Thursday, June 28, 2012

Another Post From My Work-In-Progress

Day 23
 Highway this morning edged in tall, thin pines and orange, purple, and yellow wildflowers growing in the grass along the shoulder.  And then, all of a sudden, the pines opened onto an enormous meadow: green, un-mowed and a little shaggy, vast.  It was a kind of gift, a glimpse into what is hidden and enchanted.
 I’ve noticed that birds that look like egrets hang out near the cows munching in the fields.  So I googled it and found that they are cattle egrets—a kind of heron—and they hang out with cows because cows’ shambling gaits cause insects to rise from the grass.  Cattle egrets need insects to survive.  This is called commensal feeding, because the egrets profit from the relationship, but the cows don’t.  The Internet is a wonderful thing.
 Lake City is another in a string of small Florida towns: a mix of the pastoral and the ugly ordinariness of mobile-home sales, fast-food and barbeque joints, churches, real-estate and insurance offices.  And flower shops.  Small, southern towns have a lot of florists.   Do people really have enough money to buy fresh flowers on a regular-enough basis to keep these shops in business?  The one in Lake City has a sign out front: Life Is the Flower; Love Is the Pot. 
A large percentage of roadside business in the south is devoted to selling, repairing, and repossessing mobile-homes.  I don’t remember this from the last time I was here.  I suspect this hints at something fundamental that is changing in this country.  It is yet another facet of life that is so different from mine that I can’t claim really to understand it.   How do you live in a double-wide?  In one of those parks?  I simply do not know. 
 And that reminds me how hard it is to know how anybody really lives.  I remember Oprah hosting an early show about stay-at-home moms.  And in her genuine, nonjudgmental way, she asked them, What do you do all day?  Really, what do you do?  She didn’t know. 
 I don’t know how to live in a small town (as opposed to a suburb).  I don’t know how to live a life that involves going to an actual job every day.  I don’t know how people live where it snows.  (I did it in college, but somehow, that doesn’t count.  Someone else drove me around and cooked my food.) 
 In a weird way, thinking about how other people live is like thinking about death.  You just can’t quite put yourself there. 
 My mother grew up in an orphanage, without parents.  I simply cannot imagine how she survived.  But she always had remarkably little curiosity about how other people lived.  I would muse about life on farms, something that, as a young adult, I convinced myself I would love.  (I realize now it was because I had heavily romanticized attitudes about livestock and homemade pie.) And my mother would say impatiently, You would hate it.  It’s just like your life here, except you would have to work harder. 
 She was right, of course.  Sort of.  The rain would have really mattered.  The air would have smelled like hay.
Once, on a car trip from San Francisco to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, my mother told me about a long-ago train trip she’d taken.  We were at that moment driving through an Iowa cornfield, and that is what reminded her.  She said she sat next to a boy a little bit older than she—maybe 20 or 21—and he told her that farmers said, “The corn is knee-high by the Fourth of July.”  She never forgot that, she said.  (Well, she’s forgotten it now.)  She said it wistfully, and I, who was 20 or 21 at the time, knew without being told that she had liked the boy and had always wondered what had happened to him and how things might have been different.
Now, when I see a cornfield, that is always what I think about.  Her memory has become mine, like a handed-down pair of shoes. 

The things I like about traveling are: staying in clean hotels, eating food that I didn’t have to cook, seeing things I never really believed I would see (Westminster Abbey, Mount Rushmore, the Eiffel Tower, the Mitchell, South Dakota Corn Palace), and thinking about how people live.  And always, I come home with the realization that I can’t put myself into other people’s daily routines.  I can imagine them, but I can’t know in the way that I want to.
 When I was 17, I went to New York by myself.  My cousins took me to a stage performance by Theodore Bikel, which I barely remember, because I sat in the theater feeling overwhelmed with the feeling that I was Somewhere Else. 
 I’ve visited many people’s homes in many unfamiliar places.  But I think that was the closest I ever came to being in other people’s lives.  Maybe it was because I was young and without defenses.  Maybe it was because I hadn’t lived enough to intellectualize my wonder and was experiencing it on an emotional, visceral level.  I don’t really know.  What I do remember is coming back to my cousin’s Upper West Side apartment, closing the door to the guest bedroom I’d been given, and feeling that the air itself was made of different atoms and that by breathing it, I was not quite filling my lungs, was gasping like a fish just caught and flung into a boat

Monday, June 25, 2012

What I've Been Doing for the Last Few Months

I haven't written here since March.  This is because Robert and I were away for several weeks and I've been writing about our trip, hoping to end up with a book.
For many years, Robert wanted to ride his bicycle across the country, and we decided that this year--the year he turns 60--would be a good time to do it.  I was, by turns, excited about the trip (which I would make by car, acting as the slag wagon) and anxious about leaving my 92-year-old mother--newly diagnosed with dementia--behind.
What ended up happening was that 1) Robert succeeded in riding his bike through (most of) the country, and 2) I booked motels and helped plan routes and drove back roads looking for him when his tires blew and worried about my mother.
The book that is currently taking shape is part-memoir and part-travelogue.  It is also pretty personal, which is hard for me.  I've never written anything like this before.  Its working title is: Complicated Journeys: A Cross-Country Road Trip and Thirty-Three Memories of My Mother.
I thought I'd post a few excerpts:

Day 5

Quartzsite is just over the California/Arizona border, about twenty miles east of Blythe.  There is no denying the assumption that the people who live in Quartzsite think Blythe has too much going on and are opting for a less stimulating way of life.  The gentlemen who checked me in to the Super 8 Motel are non-natives: one is from Hong Kong, the other from Vancouver.  In Hong Kong, they tell me, they hated the crowds; in Vancouver, one of them was robbed.  With high gas prices, they are struggling to keep their motel afloat.  Many of the bicyclists who usually stay there have taken to camping as they inch across the country.  The man from Hong Kong looked aggrieved as he told me that he tried to phone the tour group that manages such trips, but no one would take his call.
Robert arrived around noon, ready to give up for the day after only three hours.  A slow, insidious incline and punishing heat took their toll.  He sat in the bathtub for half an hour, listening to the semis out on the Interstate.
I took a lot of car trips with my parents when I was a kid.  We drove to Carmel a couple of times a year, to Los Angeles occasionally, to Santa Barbara and the Grand Canyon and Tahoe and the Feather River.  My father loved to drive.  My mother loved the break in routine.  They both loved to listen to classical music on the radio, eat fast food (which they never did at home), and stay in motels.  My father was a doctor, but my parents traveled like people who had to watch their money.  It didn’t occur to them to do it any other way.
My mother complains a lot about her marriage, which ended in 1977 when my father died of a brain tumor at the age of 53.  She says mean things about him which may or may not be true.  When she says them to me, I tell her to stop.  It doesn’t seem fair to me that he isn’t around to defend himself.  He was a difficult, angry guy, but I loved him a lot.  I know my mother doesn’t remember about the car trips or hanging out in the kitchen drinking martinis once a week or how he called her “Dear.”  When I have tried to remind her, she has taken it as license to regale me with grievances, so I no longer bother.

Robert and I drove through town in the early afternoon.  It was 111 degrees.  We bought candied grapefruit at Daniel’s Jerky Store and took a brief walk through the Hi-Jolly Cemetery, where a plaque commemorates Hi-Jolly, born Hadji Ali in Syria in the 1830s, charged in 1856 with managing a herd of camels imported to assist in the building of a trans-Arizona roadway.  The federal government abandoned the project after some years, but for many years after, wild camels roamed the area. That is something I would have liked to see.
At lunch, reading the local newspaper, we saw an ad for a used-book store at the end of town, past the Family Dollar store.  I was sure it wouldn’t be open on a Sunday, but I was wrong.  Reader’s Oasis Book Store was open and patrons were poring through books on a “Free” table set up in the parking lot.  I joined them and immediately found a book called The English Scene, published in 1940 by The American Book Company, previously the property of School District #40, Yamhill, Oregon.  The book is a textbook, presenting “a general view of England and the English as seen through their own literature.”  Sometimes, something just screams your name.
I was marveling at this when the proprietor of the store emerged.  He was as tan as old leather, slender, with a graying ponytail extending down his back.  He was also completely naked, except for a black sock that he was not wearing on his foot. “Hey, can I smoke in there?” a traditionally clothed, middle-aged man clambering out of his car asked, and Naked Book Store Guy said, “Sure, ‘cause this isn’t really a building.  There’s no roof on it.”  He turned away from us to escort the smoker into the-building-that-wasn’t-a-building.  The cheeks of his ass drooped like coin purses full of pennies.
I wanted to look through more books, but the smoke put Robert and me off.  I went into the store briefly and handed Naked Book Store Guy a few dollars.  “It was on the “Free” table, but I had to give you something, because this is just fantastic,” I said.  He thanked me, but I don’t think he really knew what I meant.
We went to dinner at the Quartzsite Yacht Club, which is the only yacht club in the world built nowhere in the vicinity of a body of water.  It’s a bar with decent pub food and a dance floor and pool tables.  We asked the bartender about Naked Book Store Guy.  It turns out he is rather renowned.  His name is Paul Winer and, according to the bartender, he used to teach at “a big college in Connecticut.”  “Why did he move here?” Robert asked, and the bartender said, “To get as far away from Connecticut as possible.”  She said he is one of the loveliest people imaginable, and that he doesn’t mind wearing shorts in local restaurants.
Paul Winer has made me love this town.  It was 111 degrees here today, and I didn’t even care.  Paul Winer gives me hope for the human race.  Not because he’s a nudist, but because he’s himself, and people you’d think might object are perfectly fine about it.