Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Little Less, but More

I don’t know where it happened.  It wasn’t like it was a flash or anything dazzling.  No thunderbolt of realization, no gigantic burst of synapses dancing, no ah ha, ummm, geez, or wow.  It was a slow percolation, a permutation, a sponge-like absorption, but from a source within, of acknowledgement that things were not what I had hoped for.  Maybe “hoped” isn’t the right word.  More like “expected.” 
Captain Crunch and the Wreck of the Peter Iredale
            Because what I “expected” was the ah ha, the ummm, the geez, and the wow. I even expected a few “oh no’s,”  “not now’s,” “stop please’s.”   I expected, stupidly I now realize, to follow in the tracks of Daniel Boone, Jedediah Smith, Brigham Young, John Wesley Powell, John Freemont, to become Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, William Least Heat Moon, Bill Bryson, or maybe just John Steinbeck or Charles Kuralt. I expected I would become the genius traveler and observer.  I expected that something wild would happen.  I expected danger; I expected travails, some sort of urgency, some sort of hard earned wisdom. You know, The Great American Road Trip, with the capital letters highlighting its iconic status, unrepeatable.  Indubitably unduplicatable.
            But what I have gotten was the continued story of my life.  Let me tell you right now what the story of my life is.  The story of my life is the story of the fairly pleasant slog.  Nothing very dangerous.  Nothing harrowing.   Something occasionally challenging, featuring a few random assholes who have made some moments unsavory.   Something generally charmed, featuring friends and family who are funny and forgiving, children who are cheerful and energetic, colleagues who are interesting and entertaining.  It’s a life somewhat out of the ordinary, but not unique by any means.  My life, and thus my trip this year through the United States, has not been a life of exhilarating highs, but then it neither has it been a life of debilitating lows. We are not finished.  We still have six weeks to go.  But I think the pattern has been established.
Knightsmama and Savannah Mayfield at The Deck
            I think that I have been living the life that most people establish for themselves when they “settle down.”  You find a lovely mate.  Maybe you have some children.  You buy a house; you buy a bigger house.  Everybody gets a room.  Everybody soon or later ends up with a bunch of electronic devices.  No, not sex toys.  Telephones and computers and game consuls.  Everybody has a sport or a hobby that the others witness and congratulate one another about. You make just enough money to pay for it all with a job that requires you to be about three quarters of what you might be if the world were more interested and had higher expectations.  Mistakes and accidents happen, and you get through them or you let them defeat you.  Sometimes, people get therapy and forgive each other.  Sometimes people stay angry or depressed and that’s their lot.  Then the younger generation grows up, and it all begins again.  It seems to be as perfect as things can be.  All that we could ask for.  But the truth is I want to ask for more.  I have asked for more.  However, I am either a chicken shit—a distinct possibility--, or I am a reasonably safe, attentive person, who has a wise aversion toward endangering myself and those whom I love. 
            I am having these thoughts, this day, in Fort Stevens State Park, outside Astoria, Oregon.  We have come to Astoria to celebrate Our Great American Adventure in the place where MeriwetherLewis and William Clark and their intrepid team of explorers settled for the winter of 1805-06 before turning around and heading back to the East Coast.  If you have been with us our entire journey, you will remember that our first major stop on the Caravan of Wonder was St. Louis, the Gateway Arch and the Museum of Western Expansion.  While in that area we visited the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, where Clark trained his men, where Evertt Beidler has placed a dandy sculpture, “Proceeding On,” commemorating the importance of this triangular bit of earth.  I also stood before Clark’s grave in the same St. Louis cemetery where William Burroughs is buried.  In a week, after a few days in Olympic National Park, we will be turning the Caravan back eastward.   Compared to Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea, York, and the others, I am living a little life.  But it isn’t their greatness that has put me into this mood.
Knightsmama and Rich Perin at Pok Pok
            It was Portland.  First, I should admit that I had my guard up as we approached Portland.  I put very little planning into the town.  I just didn’t want to love it or even like it because everyone, I mean everyone, always tells us how much they love Portland.  Portland is the place where people in Austin, sick from what Austin’s become, eventually go.  Portland: the one American city cooler than the city where I live.  So we visited it, and generally enjoyed it.
Let’s face it, as an English Professor and lover of books, I had to make my pilgrimage to Powells Bookstore (which is, I admit, so much more cool that BookPeople in Austin. There is no comparison). The only bookstore that compares to it is my memory of The Strand in New York City in the seventies.  Captain Crunch was literally jumping up and down in his excitement in this bookstore.   One evening, Knightsmama and I found our way to Voodoo Donuts, because it had been so oft recommended.  And I admired over and over the Columbia River.  Our campground was near the river; we drove along side it to Multnomah Falls; and we ate dinner one night floating upon it.  Somewhere I will write about rivers.  I have loved the rivers we have camped beside on this trip:  Mississippi, Ohio, Potomac, Columbia.  But with only three nights in Portland—and I was under the weather for two days with my first sinus attack of the entire year—what we experienced was limited.
So it wasn’t really Portland.  It was the two friends we visited there.  These friends go back to 1996.  In the spring of 1996, a bright, curly haired blonde spitfire of a student appeared in my creative writing class on the Riverside Campus at Austin Community College.  Savannah Mayfield was her name, a young single mother in her early twenties.  She was eager, sometimes I thought overeager as she continually challenged me to make my class life changing. She was full of questions, dreams, and expectations.  She made me a better teacher.  Well, she made her A in class, placed a poem or two in the college literary journal, and I thought moved on to greater challenges.  Little did I know that she had a roommate who was eager to return to school.  That summer they embarked on a three-week car trip across the nation to Massachusetts and Maine, and I fit into their conversations somewhere.  I know that because this roommate called me upon her return to Austin, gathering information to help her decide if she wanted to take my class.
William Clark's Grave in St. Louis
In the spring of 1996, I turned forty-three years old.  In the summer, after a two-year separation, I was a divorced dad with an eleven-year old son.  I had survived what some might call an energetic mid-life crisis.  I fell deeply and passionately in love with a married woman, who through thick and thin remained married.  I had been climbing the college’s administrative ladder but had become disillusioned. A year or two before, a magazine I edited had seen its time come and go.  I had decided that what I really wanted to be was a teacher/poet.  A little bit responsible, but mostly a free spirit.  Maybe, in my more egotistical moments, I desired to be a mentor to other free spirits. That July, I took my own road trip with my eleven-year old son, now we call him The Philosopher, to Eastern Tennessee and a family reunion. 
And so I began the fall semester, 1996, a free man in Austin, teaching my usual load, including one class in creative writing.  I was doing a little acting with friends Paul Wright and Margaret Hoard in Mel Kenne’s poem cycle, The Book of Ed, as the producers were showcasing it around town trying to raise money.  I was not very good and was eventually replaced when it was recorded for CD.  But I had fun while it lasted.  The house that I purchased, following the divorce, was renovated, and The Philosopher and I moved in. 
In my creative writing class were two special students:  Rich Perin, a young wild man recently arrived from Australia, and Colleen Waller, long and thin, all fresh from her automobile trip with my former student, Savannah. Both were exiting and intriguing writers.  Rich pulled from the oral tradition of performance poetry alternating between the thrust of male libido and caress of tender lyricism.  He became one of the most highly regarded slam poets in town and eventually placed second in nationals on a team from San Antonio.  Colleen wrote without the confines of a particular tradition but drew from a lifetime of wide reading, a little Mary Oliver, some Rumi, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, Barbara Kingsolver, maybe.  I am guessing.  The power in her writing was its unrestricted honesty, unadorned. 
As time went on, Rich and I collaborated on artistic projects.  Maybe he learned something from me; with his influence, I certainly added more energy and danger to my lyrics.  He traveled the U.S. performing his poetry.  We have kept in touch sporadically, but I wasn’t too surprised a few years ago to learn he had moved to Portland.  I think Austin was too soft for him.  Eventually, Colleen Waller and I fell in love, conceived two children, married, inspiring each other for seventeen years now, and creating the Caravan of Wonder.  Savannah has continued to write. After some time in Santa Fe, she moved to Portland where she had become part of the community of healers, specializing in women’s health, massage therapy and life coach work.  And here for three days, we were all together again in Portland—Savannah, Rich, Colleen, and me.  A moment to celebrate, right?
Multnomah Falls
Certainly.  Celebrate we did with glorious meals at Pok Pok and at The Deck. One night we rode though Portland’s crowded streets in Rich’s early 80’s Cadillac, and the next we admired the sailboats cruising the Columbia dining al fresco with Savannah, her husband Bill, and her eight year old son, Liam. 
But, you know me, all this happiness comes at a price.  That price is contemplation and self-reflection.  My navel gazing these days has focused on the question:  What happened to the free spirit?  I thought going from twenty-three to forty-three was a large and momentous shift in being!  At forty-three, I was finally free to be whom I always thought I could be.  It took that long to emerge from the cocoon I had spun.  In two years, I will be sixty-three.  At sixty-one, I am traveling across the U.S. lugging an RV Trailer, taking in as much as I can take in, showing two of my children more country side than most Americans see in their entire lives, trying to digest the history and humanity of this nation.  What is this country?  Who am I in this country?
And what am I thinking now?  How safe all this has been.  How like a sixty-year old man I have become!  Eleven months into this adventure, it no longer seems like an adventure, but a way of life.  As carefully organized and arranged as any suburban tract life.  Where is my bravery?  Where is my energy?  My passion?  My daring-do?  My free spirit?  I am not asking where did the twenty-three year old go.  I am wondering where the forty-three year old disappeared to.
You know Emerson wrote an essay called “Circles.” I am not remembering it, here on the West Coast, in any detail. I have not googled it.  But I think he focused somewhere in it on that image of the circles made on the surface of a lake when one tosses a stone it in.  The waves proceeding out, stronger at first, then weaker, then disappearing.  Is this the image of one’s life changing moments?  Big waves.  Making big waves at first. Then lesser waves as time and distance do their thing.  Certain events in our lives make big waves.  A job, a marriage, a child, an affair, a divorce, a song, a book, a painting.  The stuff of great memoirs and novels is these rocks and the big waves they make. 
The Goodies at Voodoo Donuts
I thought The Great American Road Trip would be a large stone in the lake of my life.  I thought it would make me a new man, that I would return to Austin, changed forever, slightly unrecognizable. Free.  Freer.  Braver.  Full of stories of dares accepted, of dangers conquered.  But I think I have been wrong.  Instead, this trip is a distant ripple of the stone heaved into my slightly stormy life eighteen years ago.  Back then, in Austin, I decide to be a poet.  I begin teaching creative writing.  Savannah Mayfield registers for the class, enjoys it, encourages her friend Colleen to take it the next semester.  The big stone drops, and Colleen and I ride the waves together.  Rich Perrin emigrates from Australia and witnesses the splash.  Eighteen years later, we all find ourselves for three days in Portland, Oregon.  I am dense enough, dull enough, to wonder where that mid-life crises case of a poet has gone.     

Oh.  There he is, one hand holding Knightmama’s, the other pulling along a cane, strolling the paths at Fort Clatsop, the replica of Lewis and Clark’s winter quarters on the Pacific.  There he is in the Caravan introducing Dr. J. to the joys of oyster shooters.  There he is photographing Captain Crunch dancing in the Pacific waves at the foot of the wreck of the Peter Iredale.  He’s buying propane; getting a tire plugged; emptying the tanks of black water (human wastes) and gray water (dish rinse).   He is relaxed into little joys and tender duties.  It is not exactly what he imagined, twenty years ago, that sixty-one would be like. He had no idea then what events were about to unsettle the lake of his life.   It is not exactly what he expected, a year ago, the Caravan of Wonder to be.  He thought he was changing his life, not riding the waves of the life he already had.  Sure, it all seems to be a little less than he imagined, and sometimes a bit more.  

Soundtrack Double Feature.  Talking Heads:  "Wild, Wild Life."

Taking Heads:  "Once in a Lifetime."

Common Sense and the Passionate Rhetoric of Reason

          Thomas Paine is rightly judged to be an heir and contributor to eighteenth century Enlightenment thought.  Paine followed the tradition of  rational inquiry laid out by Voltaire, Kant, Hobbs, and Locke, and often enjoyed the respect of contemporary political, scientific, and philosophical luminaries such as Jefferson, Franklin, and Burke.  He boldly dedicated himself to exploring the political and religious implications of reason and logic.  As he writes in the dedication to The Age of Reason, “The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason.  I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall” (351).   In The Rights of Man, when he wished to pin Edmund Burke into an inescapable corner, he concludes, “Is this the language of a rational man?  Is it the language of a heart feeling as it ought to feel for the rights and happiness of the human race?” 147).  In Common Sense, when concluding that the colonies should separate themselves from England, he writes, “It is repugnant to reason, to the universal order of things, to all examples from former ages, to suppose that this continent can longer remain subject to any external power” (29).  Without question, Thomas Paine was a skillful devotee to the cause of reason.  Like other Enlightenment thinkers, he was willing to ask questions and follow a line of reasoning to its logical conclusions without regard to public reaction.  His years of poverty and isolation following his support of the French Revolution and his criticism of the Christian religion attest to that.  However, I think it is worth noting that Paine’s statement, “I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall,” is not entirely accurate. While Paine was dedicated to reason and rational argumentation, he was also a passionate communicator and was not above employing rhetorical tricks to move his readers.  In this paper, I will examine a few such instances in Common Sense.
            Historians generally agree that Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense changed the direction and manner of the political discussion in the American colonies.  He “not only exculpated the existing debate, but also called for a wholesale revision of the assumptions upon which that debate had been based”  (Liell 63).  For example, in one short year, from July 1775 to July 1776, the Continental Congress moved from expressing their desire to remain, peaceably, as British subjects to declaring their independence.  Between these two events was the publication of Common Sense.   Thomas Paine estimated that over 120,000 copies of Common Sense were sold.  One assumes that as a brief, inexpensive publication, its reach was much broader with each copy read by several citizens. Its success even provoked John Adams to express his dismay.  Adams substantially agreed with most of Paine’s arguments claiming, in fact, that he had expressed them previously in various settings.  Eric Forner writes, quoting Adams, “Its discussion of that subject, [Adams] insisted, was simply ‘a tolerable summary of the arguments which I have been repeating again and again in Congress for nine months’” (79).  Yet what Adams seemed most disturbed by was the power of the language Paine was able to marshal, which Adams described as phrases ‘suitable for an emigrant from New Gate, or one who had chiefly associated with such company” (qtd. in Forner 82). 
            Paine’s central argument is, of course, that the colonies should declare their independence from Britain.  He structures his argument and provides the bulk of its support rationally and logically, which is what he means in this case by “common sense.” However, Paine was certainly no classicist. In fact, David C. Hoffman concluded,
We may admire Paine as much as we wish for his independent thought and courage, for his luminous prose style, and for his practical contributions to the American and French Revolutions.  But there is no use in trying to make him a classicist in any sense of the words, for he is not.” (380)
That being said, Paine does an admirable job of adapting the classical structure of argumentation for his own purposes.  Rather than following the prescribed order of Introduction-Thesis-Background-Supporting Facts and Evidence-Refutation of Opposing Arguments-Conclusion, Paine leads his reader inductively through the gauntlet of established objections to American independence beginning with the first paragraph in which he extols the importance of naturally occurring “society” and decries the unpleaseantness of restrictive, punishing  “government.”    
It is not my purpose here to repeat his line of argument, which is as thorough as it is subtle.  Paine has to accomplish a great deal in a relatively brief publication, including separating the concepts of “society” from “government,” dislodging loyalties to the aristocracy and monarchy, demonizing hereditary rule, bonding the individual colonies to each other while separating their affections toward Britain, and illustrating the native strength of the colonies.  Rather it is to point out that throughout his essay, Paine employs the techniques of Pathos, or the use of emotion to spice and enhance the structural Logos of this argument. While the use of Pathos increases as the essay progresses, this early statement illustrates Paine’s skill.
I know it difficult to get over local or long standing prejudices, yet if we will suffer ourselves to examine the component parts of the English constitution, we shall find them to be the base remains of two ancient tyrannies, compounded with some new republican materials. (68)
Here, in one sentence, Paine encourages his readers to open their minds to new information and dispassionate reason, introduces an objective classification system, then nails two of three alternatives with a powerfully negative word choice.  He uses 46 words, and only one, “tyrannies,” emotionally charged.  It is an effective technique:  reason prevails but the emotions are engaged. 
            Another technique that I would argue supplies Logos and Pathos is Paine’s aphoristic style.  Throughout Common Sense, Paine enhances his long and complicated series of arguments with pithy, memorable proverb-like statements.  A few examples will illustrate the technique.
  • ·      Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.  (65)
  • ·      As a man, who is attached to a prostitute, is unfitted to choose or judge a wife, so any prepossession in favour of a rotten constitution of government will disable us from discerning a good one.  (71)
  • ·      [Hereditary right] is one of those evils, which when once established is not easily removed; many submit from fear, others from superstition, and the more powerful part shares with the king the plunder of the rest.  (77)
  • ·      To talk of friendship with those in whom our reason forbids us to have faith, and our affections wounded through a thousand pores instruct us to detest, is madness and folly.  (99)
  • ·      Youth is the seedtime of good habits, as well in nations, as in individuals.  (107-108)
  • ·      Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society.  (109)

While rational, these statements also combine common sense with emotional satisfaction.  Stylistically they punctuate an argument with an undeniable truth.  They provide a moment of rational contemplation, but they also provide a moment of aesthetic appreciation at the ability of language to capture one’s knowledge and wisdom succinctly. Facts and analyses of cause and effect are useful, but a well-phrased summation of human behavior is a thing of beauty, and thus emotionally pleasing.
            Another method that Paine employs to engage his readers’ emotions is a judicial use of figurative language.  Paine’s use of emotionally charged literal language, such as his use of “tyrannies” is effective in engaging his readers’ emotions.  His use of figurative language is more so.   Paine is particularly fond of metonymy, the use of a word to evoke a wider range of symbolic or associated meanings.  Perhaps the most well-known of these is Paine’s statement, “[I]t is needless to spend much time in exposing the folly of hereditary right:  if there are any so weak as to believe it, let them promiscuously worship the ass and the lion, and welcome”  (76).  Here, Paine actually employs several emotional appeals, including attacks on an opponent’s strength and moral steadfastness, but his use of “ass” and “lion” illustrates the linguistic shorthand that charges an otherwise rational argument with emotion. Paine could have substituted “weak” and “strong” respectively, but those perfectly accurate words would not have provided the emotional complexity Paine creates by alluding to natural, Biblical, and historical understanding of the terms.  
            Paine also uses a somewhat complicated extended metaphor that is greatly charged with emotional power, that of the parents and family.  When Paine introduces the analogy, it is in the context of the section titled “Thoughts on the present state of American affairs,” but he extends it for much of the rest of the essay.  He writes, “But Britain is the parent country, some say.  Then the more shame upon her conduct.  Even brutes do not devour their young, nor savages make war upon their families” (84).  One should notice the pronoun here:  “her,” the feminine.  “Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster”  (84).  By this point in the argument, the moment where he wants to paint the Colonial situation as dire and ripe for action, Paine is more or less habitually turning to emotionally charged ad hominem, insulting language:  “brutes,” “savages,” and “monster.”
            But a few pages later, when Paine employs the parental analogy again, he assigns the colonists the loving parental role:  “As parents, we can have no joy, in knowing that this government is not sufficiently lasting to ensure any thing which we may bequeath to posterity”  (87).  This is an strange switch in tactics but an effective one.  Paine can rely on his readers’ general view of what loving parents are and how they behave toward children.  In relatively few paragraphs, Paine has defined Britain as a bad parent, and assumed the colonists to be good parents.  It won’t be long, therefore, until the analogy makes clear that the it is time for the colonists to be their own parents.  Before that occurs, however, Paine extends his readers’ devotion for good parenting to a compassionate regard for other fellow families and citizens who have suffered at the hands of the British.  Essentially, he re-envisions the Colonies as one family.
Hath your house been burnt?  Hath your property been destroyed before your face?  Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on?  Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor?  If you have not, then you are not a judge of those who have.  But if you have, and still can shake hands with the murderers, then you are unworthy of the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and whatever may be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.” (89)
In this extraordinary passage, Paine doubles his use emotional appeals, first by moving his readers with calls to sorrow and personal loss, then by cornering the opposition by insulting their honor, loyalty, and family affection. 
            In just a few more pages, he delivers the final blow of rejecting any affection toward the King of England, again utilizing the family analogy.  Paine admits that before the Battle of Lexington and Concord, he was hoping for some reconciliation.  After that battle, “I rejected the hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh of England for ever; and disdain the wretch, that with the pretended title of FATHER OF HIS PEOPLE can unfeelingly hear of their slaughter, and composedly sleep with their blood upon his soul”  (92).  First, we notice the repeat of his ad hominem attacks using allusion and insults:  “Pharaoh” and “wretch.”  “Pharaoh” layers the argument with connections to the oppression of the Jews, which Paine had introduced in the early portions of the essay with God’s sorrow over the Jews’ desire to have a king (73-76).  Next, we shudder at the images of “slaughter” and “blood.”  But in the center, in capital letters, again Paine employs the family metaphor.  This time the oppressor becomes male, the father.  By this point in the argument, we can see how brilliantly Thomas Paine spices his complicated, but rational argument for American independence.  Would Paine’s treatise have been as popular and effective without his use of rhetorical devices that enhance the emotional appeal?
            Before closing, I would like to highlight how artfully Paine adapted his analogy of the family.  We have already seen how Britain has become the bad parent—both bad mother and bad father—of the Colonies.  We have seen how American citizens are good parents wishing to protect their children from harm and extending their familial sympathies to others.  In the fourth section of his essay, Paine asks his readers to become, essentially in democratic fashion, the loving and protective parents to an infant nation. “The infant state of the Colonies, as it is called, so far from being against, is an argument in favor of independence” (107).  Here Paine turns the metaphor upside down, in that as an infant state, the Colonies are not helpless.  They are in a position to grow straight and strong and uncorrupted:  “Youth is the seed time of good habits”  (107).  Paine is saying that America is young, and we as good citizens, as loving parents, can help it grow strong and responsive to generations to come.  His argument leads to another of his aphorisms:  “When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember, that virtue is not hereditary” (110).
            In his essay examining how Thomas Paine employs the concept of “prejudice” in Common Sense, David C. Hoffman emphasizes that the concept, in Paine’s time, named kind of thoughtless pre-rational, pre-judgment of situations.  Paine often portrays those who would oppose American independence as people who just haven’t reflected on the matter thoroughly enough.  However, as contemporaries such as John Adams realized Thomas Paine did not merely rely on a rational, logical presentation of pros and cons of independence, meant to persuade a dispassionate audience.  Paine, despite his assertions otherwise, also relied on emotional trickery through argumentation appealing to pathos.  These techniques, as much as reason, were just as important in creating the groundswell of popular support for independence.     

Works Cited
Aldridge, A. Owen.  “Thomas Paine and the Classics.”  Eighteenth-Century Studies
1:4 (Summer 1968):  370-380.  JSTOR <
Accessed 17/06/2014.
Foner, Eric.  Tom Paine and Revolutionary America.  London:  Oxford UP.  1977.
Fruchtman, Jack Jr.  Thomas Paine:  Apostle of Freedom.  New York:  Four Walls
Eight Windows.  1994.
Hoffman, David C.  “Paine and Prejudice:  Rhetorical Leadership through Perceptual Framing
 in Common Sense.  Rhetoric and Public Affairs.  9:3 (2006): 373-410.  ProQuest
Accessed 17/6/2014.
Liell, Scott.  46 Pages:  Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence.
              Philadelphia:  Running Press.  2003.
Paine, Thomas.  The Age of Reason, Part One (Selections).   Common Sense, Rights of
Man, and Other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine.  New York:  Signet Classics.
2003:  351-370.
------------.  Common Sense.  Ed.  Isaaac Kramnick.  London:  Penguin. 1986.
-----------.  Rights of Man.  Common Sense, Rights of Man, and Other Essential Writings
of Thomas Paine.  New York:  Signet Classics. 2003.  129-35

Soundtrack.  John Prine:  "Common Sense."

Saturday, June 14, 2014

American Sing--a-Long, Part 2

So there are sweet moments in the truck when all of us are singing along with “American Pie” or “Alice’s Restaurant” and relearning/learning our lessons in sympathy, grief, and anti-disestablishmentarianism.  There are other moments when I just decide there are some things I want to think about.  So I plug in the Ipod, pick out an album (cause I download entire albums, not individual songs), and let it play, while I guide The Monster down the road.  The other day, as we drove from Sacramento, California, to Ciloquin, Oregon, I took the opportunity to indulge in music from “my generation.”  No, not The Who.  You will remember that while on this journey I am listening, almost without exception, to American music.
Where Gram Parsons Died September 19, 1973
No, I was actually catching up to some recent moments from the trip, Joshua Tree and Venice Beach, places where I wanted to sit and think, but the Caravan had to keep on rolling.  At such times, I just have to make a deal with myself that now I will move on with the family but sometime later I will return in memory and in contemplation.  Joshua Tree and Venice Beach, Gram Parsons and Jim Morrison, my favorite themes, art and mortality.
Both singers and performers were important martyrs to the rock and roll cause.  In just a matter of a few years, my generation experienced that weird sensation of moving from Peace, Love, Turn on, and Expand Your Mind to Chaos, Cruelty, Turn Off, and What the Fuck.  From Woodstock to Altamont, from “California Dreaming” to “Hotel California.”  Famously, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Jim Morrison all died at age 27.  Joplin and Hendrix died in1970, less than a month apart, and Morrison followed not quite a year later.  Always precocious, Parsons didn’t make it to 27, dying two months before his birthday in 1973.  
For those of us who were paying attention, I don’t think there is a way to measure the meaning of the deaths of these artists.  Maybe Kurt Colbain’s suicide (at 27) was more moving and more tragic for his fans.  I don’t know, but Amy Winehouse’s death (also at 27) a couple of years ago was just plain sad.  Back in the late sixties, there we were, all us baby boomer types, trucking along thinking we were going to end war, establish racial unity, end hypocrisy, save the environment, and all that good stuff, and then our heroes just start succumbing to over-indulgence, carelessness, and personal pain.  You begin to think:  if they can’t make their worlds better, with all their success and all their genius, what chance have I, what chance have any of us to make the world a kinder and gentler place. 
One can sort of understand the deaths of John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King.  These guys made people really nervous.  Vested interests were in danger.  Deep prejudices were being threatened.  These were assassinations, murders, real people inhabiting real good and real evil.  These were the forces of a social war expressing themselves clearly.
Morrison Still Hovers over Venice Beach
It is difficult to locate evil in the deaths of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Gram Parsons.  Still, I want to find some meaning in the deaths of these young artists.  And as soon as I write that sentence, I feel a rush of shame or perhaps it’s intellectual honesty that backs me away from the brink.  I know better.  We will rarely understand the deaths of anyone except with the most banal platitudes.  Simplified:  these young artists were addicts.  At that time, my generation and most of America didn’t know much about addiction.  I have not read deeply into any of these performers’ biographies (that will happen next year, I hope), but as far as I know, none of them came from particularly happy homes.  However, in most cases it is pretty difficult to parse out culpability.  Being these kids was difficult, I’m sure.  Being theirs parents would also have been difficult. 
Jim Morrison’s dad was an admiral in the United States Navy, by God.   The story is that he eschewed corporal punishment but “dressed down” his children, a la boot camp.  What’s an admiral going to do with a high school kid who reads Nietzsche and Ginsberg and Rimbaud?  Jim lived in a different world from his father.  Parsons, too, grew up in a family of high achievers.  His mother came from a very successful Florida farming family and his father was a famous war pilot.  All was fine, we are told, except that both parents were alcoholics and both died while Parsons was still young:  the father by suicide when Parsons was 12 and his mother from cirrhosis when he was 18.  Both boys were quite intelligent.   Morrison earned a degree in film from USLA, and Parsons attended Harvard for a semester until he heard some Merle Haggard and decided he needed to play country music.  After a couple of years of feeling his way around the music scene in New York, Parsons wound up, in 1968, at the age of 22, in Los Angeles joining the Byrds and helping inspire their great album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  Meanwhile, three years older than Parsons, in 1968, Jim Morrison, as a member of the Doors, released their third album, Waiting for the Sun, which made it to number one on the charts.  An amazing amount of success for both of these men at such a young age.
Selfie at Joshua Tree Inn
Do I mention here that I had a parent who died when I was young?  Do I mention that my father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force in the Sixties and assumed I would join the ROTC and become an officer also?  Are these points of contact important?  No, let's not go there.
But these guys couldn’t be more different.  In spite of a shared early love of Elvis, their musical tastes couldn’t be more different.  And as I drove through northern California to southern Oregon listing to both, I was struck, of course, by their different voices—Parsons a bell clear tenor, and Morrison the throaty baritone.  Listening first to Parsons’ two records, I was lulled into his sweet sentimentality, and a compassion reaching out of himself toward others.  With songs like “She,” “Old Soft Shoe,” “A Song for You,” “The Return of the Grievous Angel,” “Brass Buttons,”  “1000 Dollar Wedding,” oh my God, Parsons just breaks your heart. 

From “She”: 
They use to walk singing songs by the river
Even when she knew for sure and she had to go away
She never knew what her life had to give her
And never had to worry about it for one single day
Ooh my but she sure could sing, ooh, she sure could sing

From “The Return of the Grievous Angel’:
Out with the truckers and the kickers and the cowboy angels

And a good saloon in every single town

Oh, but I remembered something you once told me

And I'll be damned if it did not come true

Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down

And they all lead me straight back home to you
Twenty thousand roads I went down, down, down

And they all lead me straight back home to you

Is there a better song for this trip?  Maybe.  Maybe it is “Wheels” from Parson’s Flying Burrito Brothers days.  Parsons' dream of "Cosmic American Music" is just what the Caravan of Wonder is looking for.
            But here is the rub.  Parsons angered and disappointed just about everyone he worked with.  He got himself fired from the Byrds and from the Burritos, the band he helped create.  He recorded two lovely records with Emmylou Harris on background vocals backed by the amazing Glen Harden and James Burton (Harden played with Elvis, and Burton played with Rick Nelson and Elvis).  These guys are among the best in the business.  They can make anybody sound good.  Then Parsons killed himself, accidentally, through drink and drugs in a motel in Joshua Tree, California.  A couple of friends, who remembered his vain wish to be cremated in the desert, stole his body before it could be flown to his step-father and burned it in the desert in what is now Joshua Tree National Park.  There’s an ending for you.
Dr. J. at Venice Beach
            When I shifted to listening to The Doors, the transition was shocking.  While Gram Parsons’ songs are tender and touching and, like many country classics, can be sung by just about anyone, Morrison and The Doors are anything but tender, and their sound is so unique, I have trouble believing anyone can sing them without sounding diluted.  Parsons was a pain in the ass; Morrison comes across as just plain dangerous.  His various arrests—whether deserved or trumped up—illustrate how good, clean folks reacted to him and how much he appealed to their children.  It can be argued that Morrison was essentially a blues artist, but there was also a great deal of French surrealist/ Dadaist/German expressionist to him.  I always felt that his vocal on  Kurt Weil’s “Alabama Song” was indicative of a sympathetic aesthetic that wasn’t purely American.  Parsons was a Southern boy; while Morrison was something bigger.  Partly western in that the Southwestern desert slithered in his sub-conscious.  Parsons was the kind of guy who would sit around a campfire and play his guitar and pass the whiskey bottle back and forth.  Morrison was going to strip naked and dance around that campfire and inspire you to do the same.  Parsons wanted some recognition from us, from you; Morrison wanted acknowledgment from the gods.
            I don’t think either of these guys were particularly good poets—as poets.  And I am convinced that the other members of The Doors have not received their full share of the credit for their amazing music.  I mean look at the instruments they are playing.  Go to Youtube and watch some videos. Densmore has a dinky little drum kit, but watch him play.  The best drummers are smart drummers and their silences and fills are as important as their pounding.  Manzarek’s keyboard work is The Doors most distinctive musical element.  Long before you hear Morrison, Manzarek ‘s carnival jazz and weird chord progressions announce that this is a Doors' song.  Take Manzarek out and you have merely another blues band.  Maybe I am being unfair to Krieger on guitar with that statement, but his playing does not define the Doors the way Manzarek’s keyboard does.  I used to dismiss Krieger and his playing until I learned that he wrote “Light My Fire” and was trained as a Flamenco guitarist.  Then I started noticing how he fell in under Manzarek and just kind of laid that psychedelic dance into the song.  These boys were not your Byrds-inspired “So you want to be a rock and roll star” guys.  Except for Morrison who was lost poet wandering the beaches at Venice, they were accomplished musicians.
Captain Crunch Climbs at Joshua Tree
But in front was Morrison, the sex king anarchist.  If anyone has satisfied our projection of what Dionysus should be in the flesh, Morrison is it.  But, of course, he burned out also.  Drink and drugs.  Like Parsons, it was a combination that killed him, but it was the alcohol that brought him to the doorstep.  Supposedly he had moved to Paris to get clean, to distance himself from the distractions and destruction.  But no such luck.  The end came as the end must.   If I ever go to Paris again, I will, of course, go to his grave. 
So in the past month, I have visited Joshua Tree National Park and the Joshua Tree Motel, and paid my respects to Gram Parsons and I have biked around Venice Beach and gandered at the giant mural of the young Jim Morrison.  I have listened to a sizeable selection of their music.  And I have thought about two types of the American outlaw that they might represent.  Parsons understood that sincere hopeless desire of the prodigal to return home, to the gentle welcoming arms of a community.  He wanted and needed to be forgiven.  Morrison, on the other hand, just cut loose.  Early promotional material announced that his family was deceased, a lie he concocted.  He let go of convention, conventionality, family ties; he leapt into the unknown and seemed not to turn around looking for lost hand holds.  He had moved beyond salvation, beyond the desire for salvation.  Or so I imagine. 

Maybe.  Or maybe it is just my need, as a stuck-in-the-mud, conventional middle-class guy to have someone like Morrison to project upon.  Parsons, I know and understand.  Morrison is a mystery to me.  It is good to admit that.  Still, part of May and part of June has been spent thinking about these two American artists.  Both have meant something to me.  I wonder why two such different guys are both still so important. 

Soundtrack.  Gram Parsons:  "The Return of the Grievous Angel."
Dwight Yoakam:  "Wheels."
The Doors:  "L'america."
The Doors: "Roadhouse Blues."

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

American Sing-a-Long, Part 1

            Back a year ago, when be began planning for the Caravan of Wonder and for my discovery/rediscovery of America, I knew that music would be a significant part of it.  After all, we are driving tens of thousands of miles.  We can’t talk (or listen to each other) incessantly or sit in hushed wonder the entire time.  So one of my early projects was loading an Ipod with about six thousand songs.
The Ipod Provides the Soundtrack
            Admittedly part of the loading frenzy was a reaction to deciding, after forty-five years of accumulating, to downsize and sell my record album collection.  The good news is that we won’t have to deal with those boxes in a couple of months when we retire from the road and return home.  Still, I was grieving the loss of my 700-plus records, mostly music from the seventies but a certain amount from the sixties and eighties.  I also had a pretty good collection of classical music, and a respectable amount of jazz.   So last spring, I tried digitalizing my analog, but that was such a time consuming process that I abandoned it.  Instead I focused on downloading my CD’s (which I was keeping, but wisely not taking on the trip), and promised myself that I would purchase any old album I really wanted when I wanted it.  So through various means, I now have more than 6000 individual tracks on the old Ipod. 

           My criteria for selecting music was to bring together 1) a reasonable history of American popular song (Stephen Foster, Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb), 2) a basic list of jazz classics (Armstrong, Parker, Gillespie, Coltrane, Monk, Holiday, Fitzgerald, Davis), 3) a decent collection of country standards (Williams, Arnold, Ford, Cline, Cash, Husky, Nelson)  4) my favorite Texans (Keen, Lovett, Griffin, Griffith, Flatlanders, Clark, and Walker), and 5) my favorite rock, folk rock, and country rock (Dylan, Beach Boys, Doors, Credence,  Franklin, Brown, Browne, Eagles, Presley, Dead, Nelson, Gaye, Los Lobos, Hendrix, Joplin, Motown classics, Steely Dan, Talking Heads).   Of course, there is a lot more, but this gives you the general idea.
            From this list, I think you can see that I tend to like middle of the road stuff, a well-crafted song, a generally upbeat, if melancholic view of life, sincerity, and lyrics one can understand.  No punk, no metal, no hair bands, no rap, a little hip hop.  I do have a couple of Roots records downloaded, and Dr. J. has us covered in contemporary popular hip hop music.)
Carolina Chocolate Drops
            Along the way, I haven’t purchased much additional music.  Two Carolina Chocolate Drops records, a Michael Martin Murphy collection of cowboy songs, J.J. Cale (because he died and I really like J.J.Cale and will miss the albums of his I sold), and Lou Reed (because he died, and I wanted to think about him and his work while we were in New York).   I have contemplated adding Old and in the Way, some Ray Wylie Hubbard, and ZZ Top.  I still might.  Now that we are in Oregon, I expect to add The Decemberists.  Why I did not download their CD’s before we left town, I can’t remember.
            Having said all this, the funny thing is that, during the past nine months, I haven’t listened  to a great deal of music.   Like right now, it’s early Sunday morning in Collier Memorial State Park in Oregon.  I hear a few birds singing, a family or two quietly talking by their early morning fires, the boys are sleeping, Knightsmama is taking a morning stroll.  Why disturb this silence? 
            And being an old fart, I haven’t transitioned into the new way that we listen to music:  our own individual play lists, on our own individual ipods, every person plugged into our own individual set of ear buds.  In any crowd, we might be listening to the same selection of songs, but we do it separately.  But how would we know, permanently plugged in to our exclusive aesthetic., always reinforcing our own individual tastes and pleasures.  All this is another odd way that the younger generations are redefining what “community” and “self” are.  Anyway, my point is that I don’t like to drive with ear buds separating me from sounds of the road, nor am I going to force my family to relive the sixties and seventies every time we start the truck.
            In addition to my Ipod and Dr. J’s Ipod, we have a third one on loan from a couple of my high school friends, Liza and Alan Farrow Gillespie of Dallas.  In June before the trip began, I was in Dallas for a conference, so I imposed myself upon their hospitality.  Liza and Allan had done something that I thought was amazing.  In their forties, they had taken breaks from their work lives, bought a sailboat, and sailed around the world.  It took them several years, while they allowed time to work and enjoy different climes.  First, I wanted selfishly to talk with them about their adventure, just for the fun of learning about it.  More important, though, I was looking for a little courage and advice.  It seems odd now, since we have grown used to be being travelers, but back then I was afraid that as the trip stretched into its second, third, or sixth month that Knightsmama and I would begin to tear at each other’s throat, or otherwise inspire some such destruction and chaos.
            In a lovely Mexican food restaurant on McKinney Ave, Liza, Alan, and I  ate tacos and enjoyed margaritas.  I asked for their stories and their advice.  Their stories are harrowing and tender by turns.  Their deep love for each other and what have done together is obvious.  Their advice was sage:  make a plan, prepare for everything, don’t be afraid to abandon the plan, remember that all you have is each other, and that you are capable of accomplishing things you never thought possible.   It’s sound advice and keeps me even keeled as the Caravan criss-crossed the United States.
Album by Austin Band Starcrost
            Liza is also an accomplished singer and enjoyed a stint in Los Angeles doing studio session work.  One of the records I sold featured her as lead singer for an Austin fusion jazz band, Starcroft.  She knows music, so back at their condo and before I returned to my conference hotel, I asked her for a short list of her favorite American music and musicians.  It was a fun little game for a moment.  She would name someone and I would nod.  I would propose someone and she would dismiss him or her with a quick wave of her hand.  Then for several minutes she disappeared into a back room.  Alan and I caught up on his career.  He is a man with a big heart, a doctor caring for very ill children.  I mean, I think I do important work—helping folks acquire a basic education and retool for new career goals.  But where I work, there is no death and dying, no pain management for the innocent.  Then Liza returned with a list.  Showing why she is an excellent lawyer, she handed me a list responding to my exact question, which I can’t remember because I was merely trying to get her to talk about her tastes in music.  I was musing; she was writing a brief.
            Then something really strange happened.  About a week before the Caravan hit the road, Liza mailed us her own personal Ipod to borrow for the duration of the trip.  Her Ipod included about  almost 1300 songs in three playlists;  “60s Hits,” “Liza’s All Time Favorites,“ and just for us “American Roadtrip.”  While Dr. J. would certainly prefer to listen to his music exclusively, the family as a whole has settled pretty comfortably into “Liza’s Ipod.”  Sixty’s novelty songs like “Purple People Eater” and “Yellow Polk-a-Dot Bikini” are pretty effective mood enhancers.  I also refuse to take on Knightsmama when she begins singing along with British female performers such as Adele, Annie Lennox, and Amy Winehouse.   They are not American, but Knightsmama didn’t sign the American Road Trip Purity Pledge:  I did.
Don McLean and American Pie
            While Knightsmama appreciates the Townes Van Zandt, Patti Griffin, Credence, and Willie Nelson that I included on my Ipod, she becomes much more animated when Dr. J.  plays Rianna, Black Eye-Peas, CeeLo Green,Lady Gaga, Pink, or Macklemore.  But the two biggest hits so far on this trip have come from Liza’s  Ipod.  I would never have predicted either.  The first is Don McLean’s “American Pie.”  This is a song whose appeal I have resisted, without full success, ever since it first appeared.  Probably the only reason I resist it is that it was an instant hit and loved by everyone before I had a chance to love it.  I admit it.  I hate being one of the crowd.  I hate loving something for the same reason that everyone else loves it.  Don’t’ get me started about why I dislike The Big Chill and Forrest Gump.  I want to feel the same way about “American Pie” and “Starry, Starry Night,” for that matter.  As far as I remember, I never purchased this album.  But it is such a catchy tune for an emotionally complicated song.  A few days ago, Knightsmama ran her thumb around the Ipod’s little circle, and hit select.    At some moment, she began singing the chorus.  I began joining in on some of the more clever and memorable rhymes.  Then the next time the chorus came around, Captain Crunch added his voice.  I was driving, so I don’t know if Dr. J. ever shyly mumbled his voice to the chorus.  If I knew I wouldn’t say because I don’t want to embarrass a tough as nails teenage boy.  The truck, however, shook with our singing.  “Bye, bye, Miss American Pie  / Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry.  / And them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye, / singing 'this will be the day that I die.'”
You Can Get Everything You Want
            The joy of this sing-a-long has been bested on only two other occasions, by the same song.  No, one wasn’t “Take It Easy” in Winslow, Arizona.  Bizarrely, the hit song of our trip across America has been Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant,” the long version.    We have played it twice.  The first time, accidentally, on the first day of the trip.  Liza’s Ipod, on shuffle, took us from Austin to Houston for my friend Neal’s funeral, then all the way to Wills Point, east of Dallas.  It was a long day on the road.  When we were about twenty minutes outside of Wills Point, “Alice’s Restaurant” rolled up on the play list, and I thought, “Oh, nice, they have the short version on,” you know, the radio friendly version.  But, no, it was the full second side of the album.  (I know.  This is one of the records I sold as we packed up the house.)  All the way from, “This is a song about Alice”  to “the eight by ten glossy photos with the circles and arrows on the back of each one,” to “That was horrible.  If you want to end war and stuff you got to sing loud.”  And loudly my family sang, the first time as we approached The Buckaroo’s house at twilight on the first day of this adventure, and the second time about two weeks ago driving up a crazy tight switchback road on our way to King’s Canyon and the General Grant Tree. 
            While I would never have predicted that the most popular sing-a-long songs on this trip would be “American Pie” and “Alice’s Restaurant,” certainly I can say that I am proud that they are.  I remember a time twenty-five years ago, when my oldest son was in kindergarten, and “Yellow Submarine” was the go-to family sing-a-long song.  A fine choice, I suppose, at the time.    But I have to say, “Alice’s Restaurant” pleases me.  Woody Guthrie is one of my chosen saints for this adventure.  To include Arlo is added harmony.

Soundtrack Double Feature.  Don McLean:  "American Pie."

Arlo Guthrie:  "Alice's Restaurant Massacree"