Thursday, June 27, 2013

COUNTDOWN . . . . 4

Tourists, Migrants, and Nomads

[36 Days to Lift Off]

            One of the things I notice as I write this Countdown to The Trip is that my family and I have exerted a great deal of effort in deciding where we would go during our year of traveling. And that is as it should be.  We will expend a great deal more time and energy as we find a truck and trailer, and then select RV parks and buy museum passes and negotiate between spending money on a hockey game or a whale watching tour.  However, it took us almost no time at all to decide how we would travel.  As soon as I knew I could get away from work for a year, we knew we were going to spend that year on the road in America with our two young boys in a travel trailer.  At no time, did a series of thought bubbles float through the comic strip borders of our lives:  “Oh let’s take a cruise” or  “Hey, let’s rent the house and move to Montreal for a year,” or  “I hear Columbia is nice this time of year.  We could all learn Spanish.”  Nope, immediately Colleen and I looked at each other and knew.  A year on the road in a travel trailer—that’s the ticket.

"Migrants on the Road--Texas.  Dorothea Lange
           Why is that?  I will assume that much of the blog posting that follows—if I can maintain the discipline of regular writing for the year—will be my attempts to answer that question.  We can trace the desire back to blogs of homeschooling families that Colleen has followed.  Or to a speech I heard Douglas Brinkley give fifteen years ago about an American studies class he taught in a bus crossing America, and captured in his book The Majic Bus: An American Odyssey.  Or to our childhoods of summer vacations in the back seats of large American cars.  And memories of eating cheese sandwiches and hard boiled eggs on concrete picnic tables on the sides of newly constructed highways.
            But further down inside us, perhaps beyond memories, and contained somehow in our psychic DNA, I believe that basically Colleen and I are wonderers.  In hippie, psycho-babble, we are searchers.  Maybe this sounds hokey and narcissistic, so let’s just go ahead and admit that for the whole world to know.  There is a kind of rootlessness to us.  Certainly, for thirty-five years, I have been doing my job of taking care of the family and work.  But I have found ways to shake the apple cart.  I know that Colleen has found my steadfastness and risk aversion more than a bit frustrating at times.  Still she also knew that if she said, “Hey, I want to move into the country,” I would follow, and when she said ten years later, “Let’s move back into the city,” there I was packing the boxes. 

            A number of RVers claim the term “nomads,” and so will I.  I think it is a perfectly appropriate term for us wanders.  We might not be lifelong nomads, but for a set period of time, it does seem to be the best term, especially when one considers the alternatives:  tourists or migrants.  These seem to me the three choices we have on how to think about our year of travel.  The first is to think of ourselves as tourists.  I can put on my Bermuda shorts and black socks and dress shoes—or today’s version is sliders, shorts that hang below my knees and a xxl t-shirt with some vacation spot advertised on it.  I carry my little camera with me and take photos of the wife and kids and various spots around the nation, always looking at my watch to make sure that we can get back into the car and get to the next site to take a photograph there.  We can fill up the car with sodas and bags of chips and candies from the convenience/filling station and keep to the clock.  We can stick to the restaurants near the freeways—our McDonalds and KFCs and Pizza Huts.  There will be plenty of water parks, and Six Flags, putt putt courses and go cart tracks to keep everyone entertained. 

         The thing about the tourist is that the entire point is to not be home for a while and then to return back home.  It doesn’t matter where you go, just that you have gone somewhere and looked, however briefly, at something different.  But you also know you are going to return home, and deep down inside you can’t wait until it happens.  Even though you have left home, you really wish that you were still there.  That is why you stop at all the places that are more or less like the places you have at home but never have time to go to.  It is also why we have come up with the recent invention, “Staycation.”  It is just too tiring to get everything all organized to go away and do what you would do at home if you had stayed.  So you just stay.  Survival as tourists depends upon resources brought with them from home and upon a socio-economic system set up to accommodate them.  Tourists are collecting experiences to take home with them and to share on Flicker—see how much fun we had!  Whew, glad that is over!

            The second choice is to become a migrant.  Migrants tend to be peoples who travel to one or a few places and then return, eventually, to home.  Think of birds.  They fly north in the spring and summer, and then fly south for the fall and winter.    In the south, we have a large group of the retired who migrate south for the winter, live in a series of mobile home parks for weeks or months and then return home.  And in the north, there are an equal number of Southerners who hop into their motor homes in May and head north to escape the unbearable summers.  Two suggestions by my Facebook friends illustrate this kind of travel:  Padre Island (second home for snowbirds) and Estes Park (second home for summer Coloradans).  Unlike tourists, who have one home, migrants, for all intents, have two homes.  They might very well have two sets of friends and two sets of hobbies and interests.  Migrants begin to “make themselves” at home; that is, they cease being on the go.  They sit and relax; they take time off. They venture into the town where they are living and find a restaurant or shop that is owned and run by someone living in town.  At worst, they find “their” McDonalds or Wal-Mart.  At best they make friends with the owners of Donna’s Bakery and Bob’s Bait shop.  They are less interested in the all the opportunities for anonymous distraction and entertainment.  Survival in both locations depends upon developing social networks.  The migrant collects experiences for his overall interests.  He has already bifurcated his concept of self, but his understanding of himself in one that is larger than one or the other place.

            The third choice is to become a nomad.  Nomads are not on temporary vacations, nor have they established two homes between which they travel on a somewhat regular basis.  Instead, the nomad’s life is one of constant, continuous travel.  Over time, they may repeat locations and there may be some seasonal regularity—north in warmer months, south in cooler months—but the nomad never sets up home for long.  Tourists are more improvisational than migrants—a tourist is more likely to say, “Hey, we’ve never done that before” than a migrant who is setting up two homes and two behavior patterns that most likely mirror each other.  But nomads are much more improvisational that either migrants or tourists.  They know that one turn on one highway could become a week or a month’s adventure. 

            Nomads are also more resistant to the societal structures they encounter.  Nomads are more anarchistic; they move into a region and live off the region, to some extent, but they do not join in.  I think of the gypsies camped on the outside of town.  Migrants exert a certain amount of effort to join in, blend in, to their new territories, and are successful.   Tourists also attempt to join in, at least in the areas cordoned off for them by the resident society.  But nomads, no matter how long they stay in one place, wish to preserve their individual identity.  In one sense, they are thieves or vagrants; in another they are the last free people.   To invoke Freud, nomads are the id to a civilization’s super-ego. 

            Obviously, the life that Colleen and I are choosing for us and for our children for one year is that of nomads, with brief flirtations with aspects of the lives of tourists and migrants.  We will, most likely, stay in 25-35 different locations in the twelve months that we will be on the road.  Our average stay in one location will be about five days, I am guessing.   In general, we will stay outside of major urban centers, and if one can be said these days to live off the lay of the land, that is what we plan to do, albeit in the capitalist setting of small personally owned businesses.  Because we are friendly people and have no illegal activities to hide, I am certain that we will make many friends along the way.  But these will be friendships made quickly and if not ended, then paused quickly.  Still, five months (five, when I wrote this; one, when I post it) before we begin our adventure, I can imagine those nice folks we met in Somewhere, U.S.A, saying, “Gee, those are nice people.  They ought to settle down and stay in one place for awhile.”

Soundtrack:  The Grateful Dead:  Truckin'

Monday, June 24, 2013


Waltz outside of Texas

[Thirty-Nine Days to Lift Off]

We begin planning the trip with a few undeniable facts and unshakable goals.  And pretty soon a general plan immerges.  The first fact is that we take off in August.  In Texas and the Southwest, August and September are Seasons in Hell, the temperature constantly hovering like buzzards above 100 degrees, and in many places in the South, the humidity is a soaking 90 percent.  So we will begin heading north, and as with Orpheus or Lott the mantra will be don’t look back,  don’t turn around  Trust us, everybody’s here.  We have everything we need, and if not, we will buy it on the way.  Adios, Texas.

When we visit Aunt Barbara, we dance.
My niece and husband and my sister and husband.
The second fact is that we will have Christmas with my sister, Barbara, and her family in North Carolina.  The third fact is that thanks to the miracle of distance education, Colleen will complete a long term goal and receive her Bachelor’s degree, walking across the stage in Corvallis at Oregon State University.  Go Beavers.  The fourth fact is that we need to be back in Austin by August 1, 2014.  So it’s Austin in July, North Carolina in December, Oregon in June, and Austin in August.  These are the immoveables, the non-negotiables.

The first real goal is to get to Maine as soon as is practicable.  I have never been to Maine and have always wanted to see the coast there.  Acadia National Park quickly establishes itself as very important part of our trip, our first real landing station.  Since most of the camps sites close by the end of September, it creates the problem of how soon can we get there while not short changing the adventure along the way. Still we do not want to just rush there.  So St. Louis, Southern Illinois, Northern Ohio, Niagara Falls, and Lake Champlain become early destinations.  Following a couple of weeks in Maine, we have time to kill, meandering our way through New England and the Eastern Seaboard, with one eye cocked to weather channel watching for an early snowstorm or a late Hurricane.  So the fall plan emerges as the Maine coast, New England colors, Boston, Philadelphia, New York in late November for Jacob’s 16th birthday, Washington D.C. and Baltimore, then to North Carolina.  The trick will be finding landing locations so that we are not constantly picking up and moving the trailer only a few miles.  We want to be close to cities, but not in cities.  This will take more planning.

Winter stumps us.  After visiting Colleen’s family in Georgia, we become snow birds in Florida, which, I suppose, is its own brand of Americana. Maybe rather than be embarrassed, I should embrace the fact that I will be among my kind, the ultimate drop-outs:  retirees.  I am reaching the age where I can say, “Screw it.  It’s somebody else’s problem now.” This trip will be my practice run, my rehearsal at codger-dom.  The boys will get their beaches; they just won’t be as warm as they dream.  And, of course, there will always be Disney World, and for me, Key West and a cocktail with Papa. Maybe I’ll catch a week of spring training before we head west.  But for February, the general idea will be to get to Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado as quickly as possible. We’ll pick up a little Southern History along the way—Selma, Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Huey Long.  But our boys have never seen much snow and have never skied.  It’s time.

So the first six months will focus on the Midwest and the East Coast; the second six months will take us to the Southwest, West Coast, Rockies, and the Great Plains.  It seems that during the first half of the trip, we will have to work hard to carve time away from civilization, away from cities.  The second half, except for a week in LA and a week in San Francisco and maybe some drive-bys of other Western cities, will keep us tied closely to National Parks and the stunning extremes of desert and mile high mountains. That is, if the Republicans don’t strangle the government in the mean time and close down these terrible socialist, environmental propaganda programs paid for by the Interior Department.  Or maybe, in the spirit of corporate capitalism, by then, my family will be able to stay at “The Exxon Yellowstone Old Faithful Inn.”

[Note:  I wrote the "Countdown" pieces in March in the first wave of planning.  If you stick with us on this trip, you will see that we will visit Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, we now hope.  Somewhere between March and June, Polly Monear and Joe Hoppe among others impressed upon us the necessity of visiting these states.]

Soundtrack:  Waylon Jennings.  Waltz Across Texas.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

COUNTDOWN . . . . . PART 6

Haha, Ah, Wee, Umm, and Yum

[Forty-one days to lift off]

While we were in the early stages of planning this adventure, I decided to run a little experiment on Facebook and ask my “friends,” what places they would travel to in the U.S. if time and money were not factors. Although many thought I was looking for recommendations, intentionally, I didn’t ask the question that way.  I know where I want to go.  My main interest was to see what my friends thought of as essential, meaningful places to visit. There are so many of us in this nation and we have such a wide range of values that clash, compete, and complement each other all the time.  We travel for different reasons—for work, for pure entertainment, for cultural development, for children’s education, for children’s entertainment

My aunt, great grandparents, mother, and her brother
two cousins, and my two sisters
I received amazing results to my question.  I tend not to think that I am a boring Facebook buddy, but I never had such a large reaction to any post before this and received over 125 responses.  That’s almost a quarter of the total number my “friends.”  I even began receiving posts from people I didn’t know, but who were friends of friends.  We treasure so many different places.  All of us, or at least I hope all of us, have one or two places that provide a great rush of emotion.  Or there’s one place that we feel our emotional structure lacks and needs.  We have seen pictures or heard from friends about this place and we really really really want to go there.  For me, those places are Maine and—Theo will be happy—Mt. Rushmore.  I am slightly puzzled by these emotions.  What we desire is a feeling that we think a place will produce in us.   I don’t know what I will feel on the Maine Coast or at Mt Rushmore.  I assume these feelings will be very different feelings than what I experience in other places.    Maybe a wise-ass Buddhist monk would just tell me decide how I want to feel in Maine and then feel that way anyway and skip the trip. But, like I said, I am going to take this trip, because I want to . . . and because I can. 

Where do my friends want to go?  Basically the same places I want to go.  I just want to go to them all in one year: But I do notice a kind of schizophrenia, a multiple personality disorder presenting itself in their/our favorite places.  The first divide is between friends who wish to run off to cities and friends who long for the great national parks.  The cities:  Boston, New York, Washington, Miami, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle.  The natural sites and National Parks:  Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Arches, Crater Lake, Tetons, Glacier, Yosemite, Sequoia, Red Woods, Mount Rushmore, New England in the fall, and Maine.   Then there are those whose sense of America rests in our history as opposed to those who are looking for some unusual expression of contemporary culture and mores.  The historical: Cowpens, Independence Trail, Hudson River Valley, Gettysburg, Virginia Civil War Battlefields, Oregon Trail, and Cooperstown.  A few of those unique alternatives:  Martha’s Vineyard, Ashville, Key West, Oxford (Mississippi), Alpine and Marfa (Texas), Taos, Madrid and Chaco Canyon (New Mexico), Napa Valley, Carmel, and Big Sur.   And predictably, a group of friends wish to head off to the mountains, while another wish to relax in the sand and surf:  Carbondale, Beaver Creek, Bryce Canyon, Engineer Pass, Estes Park, or Hilton Head, Miami, Port Aransas, Padre Island (Texas), San Diego, and Hermosa Beach.    And, yes, a couple of recommendations came in for Disney Land and Disney World.

After looking at this list of favorite locations in the United States, this expression of the hopes and desires of my “friends,” I came to see another pattern that might outline the emotions that we humans are looking for.  In some ways their desires express categories of the philosophical holy grail:  The definition of “The Good Life.”

1.      Some of us are looking primarily for “haha haha” moments.  We want to be entertained.  So some of us decide to go to a music concerts.  These could be Branson, Missouri, or South by Southwest or Bonnaroo.  Or Disney World or a cruise or water park.  It is all about fun.  Someone entertaining us.

2.      Some of us are searching for the “ah” moments.  Ah moments come in many flavors but primarily they take us to some inward sense of peace, of a feeling of connection with the wisdom of the world.  Maybe it’s a concert of classical music or a museum or great art or a beautiful landscape, a beach at night, the stars in a western sky.  There is a sense of awe here, of something greater than ourselves. 

3.      The “Weeee” moment.  The Weeee moment is built upon some aspect of letting go.  It usually has some physical danger to it.   It could be the rides at Disney Land or snowboarding or running the rapids in the Colorado River.  Closely related to the haha moments, the weee moment, however, is active, not passive, and is not for scaredy cats.

4.      The “umm” moments.  Closely related to ah moment, the umm moment is more about learning something new.  When one walks around Carlsbad Caverns and Mammoth Cave, one might say to oneself "ah, that is beautiful, "or "um, I didn’t know that."  Historical museums provide this emotion.

5.      Finally, there are the yum moments.  Obviously these moments are provided by restaurants, small and large, famous and not, by wineries and breweries and by purveyors of adventures for our taste buds. 

A few friends desire to go to an area we won’t be able to get to, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.   Other than that, because Colleen and I began looking at this adventure as the adventure to end all American adventures, our friends’ recommendations overlap quite well with ours.  I think it also shows how a particular socio-economic demographic experiences America, and the idea of America. My friends are comprised of old high school friends who have done fairly well for themselves, college professors, and then poets and other folks struggling with money and meaning.  And most are older and no longer tow children along. I know very few exceptionally rich people and those people did not reply to my Facebook query.  I noticed the doctors, lawyers, and real estate developers did not post.  What are they going to say?  “We visit our place in Vale” or “We stay at the Marc in San Francisco.”  “The Plaza. Whenever we vacation, we stay at the Plaza.”   I do have a friend who regularly flies to the Bahamas with her third husband, and she posts about these excursions.  I appreciate her honesty and joy, and am happy for her.  Maybe the well-to-do have given up on the states, the hoi polloi, and all those troublesome 47 per centers. 

Soundtrack:  Johnny Cash, "I've Been Everywhere."

Thursday, June 20, 2013


[Actually, trying not to be misleading, if you are just joining us, this is Part 4 of a kind of introduction ("Countdown" 10, 9, 8, 7 . . . .)  and we are 43 days from lift off.]

Mapping and Doubting

Even in a year and excluding Alaska and Hawaii, we won’t be able to see it all, not by a long stretch.  It’s a big damn country, 3,119,884.69 square miles for the contiguous 48 states, if you are keeping track.   While that is less than 2% of the total surface area of the Earth, it places us as the sixth largest nation, right behind Australia. (If you add all fifty states and territories, we are the third largest, behind Russia and Canada.)    The highway system in the U.S. includes four million miles of roads. 

Rand McNally tells me that if we travel a rough perimeter about the nation, say, from Miami to Los Angeles to Seattle to Portland, Maine and back down to Miami, we would drive approximately 8616.9 miles. It would, the online calculator tells me, take us only 3 days, 23 hours, and 25 minutes of non-stop driving to accomplish such a task, but that sounds fast to me.  At 55 miles per hour, we come in at 156.72 hours.  I calculate 6 days 12 hours.  Of course, that is never stopping, driving 24 hours a day.  Good thing Jacob now has his learner’s permit.  

The Wall Map Currently Hanging in Home School Room

Let’s say we wanted to catch a little bit of the middle of the country and drive from Miami to Los Angeles then across to Portland, Maine, then down to Miami again, and over to Seattle, and finishing with a trip to Los Angeles, that trip would be a mere 15,011.3 miles.  An easy calculation tells us that if I wanted to drive the full distance in a year, I would have to hit 41 miles a day, or,  if we want to settle in a place and avoid driving every day, 289 miles a week,.  I guess this kind of information is useful if one is scheduling a trip like a metronome.  Click, click, click, moving on down the highway a few hours each week. 

On the other hand, there is still a lot of the country one won’t see, because the metronome is clicking and it’s time to move on.  Nor can we get too far off the main highways.  As I am sitting here, now, I have no idea how many miles we will end up driving.  But 300 miles a week seems a bit daunting.  You see, I want to dawdle.  I want to settle into a place., wake up in the same place three and four mornings in a row.  Besides, we will be in an RV, and be constantly hooking and un-hooking this rolling house to water and electricity.  And let’s admit it.  I am a bit scared about pulling one of these things up and down hills and through highway traffic with semi-trucks roaring past me.  And parking the thing.  Backing it up!  Heaven help me. 

Soundtrack:  Canned Heat:  Going Up to the Country.

Monday, June 17, 2013


Curb Your Enthusiasm

The table beside my desk in my home office.

In our family, as soon as we admit we are committed to something, the brainstorming floodgates open.  Talk, talk, talk, talk, talk.  Colleen, who is masterful researcher and internet explorer, is on the computer creating Pinterest sites, and finding amazing deals for RVs on Craigslist, albeit about six months before we will be ready to buy anything, calling us all over to look.   The boys join in with random and somewhat predictable suggestions.  “Can we finally go to Disney World? Everyone of our friends has been, some of them two or three times,” Jacob, the fifteen year old, reminds us.  Having been raised more or less like a hippie child, Jacob had imbibed very little television or junk food during the first twelve years of his life.  By then, Theo was five, we’d moved back into the city from a little place in the country and our home schooling crowd had shifted from want-to-be dropouts to high-tech want-to-be urban survivalists.  In town, we all got too busy and more or less gave up on the idea that a healthy diet was one  low in American popular culture.    In Jacob’s mind, we can never make up for the deprivations he has suffered.  In Colleen’s mind and mine, the past five years with its over-indulgence in cable television, fast food, and the rush rush rush of kid’s activities is the exact reason we want to take this trip. 

            “Disney World.  Got it,” I say and glance over to Colleen. “There’s Epcot,” attempting to stave off a diatribe.

            “And beaches.  I want some beaches,” Jacob punctuates.

            At that point, Theo starts jumping up and down in his best Tigger imitation.  “Beaches, beaches, yes, beaches.”

            Since we are all standing—or in Theo’s case, jumping—around in the kitchen, I suggest that we all sit at the table and begin to organize our random synapse explosions.  It is not that I am all that calm and organized, but I’ve learned to co-habit with MY fleeting desires and interests, accept that I won’t remember everything but will probably discover something better, and breathe deeply through whatever disorganization may ensure.  (This sounds like the writing process, doesn’t it?  I should be quoting Anne Lamott here or Natalie Goldberg, jotting this on a 3 x 5 card and pinning to the cork board:  “The writing process is a metaphor for travel.  Travel is a metaphor for Life.”)  It’s when everyone around me begins bursting with ideas, like balloons popping or firecracker’s exploding, that I feel the need to corral, or herd the animal spirits.

            “Hey, let’s all sit down and get some of this on paper.”  Thinking this will be easy, I grab a pencil and couple of old envelops.  Colleen foreseeing trouble, says, “Let me get some clean paper,” and so we begin the first of many discussions. 

             I admit that I want to complete more of the family research that I have been doing.  “I’d like to spend a little time in Southern Illinois in some libraries and in county offices learning more about my dad’s side of the family.  Then there are the Norths in Pennsylvania, and several families in North Carolina.  We’ve been to Tennessee, my mom’s side, a lot, but there is still more to do there.  And there’s Virginia.  I didn’t get much done the last time we were there.”

 “I want the boys to see the Grand Canyon and the national parks out west, Yosemite, Yellowstone” Colleen adds.  She looked toward Jacob.

Although Jacob is only fifteen, he’s six foot four.  Last year he started playing league basketball, and next to million dollar automobiles, it’s his passion. “I want to see Kevin Durant and the Thunder and Labron and the Heat.  Maybe the Lakers.  Definitely Madison Square Garden and the Knicks.”

Colleen nods, “I can support that.”

Seeing an in, I suggest some baseball games.  “You may have to go to those by yourself,” Colleen says, and the boys agree.   Why is it no one in my family likes baseball the way my father and I did?  I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than at a ballgame in Wrigley Field or Yankee Stadium.  “I’ve never been to Fenway,” I whine.

Colleen smiles sweetly, “Maybe you can finally see some games in spring training, while the boys and I head to the beach.”  That’s as good as it’s going to get, so I’ll take it. 

“What are the boys supposed to study next year?”  I ask.  I have to admit that home schooling for Jacob and Theo has basically been Colleen’s doing.  This year, besides spelling, handwriting, and math, Theo has been taking classes at a co-op in photography, improv acting, and Greek and Roman mythology for what seems like the hundredth time.  Jacob has been focusing on chemistry, geometry, composition, and British literature.  He has always been a great reader, and one of our great challenges has been keeping him stocked in pleasure reading.  He devoured basically every kid’s series there has been.  Swallows and Amazons, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Hardy Boys, you name it. Now he is into Ian Fleming. We’ve even forced Jeff Shaara on him.  It got so bad a few years ago that I dug my father’s old Horatio Alger books out of a trunk in the garage, and Jacob read a bunch of those, in addition to Chatman’s Baseball Joe series.  Why can’t I get him to support me on the baseball stadiums idea?

“I think it’s time for American literature,” Colleen says.

Jacob turns toward me with an “ol shit” expression.  He knows what this means.  I almost feel sorry for him.

“You mean it’s time for Dad’s American Literature class?” I say.  I like referring to myself in the third person, sometimes.  It makes me seem scarier than I really am. 

Jacob’s not looking up, I notice.  But that doesn’t slow me down.  I know that pose from almost forty years of teaching. All students know:  Don’t look up and catch the teacher’s eyes; he’ll call on you, then.   “Perfect.  I’ve been waiting for this moment.  Your mom’s had all the fun so far.  Now it’s time for Huckleberry Finn . . .”

            “Read it.” Jacob interrupts, hoping to tamp my growing enthusiasm.

“Not with me, you haven’t.  And The Great Gatsby . . .”

“Read it.”  He waits for my response, which I deny him, and offer only the stare.  “Well, I have,” he says.

Undeterred, I begin listing.  “There’s Whitman’s houses in Brooklyn and Camden.  Dickinson’s in Amherst.  Poe in Baltimore.  Washington Irving in Tarrytown. Stowe in Maine, Emerson and Thoreau in Concord.  We can head out west for Thor House and Steinbeck country.  Hannibal, Missouri.  I went there as a kid.”

“There’s Little House on the Prairie and Little Women,” Colleen adds as much to widen Lyman’s Canon as to remind us of books they’re read together.  

“God, and then I’ve never been to Patterson, New Jersey, or Hartford, Connecticut, or Key West or to City Lights Bookstore.  That’s William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Hemingway, and the Beat Poets.”  I’ve begun footnoting myself.  My family hates it when I offer footnotes to my lectures.   I am starting to get too excited.  “We could read Dreiser or Kerouac or Sinclair Lewis.  Willa Cather in New Mexico.  Powell along the Colorado.  Muir in California, Aldo Leopold in Michigan.”  I am beginning to get a little obscure, I know. “There’s too much.  How about Frederick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs.”

“Stop, Dad.”  Jacob says.  “Calm down.  We can’t do all that.”

“You are right.  Maybe we will do mostly short stories:  Shirley Jackson, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Faulkner, Winesburg, Ohio, the Nick Adams stories.  Maybe some Annie Proulx or Rick Bass.  Raymond Carver.  Bobbie Ann Mason.  Sherman Alexie.”

“What about you, Theo?”  Colleen interrupts.  She’s ready for Professor Grant to shut up. 

“Presidents.  Can we do stuff about Presidents?”

“Good idea,” Colleen says.  “He’s obsessed with the Presidents vs. Alien game on his Kindle,” Colleen informs me.   “Like what?” she asks Theo, and holds up her hand to me, so I won’t begin my Presidential sites tour lecture.

“Mount Rushmore.  Theodore Roosevelt, of course,” Theo says as if he were talking to idiots.  He does have a Theodore Roosevelt poster on the wall in his room.  I make a mental note to add the autobiography or The Rough Riders to our reading list.  Maybe Theo can join in on parts of Dad’s American Literature class.

“Anyone else?”

“I liked Monticello.”  We visited there three years ago.  It makes you feel like a good parent when a child remembers something educational. “What about Grant?”

I say, “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” half remembering a joke my father used to repeat.  Everyone looks at me like I’ve lost my mind.  “It’s a joke,” I say trying to recover a little respect.  “New York, we can do that.  And Mount Rushmore, I haven’t been since I was three or four.”

“Any place else?”

“Yes,” and Theo’s face opens like a flower.  He brightens.  His eyes are shining, and he’s confident he has a great idea.  “Alcatraz, the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Montauk, Empire State Building, Fort Sumter.”  He pauses for a second and begins again, “The Atlanta Aquarium, Battery Park, Mount St. Helen’s, Garden of the Gods in Colorado, Hollywood, Las Vegas, Mount Tam.”  He takes another breath.

Colleen and I look at each other like we do not know this child.  “What the. . . .  Where did you . . . ?”  I’m astonished.  I’m speechless.

But Jacob has a self-satisfied, smug expression, like he knows all the answers.    ‘I know.”

“Know what?  How your brother has suddenly become the family navigator?

“Percy Jackson.  These are all places in the Rick Riordan series The Last Olympians.” 

Now Colleen is looking smug.  She does this ever so often, when we have living, demonstrable proof that her home schooling is producing some very bright self-actualized children.  

“Cool. Sounds like I need to read some Percy Jackson.” I admit. I’m not sure we need to go much longer.   “Looks like we have the basis for our year.  Colleen, do you have anything else?”

“Well, three things.  First, family.  There’s your sister, Barbara and the nieces and nephews.  So North Carolina is required. Then my dad’s family in Georgia.  So those are givens.  Then museums.  I really want to go to museums.  When we were in D. C.,  we didn’t get to the Smithsonian, or the Holocaust Museum.  I hear St. Louis has a great one.”

“Yep, me, too.  And I think the boys need to see more art, and we always love history.  Right boys?”  They don’t bother to answer.

“But mostly, I want to be outside.  I want us to be active.  I want to camp in the national parks and hike and bicycle and swim.  You are always at a desk, and now I am at the computer doing my school and with the boys doing their homework.  I want to move and I want some fresh air.”

We look at the boys to see if there is any dissension.

Jacob looks half defiant and half pleading, “Can we at least take the x-box for when it’s cold or raining or dark?”

We agree.  Then Colleen and I gather up our notes.  I am old school, so I say, “Time to get a file folder to put these notes in.”  Colleen takes the papers and says, “I’ll type them into a Google docs file.”

Soundtrack:  "America," Simon and Garfunkel:

Sunday, June 16, 2013


Ancestry and Ownership
Posted Father's Day, 2013

[A small bit of explanation:  I wrote what will become the first ten blog postings (this is the second) back in March as a way of getting myself ready for the emotional commitment of becoming un-committed to house, home, 9-5, and regular routine.  I will post these first ten bits of prose one at a time in the next twenty or so days.  I hope you like them.  Then we will see what follows until we actually hit the road the first week of August.] 

 My Three Sons: Theodore, Jacob, and William
Father's Day 2013

America.  I almost snicker when I say I am going to see America. I am thinking of the numerous nutty sites that dot the great vast middle of the country:  the largest ball of yarn, the palace made of corn cobs, Big Tex at the State Fair.  Maybe it’s the second or third grave you see containing Billy the Kid, or the James Taylor Bridge.  I like JT, but really, we are naming bridges after folksingers?  Better than after the second wife of the County Commissioner, I guess.  Is it innocence or stupidity that blankets the nation?  Sticks of fried butter?  Corned beef, coleslaw and French fries all crammed inside a bun? A cockroach museum?  The world’s largest picnic basket?   It is all one great nation of empty mental calories, junk food for the brain.  I hear Simon and Garfunkel sing, “All gone to look for America,” and I
think we better pack several bags of irony to snack on as we head out.  “I’ve got some Snicker bars here in my bag. . . .”

But I can ignore the idiocies that populate cable television—gator wrestlers, beauty pageant families, hoarders, and fire arms enthusiasts.  So if the opportunity arises, I will muster the steely resolve to stare straight ahead as we pass the Giant Cigar Store Indian Statue in Oak Lawn, Illinois. The America I want to see, the America I want my sons to see, is the America that belonged to Woody Guthrie.
        This land is your land, this land is my land
        From California, to the New York Island
        From the redwood forest, to the gulf stream waters
        This land was made for you and me

This is the America that my grandparents and their grandparents found, stretched out before them.  This gigantic beautiful land with its “ribbon of highway,” “endless skyway,” “golden valley,” “sparkling sands of her diamond deserts,” “the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling.”  It has been over an hundred and fifty years since the last of my ancestors immigrated to the United States, and most—basically all were of English, Irish, Scot origin—arrived before 1750.  None made it past the Mississippi River until my father moved us to Central Texas in the mid-nineteen sixties.  Great Great Grandfather Grant shipped himself out of Ireland in the early eighteen hundreds, labored on the railroads in New York, made his way to Western Virginia where he met a nice American girl, then traveled with her, most likely on the National Road, until they settled in Southern Illinois, already with their first child, born on the journey in Indiana.  Or on my mother’s side, it was the Vaughans and Jamisons, part of that Scotch-Irish invasion that moved down the Shenandoah Valley crossing over the Appalachians after the Revolutionary War into what would become Tennessee.  Imagine the newness, the glistening sheen of the land and rivers, and their sparkling dreams.  As we drive across the country, we’ll play “America” by Neil Diamond, one of the greatest rock and roll jingoistic anthems:  “Got a dream to take them there / They’re coming to America.”

            But before you think I have traded in postmodern kitsch for traditional sentimental patriotism, replete with waving flags and Mitt Romney breaking in with “America, the Beautiful,” let me say that we will also play “This Land Is Your Land” all the way through.  Woody Guthrie, that great populist, doesn’t let us relax in the front seat like tourists with a roll of American Express twenties in our pocket.  After enticing us into a sweet reverie contemplating the beauties of the American landscape, he makes us choose which side we are on in the Capitalist Wars.

As I was walkin'  -  I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side  .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!
In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me.
I hope my sons will see this America also, not the displays of Stupid America, but the signs and remnants of Cruel America.  Last year, we traveled through the South, our home territory in this nation.  My wife and I have Southern roots.  I was born in Alabama; my mother and sisters were born in Tennessee; Colleen’s father’s family all live in Georgia.  That year, we caught the sites from the Clinton Presidential Library to Mammoth Cave to Gulf Shores, Alabama.  Along the way we stopped at Central High School in Little Rock and the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.  On a previous trip, we walked through Kelly Ingram Park across from the 16st Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.  This coming year we hope to walk the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma.  The struggle to remove the “No Trespassing” signs in the United States is never ending.  People are putting up new ones every day. 
                The question I hope my family will contemplate while we travel this great nation is who is Woody Guthrie singing this song to?  Who is the “you”?  This land is my land—that I know, as a middle-class, educated white man.  And I suspect my sons know the country belongs to them, also.  To whom is Woody singing?  To men?  To Whites?  To men and women?  To Whites and Blacks and Hispanics and Asians and Native Americans?  To rich and poor?   To all of us?  This land was made for you and me.  And my family and I are taking off to see it.
Soundtrack: Woody Guthrie:
Soundtrack: Neil Young:

Friday, June 14, 2013


"Worried Man Blues"

It’s March, and we are ready.   We’re committed.  We’ll do it.  We will do it because we want to.  And because we can.  After sixteen years of co-habitation, we desire a little adventure, maybe even a big adventure. We tell ourselves that we will be giving our sons an education better than they could receive in public schools.  We whisper under our breath, “If not now, when?”  Carpe deim and all that, you know.  When I have to, I admit I am afraid of dying a relatively early death, like three grandparents, in my sixties because I could not unhinge myself from my bad habits and “unhealthy coping mechanisms.”    

We are going to do the crazy thing, the thing about which one set of friends exclaims, “Oh, my God, I’ve always wanted to do that.  I’m so jealous,” and the thing another set of friends scowls at: “What are you nuts?  Why would you even think of doing that?”  And it strikes me that now almost sixty, fat, gray, securely middle-class, that this is exactly the thing I should be doing, the unexpected thing, the unreasonable thing, the inexplicable thing. 

It probably doesn’t matter what I really do, except to break the damn habit of doing what is expected, the routine of daily work, and thus the reactive routine I have developed to help me forget the routine: watching cable news and eating carbohydrates.  Compared to the world’s population, I have it easy.  I am educated and I am paid for being educated.  I have a house that is relatively inexpensive by American standards, but at 2800 square feet our house is a mansion compared to what Americans lived in two hundred or one hundred years ago.  I live a fine life with a wonderful wife and two sons, aged fifteen and ten, and a third grown son from the first marriage lives not too far away across town.

            We live in Austin, Texas, one of America’s coolest cities, home of film and music festivals, artists, musicians, writers, food trailers and microbreweries.  If you ignore the Californians, still at the heart of the city the spirit of Willie Nelson and that unique blend of Southwestern Redneck and New Age Hippie sings and dances, hoots and hollers.  Sooner or later, everyone is converted.  I am a teacher and administrator in one of the largest community college districts in the nation.  So I complain about budget freezes, nutty professors, misplaced priorities, the neglected humanities, and everybody’s sense of their own specialness and their tender socio-economic-political sensibilities.  Everyday someone is offended by something, so I take my leadership advice from the Rudyard Kipling:  “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs. . . .”

            Yep, I am sick of doing the right thing.  I’m ready to do the wrong thing.  Why not take the advice of the Gospels?  Forget holding on to my life.  Why not lose it, give it up, let it go?  Maybe then I will gain another life, a better life.  I know if I keep going the way that I am going, I’ll just eat more, exercise less, gain more weight, until the heart decides it has had enough or some tumor takes root on something vital.   Maybe fate will intervene no matter what I do.  Even more so then, I’m convinced.  Let’s pack it in.  Pack it up.  Discard, distribute, lighten.

            Thoreau had my number a hundred and fifty years ago.  “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.”  Or as I might say to my friends, “I am bored shitless.”  There are a lot of ways to live a desperate life.  I think Thoreau had in mind that kind of back breaking New England life of taking on the elements, digging in the dirt when its hard and cold and digging in it again when it is hard and dry, doing without, saving what you can, praying bad luck doesn’t get you.  Or running a store, dealing with creditors and praying the bank doesn’t call in its loan.  Being vulnerable and afraid that there are stronger forces than you at play.  It is the desperation of facing trouble in eye and going on because if you don’t, you die.  It’s that un-philosophical brand of stoicism, not thoughtful, just tough.  Certainly, we still have that kind of desperation everywhere in the United States today.  It’s the mother on minimum wage with two babies and no partner to help.  It’s the middle-aged man who always provided for his family, their hero, their stalwart, who is laid off or replaced by someone younger and cheaper, and discovers now even Wal-Mart is overstocked with over-qualified greeters.

            But there are other kinds of desperation.  There is the desperation of knowing one is stuck in a job one doesn’t love because you have what is so compassionately named “a pre-existing condition.”  You are not hopeless; you are just without options.  Things are great, if you don’t dream.  And there is the desperation of the comfortable.  No one pulls out a tissue to cry for these folks, and no one should.  It’s the house wife stuck at home with her children and her soaps.  Or the trophy bride and her meaningless parade of facials and pedicures and palates:  “Oh, you look marvelous.”  It’s the clerk at Brooks Brothers fitting yet another successful man with slacks with an adjustable waist.  It’s Cheever territory; it’s Updike.  Run, Rabbit, Run.

I suppose that is the category I fall into.  I think there are more of us around that one would think.  We are fairly well-educated men and women, who have had semi-successful lives.  By some standards, we have accomplished a great deal.  By other standards, we have remained perfectly average.  We are not Gloria Steinem; we are the director of a non-profit shelter for women.  We are not Michael Jordan; we manage a gym.  We are not a Pulitzer Prize poet; we publish in small regional journals.  We are not the President of the Yale; we are a dean in a community college.  We are respectable, proud Americans, caught in a world of warped values and over-crowded cities where nobody knows your name.  Appreciation is measured in plaques, photo-ops with local politicians, and the size of one’s charitable contributions.  And somehow we don’t measure up.

We all know that somehow we have not been challenged.  We were born pulled up already by our parents’ bootstraps.  We faced no firefight, never had to pull our wounded buddies out of harm’s way.   Our cups always runneth over.  We haven’t lived up to our potential, but only because for some reason life hasn’t required us to.  Or we just calculated the odds: “I am happy where I am, and how much harder will I have to work to win the next promotion?”  Maybe it wasn’t not worth it.  Or maybe we calculated the cost:  “Do I really want to be Lance Armstrong?”  Or Donald Trump?  Or Tiger Woods?  Or Hillary Clinton?  Or Sylvia Plath? 

If at some point in one’s life, one just says, “I’m fine,” what does one do after that? I think that is where I have arrived.   I know my job, and I can do it well. I like the people I work with.  My boss is smart and fair.  I enjoy taking my sons to basketball practice two nights a week and watching them play games on weekends. My oldest son is smart and funny and always has something to teach me.   My wife and I enjoy enough of the same things that we can have happy mutually satisfying dates.   My wife and I are interested in enough different subjects to remain interesting and surprising to each other.  Maybe I am happy.  Maybe I am just sick of the calendar and how every Monday is a Monday and every Friday is pizza and beer.

So we are going to do it.  We are going to reduce our possessions, as best as we can.  Sell the cars.  We will store the books and records, family mementos, china and kitchen stuff, kids’ toys, televisions, tables, chairs, couches, and beds. We will rent the house to someone responsible, we hope.  We will purchase a diesel crew cab truck and an RV 5th wheel trailer.  On August 1, 2013, we will drive north out of Austin and on July 31, 2014, we will pull back into Austin new and different people, or merely the same people another year older and deeper in debt.  We are cutting lose, and taking off to see America.
Soundtrack:  Woody Guthrie.  "Worried Man Blues."