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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

How Palin’s Hawaiian Past Will Haunt Her in 2012 Presidential Election

Turns out it’s not just President Obama whose Hawaiian whereabouts are in question:

Why did the 18-year-old beauty queen chose to live in go-go Waikiki, instead of student housing? Why won’t she say how she supported herself? Allow media to verify her alleged registration at three different campuses in 7 months? What about the rumors that she was pregnant?

Then there’s the mother of all speculations: Did Palin, aka "Barracuda" for her basketball prowess, find herself covering "Barry-O" on Kapiolani’s fabled Fire Station courts -- and if so, did sparks fly? (And if they did–where did they hide their love child?)

It’s all in The Realm of Possibility (tm). Read on for our 100% factual speculation.

Dateline Honolulu Nov 18 2009 – As thousands of fans line up to buy Sarah Palin’s book, the spotlight has returned to a still-unexplained gap in her resume: the seven months she spent in Hawaii after high school graduation. All the candidates’ lives were exhaustively scrutinized during the 2008 election campaign, but Palin’s surprise selection as vice-presidential nominee left the mainstream media scrambling to catch up to her colorful Alaskan roots and complicated family dynamics. Although the Hawaiian aspects of candidate Barak Obama’s life were also "exhaustively scrutinized," Palin’s tropical interlude escaped the same treatment–leaving unexplored the provocative question of how she supported herself while living in Waikiki, what were her true reasons for visiting Hawaii, and even the speculation that she met, and even played basketball with, her future rival and possible foe in the 2012 Presidential elections.

Palin herself tells the story of how she changed from tomboy to beauty queen in her senior year of high school. Friends and family have recalled how they were surprised and even shocked at how the scrappy basketball star nicknamed "Barracuda" went from slouchy sweats and Carhartt jackets to wearing sequined satin-polyester and high heels. It was a textbook case of discovering her attractiveness as a woman. And, like so many a small town wallflower making up for lost time, 18-year-old Sarah set off for the nearest big city–in this case, Honolulu.

Traveling with a high school girlfriend, Palin arrived poor and unprepared for the exotic and seductive streets of Waikiki. Palin has said variously that she attended three different colleges during her seven month sojourn, although she has repeatedly refused media requests to allow confirmation of her claims by accessing her records, protected under federal privacy laws. Only one school, Hawaii Pacific University, has affirmed her attendance, for a single semester.

Unusually for someone who has spent a "gap year," Palin has offered no details of her time in Hawaii: nothing about jobs, housing, tourist or cultural adventures, romance under the stars. She may be the only 18-year-old who traveled to the Islands during the peak of the surfing boom and never tried the sport–this despite practically living on the beach at Waikiki, the most tourist-friendly surf environment in the world, home to a cadre of beach boys who specialize in initiating Mainland wahines into Island mores.

The lack of detail is particularly curious because of the Waikiki connection. Where Palin lived was definitely not a student housing, being expensive, seedy and unsafe, particularly for women. It is, however, Hawaii’s 24/7 party zone, comparable to New Orleans’ own Latin Quarter or the Strip in Las Vegas or New York’s old Times Square, all world-famous attractions for tourists drawn to drinking, dancing, drugging, promiscuity and prostitution.
Most of the housing in 1982 Waikiki was of the shabby, SRO (single-room occupancy) kind, often rented by the hour. Transients, surf bums, hookers, petty criminals and drug dealers mixed with homeless Native Hawaiians squeezed out of their birthright, making life there, so close to the bright tourist lights of Kalakaua Boulevard and the International Marketplace, a bittersweet proposition. When you consider that 1982 was the climax of the disco era, a final flowering of polyester bodysuits, cocaine spoons worn as jewelry and amyl nitrates popped on the dance floor and boudoir for stamina, Palin’s silence is all the more indicative. As Sherlock Holmes said to a Scotland Yard detective, it’s the dog that doesn’t bark in the night that calls attention to itself.

Is the bark that didn’t happen, the great unspoken in this case, the trap that awaits young country girls, aspiring beauty queens, and runaways on their own in the big city? Are we talking about the plot of countless novels and movies, The Perils of Pauline, Jenny: A Girl of the Streets, Pretty Woman? In morality tales and real life, the progression is always the same, starting with taking a job in an establishment that hires pretty young things. Soon enough it becomes apparent that the $1.71 an hour minimum wage for restaurant workers won’t come close to making the rent. Around the time of this realization, a suggestion is made on how to supplement one’s income by being nice to the customers. Tourists, especially the Japanese, are generous to those who give personal attention. They buy more drinks, bottles for the table, private dances...

This is 100% speculation, but I’ve known of at least three girls who found themselves in the exact situation. In each case, they ran out of cash and couldn’t buy a plane ticket home. One called home in tears and got pried loose from the goon who was holding her passport as collateral (the job was teaching scuba diving). The other two took jobs, ironically, in Alaska; they too were bait-and-switches. Both girls took the bait. One ended up dead.

Is it fair game to question Palin about how she made the rent? About her uncharacteristic discretion? Given the rough-and-tumble of recent political campaigns, and the ongoing anti-Obama "birther" movement, the obvious answer would seem to be Harry Truman’s: "If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen." But time and again when her version of events is challenged, Palin has played the gender card, and can be expected to do so here. (She might even cite Truman’s use of the word "kitchen" as evidence of subliminal woman-bashing.)

A true feminist might celebrate the thought of a teen beauty queen, away from home for the first time, claiming possession of her sexuality in such an environment as Waikiki’s. A true conservative might find it relevant if the same young woman were today jockeying for the most powerful elected leadership position in the world. As for Palin’s coy disclaimer that she isn’t interested in being President at present, wasn’t that stalling tactic at the heart of the McCain’s choosing her at the last second? While the mainstream media begged for background handouts tailored by GOP flacks, Palin could dominate the convention and revive the campaign. By the end of October, with McCain looking his age and worse, Palin was, in effect, running for President.

Right now Sarah Palin would no doubt love nothing more than for the media to declare a time out on any but fawning reportage. Then, by popular acclaim, unscarred and money coffers full, Palin could launch the first Presidential campaign by a talk show host. It’s a plan no more audacious than that of the first-term senator from Illinois who currently holds the office.

To wrap on an even more surreal note, it’s equally within the realm of possibility that the "Barracuda" point guard went one-on-one with the slick-shooting power forward from Punahou. The public basketball courts most frequented by visiting athletes and even celebrities happen to be in across the park from Waikiki, next to the Fire Station. Like New York City’s West 4th Street cage, the hot asphalt is where it’s at, where both young Barry and older Barak liked to showcase his game.

This brings up the inevitable, ultimate what-if: the likelihood that Barak and Sarah met, playing basketball. It’s certainly within the realm of "birther" possibility, a standard of truthiness that makes it almost a certainty that they guarded each other, got sweaty and, well, noticed the other was "hot." It happens in movies all the time.

The rest we'll leave to your naughty imaginations. But given that Sarah by her own account hid her last pregnancy, even from her husband, until she was 7 months along--before deciding not to abort Trigg--and given that we can say without refutation that 7 months was the same amount of time she was absent from public and family view in Waikiki–it begins to appear that we have no choice but to assume, using the same logical progression, that there is a love child of Sarah Palin and Barak Obama alive and well today.

Perhaps s/he’s living under an assumed name (Brandy O'Palin?). Perhaps s/he’s locked away in Gitmo or enjoying full Secret Service "protection" in a dusty Kenyan village far from civilization. The point is, we don't know, and that's wrong. We have a right to know.
These are the sort of questions that go unanswered because unasked–except when you’ve decided to risk another visit to....

[spooky music]

The Realm of Possibility.

[theme song and Outro]

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Obama Proposes "Literature for Clunkers" - TM


President Barak Obama announced today a surprise stimulus package: "Literature for Clunkers." The details of the new program resemble those of the successful exchange of aging, pollution-spewing automobiles for newer, more gas-efficient models. "Here we are in the dawn of a new age," Obama said in a press conference in the Oval Office, "and people are dying for literature, actually perishing because of a paucity of the kind of news that stays new forever, as opposed to the meretricious kind that swamps our media outlets every single day." Raising up a hefty copy of the Dan Brown bestseller "Angels and Demons" in one hand, the President raised in his other hand a copy of little-known Andrei Platanov's "Fierce and Beautiful World." Dropping the Dan Brown novel on the dais with a resounding thud, he added, "All you have to do is bring in your used or unread schlock, and you will get a rebate from your bookseller on a work of lasting value, that never grows old, that will delight and succor your grandchildren as it did you." With an assist from daughters Malia and Sasha, the President then placed "Angels and Demons" in a shoebox. "See? Now we're going to take this one out to the Rose Garden and bury it so nature can work its magic."

Placing a spade on his shoulder and the shoebox under his arm, Obama exited the Oval Room with this quip: "Let me tell you, this kind of swap is a lot easier than those involving complicated derivatives. And it's a lot better for you, and the nation."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Advice for Writers in a Dark Time, or, Does Posterity Really Exist?

When Radar magazine folded, I said, "They didn't hire me anyway." When Florida Inside Out magazine folded, I shrugged because I didn't live in Florida. When Gourmet magazine folded, I said a prayer for my late friend Laurie Colwin, who wrote such common-sense wonderful columns that they became a book, Home Cooking. Then I wondered at the irony of Gourmet going down for the count the same time a Julia Child bio-pic was doing just fine.

In the first quarter of 2009, 279 magazines folded. As a magazine editor--still, even if without a current gig--I'm concerned. (Well, actually, I'm way past concerned.) Though people still keep starting magazines, the Golden Age is definitely over.

This is not news anymore. What is news? Well, as the "news business" is dying, that's a loaded question. Let's say "news" is what people are reading on a timely basis. In the age of the Greeks, that might be four hours (the time of the runner who brought news of the victory at Marathon). In the age of Sail, it took six weeks for news of peace to arrive, so Andrew Jackson fought and won the battle of New Orleans in 1814 for nothing--although it did get him elected President later. In the golden age of Newspapers, you might get a morning edition, a mid-morning edition, a noon special, and two or three PM specials until the last night edition. Plus, you got the paper from a gap-toothed urchin wearing a newsboy cap who gave you such lip that you went home and repeated it to your family at the dining table.

If it's today, right now, maybe the news is what you Tweeted 30 seconds ago.


Yes, it's going to be a lovely Posterity, the way things are going.

About Posterity: The standard elitist approach to writing for future generations is to ask yourself: "How will this look to people living 100 years from now?" Which is, frankly, looking pretty toothless as a reproach these days. The death of "news" means, just maybe, the death of memory, of history.

Did I just hear somebody Tweet: "Come off it, Mr Grinch?" Okay, pipsqueak, I dare you to take the Twitter Challenge.

You say you Tweet? Often? Does anybody read it? Good. Will anybody read it a day from now? A month? A year? A hundred years? Oh, yeah, sure. Consider that if there are 3 million people on Twitter tweeting every hour or so, for 12 hours a day, what are the odds yours will be read by some imaginary archivist in the future? If there are 36 million individual Tweets a day (and this is surely a lowball estimate) how many future historians will be needed to excavate and decipher ("LOL"? hmmm) them, in order to construct/deconstruct these times in which we live? If you can do the math, then you know it's hopeless.

But, maybe, Posterity doesn't matter. Maybe it's all been part of the great shuck-and-jive, a way to sell pie in the sky to writers so they'll keep on writing for cheap or less. If you look at the unknowns who crack the literary canon, there does seem to be a rather large category for "unrecognized or unpublished in own lifetime"... which means publishers didn't have to pay them anything. Funny how that works.

So maybe we writers will all end up burying ourselves under a pile of 140-character Tweets, like one of those centuries-old Indian middens of discarded empty oyster shells--never a pearl to be found.

On the other hand, maybe art will come of it yet. After all, Emily Dickinson's short craggy lines do seem made for Twitter:

"Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me/The carriage held just ourselves/And immortality."

BTW: My wife's magazine, Plenty, is one of those that folded in 2009, still owing freelancers money, by the way, while its founder-editor accepts invitations to sit on media panels and "tell it like it is"--which, it would seem, boils down to walking over the employees who created your venture and boosted your reputation, while you go back to work for Daddy.

For solace, here is the advice offered to Willa Cather, when she was a very successful young magazine editor, from Sarah Orne Jewett:

"If you don’t keep and guard and mature your force, and above all, have time and quiet to perfect your work, you will be writing things not much better than you did five years ago...

"Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life and write from that to the world that holds offices, all society, all Bohemia, the city, the country–in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up... To work in silence and with all one’s heart, that is the writer’s lot; he is the only artist who must be solitary and yet needs the widest out look on the world."

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Merce Cunningham, Frank McCourt: After the Meltdown, Part IV

Funny what you miss.

We felt many moments of pre-emptive nostalgia during our last months in New York City. It was an easy frame of thought to fall into: Here is our last night listening to world-class live jazz on a Monday night at the Standard, our last croissant from Bergamot, our last pizza Genovese at Don Giovanni (now being too grown up for Ray’s on Sixth and 11th), a last morning dance class at Merce Cunningham Studio for M, a final walk along the Hudson for me... But these were anticipatory losses, the real ones to come.

The real ones did come. After all these days on the road, we woke up one day a week ago and realized we hadn’t been alone together for 107 days–always in someone else’s house, or in a hotel, or in an airplane or car between the two. So put down privacy as the first thing we missed, in a real way (as opposed to a carefully curated "I Miss NY" way, calculated for maximum resonance among sentimentalists). In New York we had our place. And in NYC, there is a curious privacy amid the masses–nothing new here, the anonyminity of crowds a cliche, but now I know its truth personally.

The following day, as we hiked along a mountain trail at 5,300 feet; M suddenly cried out, "I miss broccoli!" And there you have it: under the pines and overhanging granite of the Ernie Maxwell Trail, the essence of our city life was boiled down to a vegetable and a state of mind.

With the conjunction of the closely spaced deaths of Frank McCourt and Merce Cunningham, in whose orbits we intersected, the one briefly, the other frequently, a third ineffable NY thing came to me today: possibility.

We moved into an illegal sublet in 1982; the building housed the Cunningham dance studios, and oneday M went upstairs to check it out. She came down a few hours later, sweaty, and said they’d let her dance. And so she kept on dropping in, dancing, and got to know the teachers and students, and even Merce at a distance, to the point of once being offered a scholarship–which she turned down, flattered, with great reluctance and rueful sense of "what might have been?"

Cunningham was all about possibility. His embrace of chance and non-narrative performance blended, for me, aspects of zen and sport with the hoity-toity-ness of fine art. In his way, Merce kept it real. (I remember him in an elevator, staring at how I blocked the door from closing by back-footing it–"memorizing the move to use in something," M said later.) As M kept trying to explain to me, Merce was all about those random moves and "bits" that were just done, un-patterned, freed from music’s beat, triggered by nothing, or else by chance and necessity.

Frank McCourt’s writing was the opposite, all about the story, the narrative, about his life as a narrator of stories about his life. We only met once, but it made an impression of a lifetime. He gave a reading at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park, shortly after "Angela’s Ashes" was published and started soaring up the lists. He wasn’t that famous yet. But it was happening, like a strange potion ingested that hadn’t quite taken effect. He read in a bemused, offhand style–applauded frequently by what seemed like a hundred former students of his from his decades at Stuyvesant High School. For some reason one of his older ex-students, friends of ours, invited us to join him at dinner afterwards, and we sat there sharing his moment, a bit grateful not to be taking up too much space as he accepted hugs and toasts. Finally someone’s gush about "making it at last" seemed to strike a nerve and he spoke out in a tone rueful, honest, and knowing in a way that felt slightly bitter: "It’s all very nice, the attention, but it’s a bit late. I really could have used this 20 years ago, even 10."

I’m paraphrasing, but that’s what he said. And it shushed the crowd, his students, those young faces; they who were so triumphant for him (and to be honest, triumphant for themselves at having known him when). Many of them suddenly realized, I believe, the embarrassing truth he had just committed, like a faux pas: that while recognition matters, and money and fame do certainly glitter, youth is still everything. Just as when they were juniors at Stuy High and he was Mr McCourt, the coolest teacher with the best stories, good for killing 50 minutes of a school day.

McCourt showed what a good teacher he must have been by that refusal to take on the role of Late-Life-Success-That-Makes-It-All-Worthwhile. He rejected an easy celebration, and risked being seen as a sore winner, a grump or a Grinch, to make a point about life–about the lives of his students, now young adults. If you want something, don’t wait for it to happen, make it happen. Start now.

And while I can’t speak for his students, I know I it made an impression on me–being older than our fellow guests and a bit more bruised by life, I got it.

Chance and necessity, possibility and privacy–and broccoli. Seize the day.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Asset Safari: After the Meltdown, Part III

It is now 107 days since we’ve had a home we can call a home.

Leaving NYC in a taxi on a gray day, we flew West and showed up in Palo Alto, hoping for a fellowship–no dice. Paused in SoCal to see me aging Mum and scope out the job market–no job market. After a week we hauled anchor for Hawaii, where a house awaited, collecting dust kitties and still stuffed with M’s late mother’s personal effects (including a fourth husband).

Now we are back in L.A.

In our last weeks in NYC, back when all this began, I had a flash about how to wrest control of this shapeless life of ours. My head was in an unusual place–having finished my novel Feb. 25, I’d gone straight that evening, without even a tot of celebratory whisky, into a frenzy of boxing and storing and throwing. For the next 45 days I had no time to read or write. Meanwhile, M was finishing her book, on double-drop-dead-line, since we had to vacate March 31 whether or not the mss. was finished on its April 1 due date.

All this left me plenty of time for one thing: thinking. And my thinking couldn’t be wool-gathering, either, or story-plotting. No, I had to assume the role of Captain Trips, master-planning our future moves even as our life morphed toward nebulosity, if not disaster.

The problem: How to turn a rout into victory? Since I’ve been reading a lot of military history for my novel, Dunkirk sprang to mind, but the analogy seemed risible; and as a rule one must be cautious about inviting comparison to Winston Churchill. Still, I conducted a staged withdrawal, trying to sublet the apartment, to sell our first editions of Eliot and Stevens and Cather and Bukowski, to find amid our possessions a liability to turn into an asset. And failed on each count.

To get myself through this initial period I decided to approach this entire episode–our "reset," as Obama might call it–as a four-star life detour, if the Guide Michelin reviewed lives like restaurants. I would drape it in flash econo-political symbolism, lard it with literary analogy, disguise the off bits with aggressive spices, like a cheap curry. Then call it an adventure. Turn suffering into material, the way a bistro chef takes offal and serves it up as tripes de Caen.

It wasn’t such a stretch. This is partly how it felt to be a magazine writer and editor, in the Latter Days of Journalism. Magazine people make sausage, almost without exception. I was good at it.

But I also was a fiction writer–which, in these times, is like saying "I whittle garden gnomes out of scrap lumber." Still, the fiction-writing habit seemed the only one still functioning after the meltdown. Freelancing a nonfiction story when staffers are being laid off by the hundreds is like a cow boarding a cattle car to the stockyards in expectation of reaching the next pasture.

Writing fiction, for me, for years, has been all about finding form in content, patiently sifting material and memories and associations until a constellation of truths emerge that one can shape into a whole. This was what I must do with my life, and our lives. Find the truth, and let that truth dictate the shape.

Or so I thought. For our content we had our life, which was about to become defined by movement and search and return, like the Joads in The Grapes of Wrath or the knight and squire in Don Quixote or Japhy Ryder in Kerouac’s On the Road–excepting iPods and laptops, of course. Having been away from our West Coast hometowns for over 20 years except for holidays and M’s odd magazine assignment and my football book, there was also a feeling of coming home from the wars. We were both like Odysseus, fumbling our way toward the past that was to be our future. (From the above it can be seen how quickly literary analogies lose their potency; in real life, as inspiration and motivation their return on investment is about the same, if not less.)

The magazine cliche came easily to hand: Road Trip! The skeletal excuse for filling any hole in the fashion/gear/travel section in any magazine is to scrounge up some skinny callow kids and take their pictures driving down Route 66 in a vintage convertible. (Hey, if it worked for Huck Finn, Cormac McCarthy, John Steinbeck, Lewis & Clark, Hunter Thompson, David Lynch and so on unto "Thelma and Louise," don’t knock it.)

Besides, in addition to the Road Trip format we’d have the overlay of nostalgia that would come from retracing our footsteps. Indeed: twenty-six years ago, the voyage out ended up taking us from Palo Alto to New York City via a sojourn at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. That had been Captain Trips’ greatest achievement as a strategic planner to date. Now that I was being called upon to unravel the Penelopean tapestry of that move, to pull on a thread or two and see if it led us back to our origins, it was hard not to question the point of it all. Even if those 26 years amounted to the heart of our life.

Anyway, go we must. And as the clock ticked down, it became increasingly important, for me, to define the deal going down before it defined us. Crisis control for the middle class meltdown.

Speaking practically, calling ourselves homeless in a fabulous-ironic sense would certainly have gotten attention and, who knows, perhaps even an article assignment. But it seemed overwrought, as well as likely to provoke retaliation, given the plight of the "real" homeless–even though we really were homeless. Anyway, my second thought was to (figuratively) put on an old Hermes scarf and call it vagabondage. In Greenwich Village of old this would be an acceptable pose; but weren’t we headed out into the badlands where the wrong scarf can get you strung up? Also, vagabondage by definition lacks a strategy, especially in a society that doesn’t tolerate 50-something workers, let alone unemployed gypsies. No, we needed something to tell people who asked who we were, who asked where and how we lived. Anything but the truth, which is that we were jobless and homeless, dragging our possessions in a laundry cart across the Great American Consumer Desert.

That’s when my flash hit, an echo of a Depression-era snatch of dialog between Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, who, as is well known, when faced with the insurmountable cried out: "Hey, let’s put on a show!"

In our case, coming from California, and being surfers at heart, the phrase I heard sprang not from Broadway and Tin Pan Alley traditions but from our own teenage years on the sand: Cue the Beach Boys! Check out Jan & Dean and those girls in clam-diggers leaning against a cherry ‘57 Chevy–throw the boards into the back of the station wagon, along with some blankets and extra wax. And by the way? Tell our teachers we’re going on a surfing safari...

What a difference a name makes. Among those who surf, and we do, "going on safari" is still as cool and popular as ever, and doing so at poverty level is still considered a badge of retro distinction. I began mentally toting up where we could rest, for days, weeks and even months, all within decent distance from a beach- or reef-break: Huntington, Laguna, South Shore Oahu, Bay of Biscay...

It’s all in your mindset. All in a name. Tell the teachers we’re surfing. Asset-surfing, U.S.A.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Grocery Cart SUV: After the Meltdown, Part II

So there I was, back in February, in March--pushing all our possessions in a laundry cart. I tried to wait until nightfall to make a series of runs to our mini-storage unit 3 blocks away. Over the 45 days coming and going, emptying out the unit and re-filling it from our apartment, I think I must have made 200 trips. Maybe more--the frequency picked up as we neared our day of abandoning the apartment, New York and 26 years in Chelsea.

If this sounds tawdry or "unnecessary"--i.e., over-dramatic--you're not and have never been a New Yorker. To a certain kind of city dweller, the laundry cart, purchased on 14th Street from a Nigerian or Peruvian, is their SUV. It's not just for laundry, or even groceries. You can move a piano with one, if you have three others to balance the load, that is.

My embarrassment was local, not global. When I got to the corner, I crossed 10th Ave to avoid being seen by my pals at the Empire Diner. I didn't care about the yuppie scum (a phrase curated from the 70s Lower East Side) at the tapas joint or the stragglers from the art galleries. For all they knew, I could be performing an "art installation." Right on!

Once as I was pushing my load on down the road, a Van Morrison song came on my iPod: "It Once Was My Life." And I dug it, dug myself, in an R. Crumb kind of way: Mr Natural-style. Sure, I looked like a homeless person. And in a few weeks I would be, technically. But I had my iPod, my irony, my style...

Back then I hadn't read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road"--his after-the-world-is-over novel about The Man and The Boy pushing a grocery cart filled with canned food and blankets down a blasted highway. I like McCarthy. His dynamic deadly landscapes are mine, or at least, the deserts and wastelands of my Western youth. But I figured "The Road" wouldn't be a great work. Too Mad Max. I also figured it would be too depressing given my circumstances.

Now that I have read it, in anxious repose here in Hawaii, the similarity between my laundry cart and The Man's grocery cart is enough to give me the willies. "The Road" takes place after a nuclear strike, never explained. Nuclear winter has long killed off all living things: except for a dog or two kept for self-defense, there are no cats, rats, coyotes, birds, not even a cockroach. (Which is one of the only "unrealistic" notes in a pretty great novel; according to urban myth the cockroach will survive a nuke-out.)

Obviously "The Road" is meant to be The Last Road Novel, a windup of the genre that has given literature such long legs: Exodus, Don Quixote, Canterbury Tales, Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe and on up to Jack Kerouac and too many tired recent examples to mention. I believe "The Road" is also meant to expose to bitter ridicule the overriding American Male Fantasy--that we are a nation of Mr Goodwrench Survivalists who will overcome all setbacks and even thrive, become better family men, for having to live off canned food (while devising clever and economical ways to kill other survivalists who've gone bad or voted Obama).

Yeah, it's a lovely myth. As a boy, as a Boy Scout, a 12-year-old card-carrying member of the NRA hoping my Dad would anoint me with a .22 single-shot Remington for my birthday, I'd grasped the poetry of how Daniel Boone "barked" squirrels with a shot into the tree branch beside the victim's head, which a) didn't mess up the brains, high in protein and fats and b) allowed the lead bullet to be pried out with the tip of a Bowie knife after the kill. Talk about sustainability!

"The Road" is the dead-end of that fantasy. The caches of food are all ravaged, gone, except for a few that appear providentially--discovered under duress--just when our heroes are fainting of starvation. The successful survivalists are organized into tribes of cannibals and (favorite McCarthy turn of phrase) catamites--imagine if Mardis Gras and Gay Pride paraders suddenly sprouted vampire fangs and began dining a la "Night of the Living Dead". The NRA types, it is inferred, didn't last long; for their pains in surviving the meltdown, which they carefully prepared for with underground food caches and arms depots, they got buggered and eaten. Nice.

I have known a few survivalists in my time. As a boy scout, I encountered a charming doctor and a not so charming dentist who both produced bouquets of German handguns on different occasions: thus my only Luger, proferred with a "want to touch?" eagerness. Later, white racists handing out guns during the Watts Riots in 1965 looked on the verge of ecstacy. Black rioters bursting the doors at Poly High in 1969 looked just as over-the-top as they reduced civilization to a shambles.

Today, a couple of my friends mutter of their guns, and a couple actually do have arms caches, I'm told. They once were hippies. Shit happened, I guess. Glad I wasn't there for it. Hope I'm not around when it happens again.

Oh, wait a second. It did happen. Because... When I was pushing my laundry cart, back and forth, in the rain and sleet and covering darkness, so my pals at the Empire Diner wouldn't recognize me, wasn't I enacting the Cormac McCarthy scenario in its early, still-hopeful beginnings? Storing 45 boxes of writings and journals and taxes--for what? Maybe I should have been stashing tuna fish and ammunition for my .30-.30.

This meltdown, if it goes on, could easily reduce all of us to The Man. That's the fear, isn't it? And if we are indeed thrown upon our own resources, it won't be pretty. It won't be a cleansing rapture for the prepared and the devout, like those 7th Day Adventists who are required--yes, required--to keep a years' food and water in their houses.

No, as D.H. Lawrence said, "The essential American soul is hard, isolate, and a killer. It has never yet melted." As an aphorism, I've never bought it. As a prediction of life after breakdown, I can't get it out of my mind--like a cheap perfume or pop music hook. I know so many guys who secretly believe disaster would cause them to rise to the top, like some combination of Jason Bourne and Attila the Hun.

Make a nice reality show--unless we're already living it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Roughing It: After the Meltdown, Part I

And so we were homeless.

Briefly. But time is not the yardstick here. If you ain't got a home, you're homeless.

A favorite old song on the radio when I was growing up (the Fifties, before music was totally segmented, when novelty songs and doo-wop and rock n roll and ballads all poured out of the fabric-covered Norelco Radio): The Boll Weevil Song. A sung-spoken dialog between a scratchy-voiced cotton farmer and his nemesis, in which every one of the farmer's increasingly anxious pleas is answered by a basso profundo chorus by Mr Weevil, who rumbles:

"But you gotta have a home, you gotta have a home."

Brook Benton was the singer in the 1961 version, one of the earlier black singers to crack mainstream pop radio, I'd guess. The origins of the song go back to an Alan Lomax recording of Lead Belly in 1934. But it's older even than that.

Here's how it went for Missus Weevil and me. Jan 5, we lost the last job we had between us. By the end of the week, it was clear something had to give, and that something, I recognized, was our New York City apartment. We hoped to sublet and began the process of packing, stacking, sorting, clearing out existing mini-storage (the new American country home being the storage unit--unless it's your primary residence, as seemed to be case for a number of our fellow mini-members).

A showing of the apartment on Mar 14 drew one person who said, without recognizing the literary allusion: "What a dump." Thus was brought home the five-month tumble of values in Chelsea, NYC: an apartment that we were told would rent for $6K a month couldn't fetch half that (about what we paid, as stabilized tenants).

Now as the Boll Weevil said to the Farmer, "We gotta have a home..."

Our question was: where? And being incorrigible literary types, or typists, as they once were called, M and I immediately being looting our favorite books for examples, good or ill, of the kind of adventure we were about to set out on.

For the remainder of this blog, here are the books and films and media to be referenced as we wend our way from New York City to Palo Alto to Long Beach (Calif) to Honolulu and back to Palo Alto/ Long Beach and thence.... "Well, wherever there's a home, you gotta have a home."

Exodus. Robinson Crusoe. Typee and Omoo. The Mutiny on the Bounty. Huckleberry Finn. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The Long Goodbye. Pitcairn Island. Tortilla Flats. The Grapes of Wrath. My Side of the Mountain. Eat the Document. Mad Max. The Road. In Wilderness Is the Preservation of the World. Castaway. And those merry pranksters, The Grateful Dead...

Let's see how long this plays out.