Thursday, August 09, 2007

Tragedy, country music, and other news from home

Sitting here in my climate-controlled house, happily ensconced in my blanket while I look out the window at the wavering heat, I try to remember the oppressiveness of Cairo heat, the utter enervation that suffused me each night, having walked through the dirt and dust and noise of the desert in an attempt to live. And it all seems so very far away from my little Chaska abode, so far away from the ease of life in the United States, so far away from this space, this greenery, this luxury. I look at my arm, and I note that the dye from my henna tattoo is finally fading away, that the blonde hairs on my arm are no longer touched with a black pigment, but are sun-kissed once again. My pedicure is long since gone, the waxing (ahhh, I’m sure all you males are glad to read this!) needs to be resumed, and my hair is longing for the bleaching saltiness of the Red Sea. I no longer automatically respond to friends in Arabic, I occasionally smile at strangers on the street, and I have finally returned to my church, to St. John’s. But as I read the weekly Scriptures, the Epistles, the Gospel, I know also that I am different, that these words bring fresh understanding to me. When Moses crossed that wretched Sinai desert for 40 long years, I cannot but empathize with his plight, for I was in agony during my 11 hour crossing. It truly is a desolate place, and I can picture the Jews’ despair in vivid relief and perhaps understand their frailty, their digression a bit better. When Jesus preached on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, when he sermonized on the Mt. of Beatitudes, when he tread through the streets of Old Jerusalem, I can see the landscapes shifting in my mind, see His ragged figure trudging over worn footpaths and cobblestones, close my eyes and smell the perfume of olive groves and gardens, pressing bodies and pungent cooking. The Holy Land is no longer a far off realm, distant and indistinct; it exists for me, it is tangible, real, verifiable, solid; it does not sustain my faith, for faith is not built on steel and stone, it dwells in a place stronger than that, more unshakeable, a place no human hand can touch, but it nonetheless supports it, fills in the gaps in the initial and sometimes faulty construction.

At 6:10 last Wednesday, I turned on my television and felt that faith shudder with the horror of the images flashing across the screen. There was my U, my old dorm, my familiar walking paths, the river providing an unwanted backdrop to the mangled carnage of the 35-W bridge that had suddenly, tragically, collapsed into the Mississippi, carrying with it the rush hour traffic inching across. Splintered steel beams, heaving concrete, flaming semi-trailers, sobbing individuals all created a scene that seemed too dramatic to be real life. Bridges don’t just fall, people don’t just disappear into the river, metal doesn’t just twist into bizarre spirals. This is Minnesota, this is the land to which I returned after 10 months of living in the developing world. We don’t have mass tragedy; we have system, order, efficiency, a government that is supposed to check these things, to make sure I’m safe. I’m proud of being a Minnesotan; I think I live in one of the best states in the nation and I love when I see my great state on the news, but, that day, I cringed as I flipped through every channel, CNN, FOX, ABC, CBS, NBC, and saw footage from the bridge collapse dominating the newscast. This was not the publicity I coveted, and I felt angry as I heard announcers trying to explain the destruction, mispronouncing names and locations, exploiting the moment for their own benefit. Minnesotans are a generally amiable bunch, we don’t rock the boat, so who did someone suddenly capsize ours?

I could have watched the news for hours, but I had to rush and pack my things for my four day getaway to WE Fest. The night before, around midnight, Andrew called me and asked if I wanted to go with him, as one of his friends had an extra ticket. Well….3 days of country music, fun, and partying? Why not, ya know ;-)

So I numbly packed my clothes into my suitcase, grabbed food and sleeping bags, and threw everything into the car to drive down to Marshall, where I would spend the night with Andrew and then head up to Detroit Lakes the next day with him. I left later than I had intended; the news was addicting, but, as I pulled away, I felt a certain sense of relief as well. I had checked the internet, reassured myself that my acquaintances were alright and let my friends know I was alive (thanks to everyone who checked in!) and was ready to distance myself from the coverage. Driving away from the Twin Cities, I flipped my dial to K102, the best country station on the planet, and settled in for the drive through the gloaming that was fast turning to Stygian black. The heavens were veiled that night without a star twinkling through the heavy shroud of mourning that obliterated any light from shining down ease my way, and, for a few hours, I traversed a very lonely road, seeming to be the only soul alive in the world. But then a semi would roar past, a farm house’s lights would flicker in the distance, a tiny prairie town would slow my speed, and I did not feel so isolated. I knew that my Minnesota was still ticking, despite the horror thrust upon it, and that was comforting.

I pulled into Marshall late, grabbed a snack at McDonald’s (I used to always eat there in Cairo, it’s almost a month since my last foray!), and went up to Andy-roo’s apartment, where he greeted me with his usual effusiveness. “Hi.” Oh brothers!

After a night on his couch and a hasty morning of switching cars and deciding how much to bring, we piled into his red Grand Am and meandered our way through fields and valleys to Pelican Rapids, where Andrew’s friend, Taylor, was to show us our home for the next three days. About 2.5 hours later, we arrived to our destination, met Taylor at his family’s house, and drove about 10 minutes down the road to his lake cabin.

“Hey! This isn’t bad!” I couldn’t help but exclaim as we got out. “Andrew gave me the impression we were staying somewhere…different. Not this nice anyways.”

Taylor smiled (he’s got a cute smile ;-), laughed because I call my brother Andrew (no one else does, he’s either Andy or Schlic), helped us bring our luggage into the cabin/trailer, and showed us our own little room for the next three nights. “I wasn’t sure who should have this room,” he explained as he pulled out a trundle bed from underneath the main one. “But, I figured, brother and sister…”

The cabin was well-stocked with food and munchies and people. By the time everyone dropped in, we numbered 8. And, yes, for anyone out there who knows of my aversion to sharing bathrooms and such, I did share one shower with these people and had no problem! After seeing what life was like in the campsites, I was just grateful to have a bed and a bathroom at all.

WE Fest doesn’t start until late afternoon; not the good acts anyway, so we arrived around 3, pulled into the VIP parking lot and got a healthy dose of Country Boys and Girls Gettin’ Down on the Farm!

WE Fest is the largest country music festival in the nation; this year, 60,000 people were in attendance. No, I did add an extra zero, this thing is huge! The vast majority of attendees camp in the innumerable campgrounds scattered near the festival grounds. Viking, Blue Ox. Oat Field, Eagle, Hilltop, Northwoods, just to name a few, although camp is a rather generous term. Pitched tents on hillsides, the occasional camper, cabs of pick-ups, clunking trailers-whatever worked, people used. Besides, as I soon found out, sleep was not the object of the campgrounds…But that all comes later. My little band piled out of our swanky minivan and headed for the underpass that would lead us to the entrance.

Wow. I thought I was doing well, in my attire, a low cut tank top (and I did receive several genial compliments about my ‘nice rack’) and pair of shorts, but I felt positively grandmotherly compared to my fellow concertgoers. Bikinis, unzipped shorts, thong-revealing skirts, cowboy hats, and, of course, the perennial mug of beer. No one was without alcohol, it seemed, and I suddenly understood why Taylor had said this wasn’t exactly a family event. We joined the raucous throngs of concertgoers and passed through the tunnel, joining in the drunken rants and exuberant high-fives exchanged among random strangers. All of us exchanged our tickets for wristbands, my brother and I the only ones of our group sporting the red over-21 identifiers and entered the gates.

I realized, after about 5 minutes of people gazing, that the Serengeti was a far tamer land than WE Fest and that any Arab man who stumbled into our country orgy would probably die happily with a massive erection and a heart attack. So much skin! It flashed everywhere I looked-shoulders, cleavage, thighs, stomachs, backs. Anyway, after watching the current band-Josh Turner-several of us returned to the van to booze up, as alcohol in the concert is rather expensive and outside beverages of any kind are not permitted inside the vicinity. Well, I actually saved my consumption for the next day, opting instead for my Diet Coke, but several of my companions filled their mugs with beer and doughtily downed them throughout the afternoon.

We made a foray into the campgrounds, observing the general inebriation and utter debauchery that presided over WE Festers, and slowly, slowly began to absorb the gow, the atmosphere of the weekend. It’s not whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, cause that’s far too tame a city, but whatever happens in WE Fest, you should be dang proud of, because you would never dream of acting like that in the real world. On the last night of WE Fest, while I was in the bathroom, some girl walked down the aisle and shouted drunkenly, “Whatever happened at WE Fest you should not be ashamed of! Live it up!”

As we returned to watch Carrie Underwood, we again passed through the tunnel and noticed, for the first time, the security, although these were not your average guards. They laughed at our drunken revels and shouted over megaphones, “Dump it or chug it,” referring, of course, to the inevitable cups of beer in our hands. Hey, It’s 5’O’clock Somewhere, right? Our tickets were general admission without reserved seats in the VIP section, so we stood among our fellow plebians and sang and shouted along with Carrie and Alan Jackson, returning late to our quiet lakeside cabin for a bit of sleep.

Friday was beautiful, warm and sunny, providing a perfect afternoon for swimming and whiffle ball. We drove again to the Soo Pass Ranch, host to the enormity that is WE Fest, separated as usual, although I stuck to Andrew fervently, having already been separated once and recalling the frustration of trying to find one soul amid 60,000. My brilliant plan for drinking that day either worked splendidly or failed abjectly. I can’t do beer; y’all know that, so I combined lemonade and vodka, a concoction I had last imbibed in the White Desert and which had served me well.

It served me decently that afternoon as well, and provided excellent stimulation for Sheryl Crow and Keith Urban, who serenaded beautifully that night.

The next morning we lazed around the cabin, as the weather was not the roseate glory that it had been the previous day, but rather blustery, reminding us of the fugacity of summer and the imminence of impending winter. Ahhh! I drank not a drop on Saturday, but somehow ;-) still managed to ride a mechanical bull and find some mischief. Our van ran out of liquor by early evening, and several of our group wanted more, so I, the absolutely sober one, was nominated to drive. Sadly, they rated my driving skills as worse than a drunk, so this proves that I am neither a navigator nor a driver. What role I play in life? Allah Alam.

Trace Atkins and Toby Keith played that night, and they were both quite rousing acts. Country music is amazing, but I can see how some might find its blind patriotism offensive, although I personally feel these sentiments are far less offensive than the misogynistic and violent themes of rap and other genres. But, yani, that’s why I’m Wawa.

We held a bonfire late Saturday that we kept burning throughout Sunday; unfortunately, Andrew and I bid our good-byes by early afternoon, reluctantly, as I needed to return to the real world before darkness. Taylor’s mom (awesome!) prepared us a scrumptious taco feast, we had a group photo, and then we journeyed first to Marshall, and then I continued my way back to Chaska!

What else? A few weeks ago, the Lehmanns (that’s my dad’s side of the family), held a reunion down in southern MN, gathering about 90 of my relations together for food and gossip. I have been officially labeled as the crazy world traveler type by the family, a nomination I entirely endorse, but I did enjoy seeing the relatives again. As I get older, family ties do seem to resonate more deeply, a desire to have roots, and a past, and a history, a story, grows more urgently with the years. I like knowing that there are people out there related to me, caring about me, that we share a common beginning and will build a connected future. And I met Rachel, which made the weekend even more exciting, my wonderfully sweet and fun 16 year-old cousin (actually, we think she’s my 4th) from Pensecola. About five days after the reunion, she came up to the Twin Cities with her grandmother, and I rescued her for a day at the Mall of America, where we cavorted around the indoor amusement park, shopped, slurped Caribou coffees, and fell in love. Awww, Rachel was so much fun! I told her she must come up and experience a real MN winter. Actually, all of you should if you haven’t! Come sledding and ice skating and hot cocoa drinking and sitting by the fire with me. It’s fun, I promise.

On the home front, I’ve been dreaming of Cairo and deciding that my Arabic is fleeing faster than a desert fox, so I am reading these children’s books, in Arabic, that I bought in Egypt. Thus far, I’ve taught Mom the words for worm (dooda), zucchini (Kheaar) and stuffed bear (dabadeeb), which will all come in handy, I know, when I return to the Middle East and she comes to visit me. She lost her hair again, unfortunately, while I was at WE Fest, and we were attempting to tie a scarf around her head before we went out to church. When I tried to tie it under her chin, in the way I’d learned in Egypt, she pushed me away and admonished me. I don’t want to look like I’m a Muslim! But it’s the only way I know how. With a bit more experimentation, she satisfactorily succeeded in a more trendy fashion. And I think that’s all the news from the home front. I interviewed for a job at the U yesterday, although I won’t hear if I got it for several weeks. I’m considering another small job, maybe at Anne Taylor, so all of my money isn’t sucked into that enterprise ;-) like it is now. Insha’allah, I’ll be going to D.C. soon, and for sure I will be flying in that direction Sept. 7th for a required job fair thing for the NSEP scholarship. And school begins so soon! Maa salaama for now!