Wednesday, May 12, 2010
The Rest of the Story
Cedar Springs, Michigan
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
Paul Harvey, that folksy beloved right-wing radio geezer-icon, used to do a show called The Rest of the Story. It featured looks at mysterious or obscure aspects of commonly-known stories of famous people and events. Old Paul was on the radio so long that he outlived a couple of generations of listeners. I remember my grandfather listening to Paul's jingoistic version of reality back in the '50s, and assumed he was old back then, since grandpa was old. Maybe it was also that creepy, creaky timbre his voice had even when he was relatively young. Paul Harvey died last year at 91, an age many thought he had attained long since, having become, over more than half a century, a sort of animated rendition of the Reader's Digest--an American version of the Word Become Flesh if ever there was one.
All that has nothing to do with the rest of my trip, except for the coincidence of the name I chose for this entry. I left readers hanging in the middle of Nebraska, that vast and uneventful chunk of land in the center of the country. On the final day I traversed Nebraska and Iowa, merging onto what might be the most tedious route in the country, or at least in the midwest--Interstate 80 across northern Illinois from the quad cities to Indiana, then the familiar but equally boring I-94 and I-196 in Michigan.
Did my heart leap up when I reentered the Great Lake State? Of course I was happy to be home and reunited with Laurine, but I must say that this state as a destination or a choice of a place to live leaves me cold. During my absence I tried to muster wistful memories of my home state, something that would make me say to myself as I passed the welcome sign, "Ah yes, Pure Michigan." Nothing doing. In fact, I didn't miss it at all. More than that, as I thought back over sixty years I had to admit I've never really liked Michigan very much. It's possible that I'm incapable of attaching myself emotionally to a spot on the map. But I'm not so sure about that. Much of the west is beautiful and alluring, as is New England, where I resided for many years. No, I think Michigan itself produces the geographic ennui I'm feeling. But on the positive side, at least it isn't Nebraska or Iowa.
One bright spot during my last day of driving was an hour-long detour into the Nebraska capital. I try to tour statehouses when I can. They're open to the public and usually contain a surprise or two. In Lincoln is one of the most interesting capitols going. Built in the 1920s in the grand and muscular art deco-influenced style I love, this building isn't the usual imitation of the U.S. Capitol, but a small skyscraper, rising fourteen stories out of a block-square granite base, topped with a small gold dome and a statue.
Inside and out it is reminiscent of a secular synagogue, devoid of religious icons but reaching mightily toward the sky in a salute to the gods of justice, democracy, and good government we used to revere in this country before our eyes were dimmed by the cataracts of religious fundamentalism and before we commenced our unabashed worship of capitalism. The arched hallways of the interior, rising three stories and covered with murals and stained glass windows above mosaic-tiled floors, are filled with a combination of sinewy Romanesque personifications of civic virtues and more modern depictions of the great natural and human resources of the Cornhusker State. Standing in the midst of all this it's possible to breathe in the vapors of the national mood that gave birth to the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center in New York, the Fisher Building in Detroit, and many others. As a nation our aspirations certainly overreached our realities, especially in the area of civil rights, but the very fact that we chose to showcase our ideals rather than just our tawdry lust for money bespoke a different set of priorities, at least for the common man.
Of course I visited the locus of the nation's only unicameral legislature, which is housed in the old state senate chamber. It wasn't until the 1930s that Nebraska adopted one-house, nonpartisan rule, so there's still a state house of representatives chamber, now used as an auditorium. Having spent my career working for states, and the latter part of it interpreting and administering the newly-minted products of the state legislature, I can't overstate my contempt for the citizen lawmakers who inhabit these chambers. Words like moron, nitwit, scallywag, blowhard, and poltroon come readily to mind, but don't really describe the combination of ignorance, ambition, and puffery that prevails inside these chambers when they're open for business. Imagine Ted Knight from the Mary Tyler Moore Show being in charge of the government and you begin to get the picture. So the idea of having a one-house parttime state legislature consisting of only 49 persons seems eminently sensible to me, or at least a step in the right direction.
I wouldn't recommend a trip to Nebraska for the express purpose of seeing the capitol in Lincoln, but if, God help you, you're there on business, by all means drop in.