Sunday, February 04, 2007

Losing Our Way

Last weekend I was in Durham, NC and this weekend in Nashville Tennessee. Both times I’ve gone to these heartlands for the universities - to give a lecture in a conference at Duke and to see friends that teach at Vanderbilt while Avery speaks at a conference. Things in America don’t look any more normal from here.

My pal Jan opened the Duke conference by saying that the American university has lost its way. True, and the same could be said of the country as a whole. But it could also of my friends as a group. They are some of the best educated and most brilliant people around, and yet its hard not to feel like they’re going through the motions. They have all this knowledge but what is it for? They know these things but what good does it do? They say all these things but who is listening to them?

All around us people who know nothing have tremendous effects, supporting leaders who as my Republican dad pointed out in 2003 “kill people for no reason.” Now every week the dying gets worse in Iraq, in Gaza, in other places we meddle and lend our support. And at home we are pretty sure there is nothing we can do.

My Nashville hotel window faces south. It snowed last night but that has melted away. In every direction I see cranes and half- buildings. They will join the hodge-podge of old brick buildings - 3 and 4 stories mostly - and new condo and office stuff whose color you can’t remember five seconds after you stop looking. Buildings are scattered here and there, and there’s a church’s gothic tower, and the white dome of a quad building on Vanderbilt’s campus. But the idea of coordinating anything wouldn’t arise - it would take concentration, it would take planning, it would take thinking.

A few people are still doing that. They are mostly inside corporations. My friend Dana’s husband Tom tells me as we drive towards downtown that they are going to build a new tower that’s just eight stories shorter than the Sears Tower in Chicago, making it the second tallest building in the U.S. Well why not add 9 stories and go for number 1, I laugh? The buildings they have now are what, 35 stories at most? That’s going to look pretty desperate. We pooled all our money and built the second tallest building in America, where it stands out like the Washington Monument in a lagoon.

We drive by an abandoned 1 story brick strip that could offer street life and shops - the kind of things Americans fly 8000 miles to Paris to get. It could even be connected to another block just like it, and to a couple of others, and with 5 blocks of shops pretty soon you’d have a town. They have some stuff like that down by the river, 2 or 3 blocks of restaurants and bars. Nobody will pay to paint the little buildings, but they’ll build a tower 5 times taller than anything else now in town. We walk across a bridge by the Country Music Hall of Fame. It crosses the Cumberland river, and there’s the new stadium for the Tennessee Titans. Tom tells me it’s built on 10 Indian burial mounds. They saved two in the foreground. I take a picture. Then I take a picture of them, with the Nashville skyline behind, minus its Sears Tower to come.

I liked the Country Music Hall of Fame OK, but it needed a lot more about the culture and the business the music came from. There was a lady in there who opened all the doors on the gold and platinum album displays to hear the song inside, and she tapped her feet and said some of the words to every one. She was the only one of us that wasn’t kind of wandering aimlessly. Where have we come from? What have we done?

Personally, I don’t know what this country’s trying to do other than make money, enormous money, money that buys the immunity of a private island. One half of our elites go around destroying stuff . The other goes around making more money than any group in the history of the world. People who are trying to do something other besides making money seem as lost as the country’s foreign policy. We don’t think anyone’s waiting to hear from us. We go about our business, and work at staying happy.

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