Thursday, May 6, 2010

Being American: Saints & Smallpox

I. Saints

Henry Rollins reminds me of Simone Weil:
those incendiary righteous rages, that infantile tendency to self-destruction, that massive wounded love of humanity...
So I sent him the Penguin bio (my used library copy)--it's wonderful--by Francine du Plessix Gray.
With a pink highlighter, cause he talks about reading with one in hand, and I know they dry out quickly.

[The ocean scene is part of a sheet of stamps. Annika? Recognize the green padded envelope?]

Henry Rollins seems to me a very American guy. (Weil was French, but their similarity I see is not cultural.)

I've been ragging on the American character to friends a lot, as I work on the Frindian War.
I'm seeing the roots of our favorite deadly sins:
King of the Hill pride; greed like an industrial vacuum cleaner; and gluttony, not exclusive of cannibalism.

But I love Americans. I do.
I'm also meeting these amazing people with incredible chutzpah and curiosity who said to themselves,
"Hey! I've got an idea! I'll get in a canoe with a box of matches, a bag of flour, and a sharp stick, and head out into the unknown!"

I was talking to a friend from Chicago about this "let's roll" attitude, and she said:
"Yeah, did you know they raised Chicago up to lay pipes underneath? Because the city'd gone up without a plan and now there were all these sewage and disease problems, they just LIFTED the city up on jacks and stuff, like changing a tire."
[LEFT: Lifting Chicago: the Briggs House--can you see? those're men underneath, with winches.]

No, I didn't know that. But it fits. It's what I would expect.

One of the things that horrified me about our response to New Orleans after Katrina was the failure of that spirit, on the government's part. I mean, come on! That's the stuff we're good at. We could have taken that thing to the mat. What happened?
If we're not good at that stuff anymore, we're just a self-devouring blubbery dog in a manger.

But I see that curiosity and can-do attitude--often with an accompanying generosity ("Hey, there! Who are you? Got something to eat? Want some of mine?")--on the parts of individual Americans around me all the time.

This past Monday I went to the post office to mail that package to Henry Rollins.
The first Monday of the month. At lunch time. A line of people out the door. But it's always a trip at my PO, so I didn't mind.

I waited between a Hispanic woman and her sweet little boy, carrying a bathtub rubber ducky, and a white guy, my age, who looked like he'd put his finger in a light socket, while the two clerks helped people.
And I mean helped people.

The pasty Irish-looking clerk struggled with his limited Somali (he's learned Somali!) to understand an ancient guy who didn't speak English buy some special denomination of stamps.

A chic young Asian American woman was mailing eyeglass frames and got talking with the other clerk about where you can buy eyeglass frames cheap on line (I wrote it down: eyedocshoppe)--but the clerk thought the box wasn't strong enough, so he went and got another box. And tape. And an address label.

I was there half an hour, and I loved it. No one mutters and rolls their eyes at this PO when the clerks take time to help other people. Probably because most of them are still fairly new to this country and haven't got the efficiency bug yet. That's a downside of efficiency--it makes you impatient: Lift the building up! Now!

II. Smallpox

Speaking of communicable diseases, like an automaton, yesterday I was writing a sentence you've read a million times:
"Europeans brought new diseases to the Americas, which killed millions of Native Americans. Smallpox was the most deadly."

Here's why I'm such a slow writer: I'm not an automaton.
I got wondering, what is smallpox anyway? and spent the rest of the afternoon reading up on it.

[Curiosity is American, yeah, but wondering about optional stuff slows you down, so it both is and is not an American trait. It goes against our Ford Assembly Line mentality. There are a lot of paradoxes to being American.]

So, now, if I had room, which I don't, I could add something like:
"Smallpox spreads easily among people, through tiny drops of saliva on the air. People can also catch it from clothes and blankets sick people used. The painful disease gives people deep, thick blisters all over their bodies, especially on their faces, mouths, and even inside their throats. About half the time, the victim slowly dies."

I always think a bit of gore appeals to the, as they call them, "reluctant readers." And the eager readers too.

Anyway, as I was wandering around the nets, I came across a song about how the USA gave smallpox blankets to Indians.
"Smallpox Champion" by Fugazi, an American punk band named for slang U.S. soldiers used in Vietnam:
the acronym for "Fucked Up, Got Ambushed, Zipped In (...a body bag)

But here's the thing. It happened, but it wasn't the USA. There wasn't any USA back then. So, not-guilty on a technicality.

From Colonial Germ Warfare:
During Pontiac's uprising in 1763, the Indians besieged Fort Pitt. On June 24 1763, William Trent, a local trader at the fort, wrote:
"Out of our regard for them [the attacking Delaware Indians], we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect."

I'm not too worried about who exactly to blame here. Like Jesus' crucifixion, it always seems to me the larger point is that we did it. It's got "human" written all over it. But so does assigning blame.
So, OK:
It was the British!

It won't do to romanticize the Indians as peace-loving flower children, either. That's the way I've heard the story--sort of a misguided corrective to the totally awful hand the native peoples got dealt.
But geez, give them their due. Those guys were merciless resistance bad-ass guerrilla fighters.

So, here's the song (lyrics below). Turns out--I had no idea--band member Ian MacKaye is a friend from childhood of Henry Rollins.
I'm not sure the song's technically correct about cotton harvesting either.
But this is absolutely the truth:

"You saw what you wanted
You took what you saw"

"Smallpox Champion" LYRICS

Smallpox champion U S of A
Give natives some blankets
Warm like the grave
This is the pattern cut from the cloth
This is the pattern designed to take you right out
This is the frontier with winter's so cold
Greed informs action where action makes bold
To take all the cotton that's cut from the stalk
Weave the disease that's gonna take you right out
What is good for the future what was good for the past -
Won't last
Bury your heart u s of a history rears up to spit in your face
You saw what you wanted
You took what you saw
We know how you got it
Your method equals wipe out
The end of the frontier and all that you own
Under the blankets of all that you've done
Memory serves us to serve you
Yet memory serves us to never let you wipe out
You'll get yours
Wipe out


ArtSparker said...

To my mind, the worst American sin is clinging to innocence, as in, go make a big stinky mess in someone else's country, and then say "But we're the GOOD people, so it's not our fault." Goes hand in hand with entitlement, and avoidance of self-examination.

You knew I had to say something cranky, right?

I am transfixed by the" blubbery dog in the manger", which is some kind of portmanteau metaphor with arrows pointing in all directions (blubbery for weepy and/or generously proportioned? I know the source is a metaphor for envy, but has the canine in question grown so large that it is trapped in the manger, like Pooh? Is the baby Jesus endangered?). I may have to spend the day resting with a damp cloth on my forehead after reading that.

Fresca said...

Crank away, Sparky!

Yeah, wide-eyed faux-innocence is very popular. I'd say it's a subspecies of the sin of Pride.
(Kind of a fun game: which category of Deadly Sin does thus-and-such fit under?)

You know, the choices are
(Mnemonic: GLACEPS)

I recommend rose water for that damp cloth.

ArtSparker said...

GLACEPS is SPECALG backwards.

momo said...

I think I know which PO you were in. I do love how the folks there are cheerful, kind, and genuinely helpful. I never mind waiting in line there either!

Anonymous said...

OMFGoddess! i knew this was a "mistake" to check out what you wrote today b-4 I googled up the other stuff that came up in tonight's phonechat. I haven't even done my full read of this, but I just haveta respond with a coupla things: 1. I forgot to mention I've never heard of this Henry Rollins dude b4 the last time you mentioned him in a previous post--(still haven't blogged him)--but, as I was waiting to catch a bus on Hennepin, I noticed that Pantages Theatre had his name up on their marquee and I thought I'd heard of him as some cool blues singer on KFAI this week, then remembered you'd mentioned him lately on this blog and, thought of you...2. Was it the downtown P. O.? I love inefficiency when it's because folks are taking care of one another--or trying to--that's being human, not being inefficient--at least when it's not being done with a passive/aggressive agenda to f someone over/control someone. 3. Which leads of course, directly and circularly to "being u.s.-ian: Quick associations that come to heart/mind after reading your meditations here: sui generis/suicide in their catholic and specific senses; some ongoing inner dialogue with my world view about how the frontier is always being redefined by the invader and hence there is no "post" colonialism and things tend to get organized or disorganized a in relationship to this ever-engendered frontera, as often occurs with cancers/viruses; how I thought of whale blubber when we spoke tonight and on reading your bit about the blubbering dogs in the manger and the great sobbings in the seas over all the wastings and killings; how I thought of the Martial/Marshall--(Eternal war and indebtedness and inequity)-- Plan how I much prefer the mnemonic ROYGBIV/VIBGYOR to GLACEPS/SPECALG--(I only ever learned this one, not the seven deadly sins one. Was it cuz I wasn't raised Catholic?). Okay, I love you in all ways, grrrl. But, I must stop now to sleep.
Keep Being!


Annika said...

My ("my?") padded envelope is being addressed to Henry Rollins! That's so cool! He's one of the minor household deities C and I surround ourselves with; I can't even remember the reason why, but HR is one of the people we - as a team - regard as massively cool. I know him as a singer, and C associates him with a small role in the '90s sci-fi movie Johnny Mnemonic. Haven't had the opportunity to watch the clips of his spoken word performances you've posted yet, but I look forward to it.

Fresca said...

MOMO & STEF: It was the PO on 1st Ave and 31st St.

I just checked because of you Stef, and HR is going to be in town on the 14th!
But I'm NOT... I'm going to Milwaukee to see my auntie. Damn.

ANNIKA: What a wonderful stream of consciousness life this green envelope is leading--you are one of the few people I know who knows who Rollins is.
I hadn't even heard of him until Shatner's "Has Been."

That Bill... I love how everyone is willing to work with him.

Dania said...

My day job requires me to go to the post office quite a lot, which doesn't have as helpful a staff as yours, but there are a couple of nice people there. I had to stop myself from my usual impatience when one of the nice ones was beaming and showing off the photo of her new granddaughter. I'm not much of a baby person, but it was an extraordinary photo of a smiling baby in a field of pink flowers. I can still see the baby and flowers.

It's things like that that we miss when we're in too much of a hurry.

Jennifer said...

"People Being Helpful When They Don't Have to Be" is one of those things that always makes me very happy to see.

Reading comments response #1: I also was very struck by "blubbery dog in a manger," which I think is a wonderful phrase. :) I see a fat, weepy dog that's stuck in a manger and snaps at everyone who tries to help it.

Reading comments response #2: What, wait, not everyone knows Henry Rollins? MTV jockey for a while, punk musician? (Okay, I had to look up Black Flag, I couldn't come up with the right name). I thought everyone knew him. >_<

Fresca said...

DANIA: I wouldn't go to my PO if I was in a hurry, that's for sure. But I'm usually trying to avoid work anyway...
One of the Helpful Clerks at my PO has a photo of his grandchild on permanent display. I commented on it the other day and the clerk beamed.

JEN: Once I became aware of who Henry Rollins is, I started to think I must be the only one who did not know him, but nope, I'd say most people don't.

Not sure if everyone knows:
" the dog in a manger" is a reference to the Aesop's Fable about a dog who won't let the oxen near the straw-filled manger it is using as a bed.

It's an illustration of people hoarding resources and denying them to others.
I guess I'd file that under Gluttony.