Bloomington, Illinois — There is a field of root vegetables next to the Fairfield Inn where Owen and I are staying tonight. I don’t know what kind they are and it seemed less than wise to pull one and find out. I’m in a new country and a main road runs by the field.
There is a baseball tournament in town and the hotels are full up. Owen and I tried the Holiday Inn first but no luck. The desk clerk there phoned the Fairfield across the street. They had a suite and we took it. Pricey but beats sleeping in the truck.
Beyond the north edge of town there is a wind farm, the first we’ve seen since Oklahoma. The southern parts of Illinois are mile after mile of corn and soybean fields. Then comes Springfield, which is a little undulaty and treed, then more miles upon miles of corn and soybeans. And the mysterious root vegetables.
Missouri’s Ozarks were under overcast skies this morning, the clouds so low that at times they were fog and at times they were drizzle on the Penske’s windshield. The roads there and in Illinois were fine as they always have been, even the portions where work is being done and the lanes restricted. I was a little boy when the interstate highway system was being built. Though we now take it for granted, it remains a wonder of its age.
The Illinois state police were active along the interstate this afternoon. In a short space of road they had pulled several cars over. All but one looked to be routine traffic stops. The one exception was where two police cars, one from the state police and the other from some other agency, had pulled over an SUV and had the people out of it and the doors opened while the vehicle was searched. The motorists were black and the police were white. As we sped past I said, “Busted for DWB,” and Owen said, “Yep.”
Chicago tomorrow. We expect to reach the city late in the morning.
Springfield, Missouri — It’s just after 5:00 a.m. I’ve been awake since before 4:00. I lay in bed for over an hour, hoping I might get back to sleep, not believing it was likely I would get back to sleep, knowing I need as much rest as possible before today’s long drive through the Ozarks down to St. Louis, across the Mississippi, then up the Illinois shield to Bloomington. I lay in bed in the dark of this Holiday Inn room, listening to Owen snore, watching the light on the smoke detector, thinking a thousand thoughts.
It’s not what might go wrong on the road that I think about. No, that’s not quite it. I do think about that, but I’m not terribly worried. Everything Susan and I own is in the back of the Penske rental. One may say, “It’s just stuff,” and it is, but stuff is always more than just stuff. It’s the physical evidence of the years of one’s life, one’s labor and dreams. One doesn’t want it to be lost or destroyed, but the news is awash in stories of people who lose everything to fire, flood, storm and war. Odd the ways we entertain ourselves. One gets used to footage of the survivors testifying as to how “it’s just stuff–we survived, and we have each other, and we can rebuild.”
It’s just stuff. It’s not what I’m worried about. The roads are good–interstate all the way up to Lakeshore Drive–and I’m an experienced driver, though this is only the second time I’ve driven a truck as big as the bright yellow Penske land-caravel. The first was a lifetime ago, when I was living with my parents in Arkansas for a short time and they decided to move to Colorado and asked me if I wanted to come along. I did, and so I did. But that’s another story. Its relevance here is that it showed me that one can be a middle-aged American and load up all one’s worldlies on a big rental truck and cross the continent to make a new life when all one has is a little bit of savings and a lot of determination.
Not to get all rah-rah, here. This is not a pep talk, not even for myself. The drive is work and is tiring, but harder work was getting packed and loaded, and harder work will be getting unloaded. Due to necessary vagaries of scheduling and planning, Owen and I are due in Rogers Park, Chicago, at 11:00 a.m. tomorrow. We are to get the keys to the new home Susan has secured for her and me–an apartment on N. Eastlake Terrace–and we are to pull the truck into an alley. My nephew, Eric, is to meet us there and help us unload, which must be done before the end of day, then I must find a place to park the Penske for the night. The following morning–Friday, August 2nd–it is to be returned by 9:00 to a place just across the Chicago River. Susan, who is flying in on Thursday with our two remaining cats and getting a rental car at the airport, is to pick me and Owen up at the truck rental return place and bring us back to Rogers Park. I am to get ready for a job interview Friday afternoon. I have a new suit just for that. It is hanging here in the Holiday Inn room so it doesn’t get overly wrinkled. The interview is at a law firm in The Loop. I’ll be taking the El, the Red Line, to get there and back. Owen will be coming along, as he would like to visit the Field Museum while I am angling for what I hope will be my new job. Saturday afternoon, he flies back to Albuquerque.
A thousand things ran through my mind earlier this morning while I lay in the dark and watched the smoke detector’s light. Things like, Will the timings work out right on Thursday? Is this all a terrible mistake? Will I get a job before the money runs out? Will Susan and I be happy in our new home? Will we make it safely to Chicago? Did I get enough sleep last night? Is 55 the new 35? Am I sharp enough for the streets of Chicago? Will it matter that I have no advanced degrees? Can I make it not matter? Will it matter that I’ve no practical experience in my field in the state of Illinois? Can I make it not matter? Will it matter that my resting mental state is confusion and my resting emotional state is fear? Can I make it not matter? Will it matter that I just posted the questions here? Can I make it not matter? Can I make matter only what I want to matter? Can I sufficiently control this? This life? These choices? Can I dance with it? Can I flow with it? Can I make it matter? Anything could happen. If something terrible happens, can I make it not matter?
Springfield, Missouri — Green. I’ve spent most of my life in the deserts of the southwestern United States and I always marvel at how green the landscape is nearly everywhere else I go. And here in Springfield, where it rained heavily last night, it has just begun to rain again. I hear the drops hitting the window of the room Owen and I have taken in the Holiday Inn.
Tired. Having driven about 850 miles in two days, I am tired. It’s been, and will continue to be, freeway all the way, following what was once Route 66. The road has been good and fast, the great Penske land-caravel a reliable machine. Bright yellow, too, for easy visibility.
Many stretches of the freeway have had lane closures and speed reductions due to work being done on them. If I am figuring right, this is the application of federal infrastructure money. It is nice to see it at work.
As with the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma’s plains are also sprouting wind farms. A car dealership in Tulsa had two huge flags, one American and one Oklahoman. The Will Rogers Turnpike was straight and smooth and not terribly expensive, and well-patrolled by the Oklahoma State Police.
People all along the way have been good. Owen has been a great help, watching the truck’s blind spots, managing the truck’s music, helping find lodgings, conversing with me, and keeping me on an even keel. I would not want to be on this trek alone.
Elk City, Oklahoma — The coffee maker in the motel room malfunctioned, giving off a wispy curling smoke such as might be seen in a horror movie and stinking up the room in a way John Waters might appreciate. I’ve gone down to the lobby to get a cup of lobby coffee and have it here next to me. I have not yet drunk enough of it.
A huge storm came in the night. Around 2:00 a.m. I was awakened by thunder. There was that and the causal lightning and buckets of rain. It was after 3:00 before I got back to sleep, to dream of the Cadillac Ranch and the great Groom Cross, both of which are along Interstate 40 and both of which Owen and I saw yesterday in passing. At the Cadillac Ranch, the frontage road was clumped with the SUVs and pickup trucks of sightseers who had stopped to see the noted work of art, photos of which I had seen before and which is somewhat smaller in real life. As we passed the great Groom Cross, I saw no one and did not see the grounds with their array of bronze sculptures. While many poor could have been fed with the money it cost to erect a cross nearly 200 feet tall and fashion the accompanying structures, the poor will always be with us and would only have got hungry again so they will have to find some other way to get by.
There is also a leaning water tower in Groom, about which I did not dream.
The lobby telly says a cold front is coming. It is a barrier of stormy weather through which Owen and I will be motoring later today in the great yellow Penske rental. Time to finish the coffee, pack up, check out, and head out. Breakfast possibly in Oklahoma City.
Elk City, Oklahoma — Owen and I arrived just after 7:00 p.m. local time and secured lodgings at the Days Inn off Interstate 40 eastbound at exit 38. It was a good drive and fast, often at 70 mph in the 26-foot Penske rental. The vegas of northwest New Mexico were green from recent rains. The burgers at the Denny’s in Tucumcari were superb, the wait staff sullen and distracted, the men’s room a mess. Northwest of Amarillo is a vast wind farm, dozens of large white turbines arrayed for thirty miles or so across the plains, looking like nothing so much as the spaceships of an invading alien army. The American and Texas flags in Amarillo were large and extended in the stiff breeze; the girl at the Love’s truck stop wore a tight pair of knit shorts in an American flag pattern. Once across the border into Oklahoma, where the flags are much smaller and not made into clothing, the steady wind picked up dust and hazed the late afternoon view.
The Days Inn once had a Denny’s on-site and the floor plan at the front desk still shows it. The desk clerk said, “They closed it down and didn’t even tell their staff they were going to.” She said we could find dining at any one of a half-dozen eateries across the road. We crossed and chose the Western Sizzlin’, where it was Monday Night Buffet. In the lobby of the Western Sizzlin’, there is a photograph of the 66 Diner in Albuquerque.
Back here in the room now, we can hear the voices of revelrous travelers along the balcony outside our smoking room (“All I have available is smoking rooms,” the desk clerk said). The ashtray by my laptop is face down. Tomorrow’s goal is Springfield, Missouri.
“It’s not crime and criminals that are destroying the world; it’s petty little emotions like envy, all these silly squabbles that end up with good people hating one another.” — Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya (trans. Schmidt)
This is almost certainly my final routine post from my desktop computer here in the home my wife, Susan, and I keep in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Later today, I will shut down and pack away this machine. Today and tomorrow, my adult son, Owen, and I load up the rental truck with all Susan’s and my household possessions. Monday morning, with Owen riding shotgun, we head for Chicago.
I have a laptop and expect I may post again from it tomorrow, and may scribble a bit about the trip as we make our way by interstate highway along the old Route 66. We’ll see.
“The more I write, the more I think it’s not a matter of old forms and new forms: what’s important is to write without thinking about forms at all. Just write and pour out whatever’s in your heart.” — Anton Chekhov, The Seagull (trans. Schmidt)
“Sometimes people get obsessive about things, ideas, like a man who spends all his time, let’s say, thinking about the moon, staring at the moon. Well, I have a moon of my own. All I think about day and night is having to write. I have to write, I have to. I finish one story, and then I have to write another one, and then a third, and after that a fourth. I write without stopping, like an express train; it’s the only way I know how. Now, I ask you, what’s so beautiful and bright about that? It’s a stupid life! Here I am talking to you, I’m all worked up, and still I can’t forget for a minute that I’ve got a story to finish. I see a could, like that one, shaped like a piano. And all I can think is: I have to use that, one of my characters has to see a cloud shaped like a piano. I smell the heliotrope, I make a mental note: a sickly-sweet smell, a widow’s color, use it to describe a summer evening. Every word you and I are saying right now, every sentence, I capture an lock up in the back of my brain. Because someday I can use them! When I finish working, I go out to the theater, or go fishing, to relax and get away from everything. Do you think I can? No, a great iron cannonball starts rolling around in my head, an idea for a new story, and I’m hooked, I can feel my desk reeling me in, and I have to go write and write. All the time! And I never get any rest. I feel like I’m devouring my own life.” – Anton Chekhov, The Seagull (trans. Schmidt; emphasis in original)
“No sooner had the fighting of World War II ended than the Cold War began, and the United States seemed plunged once more into the anxiety that had prevailed while the guns were firing. A manipulated terror of godless Communism, coupled with an even greater one of nuclear war, made the 1950s a decade in which ordinary women and men feared to speak freely or act independently. Injected into this unhealthy atmosphere was a straitjacket demand for conformity to what was rapidly becoming corporate America. In a world that had just fought one of the bloodiest wars in history for the sake of the individual, millions were rushing into the kind of lockstep existence that by definition meant a forfeiture of inner life.” – Vivian Gornick, “The Cure for Loneliness”
“Most people, in daily currency, use words in what they think of as a fairly literal way. Consequently they are made uneasy if a writer does not use them similarly. They expect a novelist to know more words than they do, and to employ them with greater expertise than they can. Basically though, they expect a ‘story’ to begin at the beginning (wherever that may be). If the first four words aren’t literally ‘Once upon a time,’ the reader should be able to assume they’re taken for granted. The story should continue through exposition, climax, denouement, until on the last page the author can write ‘The End,’ and the reader may be confident there’s no more to come, that nothing that should have been said remains unsaid.
“The reader, then, expects to understand a work of fiction in the way he understands a conversation with his butcher, his bank manager, his wife, his colleagues at work, or even—in times of energy crisis—his candlestick maker or vendor. Or, pitching it a degree higher, he expects the fiction he reads to illuminate his own conversations with his hairdresser, his solicitor, his wife, his friends, even his Member of Parliament, because he knows that the author possesses ‘imagination’ while he probably does not.
“We are conditioned to read thousands of words every day. There are probably more of them in a single issue of the Times or the Guardian or the Daily Telegraph than there are in the average new novel; and we’re conditioned, because we lead such ‘busy’ lives, to read these words—whether in newspaper or book—as fast as we’re able to assimilate them. In practice, this means a general understanding of the surface meaning, the ‘factual’ content, rather than being persuaded, beguiled, influenced, stimulated and altered by the words. But the craft of even our best journalist is one thing, the art of our better novelists quite another. Or should be.” — Giles Gordon, “Fiction as Itself”
“I exist only when I am writing. I am nothing when I am not writing. I am fully a stranger to myself, when I am not writing. Yet when I am writing, you cannot see me. No one can see me. You can watch a director directing, a singer singing, an actor acting, but no one can see what writing is.” — Ingeborg Bachmann (quoted by John Taylor in “Reading Ingeborg Bachmann”)
“Over the years I have found that many Americans—from readers to reviewers to critics to academics to publishers and of course to politicians—take pride in knowing almost nothing about the rest of the world. Academics will probably bristle at this thought but, at least in relation to literature, all you have to do is look at the courses that are offered featuring the literatures of other countries. Not only don’t they teach these literatures, they don’t read them.
“In any event, there is a kind of pride taken in how little we know about the rest of the world. And this is coupled with a belief that, if given the chance, all other people would want to be Americans, would want to enjoy our way of life, would want our political system, our economic system. And then of course we try to impose our tastes—for purely economic reasons—on the rest of the world. But at the end of the day, we are shocked and hurt and utterly bewildered at the fact that America is hated by many people and governments. And then we manage to turn even that into evidence of our superiority.
“I think that it’s of absolute importance that the literature and intellectual thought of the rest of the world be readily available in this country, and that these be valued and respected. Otherwise, we become this strange, isolated country that survives only because it possesses the military and economic dominance that it does, not because it is the epitome of civilization and freedom. There should be an immersion in this country’s schools of world literature.” – John O’Brien (Director, Dalkey Archive Press)
“A foundation will be far more likely to fund third-rate poets reading to beleaguered schoolchildren than fund the publication of some of the most important foreign literary works. Foundations of course are forever patting themselves on their backs for being so diverse and multi-cultural, but they intend these sentiments to have a very limited application.” – John O’Brien (Director, Dalkey Archive Press)
“If there is a pure love, exempt from the mixture of our other passions, it is that which is concealed at the bottom of the heart and of which even ourselves are ignorant.” — Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Reflections (trans. Bund & Friswell)
“There are no accidents so unfortunate from which skillful men will not draw some advantage, nor so fortunate that foolish men will not turn them to their hurt.” — Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Reflections (trans. Bund & Friswell)
“The contempt of riches in philosophers was only a hidden desire to avenge their merit upon the injustice of fortune, by despising the very goods of which fortune had deprived them; it was a secret to guard themselves against the degradation of poverty, it was a back way by which to arrive at that distinction which they could not gain by riches.” — Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld, Reflections (trans. Bund & Friswell)
“Most artists fail in what they try to do. The reasons range from an encyclopedia of faults and mistakes to the myriad variants of bad luck. The fact is too melancholy to tempt much contemplation.” – Peter Schjeldahl, “Flower Power”