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The Great American Dream Story


I've been watching reruns of "Fixer Upper." I didn't intend to watch this program, nor did I know anything about it just a few months ago when I started working out at Ignite Gym in New Paltz. It's a small, friendly, well-run gym open just about all the time, which suits my unconventional teaching and writing schedule, and it is not owned by a chain, but by an entrepreneurial person, in The Great American Dream Story tradition.

There are four mega screens, all tuned to different stations, facing the work-out machines, and much to my suprise, I always choose the elliptical facing HGTV. Or maybe it is not really a suprise. I listen to music on the elliptical, I can't read, the televisions are silent, captions on, and no way do I want to watch CNN while I am trying to relax. Hyperkinetic breaking news all day long is not good for writers or, perhaps, for any of us.

So there they were, this absolutely adorable and gorgeous inter-ethnic, long- married couple, Chip and Joanna Gaines, chatting away about smashing walls, decorative decisions, room re-configurations, landscaping and children—all in their adopted hometown of Waco, Texas. Waco? Really? Back in 1916 there was a terrible lynching of a 16-year old boy, Jesse Washington, in Waco, still known as the "Waco Horror," and in 1993, federal agents raided the Branch Davidian compound. A shootout—lots of guns—tear gas, 75 Davidians (a Christian cult) and four agents dead, and "Waco" is still a rallying cry for Second Amendment alt-right groups. As elsewhere, the demographics of the town have changed, and on the centenary of the lynching, May 15, 2016, the mayor apologized in a ceremony to some of Jesse Washington's descendants. A historical marker is being erected. The KKK may still be lurking in the backwoods of Waco, but the local government seems to have achieved—enlightenment. Joanna and Chip Gaines have raised the profile of the town—they are megastars—wealthy beyond even their own imaginations. Apparently, they are also philanthropic. That is always good news.

As we well know by now, reality television stars segue easily into politics. The transition is smooth, to say the least. They have our attention, we adore them, we want to be them. (Well, usually.) Will Chip or Joanna, or one of their children run for public office? Am I inadvertently and unintentionally becoming one among thousands of this adorable couple's fan base? Because even though "Fixer Upper" has ended, this couple is not done; they are going to have their own TV station, they've opened a restaurant, published a cookbook.

Does it matter that this power couple attend an evangelical church? Does it matter to me? Yes, it does, especially as the Evangelicals lobby constantly to end Roe v. Wade, among other atrocities. Joanna is devout, which is her privilege, her right, but if she uses her wealth to end the right to choose, I will terminate my tenuous fandom. And I have some questions about those flipped fixer upper houses that the Gaines Empire is built on. Were they foreclosures? If so, what happened to the people who were forced out? Did they lose their jobs? Declare a medical bankruptcy? What are the Chip and Joanna's thoughts about Medicare for all, for example, now that they can well afford to feed, clothe, educate and entertain their own brood of five children?

These are the questions that are never answered on HGTV, or most of American TV, which exists to deliver us—the viewer—to the advertiser. Such questions threaten every chapter of The Great American Dream Story we all covet for ourselves, which is why the press is deemed "enemy" by the current resident of the Oval Office.

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The Game of Telephone

Photo © copyright Chloe Annetts 2019 @ the June 13th reading, Inquiring Minds Bookstore in New Paltz. With thanks to Jane Liddle, the events coordinator, and all who attended and asked interesting questions during the Q & A.

In the place in my brain that handles moves, there is now a sign that says: END OF STORY. I have lived in over twenty apartments in three states and two continents. Every time I arrived at a new location, I tried to make friends, find new doctors, find work, or a school for our daughter, as fast as I could. As soon as the books and artwork were up, I felt at home. But I'd always lived in a city. Now, for the first time, I am a resident of a small town. It's different.

The metaphor that best describes the experience is the game of telephone. I played it a lot at birthday parties when I was a kid. Chairs are lined up and a word or sentence is whispered from one ear to another. By the time it arrives and is spoken aloud, it's completely distorted, just plain wrong. Everyone laughs.

Gossip in a small town can work in the same way. A story begins and is passed from one person to another until, days and weeks later, it no longer resembles the real story. Sometimes the pass-alongs are well-meaning; sometimes they are malicious; sometimes they become entertainment. None of the process feels deliberate; it feels accidental, almost improvised, as though our story-telling brains take over, often against our better judgment. If I repeat what I know of a store owner's disability, for example, and the word gets round the community that he was once-upon-a-time an addict, that feels more like a smear than neighborly concern. What are people saying about me, I wonder? And have I inadvertently participated in gossip? If so, I regret it, even if it was well-meaning. I even resist gossip within my family; I find it uncomfortable. I concede that gossip may serve a psychological, biological, or anthropological purpose I don't fully understand. If so, please enlighten me, dear reader.

Recently, with a two page profile in the local newspaper with a photo, and a reading at a local bookstore, I've become more visible in New Paltz and a bit skittish about this game of telephone. I've had some positive reactions and some strange reactions. Indeed, my own reactions to everyone's reactions worry me. If I start thinking about what people are thinking or saying about me, or if they've read the article about me, or read my book, or attended the reading when they said they would, or didn't attend the reading when they said they would, I won't be able to write freely. Certainly, I'll need a more supple tolerance for the exigencies of small town life and more anonymous city days to stay in balance.

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A Mormon Visitation


It was a quiet Sunday. I'd just returned from a hike and had stepped out of the shower, barely dressed, hair dripping, Jim watching the French Open, when there was a loud bang on the door. We have no doorbells here which, in itself, is anomalous. There is a small peephole, however, but I usually have to wait until my heart stops pounding to use it. That takes a breath or two.

Jim, under the headset, tennis balls cracking away, hadn't heard much. "Who's there?" was all he managed. I looked through the peephole at the distorted image of two individuals, probably male, I decided, dressed in white shirts and dark pants. For some reason—maybe remnants of my still functioning urban self—I intuited these individuals had no intent to harm. I opened the door.

"Oh, Mormons," I said.

"That's what some people call us," the young man on the left said. He did not seem pleased and his partner was not pleased with him. I assumed he was in training; this was a training session. He slunk back as the bigger, older guy took the lead.

I think he called me "Ma'am." He clutched a Bible, rich with uncorroborated stories from my journalistic point of view. "Written by man or God?" I asked.

No answer.

Mormon #2 was also carrying an iPad. I think they'd found their way to our somewhat isolated apartment complex using Google Maps. They hadn't come far—there's a Mormon church less than half a mile away, but they'd already been in the mid-Hudson valley for nine months and surely knew their way around, knew that holding out a Bible, metaphorically speaking, half a mile from the university wasn't going to play too well.

"How's the proselytizing going?" I asked.

I really wanted to know. Was it going well, or not well?

"Could you recommend a place for us to go in town where folks might be more receptive," the younger one asked.

"I think you'll find the citizens of this town hard work," I told him. "There are some religious folks, of course, but mostly I think you'll find it hard work."

I wanted to spare him disappointment. He was so young, so eager. After nine months in the vicinity he was still struggling, it seemed.

"I worked in Newark before I came up here," the older one said. "I loved the city. Brazilian community. Portuguese. That's why my tag says Jesus Cristo." And he pointed to the tag that sat right over his heart, white lettering on a black background to match his Sunday church and proselytize—after—church outfit.

I enjoy gentility and evangelical gentility is no exception. These young men were polite—misguided, sheltered, hopelessly naive, barely educated, but polite. Those are the judgmental thoughts that ran through my head. I wondered where they stood on abortion rights, on polygamy, police brutality. I wondered how they voted, or if they voted, or if they noticed or cared that the Wallkill River is polluted. Answers to my questions would have taken hours; they had to move on. Strangely, I thought, they hadn't asked any questions about me. I guess they knew from my slightly disheveled appearance and teasing sarcasm that I was past redemption.

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," I said, determined to correct myself before their departure. "Apologies for calling you Mormons. What we call ourselves as opposed to what others choose to call us is important." Then I remembered that their presence on my doorstep was, truly, a blessing. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Our much beleaguered Constitution is still alive.

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