Thursday, May 5, 2011

On Being A Nation

          I spent some time on and around the Ohio State University this weekend and it reminded me I haven’t yet addressed the nature of this nation we now live among.  On a day to day basis I’m aware of the Buckeye presence in the way I was aware of the Red Sox back in New England.  Bumper stickers, handmade signs in windows, flags of Buckeye welcome waving over front doors.  Even where we live on the East Side, which doesn’t have any geographic connection to the University, there are Buckeye cafés and laundromats.  There are Buckeye key chains and Buckeye lip balms and Buckeye bottle openers available at most check out counters.  The chicken I buy at Kroger features cartoon fowl wearing Buckeye t-shirts and hats, as if the very animals I am feeding my children once proudly dawned their red and gray in the stands of that great stadium.  “Cluck, Cluck, Go Bucks!”
          Darling Virgo’s weeklong new employee orientation with the City of Columbus featured many Buckeye moments including a half hour video on the finer points of leadership as defined by Buckeye Football coach, Jim Tressel, who was (and is) under investigation by the NCAA for covering up player misconduct.  It’s the kind of thing you can watch as an outsider and chuckle.  Chuckle at yourself for the glimpse of this world you chose to move into.  Chuckle because this kind of tabloid irony is funny when you’re not hotly embroiled in the story.  But later, when the Benefits Specialist looked around the room at her sleepy audience and called out, “O-H!” and all the new employees but Darling Virgo sat up in their chairs with a hearty “I-O!” my dear partner began to understand that as amusing as it is to play the detached sociologist, she’s really just a foreigner in Buckeye Nation.
          My expectation was that I would resist this Nation and its ubiquitous key chains, the same way I try to resist enjoying the Fourth of July fireworks, or the pleasure of getting the day off to celebrate Christopher Columbus.  But the truth is, I’m a sucker for nations.  I remember when my eleventh grade U.S. History teacher defined the word for me, distinguishing for the first time the difference between the geo-political connotation of “country” and the sociological nature of “nation.”  It spoke to me the way I imagine some people feel a response to prayer.  Nation.  Two hundred sixty million people made singular by that which we have in common.  A nation of individualists, a nation of conformists, of over eaters, of couch potatoes.  Whatever.  Even then I resented America for the myth it was founded on, but was hooked on the idea of belonging, of moving in concert, of marching in step.
          There’s so much power in nationhood.  Like Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted handful of people who can make a difference, nations--groups of people united in propose, loyalty, vision, hate--we become something more than ourselves, as if the fact of our unity summons the supernatural.
          I remember this feeling when I was in college at Mount Holyoke.  It was not the Buckeye Nation, for sure.  Picture Seven Sisters, ivy covered stone towers, bells that ring out every quarter hour, rolling greens, iron gates, afternoon tea if you request it in advance.  There was no looming football stadium demanding our allegiance.  The local papers did not reserve their front pages to report our victories and scandals.  But I remember the first time I heard the upperclasswomen banging on the balcony rails in Mary Wooley Hall, their bodies and hoots shaking the walls of that hundred year old building.  You might have thought Billy Joel was on that stage.  Or Ani DiFranco.  Or Madeline Albright.  Nope.  It was the orientation board, or one of the campus a capella groups, or a modern dance performance, or something like that.  Whatever it was, it was the kind of thing that might elicit a shrug or a chuckle from a foreigner in the audience.  But I knew from that moment I was no foreigner: I had found my nation.
          I kept this memory humbly in my pocket as I drove through greater OSU last week and saw street after street after street after street of college housing.  Not college owned housing.  But, you know, college housing.  Three story apartment buildings with patches of brown grass in front.  No landscaping.  No gardens.  Just bicycles chained to sun splintered porches.  Hibachis placed unceremoniously on a rail.  A couch on a lawn.  Sixty thousand students attend school here.  And thousands more teach them.  And still more who make their livings cutting all that hair, feeding all those hollow legs, tattooing the backs of their necks, piercing their tongues.  I drove through those streets and it was all I could do to keep myself from hating or fearing (that great duo of hate and fear) the people who live behind those bunged up doors.  The grills, the beer cans, the wet couches.  They don’t say “Go Bucks!” to me.  Not this foreigner.  They say sexual assault.  They say hate violence.  They say mob.  Because I know that the supernatural force of nationhood doesn’t always stir up peace, love, and progress.  It’s that same swell of power that brings us to build walls, to prove our own membership by turning others out.  It’s what gives us the audacity to require the first black president to prove again and again that he is one of us.  It’s what gives us the permission to grieve our Nation's great loss by circulating pictures of the villain’s bloody head hanging from our proudest symbol of freedom. 
          But I think back to that night in Mary Wooley Hall.  I think of how strongly I felt the presence of that larger being we created together.  How I knew, if we wanted to, we could knock down the walls of the that stone tower.  Or stop Coke from investing in South Africa.  Or change the world by not shaving our legs.  Or by being feminists who did shave our legs.  All these things were in our capacity as a nation.  And there were only 2,000 of us.
          So I cannot begrudge them a nationhood.  Nor can I assume they will use it blindly for ill.  And I remember that last fall, only a few weeks after we landed here, Rachel Maddow played a clip of the Ohio State University marching band performing Script Ohio.  They march out onto the field in crisp precision, spelling the name of their Nation to a red sea of ecstatic fans.  The song ends when the drum major selects a tuba player, prances to the spot where the dot on the “I” should be, marks it with his mace, and then moves out of the way so the tuba player can do what she has waited her entire life to do.  She becomes the dot in the Ohio “I.”  And that’s when I cry.  Every time.


  1. Many of us already here also struggle with our feelings about the ubiquitious Buckeye fever. It certainly does breed violence (a couple years back the off-campus students would riot after football games) and less scary stupidity. I love having OSU here but hate living in a town dominated by a football team.

    One of my professors is from Peru and she was shocked the first time she was reading from a Powerpoint about creating resumes and she said, "And you type the abbreviation of the state, OH..." and the students all hollered, "IO!" She said, "I know how to spell Ohio!" You'll see it on Facebook, too, come fall. People will post OH as their status and wait for people to respond. Ugh. Of course, we do really have a good marching band. And the Wexner Center is full of awesome.

  2. Liz, This is amazing. I have chills. I miss you a lot. A LOT. And reading this today, I miss you even more. So glad you're part of my "nation," wherever you are.

  3. My favorite line;"But the truth is, I’m a sucker for nations." because I can here a little pause and your voice go up, as your sweet laugh cuts into the line!
    Love to see Dawn commenting here, and jealous that you are neighbors!
    Happy belated Mama's Day btw.
    XXX from one still keeping your flagpole warm at your previous nation!

  4. Liz, u'r writing about much of what I experienced almost 40 years ago when I first came down to MD from an equally strong women's nation still in the throws of that rather glorious time of the 70's when women were once again uniting and stalwartly demanding equal status as human beings. Add to your observations segregation that my MD county fought to retain, employment that was yet blocked for women, and girls who lived to benefit from Title IX had who had yet in many areas to do so. I feel ur confliction, Sister ; ) I look forward to future blogs.

  5. Susan, amazing how time passes and we end up circling round. I am always thankful for the gains of the social justice movements that have made my life a thousand times more livable than it would have been 20, 30, 40 years ago. Still, there are moments (like the morning after the mid-term elections when Clinton had been in office two years, or this last November) when I think: we are literally winding back the clock of our social awareness to a time before I was born!
    Thanks for reading. :)