All posts filed under “American Mythology

The American Pastime.


Baseball Diamond, Lebanon Middle School. Lebanon CT.

I am not particularly emotionally invested in baseball. I grew up only vaguely aware of the Philadelphia Phillies perpetual defeat. Football was the staple sport in my house and in my family; rarely was there a weekend when someone wasn’t going to a Penn State football game. Football blared from the TV from late August until January, when the Superbowl’s last seconds ticked down in the corner of the screen. Sure, I’ve been to baseball games (The Former Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons) and I understand the basic premise of the game. I won’t ever ask what quarter the game is in, I vaguely understand stats, and occasionally I listen to a game on the radio if I happen to catch one. It was only recently I admitted my love of football to the outside world, as sports were a symbol and part of dominate culture in the U.S. that was really alienating to me. They still are part of that culture, but more recently I’ve found myself able to relax and enjoy them. Games are better digested live, instead of through a TV screen. I look forward to going to IronPigs’ and Penn State games when I move home.

But I don’t love baseball. I feel like I should love baseball, given it is America’s Pastime and everyone knows that I like to be a good American . There is something about it that is closely linked to early 20th century history, the rise of leisure and the middle class. It’s kind of romantic, in the context of history. I don’t really know anyone who doesn’t know who the Babe or Jackie Robinson is or why they’re Important. Honestly, I’m totally winging this from my impression of baseball in America but it seems so closely tied to democracy in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on. I also suspect that it’s tied to the American dream. Movies like The Sandlot and Field of Dreams are gleaming examples of this; work hard and you, too, can have success and fame and prosperity, despite whatever obstacles of class and race you will have to overcome!


Mount Carmel Little League Baseball Field. Mount Carmel PA.

Baseball diamonds dot the American landscape. Rarely can you drive through a small town that doesn’t have something resembling a baseball field, be it overgrown or perfectly manicured. It is something huge when a new stadium goes up or an old one comes down. There is something strangely magical about standing at home plate or on the pitcher’s mound of ANY baseball field, be it Fenway Park or the field down the street with no lights or bases. One can’t help but feel connected to something bigger than themselves, as the baseball diamond is so pressed and adhered to the collective memory of the U.S.


Pitcher’s Mound. Framingham MA.

Over the past year or so, I’ve taken notice to baseball fields, photographing them if I get the chance to. I love the way dilapidated or DIY’d backstops look. I like the freshly combed dirt, the overgrown outfield, and the geometry of the diamond from the corners of my eyes when I’m standing at home plate or on the pitchers’ mound. While baseball diamonds are designed to function the same way and hold a specific sport, it is endlessly fascinating to me their immense variation, which is tied to location, class and level of skill of the teams that play on them. I find them to be really amazing things to photograph and awesome spaces to occupy. I recently started a flickr set, Playing Fields, where I’ll put any and all future developments in this strange, totally-out-of-context interest of mine.

“America reinvented that paradise, described so briefly and vauely in the book of Genesis, called it Suburbia and put it up for sale.”

Despite being all over the place about making work the last few months, I’ve been thinking about three key motivating factors for making a sprawling, semi-coherent body of work about what it means to live, work and die in a landscape that has no here and therefore, has no there.

Or, in other words, what it means to live in the generic, consumer-driven, suburban, car-centric United States.

One: I recently finished James Howard Kunstler’s Geography of Nowhere.

Two: I’m moving home, to Allentown, Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania.

Three: I drive everyday, for one hour (if traffic is good) on a major interstate, I-93.

I am tentatively calling it “This American Landscape” in private but it probably can’t be called that. So I’ll go with “Nowhere Places and Nothing Towns”.

Although it was written 15 years ago, The Geography of Nowhere is, among many other things, a very precise, scathing commentary on the history, evolution and proliferation of Suburbia in the United States. It examines the landscape it produces, the physical, and psychological, and predicts the probable outcome of living in an unsustainable lifestyle that has been constructed around the car. Most importantly, in my case, it gave me a barrage of ideas to roll around in my head, to apply to my personal experience and to observe in real life.

I think of place as Lucy Lippard says in Lure of the Local: “Place is latitudinal and longitudinal within the map of a person’s life. It is temporal and spatial, personal and political. A layered location replete with human histories and memories, place has width as well as depth. It is about connections, what surrounds it, what formed it, what happened there, what will happen there.” I can feel the subtleties of places when I go somewhere that has those layers. I can feel the distinction of Here or There. But my body, heart and brain also know when I am in no place, where the layers of human interaction and connections is virtually non-existent. I think that lack makes a place Nowhere.

So, I’ve been thinking a lot about Nowhere.

See, I grew up in a place that is very much There. It is a definable town, not only by it’s borders but by the way it functions in it’s layout. There are local, community supported businesses in it’s downtown area, it’s mostly walkable and it’s got a very distinct, albeit quiet, history. It is very much a Here place that is distinct because it is Northumberland, Pennsylvania. It obviously has no interest in doing away with the notions that make it “Small Town America”. It is also about 15 miles from the nearest interstate, which I will get to in a bit.

At 13, my parents and I moved to Allentown, Pa. More specifically, a housing development built by Field Stone Associates L.P. in Upper Macungie Township. Old Towne, which is neither Olde nor anything like a Town, is a planned community of wide, curving streets, small lush lots and houses of 23-2500 square feet with nearly identical floor plans. It is vast. It is also indistinguishable from most of the other housing developments that have sprung up in the Lehigh Valley and probably elsewhere in the U.S. Disconnected from places of commerce or culture, save a strip mall at the main entrance to the development, one can’t really get anywhere outside of Olde Town without getting in a car and driving there.

Surprise.

It is no wonder I spent most of high school disoriented, stressed and saddened. Without four wheels and six cylinders, I was pretty much stuck. I couldn’t take a mischievous walk around town with friends (I didn’t have any in the neighborhood), get a piece of pizza, or spend time in communal areas which were, in summer, front porches and big yards. The front porch of the houses were merely a decoration, a gesture of Olde-ness instead of an extension of living space. The yards were a face to passer-bys to say “Look at how lovely my yard is.” It had no history except the time frame of it’s development. I was living in a place that was, for all intensive purposes, Nowhere and I was freaked the fuck out.

And then I forgot about how weird it was until I determined that my next course of action in life was to move home, get a job, pay off some debt and figure out what’s next. Now that I know that I’ll be living in that same nowhere place, I am distressed and conflicted. I became even more distressed and conflicted after finishing Kunstler’s book two days before I was to go home for Memorial Day weekend. Driving the streets I learned to drive on, I had a feeling I’ve felt only a handful of times prior. It shows up in my stomach, a disorienting feeling of being somewhere geographically but being nowhere at the same exact time. It happens to me when I drive on big vast interstates that I’ve never been on before. It happens when I drive on new roads that cut across the old roads that I know like the back of my hand.

It also happened to me the first time that I drove to and from my (temporary) job in Methuen, Ma. It is 25 miles from Medford and is a straight shot on I-93 Northbound. I drive in the opposite direction of the traffic (thank the Good Lord) that’s coming into Boston in rush hour. While I’ve sat in really bad traffic on the Masspike numerous times, I was awed by the sheer amount of cars barely creeping along in the southbound lanes. I was also awed by how far away the traffic into Boston stretched. I was dumbfounded by the mere thought of having to do that every single day.

I also got that creeping feeling of being Nowhere with a bunch of other people who were headed to Nowhere to work and to live. As Kunstler says “There is little sense of having arrived anywhere, because everyplace looks like noplace in particular.” The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, all 46,837 miles of it, is utterly Nowhere. You can get to a Here or a There but while traveling, you are Nowhere. You can travel through or around a place, like Toledo, Ohio or Hartford, CT but one doesn’t really experience anything about that place at all; no local culture or cuisine, no people, nothing. One just passes right on by, onward to the next exit.

Since I moved to Medford, I-93 permeates my life. I have to drive on, around or under it when I want to go anywhere. I can watch the traffic from my bedroom window. I can hear the rush of cars in my apartment with the windows open. I’ve never thought of and been so aware of a road in my entire life like the way I’ve become aware of I-93 in the past few months. Growing up, the interstate was a far away, rarely thought of unless there was a vacation to be had. The concrete and asphalt of such a road rarely entered my vision.

And now, it’s sort of all I can see. It is very much in my day-to-day routine. What I’m having trouble with is how something that is Nowhere has become such an integral part of my life. How does one live with and in Nowhere and be okay with that? Is there detachment? What does that do to one’s sense of self and place? What about history? What about the present? What about the future?

I do what most Americans do when they live in Nowhere: I travel to a Here or a There in order to reconnect with place so that I can feel like things are normal, that this lifestyle of Nowhere is normal.

I, unfortunately, don’t have such styling digs in which to escape.

That said, all of that above is a lot to think about. It is a lot to photograph. There is a lot that I am missing or haven’t had the chance to think about. Scratching the surface, putting the ideas down, framed by pictures, is one way I can start to make sense of all of it. It is also the way that I will be able to live, temporarily, Nowhere and be able to cope with it.

I listen to the cars up on the interstate from my kitchen and wonder about the exits that those cars are barreling towards with such speed. I think about their passengers, their houses, their lives. Are they headed towards Nowhere? Or are they headed towards a There?

“But in a Larger Sense We Cannot Dedicate, We Cannot Consecrate, We Cannot Hollow This Ground.”


Audio Stop Number Three: From Eternal Light Memorial Looking Towards McPhearson’s Ridge. Gettysburg PA.

Last weekend, A. Kilton and I headed to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for a nerdy weekend full of Civil War history. Pointing the car further west into the state, we took route 222 to route 30 (the Lincoln Highway, appropriately), which takes one through the southeastern region of PA, through the heart of Amish country and over one of the widest parts of the Susquehanna River. It felt like August on Saturday, a haze hung on the horizon line as mid-day temperatures reached nearly 85 degrees. After a brief stop over at a Sonic Drive-In and a nice long winding trip to the center of Gettysburg, we rolled into the newly built visitors’ center around 1. We drug our feet through the center and the gift shop, gawking at the embroidered pillows, Lincoln Attired Boyd’s Bears, and other tasteless overpriced items that gift shops offer up to consumers in the guise of “cute” and “historic”. We purchased The Travelbrains’ Gettysburg Expedition Guide, some much needed soda and headed out to start the tour.

I should probably also note that, no matter what we do, no matter how fast we do or do not travel, no matter the determined departure or destination time, we stretch seemingly short trips into hours. 2 hour trips become 4. A cross-country trip would probably take us years. This is why it took us nearly 6 hours to complete a 3 hour audio tour. We split it up over the two days we were there so it wasn’t as long but by the time we got to the site of Pickett’s Charge on Sunday, I was more than content to buy my Union kepi, type in the directions for a return stop to the Sonic into the Garmin and get the hell out of Dodge.

While trying to find the first stop on the tour (the writers and producers of the CD clearly assume that you know what you’re doing and how to navigate the roads of an otherwise generic small town in Pennsylvania, making things more difficult than they need to be), it took me very little time to figure out that I wanted to photograph the strange transparency of a place like Gettysburg. I wanted the photographs to talk about the beauty of the landscape and how it intersected with this Really Important History as well as a booming tourist industry. I wanted to talk about the strange experience of coasting at 35 miles an hour through rolling hills and grassy fields with about 100 other cars and buses, witnessing the same view of history, trying to picture the immensity of the three day battle at Gettysburg that changed the course of the Civil War.


Audio Tour Stop Number Two: Oak Ridge.

I say “I wanted to” because I didn’t go with my gut instinct when I left my apartment on Friday morning saying “You forgot something” and managed to neglect checking the battery in my camera and leaving my battery charger tucked away in my desk. Nikon being the company they are, decided to manufacture no two camera battery chargers the same and thus, my camera died about 10 minutes into the second day.

Anyways, it had been a long time since I’d been to Gettysburg. My twelve year old brain didn’t remember the immense amount of space or the beauty of the landscape. It also didn’t recall what a strange point of intersection that Gettysburg is. History, tourism, reenactment, landscape attract a strange, wide-ranging group of people. Families with bored teenagers, Union and Confederate re-enactors in full costume, bikers bedecked in their finest leather jackets (PA’s state roads are long and smooth, with uninterrupted views), older couples and newly weds (or at least newly-in-love), ghost hunters, history buffs, the curious and the greyhounds.
First Stop on the Audio Tour
Audio Tour Stop Number One: McPhearson’s Ridge.

Without a camera to pressed to my eye, I had problems processing what I was witnessing; without a frame to, well, frame things, my brain went to other places. I spent the time while A. Kilton was out wondering around at every other stop, stretching my legs and groaning over my sunburn, thinking about what it means to be in a place with a “living history”, debating the pros and cons of being a Civil War re-enactor, considering my next path of research obsession, going over a list of things to take photographs of next time I’m there. I also spent a large majority of the time contemplating just what exactly I wanted to get from a trip to a Civil War battlefield, besides a sweet coffee mug with the Gettysburg address printed on it, a nasty sunburn and a nice new hat.

I wanted to experience the feeling of Something Huge Happened Here in 1863 while shifting into 4th gear in 2008. I wanted to feel that so-called living history that is touted in tourist brochures and on billboards. I won’t say that I didn’t have really amazing time, because I did, I just didn’t get that overwhelming Important feeling that I had hoped for. And I won’t say that I’m not interested in going back, because I definately am. I want to go to the reenactments this summer. I would love to expand my Civil War battlefield tours to Antietam and Vicksburg. Hell, I’d love to do a Civil War road trip, marking off each important battle with a stop over for meandering, picture taking and thinking about History. I just had expected to feel something bigger than me, bigger than now but it fell short. Or maybe I did.

Looking out across the view from Devil’s Den from Little Round Top, watching small figures get in and out of their cars, I thought about the manufactured sounds of cannon and rifle fire on the guide CD and tried to picture what this place would be like without roads and tour stops. Like A. said “I want a history filter so I can actually see what it would look like then, without all of these people and cars and paved roads everywhere. I think I’d actually get it then.” Experiencing history in a car with a CD makes it just that much more difficult to understand. It removes the sense of place from that place so much that the only thing you can hear is fake cannon fire and the occasional slam of a car door, not that quiet suggestion of Important that I usually get from a place so heavy with past. The 19th century battlefield is just a blur along the 21st century landscape witnessed like everything else: from a car, filed away with vacation photographs and fake parchment copies of the Gettysburg address.

That said, I am glad that Gettysburg has this weird, esoterric culture surrounding it and it’s past. I’m really glad it didn’t go the way most places of the Civil War went, as examined in Killing Ground: The Civil War and The Changing American Landscape. I actually love that an otherwise po-dunk Pennsylvanian town has a bright spot in the history of the U.S. I love the gift shops and re-enactors*, the kitsch and the strange intersection of now and then that goes on there. I’m just not entirely sure it brought me closer to a better understanding of the United States and the world in 1863.


Audio Tour Stop Number Six: Virgina Memorial.

*A. Kilton and I actually had a conversation at one point in the car about the merits of dating a war re-enactor. Could you really date someone that was a Confederate? What about a British soldier? Does that say something about them?

Although, given my propensity for rejection of gender roles, I’ve been pondering the strange possibility of becoming a Union Infantrymen or if I could ever ride a horse, a member of the Calvary, since they have better jackets. It’s an expensive hobby to get into but also strange and wonderful. I’ve since added it to my List of Things to Do When I am Independently Wealthy.

More of the Steel.


High House, Bethlehem Steel. Bethlehem PA.

During World War II, large guns for battleships were produced at Bethlehem Steel and then heat treated in this building. They would stand the guns end on end and either heat them up and quench them with water or chemically treat them. The building is so strange to look at, given it’s scale and mass. Driving across the bridge behind it, you can damn near see in the windows.

Eventually, the parking lot for the casino and a hotel will sit where I was standing to take this photo.

On the right is the Iron Ore Bridge and the faint skeletal structure of the casino it’s self.