not, the coal and steel industries are not coming back. We need to choose something else.

When human beings lose resources and their survival is threatened, things usually become violent. That’s the scary part of what could happen, and don’t think that this doesn’t keep me up at night. But what happens after the violence? I’m hoping that the once-great city, Detroit, Michigan, has an answer.

I’ve been to Detroit, over forty years ago. It was a lot like Chicago or St. Louis or Minneapolis/St. Paul. Brimming with people and industry, self-important. Not so now. The auto industry declined. Corrupt politicians took their share. The giants fell. I’ve not been back there in person, but I know there was violence, lots of it. It was all over the news for a decade or more. But while I’ve been out west raising a family and contending with the increasingly difficult business of keeping up a modest living, the affairs of Detroit quietly fell out of the news.

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Recently, I was reminded of Detroit by an episode of “Parts Unknown,” a CNN show by Anthony Bourdain (Season 2, Episode 8). I had no idea that the city had disintegrated so much. Bourdain compared it to Chernobyl, the nuclear ghost city in the Ukraine that was abandoned in the 1980s. But in the midst of all the decay and graffiti are sustainable farms. And artists filled with life. And pop-up and back-yard restaurants serving local food to laughing customers. There is grit and hope and a strong sense of community among all of that bitter Rust. I’m not talking about boutique food or a frou frou future, the latest fad in local agriculture. I’m talking about surviving after the giants fall.

We could choose this future, couldn’t we? We could learn to feed ourselves again, to take care of one another, couldn’t we? Is it too naive to hope that we might be able to accomplish it without doing violence to one another? I have been to Las Vegas recently, and it’s beginning to look a lot like Detroit …

Is Detroit only a ruined city? The disgraced giants might think so. Or is Detroit actually a window into the future, a city decades ahead of its time? I want to believe that our future is filled with the seeds of hope that Anthony Bourdain found in Detroit. It looks like evolution to me.

September 23 garden