by: Dustin Joy
Every year, in July, at that point in the season when the compass plants are blooming and the hummingbirds are going at the feeder like a band of desperados, and I cannot imagine one more tedious, soul-withering, work-related conversation – I leave. It is not exactly a “damp, drizzly November in my soul” situation, but, like Ishmael, I certainly get the “grim about the mouth” thing. Unable to go to sea, I still make a concerted effort to visit “the watery part of the world.” I go to Lake Superior. I pack my Pequod, a kid-battered 2011 Honda Odyssey, with the people I love and I point my rig at Polaris.
I will stipulate here that there is a certain austere beauty to the miles and miles of corn we must traverse to get to the north woods of Minnesota. The gently rolling hills of Iowa, saturated with the green of midsummer, are not unlike waves on the ocean. Sea-sickness is a possibility.
Iowa can be lovely and reassuringly monotonous. It is the emotional support animal of states. It calms you. As the Grant Wood landscapes ease by the windshield one at a time, you know what to expect. You are not, for example, going to top the next rise and find a fjord, or a pyramid, or a redwood tree. And yet, much as I admire constancy, were God to grant me telekinesis, I would slide Iowa out of my way and connect things thus that the west side of the Muscatine bridge would land me in St. Paul.
North of the twin cities, Minnesota becomes a study in diversity. There is corn, surely, but along Interstate 35 it peters out, giving way to potato fields, then pastures lined with round bales of alfalfa, and then the first little lakes (10,000 I’m told.) These preliminary “lakes” are ponds, really, with reedy borders morphing into swampy little wastes of cat tails, red-winged blackbirds swaying atop many like 1920’s flag pole sitters.
At this latitude the uplands, forming the pond’s catch basin, are covered in a wonderful mixture of birches and pines and aspens. White, paperish trunks alternate with blue/green boughs and the little green geisha fans which shimmer and quake in the wind. Below is the lovely orange duff of no longer green evergreen needles. In the interstices are ferns and mosses, yellow daisies, red columbines, purple lupines, blue harebelles, maybe a pink lady slipper. Lichens are not thick enough here to guide a lost hiker with the old “north side of the tree” technique but as you travel closer to Gitche Gumee they obtain a foothold and, on some Boundary Waters lakes it seems they are the dominant life form, inanimate though they be.
Superior is a sensory banquet and diversity is on the menu here, too. The “beaches” are fields of polished rocks: red rhyolite, grey/ brown basalt, blackish gabbro, green lintonite, and the elusive agates which every visitor cranes his neck to find. Each one is rounded and shaped into a perfect skipping stone by the pounding, roaring waves. Driftwood logs are abraded, over and over, at the surf-line until they are as smooth as if turned on a lathe.
In a minute the lake is flat calm reflecting the blue sky like a great horizontal mirror. In the cove below the palisades, a coffee-brown river pours over the escarpment with a continuous pulsating roar. Children play in the waterfall, twittering randomly as they “rescue” crayfish from the little tide pools. Another minute passes and a gentle onshore breeze, air conditioned by eighty miles of fifty degree lake, rolls into the humid atmosphere in the cove and, suddenly, unbelievably, we are standing in a cloud. There is momentary silence, even from the waterfall it seems, as all the creatures thereabouts adjust to the sensation of floating in air.
The breeze stiffens and the fog dissolves as quickly as it came. The giant lake reappears, riffled, not a mirror now, but maybe a broken mirror, reflecting nothing, or reflecting a million things. Behind and to the left there is a croaking sound, deep and guttural, from the boughs of a pine tree growing literally from the rock face itself. Upon the highest branch sits a raven the size of a pheasant and he cocks his great head and looks at me as if to say “what a curious creature you are, all pale an earthbound, and … those shorts are really not your best look.” A chipmunk crosses the bar, gingerly from one sun-hot stone to another, circumspect of me, and the raven, and the lapping wavelets. A mother loon and her two babies, the chicks riding high and dry upon her back, round the headland, crabbing into the breeze. She divides her attention between our world and the one below, ducking her head rhythmically, scanning for herring. When the trio is abeam me she emits a long, lonely cry which carries for miles and sounds more like “nevermore” than the raven’s sarcastic call.
I am loathe to leave this place, ever. I will miss it for 358 days. I must go back to my my work-related conversations, though. I must drive through the miles and miles of Iowa. At the end of the day core competencies must be optimized, proven methodologies must be executed, synergy must be achieved, and we must monetize our assets… We must sit in our cubicles and file the paperwork and pull the same drill-press handle over and over and over and … why not? Aren’t our brains stimulated adequately when we consider best practices and seamless integration?
There is something missing, lest why the “need” for vacation? Why the Moby Dick ennui? I would like to say color, but that’s not it, exactly. A million acres of cornstalks certainly represent color in spades. And cornstalks can be pretty. And it’s not people, exactly. I work with some fine people and I live near some other fine people, even if they are mostly white, lumpy people who look a lot like me.
I contemplate these things from the mezzanine at the Mall of America in Minneapolis. Our final stop is as different from Lake Superior as can be. But, there is something I like here. There is something intangible that Superior also has. It is something that satisfies a craving. As I sit and sip my root beer and watch the people moving in and out of frame I put it all together.
A tall, slender woman passes, her skin the color of milk chocolate, and she smiles broadly and says “Haal-o” in an rich Somali accent. Opposite her a lady as white as a sheet of typing paper with lustrous, flowing auburn hair reads the Star-Tribune. A ruddy fat man, easily 350, in a Hawaiian print shirt, and carrying a bag from the Lego store, pauses below me on the landing to readjust his load. A Chinese lady plays Candy Crush on her cell phone as she waits for her husband and two sons to return from Sbarro. She sits back-to-back with a blonde twenty-something with an impressively braided pony tail and a shirt which says “On Wednesdays we smash the patriarchy!” A little girl in a pink pinafore licks a loosing battle with a giant ice cream cone.
I get up and walk down the concourse and, on my right, two women in burkhas, one pushing a stroller, pass. I cannot see their faces but I know, somehow, that they are smiling. Next comes Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson’s doppelgänger and I wish, for the hundredth time, that I could pull a Freaky Friday switcheroo with him. Here is a young father in a grey pocket-tee and wearing a tie-dye backpack with the Build-a-Bear Workshop logo on it and an American Girl doll’s head and face protruding from the drawstring at the top. A 6’ 3” bald man, covered in tattoos, walks hand-in-hand with 5’ 2” woman, in what could be mistaken for a prom dress. It strikes me that if a Martian suddenly landed in the Mall of America parking lot one sunny day it would not be immediately clear to him or her or it that we were all of the same species.
And if our physical attributes aren’t interesting enough, our opinions and personalities offer glorious variety. People long to reveal themselves, and they do it. At the Mall of America tee-shirts are the chosen platform of expression. We have:
“Hold on a minute while I overthink this.”
I don’t snore, I dream I’m a motorcyle.”
It’s tough being a genius, but I manage.”
On a short, plump lady in line at Starbucks:
“I will not be forced to learn a foreign language to live in my own country.”
“I’m sorry for what I said when I was hungry.”
“I’m with stupid.” A map of Minnesota and Wisconsin with an arrow over Minnesota pointing to the left.
“Hey Babe!” Over a picture of Paul Bunyan’s companion animal.
“Your mom can party!”
“I bake because punching people is frowned upon.”
“Born to be mild.” With a picture of a three-toed sloth, in a leather jacket.
“I suck at apologies so, unfuck you, or whatever.”
“If you were in my novel I would have killed you off by now.”
“May the fetus you save be gay.”
“Spooning leads to forking.”
“Here’s to strong women. May we know them. May we be them. May we raise them.”
“God, Guns, and Guts. Made in the U.S.A.”
“Back in my day we had nine planets.”
“Poop jokes aren’t my favorite jokes, but they’re a solid number two.”
“Strong people stand up for themselves, but stronger people stand up for others.”
“I never said all that shit. – Confucius.”
And, finally, the profound ones:
“You’re killing me, Smalls!” (blue)
“You’re killing me, Smalls!” (red)
“You’re killing me, Smalls!” (green)
And, on a very pregnant woman:
“You’re kicking me, Smalls!”
And I feel reassured here, much like I do on the North Shore. I feel at home with these people. I feel welcome at the Mall of America, even with my weird opinions and cock-eyed view of the world. I feel a sense of belonging to this mass of humanity, this cacophony of culture, this menagerie.
There is a place, in this world, for monoculture. It’s called a cornfield, and it serves it’s purpose and even bears a simple beauty. But, in my humble opinion, diversity is better. I don’t know what axiom of the universe makes it so, but I know it is true in my bones. William Cowper said variety is the spice of life. That rings true to me.
I like hamburgers, but I don’t want them every day. I want Mongolian Beef and Pad Thai and authentic tacos and Chicken Tikka Masala, too. I like Mark Twain, but I want to read Tolstoy, and Joyce, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, too. I like corn and hogs, but I want some lupines and columbines and loons and bears, too. I love America, but I don’t want everyone in our vast, beautiful, diverse country wearing the same t-shirt.