My Geography of Bliss

I'm writing this sitting in a cafe on Walnut Street in Philadelphia, and with the exception of a few things on my mind, I can say that I'm perfectly content. If you've read The New York Times recently and read this article about Facebook's latest foray into "chain letter" culture through the advent of it's "25 Things" list and if you are my friend on Facebook, you know that my #10 is the follow: "If you don't know about my undying love for the City of Philadelphia, you clearly haven't been paying attention."

I've started reading Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss partly to see if there are geographically happy places in the world, partly to see if I can figure out what about this city makes me happy, and also partly to help broaden my students' conception of what "sustainability" could be about (more on that later). While I'm not far enough into Weiner's book to really be able to offer any of his wisdom, the fact that I fell (once, literally) for a geographic place is surprising to me.  Particularly because it's a city: growing up, my only experience of "the city" was New York City on school trips.  I didn't, and still don't, particularly care for the mass of humanity that appears in every direction when you step onto the sidewalk in New York.  So to fall for a city surprised me and horrifies my mother.

That, also, may be part of the appeal...

Philadelphia has fed me, entertained me, and given me a parking ticket outside 30th Street Station.  Seeing the skyline from Kelly Drive on my way in (or, even sitting in traffic on 76), brings a smile to my face along with my plea of "Dear Philadelphia, please give me a job one day. Thanks. Love, Kim."  It's a place with character and characters nearly everywhere you look.  It's a place where I've found friends, interesting conversation, and, biggest of all, real, honest-to-goodness love.  Perhaps these reasons partly explain why it is my geography of bliss.

So where's yours, Corner readers? And, interestingly, why do you think you fell for it?

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Jamie in Texas, since you left such a nice comment, I'll give you a second post today! Thanks for the very nice compliment about my posts--I'm glad they are read and enjoyed!!

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Visual Culture

As much as I read is almost as much as I look at photographs.  In high school, I was able to take two photography classes and process my own photos, as my high school was lucky enough to have (albeit a very makeshift one) a darkroom to process black and white photography. To this day, I love black and white photos even if I have traded that makeshift darkroom for a low-middle class digital camera. I've been known to say that if I ever hit the Powerball, one of the things I'd like to be able to put somewhere is a small darkroom to process black and white photos.

I must confess, however, that my Powerball dreams are a bit futuristic: (1) I've got a few other things on my "If I win the Powerball" list that have since pre-empted the darkroom and (2) there's the very practical issue of not having nearly enough room at my current location--my exceptionally small, "compact," I like to say, corner of an apartment in a converted hardware store.

Nonetheless: For my class this semester, which is called "It's Not Easy Being Green: Sustainability and Urban Environments," my students are (most, begrudgingly) examining two cities as case studies. The first is New Orleans.

Since Katrina and since the government's completely inept response to it, New Orleans and its neighborhoods, particularly the enduring nature of the Lower 9th Ward, have captivated me intellectually and emotionally. Beginning Tuesday of next week and continuing for three class periods after that, my students will watch Spike Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke. This is the second time I've showed the documentary in its entirety to a class of mine, and I'm anxious to hear their responses.  The first time I showed the film, my students reactions were interesting: some were horrified, some were nonplussed, some were angry, some said the documentary was biased because it focused on African Americans and poor people, and one had the film and the rest of my course impact him so much that last semester he took a trip down to New Orleans to help rebuild and sent me a photo slideshow of his trip thanking me for opening his eyes to the world around him.

For now, I won't dwell on the quality or the problematics of their responses, but one thing that struck them and frankly, still, unnerves me about the documentary is the actual images.  Words--whether news stories in newspapers or words coming out of a broadcaster's mouth--can only do so much.  To see, visually, the destruction, to see people lose homes, yes, but lose parts of their histories they can never recover--photographs, family Bibles, photo albums, letters--is beyond heart breaking.  To see the effects of trauma on people, to see their heartbreak and then also to see their anger and their will to reclaim their lives and anything left of their homes and rebuild is inspiring.

I tried to order, which failed because of a publication glitch, the book In Katrina's Wake: Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster, with an introduction by Bill McKibben and Susan Zakin and photographs by Chris Jordan. The photographs, fortunately, Jordan has archived online and they are available for viewing here.  I don't think words can adequately describe not just an emotive reaction to what you see, but also the cognitive reaction to so much destruction and loss.  I would be interested, though, Corner readers, if you click the link and look at the photos, in hearing your reactions to them.  Who knows, you may make an appearance, of sorts, in my class the day we talk about them.  According to my syllabus, you have til the 24th of this month...

The biggest tragedy of New Orleans, I think, the loss that is expressed so magnificently in the portraits Jordan took was a sense of home, of place, of geographic stability. Culturally, I don't think the casual observer really "gets" New Orleans unless you were born and raised there, which presents an interesting challenge for the rest of us, I think, to get it: to get why people in the 9th Ward want to stay there, to rebuild, and to not sell their land and whatever is left of their house for redevelopment.

My hope in the coming weeks isn't to have students think and feel so much, to get so angry and offended as members of society (they often like to talk about Society), that they will pack a few belongings and spend part of their break in the Spring or the Summer down in New Orleans helping out.  The fact that I was able to do that once in a slightly different version of this course is more than I could have ever expected, and gives me an extraordinary sense of accomplishment as a teacher.  I feel my goal, albeit lofty, is to make a difference in a student's life so that they care and develop a passion for something which moves them, and, at least once that I know of, I succeeded.  And that student, as a consequence, made someone else's life a bit better than it was.  Rather, my hope is to get them to at least consider how much of an impact a visual image can have, whether it's in a documentary or in a piece of photojournalism.  Because if they think about it for even five minutes after they leave my classroom, then I can hope that they'll do something constructive with it.

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