An Introduction To The State

I’ve spent many years repairing windmills with my father-in-law at his Four Mile Ranch. The mills pump water to the surface for cattle and sheep to drink. There are nineteen of these windmills on this broken patch of land, which looks west to the Bighorn Mountains and east to Powder River. The repair is mostly grunt-and-sweat labor done by hand, though we’ve got an old rig truck that we use to pull the galvanized pipe out of the deep wells. At the top of each well tower is a platform where a single person can stand to work. The two-by-six floorboards are saturated with oil and grease, and I have to twist around like a contortionist to get at some of the windmill parts. In high winds the fantail brakes on the mills sometimes slip, and the assembly swings around and hits me. I wear a heavy belt clipped to the tower so that I can’t be knocked to the ground, though I still get pushed off the platform once in a while and dangle there a moment or two before I can scramble back up along the belt line. When the winds are calm and I’m changing the oil in a wellhead, there’s time to stare out into space and think while the oil quietly flows into the gear-box reservoir. After a day of such work, I’m worn out and fall into bed early. I close my eyes, and for a few minutes, before I drift off into what I think of as practice for dying, I’m inexplicably happy.

In the brief Wyoming summer, my wife and I sit in the shade of an apple tree that I planted too close to our deck, at an outdoor table made from the cover to the old coal chute. We don’t heat with coal anymore, but instead use natural gas and logs from the cottonwood trees along the banks of Four Mile Creek. The whole family goes there in September: my wife and our daughter, my mother-in-law and father-in-law, my sister-in-law, and my two nephews. We park a six-horse trailer beside the creek and set up a thirty-six-inch circular saw driven by the power take-off of our ancient tractor, then spend the day dragging storm-downed branches over to the saw to cut them, throwing the cut wood into the horse trailer. At the end of the day we haul the wood to town, toss it back out of the trailer, and stack it in the garage and shed. After that, I sweep the trailer clean for the horses. When the work’s finished, I pull two apples off the tree beside the deck. This early in the fall, they’re just starting to turn red and are still a little sour. I give an apple to one of the horses and eat the second apple myself.

I’ve been thinking lately about the colors red and blue. One October morning, a few weeks before the last presidential election, I was shoveling deep, wet snow off the deck. The trees still hadn’t dropped all their leaves, and the snow weighed so heavily on the branches that some gave up and snapped off. One tree split in two, the downed half nearly filling the yard. In a hurry to clear the snow, I somehow cut my left hand while shoveling. When I came back in, the hand warmed up, and the cut began to throb. I took off my glove and saw bright red blood smeared over my skin.

My life in Wyoming has many brilliant blues: the sky as it stretches down to touch the mountain peaks; the cold water of Meadowlark Lake; the shirt my mother-in-law gave me for my birthday. But on televised maps following the 2004 election, the great square of Wyoming was shown all red, among a sea of other red states.

When I first moved to Wyoming, long before I’d ever worked on a windmill, I was invited to participate in a statewide literary conference that included an open-mike poetry reading. Anyone could sign up to read for five minutes before an audience of fellow writers. The first reader was a white woman in her seventies who walked slowly, her bearing upright and dignified. She explained that she was the reincarnation of an eighteenth-century Indian maiden whose spirit had given her the poems she was about to read. She turned in a circle, showing off the buckskin fringe on her dress, then closed her eyes and began to chant. When she’d finished, a young woman dressed completely in black approached the lectern. Her short, spiked hair was streaked with green, and her jewelry appeared to be made of extruded aluminum. She announced that she was a feminist, activist lesbian poet, then read a poem of “social outrage,” during which she repeatedly lunged forward as if she might leap into the audience. Now and again, she pushed her glasses up on her nose. Next came a middle-aged man wearing bluejeans, a cowboy hat, hand-tooled boots, and a belt buckle that was, as we say in Wyoming, “as big as a dinner plate.” He read a rhymed cowboy poem concerning stock tanks, coffee on winter mornings, and the good old days when people took care of each other.

The open-mike session went on like this for two hours. Everyone listened respectfully and, it seemed to me, happily to poems they must have detested. Or did they like each other’s work? In the cities where I’ve lived, the cowboy poets would have had their cowboy-poetry gathering, and the angry young lesbian poets their angry-young-lesbian poetry event. The reincarnated Indians would have met at a private weekend workshop. In the city you’d need free drinks just to get these people in a room together, and then you’d need a cop to do crowd control. The congeniality those poets showed at that reading is one of the best features of Wyoming.

Here’s my point: Coding our states red or blue according to whether they have given their electoral-college votes to a Republican or a Democratic candidate tells us very little about the people who live there and with whom we pass our lives. This simple-minded labeling is degrading. It isolates us and forces us to lead lives that are intellectually and emotionally impoverished. Worse, it is an early symptom of the thinking that led to ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and to the restructuring of Baghdad into separate Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods.

I understand the tendency to generalize, but I’m impatient with it, because my experience in Wyoming has allowed me to see the strange beauty of each person. There are so few of us here that we are given the gift of being able to live this way.

A Brief Digression Into Nothing

In his book The Globalization of Nothing, sociologist George Ritzer argues that we live in a world increasingly shaped by “nothing,” which he defines as “centrally conceived and controlled social forms that are comparatively devoid of distinctive substantive content.” In other words, “nothing” is anything without a personality and life of its own — a demented mirror image of the Zen concept of nothing, which is just as real and present as something. In Zen we turn nothing into something; in modern, corporate American life, we turn something into nothing.

Ritzer describes four types of nothing: nonthings, nonpeople, nonservices, and nonplaces. Nonthings are Old Navy T-shirts, Arizona-brand bluejeans, and Nike athletic shoes. They are exactly the same no matter what mall you buy them in, in a red state or a blue, and you always pay the same price. (From a corporate perspective, that’s about all there is to say about the red-blue difference.) Nonpeople are counter workers at Burger King, or telemarketers who call at dinnertime. These are real people who become nonpeople when they enact scripted encounters with customers (or potential customers), who in turn become nonpeople by participating in the script. Corporations created these nonpeople when they created the nonjobs they occupy. ATMs and websites are examples of nonservices. And finally there are nonplaces, best represented by shopping malls and Las Vegas casinos. Of them we can say, as Gertrude Stein said of her hometown of Oakland, California, “There’s no there there.” (No offense to Oakland, which is no more or less a nonplace than any other contemporary city.)

Imagine a hypothetical casino built on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. This casino, if built, would have a real presence: It would be a building. It would sit atop dry sage grasslands at the foot of the Wind River Mountains, on land saturated with the history of the Arapaho and Shoshones, and later the bloody arrival of the Europeans and their drive to eradicate the native people. The ghosts of 60 million buffaloes paw at this earth, making the dust rise. In distant boarding schools, chalk dust hovers in the air above the desks where Indian children sit mute, forbidden to speak their own languages. Scraps of paper — torn-up treaties or lost food-stamp coupons — blow in the wind. A white rancher who owns a chunk of the reservation drives by the casino in a late-model pickup. In the distance a dust devil blows across the sun-dance site, where native men honor forces larger than themselves by swinging on the ends of tethers hooked into their chests until the hooks pull out, taking small chunks of flesh with them.

Then there’s the casino itself, which would be like any other casino in Las Vegas or Reno or Monte Carlo. Even if the cocktail waitresses were tribal members dressed in beaded moccasins with their hair braided into shining black strands, it would not be Indian. When casino workers punch out, do they return to being real people? Do we all live a portion of our lives as real people and another portion as nonpeople? Do we spend more time as nonpeople in 2006 than our ancestors did in 1906 or 1806?

In our private lives, we spend relatively little time as nonpeople. Yet, even in private, I know what it means to have a scripted encounter with another person. I’ve caught myself playing a part — saying and doing only what my institutional role allows.

The nonthing is distant and abstract. It shies away from human feeling and connection. We live in a world where we are made into nonpeople so we can be manipulated by the advocates of global uniformity. In this nonworld we are apt to end up with our heads bowed in a church whose appearance is eerily similar to that of a corporate headquarters or a state prison. These are the universal features of the society in which we live, equally common in red and blue states.

When I first started working with my father-in-law on his windmills, I’d often bring the wrong part for a repair, or forget an essential tool. We’d end up having to go back to the barn, or even into town, to get what we needed. My father-in-law, a lifelong Republican, would come with me, both because there was little work he could do on the mills alone and because he liked to talk. I loved listening to him tell the history of the ranch and the early Basque settlers in northern Wyoming. One day when we had to go to town, my father-in-law did something I’d seen him do many times before, though I’d never said anything about it: he parked his pickup and got out, leaving the doors unlocked, the windows down, and the keys in the ignition. This time I spoke up. “Don’t you want to take the keys?” I asked.

“No. What if somebody has an emergency and needs to get to the hospital or something? This way, they can take the pickup if they need to.”

I have thought many times of his answer: What if somebody needed the pickup? This way, they could use it in an emergency.

The last car I bought was a Volkswagen Beetle with a diesel engine. For the first few months I had it, the battery kept going dead. The local mechanics couldn’t find anything wrong and recharged the battery a number of times, but it kept dying. Finally I went back to the dealer, 165 miles away, where I learned that when you turn the car off, you have to lock it or the electrical system will keep running and the battery will go dead. No amount of explanation by the congenial VW service representatives could make me understand why it was to my advantage to have to lock my car whenever I got out of it. Every time I go to the garage to get something out of the car or put something in it, I forget to bring the keys, and back to the house I go. What kind of society won’t allow the owner of a car to decide whether or not to lock it?

Introduction To The State, Part Two

Wyoming has long been a place that people pass through. This was as true for American Indians as it was for the later-arriving Europeans. Two kinds of people live in Wyoming: those who can afford to live here and those who can’t afford to leave.

The first European immigrants to Wyoming died in great numbers: of cholera, malaria, hepatitis, bad food, bad water, no food, no water, too much heat, too much cold, and violent encounters with other travelers. The dead left behind them the marks of their passage: the deepening ruts in the earth; the long lists of names and dates, kept in churches and county record books; the other, now nearly unreadable, lists of names and dates etched into stone along cutbanks and cliff faces. The travelers also left debris in their wake: pieces of oak and pine planking; wagon wheels and frames; fractured pianos and organs that still wheeze out songs with no melody when the wind blows; wooden trunks tossed off heavily laden wagons that starving oxen could no longer pull — trunks that sprang open on impact, spilling silk dresses and woolen suit jackets with stiff collars.

Wyoming is the tenth-largest state in the U.S. and also the least populated. We vote Republican, and so we are assumed to be anti-abortion, anti-gay, and anti-taxes. We’re also supposed to be for increased military spending, increased prison building, and increased numbers of policemen (all this despite being anti-taxes). Finally we’re expected to be anti-government, but pro-government-incursion into people’s personal and private behavior. Even though I imagine some single person does hold all these views — and probably knows at least one other person with the same beliefs — for most of us the issues are not so clear. The black-and-white, red-and-blue fantasy ignores neighbors whose philosophies are at odds, but who are happy to see each other at their children’s school-band concerts, or fundraising events for the library, or dinner parties. It ignores most of what matters to most of us most of the time. It’s a nonstory.

Wyoming is known both as the “Cowboy State” and as the “Equality State.” The territorial legislature granted equal rights to women in 1869. The state constitution, approved by the people of Wyoming in 1889, includes this statement: “The rights of citizens of the State of Wyoming to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged on account of sex. Both male and female citizens of this state shall equally enjoy all civil, political, and religious rights and privileges.” The state seal shows a woman holding a banner that reads, “Equal Rights.” The 1920 municipal elections in Jackson, Wyoming, were swept by women, including the races for mayor and sheriff. Rose Crabtree defeated her husband, the incumbent, for a seat on the town council.

Now the motto “Equality State” is being extended to include not only women but gay citizens, both male and female. Though it’s not as dramatic as the female sweep in the 1920 Jackson elections, it is noteworthy that the current mayor of Casper, Wyoming, is both the youngest man to serve in the post and the first openly gay mayor of the city. Following his election, he expressed gratitude that he lived in a place where one is judged by one’s actions and not by a label.

When the United States was preparing to invade Iraq, I put a sign in my front yard that said, NO IRAQ WAR. It was red, white, and blue with some stars. I was a little nervous about publicly expressing an antiwar sentiment, but I went ahead with it. Within a few days, three different people knocked on my door. The first was a stranger who said he too opposed the invasion, but he wouldn’t speak out because he had kids in school and was worried that they would be punished by their peers in some subtle way. “You have a lot of courage to put that sign up,” he said. The second visitor was a woman who owned a shop downtown. She thought the U.S. invasion was terrible, but she was afraid that if she expressed an antiwar view, people would boycott her store. “I wish I had your courage,” she said. The last visitor was another stranger, who said, “I was just walking by and thinking, Jeez, look at that sign. I’d be afraid somebody would come and bust my windows out. You have a lot of guts.”

When I told a gay friend about the three visitors, he said those people had been right to worry, as those sorts of things do happen: “You’re kind of protected: a straight white male who married into an old Wyoming family,” he told me. “You can be eccentric without being shunned.”

As a poet, I’ve faced ostracism for gender disloyalty (it’s not the most macho profession), but it’s nothing like what gay men face. Wyoming has a long history of independent women ranchers. If they do the same work men do and do it well, that’s all that counts. But somehow, for homophobic men, gay males are “worse” than lesbians. I say let the gay males in with everyone else. And by the way, anybody who wants to get married to anybody else, bully for them. It’s a long hard winter here, and we could do with a few more parties.

A Meeting

In a state with as few people as Wyoming, it’s pretty common for us to have face-to-face encounters with our elected officials. When you’ve spent the day fixing a windmill and you’re finally watching the water spill out of the ground and into the stock tank, somebody might say, “I saw the governor the other day and asked him what the hell the state’s doing about coal-bed methane water discharge.” This is not name-dropping or bragging about one’s connections. We really are a small state when it comes to population.

With this in mind, I’d like to tell about a meeting I had with the governor a few months ago. I serve as the state’s poet laureate and was in the governor’s office to discuss budget initiatives related to cultural programming. Before I could start my pitch for increased arts funding, the governor leaned back in his chair, put his legs up on his desk — revealing a pair of sturdy cowboy boots beneath his gubernatorial slacks — and asked me about a poem he’d read in my new book. I’d sent him an advance copy because there were some poems that I thought might be controversial, and I didn’t want the governor to be blindsided by questions about what the hell the state poet is doing, and who the hell appointed him, anyway.

The poem in question is titled “Fuck you, Patriotism.” The narrator of the poem is opposed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq and wants to express his feelings, but worries that he will be shunned by his community if he does. He expresses outrage and despair over his inability to influence U.S. policy and sees patriotism as the cause of much bad behavior. Frustrated, the narrator has an outburst of profanity. Then, wanting as much to be liked as understood, he apologizes. He is torn between his belief that the poet has a responsibility to be a part of political life, and his equally strong belief that the greatness of poetry rests in its intimacy, its ability to relieve the suffering and increase the well-being of another person, even if only for a moment.

When the governor brought the poem up, I thought he might be upset about my attack on patriotism, but he was more interested in the use of the word fuck. “Why,” he asked, “must the poem include profanity? When a poet uses an obscenity, has he not admitted to being a mediocre poet for his inability to express his views without the obscenity?” In the governor’s view, poetry should inspire us to be better people than we thought we could be, to do more than we thought we could do. He looked at me, perplexed, and said, “David, I’ve never heard you talk like this, so why write a poem this way?”

Sitting there in the governor’s office, looking out the window at the Wyoming state flag whipping in a stiff breeze, I thought about how to respond. It has been said that, in the end, the writer’s biggest challenges are not ones of technique but of character. I knew that the whole of life must appear in literature: the forbidden must be welcomed, and the inexcusable excused. What defense could I give for these beliefs? I told the governor that there is a certain level of despair, or shame, or anger, or loss, or excitement, or happiness for which obscenity is the only appropriate expression. I suggested that, under these circumstances, a human being will utter the unutterable.

For a few minutes we talked about other matters — the upcoming legislative budget session, the state’s mineral excise tax, Wyoming’s lawsuit against the federal government over wolf management. The governor spoke as if the state poet might have something useful to say about these things. While we talked, I remembered a column I’d read by conservative commentator Ann Coulter. Coulter had criticized Laura Bush for being an overly active first lady and trying to influence policy, which was none of her business. Coulter had asked, “Why can’t the first lady confine herself to her legitimate role — selecting the White House china pattern and naming the poet laureate?”

I also found myself thinking about ancient China, where poetry was held in such high regard that applicants for government jobs were required to pass examinations covering both administrative and literary subjects. The poet Yang Wan-li’s first job was as director of finances of Kan Chou Prefecture. That’s like my being appointed finance director for the state of Wyoming.

Finally one of the governor’s aides stepped in and said, “Five minutes, Governor. You have a proclamation to deliver at the Hathaway Building.” The governor waved the aide away and asked me again why it was necessary to use obscenity in a poem. I told him there are things we want to say but can’t, forbidden issues we don’t bring up in polite company. We wonder about the edges of human experience. In literature we have the opportunity to go to those edges, to see through the eyes of others, to say the forbidden. When I sit down and open a book, it’s between just the writer and me, and what I or the writer thinks needn’t go beyond those pages. A great net of privacy and calm surrounds us. Literature offers a freedom that is not granted us in normal life, though we can bring some of that freedom back to the life we lead outside of books. Perhaps it can change our life. I’ve discovered, after many years as a writer, that I actually believe this.

The flag was still whipping in the breeze. Far away, the windmill blades were spinning, the sharp steel edges slicing the air and lifting water to the surface of the earth. There was a moment of quiet in the room. The governor smiled, and we shook hands as our meeting ended.

A few months later I was scheduled to read a poem at the Governor’s Arts Awards ceremony. The governor himself was on hand to deliver the annual “state of the arts” address, in which he mentioned our meeting. He said that, as a lawyer, he had a certain sense of how language should be used to construct an argument and sway a listener. He said a few words about the role of language in art and how it differs from the role of language in politics and the law. He claimed not to understand literature and joked that his wife had a pile of books on her nightstand he couldn’t imagine anyone ever reading. “For thirty years,” he said, “my wife has been trying to get me to open my mind a little, and I’ve been resisting all the way.” Then he went on to other topics.

Notwithstanding his claim to narrow-mindedness, his comments revealed plenty of flexibility. These are the traits that I love about Wyoming: its generosity, and its reticence. Both the place and the people will often withhold information about themselves so as not to impose. The great expanse of high plains punctuated by arid mountains, the land stripped nearly bare of vegetation by winter’s wind and cold, and summer’s wind and heat — all this exemplifies patience. And the people are this way, too. If I say something that disturbs my neighbors, they are more likely to hear me out and ask questions than to shut me up. There is a beauty that arises from withholding judgment and evading comparison, a grace in not demanding consensus. Nobody tells you what to think. Forget red state, blue state. Think for yourself, and good luck to us all.