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Rant #212
(published February 3, 2005)
Becoming an American after Having Been Born One
By Fritz Swanson
Quoting "Manuel L. Quezon III [1]"

> How are you, fritz?
> M.

I'm actually okay. I was just in Chicago over the weekend and I thought of you... well, in that Sara and I were staying at the Congress Plaza and the convention there that week was one for Filipino Food (we weren't there for that—-we had come down instead with my sister and her husband to go shopping at Ikea in Schaumberg), and I wondered if Clinton Palanca would be there. But then I realized that A) I had no idea what Clinton looked like, and B) it was pretty arrogant to see Filipino people and think "Hey, I know a handful of Filipino people who aren't actually related to me (my aunt is Filipino, don't you know) and so maybe one of them will be here."

The next day I went to an IHOP, got the International Passport Breakfast with Swedish Pancakes and was struck, by an avenging God, with spectacular food poisoning that caused me to vomit for five minutes straight later that night in a ditch along interstate 94 just outside of Gary, Indiana. My body went beyond rejecting bad sausages and crepes and proceeded to reject itself, my consciousness and then, it felt like, the spacetime continuum.

Outside Gary there are hellish oil refineries that belch great gouts of flame from slender rusting smoke stacks. I remember the greasy wash of light flickering in the slick grass in front of my face.

I feel weak, my torso stiff and sore as though I had done strange acrobatics while unconscious, and I suppose I know now what it feels like to have survived a seizure... or by correlation, what it feels like to have been possessed. Ridden by the Loa, as they say in Haiti. A great puking and cursing demi-God who hates the Swedes. And of course, I am a quarter Swedish, left forever to be sickened by the smell of Lingonberry Butter on greasy crepes.

But today, the day before America's Thanksgiving, I feel pretty okay. When I ate a bit of turkey that Sara and I had cooked for her students at the private school where she teaches I had the rare confidence that homemade turkey was going onto an absolutely clean slate, as though I had never eaten anything in my life.

I think I shall call this essay "Becoming an American after Having Been Born One [2]."


1. Manuel L. Quezon III is, I believe, the most important man that I know. And by that, I mean he is the only individual I personally know who seems central to the progress of history in a Thomas Carlyle Great Man kind of way. For example, he lives in Quezon City, which is as I understand it just outside of Manila in the Philippines. Let that sink in. He lives in a city named for his Family. His grandfather, Manuel Quezon, has been identified by most historians as the father of the current democratic republic of the Philippines. Manuel is a prominent Filipino journalist, intellectual, television pundit and author.

How did I meet this man? Well, I rarely if ever travel, but I do spend a lot of time on what our president calls "The Internets." I and several friends run a small webzine of literature and the like called Poor Mojo's Almanac(k) in honor of that other Great and Poor Almanac(k) from the early days of our own Republic. We were interested in the notion of a bigger world, like the one Franklin lived in, and that's reflected in the Almanac(k) we publish. Manuel discovered our Almanac(k) by way of an advertisement we took out in Harper's Magazine. He donated some start up cash, and became an irregular correspondent of mine. And at that moment I felt two things: 1) that the world was small in its own way, but 2) that it was big in a complex and lateral sense; that while the world could be covered fast and with ease by plane or by telephone, it could not be KNOWN by any one man, and that its mysteries were both accessible and impenetrable at the same time.

Manuel, alone in the Filipino afternoon, was left to contemplate why this strange American internet publisher and occasional university lecturer would email him an epistle on the dangers of intestinal distress on the grand American Eisenhower Memorial Interstate System.


2. At the moment of writing this letter I felt as though a whole list of ideas collapsed into a single point. The grandson of the Filipino George Washington would receive from me, the figurative descendant of Benjamin Franklin, a snapshot of the global civilization.

Franklin, who in the Treaty of Paris in 1773 cannily redrew the boundary lines of the northern Great Lakes region to include all of the current Upper Peninsula of Michigan because he knew (and the French did not) that there were many rich copper and iron veins waiting to be tapped. It would be those mines, coupled with the free-thinking liberalism that Franklin pioneered, which would draw my Swedish great-grandfather from the shores of Ooland to those same mines in Crystal Falls, Michigan.

Franklin, who by his brash genius and good business sense amassed a great fortune and following simply by thinking, and disseminating those thoughts via the latest technological revolution of his age, the printing press. It would be that achievement, that life, which would captivate me even when I was seven years old in first grade. Years later I would be inspired, with my friends David Nelson and Morgan Johnson (the eponymous Mojo), to create this digital Almanac(k) to publish the "finest writings in all of the colonies and territories of this great land".

At the turn of the century American industrial factories, trying desperately to integrate thousands of new immigrants into not just their businesses, but also into some notion of America, held elaborate ceremonies of initiation. As a child I learned how in Detroit, at the plants run by Henry Ford, Poles and Swedes and Italians and Germans were all forced to stand in great steel kettles, the kettles normally used to carry the liquid iron smelted from the ore dug out of the hills in Crystal Falls. Like that ore, these men were asked by the ceremony to imagine that they too were to be melted down, together, purified by the heat and light of the New Age and the New Nation they had come to join. They stepped into the kettle, each man with his own language, his own culture, his own memories of the past; and they were to step out together as partners in one great experiment, one nation. The pot was to melt them down, erase them as individuals, scrape them out hollow of all things foreign, reforge them.

As I vomited lingonberry butter into the slick grass of the ditch, I felt like my whole being was being vacated. I felt quite literally as though I was melting down. There was so much wet around me, coming out of me, and I felt smaller with each heave.

I almost never travel, except in my mind, and at that instant, even my mind was perfectly blank. I was perfectly and discretely located, everything past that had accumulated in me was ejected into the ditch. There I was, kneeling beneath Gary, Indiana, the city from which every citizen wishes to flee, and I was fixed to the ground. The oil of the refineries was to be burned by cars in states, in nations, far away. All of that oil from the bodies of plants so old and so distant as to be incomprehensible, whether it was the gas jets above the refineries themselves, or the gas as it burned in the engines of the thousands of cars that roared down the interstate, was to be soon transformed into the motion of rubber and steel and to exhaust, lost to us on the earth. I was surrounded by the very nature of travel, of journey, and I was fixed in my place.

I only have one home now, I think. It is that ditch, that perfect America. Unless I am there, my mind blank, my body empty, I will always be traveling.

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