The second Tuesday of April
My mom was talking to Nick’s mom the other day. You’ve probably talked to Ms. Olrich, too, if you’ve ever remortgaged at Fox Valley Savings in Fond du Lac, even if you didn’t know her by name.
Nick and I, it so happens, were good friends once. Back in sixth grade, he and I were the boy half of Lakeshore’s Odyssey of the Mind team. A year or two before the detente of teenage hormones, he and I had to be allies.
But a year later, we went to different junior highs, and I don’t think he and I have talked since. It wouldn’t have taken much for our moms to keep in touch better than we have, but they manage to run into each other often. It seems that my parents refinance a lot.
Last week, they were talking about their sons – they usually do. Nick, it turns out, now studies European art. Even if it isn’t what I would have guessed as a career path knowing him as a sixth grader, I’m glad he found something that intrigues him. And it means that he’s gotten the chance to study in Europe.
My mom was quick to pepper Ms. Olrich, she calls her Jean, with motherly questions about Nick’s exploits in Europe. She was particularly curious, you see, because she’s sending me off to Europe. My sister and I are set to see the continent, half a world away from our home. Megan, two years my junior, has spent the spring in Italy, teaching English to hospitality school students along the southern coast. From what I hear, she liked it.
Our mothers look at Nick’s European travels. They look at my wanderlust. Ah-ha, they decided, it must have been something in the drinking water in 1980 when they were pregnant! My guess, though, is that the real reason behind our love to live life far from home is something that was in the air much later.
The atmosphere of 1980 - I was born in the middle of that year, in the middle of July - was fear. The world was a scary place. The globe was split in half. Behind an unseeable iron curtain was a red evil with no wishes greater than our destruction. Only a few years before we had lost to armed peasants in Vietnam. Afghanistan was perhaps the next domino in the Domino Rally of survival. In the Middle East, radicals had oil and hostages, and would give us neither without a fight. As President Carter said, we were in the midst of a crisis of confidence. We were losing to the world. But luckily, I don’t remember 1980, and I don’t think Nick does either.
We came of age, first came to understand the complexities of the world, in a different era. The world was breathing easier. I learned to hide under my classroom desk in fear of only tornadoes, not the spirals of nuclear arms races and the twists of a bitter global dichotomy. As long as we can remember, the majority of the world has lived in freedom, the rule of the majority, even if minority rights are matched by a minority of the world still under political or religious oppression. For our generation, the complexities, curiosities and cultures of the world are challenges to explore, to understand, rather than challenges to our existence. Black and white became a mosaic of grays, a work of art that becomes colorful only when the paint-by-number canvas is sampled by the artist, a traveler to foreign worlds.
I find it unsurprising that the children of Fond du Lac born in 1980 travel and dream of distant lands. I’m not surprised that the children of distant lands, and all the lands in between, who share our birthday travel and explore. The inheritance of our birth, after all, was a world that we are free to explore.
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The third Tuesday of April
I was just asked why. Again.
Eight months ago, it was Laura van Arsdale, smack in the middle of the Arizona wastelands, as we were serenaded by the cooling, calming symphony of a desert sunset, who asked why. She asked the simple question, expecting more than the simple answer. Why, she wondered, was I traveling with her.
It is the kind of question that I much prefer to ask than to answer, the kind of question for which I have no real answer. You have probably asked me one yourself, you know what I do. I hide my uncertainty under a shroud of pretended disinterest. I take off my glasses and rub my eyes. I sigh, I look away, I mumble. I run-around, I avoid eye contact. I do anything but answer the question.
But today it was my sister. And strangely, I feel it was a fair question. We were huddled under a rocky overhang in Norway, hiding from spring rain drops and the Norwegian police. Camping on the grounds of a palace/museum, we’re still not exactly sure what kind of estate with cannons we were on, is certainly not a legally-sanctioned activity. We were only inches, although those inches were on the map, from what we hoped was our salvation from crummy weather and an expensive conversion rate – Sweden. But the last train to the land of milk, honey and Saabs had left an hour ago.
So we hiked out of Halden, Norway, with a map showing lots of green spaces just outside of the city, three oranges and half a loaf of bread. And fruit leather. As we left the city limits, we seemed to reach my sister’s limits. But we marched on with full packs as I insisted we would find a good spot to camp just around the next corner. I had no idea where we were going, but we stumbled onto the wooded estate and were quick to call it good enough. Too worried to set up our misdemeanorous tent until dark, Megan was left with nothing better to do than ask why the hell I was traveling.
I probably laughed. I probably rolled my eyes, held my glasses in my hand and rubbed my eyes. I probably said something, but not what I meant. I definitely did not answer the question.
But it is most certainly nearly impossible to find yourself if you aren’t first lost, no?
* * * * *
The fourth Tuesday of April
The joy of traveling is discovering hapiness where you never knew it existed. Happiness, of course, is everywhere, but to find it outside your own experience is to travel. Yesterday, I traveled to Hungary.
Budapest bites you the moment you step off the train. Hungary is not the United States. For the first time, I was behind the Iron Curtain, even if the sharpness of that divide has rusted for the last fifteen years.
Heavy women are quick to peddle open rooms in their home to overwhelmed foreigners. Broken English invites each confused visitors who steps off the train, affluent by default, to share lovingly-stirred goulash for some petty sum. For these mothers, these grandmothers, bringing the West into their eastern home is the only means to support their way of life.
But the gauntlet of unfamiliarity continued even after we managed to convince the heavy women that we were visiting a friend. Even as familiar a thing as escalators becomes foreign, and frighteningly so, in Hungary. Not one of the native Hungarians worried about having to jump, rather than step, onto the fast moving steps. And no one worried about the steepness or the claustrophobic tunnel that seemed to be closing in over us. With metal gears churning, clanking below us, it was a long, long ride down.
And beyond the dangerously-efficient escalators, above the harrowing subway tunnels, Hungary was no less foreign. The challenge of housing nearly two million people gave the central planners of yesteryear a platform to showcase a rather drab outlook on life. For me, the sameness and grayness of concrete block apartment building, side by side, one after another, seemed like it would suffocate happiness, silence life.
But against the smog of a sterile gray, simple colors shine the brightest. In pieces, I began to realize that Hungary, and I would imagine a majority of the world, contents itself with a much different joy than ours. More simple, more pure.
The joy isn’t like ours, it isn’t a purchased high. The happiness isn’t an entertainment that dulls the senses until an even more colorful, more sexy flash of mindlessness can startle you into the shock of instant pleasure.
The joy was more simple. The happiness was the celebration of color. A glimmer of goodness in a world more centered around survival. The joy was the flowers of Budapest. The flowers of Budapest carried in the arms of a Magyar-speaking grandmother, who had seen her country through so much, a past that made as much sense as the present much of the time. The flowers of Budapest alongside the thin pancakes, the thin pancakes that each customer ordered, at the family-owned restaurant. On tables, behind ears, between lovers. Under feet, around fountains, across parks. Against gray.
The flowers of Budapest made me smile.
* * * * *
The fifth Tuesday of April
Dearest Mr. President Bush,
I woke up this morning in Switzerland, shaken and confused by the thunder of a jet fighter cracking the speed of sound high above my mountain campsite. What, I worried, was the Swiss air force doing racing towards Italy? But with sadness, I realized that it was just as likely that it was our own plane, an American plane enroute to or from Germany, that had shattered my little piece of Swiss serenity.
Now you can argue very eloquently that the world, our fractious globe, is far different from my peaceful place in the mountains and that our jets can do good for people all around the planet. That has certainly been the case often in the past, although not always, as we both know. I’m not sure about today.
It was with great trepidation that I marched against your proposed war with Iraq more than a year ago. In truth, I was opposed to the war chiefly because it was your idea, and I don’t like many of your ideas. Even as I decided to speak against your views, I was torn. So much of me said that Saddam Hussein is a bad man, even if he had nothing to do with September 11th. The world would be better without him, we should help the Iraqis taste freedom. I feel betrayed.
You coerced the American public into war, scaring our citizens and the frightful parts of the world into a coalition of the willing. You and your staff argued that we were under attack and than innocent Americans would die terrible deaths at the hand of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. There were immediate results to your preemptive strategy. Our troops marched easily into Baghdad and in other parts of the world, ruthless dictators began to heed American demands. But then there were no weapons to be found, and the world began to get antsy. So you lied.
Mr. Bush, you hijacked the high aims of global activism.
A dozen years ago, your father rallied the world to storm Iraq as the last best option for preserving the international norms of collective security and national sovereignty. Your administration’s escapades in Iraq have trampled upon those norms. You stole the noble pursuits of an active America on the global stage, advocating and advancing liberty, freedom and equality. I fear you stole that ideal for political reasons, and I find that deplorable.
You didn’t ask the American people if they wanted to invest the high costs of war in an optional, humanitarian invasion of Iraq, you scared them into accepting a different kind of war. Only when risks became unwarranted did you need to push the benefits. But still most Americans were with you, willing to bear a significant national sacrifice to bring good to the world. Our billions and our boys, too much of our money and too many of our soldiers, were a price we were willing to pay for democracy, freedom, liberty, even for people we would never meet.
Instead, we have decided to match the old regime’s brutality, in spirit if not tit-for-tat. Our soldiers humiliate a people we are trying to uplift, unless your motives were as fictitious as your rationalizations. The world holds our great nation in disgust, and I can’t help but feel the same way. The pictures are haunting. War has made us the enemy we went to fight.
We are not in this war because America was at risk. Nor are we in this war to help the Iraqi people, apparently. We are in this war because you wanted us to be, and the responsibility falls squarely upon you.