28 July 2008


Somewhere rather early in Walden, Thoreau mentions that he had acquired a stone paperweight which he had placed in the cabin, but soon realized that sitting almost dormant, it acquired dust and required regular dusting. He immediately threw the stone out of the window! Well, actually, I don’t quite recall if he even had a window at that moment in his occupation at the woods at Walden, but in any case, he quickly got rid of the paper weight rather than have to feel obliged to regularly keep it clean.

If the cost of an item was how much life it would take to acquire (and maintain) it, then clearly Thoreau thought this paperweight too expensive; he would be about other business at Walden.

I raise this issue now because my office has been refurbished: a new paint job and new furniture. And in the process, I have packed away some things, filed away others, and apparently misplaced or thrown away even more. What I have seemingly lost are artifacts which chart my progress through this life: some cartoons which I have saved over the years and which held some political and personal significance ( redundancy, I think), some photographs, my original teaching licenses from the states of New York and New Jersey, and other stuff which I cannot remember.

The last statement seems important here: I almost never looked at these artifacts on my wall; they papered the wall silently and unseen. But having those artifacts were to me like windows through which I could look into my past. To change the metaphor, these artifacts were stones on which I could backwards walk into my life. And now they are gone, and I am wondering what it is I have lost. I haven’t lost the past itself; rather, I have lost the stepping stones to it, or, have covered over the windows onto which I would look to the past.

Which brings me back to Thoreau. Other than his books, he suggests to me that he kept nothing about that would tie him to even yesterday. Those papers—and they were all papers—cluttered my wall and too often, perhaps, required attention. They are best tossed out the window, Thoreau suggests. And I no longer have to consider dusting them.

But I wonder: is there a place for sentimentally holding onto possessions? Do I need these weights of paper? What is gained by what is lost?

15 July 2008

Grand Tetons

Took a long, long drive through Wyoming today to arrive late this afternoon in Jackson. Right now, I sit peacefully on the porch of our room looking out on the Grand Teton, and the two smaller Tetons. I am forever awed by mountains; their existence reduces human hubris to a laughing matter. These mountains stand impervious to the presence of human beings; they do not acknowledge us.

I am also overwhelmed at the engineering feat which built the roads which cross the country and climb the mountains and descend into the valleys. Sometimes we traveled along roads seemingly cut through the mountains. There were signs noting the ages of the rock formations of which the mountain was comprised: one location at the top extended back 2.5 billion years ago! The roads were much newer, even at times, yet in process. At one point we waited twelve minutes (their designation) at a stop point where the road was being retarred. I guess at times the workers blasted away the rocks to make room for our movements, though the mountains remained seemingly unaffected. I think that there is almost nothing we could do to upset the mountain’s balance and send it tumbling down as we tumble the bricks in the game of Genga, or as occurred in the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers. Br>
Sometimes, perhaps, these roads descended from the traditional passes through the mountains taken by the original pioneers and settlers who populated these lands, but there was little note taken of this. I think these were incredibly brave people--not unlike the Pilgrims and Puritans who emigrated to the Colony in the early 17th century. Of course, both turned quickly nasty--the Puritans to everyone who opposed their theocracy, and the pioneers to the Native Americans.

There was a sense of unreality as we drove west. All along the trail the historical past was exploited for commerce after having first been washed clean. Buffalo Bill was a showman; the legend is that he got his name by massacring buffalo. I recall the scene in Little Big Man when the white men (I can’t call them hunters!) kills the buffalo on the plain as if the event took place in a shooting gallery. The settlement of the West which could occur only as a result of the massacre and eventual displacement of the Native Americans speaks little of the slaughter of millions upon millions of people, the theft of their lands, the destruction of their lifestyles and their cultures except where it has been placed inside the museums where infinity goes up on trial. We are staying in a resort where the streets names are Indian, but no one knows to what the names refer. I am guilty of this crime.

And there we were traversing these giants along roads sometimes even newly paved, roads that went on seemingly straight ahead and seemingly forever. Even right through the Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. And I was struck there by an enormous contradiction, a fatal flaw in our relation to the land, perhaps. Because I note that we drive into nature as occupiers; we take the privileged world we enjoy outside of these places into the wild and wholly domesticate it; we tame our sojourns with all of the stuffs from our non-natural existence: the radios and televisions and cell phones and PDAs. Even the hikers with backbacks marched to the beat of their own iPods. We transform the wilderness into our backyards. Oh, we two had no intention to camp; rather, we read the signs and looked at the beauty of the land through our car windows as we sped rapidly through on macadamized roads. We were hardly innocent of our hypocrisy, but we held it in check. We knew where we were and who we were. Serious hypocrisy without the pretension, perhaps.

And we saw everywhere these monstrous Recreational Vehicles which guzzled gas and labored along the roads carrying everything from the world outside inside the ‘natural parks.’ So socially irresponsible were the occupiers, they took over the roads with seemingly little remorse or concern. One RV, significantly large, towed behind it a jeep, a boat, two bicycles and everything else a family might need to make life out in the wild comfortable. What relationship they established with nature was wholly mediated through the mediums brought from the world of which nature had no part except, perhaps, as ultimate resources and object, as when one watched a program about the wilderness from inside the comfort of the living room or the safety and warmth of the Recreational Vehicles. Perhaps if we go into Nature, we should really try to experience it unmediated.

I look out on the magnificent mountains, but they are not part of me.

14 July 2008


Traveling. A Road Trip. At first, I had thought that we were merely choosing to drive from home to the Wyoming spa, but then I discovered where Jackson Hole, Wyoming actually was. At that moment, the time in the car transformed from a drive to an excursion. This means that I will have traveled through three states--Minnesota, South Dakota and Wyoming--to arrive at the Spa, and this does not take into account my original journey to Minnesota from Wisconsin. Which is really all well and good, I suppose, until I remember that we must drive back home as well. That means we will have traveled through six states by trips end! I’m not terribly fond of driving myself, but Mitch doesn’t seem to mind as long as I keep the music going and challenge him in Trivial Pursuit. So far, after almost 1000 miles, we are even and incredibly trivial.

The interstate highway system represents the most incredible investment and statement of life style I can imagine. Here are thousands and thousands of miles traveled by solitary people in private pods moving somewhere at terribly rapid speeds connected to each other only by the radio. Over thousands and thousands of miles, this highway system is the only way to get from here to somewhere: there seems to be no public transportation. Interestingly, in South Dakota, along the media of the highway, someone is haying. I suppose that some level of government rents out the space to the farmer for harvesting of hay. Why weren’t these medians used for public transportation? A great rail system which connected cities to cities and states to states and people to people. I means, on a train you have to see other people up close and not mediated through window glass.

A gross oversimplification, but not without some truth. When I looked I discovered that there is no train service to Wyoming from Minnesota.

What links state to state however are the fast food restaurants. They are ubiquitous, dotting the streets of towns and cities morphing one town into the next. What begins to distinguish one place from the next out here is the space between towns, and to see that you have to be in the car. And it is often quite beautiful

Back to the road and the pursuit of trivia.

07 July 2008

Pay me my money down!

On the iPod lately has been Bruce Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions. Actually, I’ve been enjoying this collection for several years now, and have even used several cuts from it in class as examples of alternative stories that might be told. “The Ballad of Jesse James” offers another perspective to this American outlaw icon, and in class we spend not a little time investigating differing accounts of the man and his gang, and studying the historical context from which he evolved and which he influenced. I am intrigued myself by some details which separate this ballad from those recounted by the New Riders of the Purple Sage’s version in “Glendale Train.” In the former, the train is robbed late at night on a weekend, but in the latter the event takes place “this morning at half-past nine,” and suggestively, during the work week.

Here, though, I want to talk about “Pay Me My Money Down” which I have also used in class as a voice of the oppressed working class. But that is another story. What I want to note here is how I think our lives might be lived as the music in this song was made. It starts with Springsteen alone on his guitar singly and almost plaintively—pay me my money down—and then the musicians who have been gathered begin to join in until finally all are playing together—pay me my money down! It is a raucous and joyful sound. And then the fun begins and Springsteen starts calling out direction: violin take the solo, then the accordion, then the trumpet, “then let’s bring it up to Bflat,” and up the key goes. The verse ends and Springsteen calls out “Alright, someone,” and someone cheerfully gladly enters the conversation. Back down to D, Springsteen calls, and then finally he commands, “Everyone solo,” and at that moment everyone is playing alone together and the sound is magnificent and glorious and fun.

Alright, now, everyone solo! Together!

04 July 2008

My capital

So, Jake Barnes, in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises says “The world is a good place to buy in.” I agree, though it might be Jake’s friend Bill who mentions the ease of purchase. I want to connect this sentiment with something in Thoreau; somewhere, perhaps in Walden, but perhaps not, Thoreau remarks that most people spend their whole lives saving money for that time in their life when they can least spend it. The implication I draw from Thoreau is that I should spend m money now when I can because I can’t guarantee either that I will be around later to spend it, or that I will find anything (at my advanced age) to purchase.

Now, Jake suggests that the world is an easy place to buy in, and I guess Thoreau agrees. New Englanders are often categorized as ‘thrifty,’ and certainly Thoreau learned to simplify, simplify, simplify. I recall a humorous story: a young man was walking down a New England street (probably in New Hampshire). In front of him slowly walked an older man with whitened hair. Suddenly, it became apparent to the young man that as the older man moved forward, everyone walking in the opposite direction crossed the street as if to avoid contact with him. The man continued on alone and without address. When the young man walked into the café, he queried the waiter if there was anything wrong with the older man that would cause everyone to avoid him. “Oh, sir,” the waiter whispered conspiratorially, “Mr. Coolidge dipped into his capital.” Mr. Coolidge made purchase in the world and met with its disapproval.

So, the question I wrestle with is this: if the world is a good place to buy in, then how much should I purchase? I realize that this is a question which can be asked only from privilege; though I am hardly wealthy, though I am solidly middle class. It is, nevertheless, a legitimate question. I used to wonder about John Lennon writing songs of peace and equality and imagining no differences while he was living in the Dakota. He was buying the police force bullet proof vests at that point, when he needed one himself! But his wealth wasn’t fault: he was just making music and having a fairly good time. So I make a certain amount of money, I have a pension and will have (as long as it is mine) social security, and really, I don’t think of retiring for a while at least. So, shouldn’t I purchase while the purchasing is good?

Thoreau spoke of simplifying, but how simple shall I become? I can’t live off the interest of my capital--not even close. But how much of my capital should I spend? How much money shall I take with me into my older age? What shall I purchase?