Where I am is never where I want to be—because I was, and still am, the clichéd, landlocked teenager starving for the capital ‘C’ kind of Culture that seems to evade the Midwest.
I grew up in Council Bluffs, Iowa, a border town right across the Missouri River from Omaha, Nebraska. Omahans affectionately refer us as “Counciltucky.” Council Bluffs is known for its abundant black squirrel population, riverside casinos, and an MTV Teen Mom.
At 15 years old, San Francisco was my mecca, and its music was my way of “surviving” my locale. I was one those insufferable teenagers that glommed onto 1960s/70s psychedelic and folk rock to dull my suburban apathy. I looked like Cousin Itt, and Iron Butterfly’s "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" was in heavy rotation on my playlist.com all-time jams list.
I was wholly obsessed with Haight-Ashbury-era San Francisco, that petri dish of progressive ideas, good music, and art; the resulting counterculture amoebas transformed like liquid light show projections flitting across the walls of the Fillmore. I wanted to dance in that light; I wanted others to know that was my kind of tribe.
My first-ever custom ringtone on my first-ever flip phone was "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)” written by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas and sung by Scott McKenzie. When I was tasked with a persuasive speech on same-sex marriage rights in the United States, my English teacher docked me points for too much preamble about SF’s watershed role in furthering said rights in California. And in art class, when asked to create two reincarnations of a straight-laced self-portrait, you better believe I made it all about my mecca.
First, self-portraits are hard—but my straightforward self-portrait says everything about 15-year-old Emma. Dead-eyed apathy.
Over the last eight years, I’ve had the privilege of living in six cities in five different states for school and job opportunities. But I haven’t been able to shake my place-based apathy. In my head, I have this idea that somewhere along the way I will find my place and tribe, and everything will fall together in the way Jorma Kaukonen’s acoustic guitar instrumental “Embryonic Journey” is simultaneously a departure and an arrival on Jefferson Airplane’s sophomore album Surrealistic Pillow. I am waiting for my volta.
As a high school senior, California’s out-of-state tuition cost made me quickly realize that that option was out of the question. Instead, I went to the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, SD, population 10,500. My friends and I frequently drove an hour north to Sioux Falls, SD, or 45 minutes south to Sioux City, Iowa for Culture. I also got into the habit of skipping class and driving five hours to Minneapolis for concerts at First Avenue.
Friends I’d made from small-town South Dakota always tried to sell me on the “it’s what you make of it” pitch, but in my mind, I couldn’t make anything of Vermillion. I did, however, scheme up ways to escape Vermillion—like joining the National Student Exchange program to attend an SF university, then realizing the closest option was Hayward; or establishing California residency to attend San Francisco State University, but realizing it would take too long. Instead, I decided to graduate in three years, and I did.
By the time I finally made it to the West Coast, I wound up in the wrong city. Portland, Oregon, mid-Portlandia hype. I set off for Portland and a reporting job the day after my 21st birthday. A week later, under Portland’s St. John’s Bridge, I sobbed over the phone to my mom that I was over it, Portland, the job, the constant rain. The next morning I packed up all my belongings and headed back for the Midwest—but not before cooking two pepperoni Totino’s Party Pizzas for the long drive ahead. It’s easy to confuse hunger for a place with actual appetite.
Later, when attending graduate school in Stillwater, Oklahoma, friends and I commiserated about the lack of Culture often, as we drove an hour east to Tulsa or an hour south to Oklahoma City for concerts, art exhibits, and other recreation. I felt like I was back in Vermillion and I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I hadn’t found my place. But unearthing my cringeworthy self-portraits for this piece helped me realize something.
For the initial assignment, my high school art teacher took a photo of each of my classmates and me and asked us to create a traditional self-portrait. From there, she asked us to think up two reincarnations, or reimaginings, of the original self-portrait that spoke to who we were as individuals. Of course, 15-year-old Emma used the assignment to create two overwrought pieces detailing her SF/Haight-Ashbury obsession.
Enter: The first self-portrait reincarnation—a floral-wreathed and psychedelic-skinned Emma transplanted onto the corner of Haight & Ashbury. Subtlety has never been one of my strong suits.
Enter: The second self-portrait reincarnation—Emma transformed into a psychedelic butterfly. Fifteen-year-old Emma stole a page from seven-year-old Emma’s art portfolio. Old habits die hard, I guess.
Regardless of the changing setting and Technicolor touches, I am still the same angsty asshole with the chip-on-my-shoulder stare. I am the liquid light show—on a plane of my own choosing—but instead of poring over my surroundings and enjoying the view, I am thrashing and branching into a million arms reaching for elsewhere, the next plane.
And I still haven’t been to San Francisco.