Day 941, January 9, 2023

A Rural Light

I am supposed to be writing a piece about rural life and the crossroads we are facing as part of a Smithsonian and Mass Humanities grant I’ve been a part of, but every time I sit down, all that pops into my head is Ralph Macchio and Steve Vai. I don’t recall if I ever actually saw the film, but the epic guitar battle scene was my introduction to Steve Vai, who in a guitar magazine interview, when he was asked what his favorite piece of gear was, instead of talking about his Ibanez signature guitars, or his Carvin signature amps, or his neon painted guitar pedals, he said it was the fans installed at the foot of the stage so he could stand dramatically with his hair billowing out around his head as he soloed. That made me like him before I ever knew he played for Frank Zappa.

I’ve had a more troubled relationship with Ralph Macchio, who is perhaps better remembered for his Karate Kid incarnations. One one hand, Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita made martial arts cool again (after a long respite between Bruce Lee, the nearly satirical Chuck Norris, and problematic Kung-Fu tv show). But then, Ralph Macchio and Pat Morita also made Asian culture a comedy routine that fit perfectly with the 1980s Asian denigration in popular culture and film. “Wash on, wash off,” became a taunt as frequently flaunted as the eyes pulled into slits and ching-chong vocalizations. In the end, it was mostly white people who could now claim karate as their calling and the Asians cringed under the added albatross  of popular culture icons like Long Duck Dong, Short Round/Data, etc.

So it was hard for me to watch a Ralph Macchio movie and not feel twinges of betrayal, even as I wanted to balance on one leg while standing on a post. And, now it is hard for me to focus on the idea of crossroads without thinking of appropriation and the poisonous innocence of the time that could just scoop up martial arts and blues music and spin it into a paper bucket of buttered popcorn.

I went with my son to a movie in the movie theater yesterday for the first time in a very long time. We were sitting in the first row, and way near the back another couple sat. We were the only four people in the theater. It was a a movie about an android toy that runs amok and ends up “protecting” its child a little too well. Sort of like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Clara and the Sun on amphetamines. It ends predictably well, a heroic child, all the good people a little battered, but swaddled in ambulance blankets. Over dinner, my son and I hypothesized, in the real world, the loss of life would probably be treated like an industrial accident. There would be trials, lawsuits, the child’s guardian would probably be put in jail for negligence, careers would be ruined, the child sent to protective services. Maybe that can be saved for a sequel, and hopefully those kinds of AI industrial accidents are still a ways off in our existence.

So brainstorming about what makes rural live special, what gives it value, I thought about the specialness of light, the unique connection to landscape, and of course the kinds of people who choose to move here, or choose to continue living here. The combination of these things, along with wood stoves, goats that eat Christmas trees, and the sound of rivers, they all make rural life special. Those are the touchstones of my talk… but because you are reading this, you will also know that in the back of my head is Steve Vai laying down a vicious shred.


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