On the Precipice of Messiness

June 25, 2007

T-minus seven hours and counting until I leave the mosquito-fest and blackfly bonanza that is my home for the summer staple roadtrip. Over the years, it’s been a complex event, going to my hometown, filled with the whole catalog of emotions and psychological confusion that one could reasonably expect in this our frenetic modern era. I left home young and with few resentments. I just drove off one day when I was supposed to be on a week’s paid vacation from work. I drove to Amherst and drove on. Cleveland, Council Bluffs, Denver, and I just kept going.  But I owe my family everything, and I knew that then as well as I know it now. I just wasn’t cut out for the East Coast. I hate traffic, the Joneses, and the curious ability of people from my home city to sincerely believe they not only invented urban life but have perfected it beyond any point of debate. 

So, when I go home and catch up with my friends, with the boys who are men now, I never feel quite exactly home. Rather, it’s almost home but as close to home as I can ask for. It’s a dreamish blend of reality and memory. For it is memory we’re acting out. Except we’ve traded the high school classroom and pool hall for the bar, for the nightclub, we’ve traded the study hall for the “so how are you doing? Another Yingling?” 

And I’m doing well. I’ve a good life here in the middle of nowhere, in a place my friends are convinced is Canada. If pressed, they’d have a fifty-fifty shot picking my town from Kuala Lumpur. But I live here. I’ve my work,  my dog, and a lake. I’ve got 300 inches of snow a year. I have good snow shovels and scoops. And I know that I can never come home again in any way that matters. I’ll take my few weeks off, I’ll enjoy my friends, my family who I love, and I’ll know, as I drive out of the city, the interstate on-ramps blinking in the rearview, that those who said they’ll visit, won’t. I’ll know that my life and theirs are seperate, and there’s no reconnecting. There is no way-back machine strong enough to erase the intervening years. And I’ll be grateful for what I have, for the radio and the sleeping dog in the back of the truck, and for the cigarettes, for the coffee, for the last city lights fading like so many  ignis fatuus I’ll be glad to leave to their own messy devices.  


Be Afraid, U.S. Interstate Sytem, I’m En Route

June 23, 2007

I know all sorts of useful things about vagabonding the States. For instance, I know that it is quite difficult to sleep squatting on the flats of your feet, huddled in a blanket. No matter what those mushroom pickers told me, I don’t think it’s actually possible to do for any extended time. Sure, I can fall asleep, but to stay upright’s the trick. I also know that Arizona kids sometimes slash not one, not two, but four tires if you refuse to buy them alcohol (not that I could have, I was nineteen, which, apparently, they didn’t believe). Quick hits of good advice:

1. Throw the game. Do not play pool for money at a bar where the owner also owns the trailer park out back.

2. Abstain. Or at least do not get drunk with strangers off-strip in Vegas.

3. Shove on. If you find assault rifle casings near an otherwise perfect campsite in the Sawtooth Range, all the “otherwise perfect” in the world does not outweigh the casings.

4. Look away, Dixie. It is impolite to stare at what might or might not be a polygamist family in the West Desert. You will probably be outnumbered and undergunned.  

5. Fido knows. If your dog hates someone, you should hate them too. 

I’ve gleaned this and more, but I also know the importance of good music for any trek. Before a trip I put together a few playlists meant to coordinate the tunes with the terrain. Sometimes this works, sometimes not so much. But as I get ready for my summer trip East, it’s come time to map the route, chart the anticipated playlist, and hit the local casino for some cheap cigarettes. This year’s playlist should be easy because I’ve got a destination which will channel the music selections through definite states, regions, and cities. One of these cities is Youngstown, Ohio, roughly twelve hours from my starting point. Here’s the song below from a live Springsteen concert in (serendipity!) Youngstown. The song (serendipity!): “Youngstown” from his 1995 accoustic album, The Ghost of Tom Joad

I’ll be scouring my collection for more music soon for this particular trip and will continue updating as the playlists come together. And, of course, I’ll worry so much about the playlists, I won’t remember to pack socks.     

On Recalling A Smarmy Man

June 6, 2007

I left home when I was 18, moved out to Colorado, got a few part-time jobs in order to scramble the cash needed to upgrade my camping equipment so I could, within the year, travel the Southwest. Which I did, and which is a story for another day. I only mention this to lead here: While I was camping outside Taos, I somehow got invited to a writer’s party. Since it was a decision between hanging out with writers or hanging alone by my sputtering pinion fire in late November, it was really no decision at all.

Yet, within minutes of getting handed a glass of wine and hating how my bootheels clacked across the hardwood, I wished I was home, as in back at camp, where at least I could smoke cigarettes in peace, journal, and enjoy the cooling high desert night. I was slightly intimidated by these people. They were well-dressed, older, and clearly moved in educated and urbane circles that I had yet to encountered. To be fair to myself, I was nineteen, reading everything I could get my hands on, and just starting to put together some sort of aesthetic, some system of beliefs and values that would inform my writing, my reading, and my thoughts on literature, life, and just who I wanted to be. And what I learned that night was who I wasn’t and who, gratefully, I could never be.   

After a while, a smarmy loafers-and-no-socks, white jeans and braided belt kind of guy started in on me, asking pointed questions about college (which I had yet to attend), what I thought of this, that, and the other book he clearly knew I knew nothing about, etc, etc. Long and short, I was his intellectual sparring partner and vastly out-gunned. The group I had been chatting with awkwardly laughed and drifted away.

“So,” He asked, “What do you intend to do with your writing?”

What I told him I knew even then was ridiculous, pompous, and every bit as smarmish and mean-spirited as he was. But I wanted to find a way to smear the condescension on his face into shock, indignation, anything but that patronizing smirk.  

“I intend,” I said slowly, “To be the only American writer that matters.”

Which I knew then and know still is complete bullshit. I don’t want that. Though I didn’t know what I wanted, I knew it wasn’t that. To write, travel, and live well was about the extent of my plans. Other than that, I couldn’t say, and now, years later, that’s still about as far as the master plan goes.

But I can tell you this: that experience made me realize the importance of keeping a balance on the inside. I am never as great nor as hopeless a man or writer as it may feel in any given moment. I plug on. I write on. That’s it. I judge harshly my work and revise. I’ve learned to see writing like any other job. I’m like an accountant but with words. Or a carpenter, a pipefitter, whatever. 

That smarmy twit taught me was that I’d rather been known as a good man than a great writer. I’d like both, of course, but would not sacrifice the former for the latter. We write best from love and praise, from a place where mystery sings the world’s hymn, and we’re lucky enough to hear it and transcribe the results. 

So thanks, Smarmy Man, I appreciate what you’ve done for me.