Flagstaff

I’m sitting at a desk in Flagstaff, Arizona. I can hear the noises of construction outside—the way a building can groan under repair, the sounds that only improvement elicits from aging walls. I like Flagstaff. The mountains, the chill in the air, the proximity to the Grand Canyon—these are all part of the allure. But what I love most about this town is the train station.

Along historic Rt. 66, three blocks from this desk, there’s a lovely and picturesque stop, giving space for both entrances and exits. Flagstaff grew around the station, the tracks cut through downtown smoothly, leaving the impression that this was never a final destination, until, of course, for many one day it was.

My server at lunch yesterday told me how much he’d fallen in love with the land. At least that’s the excuse, he’ll say as he laughs from the belly, for staying here so long. He’d come here for college, as many do, at Northern Arizona University, and decided to stay for fifteen years after finishing his degree. “It was going to be temporary,” he said, “but I guess I like it here more than anywhere else.” He stopped talking, as the train rattled by the outdoor seating area. “AND THERE’S ALWAYS THE TRAINS.” I nodded, noting how his baritone cut through the squeal of brakes on rail.

I get it. My choice to stay in Pittsburgh is similar. Graduate school instead of undergrad, but what’s the difference? I found a place different enough to keep me. I like it there more than anywhere else. There are trains in the Steel City too.  I lived above the train tracks for two years, on the shady side of Shadyside, and every few hours I felt their presence. The whistles and rumbles eventually sang me to sleep. For months after I moved out, I hated the silence of my new room, streaming a different type of train track through my headphones, trying to recreate the soft rocking of the midnight Amtrak.

I like the noises buildings can make.

Ah, the hammering outside has escalated. Just as I dream of catching up on old sleep.

The last time I was in Flagstaff, I was a different person. Or exactly the same. I can’t tell. It would have been November 2004, just near Thanksgiving. I came with my aunt and uncle to sight-see, but ended up running into a boy I knew.  The next morning, as he drove me at dawn back to the hotel where my family still slumbered, I marveled at the snow on the ground. I’d never touched it before, silly as it may seem. And I had no idea the winters that loomed in my horizon. That morning, though, I was in love with Flagstaff, with snow, with trains, with the knowledge that the night before meant nothing (a thought that brought me a warm smile back then), and figuring out how to explain my absence to my still-slumbering accountability.  Turned out, I hadn’t been missed, just passed silently through the night, even as I’d felt a rumble in my bones.

I wrote about this trip to Flagstaff. Brought it to workshop. Met the narrowing iris of judgment. “How can the narrator,” a woman had said, staring right at me, “be so indifferent about the whole endeavor?” I had never heard the word “endeavor” used to describe a one-night stand with an old friend. I laughed and pointed out that these things happen. What mattered here, I thought, were the trains—the way I’d been woken by one before dawn, shivering in a bed too far from my own, staring out the window of this boy’s house, looking at the mountain and feeling the slow churn of anxiety and engine alike.

In this exact workshop, I wrote a piece about my brother’s death. It had started from a prompt about looking at a photograph. I kept this essay close, constantly editing and cutting, adding and changing. Eventually it grew into a series of linked essays. My thoughts on death, and boys, and mothers, and pain, and guns, and secrets we keep—country and citizen a like. It became a memoir-in-essays, a nonfiction novella, a reportage in lyric. In two and half weeks, this little piece will have laid down tracks of its own, heading into a tunnel I don’t recognize. But I’m excited for the ride.

None of the people I used to know in Flagstaff back in 2004 are still here.  They’ve all gone on their own journeys. I’m back here, but it’s temporary. Flagstaff, for me, has always been a stopping point. A place to visit, to see a thing, and learn another. I’m in town this time for a poetry tournament. Mostly, I’m hugging the friends I see, loving the work I hear, and missing my husband and dogs. I’ve become more stationary, you see. I’ve embraced the terminal—made a home, planted a garden, hammered my own walls.

Yet even as I write that, I can imagine my husband shaking his head. I travel more than ever these days, but I keep promising myself it’s only a different version of staying still. The way physics keeps me sitting immobile, even as the carriage is shaking its way somewhere over the next hill.

I’ve got a plan these days. I can imagine a destination. And that’s better than it has been for a long, long time.

I’m due at the train station on Sunday. That’s where my shuttle picks me up to take me down to Phoenix, where I’ll get on an airplane and eventually end up on the little train at the Pittsburgh airport. That may be my favorite one of all. It’s the one I most encounter—the excitement of leaving for somewhere different, and the relief at seeing something so familiar as I try to get home.

Maybe that’s why I like Flagstaff so much. It makes me realize how much I love home.

And there’s always the trains.

 

Can Grammar Solve Politics?

The answer is no. Duh.

But it can provide an interesting lens through which to view political rhetoric. On Tuesday night’s presidential debate, moderator Candy Crawley corrected Mitt Romney when he attempted to catch the Prez in a lie over having used “act of terror” in a speech regarding the attack in Libya. [ref]okay, for a piece about grammar, that’s a complicated sentence. Apologies to all.[/ref]

In reading my Google News feed earlier today, an article on Fox News caught my eye–a piece by Judith Miller entitled “Crowley’s intervention as moderator-in-chief swung the debate in Obama’s favor.” The argument at the heart of the essay/journalistic endeavor is that in the Rose Garden speech in question, the President’s use of “act of terror,” was in fact “acts of terror,” and far more generic in meaning. He was not, Fox News contends, clearly referring to Benghazi–he could simply be referencing 9/11 or other, more general, acts of terror. And in confirming that he indeed referred to Benghazi as an “act of terror” in that speech, Crawley’s intervention was interpretive and not necessarily factual. Here, before I totally ruin any credibility I have as a grammar person, [ref]too late[/ref] I’ll let Judith Miller explain.

Then he went on to praise the Libyans for helping save others under attack and lauded the victim, U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Three paragraphs later, he said he had been to a memorial to commemorate 9/11 and paid tribute to those who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan. And a paragraph later, he added: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.”

Was Obama’s use of the term “acts of terror” referring to 9/11 and the other militant Islamic attacks that have plagued America for so long? Or was he referring to the murders in Benghazi as “acts of terror?” Fair-minded readers may disagree. Even CNN’s own John King said that Obama’s statement struck him as a “generic” comment about terror, and not specifically a decision to label the Libya attack a terrorist act.

Now, as someone who cares about grammar, [ref]mostly because I misuse it terribly. again, we have a complicated relationship[/ref] I believe that the use of the word “act” in the sentence containing “that justice is done for this terrible act” clearly refers to Benghazi as the “terrible act” in question, which then designates this “act” as a specific example of the more generic “acts” in the previous statement. “No acts of terror” such as “this terrible act.” The second reference to the word confirms its inclusion, and thus, Benghazi is, by association, one of many “acts of terror.”

Bam.

There you go, Candy Crawley. Your “biased” intervention has the support of Grammar Logic. [ref]trademarked![/ref]
But we all know grammar is elitist.

No one wants to elect a grammar nerd to the Oval Office. It wouldn’t be right. And it wouldn’t solve a thing.

Or would it? [ref]This is just to say: the top image was shamelessly stolen from the New York Times website without permission. Forgive me. It was delicious. So sweet and so cold.[/ref]