Sunday, February 19, 2012

States Of Mind

The first big disappointment in my life that I can remember was the first time I crossed a border. I don't recall my exact age - somewhere in the "this many" era - but I know I was small enough to have to go over to the car window to look out. Not just glance over, but move over to it. 

Who was driving at the time is also hazy, but that's pretty academic: If it was Mom we were going 75 mph and looking for a campground; if Captain Daddy was at the helm we were dialed into 55 mph and looking for a cloud, so as to justify a motel. 

The border was the one keeping California from Arizona. Hardly 'Checkpoint Charlie' I realize. But even then I was a map fiend and I was desperately looking forward to the crossing.

My toddler brain had already figured out that the states themselves were not different colors, or else everything in the nature films on "The Wonderful World of Disney" would be different shades of one color or another. No: they colored the states in later, after they had shot a rocket up to take a picture of the country. But the state borders had to be there when the picture was taken - or else how would they know where to color?

Hey, when I was three feet tall this was lead-lined logic.

We had been speeding (or poking along) through beautiful desert for awhile by that time. When my Mother called out that the state sign was coming up I looked not straight ahead but out of my side window: I wasn't going to miss the big black line that zoomed straight to the horizon. I can still recall almost every feature of that small slice of Mojave desert - I was looking THAT hard - but of course there was no line and my world came crashing down like an avalanche.

"B-but where's the tape?" I whimpered plaintively. For I had reasoned that black electrical tape had been used for the job. My mother gave me one of those looks that she never seemed to give my sister or brother. It decoded as: "Somehow I gave birth to a space alien and I don't know what makes him happy or sad. Usually he's happy but now he is not. Should I go for specifics or comfort in generalities?" Curiosity won out. "What tape?" She asked.

So I outlined the world as I knew it, in little lost tones, and she nodded and smiled sympathetically, which helped. Then she looked at my dad, and this look decoded as: "He's your son." He gave her an identical look (they shared a birthday - they could do that) and the painted desert flowed fore and aft and didn't care.

I still love maps but now I distrust borders. Governments like them, bigots like them, the people we hid the fruit from when we recrossed like them, but to me they're just silly.

Canada, for example, doesn't just hang up there like the hemispheres hairline. It dribbles into Maine and Minnesota and Washington. Part of Cuba is in Florida. Mexico is part of San Diego and El Paso, and industrially, America is South of the black tape as well. Parachute into the corners of Switzerland and you're in France, or Italy, or Austria. A border is an objective label applied to a subjective thing. At what point are you out of the Monterey Bay and into the Pacific Ocean?

Now this isn't going to descend into 'one world/one people' schmaltz. Borders are goofy, but the cultures they fail to contain are very big and very diverse. I would not feel comfortable in Zaire, most Taiwanese would have trouble relaxing in Finland, and so on. There is only one world but we are one people only in terms of species. Multiculturalism is just what it says: Lots of cultures overlapping. Crossing a line, any line is no big change; crossing a thousand miles anywhere, in any direction is the real border.

I don't have an answer as to how we can all get along, but feeling uncomfortable in Zaire, and Taiwan and Finland seems like a good idea. Travel, in the end, has always been the best education.

I sent a letter to National Geograhic though. How about no more black tape or primary colors? Instead, everything in pastels and blurring across a continent from one shade to the next. Dotted lines mark different cultures and these overlap. Countries can be put in quotation marks, like ideas, which is really all they are anyway.

To children, and governments, and cartographers one side of a border is separate from another. Nobody told the people though.

I missed the crossing back into California because I was skirmishing with my sister, whom I had accused of invading my half of the back seat. See borders are one thing, but boundaries....

Angus McMahan

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