Tuesday, January 16, 2007

One (and perhaps more) of Our Fifty Is Missing

Mars and I subscribe to "New Mexico" magazine. It's a little bit like our home state's "Connecticut" periodical but with turquoise and denim instead of pearls and polo shirts - and a regular feature called "One of Our Fifty is Missing." This column sardonically relates real-life stories wherein some non New Mexican behaves in a manner that indicates they have no idea of what or where "the Land of Enchantment" is, or even that it is a part of the United States of America.

Most of these situations involve a bureaucrat or service representative informing a New Mexican that their state is actually a foreign country and therefore special postage or a passport is required - or even worse that the thing they want to do just can't be done.

We've mailed things to New Mexico, and flown there, but have never experienced any of these confusions. I have however gotten that "dog watching television look" from people whom I've talked to about the weather that we experienced or things that we did while we were out there like hiking in the mountains. I even get this expression of incomprehension from people to whom I have said "this is NEW Mexico, the state next to Arizona - not the country of Mexico. Right?"

Clearly there is a lot more to this bewilderment than simple geographic ignorance or even a failure to carefully listen. Something imbedded in the collective unconsciousness of even the most learned and world-savvy among us that, whenever we hear the word "Mexico" (in whatever context), makes us automatically think "perpetually sunny, incredibly arid, and hotter than hell" - Montezuma's misinformation revenge.

Today for example at my health club I was telling someone how we had our Christmas stay out there extended several days due to the worst snowstorm in the history of Albuquerque. Now this is someone to whom I have talked for at least a couple of years about our annual (or more) visits to the state, who has seen Mars' and my blog entries about New Mexico, and who himself has expressed a desire to get out to the southwest part of the country to do some of his own photography.

"Just what you went there to get away from", he said - in a tone that implied to me that what we should have experienced was totally antithetic to what we got. I'm sure it was a total unconscious reaction on his part - something that rose up spontaneously from the primitive, reptilian part of the brain and just completely overrode all the rational and second-hand empirical knowledge that he had acquired about New Mexico. Intellectually he definitely knew better - which of course just goes to prove my point. It's a lot like what I believed before I actually went out there.

If you had asked me fifteen years ago what picture came to my mind when I heard the words "New Mexico" I would have said a Georgia O'Keeffe landscape of a bleached cow-skull bathed in intense sunlight on a background of pale dry sand and deep blue sky. I'm not sure this painting actually exists, but even today it is crystal clear in my mind - an artistic rendering that screams from its every pore "hot sun, parched land!" Just the place to go and get nice and warm during the dank, bitter New England winters.

We had seen a retrospective on Ms. O'Keeffe in New York City earlier that spring, and shortly thereafter, while discussing where to go for our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, Mars and I pretty much concurrently said "how about New Mexico?" Among other things we both wanted to see what prompted her stark almost abstract paintings and nonrepresentational colorings - images that drew both of us to that locale event though we were certain that they didn't really exist. So we decided to give it a go early that September.

"Where's the desert?" we asked incredulously as we drove north along I-25 from Albuquerque to Santa Fe through, what turned out to be, the desert - just not the sandy one (that's apparently in the Middle East).

It also is not the one with those big Saguaro Cacti, perhaps THE symbol of the desert southwest. Those gawky green guys are found at a lower altitude in the adjacent state of Arizona - Albuquerque has an altitude of about 5,300 feet while Santa Fe checks in at a lung-choking 7,000. In the climatological world "altitude equals latitude" meaning basically that the higher a place is the colder it is, and the more hostile to any flamboyant types of plant life. Combine that with an average precipitation of about fourteen inches and the fact that every part of New Mexico receives no less than 70% sunshine year-round and you've pretty much got the parched sunny part of my (perhaps imaginary) O'Keeffe landscape. But factor back in the cold-producing elevation that generates Santa Fe winter temperatures in the teens and thirties and makes a good portion of New Mexico's precipitation of the "frozen white stuff" variety, and you can see that not all of the cow skulls are sun drenched and dry.

In truth, most of the geology and atmospheric ambience that we experienced on that first trip - other than dry dirt instead of sand - pretty much matched my preconceptions. (Mars, who tends not to make such prejudgments, probably didn't make any such comparisons.) Except that the nights and mornings were much cooler than I expected. After several more visits at various times of the year I finally caught on to the wide variations in temperature, broadened my expectations and eventually learned to dress appropriately.

We also discovered during a sunrise in Taos at the Rio Grande River Gorge that the imaginary colors which adorned Ms. O'Keeffe's canvases (as well as those of other New Mexican artists) were actually quite realistic and surprisingly commonplace. And that her semi-abstract shapes were equally visible if you just focused carefully and closely on some very small aspect of an otherwise ordinary object - like a kitchen door - and the shapes and shades created by the intense sunlight playing on the geometry of everyday life.

But desert disinformation doesn't seem to be the only nonsense that is imbedded in the misperception portion of our psyches. Inaccuracy abounds at also the other end of the climate spectrum.

A few years ago a former co-worker took a spring cruise to Alaska. While there she got involved in a conversation with one of that state's native-born residents who asked her where she was from.

"Connecticut" Sue responded.

"Oh I could never live there," replied the Alaskan "way too much snow all the time."

Maybe that resident of the forty-ninth state simply confused our state university's name (UConn) with the homophonic territory in northwestern Canada (which WE New Englanders probably think has "too much snow all the time") and figured that we Nutmeggers live in a land that is overrun by dogsleds and snowmobiles rather than Volvos and BMWs.

Or more likely he just has that snow-covered image stuck in his mind - the polar opposite of the perpetually sunny, incredibly arid, and hotter than hell preconception that I had. And like me he needs to get beyond that one-dimensional view by stepping inside the borders of the artwork, walking around the landscape, and experiencing the real picture.

Until then I'm afraid that at least two of our fifty will remain missing.

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