Front porch musings from Walla Walla

9 Jul

Let’s start with the fun stuff: there’s a lot of great beer in Eastern Washington these days. Really, really good beer from local brewers. Laht Neppur is a favorite. They don’t distribute widely, but their growler fills are reasonable and the beer list is expansive. Their IPA is one of the most delicious beers I’ve ever tasted. The people who work there (owners and staff) are friendly and welcoming and the pizza’s good. Mill Creek Brewpub is a great spot for eating and drinking. Plenty of tasty beer and good fries. I recently discovered Blewett Brewing in Leavenworth and…oh man. Their Double Wide Imperial IPA is dangerous to drink in the heat. Goes down easy, but at 7.8% it deserves respect. There are plenty of other beers at other ABV points that are almost as tasty. Friendly staff & good food, too. I could (and probably will) write about distilleries and everyone has lots to say about wine, of course. (Sigh. Seriously…wine tasting is not my thing. But if it’s yours, this is your place!)

Most small towns in this region have great libraries and many still have excellent bookstores. We always support A Book For All Seasons in Leavenworth and I’m thrilled to see that Earthlight in Walla Walla is still going strong, as is my beloved Hot Poop. I also adore the public radio available in small towns, including Northwest Public Broadcasting and KWCW, the radio station that changed my life. (Seriously.)

Moving into the Deeper Thoughts…the politics over here are difficult to understand unless you dig a little. Despite all the awesome folks who organize marches for #FamiliesBelongTogether, the incredible journalists who track down every Hanford leak and dirty local politician, the advocates and activists and educators…the politics east of the Cascade Mountains are a toxic mix of isolationism, regional pride, and seething resentment.To say people are “conservative” doesn’t really do this region justice–though it’s not inaccurate.

I’m a straight, middle aged white woman with privilege and a winning smile. People are “nice” to me, though they definitely notice I’m not “from around here”. I get actual stares in grocery stores. My name is scrutinized and family tree questioned when it turns out that I am, actually, “from around here”–about 8 generations deep. But I left, so I’m even more suspect. I’m less welcome than when I’m visiting San Diego, or Ecuador, or England. Less welcome, even, than tourists from those places visiting this lovely little tourist town.

Sometimes when we’re traveling, I’ll tell someone we’re from Seattle and get a blank look. It’s not as well-recognized a city name as New York City, or Boston, or Los Angeles. Or sometimes I’ll say Seattle and people will nod, then ask where it is. I’ll say in the state of Washington, which elicits a knowing “Ahh. Where Donald Trump lives.” Then I’ll make a rectangle of the United States with my hands to show the upper left of the upper left for Seattle and the lower right-ish of the lower right (except Florida) for Washington. “The OTHER Washington”, I say. “El estado de Washington, no la ciudad. No la capital de la nacion. Una region in el norte y oestre. No votamos por Donald Trump.”

Of course, nothing is that simple. There’s a substantial chunk of our region that defiantly defines itself as the “real” Washington, as opposed to Seattle’s citified faux Northwest vibe. Spokane, Wenatchee, Yakima, the Tri-Cities (also subject to fierce inter-city regionalism) and Walla Walla all defiantly hold out their history and current identities as proof that they are somehow more legitimate than Seattle. They argue that (white) people have lived there longer/more continuously/without change/more successfully than people have lived in Seattle. These small and medium sized towns celebrate their quaint and quirky, their safeguards against change. Seattle, in turn, looks down on Eastern Washington for its hick ways & conservatism.

It’s not true to say “We didn’t vote for Donald Trump” in Washington. My friends didn’t, I didn’t, most of Seattle and King County didn’t vote for him. However, most parts of Eastern Washington overwhelmingly supported Trump.  A lazy search for “Eastern Washington Trump” shows almost exclusively Western Washington news sources analyzing the reasons why: Seattle Times, KUOW, Crosscut. I don’t see any local news sources explaining or analyzing 2016 Presidential election results.  When I (gingerly, carefully) talk to family and friends about politics, they swagger and/or patronize me as a “liberal patsy” and celebrate that their champion has arrived.

People in this part of the state styles themselves as independent, old fashioned family values holding folks.They feel like they’re “taking back” power/authority that “liberals” held. They’ve been hard done and they truly believe it’s time to Make America Great Again. They truly believe that there was a time when there was a level playing field for the “working man” and they absolutely oppose taxes, immigration, or anything with a whiff of socialism. They’re racist, openly and privately–though the racism in this part of the state is largely focused on “Mexicans”. (All Latinos are assumed to be Mexican, and all attempts to identify other nationalities/cultures are brushed away. Some of the more “enlightened” members of my family will occasionally try out “Hispanic” as a modern alternative to Mexican.)

Growing up in this region during the 70’s-90’s, I had no opportunity and saw no reasons  to celebrate how great things were. Our family was 5 pound blocks of cheese, paper food stamps, water turned off kind of poor. We lived in subsidized housing, we relied on the food bank for Thanksgiving, we walked everywhere because we couldn’t afford gas.  I was very aware of every subsidy and grateful for every benefit. Everyone I knew was poor until junior high, when I met a teacher’s kid. Visiting a middle class household gave me a glimpse of what it would be like to be comfortable and safe.

I fled Walla Walla for college in Fairbanks, Alaska because I could afford the application fee and I got a scholarship. A local travel agency gave me a $500 scholarship for my “joie de vivre” (I had to look up what that meant before writing my essay) and I used the money to buy my one way plane ticket. I’ve never looked back. There’s no way I could be as personally, professionally, socially, or financially successful as I am living away from Walla Walla. I say that with confidence, because the modest success I’ve achieved is either invisible or mocked by my extended families. My education (8 years for a BA, 3 years for a professional certificate) was considered a hobby, an excess. The fact that I left town has been treated as a betrayal, proof that I don’t belong here.

I didn’t leave Walla Walla for financial stability. I left because I saw no future, no potential to be who I am. I abandoned/escaped an abusive (and also loving) family  and a community determined to cling to traditions, without ever evaluating the values of those traditions.

I fled a region where history was taught as a series of completed events. Information was shared without context or reference. I learned that the Whitman Massacre was a misunderstanding compounded by bad luck. White settlers won the “Indian Wars” and that was that. No one ever mentioned the nearby reservations. Dams, hydro power, and irrigation were unmitigated good. Hanford and farming “sprays” (pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer) were necessary, and any adverse health outcomes were just part of life. Environmentalism was a challenge to everything necessary for survival. Immigration didn’t exist and the bracero program was never once mentioned. There was never an explanation for the fact that nearly 40% of our community consisted of established Mexican-American families beyond jokes about “wetbacks” and overt racism towards “illegal aliens”.

Politics was a game/joke in this part of the state when I was growing up. Poor people didn’t vote, for a variety of reasons. Young people weren’t expected to understand what’s going on and their efforts to gather information and form opinions were mocked and actively discouraged. Elections were better left to those who “knew better”.

These days, things are slightly different. Local students still learn very little about local history beyond “white settlers fought and won battles with the ‘Indians’.” Local residents continue to understand almost nothing about the context of the stolen land they farm on, the stolen water they use to irrigate GMO crops and generate the country’s cheapest power. They continue to lack information about the Works Progress Administration projects that literally built the infrastructure that makes it possible for them to live here.

Because this region is isolated from other parts of the state and country, there is a sense of frontier independence. This breeds a toxic combination of pride in the belief that they have pulled up their own bootstraps and resentment that anyone else might possibly benefit from their labor or money. The cultural and physical isolation of long-term residents in small town Eastern Washington, combined with the sewer of echo-chamber news sites and social media, results in a kind of cocky paranoia. Everyone’s out to the get them, but they’ll win in the end because they are the chosen people. Not in a religious sense, necessarily–though there are some religious extremists here. This paranoia comes from a lived reality of having the perception of plenty of land, plenty of water, plenty in general…but still never having enough. It’s the ugly reverse of the mentality of the Great Depression described in “We Didn’t Have Enough But We Sure Had Plenty.”

If asked, people will say they “take care of our own”, but when you parse the words it’s clear that “take care of” and “own” have different meanings than it sounds. “Take care of” means “keep track of”/gossip about/bail out of jail. “Our own” means “those we approve of”. Your kid comes out as gay/has an addiction/voted for Hilary? They’re not sleeping on your couch. State or Federal government suggesting anything that sounds like a tax increase…oh hell no. Some of this is driven by poverty, urbanization, divorce rates, etc. Much of it is driven by a perspective that “I’ve got mine and screw everyone else–including me if I lose mine.”

My brother and his wife have been hosting friends who were displaced from their home because of crushing debt. They have other friends who live in a 5th wheel trailer (no heat, no running water) after losing everything to medical expenses. They all see this as normal, part of life. “You gotta pay your bills,” my brother says. The idea that there’s any benefit to collectively supporting one another gets his back up beyond the point of civil conversation. He’s completely on board with supporting an individual friend, by choice–but no one can suggest that we all deserve a safety net. He also sees no problem with these people losing their homes due to medical debt…it’s just a part of life and you better hope you have a good friend to help you out.

I will never understand how my brother doesn’t connect the dots the same way I do. He credits a couple of family members for helping him out, gives no recognition at all to the systems that supported us as kids. It’s possible that he only remembers the guilt and shame of using food stamps to buy groceries, the crappy houses we lived in, the ugly eyeglass frames available for us because we were using medical coupons. He may only focus on the bad from those days.

My opportunity to live a comfortable, safe life was possible because I had access to Medicaid, food benefits, housing, low interest student loans, energy assistance, etc. I support those lifelines because they kept me alive and gave me the skills and opportunity to support myself. The vocational program that helped me get a job in high school changed my life forever. I met professional people who believed in me and modeled life skills and lifestyles that helped me understand how to behave so I could “pass” as a college student. I learned how to get along in a workplace, how to fake it like I made it as a grownup.

I’m still faking it, but by many standards I’ve made it. I wouldn’t be sitting on the porch enjoying a craft IPA if I hadn’t had the advantage of every single Federal, State, County, City, and nonprofit program available in Walla Walla. I advocate and vote to support these programs because I personally understand their value. If I could only help explain it to everyone else in my family…maybe if I moved back? HAHAHAHAHA. There truly isn’t enough craft beer or quality radio in the world.



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