Same as it Ever Was: T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain

This photo shows a vista in Topanga Canyon, California

Welcome to Same as it Ever Was, a series in which I’ll review books, movies, and music from the archives that are still timely and relevant, shedding light (for better or worse) on present-day political, cultural, and sociological issues. Let’s kick things off with T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, set in Topanga Canyon/LA County, published in 1995.

Does the following passage sound familiar?

Safety. Self-protection. Prudence. You lock your car, don’t you? Your front door?” A cluck of the tongue, a shift from one hip to the other, blue eyes, solid as stone. “Delaney, believe me, I know how you feel…but this society isn’t what it was–and it won’t be until we get control of the borders.”

The borders. Delaney took an involuntary step backwards, all those dark disordered faces rising up from the streetcorners and freeway on-ramps to mob his brain, all of them crying out their human wants through mouths of rotten teeth. “That’s racist, Jack, and you know it.”

“Not in the least–it’s a question of national sovereignty. Did you know that the U.S. accepted more immigrants last year than all the other countries of the world combined–and that half of them settled in California? And that’s legal immigrants, people with skills, money, education. The ones coming in through the Tortilla Curtain down there, those are the ones that are killing us. They’re peasants, my friend. No education, no resources, no skills–all they’ve got to offer is a strong back, and the irony is we need fewer and fewer strong backs every day because we’ve got robotics and computers and farm machinery that can do the labor of a hundred men at a fraction of the cost.” He dropped his hand in dismissal. “It’s old news.”  …

“Look, Delaney,” Jack went on, cool, reasonable, his voice in full song now, “it’s a simple equation, so much in, so much out. The illegals in San Diego County contributed seventy million in tax revenues and at the same time they used up two hundred and forty million in services–welfare, emergency care, schooling and the like. You want to pay for that? And for the crime that comes with it?”

T.C. Boyle has always been an astute observer of what Vogue called “the need for control, the increasing helplessness of white males.” But with The Tortilla Curtain, he almost takes on the role of soothsayer. Written 21 years ago, this conversation (and other similar points throughout the book) could have informed so many stories that drove the 2016 Presidential election, both overtly and under the surface: the President-elect’s first speech, demonizing Mexican immigrants, as he announced his candidacy. The ongoing marginalization of minorities. The hidden economy that preys on illegal immigrant labor. The disregard for the environment, to our ongoing peril.

When I finished the book, I suspected Boyle had intended to create a modern-day version of Candide, Voltaire’s immortal satire/tragicomedy, in which the hero is subjected to increasingly over-the-top disasters in his recklessly optimistic pursuit of a better life. Indeed, Boyle’s Mexican protagonists, Candido and America, are named so-on-the-nose that the reader has little reason to doubt they’re stand-ins for much larger statements. But, despite Boyle’s possible intent, can The Tortilla Curtain be considered a tragicomedy today, knowing how little progress we have made in more than 20 years? And is it now to be interpreted as an out-and-out tragedy, given the now-legitimate policies of our president-elect? Without giving plot points away, this story starts and ends with violence, one man-made, one natural. Given how little we’ve learned, I’m pessimistic (perhaps like Boyle and Voltaire) that we may still find ourselves on the same trajectory.

I do have a few nitpicky points for this book review: The four main characters in The Tortilla Curtain tend to surreptitiously cross paths frequently, in ways that took me out of the story. (LA is a big place, no? How do these four people always tend to find themselves at the same intersections, grocery stores, etc., always at the same time?) The villain is seemingly without motive and at times cartoony, an evil presence who wreaks havoc with all four protagonists (and also happens to be an illegal immigrant). Instead, I would have loved Boyle to depict a conflicted INS agent as the malevolent presence in this book, a by-the-rules person just doing his/her job, with all the gray area and compromises that requires.

But perhaps that’s for another book–after all, given how little has changed, it seems we’re due for a sequel.

Photo courtesy DrumsKickAss via Flickr Creative Commons

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Right of Way: A Vietnam Travelogue

I look at the traffic, coming in droves from all sides: mopeds, taxis, pick-up trucks, and bicycles. The mopeds are the most impressive; some solely carry their driver, others are laden with flowers, food, cartons, ducks, hens, pigs, and other animals, with cargo carried on baskets behind the driver, or on laps, or on a well-constructed and expertly balanced pyramid over the rear wheel. Others carry families, three kids flanking a parent, laying waste to the idea of a saloon or people mover as a household requirement. Lanes, to the foreigner’s eye, are nonexistent, and instead, one sees constantly created pathways as each vehicle finds its own way, in its own time. The moped engines are the loudest — a quick rev of each engine as they weave through the melee — but the tut-tut honk from the cars and trucks give them decent competition for volume. The sound, collectively, takes on a low-level roar.

On my first day in Saigon, I am intimidated by the streets, and stick close to Van, my old friend and host for the next two weeks. I confess this outright, so we can address it right away.

“Perfectly normal,” Van says as we approach our first intersection. Her gait is smooth and unhurried, perfected over eight years living in the city; her tone is calm and soothing, developed after welcoming countless Westerners here.

We stop at the curb and look at the waves of oncoming traffic. The impulse, whether Western or Darwinian, is to dart. But it turns out this is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Read the full story over at Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel

Photo courtesy M M via Flickr Creative Commons

Eternal Flames: The Spooky Ghost Town of Centralia

This photo shows a smoking pit in Centralia, Pennsylvania

In Centralia, the ground is hot to the touch. Cracks in the earth ripple outward, earthquake-like; steam rises in steady plumes, or billowing clouds. Tree trunks are charred and white, masquerading as birches to the unknowing passer-by. But there are no passersby in Centralia, a ghost town deep in Pennsylvania coal mining country. In fact, no one gives much thought to the town anymore.

The town’s tragedy seems like folklore, a Halloween tale from ages ago. And like so many folk tales, there are conflicting stories as to what actually happened. “Burning leaves,” a resident of neighboring Mount Carmel claims. “No, a garbage fire,” another counters. Of this everyone is in agreement: In 1962, a spark from the fire spread into an open seam, leading to a labyrinth of coal mines. The fire quickly took hold, supplied by the countless reserves of coal below and oxygen above. Today, more than 50 years later, the fire rages beneath the town, contained but unstoppable.

My father’s friend repeats the story, then adds an update. “On Friday night, I brought two large plastic buckets full of water to the street corner and left them sit. When I went back Monday, the water had evaporated entirely, the buckets melted down to two plastic puddles.”

Long intrigued by Centralia, I decide to visit. My father, a history buff, offers to accompany me; his eagerness to see the town surpasses my own.

While it is a gray, overcast October day in central Pennsylvania, the landscape pops with color. Vibrant red and orange leaves, thick green hills, and golden hay fields bookend the road, until we approach our destination.

The first sign of trouble, a change swift and dramatic, is in Shamokin Township, as we enter the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. The highway approaches a mountain used frequently for strip mining, and the term is appropriate. The beautiful fall foliage vanishes, replaced by deep piles of raven-black coal extending the mountain’s length. Scrubby trees stand out sporadically, stubbornly surviving. A layer of coal dust covers everything, blackening rooftops, plants, cars.

Past the mountain, we continue through Kulpmont and Mount Carmel. I see perhaps five people; the air is eerily still and silent. Houses, showing no sign of inhabitants, rise at sharp ninety-degree angles from the ground; most are painted some shade of white with a thick dusting of coal residue. They stand stiffly at attention as we pass through, monotonously leading us to the hills in the distance.

We soon see a sign–CENTRALIA 4 M.–and an arrow pointing left. While the town has been removed from most state maps, a few road signs still exist. Warily, my father proceeds through the intersection. “Should be there in a few minutes,” he says quietly.

Four miles in, we see nothing but open fields, and look at each other, confused. I had expected at least an abandoned thoroughfare, or a church. I’ve heard six people still live here, but there is only one house in sight, and no sign of activity. We pause for a moment, the truck’s idling engine the only sound.

***

According to David DeKok, author of Unseen Danger, the fire officially started over Memorial Day weekend, 1962. With the holiday approaching, the Centralia Council voted to clean up the town landfill in preparation for the parade. “Cleaning” was done by setting the pit on fire.

The landfill, however, bordered one end of Centralia’s maze of mines. Before cleaning, any landfill holes leading to the mines were filled with incombustible materials; volunteer firefighters set the landfill ablaze on May 27. They let the top layer of garbage be consumed, poured water on the pit until they could no longer see any flames, then retired for the holiday weekend celebrations.

But the fire had burned much deeper than they thought. Smoke and flames were again visible on the 29th; despite repeated dousings, the fire continued. It was discovered that a huge hole at the base of the landfill, leading to a labyrinth of old mines, had not been filled. The volunteers had failed to find and close the one hole the fire needed.

***

“Is that it?” my father yells. I turn to the left and see streaming smoke rising from a hill in the distance.

The “hill” is, in actuality, the mines. As we approach, the smoke billows harder, swelling to full-cloud shapes in some areas. Now serving as twisted signposts, the smoldering fumes lead us to the former heart of the town.

We park near a sign the Department of Environmental Protection has posted: DANGER. UNDERGROUND MINE FIRE. WALKING OR DRIVING IN THIS AREA COULD RESULT IN SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH. DANGEROUS GASES ARE PRESENT. GROUND IS PRONE TO SUDDEN COLLAPSE.

I look around. To my left is a graveyard, looking strangely clean and well attended. Puffs of smoke rise from small holes in the ground. Straight, a road leads to nowhere; it and surrounding flat gray fields are a thin lid covering the continuous fire. We pass small patches of asphalt interspersed throughout the barren fields; I realize they are former driveways, the only testaments to where houses once stood.

Smoke conceals what lies ahead; the smell of sulfur, while not overpowering, permeates the air, a constant background presence. I kneel to touch the ground. It is slightly warm.

Standing up again, I regard the sign once more, and for a brief moment, feel a rush of panic. The ground could open up and swallow me, or my father, or this truck, dropping us into a fiery inferno. We could faint from inhaling the noxious emissions. The town has been destroyed for a reason…

“Let’s check it out!” my father says, and walks up the road to nowhere, heading toward the towering smoke.

I linger, choosing instead to inspect the graveyard. I approach it cautiously, treading lightly. Contrasting the gray and desolate mines before me, the graves are pristinely maintained, with neatly cut grass and pruned trees surrounding the headstones. Some post dates as recent as 1986, well after the fire had started. Stooping to examine a gravestone, I look closer at the ground. Out of the grass, delicately, trickles finger-width streams of smoke, so fine they could be mistaken for misting dew.

I follow the “road to nowhere” to the summit of the mine hill, feeling as if I have reached a volcano’s peak. Smoke pours forth from all directions, concentrated over several large gashes slicing one side of the mine pit. Trees lie on their sides, charred, white, roots dried and shriveled. The ground is crumbly, a mix of dirt, ash, cracked asphalt, and rock. I cannot see my father; like fog, the gases can sit and linger, limiting visibility to only a few feet, or move rapidly, depending on the ferocity of the flames below and wind above.

Unlike a volcano ready to erupt, however, there is no roar of sound, just the quiet rustling of light breezes pushing the smoke along. I proceed, watching where I step, looking around on all sides. I can see healthy-looking hills far away in the distance, their brilliance obscured by the smoggy, gray air. The landscape is black in its many shades, punctured with shocks of plants and debris colored white and ash, the former lush hillside now withering, scorched beyond repair. I head toward some tall reeds and grasses ahead that have mysteriously retained a look of normalcy. Up close, they seem a bit starved for water, but no more shriveled than plants in any other dry region. Hearing a puff-puff-puff, I step back, and see three short bursts of smoke among the reeds, much like an old steam engine, or train whistle.

And then my father is there, stepping from behind a patch of blistered trees and toasted hillside. His eyes are excited, a mixture of horror and wonder at the spectacle before us.

“Look,” he gestures to a small hole not five feet away from where I stand. Clear gases ripple slowly from the opening, blurrying the landscape beyond. “Like heat from a grill,” he notes. I go over and warm my hands.

On our descent to the car, I notice that patches of litter are everywhere — beer cans, old t-shirts, food wrappers. Most debris looks old, long untouched — but could they be prematurely damaged, being aged by the fierce underground heat? I note the amount of litter and wonder — clearly the town, however obscure and dangerous, does not lack visitors. Are they occasional or frequent? As if in response, we see several people through the distant haze; we wave in acknowledgment.

We are further intrigued when we reach the truck. We’ve started a line of cars — two sedans, another pickup, and a van are behind us. Are they tourists? Former residents coming back? Geologists? I attempt to speak with someone, but they are all out of sight, disappeared into the mist. I have not seen one state trooper to keep foolish visitors away; no barricades. Anyone who wishes to tempt fate may do so.

***

By the early 1980s, the fire had raged for more than 20 years. Remedies to stop it (excavating the entire coal supply, deterring its track, and flushing out the pit) were proposed and abandoned, mainly from lack of funds. The fire, still ferocious, began to emit toxic gas levels in inhabitable amounts, affecting the health of Centralia residents. Centralians frequently exhibited toxic inhalation symptoms; several nearly died.

Basement walls became hot to the touch; gases accumulated in homes at levels so high no amount of ventilation could dissipate their lethal concentrations.

And then the ground began to open up. One boy, playing in his grandmother’s yard, was nearly swallowed when the earth fell in at his feet; neighbors came to his rescue. Cars began to crack asphalt when proceeding down a street. Holes pocked the alleys, some spontaneously opening.

Ultimately, with no guarantee of stopping the fire, all plans to save Centralia were forsaken. By 1986, the majority of families had left.

Today, the town’s roads, mines, and fields remain, but its community has vanished. The Commonwealth had most homes demolished; the few structures remaining are in poor shape. In September 2002, the U.S. Postal Service decided to discontinue the town’s zip code, in conjunction with the post office closing five years earlier. As of 2003, zip code 17927 ceased to exist.

As for the mines, the plentiful coal below Centralia continues to supply the 50+ year old fire. Scientists, examining the nature of anthracite, available coal reserves, and the mines’ layout, have projected the fire could burn for a thousand more years.

Photo courtesy Sue via Flickr Creative Commons

This story was first published on DivineCaroline.com.

I’m With Her

This photo shows voters' legs and feet behind red-white-and-blue striped voting booth curtains on election day

Watching our former Secretary of State debate a former reality TV star, so far below her in intelligence, demeanor, and dignity, I felt great admiration and respect for her superhuman composure. Rage at his narcissism and outright contempt for his opponent, her supporters, and the entire political process. Appreciation that, as the first female candidate for President, Hillary Clinton was willingly taking on this slog, so those afterward won’t have to. Sadness that, in 2016, this is how ugly the slog still is, for those who dare to be first.

Donald Trump claims the election is rigged because Clinton is “even allowed to run”, but he has it all wrong. It is he who is the audacious one, one so outrageous to claim that a zero-experience buffoon could be competent at the most complex, nuanced, and responsible role in our country, and perhaps the world.

As John Oliver so aptly put it, perhaps Trump is an appropriate final hurdle for Clinton to pass en route to the Presidency, to have to defeat “the final boss”, a living embodiment of her entire career’s worth of sexism, privilege, entitlement, and incompetence in one bloviating, grabby body.

I hope we never witness another debate–or campaign–like we saw this year. I hope no candidate has to endure the indignities Hillary Clinton (and, by extension, the 17 GOP rivals) did. I hope, over the coming years, a powerful female leader becomes normalized in the eyes of the press and the public, so we can get down to business.

Because, if this election has taught us anything, it’s that we have a lot of work to do.

I, for one, am ready to work. I’m with her.

Photo courtesy Michael Rosenstein via Flickr Creative Commons

Sneak Peek: What I’ve Been Working On

About this time last year, my uncle approached me. He had been working on a graphic novel based on his mother’s life, and he had writer’s block.

Would you help me write it? he asked.

I thought about it. It’s a difficult story, one that would be painful to research and write. I knew it would be upsetting, both for me to work on and for others to read.

But it’s also a good story, one with all the big themes: Love, marriage, family, regret. Freedom of choices and social expectations. Religion and morality. Kindness and cruelty.

I’m in, I said.

08

We knew we wouldn’t be able to find answers to everything we wanted to cover. We’d need to fill in some gaps.

So we decided to fictionalize–keep the core of the story intact, while changing names, places, and details as needed.

We got started in earnest in January 2016, and took three months to research, interview other family members, plot out a timeline. In March, we had a title. In April, we created an outline. I wrote from April through August, and we revised collaboratively along the way.

page15

Here’s the potential jacket copy:

For most of his life, Rick’s mother shared nothing about her childhood. While she never spoke of her years before marriage and motherhood, her frequent depressive episodes, use of corporal punishment, and erratic behavior betrayed a foundation of abuse, neglect, and vulnerability. Like his many siblings, Rick attempted to connect with his mother any way she’d allow, and resigned that he’d never learn about her past.

But unexpectedly, in the summer of Rick’s 30th year, Pat asked him to serve as her executor, and traveled to spend a weekend at his home to complete the paperwork. During that visit, she poured out her memories, never heard before—or ever again afterward.  

Stony Road is a story of lineage: the mysteries of our parents, and the desire to understand the forces that shaped them (and, by extension, us). It’s a story of regret and acceptance, resignation and survival. And—despite appearances—it’s a love story, the maddening, persistent, confounding love that only comes with blood and family.  

In September, Rick started the artwork.

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More to come…

All images copyright Rick Stromoski

Life-Changing Art: Carol Shields

This photo shows a pile of stones in all different sizes and colors

In December 2012, I finished grad school and, months later, was still astonished at my newfound free time. Evenings and weekends were now mine; gone were the days of syllabi and required reading, papers, and the dreaded thesis.

By June, my student loans had kicked in. The bills were anticipated, but it was still a shock to my early-twenties salary. Budgeting was essential. So reading–as entertainment, as community, as mental stimulation in the absence of regular classes–became more important than ever.

After years as a student, I now had the freedom to read books of my own choosing. So I eagerly re-entered the “reading as pleasure” world, taking time with each new book, feeling a bit stunned on reading each one for its own sake, and not being required to dissect each one for a grade or presentation.

At my non-taxing day job, I often had NPR’s “Fresh Air” on in the background. On July 18, they re-aired an interview with writer Carol Shields from the previous year. The occasion? Shields’s passing, the day before.

Shields’s voice grabbed me first–her assured timbre, her authoritative eloquence. Within a minute, I had stopped working and was completely under her spell for the entire half hour.

I had found a new subject for independent study.

That evening, I went to the library and took out The Stone Diaries, and tried not to devour it. It was more than I could have hoped for, a quiet yet sweeping whole-life story with exquisite prose. The interview had been just a prequel to Shields’ fierce intelligence and insightful perspective–and I now had a whole stack of Shields’ books to get to know her better.

Thirteen years later, I’m still working my way through her canon, slowly and deliberately, knowing it’s finite.

And yet, I always and repeatedly go back to the “Fresh Air” interview. Perhaps the enduring appeal lies in Shields’ vulnerable and honest answers throughout the conversation; perhaps it’s the warm and engaging match of intelligence between Shields and interviewer Terry Gross. But it’s not an exaggeration to say I consider this conversation my master class in writing, work, and a well-lived life. I listen to it several times a year–whenever I need inspiration, feel discouraged with my own writing, or just need to be grounded.

I don’t have many regrets, but one is that I discovered Shields after she died, and never got to attend a reading.  And so with that, this interview (and her books) will have to do.

Listen to the full interview here:  https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1340226/1340227

Photo courtesy Carol Van Canon via Flickr Creative Commons

Being a Bridesmaid is Really Expensive

This photo shows a floral arrangement of pink roses

I’ve been a bridesmaid nine times.

Nine.

Times.

That’s a lot of dresses, made-to-order dyed shoes, bridal showers, bachelorette parties, updos, travel, and gifts. And while I’d love to tell you I was able to do each on a budget, that wouldn’t be the truth.

A few years back, I started calculating what I had spent on other people’s weddings, hit a certain nausea-inducing threshold, and just stopped.

So, real talk: Weddings are notoriously expensive, even (maybe especially) for the wedding party. But like any Grownup milestone, you can keep costs manageable with proper planning—or some tough conversations.

Read the whole story over on the Society of Grownups blog.

Yes, You Can Afford a Vacation

This photo shows a surfer heading out to the beach

Whatcha up to next Thursday? No plans for Cinco de Mayo?

Come join me and the brilliant Karen Carr at Society of Grownups for a class on planning your next vacation. We’ll talk about the benefits of travel, how to track down travel deals, and how to budget for trips both grand and low-key.

After all, next Cinco de Mayo, you could be sipping a margarita on a beach in Mexico. (We’ll talk about how to save for that.)

Save your spot here: Yes, You Can Afford a Vacation

See you soon, travelers!

Quotes I Like

This photo shows a woman sipping coffee against a red wall and red booth

I was going through some old Word documents and found a file with the same title as this blog post. When I opened it up, I found the quotes below.

I’ve collected quotes for as long as I can remember. I love the following quotes still, and think I had saved them for future inspiration. I’m sharing them here to get the creative juices flowing again.

“The pause is as important as the note.” – Truman Fisher

“I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state.” – Roger Ebert

“We hold it all for a little while/Don’t we/Kiss the dice/Taste the rain like little knives upon our tongue/We can do no wrong when the lights go on/And the music plays/And we take the stage like we own the place/As if time were cheap/And the night forever young.” – Seven Shades of Blue, Beth Nielsen Chapman

“If we are to ever evolve into a peaceful society, we must be at peace with many things we disapprove of or cannot fathom.” – Cary Tennis

“The basic idea of the film is that what identifies people is not necessarily their bodies anymore; it’s all the relationships they maintain with others. You are your area, rather than you are yourself. If someone describes you, that description becomes part of your area, whether you like it or not.” – Ryan Trecartin, quoted in “Experimental People” by Calvin Tomkins, The New Yorker, March 24, 2014

Do you collect quotes, too? Which are your favorites?

Plan Ahead and Save: Book Next Year’s Vacation Now

This photo shows a camper van in the woods

Two years ago, my family and I took our annual summer beach holiday in a (then new-to-us) vacation rental on Cape Cod. We loved its huge and airy kitchen, the pool table off the living room, and the short walk from our favorite beach. In fact, we liked the house so much that, when I went to drop off the keys at the end of the trip, I immediately asked to book the house again for the same week the following year. I had the paperwork and deposits completed by the end of the month, securing our spot 12 months in advance.

Yes, booking a year in advance may sound a little extreme. But for budgeting Grownups, advance planning can really pay off. Here are just a few reasons when it can be beneficial to make your travel reservations (really) early.

Read the full story over on the Society of Grownups blog.