Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Why I Am Not Cool

           Confession time:  In case you haven’t figured it out, I am not a very cool guy.  At certain moments, I kind of wish I were.  Occasionally, growing up, I think sometime some people maybe thought I was, and that gave me a little confidence to pretend, to pose.    But I am not sure if I ever really wanted to be Cool,  I mean really Cool.   Like a beatnik, like a beat, like a turned-off-turned-on-I-don’t-believe-your-bull-shit hipster daddio kind of Cool.  Mostly I was just a shy, romantic wounded kid who wandered through life until a couple of professors at the University of Texas made me admire people who messed around with ideas, and then later at Texas A&M in graduate school one professor made me think there was something of substance in me.  The irony was that while many people in positions of authority thought I was rebellious, disrespectful, maybe dangerous, I honed a fairly conservative line.  My heroes weren’t Ginsberg, Kerouac, Keasey, Wolfe, Burroughs, Miller, Nietzsche, Marcuse.  In school I loved Plato, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, and Randall Jarrell.  For outside reading, I worked my way through essays:  E.B. White, Virginia Woolf, Montaigne, Eric Hoffer, Lewis Thomas, and Randall Jarrell.  My goal in going to college was not to arm myself for moral combat with the bourgeoisie.  Heck, I didn’t know it, but I was bourgeois and wanted to be more so—more classical music, more poetry, more philosophy, more tradition.  The problem, of course, was that during the past sixty years, beginning in the nineteen fifties, the purveyors of tradition have often tended toward anger, cruelty, oppression, and stupidity.

Jack Kerouac's Grave in Lowell, Mass.

            What I haven’t been able to shake is my hippie-dippie, lovie-dovie, peace and justice distrust of the man, discomfort with conformity.  My college education sought “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free,” not “you shall learn a skill and that skill will make you rich.”  So regardless of my urges toward mom, the flag, and apple pie, toward Jesus, crew cuts, khakis, and 9 to 5,  something, various somethings,  always tugged me out of conformity, away from the trappings of the comfortable, and pulled me toward something other.
            One expression of that “something other” is, of course, this road trip.  While there are a great number of folks living the trailer park nomad life style, the number is still a very small minority of Americans.  Most of the conformists are very happy with the 9-5, their schools and their churches, their two-week vacations, their regularly scheduled traffic jams.  Don’t get me wrong.  There is nothing really wrong with that.  I have always wished to be happy in that world.  Sometimes I am.  Most often, I am not:  hence, the road trip. 
            The greatest expression of this “something other” contained in the road trip is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a book I have avoided since I learned of it somewhere in college I guess, after Kerouac had died.  My life has been beatifically empty of Kerouac, but not of all the beats.  I have been reading Ginsberg, off and on, since high school.  Over the years, Ferlingetti, Diane DiPrima, Brother Antonius (William Everson), Michael McClure, Robin Blazer, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder all have lead me temporally away from the straight and narrow.  But they have not led me far away.  Without reading Kerouac, Burroughs, and Hunter S. Thompson, I have always felt they were substances I wanted to avoid.  Part of my reluctance is the reverence that so many people have for these three writers.  There was always something jittery, something compulsive about their fandom.  And part of it is that the levels of these three writers’ drug and drink have deeply troubled the residual Puritan in me.  But these three writers are also quintessentially American writers.
            Well, I can avoid On the Road and Kerouac no longer.  It would not be intellectually honest to say I “have all gone to look for America,” and not travelled with old Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty for some of the time.   As fates would have it, when I searched for the grave of Kerouac, just to visit, mind you, Google led me to “Lowell Celebrates Kerouac,” an annual three-day celebration in Lowell, Massachusetts for their native son.  This year the celebration occurred October 11-13; Waller Grant was already in New England, so we rearranged our travels for me to attend at least one day.  
            The closest RV park we could find was Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park in Sturbridge, almost sixty miles away.  A fascinating place, maybe in another blog I can describe it, but let’s say for now that maybe we did step back into the Fifties for a long Columbus Day Weekend, and I am not so sure I am comfortable there.  As is often the case, we probably needed one more day at Yogi Bear.  To get everything done, we really needed to get the schedule right.  On Thursday afternoon we got ourselves settled and the boys got their basketball and xbox time.  Friday, we did one of our spit-personality days:  Springfield’s Basketball Hall of Fame in the morning and Amherst’s Emily Dickinson House in the afternoon.  I got the truck on Saturday for Lowell and left the family at Jellystone.  Then on Sunday we hoped to travel west for The Norman Rockwell Museum, but the kids had begun to make friends and so we hung out until after lunch and then made a quickie to Hartford, Connecticut, to pay respects to Wallace Stevens.  

Poster from previous Kerouac Festival
            I could describe my day going to and being at Lowell as something out of Kerouac, I guess.  But it will come off as pitiful, I am sure.  There was a delay at a slow coffee shop that put me about fifteen minutes behind schedule, followed by a untrained attempt at making my iPod locate the Commemorative Park “at the corner of Bridge and French” where a tour Kerouac sites would begin at 9:30.  Seri couldn’t get her sweet head around such a concept. So I missed the tour, but just as well since the coffee had worked its business and I really needed a bathroom, not two hours in a bus rambling around town.  Lowell is, for a Texan, a cool, somewhat rundown industrial town, with narrow streets with great deal of traffic for a Saturday morning.  The city has oodles of street parking, which is a good thing because it’s all being used.  But finally, I found a spot and rushed into a Dunkin Doughnuts that has a bad attitude about sharing its restrooms with the general non-paying public.  A couple of correctly spelled signs made this very clear.  But when the man ahead of me, who had secured the key, emerged from the restroom, I slithered in quickly with a wink before he could prevent me.  Not that it looked like he cared . . . why would care . . . he had had his toilette time.
            Maybe this is where I should admit that the travels of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty in no way inspire me.  Maybe age is a factor; but I think my middle-class conservative nature is more the reason.  But I love the road.  Since I was a young I have had inspirational travel narratives rattling around in my head—Thoreau’s Week Upon the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, or John Graves’ Good-bye to a River, Robert Persig’s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, for instance.  My hero Roy Bedichek used to travel throughout Texas and study nature as a perk to his job travelling for the University of Texas.  Before I married the first time, I used to travel with a big-ass book of Texas County Road maps, just in case I wanted to wonder off on a dirt rode for a ways.  I am on this trip, damn it.  The road has its hooks in me.
            I am sorry, but I am not inspired by pulling into New Orleans and hanging out with a man who is shooting up, a woman who is speeding, and kids running feral I don’t want to drive 12 or 18 or 24 hours straight.  I don’t want to hitchhike in rain or scorching sun.  I don’t want to bop around Los Angeles half starved.  I don’t want a string of women or kids left behind in various cities.  I don’t want to live in a tent doing migrant work.  I don’t want to travel to Mexico and hang with whores.  Oh, hell, who am I kidding?   Of course, I wish I had done those things when I was young.  Heck, I did do some of those things.   No needles or speed in my story.  Not a great amount of weed.  But alcohol sometimes does have a recurring role.  I do have to admit, however, that reading this book at sixty, I have trouble experiencing the romance in the story.  Art, fiction, often has the effect of chiming in the reader, of hitting the perfect note that rings in desire and longing.  I do not feel that chiming, the siren call, in this book.  That part of me is muted now. 
            Since I had time to kill before the next event, I repaid DD for their kind hospitality.  I ordered an egg sandwich and cup of coffee, read On the Road, which I was only mid-way through, and watched a parade of humans outsmart the key police/counter staff.  Not that they cared . . . why would they care . . . they are not management . . . and they would be off duty before the restrooms were scheduled for cleaning.  After a while, I wondered the streets of Lowell and found the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac headquarters, Wells Emporium, a kind of boutique and bought one of their Kerouac t-shirts.  By now, it was time to gather at Kerouac’s grave for a few moments of whatever a group of people do at Beat Writer’s grave.  Turns out about forty people showed up, mostly gray hairs and some college students and a handful of Assistant Prof types, all sports coats. shaggy hair and ambition.  They said some kind words, talked about Kerouac’s death in Florida and why he is buried with the Sampas family, and read some strong passages from Kerouac’s works, especially from Visions of Gerard, which book was published fifty years ago this year. 

At the Kerouac Gravesite
            When things broke up, I headed over to the Lowell National Park to see a film, but the Republicans had done their duty and shut down the government, so everything was locked up.  No film today.    So I wandered around the narrow one-way street labyrinth that is downtown Lowell, kept talking with Seri, until I found my way to French and Bridge Streets.  After driving the pickup truck down a little alley behind the park and almost getting stuck on what appeared to be active railroad tracks—it took about a 22-point turn to get out—I got parked and wandered over to Lowell’s Commemorative Park for Kerouac.  What a great tribute the city has given to this wayward son!  
            Designed by Ben Woitena, and dedicated in 1988, the site is a set of 8 more or less triangular granite columns, arranged with benches to combine the sense of circles and of a cross, capturing Kerouac’s native Catholicism and adopted Buddhism.   On two sides of each column, excerpts of Kerouac’s works are engraved.  As I walked around reading bits from books I had only heard of, several people walked though the park or stopped and sat on one of the benches.  Most seemed oblivious to the columns and to the words, but they were folks that I think Kerouac might have been happy to provide solace for:  a couple of young boys with skate boards, a boy and girl in various shades of black clothing, a middle-aged woman, hunched over carrying bags.  They looked beat.  Life, I imagine, was not easy for them.  After all the statues and preserved houses that I have seen so far on this trip, I found this park to be the most moving tribute to a writer.  As far as I can tell, Kerouac loved and loathed his hometown.  In many of his books he returned to his youth and his family.  Kerouac was also a writer—and thus one locked away in a room with a typewriter—who ventured out into the city, onto the streets, into parks and docks and rail yards.  It seems perfectly appropriate to stand his words vertically in stone for the crowds, the people, even the unliterary, to wander around and wonder about.

Kerouac Commemorative Park
            I could have returned to Yogi Bear satisfied that I had made my pilgrimage to this icon who was himself an iconoclast.  But I had it in me for one more event, maybe two.  So I headed over to the Old Worthen Bar for an open mike.  As usual, I had forgotten to bring a copy of one of one of my books.  I don’t know, but I have grown weary of the open mike experience.  Frankly, for many years I kept hoping that I would read some poems and people would go wild with enthusiasm.  But that is not what happens at open mikes. I have come to believe that open mikes require two things of the reader/performer:  a total and full love of hearing one’s own words read aloud, preferable by oneself, and an impermeable self-esteem.   I used to possess both of these qualities, but no longer.  
            Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  Before going upstairs at the Old Worthen, I met Joe Boyd and Judy James, with whom I had a delightful conversation.  They have been attending the Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival for many years, and they very much made me feel at home.  I hope in some other post to write about people we are meeting on this adventure, so let me just say that Joe (he’s the poet, and Judy is along for the ride here) gave me a quick lesson in Lowell area history and a real appreciation for the unsung heroes, like them, who have tending to Kerouac’s legacy in his hometown.  You know, I ventured into Lowell for just one day, but the celebration lasted the full weekend, beginning Thursday night and ending Monday morning. 
            In Austin, the previous November, my office helped sponsor the second annual Beat Poetry and Arts Festival, which is spearheaded by poets Chris Carmona and Chuck Taylor.  This year’s festival is in the Valley in Texas.  So I know the amount of work it takes to put on such festivals (I was also once on the board for the Austin International Poetry Festival, a wonderful open admission poetry festival held annually in April.)  But I also know that attending such festivals is a crazy journey all in itself.  To be completely immersed in poetry and readings and discussions for days on end is a nutty adventure much like hitting the road. 
Upstairs, the poetry event was like many I have attended over the years.  The range in quality of poetry ran from insipid to inspired with stops for tender and humorous and outrageous.   When it was over, I was totally happy I had attended.  I think some of us just need periodically to hear the human voice express the emotional body of us humans.  But the thing is that I don’t need to over indulge any longer.  As with so many things, a good full serving is good enough for me.  I want more than a taste, but I don’t need to be a glutton.  When the open mike was over, I was ready to hit the road and return to Waller Grant.  Joe and Judy and I shook hands.  I thanked them for a grand time—I was sorry I was going to miss David Amram and the improvisational music and poetry celebration at another pub—then I took off.
On the way back to Yogi Bear, of course, I pondered Kerouac, Cassidy, and On the Road.  For me, the brilliancy of the book is how well it captures how the traveler in America becomes intoxicated by the size and variety of the American landscape and of the variety of American culture.  So many times, Knightsmama has ordered the boys in the back seats to look up from their kindles and smart phones to look—a magnificent bridge or a collapsing bridge, a bright wide river or a dull, turgid river, a cityscape with cranes or a cityscape with rotting, collapsing buildings.  Look, look, look, take it in.  It is all beautiful and strange and lonely and inspiring.  It is all America!
For this man, at sixty, there might be hints of nostalgia or wistfulness while reading On the Road while being on the road with two boys and a wife and a very straight job to return to.  I would love to be free and unconscious enough again to stand in front of a jazz band and just give myself to the music.  “’Woo!’ said Dean.  He was rubbing his chest, his belly; the sweat splashed from his face. . . . Dean was directly in front of him with his face lowered to the bell of the horn, clapping his hands, pouring sweat on the man’s keys, and the man noticed and laughed and they rocked and rocked; and finally the tenorman decided to blow his top and crouched down and held a note in high C for a long time and everything crashed along and the cries increased and I thought the cops would come swarming from the nearest precinct.  Dean was in a trance” (page 198, Penguin edition).  It’s beautiful and terrible and Dionysian, and no way to raise a family. 
It was not yet 10:00 when I made it back to the campground and pulled in next to the monster.  Nobody was there.  They were all down at the Jellystone Lodge where there was music and girls for Dr. J., boys running wild for Captain Crunch, and WiFi for Knightsmama.  I stayed in the trailer—It had been a full day; I had seen enough—and let the sound of the wheels subside.  I finished with Kerouac, for now:  "And nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old" (page 307).

 Soundtrack.  Jack Kerouac, reading from On the Road.  Steve Allen on piano.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Past Time/Pastime

If these blog posts were a movie, in this sentence, we would be cross cutting to the present moment, which is October 24.  Just for a bit, we are leaving behind the trip I have been reporting on, more or less chronologically.  In that reportage, we are only up to September 9.  Right now Waller Grant is living in the middle of our twelfth week on the road, located in a KOA Campground south of Boston. In writing, I am only up to week six, upstate New York.  This gap of living and re-living is widening everyday.  It tints my experience of both.  There are always the needs of the Caravan and the plain fact that it is moving on, inevitably, and there is always the desire to capture the caravan in words, thoughtfully.  There is always the lure, the pull of the new, the unexperienced, the fresh.  And there is the opposite pull, the taut rope of reflection, asking, begging to be remembered, respected, and commemorated.  This day, Knightsmama has taken the boys to Cape Cod, and I have remained in the Caravan in Middleboro. It’s a chilly but sunny day.  Yesterday was overcast with occasional sprinkles and was spent in a National Tire and Batterstore, repairing ball joints and outfitting the truck with brand new tires.  Tomorrow, it’s Boston again.  In a couple of days, we’re off to Rhode Island for a spell, then to the Hudson River Valley.  The caravan is always moving on; and we are always seeing, experiencing something new.  Today, I am hibernating, hiding out.  Sure, I have a project:  one of the kitchenette booths is a little shaky and needs repair.  Mostly, I want to narrow the gap between the past and present.  Drive the caravan of the past closer to the caravan of the present.

The Baseball Hall of Fame, Cooperstown, New York
Last night, after six hours in the NTB and environs—during which Knightsmama worked on her distant learning courses and I paged my way through On the Road—I scrapped plans to hit a sports bar and just stayed in the monster.  Last night was the first game of the World Series:  Boston versus St. Louis.  Growing up, baseball was the family sport.  My father had played semi-pro ball in the thirties. All his life he regularly attended major league and minor league games whenever he could.   I played Little League as a kid in Birmingham, Alabama, and Temple, Texas. I wasn’t bad.  I even made an All-Star team.  I played on a team in Temple that won third place in the state tournament.  I was outfielder for the Temple DeMolay team that won first place at the state convocation.  And until my knees grew old, I enjoyed city league softball.  There was a time when I could quote statistics from Ty Cobb to Lou Brock.  My favorite teams?  Although I have had brief flirtations with the Yankees and Red Sox, the Cardinals have always been my team, as it was my dad’s team.  For all those reasons, in spite of the price, in August I bought a ticket to a Cardinal game when we were bivouacked there. 
So last night, Knightsmama retreated to the bedroom for more study, and the boys and I watched  game one of the 2013 World Series.  I enjoyed a couple of Mayflower Brewing beers, savored a baloney sandwich, and wept as my cardinals got whipped soundly.  The Cards played terribly, three errors, while Jon Lester was dominating.  My sons, of course, rooted for the home team, Boston.  Captain Crunch stayed up with me to the bitter end, while Dr. J. had the good sense to go to bed and not to rub his victory into dad’s wounds.  Tonight we will see if the Cards can put the past behind them and play with vigor and skill. 
That is the present:  a father and his sons watching a ball game on a Wednesday night.  Back home in Texas, in our usual day to day, baseball falls into the background. We don’t subscribe to cable television, and if we did, I usually don’t have the leisure or interest to watch an entire game.  The boys did not have the patience for the pace of  a kid’s pitch game.  Basketball is their sport; after all Dr. J. is 6 feet 5 inches coming up to his sixteenth birthday.  Captain Crunch follows whatever big brother does.  He will be shorter than Dr. J.,  but point guard might not be out of the question.  Still, on many occasions on this road trip, the boys have pulled out the gloves and tossed the ball around when there has been an open space and down time.  Dad sometimes joins them.  The arm is not what it used to be.  Dr. J. laughs when I  has to jump for a high one.  Dr. J. has speed, and I wonder if he could be a tall pitcher like Wainwright.  But Captain Crunch amazed me the other night playing catch with his Uncle Erich, who visited us from Brookline.  The Captain was nabbing some pretty fast throws from a good distance. 
And all this returns us to September 9.  After we left Seneca Falls (see the previous post), Knightsmama found us a lovely campground, along Lake Glimmerglass, just north of Cooperstown.  It was unusual for us, but we arrived close to dusk.  The rangers had left a cryptic note about which spots were open, but we deciphered the code, backed the monster in and got everything settled before dark set in solidly.  I’ll say it rained that night.  I swear it did, but I have one ounce of doubt—that’s the problem about writing about past events from memory.
The next morning, Kinghtsmama and I moseyed into Cooperstown and found a coffee shop for a short cup of WiFi.  Then I was dropped off at the doorstep to Baseball Mecca, The Baseball Hall of Fame.  We had decided that, like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Baseball Hall of Fame could not hold the interest of mom and the boys and that I should not be forced to hurry or worry about them.  For them, it was not worth the cost and for me it was not worth the worry for them to accompany me.  I was left to experience the cathedral by myself, except, of course, I was not by myself.  My father and mother walked with me the entire way, joined occasionally by my sisters and coaches and best buds with whom I had played ball.

The Musial Locker
My ardent love of the game waned somewhere in the middle eighties, when I was in my thirties.  A lot of things in my life changed then as I figured I had to let much of my past remain in the past if I were to become who I could be in the future.  So my baseball heroes end with George Brett.  Rod Carew, Steve Carleton, Paul Molitor, and that era. I think we ought to scratch out steroid players from the record books.  So when I stopped at the displays at the Hall of Fame, I stood with my father and his heroes, who at the time were mine:  Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby, Enos Slaughter, Lefty Gomez, Joe Medwick, Mel Ott, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, and his favorite and therefore mine, Stan Musial.  Then there were those who peopled my imagination, and I am not sure how my father felt about them:  Satchel Page, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal, Lou Brock,  Brooks Robinson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, and Joe Morgan.
So much has been written about baseball and its connections to the United States and the “American Way of Life.”   At its core, it is a very simple game, with simple skills:  run, hit, throw.  It is a team sport, but one that operates on a series of one-on-one contests.  First, the pitcher and hitter compete against each other.  Then if the ball is hit, the contest is between hitter and fielder.  If the fielder does not catch the ball on the fly, the contest is between fielder/thrower and runner.  You don’t have to be a giant in height or weight to play competitively as in basketball or football.  The average player is somewhat the average guy:  six foot tall at 190 pounds or thereabouts. 
And maybe I am totally deluded and living is some kind of fantasy, maybe I am a sentimentalist, maybe an elitist, but I like the game because I think it is one played by gentlemen.  Football is a game of violent domination, based on warfare.  Basketball is a game for virtuosos, with staggering skills of body and ball control.  The nature of these games requires attitudes and behaviors that are overtly aggressive, self-indulgent, and self-aggrandizing.  I know each of these sports include what we might call “class acts,” but baseball reflects the values that I was raised to honor. 

Satchel Page
This is sort of what I thought about as I wondered the exhibits at the Baseball Hall of Fame.  I looked at lots of photographs, baseballs, bats, uniforms, and mock lockers; I studied the changes in baseball stadium design and the return to tradition in such stadiums as the Ballpark in Arlington; I read about the African American baseball leagues and celebrated Satchel Page, Jackie Robinson, and Bucky O’Neil; I watched Abbott and Costello’s classic “Who’s on First” routine. Then feeling full, and shall we say, a bit overloaded with my secular education, I stepped into the gallery with the plaques of all the Hall of Famers.  It was as if I stepped out of a museum into a church. 
There I strolled and sat, and sat and strolled.  I watched the other gray men, like me, except nobody else had long hair and a beard, all of us reliving some bit of the past, I suppose.  I felt like a kid in there, not a creaky adult.  I looked at the other men and thought they were my father’s age, except, of course, my father would be 102 if he were living.  At sixty, I might have been on the low side of the average, but not by much.  My father could have been the father to most of the men there.  With a little distance, I can now think they all felt like boys in there.  No one had seen Cobb or Ruth or Gehrig play.  Maybe somebody had seen DiMaggio or Jackie Robinson.  I don’t remember if I ever saw Ted Williams or Micky Mantle or Hank Aaron play in person.  I did see Musial, Mays, Clemente, Mazerowski, Gibson, Spahn, Brock, Hunter, Jackson, Killebrew, Morgan, Fingers, and Molitor.  Most of the others, I had watched on television.  I read the plaques and I saw them all playing again, and I pondered their lives playing a little boy’s game with such a regular display of skill. 
It’s silly, of course.  Baseball is just a game. Nothing in the world is saved by it.  Detroit has a wonderful team and the city is still asking to go bankrupt.  Curt Schilling can play, heroically, with an injured ankle and defeat the Yankees in the playoffs and then pitch again against the Cardinals in the World Series.  Almost certainly he will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but these days he is declaring bankruptcy due to the collapse of the gaming company he founded. 
But baseball is also a live drama in which individuals do amazing things quickly and efficiently:  like the last night, the lone home run by Matt Holliday in 9th inning.  It had no affect on the game, but it was huge blast over the green monster.  Or Beltran’s catch, body slamming into the right field fence at Fenway, arm stretched over the wall robbing Ortiz of a grand slam.  And then Ortiz a few innings later hitting another long ball, this one safely over the fence.  And don’t forget, Lester’s seven and two thirds innings, no runs, and 8 strike outs, a great performance.    

Ted Williams at Fenway Park
         Is this America’s pastime?  I don’t know.  I guess it was for the first fifty or seventy years of the twentieth century.  Maybe it still is.  For me, it is simply the game that my father taught me to play.  When I walk into a stadium and look at the field stretched out far and wide in the outfields and funneling beautifully to the batter, catcher, umpire, I sit with my parents, my sisters and nieces and nephews who still go to games.  And I sit with the ghosts of all the players I have admired.  That’s the thing about baseball, the past is always present.  The Cardinals have been a National League team since 1892.  The Boston Red Socks have been in the American League since 1901.  Tonight, in Game Two, Musial will be standing, a ghost somewhere on the field, as will Rogers Hornsby, and Bob Gibson, as will Ted Williams and Carl Yastremski, and Carlton Fisk. I’ll be watching.  Perhaps in Heaven, they have cable and my dad will be watching, too.  
        But most of all, I am hoping the Cardinals can put last night behind them, and, tonight, win.

Soundtrack:  John Fogerty:  "Centerfield."

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Different Tea-Party, with Cookies

           Something happened to us in Pinery Provincial Park along Lake Huron in Ontario.  Our internal urban clock shifted to rural time.  Yes, we were going to Niagara Falls.  We had to do that.  But we jettisoned the original plan of staying in Canada, heading to Toronto, then to Montreal, and perhaps grabbing a bit of Quebec City before crossing over to Burlington, Vermont.  Too much city.

in Seneca Falls, New York
            So we drove to London—and in spite of all my pleading to avoid driving the monster through a city, somehow Knightsmama’s directions landed me smack dab in the middle of London. Traffic lights, delivery trucks, left turn lanes, parallel parkers, pedestrians, things jutting out and things hanging over—the horrors.  We survived—my cussing helped, I am sure—and we made it to Niagara Falls, Ontario, where my own goofy inability to read traffic signs led me to the center of town, right in front of the Hard Rock CafĂ© cutting a left for the International Bridge, where the American toll booth guard asked the usual questions and set us free in the land of the free.  Four Mile Creek State Park, just north of town, provided us with a flat open field to settle in for a couple of days.  From the park, we were able to take our peak at Toronto—twenty miles across Lake Ontario.  It is a stunning sky line even from such a distance.
            One of the best mornings on the trip so far, was a Sunday morning jaunt over to Fort Niagara.  Somewhere in these posts, sometime, I will have to say something about the Fort and the fascinating history that we were reminded of, and a history that has needled us a few other times since; that is the years of shifting alliances among the French, English, and Native Americans.  While, supposedly La Salle wandered as far south as East Texas—after all France is one of the flags in Six Flags Over Texas, the original of the amusement franchise—the presence and influence of the French in the Americas is not something I live with daily. One of the oddest evenings we have had on the trip so far occurred in our search for dinner on the Canadian side after our visit to the Falls.  Just seeing Dr. J.’s and Captain Crunch’s eyes expand like pie plates at the crazy circus that is Clifton Hill was worth the cost of the tasty, but slightly overpriced brick oven baked pizzas at Antica Pizzaria and Ristorante.   Poor kids, they have never seen anything like it—so many thrills of such variety!  It’s like Pleasure Island in the movie Pinocchio
            After being stunned to silence by the Falls, and after taking photos of Nikolai Tesla’s statue, our mission was accomplished, and we began our somewhat unplanned jaunt across the state of New York on our way to what has been the real goal all along—Bar Harbor, Maine.  For a while Waller Grant was patient with state highway 104, heading east.  But not for long, really.  After seeing many small towns at a terribly moderate pace, we hightailed it—which really means we merely took another impatient ride south through another set of small towns eager to let us savor the experience of braking our way through them—to finally arrive at Interstate 90.  At Interstate 90, we learned what a green line on the map means:  toll road.  We traveled quickly and happily until we hit the first payment booth.   Shame on you, New York.   Knightsmama and I began a long discussion regarding the relative merits of fast and costly versus slow and cheap.  After a while, we opted for cheap and slow, and that is how we found ourselves approaching Seneca Falls.
            Seneca Falls had always been on my list of places I wanted to visit during the pilgrimage.  I had sort of hoped we would sneak it in in the middle of November as we began to pull the monster south to Pennsylvania and Maryland.  When I proposed a brief stop to see what was there, Knightsmama was only slightly hesitant, her hesitation being only time and money. Guess what?  The Women’s Rights National Historic Park is right in the middle of town.  The Nice British Lady guided us perfectly into the center of the town, and led us, unknowingly I assume, to a parking spot—really three parking places—except they were on the left side of the road.  In these cases, this is where the Dude’s knuckles turn white as his eyes nervously dart at heights of lights and bridges, the reach of poles and trees.   Knightsmama begins patiently, but slightly aggressively, offering suggestions like, “Take the next left.  I said left, not right,” as The Dude forgets the basic lessons of kindergarten body awareness.  But we were able to maneuver three lefts, each onto an even slightly narrower road.  We passed one sign saying something about Amelia Bloomer, but none of us had the attention to read it.  Then we finally made a right, back on to the road on which we came, and there, the three parking spaces still shone in the Seneca sunlight.  I grabbed them, and fed quarters to only one of the meters.
            It is not my goal to review places we visit; therefore, I will say simply that I view the Women’s Rights National Historic Park to be one of the best organized and informative stops along our road through the United States.  This trip across the United States is about pilgrimages—Seneca Falls is a perfect pilgrimage site.  Here in July, 1848, around 300 people, mostly women, piled into the   Wesleyan Chapel on relatively short notice to discuss “the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of women.” How this meeting occurred is one of those long and fascinating stories of how social need and individual talents and determination combine at the same moment to change history.  This story has now been told many times, but I have found Sally G. McMillen’s Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement, which I purchased at the park, to be a fascinating read. 

The First Wave by Lloyd Lillie,
            An aspect of the story that I particularly enjoyed was that one of the sparks to activism was the ill treatment of a few women at a conference on abolition in England in 1840, eight years earlier.  The conference was attended by American Abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips among others, including eight women.  Some American male Abolitionists considered it important that these women attend because of their outstanding work in the States for the cause.  Well, on the opening day of the conference all hell broke loose as male privilege and chauvinism, not abolition, took center stage.  Speeches were given and proposals made, and finally the women were allowed to attend the conference but had to occupy a balcony and were required to remain silent.  Sometimes in politics, it is the unfair and ridiculous compromise that provides the energy for next battle.  Like a dirty bandage, the compromise stops the bleeding for a moment, but the infection worsens the wound. Ann Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott remembered their experiences in London. When Stanton and her Seneca Falls friends organized the meeting in Seneca Falls, Lucretia Mott was leading speaker.  And when forty men showed up at the Wesleyan Hall in Seneca Falls, they were allowed to attend but politely were asked not to speak the first day.  This was not retribution.  It was an acknowledgment that when the good-willed powerful attempt to support the organizing powerless, the powerful tend to take control and silence those desiring to help themselves.
            Most of the two days at the conference was spent discussing and editing the Ann Cady Stanton’s draft document, eventually called “Declaration of Rights and Sentiments.”  If you have not read it, I suggest you do.  Modeled on the “Declaration of Independence,” it begins, “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the cause that impel them to such a course”   Then she launches in:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident:  that all men and women are created equal . . .” [my italics]. 
            I am not going to pretend that I can read this document as a man in 1840.  I have no idea how I would have reacted.  But as a man in 2013, I can’t find much really to argue with in the document.  What?  I believe “that woman is man’s equal,” don’t I?  I believe that laws should not conflict with women’s “true and substantial happiness.”  Women should be able to vote, shouldn’t they?  Attend college?  Practice a profession?  Resist all degradation no matter whether it is prescribed by husband, public institution, governmental office, or church?  Certainly!  What kinds of people were against these rights?
            What troubles me—and it doesn’t trouble me a great deal—is the belief that women are morally superior to men.  The flip side of this belief is that men are pigs.  It's a belief men have used to their advantage. You know, the private men’s club—where all sorts of business and political dealings go on behind closed doors—it’s just too rough and tumble for the delicate nature of women, and we should not—should we?—force  men to change their behaviors.  That’s not fair.  Men are men:  which means men are gross and crude and should be free to remain that way.  Shouldn’t a professor have the right to decorate his office with photos of nude women, even when half of his students, who will visit his office, we hope, are women?  Personally, I am pretty sick of the “men can’t control themselves” argument.  Men can control themselves.
            So I am wary of the “women are morally superior to men” argument.   In the Declaration, this gets expressed as “Resolved, That inasmuch as man, while claiming for himself intellectual superiority, does accord to woman moral superiority, it is preeminently his duty to encourage her to speak, and teach, as she has an opportunity, in all religious assemblies.”  Of course, I believe—and don’t we all—that women should speak openly and strongly in all assemblies.  But, to my way of thinking, it is not because they are morally superior.  Men and women are equal, right?  I don’t believe women are any more delicate or proper than a man is.  I have known men who are shits, and I have known women who are shits.  I have known men who are angels.  
            Sorry for the editorial, but it’s something has bothered me about the women’s rights movement, whether in its late nineteenth century form or its late twentieth century form are the various expressions of Puritanical superiority that get wrapped up in the “women should be treated equally with men” argument.   At one time it is temperance; at another it's sexual behavior; another time it is political correctness and censorship: at another it is management style.  In these cases, there is something going on beyond wanting to be equal and treated equally.    
            Never the less, let’s make no mistake:  the United States is vastly improved because a few women met for tea in Seneca Falls in 1848, decided it was high-time that women had equal rights with men, sponsored two days for discussion, wrote and published a “Declaration of Rights,” and then devoted the rest of their lives to changing the nation.  Finally, in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified.  These women are heroes, role models, for all people, and I was very proud to see my sons wandering the displays detailing the long and arduous struggle. 

            Oh, wait a minute! I thought I was finished with this blog post, and then driving today to the Minute Man National Historic Park—you know, to make a pilgrimage to where brave, liberty loving colonists began the fight that created this nation—Knightsmama read aloud some of the links her Facebook friends had posted.  Now I have an answer for my question “What kind of people were against these rights?”  Have you heard of Kevin Swanson and Dave Buehner?  Well, they recently engaged in a totally enlightened and civilized and freedom loving and God fearing conversation regarding that evil offering to the false idols:  the Girl Scout Cookie.  As Swanson said on the radio, “I don’t want to promote a wicked organization that according to its own website doesn’t promote godly womanhood."  Then he pleaded with the radio audience to please not buy any of these demon cookies.    Buehner added, according to Brian Tashman, who submitted this information to rightwingwatch.org, that Girl Scouts train girls to think it is acceptable to be “a woman who is going to compete with men in the marketplace.”  Instead, girls should learn to be “a helpmeet to a man so he can compete into the marketplace.”  Overall, the Girl Scouts promote a godless, communist, lesbian, pro-choice agenda.  Didn’t know that, did you?  God, help us!  Maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe men, American men, are ignorant, un-educable barbarians.
            But something does occur to me here.  The meetings between men in the 1770s in Boston that provided the intellectual, spiritual and martial direction of the American Revolution often occurred in taverns, a place where no self-respecting woman would step foot.  One important location was the Green Dragon Tavern, which was also the site of the Freemasons Lodge.  It would appear, therefore, that men behaving badly made this country free.  But the meeting that provided the intellectual and moral direction of the American Woman’s Right’s Movement was a lady’s tea-party in early July, 1848, in the home of Jane C. Hunt.  Attending this tea-party were Martha Coffin Wright, Lucretia Mott, Mary Ann McClintock, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Most likely they talked women-talk about children, husbands, and family, until the talk turned radical, and they conceived a convention to be  held later that month.  And you know what? Maybe Swanson and Buehner are right. Maybe it was cookies that turned the talk from sweet subservient wife gossip to independent self-direction.  Women and their godless cookies are slowly undoing everything that men and their god-blessed tankards have built.  Not.

Soundtrack Double Feature. Leslie Gore:  "You Don't Own Me."

Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox:  "Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves."

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

When Words Fail

You may have noticed.  I have certainly been aware of it.  In these posts, I talk around the topic a great deal. It takes me awhile to get to the point. Part of this may be a misconceived notion of how to entertain.  Part of it may just be that bit of postmodernism that I can’t help but have been tainted by—the belief that everything is context.  In order to get to the essence of something, one has to work through the layers of one’s expectations and perceptions, and in order to do that one has to sift out what your culture is telling/inspiring/allowing you to think.  Among academic types, I am a recalcitrant holdout, in that I still believe that there is Truth with a Capital T:  the objective factual essence of a thing.  However, I just don’t believe that I will ever know it, because I don’t have the brain power or soul wattage to scrape through all the layers of hopes and fears that I and others have covered the thing with.  In my opinion, this tedious fact is one of the reasons fundamentalism and revelation is so appealing.  Skip all the thinking effort and jump straight into Wisdom. Easy-peasy, with the added benefit that nobody can tell me I’m wrong.  It also explains, I think, certain schisms on the Supreme Court.
There is another reason for talking around a subject, however.  Words fail the subject.  It is one of points that Sam Keen makes in Apology for Wonder.  When we see something truly wonderous, we are speechless. Awe and ineffability.  It is a frustrating reality for a writer, for a poet.  It’s the reality contained in the clichĂ© “A picture paints a thousand words.” 

Niagara Falls.  American Side.

So far on this trip I have experienced three places where I think it is futile to attempt to describe what I saw, experienced, and thought:  Niagara Falls, The Hopewell Rocks in the Bay of Fundy, and the autumn colors of New England, especially of Vermont.  Oh, I could try.  I could use words like “magnificent,” “fabulous,” “inconceivable,”  “tremendous.”  For one wonder, I could harness “thunder,” “roar,” “pearly mists,” “cascading,” “dangerous”;  for another I could coax “patient,” “persistent,”  “steadily creeping,” “inexorable”; and for the third I could color sentences with “God’s palette,” “dramatic,” “startling,” “crimsons,” “autumn’s harmomies in minor chords.”  I could, but it all seems like an empty exercise, tossing verbiage, like pasta, and seeing what sticks. 
Or I could pretend to describe the wondrous by enlisting facts.   Niagara Falls is a collection of three falls:  the American Falls and the Bridal Veil Falls on the American side, and the Horseshoe on the Canadian side.  The falls are just shocking when viewed from above from sidewalks from the American Side on Goat Island.  The amount of water tumbling over is just staggering.  Where does all that water come from?  Where does it go?  We know the answers to these questions.  The water is draining from Lake Erie and it flows into Lake Ontario which fills the St. Lawrence River, and thus to the Atlantic Ocean.  When the water is flowing at its strongest, over 6 million cubic feet of water rush over the falls each minute. But for someone who watches lazy shallow rivers in Texas, this amount of water is un-understandable.  Viewed from below, in one of the Maid of the Mists Tour boats, the American Falls lose something of their character because their descent is shortened by the large pile of bolders. The Canadian Horseshoe Falls, on the other hands, tumbles straight down more than 150 feet.   All this is interesting, but these words still do not convey the awe one feels in the presence of the Niagara Falls. 
Similarly, the changes in sea level produced by the high and low tides all along the Bay of Fundy is simply and purely an extreme natural behavior one cannot witness any place else.  When we drove from Bar Harbor to New Brunswick, we crossed the Canadian border at Calais/St. Stephens.  It had been raining most of the day.  We sat in line at the bridge crossing the St. Croix River and commented among ourselves in the car about how high the river was. 
“Boy, it must really be raining north of us and flooding the river!  This is crazy!”  We said.
After entering the country, we found the welcome center and in talking with the very helpful lady there, we learned that it was high tide.  “High tide?  It looks like a flood.”
Further north, along the coast, outside of Moncton, the Canadian government has set aside a Provincial Park to protect “The Rocks.”  Waller Grant learned of The Rocks because Captain Crunch read about them in his kid’s National Geographic Magazine.  We saw the pictures of the fifty foot mushroom shaped rocks ascending from a beach, trees growing from rock, the beach clear of water, the water risen to a  mushroom rock’s cap.  He wanted to go; we had to go.  But the photographs don’t do it justice.  To me, it was like walking around a movie set designed by Peter Jackson for a movie about fairies.   Giant fairies.  We arrived at 9:30 in the morning for low tide.  Walked around for a couple of hours.  Capatain Crunch danced on the shore.  I sat and meditated on one set stones at the edge of the beach and watched the water as it steadily rose and covered the stones.  Every hour the tide rises more than six feet.  On most days, the tide shifts 45 or more feet between low and high tides, the largest variation in the world.  After lunch, we returned and saw that the entire beach was under water, and the mushroom stalks were almost submerged. 

Somewhere between Weston and Springfield, Vermont

After two weeks in Bar Harbor, and a few days in Portland, we made it to Vermont.  The fact is that New England is world famous for the colors that the leaves produce in autumn.  The peculiar mix of the number and the number of types of trees, the soil, and the weather produces for a few weeks in the fall something that is fully aesthetically pleasing. Maples, birches, oaks, standing among the imperturbable pines, all experience a peculiar shift in photosynthesis when days shorten and weather turns crisp.  We found a cozy and fairly inexpensive campground outside Springfield, Vermont, a little off the regular track for “leaf peepers,” as I learned people like us, up only for “the season,” are called.  But we saw plenty of leaves and landscapes that looked like Manet painted mountains instead of Lilly ponds,  with trips to Waterbury for Ben and Jerry’s, to Weston for the Vermont Country Store, to Plymouth Notch for Calvin Coolidge’s Birthplace, to Norwich and West Hartford for a hike on the Appalachian Trail,    After a week in the trees, we still hadn’t had enough and Knightsmama, indulging a little fantasy of living in Vermont full time, was asking people just how cold it actually gets in the winter.   
A final word, when words just won’t do:  One obvious fact is that each of these natural sites and events are tourist attractions.  Sometimes, I don’t think we realize what this fact means.  Niagara Falls, The Rocks at the Bay of Fundy, and the Autumn Leaves in New England are visited, are witnessed, by thousands of us human beings each year.  Millions, I suppose, each decade.  First, this tells me that we are a very mobile species.  But this is not your typical life and death behavior—following the buffalo, moving from one water source to another.  So second, we humans have a very deep need to be stunned to silence by nature.  If we hated it or were afraid of it, or were fully comfortable without seeing it, we wouldn’t go. 
We have a place in us, in our souls, I suppose, that needs to be filled with natural wonder.  We need to stand at the banks of a river, like the Niagara, and just look and listen to the power of water expressed as a roar, a mist, and a rainbow. We need to walk around in sticky mud beneath bizarre, giant rock formations and watch a six-hour drama of water rising over forty feet and a six-hour drama of water lowering forty feet.  We want to stand, ourselves, in the midst of the bizarre, outlandish landscape that this daily drama creates through the even slower drama of friction and erosion.  We have a hunger to travel hundreds of miles, perhaps, just to look at rolling mountains, at trees that daub the hills with shades of green, yellow, orange, and red. To stare, mouth open, at a creek, a stream, a river, exposed granite, piles of stones forming meandering walls, and those trees and their stupendous leaves signaling a time to turn inward, the last moment of beneficent nature for several months.  I must see this.  I must pull the car off the side of the road, turn it off, get out, and stand by a steel railing so I won’t fall, and stare in silence.  

Soundtrack.  Nat King Cole:  "Autumn Leaves."

Saturday, October 12, 2013

How Not to See Stuff

      As we fully entered into the second month of the Caravan and as we crossed over into Canada, we realized we were learning some things about ourselves.   The major thing: we can’t stay on vacation all the time.  Full-time RVers will tell you about this problem.  Soon or later, you have to just start living.  On a vacation, you stress about all the things you should be seeing and doing, because, oh, my god, you have to return home and get back to normal life and you must have things to remember, or talk about, or make yourself feel comfortable about, given all the money you are spending.  It wears you out.  It’s a lot like work:  “Come on kids, day light’s burning, There are so many things to see today.”

The Captain at Lake Huron

      Somehow and perhaps a bit cruelly, Knightsmama and I had realized this early in relation to things we scheduled for the boys.  We went to City Museum in St Louis, but, by God, we were not going to indulge them with every water park, amusement park, putt putt course, and hang gliding-bungie jumping-parachuting operation along the way.  What we didn’t understand, until we experienced it, was that we couldn’t keep up with all the museums and historical and literary sites.  It makes me wonder if vacation stress is the reason I started googling more craft breweries along the way. 
            So as we rumbled down the highway toward Niagara Falls, with plans for Toronto, then Montreal, something clicked in Knightsmama when she saw Pinery Provincial Park on the map.  I saw her determination—one sure sign, she stopped talking—and we changed course.  Actually, I sighed in my “I understand I am not in control, but can’t we at least pretend” manner, and said, “Are you sure you really want to do this?”  In our own haphazard ways, we both calculated the future.  We had one major goal—get to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park by the 15th of the month, 12 days away.   The only essential stop in the middle was Niagara Falls.  Everything else was gravy, more on gravy in a minute.
            Pinery Provincial Park turned out to be one of highlights on a trip with so many highlights.  When we pulled into the park office, we had no reservations, of course, but it was mid-week and spaces were available—turns out it is a huge park with hundreds of sites in three different sections.  The pretty twenty-something girl (sorry, I notice) asked me if we wanted “River” or “Dunes.”  Not knowing which and being totally surprised that in Canada someone would offer “Dunes,” I chose “Dunes.”  One of the problems with our schedule for the year is that we plan to be north in warm weather and south in cold; therefore, we are seldom near an ocean when weather and water combine for perfect day at the beach.  We paid for our one night, then followed the map the pretty girl had given us and we ended up in an area where sand edged over the blacktop and a great number of trees rooted themselves in close to the road for me to maneuver the beast between.  This was a new landscape—forests with little undergrowth and sand?  Luckily we were assigned a spot with an good angle off the road, and I was able to back in the caravan with relative ease.  Canada was looking good. 
            With a quick, basic set up—only water and electricity—we unloaded the bikes and hit the sandy road.  We didn’t have far to go, it turned out.  In five minutes, we were on the beach—with dunes and everything, it looked just like Mustang Island in Texas—but the water was a beautiful, translucent water-color water blue.  Nothing at all like a Texas Beach.   In memory, I am still startled by how beautiful Lake Huron is.   Because of a wind from the north, little waves rolled onto the beach’s white sands.  And it was a bit chilly—but for Texans in September, where the temperatures are over 100, chilly was welcome.
            Although a few people occasionally walked where we stationed ourselves, we were essentially alone on the beach.  At first, Captain Crunch was careful and obedient.  He removed    his shoes, pulled up the legs of his sweatpants.  He stepped carefully and politely into the water.  But fairly quickly he was running, then splashing, then half submerging in the water.  I persuaded him to strip to his boxer underwear and just dive in.  Which he did.  Pretty soon, Dr. J. had joined him.  The boys had their beach, and almost their ocean.  As Dr. J. observed:  “It’s like the ocean, except the water’s not salty.”
            The next day, even before breakfast, before we had awakened the boys, Knightsmama and I had decided to stay another night, but darn when we reported to the Rangers’Office with our credit card all warm and eager for another transaction, a different pretty young woman informed us that our space was already reserve.  However, the space across from us was available.  So we returned to our campsite, packed up everything in the right order and waited for the lovely couple across from us to hit the road.  Well, they were in no hurry.  She sat in a lawn chair blowing on some kind of flute.  He took a hike.  She made a bowl of something and sat at the picnic table and read.  He returned from his hike and made a bowl of something and sat at the picnic table eating and reading.  Geez, when were they going to leave?
Finally, they got suspicious by all of our staring and pacing around, and engaged us in a little conversation.  They were really nice folks, about our age I am guessing.  Both, teachers who had worked overseas schooling soldier’s kids.  It turns out she wasn’t playing a flute, but on practice instrument for bag pipes.  She was a clarinetist for an ensemble in London, Ontario, about an hour or so away, and had recently joined a drum and fife corps.  Before the conversation was over, she was writing out things for us to do in London, including a parade in a couple of days she was marching in, and he was asking us what in hell was wrong with Americans that they didn’t like the Affordable Care Act.  “I was always puzzled by the Americans I met on bases who loved their liberty so much that they refused to support their fellow citizens.  I would much rather pay more in taxes and provide a safety net for those who need it.”  Knightsmama and I just nodded.  What could we say?  We think the same thing.    Finally, our new friends left.  We hooked up the rig, pulled it out of our spot, drove it up the road twenty or so yards and tried to back into the site they just left.  You know, just a little switch-a-roo.  But the Caravan devils were having none of it.  I just could not seem to get the right angle and hit the sweet spot.  After four or five attempts, almost hitting a tree that way or bumping another tree the other way, I gave up, returned to the Ranger’s Station, talked with a middle-aged woman, and took a spot in the River section. 
But we have no complaints about Pinery Provincial Park and the little town of Grand Bend about seven miles up the road, well, except that internet was a little spotty, and we had our phones off because we had heard about outrageous roaming charges in Canada.  Knightsmama and I had a lovely meal in an upscale pub in town and talked with our waitress who was a special ed teacher by day and worked at the pub at night for a little extra cash to support her and her young son.  The place was packed with what appeared to be locals—after all, we were a little past season and in the middle of the week.  We found some diesel for something per liter and who knows what it cost per gallon, pumped for us by the nicest woman.  Then she filled one of our propane tanks.  Everyone ate lunch at a road side stand that served a concoction called “poutine.”  Knightsmama is always full of surprises: the vegetarian health nut that I met seventeen years ago was now pushing me aside as she devoured poutine—French fries covered with cheese curds and gravy, and in our case also pulled pork.  We visited the beach a couple more times, the boys rode a contraption called a ‘bicycle boat,” a kind of paddle boat with two bicycles sitting up top, and Knightsmama and I road our bikes around the park.
And before we left, I was able to get in a fifteen mile bike ride, going to town and back.  As I said, we were a bit past the summer season.  The ice cream shop was closed, one pizza shop also, but if I so desired I could have purchased a bathing suit or t-shirt with something almost obscene printed on it.   A few late-season patrons strolled hand in hand up and down the three blocks on the one main street heading to Lake Huron.  I made my way to the beach, drank from my water bottle, and watched the few old couples and two or three young women in bikinis sun bathing in the 65 degree (I have no idea what Celsius is) bright day.  They all thought it was warm, I guess. 
Then I heard a father trying to gather his young kids into a van.  The children were resisting.  “Why do we have to go?  We like it here.  I want to stay.  Why do we have to go?”
“Come on,” the father said.  “We have to go.  We have to see more stuff.” 
And I thought, there he said it, the pure definition of “vacation”: seeing stuff.  It doesn’t matter what one sees.  It is all stuff, a big white marsh mellow of sights and sounds, half seen and already half forgotten.
Slowly, I think, Waller Grant is finding how to live on the road, rather than be merely on vacation. 

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Road To . . . .

[For those following the blog, you will notice that I have skipped ahead in time and place.  Previous bog posts have reported only up to the beginning of September with Waller Grant entering Canada.  This post is more immediate, reflecting recent reading, experiences, and observations.]

September 30 we departed Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park—just in time, it turns out, because the Republicans closed down the government a day later.  After three nights near Portland, Maine, we moseyed over to Tree Farm Campground at the edge of Springfield, Vermont.  Our primary goal in Vermont was simply to “see the leaves.”  Of course, we have other goals, like tour Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory and visit the Vermont Country Store, but mostly we are “here for the leaves.”  And the leaves are spectacular.  They are everything that everyone has ever said about them.  Maybe I will try to add my two hundred words to the pile at some point, but here in October, as weather begins its turn toward chill, and as our leaders in Washington play with our futures and court all sort of unknown disasters, I want to meditate on my own private change of seasons.

Changing Seasons at The Fort at No. 4

From the earliest stages of planning Waller Grant’s Caravan of Wonder, I had planned that there would be books.  You may have noticed that in other posts I have referenced several books we have picked up along the way, something on Cahokia, something on Detroit, for instance.   What you don’t know is that there are a couple that I haven’t yet written about as the reading of them has been sporadic and undisciplined.  The Spoon River Anthology and Winesburg, Ohio are two in particular.  Currently I am reading Evangeline  and The House of Seven Gables
One problem with my education is that from undergraduate to graduate school and even often during almost thirty years in the classroom, I was always more interested in the non-required reading.  For instance, one summer, I read all of Hemingway’s novels published up to that time—except For Whom the Bell Tolls, which had been assigned in a graduate class.  Therefore, when I was browsing the free book shelf at Tree Farm Campground—“You can take one, but please leave one also”—and saw The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I abandoned my reading plan and snatched up McCarthy. 
Admittedly, except for the title, it is a strange book to read on this trip.  One version of the Caravan is that we have the story of a happy family—husband, wife, and two sons—journeying freely across America.  An extended vacation.  Plenty of food, drink, entertainment.  A lovely, beautiful, sweet world.  McCarthy’s The Road is a terrifying tale of a desperate family—father and son—struggling merely to find enough food and water and shelter to stay alive for just one more day.  Hardly comparable, are they?
But let’s let our minds wander at bit.  For me, reading The Road has called up all sorts of archetypal associations.  First, I kept feeling the pull of Abraham and Isaac, which in my reading is story of a crazy man’s delusions finally corrected.  The very idea of sacrificing one’s son is a crazy, criminal notion.  But then so are impregnating handmaids, stoning homosexuals and prostitutes, and stealing one’s general’s wife.  I also thought about Telemachus and Odysseus, except this time they get to take the journey together.  Third, I couldn’t help seeing a bit of Huck and Jim, a boy experiencing fatherly love while witnessing the horrors of human nature unleashed. 
The road, the path is a metaphor deeply ingrained in the human mind.  Anyone who listens to closely to language notices, I would think, how we humans think in metaphors.  Lakoff and Johnson, authors of the classic Metaphors We Live By, and Mark Turner, co-author with Lakoff of More Cool than Reason:  A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor and author of The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities, advance that we think the way we do because we live in a body with certain features and because we learned to blend two or more ideas on top of one another.  For instance, the future is always ahead of us.  This is a metaphor, not literal fact.  Time and space blend because we live in a body with eyes in front.  The past is behind us.  Life is a path, a road.  Life is a journey.  “I shall be telling this with a sigh/ Somewhere ages and ages hence:/ Two roads diverged in a wood,  and I, / I took took the one less travelled by / And that has made all the difference" (Robert Frost).
Back to The Road.  One of the features of this book, having avoided all the spoilers, is its suspence.  I was always worried what was going to happen to the two characters.  Because I had read All the Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian, and because I had seen the movie No Place for Old Men, I did not trust that McCarthy would protect his characters, and thus me, from harm.  Anything could happen.  This is the thing about a true journey through space and time—anything can happen.  A second feature of the novel is the father’s love of his son.  Protecting his son from harm was a primal decision that became a spiritual force in their lives.  Third, the world they inhabit is so bleak.  It is a world where the last remaining Coca-Cola, that wonderful symbol of the pleasures of insidious capitalism, becomes the kindest gift, an unimagined luxury. Everything that we conceive of as beautiful has been destroyed—art, books, architecture, forests, fresh food.  All that remains is being cannibalized, figuratively and literally, merely for the dreadful experience of living one more day.
In many ways, the caravan is the exact opposite of this.  We have crying fights over denying Captain Crunch his second soda for the day or his third scoop of ice cream.  I have said on a few occasions, “I just need to go a couple of days without drinking another craft beer.”  We are experiencing so many wonders, so much beauty from Winslow Homer at the Portland Museum of Art to the startling blues of Lake Huron to shine of Lake Glimmerglass to the natural rock sculpture in the Bay of Fundy to the juice of apples on our chins in a pick-your-own apple orchard in Vermont  There have been days when the boys and I have told Knightsmama,  “We just want to stay in the trailer and chill." There are too many beauties, too many one of a kind experiences. 
Autumn Birches (Approaching Storm) by Albert Bierstadt

What The Road has brought home to me is just how precious and fragile everything is.   And how much we take for granted.  We middle-class Americans have startling wonderful lives and it won’t be all that difficult to screw it all up with government showdowns and shutdowns.  Already the National Parks are closed.  On our trip that would include:  the Pea Ridge Battlefield, Arch in St. Louis, the Lincoln home in Springfield, Illinois, Cayahoga National Park, Niagara Falls, Seneca Falls, and Acadia National Park.  If the shutdown continues, our trips to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D. C.  will be greatly affected.  Say what you will, but these parks contribute to the local economies.  So begins the cascade of effects.  Waller Grant and thousands of others don’t visit these historic sites.  Ice cream, craft beers, hamburgers, lobsters, and apples are not purchased in local stores.  People lose jobs.  Businesses close, Taxes are not collected.  Roads are not repaired.  Even more people don’t visit.  Each town becomes some version of Detroit or Cairo.  And of course, citizens learn that their history is unimportant.
Throughout The Road, the son keeps asking his father, “We’re the good guys, right?” And he says, “We have the fire, right?” the fire being that spark of “humanity,” which also goes by names like love, mercy, compassion, hope.  For me, one of the great purposes for this journey through the United States is a pilgrimage—a father taking his sons—to the landmarks where Americans have expressed their ‘Humanity,” their love for their fellow citizens, their mercy, compassion, and hope.  Everything they fought for:  Washington, John Adams, Longfellow, Hawthorne, Thoreau, Whitman, Lincoln, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the Roosevelts,  Fitzgerald and Faulkner, Martin Luther King, Lyndon Baines Johnson, Marvin Gaye, Ben and Jerry, Toni Morrison, and Cormac McCarthy.  This random list that far exceeds the goals of Huey Long, Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Ted Cruz, these crazy men who want time and human progress to stop and for their own personal power to accumulate. 
One of the great scenes in The Road occurs when the boy convinces the father to be kind to an old man, like them, wandering the road.  Speaking of archetypes—it’s the classic stranger on the road moment.  He is old, frail, still potentially dangerous, and possess a dark wisdom:
How long have you been on the road?
I was always on the road.  You can’t stay in one place.
How do you live?
I just keep going.  I knew this was coming.
You knew it was coming?
Yeah.  This or something like it.  I always believed in it.
Did you try to get ready for it?
No.  What would you do?  . . . .
Do you wish you would die?
No.  But I might wish I had died.  When you’re alive you’ve always got that ahead of you.
Or you might wish you’d never been born.
Well.  Beggars can’t be choosers.
A little later he says, “There is no God and we are his prophets.”  (168-170)
            Yesterday, Waller Grant visited The Fort at No. 4 just over the Connecticut River in Charlestown, New Hampshire.  It is a reconstruction of a fort build on the edge of the Massachusetts frontier in 1740. [It is run by a non-profit, so it was open.]  It is an interesting question to ask if the founders of the fort were the “good guys.” Nonetheless, these sons and daughters of wealthy coastal settlers moved onto land that their families claimed were theirs and set up homes and farms.  Fairly often they were attacked and what they had built, like mills and gardens, were destroyed.  Dr. J. and Captain Crunch learned how to throw arrows with an atlatl.  Knightsmama and I talked with a woman who volunteers her time to demonstrate and lecture about how people in the 1700s wove and created cloth. It took her over a year to make the linens for a quarter-sized bed she uses in lectures. The harshness of life on the frontier reminded me of The Road, except that nature was alive and able to provide food.
Apples and such from Wellborn Farm

But what I mostly thought about how much our lives differ from theirs, just 250 years later—RV caravans, pick-yourself-apple-orchards, Ben and Jerry’s, The Vermont Country Store—layers of comforts and stuff.  This thought then prompted the realization that it is all so fragile, so easily destroyed.  It all rests on our confidence that we are building something good and useful.  And then there are the fools in Washington and in many state capitals who wish to hand it all over to the cannibals and barbarians.  I am not saying that the Democrats are totally right and the Tea Partiers are totally wrong.  I am saying we all have to choose to be the good guys, the fire carriers, those who are prophets of mercy, not punishment, those who will feed the stranger on the road, not shoot him.  I am 60, almost an old man, and I am saying there is a god of love and we should be his prophets.

Soundtrack.  Talking Heads:  "Road to Nowhere."