Friday, July 26, 2013

Artist in America

[Seven days to Take Off.  This blog post has taken a couple of weeks to write.  I have chosen, for now, to leave it as a post in and about process.]

I know that in the next year there will be many moments when I fly my American flag proudly.    I do believe that the United States is an amazing and great nation.  But in the past couple of weeks, I have not been feeling the love.  Recently, I visited my high school friend and college roommate, Neal Adams, in his home in Houston, Texas, where he has lived for as long as I have worked at Austin Community College.  How our paths crisscrossed—how he left Austin just as I returned to Austin after graduate school—is a somewhat complicated story and perhaps not really pertinent to my tale here.  But something in this moment compels me.  I allude to those days in a poem “The Upper Room,” in my book As Long as We Need, if you are willing to fall for a sale’s pitch here.
A recent work by Neal Adams
My life as a poet is bound up with Neal in some very subtle ways.  He and I were creative types—he, an aspiring artist, and I, a hopeful writer—growing up in Temple, Texas, in the late sixties and early seventies.  We found each other because that is how loners survive, by recognizing other people who have similar flaws and imperfections, finding them, becoming friends.  Then, in college at the University of Texas, after I gave up on the idea of being a frat boy, we lived with each other from our sophomore through senior years.  Neal did his thing in art classes, and I did my thing in literature classes.  He would return to the apartment with something that vibrated with color and tell me about Pierre Bonnard.  Maybe I would read to him some Walt Whitman.  In our senior year, when he turned to the abstract expressionists, he jumped ahead of me because I was still wrestling with T.S. Eliot. 

Also during this time, Neal began to take Christianity very seriously, not in the simple ways that most people do when joining a church and Bible study class, but seriously.  Neal is the person who introduced me to Dietrich Bonhoffer and Paul Tournier.  This is not the type of Christianity that says, “God wants me to be rich” or “God will love me if I convert ten more people,” as if the church were some kind of pyramid scheme. Rather, it’s the kind that says, “Get rid of your attachment to worldly things and take up your brother’s burdens.”  Christianity, for Neal, is not about being morally superior; it is about being one with God, about union, about the mystical marriage of the broken and the whole.  Neal is not at all judgmental and never proselytizes, so when, in the late seventies Bob Dylan started singing about Jesus, I understood:  “It may be the Devil or it may be the Lord.  You gotta serve somebody.”  It really is that clear.  Neal knows why he is painting; just as St. Francis knew why he was begging.  I have been trying to write religious poetry for decades and failing.  Neal skipped religion and painted like an angel, maybe, sometimes, as troubled angel or a lost angel, but still as an angel.

As I said, when I was more or less finished with my first round of graduate school and looking for a place to go, I returned to Austin because Neal still lived there.  He was working in a bank, if I remember correctly, and living in an apartment behind a restaurant that aspired to serve good meals to the poor.  I wrote the poems I gathered in “The Church Poems” in my first book, Text and Commentary, during this period, when Neal and his church family, more or less transitioned me from floundering graduate student to productive adult.  Then everyone moved to Houston and I stayed behind.  For most of his time in Houston, Neal has had a successful career as a graphic artist, whose clients have included such companies as Igloo.  At the same time, Neal has been practicing his true gift and passion, painting.  He has won some awards, presented in well-regarded shows, and when his introversion and seriousness allowed, he mingled, talked, and hob-knobbed with other well-regarded artists in the city.

At the current moment, Neal is confronting stage-4 cancer, and painting like a man possessed.  And so I am suffering from grief and anger.  The grief is understandable.  Someday, maybe someday soon, I will lose a pal, a friend who knew me when I was full of dreams and possibilities, when I was a new car without any dents and scratches.  He is one of the few friends with whom I discovered how far away the road from childhood can stretch.  Our horizons expanded together and often in the same direction. 

The anger is something much more diffuse and generalized.  [Well, friends, you know how life is?  At this point, while typing the sentences above, I looked at my phone.  I saw that Andis Applewhite, Neal’s friend, had left a message a couple of hours ago.  Neal has died.  Now, a couple of days have passed, and I can return to this post.]

The anger is something more diffuse and generalized.  It's wrapped in a little paper bag of confusion.  It is related to the goals of my family’s little caravan across America, but it is manifesting very early.  One of our goals and ambitions is to acquaint ourselves with the great works of American culture—pieces of music, books, poems, movies, and works of art.  I am naturally inclined toward in the biographical/historical critical tradition. (I work in the modernist new critical tradition only because I was trained to, and I play with post-modernism only as an indulgence.)  So when I think of art, I think of artists.  Most often, I do not merely recognize that a painting exists; I insist that to understand it one needs to know who the artist is and when and where he or she was working.  

What I am getting at is that I am old fashioned and believe that the source of art is an artist.  So for a year my family will travel across the United States thinking and talking about artists—painters, sculptors, architects, musicians, singers, poets, novelists, actors.  But which artists will we be talking about?  The so-called "great artists," of course.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain, Billy Holiday, Grant Wood, Jackson Pollack, John Coltrane, Georgia O’Keefe, Jack Kerouac, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline.  They are the artists I know about, the ones people write about, the ones monuments and plaques are erected for.

But in my everyday life, I work with and am friends with artists and poets and musicians who are not called “great,” because they are not famous.  For some reason, they were not the ones who were chosen for the role in the blockbuster movie, their album did not break the Billboard charts, their book did not make the Times best seller list, their art was not purchased by MoMA, or after they died no influential critic “discovered” their work.  Still their work—the focus of their true energy in life—is strong and powerful and meaningful.  It’s just that fewer people know about it.

I do not know why my friend Neal’s work is not as famous and well-regarded as that of Cy Twombly and Robert Rauschenberg or Franz Kline.  But at this moment, it isn’t.  And this bothers me, because standing in my little world, I wanted that for Neal.  I wanted him to have lines and lines of people throwing money and praise at him.  Yet I am not sure any of that matters—maybe this disconnect between personal affection for an artist, individual appreciation of their work, and cultural recognition of their artistic contributions will be something that continues to intrude into my thoughts over the next year. 

I am troubled deeply by the feast or famine culture through which Americans regard their artists.  Somehow artists in America are either millionaires or paupers.  If not paupers, it’s because they have compromised and taken day jobs that often eventually suck them dry.  They are either Kevin Costner or an actor in a community theater, Maya Angelou or coffee house poet. And as a consumer, I am as guilty—if guilt is to be assigned—as the next guy.  I don’t attend very many local art openings or theater productions, but I will go to many major museums in the next year, and Hollywood and I often engage in economic interchange.   We Americans don’t love our artists.  We might love a few and for a while.  But over the great swathe of the country and during the wide expanse of time, I think most Americans are more troubled by our artists than accepting or supportive of them.

So, many winds are swirling around in the caverns of my skull.  Why has my friend died at 60, who am I now that he has died, why isn’t he even more well regarded as an artist, does it even matter to be well-regarded, was he pained by this circumstance?  But over the past few days, as these winds have been swirling, I have also been hearing another voice.  It comes from my own searching in Christianity about six or eight years ago.  Henri Nouwen wrote a book, Life of the Beloved, which develops the words God spoke to Jesus when he was baptized, “You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.”    If Neal heard this voice in his journeys, all that I have written here is meaningless.  Any appreciation Neal wished from his parents or teachers or mentors or friends or critics or collectors is secondary and unnecessary.  My pain at his leaving is my personal pain; my wishing he and his art had been more heralded is vanity.  Neal was an artist, through and through, and that is enough.  That is how God made him.   I wish we could love each other as God loves us.  I wish we Americans could say to all our artists, “You are my beloved sons and daughters with whom we are well pleased.”  That’s an America I can celebrate. 

Soundtrack:  Billy Preston, "That's the Way God Planned It."

Saturday, July 20, 2013

It's a Drag

We knew this moment was going to happen. You knew it, didn't you? I knew it. And I guess Colleen knew it. It's that moment—for me, now, a little over two weeks before Take Off—where I just sit down on the only bed left in the won’t-it-ever-be-empty house in a heap of exhaustion and anxiety and a little fear, and say to myself, "What the heck was I thinking?"

The funny thing—“funny,” as in odd and unexpected, and "funny," as in we'll laugh about this in a few years—is how this moment, for me, was provoked by a attempt to escape all the anxiety by watching a movie, a comedy, the RV classic The Long, Long Trailer, staring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

I mean, let's go through the list of moments of possible defeat that I handled with aplomb and natural grace. I've already written about the nearly innumerable trips west of town to secure air conditioning in the new-to-us Dodge Ram 2500. See post “Keep It Cool.” There was also the moment we showed up at Colleen's dad's land with our new-to-us Dodge Ram 2500 with its brand new fifth-wheel hitch to take the new-to-us (as in I’ve never seen it) K-Z Durango 34-foot bunkhouse trailer (aka, my home for the coming year) for its inaugural trip only to discover that Colleen had never noticed that the trailer adorned a lovely, but incompatible, goose-neck hitch. That worked out okay. After trips to Ace Hardware and Wal-Mart, 30 miles away, to purchase large ratchets and after a couple of hours of silent cursing at the bolts that just didn't want to give, they gave and we spent a wonderful night in a thunderstorm (no leaks) at Lake Tawakoni State Park.

I didn't even get too worked up when I tried to complete a three point one-eighty turn by backing into narrow dirt road, stopping, and returning the trailer to facing the exact opposite direction as before on the slightly less narrow dirt road on Mack Daddy's property for safe keeping until we had a place to store the trailer in Austin. At least I didn't back it into the small ditch on the left there. After what was probably a 23-point turn, I did get it backed and parked just fine.  I was able to avoid admitting defeat and having to drive truck and trailer through a grove of oaks and elms strewn with branches that Mack and Jacob chained-sawed to clear a passage for me. And now finally, I didn't crack when I learned it was costing almost $500 (and 3 delays) to replace a window in the trailer that somehow got broken, either on our maiden long voyage to Austin or while sitting in the supposedly safe lot where we have kept the trailer for the past two weeks.

Nor did I blow my cool when the air conditioner in our house quit working on July 2 and remained broken until the 5th. (Is there an American deity for air conditioning that I had offended somehow?)  I did not let the packing of the house get me down or the long afternoon toting boxes of books to my oldest son's house for him to enjoy for a year. I was glad to do it.  What is more, I stood right up and kept going when somehow I forgot the plastic and metal apparatus for applying packing tape to boxes (“Caution Sharp Blade”) was under foot and blithely lifted a box of books above my shoulders, stepped on said apparatus barefooted, and with the agility of a tight end getting pounded by a linebacker fell back maneuvering myself out from under the box before it landed on me. I even laughed when I discovered that I was so focused on the sole of the right foot that stepped on the plastic roller that it was not until hours later I noticed the toe of the left foot had swelled to the size and color of an ear of blue corn. (Jacob tells me the apparatus is called a “tape gun,” so I now proclaim that "guns don’t kill people, packing does.”) And I don't know what happened that made my left knee so tender I cannot crawl into bed but have to sit, spin, and recline. Oh, yes, now I remember. It was the time I hit my knee on the brick column outside our house while I avoided crashing into Jacob, who as carrying something oversized out of the house. I tell you, it’s a good thing I am not a hemophiliac.  I’m a danger to myself.

Colleen can add her own catalog of miseries.  After all, it was she who returned the sleeping sofa to upright position, thus inspiring the Durango’s living room window to shatter. She dealt with the non-committal air conditioner repairman and discovered through angered-googling that our cooling coils were on recall and our builder had not informed us of such.  She and Jacob have lifted and toted while I pushed a pencil at work, and she and her friend Aimee Estep reupholstered the living room of our mansion on wheels on warm dark nights behind the locked chain link fence where we have stored the RV in Austin for the past two weeks.  And I haven’t mentioned that Colleen has done all this while still taking classes on-line from Oregon State University.  The owners of late night coffee shops all across town are wondering who this beautiful vampire is who is typing away on her laptop there at 1:00 a.m. sucking up their free Wi-Fi.  I think Colleen will sleep for a week when we finally hit the road.

We are all beginning to calculate just how little space there is in the Durango, for home school supplies, for pots and pans, for electronics, for clothing.  The only saving grace, right now, is that we don’t have much time before we turn this sucker north and go.  It’s grace because the less time we have to think about these problems and calculate our losses, the less we will fear and, most likely, regret. 

So when we gathered the family around the electronic hearth last Thursday night for a nice little laugh at Lucy and Desi and their misadventures driving their long, long trailer cross country, it all just struck me as a little too close to home.  I was right there with Desi and his post-traumatic-stress reaction to braking a trailer; I got the trailer stuck in the mucky road right alone with him; I backed the tall trailer into the relatives’ short carport; I’ve watched us stuff the Durango full of “stuff,” as if it were a holiday turkey.  Then finally, right along with my friend, my pal, my alter ego, Desi Arnaz, I lost it while he urged his beautiful, heavy, heavy trailer up the steep, narrow, dangerous roads in Colorado.  And that night, after urging, cajoling, insulting, begging Theo to brush his teeth and go to sleep, I sat at the edge of my bed, dropped my chin into my hands, and thought, “What the heck have I committed to?”

And then, as with Desi, the next day, the storm passed, and I began again doing what needs to be done for happily ever after. 

 Soundtrack"  The Rolling Stones, "Mother's Little Helper."

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Keep It Cool

He wore dirty short-sleeved shirts dyed an indefinable drab. On his forearm, he had a large tattoo very little of which I could make out under the layers of dirt and motor oil. But bulging beneath the black sheen of grease were two large breasts attached to a skinny woman who looked something like Betty Boop, if Betty hung out at biker bars. The grease smeared up his arm formed something like a little black dress that she was dropping off her shoulders. I have to say, for a tattoo, she was pretty hot. Standing with us beside my habitually broken truck was his wife, who looked nothing like the tattoo.

They were very nice people, Jeremy and Amanda, somewhere in their mid-thirties, one of those couples where the man is a skinny dude--looking like some mixture of Eminem and Goober--and the woman is slightly thicker than he--due most likely to kids and simple carbohydrates. Jeremy wore a little wool hat that made me think of Jughead, though the hat was nothing like Jughead's. Amanda wore black leggings and short skirt with a little cleavage--but not enough to make me look away from the tattoo.

He was explaining one more time what the hell was wrong with the air conditioner of the truck we had recently purchased, the truck in which we were planning on spending our year driving around the country. Colleen had driven out here several times more than I, and I was certainly sick of the trip, so I know Colleen was even more exasperated than I. 

In March and April, we had begun to feel a little desperate about ever finding both a trailer and truck that met our three criteria: 

1.         Appropriate interior size for Colleen, me and our two sons, which includes Jacob,  who is six foot, four inches, and growing;   The trailer needed to include a separate room, however small, with two or more bunk beds.  The truck needed to be large enough to pull the trailer and have a crew cab comfortable enough for Jacob to scrunch for several hours as we tootle down the road.

2.         Affordability, meaning we are basically a one-income family, and that income is an educator’s salary.  We do not have a large savings account, and with my being sixty and two boys lined up for college, we are not blowing what little nest egg we have on a brand new rig that each cost three quarters of my annual salary.  I am adventurous, but not exceedingly careless. So we looked for vehicles several years old, but vehicles the owners had respected.

3.         Dependability, meaning neither vehicle could be so old or so worn that we would be spending on repairs what money we saved on the original purchase.

            So now it’s June.  Standing around our new-to-us Dodge Ram ¾ ton, Quad Cab, 6.7 Cummins Turbo Diesel, long bed, with 104,150 miles, in Cedar Park, Texas, one hour in traffic from our home, for the fifth time in two weeks, we were starting to feel either stupid, unlucky, or cursed.  We eventually learned enough to discover that we were unlucky.  But to arrive at that blessed realization, we had to share our truck for most of a month with Jeremy who replaced the compressor once and the condenser three times.  We finally escaped for a little over $300 because most of the repairs fell into the warranty we purchased from Philip, the ex-hippie transplant from Brooklyn, who sold us the truck.  I’ll skip that story, but mention only that Philip has a love for refurbished parts.  I think Philip gave us a fair price on the truck, but eventually both of us paid in time, effort, and money for every cent he saved substituting after-market parts.   

            Eventually, the summer solstice approached.  Jeremy loaded us up with Freon yet one more time.  The Freon decided to remain compressed or condensed or whatever state is required to keep us chilly in a Quad Cab in a Texas summer.  My checkbook returned to my back pocket, and Jeremy, Amanda, Colleen and I all agreed that we had the beginnings of beautiful friendship. In the meantime, Jeremy also had replaced a broken passenger side mirror, checked out the engine and the tow haul, and installed our electric braking system that coordinates braking duties between the truck and the trailer.  As Jeremy explained it with a gleeful smile, “This is your ‘O shit lever.’ I have it here near your right leg in easy reach.  If you look back and see your trailer jackknifing or pulling out beside you, yank this and it will stop it dead.”  I am not looking forward to that moment, but I think our youngest, Theodore, has some hopes.  Finally, Jeremy and I shook hands; he wiped his off, first.  Like I said, Jeremy is a thin, strong man, so Betty’s boobs remained tight and firm as his arm flexed.  Colleen and Amanda hugged.  We set a tentative date to meet after payday.  I needed a Edge Insight CTS - OBDII Reader that will help me keep track of the temperature of my transmission fluid, which everyone tells me is imperative in the mountains.  Who knew?   

Soundtrack:  Ann Miller.  Too Darn Hot

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Gravity

You know the phrase:  “It ain’t rocket science.”  Well, thank goodness, it’s not.  But, you know, it is sort of like rocket science.  First, you count down.  You anticipate; you cogitate; you wait for things to break and delay everything. When that happens, you put on your left brain thinking cap, solve some problems, and begin again where you left off.   Then, if in the final minutes you avoid mechanical mishaps and attitudinal accidents, you flip some kind of psychological switch.  You commit to playing this sucker out to the end, or at least until disaster strikes.  You know the possibilities:  Challenger, Apollo 13, or, if you are lucky, all those run of the mill Mercury missions.   The Countdown is the easy part.  A little nerve wracking, perhaps, but it’s the engagement, not the marriage.
photo from:
So let’s say, you march yourself through the countdown, next it’s fire.  Ignition.   All your neurons dancing toward a bright explosion.  Damn, it’s loud.  Structures shake and rumble.  The heat builds, focuses itself, aims itself and pushes off the dull stasis of your poor miserable, immoveable life.  Do you remember watching this moment on television.  The announcer finishing the countdown and for a brief moment, all we could see was this bomb exploding, golden fire and white heat, pouring like a flood of flames between rocket and platform.  This is what it takes to escape, to break free.  This is not jumping or skipping or leaping or hopping.  Breaking free requires a bomb, understood and aimed perfectly to propel you into something beyond.   What’s holding you back?   

It’s gravity that stops you, the pull of earth, the place you live, the place where your feet sink into the ground so deeply you can’t yank them out.  It’s the weight of your life in this one place, settled and settling in you somehow, packed inside in ways that you never imagined.  Each fact, each experience, each success and each death.  It gets so heavy.  Wow, heavy, dude!  Don’t let it get you down. 

Gravity is history.  Doesn’t matter what kind of history.  Are you happy?  Do you look around your beautifully decorated house with fresh flowers from your garden?  Oh, how could you give that up?  Why would you want to change?  Are you grieving?  Does every drive down Lamar Boulevard remind you of the times you went dancing with your estranged wife or that so desperately enticing girlfriend that got away?  Don’t let them get away.  Don’t say goodbye.   Are you ashamed?  Can you just not forgive yourself for the fact that somehow you haven’t achieved the success you assumed was yours for the taking?  Are you just going to stay put until, by god, you finish whatever it was you set out to do, even though now it seems so impossible?  Are you proud?  Do you strut through the office aware that you have become the thing we all wish to become—needed, essential?   You are the one we all turn to for the nod, the yes, the green light.    How could you step aside?  You’re important: people say so. You have stock in the company and its price is rising.  Buy, buy, buy!

I am all these things.  My history, in Central Texas and in Austin, is one big, fat greasy casserole of all the major food groups that we call emotions.  I am happy and I am grieving;  I am ashamed and I am proud.  I am all these things right here smack dap in the middle of 100+ degree July.  And if I let them, these emotions, these weighty nuggets of personal history, will bake themselves into some kind magnetized anchor (Yes, I know I have committed the poetical sin of mixed metaphor, but I don’t see any other way to express this.  It is all so dreamlike and nightmarish).    Magnetized because the good times make you want to stay, to attract, to attach, to remain.  Anchor because the bad times are so heavy and immobilizing. 

So it takes a bomb, a ball of fire, to rip your grip from your reality, your history, your identity, to overcome gravity.  Yes, you can count down.  But you have to flip the switch, strike the match, and ignite the fuel that you have been sitting on for decades.  Are you ready to rumble?

Soundtrack:  Billy Joel:  We Didn't Start the Fire

Sunday, July 7, 2013



[27 days to take off.  This is the last section of a Preface to our trip that I wrote in March, 2013, as I began to believe that Colleen, the boys, and I would really be able to take a year off from work and travel the US.  More blog posts will follow about getting ready to leave, and then, we pray, about the trip itself. ]

My mother and father were part of that great generation who, with the opening of the great highway system, embraced the family vacation as tradition, the road trip as part education and part entertainment, but fully a moment of a family being a family.  The same is true for Colleen and her parents.  So she and I hope for the same thing for our sons.  And though there have been years in which we were not able to take vacations on the road, those that we have taken—again mostly in the Southeast, but there was one through the New Mexico and another to Colorado—have been wonderful moments in our marriage and family life.  I want my sons to have, because of this year, a storehouse of memories, and if not a changed perspective on the world (once I was lost and now I am found), at least one informed by having been someplace other.  In some senses, the “other” doesn’t matter, just some place other than Austin, and some place other than Texas.  But because I believe this—and perhaps I believe it because I have traveled the US and very little elsewhere—I want them to have an appreciation for the story of the United States. 
And now I come to one more realization about this trip—probably not my last since we are still counting down the months until we take off.   My worries over tourists, migrants, and nomads are a little off base.  I still like the idea of being a nomad, but next year Colleen and I and the boys will also be pilgrims.  I am not thinking of our pointy-hatted tight-assed friends in Massachusetts, though they are called Pilgrims for a reason.  Rather, I am thinking of all individuals who are on a journey in search of meaning, or in hopes of paying due respect to that which they owe their allegiance, or their lives.  My family’s pilgrimage will be to many, many places, but the goal will be singular, to pay our respect to this country and allowing its story to wash over us, to clean us, to renew us.   Maybe we will morph somehow into Chaucer’s storytellers; certainly, we will be tempted to purchase random and bogus relics from our saints and sacred places. 

I am unsure if I believe in the fullness of the concept of American exceptionalism, but I do believe the U.S. has an exceptional story.  While there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, I embrace the myth of America as a country with open arms, enormous energy and creativity, powerful wills, and with a reluctant but steady acceptance of all peoples, no matter how different they may appear at first glance.    I hope my sons will learn enough on this trip, for this myth to become imbued into their fiber as citizens. In America, anything is possible.  As my parents used to say to me, maybe one day my sons could become president.   “This land is my land, this land is your land.”

Maybe we are too late, maybe not, to see this exceptionalism.  But in the mid-nineteenth century a literary movement began outside the cities of the East Coast that eventually spread throughout the nation, a movement called simply “local color.”  It basically meant that writers throughout the United States and its territories discovered that they did not have to write about England and Europe or about life in Boston or New York or Washington, D. C.  There were people and places right near them, their neighbors, who were the containers of wise and wonderful lessons.  Mark Twain is the most famous of these writers, but there are dozens of them from Maine to California from Florida to Michigan.  They were White and Black and Native American. As time passed and local color became known in the depression era as regionalism, these story tellers were joined by Hispanics and Mexican Americans and Asians from many home countries.  “Got a dream to take them there / They’re coming to America.” 

What this literature has taught me is both sides of the concepts contained in our motto:  E Pluribus Unum.  The United States is a large nation with many geographical regions and each geographical region has its history.  Sometimes a particular group of people moved to that region—i.e., the Puritan Separatists settled in Massachusetts and Anglicans settled in Virginia.  New England and Virginia are different because of who settled there, what customs and beliefs they brought with them.   Out of each region have come traditions, and customs, and literature and art.  Yet all of this is America.  Hockey or basketball or football or soccer.  Subs or tacos, beef barbecue or pork, or salmon.  Ranch houses or adobe or three-story flats or highrises.  It’s all America.  In five months, we’re hitting the road.  It’s going to be a long trip, so it’s time to get healthy and to see what’s next.   “All gone to look for America.”

Soundtrack:  Merle Travis, "I Am a Pilgrim."

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

COUNTDOWN . . . Part 2

Kitsch or Culture

[30 Days to Take Off]

          I am fairly aware that what I am writing now is a little pep talk for myself five months before the planned departure date.  Is this trip really going to happen?  I am unsure, and until this week, I have refused to talk about it with friends.  I am more than a little nervous that God or whatever passes for God—random luck, karma, or poor planning—will make it very clear to me that this particular dream is impossible.  I can sing however loudly I wish with Robert Goulet, but this dream could be dead on arrival.  Right now, my individual brand of faith boils down to a choice.  I chose to believe that doubt and fear are illusions, and that on August 1, my family and I will drive out of Austin in rather large pick-up pulling an RV destined for a great adventure.  This Countdown, this preface to the trip,  is, so far, the only proof I have.

Will the real America please stand up?
photo by LG, Cumberland Mountain Store, TN. 2012
            Excuse me for minute while I let my inner English teacher have the stage.  A preface is a peculiar rhetorical gesture.  Most prefaces are not really prefaces in the sense that they are not pre anything.  Most prefaces are written after, even long after, the words in the book have been written, and, of course, some “Prefaces” are written by someone other than the author of the book.   This means that whoever writes the preface is really writing a post-face and claiming, falsely, otherwise.  For them, everything that will happen in the book has already happened.  Therefore, writers really aren’t telling us what life was like before the events in the book took place.  At best, the writers are reporting what they remember about what they were thinking before the events in the book took place and changed them.  Heraclitus identified this problem:  he told us that we can’t step into the same river twice.  Or we can’t be the person we were before the events that changed us, indeed, did change us.    This is not the case here.  As I write this preface, very little, indeed, has happened as relates to what I am guessing the book that follows will be about.  

 I can say that I do worry about the future and about the trip.  Since “the trip” is still a long way in the future, I recognize it as a fantasy.  I am apprehensive that once my family and I set out to find America that there will be no “America” there.  Or rather, the America I find will not be one I care to discover.   I know such a statement sounds odd, but bear with me.  As I have said, I live in Austin, Texas.  I have lived here, except for a couple of brief periods, since 1971.   Over 40 years.  While I am a private, introverted person and have never been part of whatever in-crowd that has dominated the pop-culture scene, I have enjoyed what the city has to offer.  I have watched the city change from sleepy college town and home of the Cosmic Cowboy to a tougher puck rock and blues scene to the current foodie, indie-film hipster scene.

 Like the rest of America, during this time period, Austin suffered a series of Boom and Bust periods.  As a person on the limited state income of a community college teacher, I always preferred the recurrent Busts to the Booms.  Not that I wish ill on my fellow citizens, but I never felt lonely and poor and left behind in my pint-size pick-up truck when the Mercedes, BMWs, and Jaguars disappeared from Loop 1, our highway where the 95 % and the 5% briefly conjoin.    Although I do greatly enjoy the foodie, independent brewery scene, I have remained as loyal as I can to the hippie Cosmic Cowboy ethos or local DIY businesses rather than corporate chains.  And most of the growth in Austin in the past twenty years has been suburban and corporate.  Many of my favorite haunts have disappeared.   There are no shortages of McDonald’s, Taco Bells, Subways, Olive Gardens, Chili’s, Cheddars, P. F. Chang’s, Bed, Bath, and Beyonds, Barnes and Nobles, etc., etc, etc.  Austin even has its own homegrown corporate want-to-be’s coming to a town near you, such as Schlotzsky’s and Chuy’s.  I can remember, the grumpy old guy in me says, when the first Schlotzsky’s opened on South Congress Avenue. And don’t get me started on what happened to Chuy’s after George Bush’s daughters started getting drunk there.  And Whole Foods?—there, my friend, is a symbol for everything good and bad about my hometown.

I know my psychic wrestling match with authenticity is exasperating to those around me.    I  begin our adventure knowing that Disney World is unavoidable.  First, my wife and I know that we cannot travel a year in America with our two sons and not take them to Disney World or Disney Land.  What parent in America denies their child the Disney experience?  If one succeeded in such a denial, the retribution for that denial would be the first thing that their child would do in their young adulthood, much like the children of  teetotalers, who as soon as they get to college begin experimenting with alcohol and god know what else.   So we will go to Disney World, in January most likely.  If only for inoculation purposes.   A small brief dose so the antibodies develop for long term immunity.

More troubling to me is Disney’s long shadow across the nation.  I predict that it will be disturbing and unnerving, and perfectly enjoyable, to experience the purified fakery of Main Street, USA., Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Liberty Square.  After all, it was perfectly enjoyable to experience Ronald Reagan’s sweet reimaging of the fifties in the nineteen eighties.   After one finally escapes from the corporate fantasy of the Disney imagination, one knows one has experienced a fantasy.  Of course that wasn’t real, one will be able to admit—I hope.  But can one walk out of a home-cooking restaurant in Savannah, Georgia, one that Rachel Ray has visited and recommended, knowing that her visit and recommendation has not turned the restaurant into an imitation of itself. 

The problem lies in the nature of tourism and the attempts to please and manipulate tourists.  It’s the problem of media and the hungry belly of the Information Age.   A local example in Austin is the Mexican food restaurant names Guero’s.  It is owned by a hip couple with admirable tastes and a talent for marketing.  At one time, they had a cool, cutting edge restaurant and bar.  Then it became trendy. Bill Clinton visited and so did Lucinda Williams and all sorts of other hip and cool people. After a time, prices went up and the food remained what it had always been—a palatable version of the standard beans, rice and enchiladas—but the restaurant became a place that you took your out-of-town guests to as an example of what makes Austin cool and unique.  At that point, I would argue that it ceased to be such a place.  Instead, it had become a tourist joint, another roadside attraction.  It has become one more expression of Texas Kitsch.  It’s another form of a Jimmy Buffett Margaritaville restaurant.  I love Jimmy Buffett.  I have sung “Margaritaville” an embarrassing number of times.  But with almost two dozen restaurants in the world, do I think he is presenting anything authentic, anything unique, anything other than a corporatized vision of what I do and should enjoy.  And why is there a Margaritaville Restaurant at Niagara Falls?  This problem, the problem of manufactured authenticity, is Disney’s long shadow.

Then finally, here at the end of spring break, it hits me.  Hits me like pint beer glass hurled from across the nation from one of America’s microbreweries.   My oldest son is correct, I know how to do this.  I know how to separate “the people” from the “corporations.”  I know how to separate the people’s traditions and cultures from the people’s kitsch.  This mental activity is exactly what I have been engaged in for thirty or so years.  It’s what I have been teaching, and why I have been teaching.   Reading.  Reading books and every other kind of document.  Reading objects and their histories and how they were read by some and misread by others.  I know how and where to find meaning.  I’ll know meaning when I see it.

Soundtrack:  James Brown. Living in America

Monday, July 1, 2013


"The One in Which Dreux, William, and Lyman Drink in a Flying Saucer"

[Thirty-Four days to Lift Off]

           One compensation for the absolutely miserable summers in Austin is March and April.  It’s March, spring break from the college, and I am drinking beer with my friend Dreux Carpenter and my oldest son, William.  The day is bright and alive, trees beginning to bloom in electric pinks and whites or budding in what I think is the most sweetly innocent shade of yellow green.  I see it every year, of course, and I have yet to be unmoved.  It’s spring.  We are sitting in one of those dreamscapes created by urban planners, this one called “The Triangle,” because it was built upon a parcel of land once owned by the state but unloaded during one of our periodic busts. 
            The parcel is in the shape of, yes, a triangle, the south side is bordered by 45th Street and the east and west sides marked by Guadalupe Street and Lamar Boulevard.  Over what would be several blocks, Lamar Boulevard veers east and eventually merges with Guadalupe.  While I am not always a fan of new urbanism, I have to admit I like this place.  The apartments, lofts and town homes are fronted by three or four stories of a dignified red brick.  The internal streets are narrow and run slightly skewed, off the grid, so to speak.  The shops combine a nice mixture of ethnic and semi-gourmet fast foods with a small grocery, liquor store, yoga and palates studios. It’s like living in the heart of a really cool town without any poor people making you feel guilty.    I could imagine myself living there, even though I could never afford it.  So, I guess, it is a place to dream.

            And drink.  The triangle is the location of Austin’s franchise of The Flying Saucer, a small chain of bars expanding across the states featuring the inspired creations of America micro breweries.   Dreux and William and I meet there every couple of months for an evening philosophical discussion and silly guy humor.  While Colleen will disagree, I would assert that we recognize our limits, both in humor and in beverage.  Only once have we reached The Flying Saucer’s limit of six drinks in six hours.  That was a memorable night, what we can remember of it.  This week we met and I quickly imposed for the topic of conversation my current obsession—this Preface to this book, if it becomes a book.  But before I can get us going, the waitress shows up and takes our orders.  I start off local with Adelbert’s Rambler, Dreux’s always good with something dark from North Coast Brewery in Fort Bragg, California, and William orders a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, from Milton, Delaware.

            As the beers are served, I go through my discussion of tourists, and migrants, and nomads, and self-confidently identify Colleen and myself as nomads, which raises the eyebrows of my son who knows that I have lived in the same town more or less for forty-two years.

            “Really, deep down inside, I really am.”

            “Right, dad.  Keep telling yourself that.”

            “But what I am really worried about is authenticity and simulacra.”

            Dreux is quick to the draw, “Simulacra?  Nutrients low?

            “Yes, dad’s not feeling like himself.  No wait.  He does feel like himself, but he knows he’s not himself, so he doesn’t know how to feel about himself or about the person who is not himself but is pretending to be himself.”

            “What?” says Dreux.

            “Cheers,” William raises his class.  “I grew up with this.”

            “Simulacra.  It’s a concept explored by Baudrillard.  I’m not going to explain it right, but it’s basically the idea that reality has been replaced by fakes of reality.  Think of Main Street in Disney World.”

            “Things are frozen in time.”

            “Something like that,” William agrees with Dreux.


            “And Crayonically.”

            “Is that when you freeze something outside the lines?”

            So it’s started already, our usual punning and random associations.  I better get to my point quickly. I am not going to have much time the way they are going.   “So my problem is that I have become unsure about how much of America remains untouched by Disneyfication.  For instance, I used to go to Fredericksburg, Texas, thirty, forty years ago.  It was a little, sleepy, Texas town with remnants of German culture still evident in bakery or two and a few accents.  Now, it’s a tourist destination with brew pubs and candle shops and Best Western Motels.  It’s not Fredericksburg.  It’s an enactment of what tourists want a Texas German town to be.  People from the north move there to open shops to sell bric-a-brac to souvenir hunters.” 

            William, who graduated with a degree in anthropology, picks up my reference to bric-a-brac and defends these little bits of junk as carrying a great deal of cultural meaning.  He begins a discussion outlining the differences between the German word kitsch and the French phrase as shorted by the Victorians to bric-a-brac.  Which then leads to knick knack.

            “Anybody know what ‘Paddy whack’ is?” 

            “I don’t know but this old man will need another beer soon.”  Luckily the waitress, with her “Beer Goddess” t-shirt, wanders by.  “Another?”  This time Dreux orders Left Hand Milk Stout from Longmont, Colorado.  William asks for a Lagunitas IPA from Petaluma, California.  Still staying local, I order Jester King Commercial Suicide.

            Dreux is being patient and asks me to explain one more time.  “So let me get this straight.  You are going to drive all across America and you are afraid you are going to find an America that is not America?” 

            Do I say “yes” to that?  “How do you find the heart of America?”  I regret it as soon as I say it.

            “The Horror, the Horror.”  This time it’s William.

            “Get over it, dude.  You are going to find what you find.  You might not approve of it.  It might not be to your tastes.  But whether it’s been ‘Disneyfied’ or not  . . .”  Dreux indeed jabs home his sarcasm by lifting up both hands in air quotes.  “ . . . doesn’t really change the fact that it ‘is’ what it ‘is.’”  And he did it again with a great big smile.

            I look at William for help.

            “You are on your own, Dad.  I agree.  You’re smart enough to know what you’re looking at.  Anyway, you can’t go back in time.  You can’t go to 1930’s Fredericksburg or to Philadelphia in 1776 or to Gettysburg in 1863.  You’re going to have a great trip, but you are going to see present day America.  It might not be what you want, but it’s what you’ll get.”

           “You are referencing The Rolling Stones to me?”  I look at William.

“It’s a confusing world, Dad.”

Pretty soon the waitress returns and William orders a Wild Hare from Shiner, Texas.  Druex returns to California for North Coast’s Old Rasputin.  And I leave Texas for New York and an old standby, Ommegang’s Three Philosophers. 

            When the beers arrive, William raises his class, “Here’s to Late Capitalism.”

            “I’m ready to eat,” Dreux says.  “This is the place with the pork belly sandwich, right?”

Soundtrack:  ZZ Top.  "Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers."