Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Dark Country


Here in Tiny Town on a Sunday night it was already dark at 6 in the evening, and I had pretty much lost my will to go on. I had spent hours on the help lines of both Apple and Dell trying to figure out why my new Apple DVI mini adapter was not bringing a picture to the Dell 1800FP analog display that FF gave me, and my "unresolved issue" seemed to have quite destroyed my desire to accomplish anything. That, and the darkness.

It is very dark now in Tiny Town. A velvety black darkness falls upon us earlier and earlier out in Stag County as autumn creeps up on us and our gardens. It gets to 6 PM and we are stunned that it is night already, and even though we know the winter's coming on like it does every year, we say to each other "what happened?" Behind closed doors, we talk about what it would be like to move to South Carolina, or anywhere south where the light and the warmth hang on a little longer. Oh sure, we can stroll to Main Street where the colonial-style street lights cast a dim yellow on the brick sidewalks, and where twinkling strings of Italian lights illuminate the faces of the faithful huddled around the gas heaters at the Lenape Inn's outdoor tiki bar. But the feebleness of the illumination only serves to emphasize the vast depth of the darkness and does nothing to cheer it. Chill autumn seeps in through the cracks in the old wood of the the garage siding where the Virginia creeper goes scarlet, and works its way into the drying leaves of the hydrangeas and burns the cheeks of the maples along the Delaware. I check the shed for shovels, salt. I wash sweaters, and I realize I don't have any that I like very much.

It is dark in Tiny Town, and the elections are almost upon us. FF and I watch the TV in the evening and are left speechless by the dumb viciousness of the political attack ads that all the commentators seem to agree "work". But to what end do they "work" except to mislead the voting public and fan the flames of generalized middle class anger? If that is "working" I'd rather have disfunction. When FF and I have the energy, which is rarer now as the light fades, we check out Politifact and research the inflamed statements delivered to us by the candidates themselves and the rabble-rousing "non-profits" that place their ads on Comcast: We find that most of the accusations made are either "mostly untrue" or "pants on fire". Our airwaves are absolutely gummed up with deliberate, nasty lies. Oh, did I say "our"? Yes, I know, the airwaves stopped belonging to the American public year before last and now Mom doesn't have TV because she refuses to pay for cable and instead has a converter box, swearing that the stations come in better when she sits the iron on top of the TV. The political stank smells pretty bad here in town, and it almost overcomes the perfume of the drying leaves. FF and I might just start leaving the television off, which will leave the house a little bit darker still.

Next week, I will cast my ballot at the Tiny Town Eagle Fire Company Engine House where we keep our bright shiny fire trucks and the new EMT ambulance bought with funds raised from the Wednesday night spaghetti suppers and a few private donors. It will be the first time in over 25 years that I have not voted in New York City and (as you all have reminded me) my vote will likely count more here in bright blue Stag County. I am taking the morning off to do it, and I plan to hang around the polling place for a while to feel the vibe.

Tiny Town is proud of its spirit of self-reliance and its spaghetti dinner fundraisers. Here lives a piquant mix of extremely wealthy country squires and very middle to lower middle class workers and immigrants. Our county is the third wealthiest in Pennsylvania, and Republicans outnumber Democrats by a very long shot. There is a fair rumble of Tea Party sympathy, though we have no Tea Party candidates in this upcoming election. The Tea Party is too extreme and déclassé even for Stag County. Anger at and distrust of government has reached hissy fit on the dial, and that's the most popular sentiment you hear over the counter at the Eagle Diner where the working class gathers for the blue plate special. The problems of society have become too complex and overwhelming for those too intellectually impatient, unprepared or unwilling to bend their minds to ideas, and so comes the bitter call to "get all the bastards out". At any cost.

I am afraid of these sentiments, afraid of the growing feeling that we can just emote our way out of the problems in which we finds ourselves. I am afraid of our willingness to be attracted to terrible bombast and be dismissive of thoughtfulness which, by nature, is quieter. Yes, our problems are complex, but not too complex to think out in a reasoned way. But that kind of thinking takes patience and a kind of focus that is hard to come by in this time of money and attention deficits. Social, economic and personal disappointments weigh hard on the people of Stag County, and if we drive west to York where FF's parents live, I can see the discontent-o-meter rising  higher on the faces of the people with each mile west we drive. They wouldn't say so out loud, but the people farther west and north of Tiny Town don't understand why their kitchens don't look like the ones on HGTV, and they're sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. Free-floating discontent feeds free floating anger feeds "get the bastards out". At any cost.


I want to go see it for myself. I want to go northwest where the Alleghenies meet the border of upstate New York and maybe stop at a diner in Dimock, Susquehanna County where it's 98% percent white, 60% registered Republican and dirt poor. That's where Norma Fiorentino's house blew up because methane gas leaked from the drilling in the Marcellus Shale into her well water. The utilities, all part of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, are sucking the natural gas out of the good Pennsylvania shale around Norma's house and out of vast tracts of Pennsylvania countryside. They promise jobs. They promise to turn dirt farmers into millionaires with royalty payments, the kind of overnight "success" that the people yearn for. The voters of Susquehanna County are grabbing for that gold ring and, after all, who wouldn't? Things have not changed in Dimock at all in over a century except that the buildings are older and dirtier now. The folks in Dimock don't take kindly to the thoughtful suggestion made by the Democratic candidate for governor that we need to take another look at this shale drilling thing, regulate it, and fund the EPA properly to keep an eye on the drilling companies. No, "Drill, baby, drill" is the motto the people can get behind in Susquehanna county. And if someone's house blows up, well, that's just the price of progress.


A place where they tell you to open the windows before you take a bath is not somewhere I want to live. And the idea of flaming tap water is downright Apocalyptic. Oh, yeah, it's getting darker in Susquehanna County.

The Dark Ages began when the Roman Empire fell. Go read it for yourself; Gibbon is still waiting for you, all six volumes. You connect the dots: Superstition, ignorance, desperation, the decline of cultural artifacts, the rise of belief over knowledge. Oh, for the darkness of the womb! But I want to have that discussion, Susquehanna, about why you vote almost straight Republican when the same fellows that brought you the trillion dollar boondoggle called the Iraq War where your sons and daughters got their arms and legs blown off, are now trying to bring you methane-flavored water so that you can blow up your own own house by taking a bath. Can we have that discussion, Susquehanna?



In New York City, where it is always bright and the night sky takes on the comforting aspect of a soft violet pink dome, I was sheltered from this darkness for so many years. We heard about it, read about it in the New York Times, but in New York City you can always go downtown and forget all your worries, forget all your cares, just like Petula sang. There, in the glittering 24-hour midway of writers, hipsters, Rockefeller University wizards, university kids and the lords of hip hop and poetry jam, you can believe that you're living in a world that is getting brighter and more brilliant, not darker and dumber. But here in Stag County, it's getting darker. And it's getting darker still in Dimock, and all over Susquehanna, Johnstown and Juniata counties. There's no soft, pink dome hanging over the dark, hulking, cool coal backbone of Pennsylvania, north and west of the Alleghenies. All that they have out in those parts is the kind of chill that takes a century to set into your bones, the lonely whistle of the train in the night, and the stark rage that comes from being left in dark for too long while other people get to dance with the stars. From the shadows of northern and western Pennsylvania, they see the bright lights of New York City twinkling like the eye of Sauron from the TV in living room. But there amongst the TV trays, the sprung sofas, the smell of disappointment and the unpaid mortgages, a spark of longing ignites into stark fury.

It's getting dark now in Stag County. Here in the comfort of Tiny Town, I am not nearly as sunk into the shadows as many others. But now that I have left the shining dome of the Emerald City, I can peer a little deeper into the night and, as winter comes on, I see a dark country.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

It's 11:17 at night and I'm very much considering the darkness....

Urban Exile said...

The darkness can be good, too. A soothing place. Thanks for reading.