American Road Myth, part 1

Note: this episode was the seed for a more-developed treatment published at Piker Press.

I have mentioned a couple of times when I have been in one place too long that I am pining for the road. Some of my favorite moments on this trip so far have behind the wheel – just me, my machine, and my thoughts. And that’s what it comes down to. I think better when I’m alone.

The definition of alone can be squirrely. The old cliché ‘alone in a crowd’ certainly applies – I can wrap myself up in a little introspective ball in a raucous bar and pound away, while if I’m in someone’s house and they’re tiptoeing around trying not to disturb me I find that very distracting.

So here’s a theory – ‘alone’ is a synonym for ‘free’. In a crowded bar, the only time I’m distracted is if all the tables are full and people are waiting to eat dinner. I feel bad for hurting the bar’s and (more important) my server’s income. When I’m in someone’s house, it’s their house, dammit, and they should be able to act however they want in it.

That brings me to the road. It’s the thing I’m looking for out here, and sometimes I feel like I might just find it. The road has always represented freedom, but not, I have come to believe, because it takes you wherever you want to go but because when you’re on it you are nowhere. Lately I have been using the phrase “American Road Myth” to describe the romance our nation holds for the road, from Kerouac to Thelma and Louise to riding off into the sunset. We love the road, we love the freedom, but nowhere in the road myth is the idea of a destination. The road is about self-sufficiency and the unknown. It’s about finding stories, meeting people, but always moving on.

I take back what I just said: there is a destination in the road myth, it’s just not on a map. Paul Simon and an unnamed friend went to look for America, and never left the United States. As far as I know they never found what they were looking for. There is an implied quest for wholeness, for some kind meaning that is at the end of the yellow brick road. To find it, you have to be nowhere. You have to be on the road.

We Americans have created a new religion, an introspective and wistful belief system that few practice but all believe in. Freedom, solitude, the road. Independence and resourcefulness, hardship and thought. Hoppin’ a freight, sleeping under the stars, hitchhiking. Disconnecting. Escaping. For all our collective brashness and bravado, we yearn for the peace of the road and a glimpse of what’s over the rainbow.

If America has a heaven, it’s an all-night truck stop, with Mac in back cooking burgers and passing them up to Sal (you know by the embroidered patch over her respectable breast), who sets it in front of you, fries steaming and glistening, saying “Here ya go, Hon.” You haven’t eaten in 400 miles and the burger is perfect. There’s a trucker two stools down, and he’s flirting with Sal while the jukebox plays an old Hank Williams song you never heard before. Unlike any other heaven, though, this heaven is perfect because you are just passing through. You have a slice of pie, leave your money on the counter, and saddle up to move on to the next town. Sal says goodbye and tells you to come back in next time you’re passing through.

You just might do that.

When did you say you were leaving again?

Location: Buggy’s (map )
Miles: 1464.0

I have noticed that, between all the stuff I’m lugging around and all the space I need to set up shop, I am not the typical houseguest. On the good side, my hosts don’t have to worry about entertaining me, since I can always work or write. On the other hand, it kind of sucks when there is always someone working or writing in your living room. You feel the need to tiptoe around. (This is, in fact, completely unnecessary – I write in bars for crying out heaven’s sake.)

Then there is all the hardware I set up for my command center. Buggy now has wires all over his living room floor – power cables going one way, network the other, and a pile of hardware in the middle.

As a special bonus for Buggy, who has his own Web hosting business, his name server crashed for the first time in years soon after he set me up, and yesterday I broke the handle off his microwave. He took it very well.

Then, of course, there’s the Bad Influence Factor (BIF). having someone in your house who is more or less unemployed and on many days really doesn’t have to be all that responsible tends to make my hosts think of all sorts of reasons why they, too, shouldn’t have to work either. So instead we hang out, maybe have a beer or two, go do something fun, and generally enjoy the day at the expense of any pretense at productivity.

Take yesterday, for instance. Buggy shined work and we hopped in the ‘ol convertible for some sunny-day mountain-spring-drriving fun (SDMSDF). We hooked back up with John and enjoyed a Local Microbrew (LMB) (photo) and finished the day tired and happy.

When I put it that way, I’m not so sure my influence is so bad after all. Perhaps it should be named the WORIF (Work is Over-Rated Influence Factor). I know there’s a better name, but my attention span has not

Poetry Slam

Buggy invited me along and I happily accepted. I’m a writer now, right? I’m supposed to do all that literary shit. It was a lot of fun. If there’s one in your area, you should check it out.

It is a competition, with judges recrtuited from the audience. I was offered the “opportunity” to be a judge and I’m very glad I turned it down. More on that later, maybe. The qualilty of the performances was more uniform that usual, Buggy tells me. The eight finalists tonight had to win preliminary rounds to compete tonight, so they were all pretty good, but there was a uniformness of voice among the competitors that I suspect is a reflection of the taste of the audience in the previous rounds. Many of the performers made heavy use of a Hip-Hop cadence that has become a poetic stereotype.

Here is the one image I took of a performer, as she began an animated discussion of her unnatural love of peanut butter:

Lots of good ideas, soem expressed better than others, and everyone understood that this was just as much about the performance as it was about the poem. All the finalists attacked their work with great energy and honesty, and some of the things I heard really made me think.

Unfortunately, I had only a couple of seconds after each performance before the big goofy jackass MC hopped up on stage and started shouting his schtick into the mike. After listening to a woman tell us how she was coping with bring molested as a child and having a friend murdered while she worked in a peep show, the last thing I wanted to hear was some douchebag clown saying “Look at meee! Look at meeee!” Sure, his job is to keep the energy up, but the energy of thought and ideas moving is sometimes better than just “get everyone making noise” energy. (Buggy pointed out that as a crowd the poetry circle is pretty self-absorbed and no one listened to each other’s work anyway.)

The judges were, as I mentioned, recruited out of the audience, and while they took it very seriously, they weren’t prepared for the task. The guy who went first put on a very good performance but as time passed there became an unofficial minimum score that the audience would accept, and that floor kept going up. It didn’t matter who went first, they were doomed. Had I accepted the role of judge, I would have been taken outside and beaten for giving scores below 8 out of ten. Any explanation of scale attenuation would have been wasted.

While I have dwelt for a bit on the negatives of the night, my overall impression was very good. I heard several very talented and very brave people spilling their guts out to strangers and (scarier) friends. It made me think about my writing and got my juices flowing again. Tonight I made some important improvements to the first chapter of The Fish by imagining myself reciting it as poetry.

The four winners now go to St. Louis for the national finals. Good luck to them there.

Chez Buggy

Location: Buggy’s house, San Jose, CA (map)
Miles: 1378.1

The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and already it’s hot outside. Had a little work to do, but now it’s time to go splash in the pool. This isn’t bad.

While I’m thinking about it, I added a photo I took in Oakdale to the album (photo). Signs say the funniest things. I think for the rest of the day I’m going to put the blog down and do some actual writing. (I’m still waiting for the message from SiteMeter that says, “Dude, you can’t go checking the stats every time you get a hit. Chill.”) We’ll see how that goes.

Big Day in Blog-Town

I’d like to say ‘hello’ to anyone who is happening by here because of the very nice things said about me (or at least the idea of me he has formed) here.

Hello!

For my regulars (Yes, I have regulars too! That hit counter didn’t get over 300 all by itself!), Dr Pants is someone who checked “other” under Plan. We have a lot in common. Except the Norwegian girlfriend – I don’t have one of those. Damn you, Dr Pants! There I am thinking I’m scoring pretty high on the footloose-o-meter, spending my days pondering the American Road Myth, and then you happen by, and sure you’re footloose and everything, but on top of that you have me 1-0 in the Norwegian Girlfriend competition. Someday, buddy, when you least expect it…

You’re probably wondering who I am, but really, I’m the last one to answer that question. If you take my word for it, I’m exactly the right height, IQ in the 300+ range, ridiculously fit, raconteur, philanthropist, and poet. And modest. Modest like you woldn’t believe. You should probably ask someone else.

If you’re looking around, you’ll see that right now almost all the posts are about my homeless tour. It started April 2th, my 40th birthday (purely concidence – really. That’s the day the sale of my house became final. Absolutely coincidence. That you would doubt my word hurts me.) The starting point of the tour was San Diego, the end point is Prague. In between, it’s kind of hazy, but I’m doing a bit of work along the way, so I have to stay close to the Internet for the nonce.

Besides the homeless tour, there’s politics (I’m running for president), Get-Poor-Quick Schemes (if any of you know much about robotics, I’d love to get poor with you. I need a robot nuclear reactor on the moon.), and a bit here and there in the other categories. Once I’m in Prague, there’ll be more in the Writing category especially.

As a side note, I am approaching public beta with a word processor I created for writers (specifically novelists) who suffer from the same deficiencies I do. Currently just for mac. There’s a link over on the side there somewhere.

If any of you have more information on the explosive exposé Suicide Squirrel Death Cult please be sure to leave a note. The sooner this tragedy sees the light of day, the more innocent lives can be saved.

So that’s it. Welcome to Muddled Ramblings and Half-Baked Ideas. If you lose the link, you can always search for “elevator ocelot rutabaga” and you’ll come right here.

Oakdale Dawn

Location: Best Western Rama Inn, Oakdale (map)
Miles: 1271.8

I can just picture Mom, shaking her head with a look that says “I’m being patient, but I really shouldn’t need to be” as she says to Dad, “I told you not to give the boy caffeine after 6pm.”

Now the morning is here, like there’s some big damn rush to get the day started. The sun’s shining and there’s traffic outside the double glazing. I’m as jittery as a field mouse at a hawk convention, buzzed on green tea and Froot Loops to carry me through the ante meridiem despite the profound lack of sleep. On the desk next to the ol’ powerbook is the remains of a loaf of bread, the last of the soft cheese, getting softer and cheesier as I watch, and empty coke and beer bottles. Poor Man’s Speedball.

In the tiny freezer is a package of frozen potstickers. Don’t go shopping when you’re hungry. At least I’ll be able to take the fresh fruit with me, and the leftover beer will be appreciated tonight at Buggy’s place, I’m sure.

I cleaned up a little before I thought to take the pic, but it would have undermined my journalistic integrity to put the junk back.

I was taking some of my crap out to the car this morning and checking the mileage when some guy asked me, “Were you driving through Yosemite yesterday? With the top down?” They had been behind me in the line to get into the park.

My lower lip is twitching, the maid is knocking, I have packing to do, and checkout is in an hour. Then, it’s out into the world, on a quest to get to the bottom of the Oakdale Enigma. I’ll let you know what I learn.

Yosemite

Location: Mariposa Grove (map of approx. location of parking lot ) (album)
Miles: 1148.1

Groveland on Sunday morning is dead. D-E-A-D dead. Even the breakfast places are closed. I wandered the main drag, hungry and alone, looking for someone to make me some toast. That’s all I wanted, toast. And Eggs. And Potatoes. Maybe some bacon. Mmmm, bacon. And Tea, of course. That’s all I wanted.

I found a place, of course, with all those things, right across the street from where I started. Oh, well, I got to see the town.

Right, then. On the road. Beautiful day and all that. The speed limit in the park is 35 mph in most places, which makes going pretty slow, but I turned off the music and with the top down I could hear birds singing, so I just rolled along, stopping often to take pictures. The valley really is spectacular, and the trees are big. The signs on the hiking trail giving the distances to various points of interest were complete fiction. At one point I had 0.8 miles to go. I walked for a little while, dragging my sorry butt up a hill, and passed another sign. Distance to go: 0.8 miles. I’m slow, but not that slow.

There were people from all over the world there. There were some French people arguing with each other; when I passed them on the trail I said “excusé moi” (which I later realized was the wrong thing to say), but it sure made them self-conscious. On the way back down I passed two chinese women walking with their little girls. One of the women was talking animatedly to them, at length, and all were obviously having a good time. I understood only one word, but it was used more than once: Cinderella.

On the way back down the hill I took more small roads, and found my way back here, to the enigma that is Oakdale. Geographical schizophrenic. Last time through I spotted a billboard for a hotel that had free DSL and here I am now, DSLing away and watching late night TV. I thought I’d save some money and go to the grocery store for tonight’s vittles, and spent more than I would have in a restaurant. I am eating better food, though.

Sorry, I have to make a call now to make an appointment with a mobility specialist.