Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happiness Inventory

For all of our prayers and public pronouncements and petty protests that the United States is a Christian or merely a religious nation, we celebrate a large number of pagan rituals.  Sure we have Christ-mas, but two of the most prominent symbols of the season are a Druid tree and a crazy fat man and his elves.  In addition, we honor Valentine’s Day and Halloween.  Neither originating in the Bible.  Easter is Christian-based, sure.  But where exactly was the Bunny at Golgotha?  I’ll set aside Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day, which might not be as pagan as Valentine’s and Halloween, but they sure don’t have their roots in Middle Eastern mythologies, do they? 
The Journey So Far
And so I am thinking of New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. For Waller Grant, this year, these days mark the end of a long and very pleasant rest in Pittsboro, North Carolina, at my sister’s, “The Queen Bee’s,” house.  We parked the monster in the massive driveway of my niece’s home, stayed there a few days, and several more in a comfy bedroom at my sister’s.  I hope Dr. J and Captain Crunch are happy.  They indulged in two weeks of x-box and cable television at The Queen Bee’s house, and a little air-soft gun play in the woods beside my niece’s home. 
We probably wore out the patience of my sister and her saint of a husband, but Knightsmama and I feel rested, rejuvenated, and ready to roll out of here on January 2.  The adventure begins anew.  We have visited twenty-six states, if only some very briefly.  The goal is to hit our hometown, Austin, for a week or so in the middle of February. On the way to Austin, for the next five weeks, the plan is to enjoy the Deep South:  South Carolina, Georgia, Florida (lots of time there), Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.   In Austin, Dr. J.  needs to take his driving test and attend a Valentine’s Day Dance:  he’s sixteen.  Captain Crunch can use some time with his friends.  Knightsmama and I have business to take care of, checking in at work, dealing with broken debit cards, sharing quality time with the dentist.   On the way to Austin, we will hit the mid-point of the adventure:  six months on the road.  At that time I will post the Second Quarterly Report.
At The City Museum, St. Louis
However, here we are celebrating The New Year, our annual national holiday for honoring the mere fact that we have survived yet one more year upon this planet.  But the holiday also serves as our moment of regret and reform, which we ritualize as “resolutions.” 
New Year’s can also be celebrated by the writing of one of the strangest of writing genres.  A genre is a type or form of writing that comes with some history and expectations for the reader.  In my world, the world of English teachers, the most obvious genres are lyric poetry, epic poetry, plays, novels, and short stories.  Very seldom do we confuse any of these.  We know what they are when we see them, and we have expectations about what happens in them as we read. 
But, of course, there are all sorts of other genres.  A prayer, for instance.  We have expectations about how a prayer begins, what we say in a prayer, and how a prayer ends.  One of the interesting books of our time discusses the three basic reasons for indulging in prayer, Anne Lamott’s Help Thanks Wow.  Pretty succinct.   Other genres include business letters, recipes, grant proposals.  I am writing all this because the season is making me think of the genre of Family Holiday Letter.  You know that letter, a few of which, already you have mostly likely received already—“Dear friend,  Well, it has been another amazing year for the [submit name] family.  [Submit name] is still working at [submit name].  We can’t believe that [submit pronoun] has been there for [submit number] years.  [Submit name] still enjoys the work, and we are very thankful that the company remains one of the leaders in its field.  [Submit name], the first [son/daughter], is loving high school.  [Submit pronoun] stays busy on the [select one: volleyball, swim, chess, science, Latin team].” And so on.  It’s all good news or if there is something difficult to report, it is couched in language that indicates that no self-pity is allowed and things are getting better. 
Knightsmama on the AT

Having said all this, even though I find these letters terribly interesting as a genre, I will not write that kind of letter this year.  Geez, if you don’t know what Waller Grant has been up to . . . . well, please see previous blog posts or tune in in February when I will forward the second quarterly report.
Instead, I am going to share with you a spiritual practice that our friend Meg Hoke introduced us to when we visited her and her husband Todd last week in Hendersonville, North Carolina.  The practice is simple:  each day, every day, list five things that made you happy.  Share this with your spouse, a friend, and/or family.  I think Knightsmama and I will begin this practice on January 1.  But I thought, right here, this once, I would a list of “five happy things” from the trip so far.  Even more, I would include Knightsmama, Dr. J, and Captain Crunch in the fun.  You will understand that there are many, many, many more happy things that all of us have experienced. But these moments come to our minds quickly.
Captain Crunch lists: 
·      Visiting the City Museum in St. Louis, Missouri
·      Making new friends at Shawnee State Park, Ohio
·      Visiting family at Pittsboro, North Carolina
·      Hiking at Acadia National Park
·      Learning to Ski at Massanutten Ski Resort, Virginia
 Dr. J lists:
·      Going to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts
·      Hanging at the beach in Pinery Provincial Park, Lake Huron, Ontario
·      Hiking Precipice at Acadia National Park, before getting lost
·      Watching the basketball game between the Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets at the Barclay Center
·      Visiting the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D. C.
Jordan at the Basketball Hall of Fame

Knightsmama shares these: 
·      Playing Balderdash, over Thanksgiving at the Carpenter’s house in Boyd, Maryland
·      Climbing to the top of Beehive in Acadia National Park with the boys.
·      Hanging at the beach at Pinery Provincial Park, Lake Huron, Ontario
·      Picking apples at Wellwood Farms, outside of Springfield, Vermont
·      Enjoying Happy Hour with a glass of wine and the flatbreads with the Dude at Cherrystones Café, Bar Harbor
And now the news you have been waiting for, here is Major Dude’s list of five happy things experienced on the trip.
·      Playing catch with Dr. J. and Captain Crunch on beach at Montauk, Long Island
·      Completing the 26 mile bike ride with Dr. J. in Acadia National Park
·      Watching the boys ice skate in Central Park, New York City
·      Drinking a beer, eating calamari, with Knightsmama at The Deck in Salisbury, Massachusetts
·      Seeing the boys and Knightsmama emerge from woods in West Hartford, Vermont, after they had hiked part of the Appalachian Trail

There you have it, twenty happy memories from the past five months.  We could have listed 200.  Here’s hoping your new year is full of joy.  I will keep you posted on our further happy moments.


Soundtrack.  Blood, Sweat, and Tears:  "You Made Me So Very Happy."

Sunday, December 29, 2013

One Kind of Diversity

Okay, I am quite aware that many of these recent blog posts revolve around my working through some layer of the geologic history of my neuroses.  You know, we show up at Washington Square and all of a sudden—surprise!—I am talking about me.  This can be irritating to all of us.  Believe me, I know.  But the truth is that all writing is autobiographical anyway—at least on some level.  I mean, I wrote about Washington Square and not Hanoi.  There is an autobiographical reason for that, whether I speak of it or not. 
Apple from Wellwood Orchards, Vermont
Having said this, I am going to try, for a while, to return to the Adventures of the Caravan of Wonder and tell you about some of the things we have done in the past month or so.  The topic that comes up first for me is . . . drum roll . . . Apples. 
            Way back in October, while we parked the Monster in the Tree Farm Campground, in Springfield, Vermont, during the great explosion of the fall color box, one day Knightsmama and I abandoned the boys, leaving them to their electronic devices, and wandered up the road only a short way to Wellwood Orchards.  In a road trip full of great moments, this, to me, is one of the most memorable.  This farm is our contemporary vision of what a rural community should be.  I mean, you know the problem, a small family farm is a never ending risk.  It takes brave, hearty, and very creative and intelligent folks to keep a farm running year after year and generation after generation.  Nowadays what many do is turn the farm into a destination for the city folks, a place for the entire family to live, for two hours or so, a dream of a kinder, gentler nation. For the kids we have a petting zoo with rabbits, chickens, and goats.  For grandma and grandpa, we have nut brittles and a jars of jellies and jams and pickled veggies, just like they grew up with (or like they ate at their grandparents’ houses), and for mom and dad, we have something wholesome that the entire family can participate in:  a tractor trailer ride up the dirt road to a massive grove of apple trees for pick-your-own madness.  The kids run wild and the grandparents reminisce.  You can return, year after year, and never grow tired of it.  Plus, you go home with a bag full of apples that you picked yourself.  Friends and neighbors go ooh and aah.  What could be better?  In an era when food has become merely a commodity, like any other piece of junk from Wal-Mart, purchased because it is cheap and available, a farm like this is a revelation about community and interconnectedness and a brief therapeutic salve from the original therapeutic salve creator—nature.
Barnyard at Wellwood Farms
            Knightsmama and I decided to walk up the slight hill to the grove of trees we were directed towards.  “Grove” doesn’t describe this accurately.  Orchard.  Huge orchard.  We are talking rows and rows, long lines of trees, acres and acres, thousands of trees, with a couple of tractor roads between.  This is an orderly place, like a school room with the trees being desks, or a church with row upon row of pews.  At the ends of the pews, there are signs telling you what kind of apple tree occupies that row.  At the top of the rise, Knightsmama and I separated, each with our little quarter peck bags.   For a while I just walked and watched others.  Apple season is long, I discovered, and many trees were already empty of fruit.  But after a few minutes, walking further up the hill, I discovered a section of a row loaded with apples.  At the spur of the moment, believing myself somehow a thief, I reached up, pulled gently, feeling an only slightly reluctant give.  Remembering from childhood the joy of polishing an apple on my shirt—and perhaps recalling something from Meryl Streep about pesticides (I do not know if these apples were sprayed), I shined up the apple and bit into it.
            Oh my god.  With apologies to every girl I have kissed, this was one of the great sensual moments of my life. There was crunch as I bit it, layers of different kinds of sweetness as I chewed and swallowed, and the uncontrollable urge to bite again, and again.  Then it was gone. Yes, juice did run down into my beard.  Like a child afraid of getting caught with my hands in the cookie jar, I looked up and down the rows and surreptitiously tossed the core to the ground beneath the tree two trees away from me.  I wiped my mouth with my sleeve, put a couple of apples in my bag—they turned to be just regular, old, McIntosh apples—and moved on up the hill.  What miracles awaited? 

            I met up with Knightsmama, and we exclaimed and emoted to each other about how wonderful the apples were and how much we just loved being there and how dumb the boys were for skipping an adventure like this.  We each chomped on an Empire, crisp and slightly spicy—less sweet than others.  We talked with a fellow pulling a child’s wagon with his load, and he directed us to the Cortlands, which we greatly appreciated.  We ended up two small bags of apples:  Cortlands, McIntoshes, Macouns, and a few Empires.  We added a jar of picked beets, some local cheese and bread to the basket and drove home.  Two days later, Knightsmama persuaded Captain Crunch to return with us, if only for the rabbits and chickens. 
           
            We munched on these apples for the next few weeks while we explored Vermont, and while we poked around the edges of Boston—first, Sturbridge, then Salem, finally Middleborough.  Time passed, and we made our way to Narragansett, Croton-on-Hudson, and Jersey City, all of which I’ve have discussed in previous posts while imposing my neuroses upon my readers.  By the middle of November, we had arrived at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, south of Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and north of Gettysburg, where we parked the monster for a week. On the day when we drove down to the battlefield, we noticed we were in apple country again, row upon row of trees stretched out upon the rolling hills.  Then we spied Hollabaugh Brothers FarmMarket.  With visions of fresh local apples dancing in my head, I jerked the wheel of the truck to the left, crossed the lane, and skidded into gravel parking lot.  Like Wellwood Orchards, Hollabaugh is family owned.  Unlike Wellwood, it is not a pick-your-own operation, though you can schedule group tours and pick you own then.  Instead, their focus is totally and fully on the fruit-stand-on-the-highway motif, with all the accoutrements the experienced traveler expects:  jams and jellies, fruit pies, scented candles, frozen treats, and object de country kitsch.  And huge displays of many kinds of apples for mix-and-match munching. 
Inside at Hollabaugh Brothers
            We purchased the usual array of morning muffins, hot coffee, and a bag of Honey Crisps.  But then as if struck by a thunder bolt from the Atalanta, I was impregnated with the urge to organize a family apple tasting.  I have already written about my experiences tasting beer across the country, and the family has grown used to watching me type notes in my telephone.  So when I suggested that we purchase two of each kind of apple available, they were game.  Hey, it’s clean family fun—without the x-box and television! 
            Over the year, Hallabaugh Brothers Farm grows twenty-four varieties of apples. In mid-November, several had already passed their season, so we were able to taste thirteen of them.  Here was the process.  For about a week, each morning before we left the trailer for the day’s adventure, Captain Crunch and I sliced up two or three apples.  Then the four of us grabbed slices, chomped and chewed, and offered our totally uninformed opinions about what we were sampling.  But it was fun comparing our various distinctions of sweetness, sour and citrus, crispness, firmness, and skin textures.  Is this part of our sons’ education?  I suppose it is, as we would never have thought to organize such an event, even while wandering the aisles of Wholefoods.
            Here, in somewhat brief form, are the results.  1Apple is the lowest rating; 5 Apples is the highest rating.
             Banana Apple:  Yellow in color.  A bit mushy in texture.  Kind of nothing taste.  Our least favorite apple.  We have learned that we purchased it at the end of its season.  2 Apples.
            Cameo:  Large apple.  Mostly pink to red in color.  Very crisp.  Quite sweet.  Dr. J. called this the best apple ever!  Everyone loved it. 4.75 Apples
            Empire:  Light red to yellow green skin.  Medium crisp, but kind of tasteless.  Without the spiciness of the apples at Wellwood.   2.5 Apples.
            Fuji:  A small apple.  Red and yellow.  Tart with a dry, noticeable tannin after taste.  3.125 Apples.
            Golden Delicious:  Nice greenish color.  Tart.  Drying on tongue in finish.  3 Apples.
            Goldrush:  Yellow gold.  With “blackheads” on skin.  Large in size, almost like a softball.  Tart—moving toward a Granny Smith.  Texture, crisp like a pear. I really liked this one.   3.5 Apples
            Nittany:  Yellow with patches of pink.  Lightly crisp.  A hint of citrus.  Knightsmama like this one.  3.167 Apples
            Pink Lady:  Red with yellow green.  Shined up very pretty.  Small in size.  A subtle sweet taste.  3.5 Apples.
            Red Delicious:  A firm apple.  Crisp, light tasting.  Noticeable tannins.  3 Apples. 
            Rome:  A beautiful, deep red apple.  My favorite in looks.  A bit soft.  A nice mix of sweet and sour.  Peel was chewy.  Sour at finish.  I liked it, but the family disagreed.  2.85  Apples.
            Stayman:  Deep red with green streaks.  Baseball size.  Slightly tart at finish.  Maybe a bit soft in texture.  Captain Crunch liked this one.  3.125 Apples.
            Winesap:  Deep red color.   A little softer than others.  Sweet but flavor doesn’t last.  2.4 Apples.
            York:  Pink color with some yellow.  A bit firm.  Sweet at first, then fades.  Dr. J and Captain Crunch didn’t like it.  2.5 Apples.
A Few of the 120,000 Trees at Hallabaugh Brothers

            So we really enjoyed the Cameo, Goldrush, and Pink Lady.  Add Cortland and Honey Crisps to this list, and you have our favorite apples.  I guess that is something to know.  It sounds all silly and such, but this was a great activity and one that begins to open up a way to see and to think about America.  I don’t know about you, but growing up I remember eating only Red Delicious apples; then somewhere along the way, I was shocked to learn about Granny Smiths.  For many years, that was all I knew about.  It seems that for all that we praise the lives of the Greatest Generation, they made some choices in culinary matters that reduced diversity.  We know how following Prohibition only a few breweries dominated the market, and as time passed the number seemed to reduce, as mid-sized brewers lost out to the conglomerates.  Didn’t the same thing happen to automobile makers?  It seems apples followed the same trend.  It is a great thing, now, to celebrate the return many varieties of apples that once were available before market efficiencies and standardized palettes accompanied us as we drifted into the suburbs.  I look forward to learning what other varieties of apples—and other fruits and foodstuffs—catch our eye as we move down the road.


Soundtrack.  Stevie Wonder:  "You Are the Sunshine of My Life."


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Wonderful Life

Maybe I should have gone to the Christmas Eve service.  Everybody else did.  Christmas Eve, we were in Pittsboro, North Carolina, just south of Chapel Hill, at my sister’s, “The Queen Bee’s,” house, completely abusing her hospitality.  Not only has Waller Grant rolled into town, and parked itself in my niece’s front yard—making all her sophisticated Southern neighbors wonder just who might these hippy-rednecks be—but we’ve also shipped in my oldest son, The Philosopher, and his girlfriend from Austin, and Knightsmama’s dad, Buckaroo, and his girlfriend.  It’s a veritable Texas invasion.  The Queen Bee’s house has become something like one of those tavern way stations that the early settlers created along the rough hewn roadways.  While Knightsmama and I are staying at the niece’s house—mostly chilly nights in the monster—Buckaroo, older girlfriend, all three boys, and younger girlfriend have filled the The Honey Comb Inn.  It’s a virtual Christmas story:  no room at the inn, indeed.  My sister and brother-in-law are much too polite, but I don’t think we can bring in enough beer, wine, breads and soups, or tell enough outrageous stories to make this worth their while. 
Visiting my friend Rhonda in Knoxville, Tennessee
At 10:00 p.m. Christmas Eve, everybody—except me—dressed up right pretty like and headed off to The Chapel of the Cross, Episcopal Church, for The Holy Eucharist, Rite One.  By all accounts, the service was beautiful and moving, if a church service is where one finds beauty and emotional release.  I am usually one of those people and up until the day before I planned to be among the reverent.  But on the eve of Christmas Eve, I spied in the television schedule of the local The News and Observer the appropriately last minute presentation of It’s a Wonderful Life on the National Broadcasting Corporation network.  Frankly, I have been feeling worn out and bedraggled, tired, distracted, over-taxed and overwrought.  For almost a month I have been working my way toward a blog post on “Status Anxiety,” which I have been discovering is one of the wide-eyed possums in the center of this highway I have been avoiding, and soon-or-later I am just going to have to meet head-on.  If I am going to break the surly bonds of earth, I will have to come to grips about where I am in the world’s pecking order.
I was fine this fall, happy as one of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s noble savages wondering the woods, as I commandeered the Caravan to the Eastern seaboard and the south.  But as I allowed myself to meditate on the journey that a twenty-something Dude experienced in counterpoint to the journey this sixty-year old Dude is currently experiencing, symptoms of an old and nagging disease began to reappear.  Have I done everything with my life that I wanted to do?  No, of course not.  Then, why not?  Why have I not, as the Army admonishes every day, been all that I can be?  Am I just someone perpetually disappointed?  Then why not just accept that fact, know that I will never be satisfied, and proceed blithely into the thwarted expectations of the future:  it’s going to be bad, so why not enjoy whatever good there is in it?  Or have I just been lazy?  Poorly organized?  Lacking in intellectual voltage?  Absent of native genius?  Born daemon-less.  Or should I have taken the road more often travelled, and rejoiced in my ordinariness? 
I wish I could say that this brooding is a mood recently descended upon me like a dark winter new moon.  But like Robert Frost, “I have been one acquainted with the night.”  Still, no matter how bitter my temperamental stew has occasionally become over the years, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has always been available as a gentle sweetener.   Sure, I am quite aware that some folks have judged the film to be a big fat bowl of giggly sentimentality.  And maybe that is true, but I embrace the movie, first, as a statement of political truth:  we can’t let the sons-of-bitches clothe their avarice as moral and intellectual superiority.  Second, I hold the movie closely as an economical truth:  basically, all we need to be happy is adequate food, shelter, family and a caring community.   
Meg and Todd Hoke Sing in Hendersonville, NC.
So I recognized that the Herald Angels could hark without me, that in the little town of Bethlehem a little baby could lie away in a manger, and the silent night, holy night, could prepare a room and let heaven and nature sing just fine in my absence.  I needed Clarence, and I craved a moment when all the Potters of world were named what they are—crazy, heartless, bitter old men, who are frustrated because they can’t own all of us.  And, it worked.  Here a few days after Christmas, I am feeling all warm and cozy and perfectly content to be the dude who drags his family around the country in a thirty-four foot fifth-wheel travel trailer.  I’ve accomplished what I accomplished and maybe I will accomplish a bit more.  But, Jesus, why do I need to worry about this so much?
Recently, my reading has provided some context for my personal sore spot.  Did you know that back before these here United States were a twinkle in our founding fathers’ eyes, Rousseau had already figured out that long ago we happy humans emerged from the forest primeval and screwed things up.  A few of us figured out we could bamboozle our brethren into believing that we somehow deserved more of life’s goodies than they.  Not only that, we created institutions that protected us from their irritating ungratefulness.  You know, monarchies and aristocracies.  Then some enterprising folks on this side of the Atlantic began reading Rousseau, and, becoming a bunch of the ingrates, got themselves organized and brought forth a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that we supposedly were created equally.  But in a perfect example of not being careful what one wishes for, it didn’t take long for uneasiness to set in.  Even Alexis de Tocqueville noticed it as he traveled our great and not quite unhappy land in the first half of the nineteenth century. 
He writes, “When all prerogatives of birth and fortune have been abolished, when every profession is open to everyone, an ambitious man may think it is easy to launch himself on a great career and feel that he has been called to no common destiny.  But this is a delusion which experience quickly corrects.  When inequality is the general rule in society, the greatest inequalities attract no attention.  But when everything is more or less level, the slightest variation is noticed . . . . That is the reason for the strange melancholy often haunting inhabitants of democracies in the midst of abundance and easy circumstances” (as quoted in Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety).   What it boils down to is that we have a problem right here in the good ol US of A.  That problem is that each of us has to come to some sort of reckoning:  if I am equal with everyone else, then why do some people have more success and happiness than I.  Why did Harry attract angel investors for his new hair clip, and I found no one interested in supporting my elastic ribbons?  Why did Mary’s donut shop attract customers and my taco shop flounder?  Why aren’t I Carnegie, Rockefeller, Edison, Ford, Disney, Buffet, Gates, or Jobs?  It must be my fault, some flaw in me, that makes me so middling. 
Of course, other factors now contribute to our “strange melancholy.”   One is advertising and media in general, which parades all the goodies of human imagination before our hungry eyes.  All this can be yours, if you have enough good taste . . . and money.  Another is the idea of social and material progress, the idea that things are always getting bigger and better, that we deserve more than our parents, that we should expect all aspects of our lives to be constantly improving.  Third, we have replaced narratives about the goodness of basic everyday people in the hands of an ever-loving God—the meek inheriting the earth, and all that—with the narrative that God aches painfully for all of us to be rich, with the corollary that if one is not wealthy, then one must have pissed off an otherwise generous deity.  Fourth, in spite of all the rhetoric concerning liberty and independent spirits, by far most of us have sacrificed our freedom for the security of corporate (or government bureaucracy) slavery.  Of course, we also know that corporations offer us little security—we can be fired, laid off, and off shored at a moment’s notice.  We are all more wealthy and more vulnerable at the same moment.  We eye anxiously every new purchase, promotion, or honor our neighbors accumulate while wondering when it will be our turn to be noticed and rewarded.
The Look Homeward, Angel Angel
So call me a sentimentalist, if you wish.  Call me naïve.  But It’s a Wonderful Life tells me danged near everything I need to know about maintaining some sense of equilibrium in our dog-eat-dog society.   It’s pretty simple:  Life is the adventure, just maybe not the one you wanted.  Let fame and fortune take care of themselves.  Do for others because you care for them.  And fight, fight, fight the assholes who want to enslave us and take more than their share.   This movie is the America I love—and I believe it has existed more often and in more places (if for short periods) than most of us know. 

In the previous blog, I wrote about my revelation in a beautiful screened-in porch in Pearl River, New York, in 1982.  Ambition=Discontent and Discontent=Ambition.  By no stretch of anyone’s imagination have I lived up to moral implications of this realization.  I have certainly perpetrated my share of hopes and dreams and plots and schemes upon the world, merely “to get ahead.”  I am trying to get myself in a position where I can stop that shit.  If any Angel Second Class is listening, I am open to helping you receive your wings. 

Photos from a few days visiting friends in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Hendersonville, North Carolina.


Soundtrack.  Robert Earl Keen:  "Merry Christmas from the Family."

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Almost Anxiety But Mostly Gratitude

I keep wanting to move the narrative of the trip down the road a bit, but I keep getting pulled back to New York.  It has been over a month since we left Jersey City and made our way to Central Pennsylvania, then Philadelphia, then the Washington D. C. area, and then Central Virginia.  But my memory links are still in New York.
Hudson on Croton
            Back in 1982, when I was still in my twenties, barely, I lived for one summer in Pearl River, New York, up the Hudson a bit, and over near the northern New Jersey border.  I worked as “Writer in Residence” at the Henry Kaufman Campgrounds running a couple of workshop classes, at minimum wage, for retired Jewish folks. It was a job that I was perfectly unqualified for.   Wayne Gordon and Jeanne Nelson, two very kind people from my Texas A&M days a few years earlier, brought me up from Texas because—I don’t know why—they are kind people and knew this Texas-bred Southerner needed to be civilized a bit. It's been a long time since I have seen them.  Maybe someday we will be able to arrange a meeting somewhere.
            But this broken relationship is not the reason I am writing this.  At this moment I am remembering sitting in the screened in balcony over the porte cochere of the beautiful house centered in the camp.  We were told that the house and land once belonged to actress Gene Tierney.  The room was large.  As I remember it though the fog of years, windows covered with screens ran along three sides of the room.  I arranged a couple of desks up there, maybe a card table.  I had a typewriter. Let’s say it was a Royal manual, but it could have been an electric typewriter of some sort.  But I hated electric typewriters.  I have heavy or careless fingers and tend to include numerous random characters in every typed line.  Manual typewriters slowed me down and refused to be so sensitive to my eager touch, which is, in the long run, a good thing.  A huge fir stood outside the window down the drive about twenty feet.  I mean, huge, fifty feet tall.  Quite unlike anything one sees in Central Texas.  It was the kind that folks decorate with Christmas lights and everyone goes ooo and ahhh.  Except, of course, I was there in the summer, and this was a Jewish Day Camp. 
            I had a wonderful summer in that room.  Most days I would enter eightish or nineish, leave for my classes and then lunch, return and leave fiveish.  While in the room I worked on editing the letters of Texas naturalist Roy Bedichek, a job I had because William Owens had asked me to help with that task.   Owens was a writer living in Nyack, and I still believe he persuaded Wayne and Jeanne to provide me with my sinecure.   I had met Bill in College Station a few years earlier, when he was writer-in-residence.   Having once taught at A&M before World War II, Bill returned as an honored son after his distinguished career as novelist, folklorist, and memoirist, and as a professor at Columbia University and Dean of its summer school.   It was a glorious summer.   When I returned to Austin to my job at Austin Community College, the book was more or less ready to deliver to The University of Texas Press, and was published in 1985. 
Marker for William A. Owens
            I have two other substantive memories from that room.  One late July afternoon, I realized I was going to return to Austin and marry a woman named Francine Taylor.  She and I had known each other for several years, but had just begun dating the month or so before I moved up to New York for the summer.   The attraction, obviously, was strong, and it was literate.  With the influence of Bedichek’s literary correspondence, Francine and I typed each other long letters two or three days a week.  Since, at this moment, I am sitting in the Monster a few miles outside of Charlotteville, Virginia, and the letters are in a file boxes in a storage facility in Austin, Texas.  I cannot tell you what was in those letters—even if you cared.  Francine and I shared a deep affection for New York, Woody Allen, books, art, music, and each other.  I suppose we recalled to each other what our days were like, and what we hoped for in the future.  But I remember vividly one day, sitting in this writing room, a joy descending upon me, that made me jumpy and in need of moving my body.  “I’m going to get married!  I am going to get married!”  Whether I was reading a letter from Francine or writing one to her, I can’t remember.  But it was a moment of ecstasy, as if clouds had parted and my future, which had always been something peripheral and unfocused, suddenly now was written out clearly in sentences simple and direct.  

            The second memory is more philosophic than romantic, and is on some level quite contradictory to the essence of the first.  One day I decided that all unhappiness rested in ambition.   Did this realization grow from my work in the Bedicheck letters, I do not know.  In his early life, Bedicheck came under the influence of the late Tolstoy and Henry George.  He bounced around from job to job until he became involved with the University Interscholastic League where he made his career.  As a young man, he desired fame and fortune as a writer, but eventually plied that skill in a newsletter for his office, until his late sixties, when he wrote his first book, Adventures with a Texas Naturalist.    Was it the positive side or negative side of his story that brought me to my realization? I cannot remember.  But the idea is a simple one: one has ambition only if one wants to change one’s status or station in life.  If one turns this equation on its head and exiles ambition, one can be satisfied with where one is.   No ambition equals no dissatisfaction; no dissatisfaction equals no ambition.
Over the years, I had flirted with such ideas, reading medieval philosophers,  Carlos Casteneda, Herman Hesse, the existentialists, Walt Whitman (“I would go live with the animals”) and Graham Nash (“Our house is a very very fine house”).   It was a hippy boy’s dream, sitting in this sparse room, with the beautiful view, living simply on room and board provided by friends, in weekly contact with a caring mentor, in correspondence with a woman who loved me and was waiting for me to return home, where I had a decent job teaching in a community college in a wonderful city.  You know how it goes:  “Forget all the bullshit, man.  Take it easy.  You don’t need that daily dose of crazy vibes radiating from all those people caught in the system.  Relax.  Be cool, dude.”

On November 1, we left the Monster parked in a beautiful campground that juts into the Hudson River, the wide calm waters not 100 yards through a few trees from the trailer.  We drove down Highway 9 through Ossining, Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow, across the Tappan Zee Bridge and into Nyack.  In some ways, Nyack, along the river, is a perfect little town, quaint and attractive to New Yorkers who want an afternoon out of the city, and cozy and walkable for those who live there.  We enjoyed part of the afternoon being tourists.  We ate a lovely lunch at the friendly Art Café over Israeli salads and sandwiches.  We mailed postcards at the cutest old-fashioned post office, visited a bookstore that had more book piled higher than I have ever seen, wandered into a back alley and down into a basement in search of another bookstore, this one closed.  Knightsmama bought chocolate in one store, and Captain Crunch and Dr. J. purchased small amounts of bulk candy at another. 
But most important for me, we walked several blocks off the main drag over to Grace Episcopal Church, wandered around the beautiful ground, still green, but not for long, the finger tips of fall beginning to loose the grasp, and found the Columbarium where reside the ashes of my late friend and teacher, William Owens and his wife, Ann.   I guess, maybe, the last time I was in Nyack was in December 1990 for his funeral, in this same church. 
For a time in the late eighties and early nineties, when I was part of what was called The Men’s Movement and published and edited MAN! Magazine, the topic of mentors and mentorship was very important to me.  Nowadays, we hear the term dropped, lifted aloft, batted around a great deal.  Everybody’s volunteering or being paid tiny stipends to be a mentor at work or in some disadvantaged school.  But like every magical and wondrous thing that becomes institutionalized and codified and compensated, the concept has lost its teeth. 
But this was my experience.  I began graduate school at Texas A&M in English, a bit dreamy, naïve and unskilled.  My last semester at the University of Texas I discovered I did not want to be a high school teacher.  My brother-in-law knew a professor at A&M that taught Southwestern American Literature, a la Frank Dobie.  So I applied at A&M, and was accepted.   I was curious and serious in a romantic manner, and quite pre-cynical about writing and the writer’s life.   My first essay there for that professor of Southwest Lit was based on Carlos Casteneda’s Journey to Axtlan, blending in books by Dobie, Bedichek, Mary Austin, and others.   In spite of receiving a B on the paper, I perceived no reason why I should not grow to be a famous and highly regarded writer.   I believed in Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, and I believed these values would distinguish me.  I am pretty sure, however, that there were professors who were not so convinced of either my intelligence or my future prospects. 
Then William Owens was asked to be Writer-in-Residence for the spring semester of 1976.   He had recently retired from Columbia University, where he had taught since the late forties after he returned from serving in World War II.  In Texas, he was well known for his work in Texas folk songs, and for his fiction, much of which incorporated his studies in folklore, especially African American traditions and music.  His 1950 book Slave Mutiny was the basis for Speilberg’s Amistad.  In 1976, he had just published his third book in what would become five volumes of family history and memoir.  The first volume of that series, This Stubborn Soil, is still in print and highly regarded.  Of course, I knew none of this at the time.  What I knew was that he had written a book, Three Friends, about the friendship of Roy Bedichek, J. Frank Dobie, and Walter Webb.  One day, an older graduate student and I were shooting the breeze.  He mentioned that the head of the department had asked if he wanted to be a TA for the visiting writer.  He seemed uninterested, so I asked, “Would you mind if I let the Chair know I was interested?”  The rest is my history.

William A. Owens

For the spring semester, then, I ran errands for Owens, tracked down references as he revised his Texas Folk Songs, transcribed tapes he had made of interviews of Bedichek, Dobie, and Webb back in the early fifties.  I taped his lectures, and those of visiting scholars such as Henry Nash Smith and Gay Wilson Allen.  He introduced me to his wife, took me to dinner, introduced me to his daughter who visited from Princeton, I believe.  And we took the occasional road trip to talk with the last representatives of an immigrant  culture in the state.  I brushed up on my knowledge of Texas wildflowers and birds, read as many of Bill’s books as I could, and basically did what I was told to the best of my ability.  Which I suppose was good enough. 
            That began a fourteen-year relationship that included visiting him in Nyack, meeting him at conferences or talks whenever he was invited to Texas, sitting in on his summer creative writing class at the University of Texas, driving him between cities when he visited, and living in the American History Archives at the University of Texas for a couple of years while we edited the letters of his mentor, older friend, Roy Bedichek.  Then through his influence and connections, I got my first paying writing gigs at The Texas Observer, Texas Humanist, and Dallas Morning News.  I never shared my poems with him, which I was writing only occasionally, but we wrote letters, and I sent him a few early attempts at what we would now call “creative non-fiction.”  I thought of them as autobiographical fiction.  

And I became a sounding board, I am guessing, for everything he wrote as he produced two more volumes of memoir, which were published, and a book on writing that was never printed.  He was attempting to write a final volume of memoir in his early eighties as Alzheimer’s began to remove him.  This one included memories of the painter Grant Wood, whom Bill had served as menial helper.  On one trip to visit Bill,  we took the beginnings of this manuscript to a copy shop.  There, we had three nice stacks for him to work from—he wrote on a manual typewriter and literally cut and pasted manuscripts together.  That’s the way we did it back then.  When I return a few months later, he and I sat on the floor of his living room in Nyack one entire afternoon re-collating the manuscripts.  He seemed to be puzzled and confused by the process; I certainly did not understand then what has happening to my friend’s mind and talents.
            So on November 1, my family and I strolled through Nyack and found the brass plates that simply noted Dr. William A. Owens (November 2, 1905-December 6, 1990) and Ann Wood Owens (April 7, 1922-January 30, 1991).   So far on this adventure, I have visited many graves.  I have stood at the side of markers for grandparents many generations removed, and I have made pilgrimages to the graves of my or my culture’s heroes.  I wish I could say these are deeply transformative moments, but generally I just stand around, shuffle my feet, look at the sky, the trees, the marker.  And there is usually a moment when I recall what I know of that person or what I appreciate about his or her accomplishments.  At Bill Owens’s little brass plate, tacked to a flat stone atop a short wall, I almost wept.  Almost, because Knightsmama was wandering the garden taking photos, and Dr. J and Captain Crunch were expressing eagerness to hurry on.  Yet, I sat on a wooden bench and almost cracked:  then promised myself that I would allow that crack to widen later. 
            As I wrote in an essay published in MAN! Magazine back in the day, Bill Owens became, in many ways, my second father.  Many parents are different these days, but, as I remember my father’s encouragement, it went something like this:  “You can be a success, but I expect that you will fail, because you are a fuck-up. So surprise me.”  Whether my father meant to give me that lesson and impression is debatable.  I ponder this possibility often.  By the time my father could have changed his advice and tone, I had moved beyond him.  I figured without really knowing what I was doing that, if my father wasn’t going to help me become what I might become, then I would find someone else who would.  Bill Owens was that person.  His encouragement was expressed differently:  “You are doing good work; keep it up; here is the next thing you need to know.” 
            So my little soul quake while I sat beside Bill Owens’s resting place was a brief vision of a twenty-something kid struggling to find secure footing in unfamiliar territory.  I slipped, I fell, I failed, but when I looked up there was a hand helping me back up and a face that was smiling and encouraging.  What would have happened to me if Bill had not been there?  I suppose the answer is that things would have been fine—just in a different way.  However, what I am today, for good or ill, but I think mostly it is good, includes the psychic DNA of William Owens.  He is the most important adult I ever came in contact with.  In him, I could see what I wanted to become; but just as important, in me, he could see in me what he had once been.   He had once been a young man with an inchoate ambition to be something other than what he was born to.  His struggles from cotton farm to Columbia University were far greater than anything I could ever have imagined.   But we were both haunted by the same questions:  “Who am I?”  “Who are my people?”  “What is this world I live in, this time, this place?”  “How do I remain true to myself in this world?”  Bill came to answers more profound and more beautifully expressed than I, but I am glad to have shared the road with him. 
            I began writing this blog thinking I was exploring the idea of success, the lack of it, and something called “status anxiety” and maybe I have touched on that subject.  But I feel like, instead, I have written about gratitude.  I made a pilgrimage to the final resting place of the man who altered greatly the man I have become.  He was the embodiment of the man I imagined, hoped, I could become.  I failed at that.  Fine—but I came closer than I would have without him.  I was able to say “Thank you.”  And I imagine he heard me.

            Then on November 2, something just as special occurred.  The Waller Grant traveling show shared dinner with William Owens’s son and family.  David Owens, his wife Ann, and their two daughters live in a magnificent house overlooking the Hudson.  David and Ann very kindly invited us for a wonderful evening of great food and wine.  In these blogs, I am not writing about the visits we make to friends because, well, this blog is my thing and they did not ask to be part of it.   So I will just say this—David is just as gracious and kind as his father.  There is no reason in the world that required him to host this traveling zoo.  But he did and we are all deeply grateful.  Another sweet memory for me about Nyack and Pearl River and the Hudson River Valley.  I imagine his father, who would have been 108 that day, November 2, maybe smiled.


Soundtrack.  James Taylor:  "You've Got a Friend."