Thursday, July 28, 2011

Oh Sweet Nothing: Chicago to Reno and the Loneliest Road

We’re driving straight into the sun on Hwy 50. It was named “The Loneliest Road in America” by someone who came here before everyone who is here now. But how could one be lonely here, with all the ghosts around? Someone made those petroglyphs. Someone built those mining towns. Someone ate food, pooped, had sex, and walked all over this place. I’m suspicious of people who use the word “people,” who use “human nature,” or “natural,” because usually those words are actually obscuring the fact that the speaker means to say “people I’ve heard of,” or “people of a particular culture I know about,” and often “human nature” is a wildly inaccurate idea of human beings in the 20th century under global capitalism. But the notion that there were humans a few thousand years ago who lived in this desert, and who had at least these three functions in common with us: eating, pooping, having sex--is thrilling to me. It makes me respect the writers who focus on those activities more. They aren’t boring, they aren’t low-brow, they are a threads that actually do connect human beings across time and space, and that makes them deeply important.
In Chicago, we stayed with the fabulous Gina Frangello, inspired writer and publisher. Her 5-year old son Giovanni, when prompted to tell us something about himself, said “I think a lot,” and “I’m cute and a lot of girls like me.” Yes! We’ve been saying these phrases for a week now, whenever we feel the need to remind ourselves how to tell the simple truths that have been socially conditioned out of us. We watched Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on a blanket in Wicker Park, I drooled at Matisse and Cezanne at the Art Institute, and I got handed free Cubs tickets outside Wrigley Field from a man who disappeared so quickly I wouldn’t know him to thank him today. Thumbs up, Chicago.
In Missouri, we took a long detour to Chillicothe, where one of the more important female mentors of my life, Virginia Sillerud, was born. Grandmother, fashionista, incessant teller of grand tales, inventor of “The Mini Breakfast”* and reckless driver, Virginia is mythical figure of the past who still lives somewhere deep inside a thin body and a fogged-over Alzheimer’s brain. I tried to imagine her walking along those small-town streets in her smart 1940s pumps, a young woman with a red lipstick pout and an itch to leave--she fled for St. Louis, eventually for San Francisco, and didn’t talk about her Missouri childhood to us as kids. I grieved the death of her stories--I don’t know enough of them, and she can’t tell them now. I filmed the town for my family, none of whom have been there. It had a one-street downtown with historic early 20th century facades, and then streets and streets of old homes, half of which were in disrepair. We got a beer at a bar that has been family-run for sixty years. On the wall: a big orange poster that said “Hunters Welcome.” 
In Kansas, we drove off the highway to Lucas, where a bizarre cement sculpture marvel called The Garden of Eden made me the happiest I’d been in miles of prairie. Built by a Populist oddity named Duinsmoor, the G of E is completed with enormous Chagall-ish art that indicts big business, depicts original sin, and entombes the creator and his first wife. A relative gave the tour, and shined a light on Duinsmoor’s lime-encrusted face in his mausoleum. When asked why he had himself mummified, our affable guide said, “He was a visionary, an eccentric, and an egomaniac.” The town thought him insane, in 1900. They owe much of their revenue to him now.
My sister Lauryl and bro-in-law Sammy have a gorgeous new life in Denver, CO, and they invited us into it for Captain America, a late-night diner discussion of the film, and a superlative and royal experience of cinnamon roll at Breakfast Palace before we took off the next morning. 
I forgot my backpack at their house and added over two hours to our driving time. Luckily, we met Bri and Lucas in the town where I discovered my error, and they saved the day! When we returned from Denver the second time back along 70 West, we exited in Silverthorne, crunched along a dark hill, and arrived at a perfect 1980s ski cabin! These astoundingly cute people fed us, housed us, entertained us, and restored our faith in the possibilities for kindness and sharing and lack of suspicion among 20something Americans. 

If you are ever in Delta, Utah, I highly recommend room #40 at the Rancher Motel and Cafe. It sleeps between two and twenty people. 

I like towns named after objects: Rifle, Parachute, Yellowcat, Rabbit’s Hole, Dead Horse Point. But I love towns named after states of being: Desire, Panic, Defiance, Deference, Tranquility. Naming places after people is so arrogant of us. We’re patently classist when it comes to naming human dwelling places--streets, buildings, neighborhoods are named for the white wealthy, and then occasionally renamed for a black, Latino, or American Indian person. When our hubris extends all the way to naming geographical phenomena after people, we are truly lost in the anthropocentric coil. Thompson hot springs? Thompson thinks he gets to privately own thousands of gallons of healing water flowing from underground?
For the phenomena and landmarks of the landscape, I prefer names that offer extreme practicality. Arches National Park. Filled with naturally occurring stone arches, of course. High Point Trail. Up a steep climb, you see. If not practical, they must be poetic: Black Dragon View Area. Yes.

But how about Eureka? There is a Eureka in every state that’s got a natural resource someone wanted to exploit. Gold. Eureka! Iron ore. Eureka! Cheap labor. Eureka! We went to the Eureka Museum in Nevada and got hypnotized by 1934 newspapers that expressed some concern over Hitler’s rise in popularity. I could have stayed there for a year, reading the papers through the war, looking at old marbles and writing desks and the entire collection of printing presses and lintoype machines from the days of the Sentinel. I have compulsive imagining in the presence of antiques: the hands that touched this, the people who read this, the lives that crossed here.

And this is why I am both ravished and ravaged by cities: I am buffeted around by all the lives: every face a piece of art, every building a history museum, every plant evidence of some geological force. I entered Los Angeles to the sound of the Talking Heads, dancing in my car in the traffic. This trip doesn’t end.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Groundhogs on the Northern Haul: New York to Chicago

We’re 227 miles from Chicago. My right hand is swollen with a cluster of mosquito bites that have become one enormous hard aching welt. Anthony has pink eye. The car has lost two wheel covers and the brakes are squeaking constantly. Entropy. Things fall apart. We drink a lot of coffee. I turn to the artists I admire for ways to talk about decay that are fearless and appreciative of its beauty: Henry Miller, Jim Morrison, Leonard Cohen.

In New York, I had the fascinating experience of feeling severely disappointed by the Museum of Sex. Max (Ted) and I went to it with high hopes. Only one floor, the “Sex Lives of Animals” exhibit, was really mind-blowing. My main complaint is that the Museum of Sex is actually more of a Museum of 20th century, Western cultures’, Sex-in-media, a kind of pornography and erotica retrospective that has unclear notions of where it wants to start and how it wants to progress. The place, in attempting to somehow stay out of any particular political debate about sexuality or censorship or taboo, has rendered itself rather boring and quaint. Great underground bar, great store, a few really good pieces by some mostly contemporary artists. Not nearly enough context for anyone to know the true importance of what they’re looking at historically.

The Tenement Museum, in contrast, was brilliant. Oh, all these museums are too expensive, but our tour guide, Rachel, made our tour the most exciting and important and informative and infuriating (in a good, activist way) 90 minutes possible. I turned to Max and said, “This is really, really fun for me.” Learning, real learning, is one of the most pleasurable activities there is, I think. And now I know quite a bit about the garment industry of the early 20th century on the Lower East Side, which helps me think about immigration history in our country, which helps me understand better what is happening now in Arizona, Texas, California, and so on.

And then we left New York! We met an Amish family in rural Pennsylvania. They had dirty clothes, blunt haircuts, four horses, and they sold us honey in old salad dressing bottles at $2.00 a piece. We drove through two small towns: Desire and Panic. In Desire, we saw a hutch full of baby lop-ear bunnies. They wore black rings around their eyes and most of them still had one ear pointing up, like some fantastic sound had just rolled in from the West. And that is where we’re headed. West on I90, listening to Springsteen and missing Clarence Clemens and drinking no-name coffee from yet another defunct Dunkin’ Donuts. There are maverick, functioning, former franchised donut shops all over this country! Just another reminder that the constant fight for survival is still tolerated by those who fantasize about being the next big capitalist, not the lower management or worker. Desire and Panic. We are not a Buddhist nation, sir, oh my, no.

We stopped in downtown Sykesville, PA and met an arrogant Israeli pastry chef who boasted that he had no employees. His cinnamon rolls were sweet butter dough dancing, and he’d built a replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa out of cardboard and icing.

At the Museum of Labor and Industry in Youngstown, OH, I tried to understand how people in the 19th century poured pig iron, and imagined being a wife in a company town. 

The Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame rose from Lake Erie like a disco-ball promised land and I walked into a U2 concert in Buenos Aires, in Cleveland, and got enraptured by the mad bright 3D crowd and their perfect strong shoulders, but especially by Bono’s screaming desire for the Overman. I last saw U23D in January of 2008, when I was a different Vanessa, living in a different city, thinking much different thoughts about my quite different life. Pow! Time and space collision!

One tendency I see in this part of the country that fills me with distrust is the constant architectural use of boxes. Especially in the depressed areas of cities, the boxiness of the strip malls, little houses, schools, hospitals, restaurants seems like a form of aesthetic punishment. All the signs are rectangular. The windows are rectangular. The siding is a long series of rectangles. The fonts used to advertise are square and symmetrical. I don’t believe it to be much or at all cheaper to write that way than to use script. There’s an inertia to this kind of urban landscape that people take for granted, and I think it’s one of the contributing factors to our being no longer a revolutionary country. When people are given only boxes to live in, they see boxes everywhere. If they are told, in the subtle form of their city planning, that they do not deserve beauty unless they are wealthy, they will believe it, and that belief spells the end of creativity. The Heidelberg Project offered a gorgeous “fuck you” to this homogeneity of aesthetics.

The Heidelberg Project is a street, a nonprofit, a community art organization, a cluster of unlivable, burned out houses that have been transformed into huge art projects in Detroit. One of the houses in the H. Project was covered with stuffed animals. They’d been nailed to the outside walls, and it seemed that new ones kept getting added. One could tell how long a stuftie had been living on the house by its level of disintegration--many of them were drooping and matted, greying and sagging from rain. I photographed their sweet sad faces.

I met a boy at the Heidelberg Project who offered me such hope for change. He was eleven years old, black, living in this ignored and depressed area of Detroit, riding his bike around the neighborhood with a few friends. He let us play with his basketball and I asked him if he’d contributed to any of the installations on the block. He said yes. Which one? I asked him. He refused to tell me.

“Come on, you’re never going to see me again,” I said. “Why not tell me?”
“You gotta guess,” he said, smiling.
“Tell me one fact about yourself,” I said. “Then it will be a fair chance for me to guess.”
“I like art,” he said. “And basketball, and I play football at school.”
We played a brief hot-and-cold game until I’d found all 3 art installations he’d helped with. One of them was a two story home covered with enormous colorful polka dots.
“You painted some of those dots?” I asked.
He nodded.
“That’s my favorite house on the block,” I said.
“Mine too,” he said.
Hell yes. Hell yes. Hell YES.

Earlier. We kept seeing these adorable fuzzy animals on the side of the road--both alive and dead, and then found out that they are woodchucks! Groundhogs! They are incredibly cute, and the internet says that they get killed by cars in enormous numbers because they like to eat the grass at the side of the road. Immediately after reading that, we were hearing more and more reports on the Casey Anthony’s release, and we realized that nationally, accident statistics dwarf the statistics on crime, but it’s crime reports everyone seems to care the most about. It’s as if our collective desire for control over death manifests itself in a phobia of “criminals” instead of a logical move to prevent stupid accidents. Can’t CNN do a story on defensive driving?

We’ve killed nothing but some bugs so far on this trip, so our current level of decay and entropy feels lucky. And now I’m in Chicago, sweating out the dusk in Wicker Park, eating Wheat Thins and tuna on a blanket, waiting for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom to play on the big inflatable screen. Pow! Another confusion of spacetime! You thought I was 227 miles from here! And I was.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Balls on the Road: Citrusville, Phish, and Quebec Edition

This is one of the moments of hilarity and prankishness that dropped into the Superball IX Phish Festival Weekend. Normally the Ted summit is Burning Man, but this year we descended on Watkins Glen, NY for three days of transformative music, lights, conversation, dance, and art with the masters of derailment.

But First! Anth and I drove to Eutawville, SC, where Linz met us by plane, for the Citrusville Citizens' Sports Tournament. Every year Raymond Hawkins, Linz's mad genius younger brother, organizes a tournament of sports for his family and friends, based in his invented town of Citrusville. We played sports for 7 hours. We wore matching jerseys and ate boiled peanuts and Charleston Chews to keep up our strength. Something true: I adore badminton. The following day Linz, Anth, and the family all went out on a boat, while I cruised around the tiny town of Eutawville, eventually settling in at Aces High, the only bar in town. I met Mudhog and Hambone, and listened to their stories of southern living over a can of Busch. One must be a club member to drink at the Aces High, and I'd like to boast that due to bartender Gina's great generosity and humor, I now am one. I'll always have a place to drink beer and sit down in South Carolina. Does anyone know the name of that game that involves a large jar of water with a shot glass at the bottom, into which people try to drop quarters? All we could come up with was "Drop a Quarter in the Jar." It turns out that I'm perfectly at ease by myself in neighborhood bars populated almost exclusively with men. More on that later, probably. In the book on bars.

We packed Linz and our gear back into Aayla Secura (my little blue Toyota Yaris, who has been the heroic vehicle of this road trip and is named after an awesome Jedi Master) and drove 12 hours north to New York. There we met up with two other Teds, Janet and Max, spent an evening walking through Brooklyn with the venerable Jon Cotner, co-author of Ten Walks, Two Talks,  and practiced his "spreading of good vibes" by speaking simple compliments to strangers. He cooked us scallops, we talked for hours, a difficult but important fight erupted, and eventually the Teds fell asleep in a small heap in JanTed's room. 

In the morning, we got five Teds into the car, and met two more, Aaron and Karine, in Watkins Glen, NY. Oh joy of reunion and material reality of bodies! Oh violently loving Tedpile! We pitched tents, we slathered sunscreen, we entered the rarified world of a Phish Festival!! We were missing one Ted: Josh, who had life obligations that forced him to stay in California. One must not worry too much about keeping the Teds organized in their mind. We are right now eight people, but we will likely be more, and we share basic principles and life experiences and love each other with familial fervor and thus any Ted is Ted.

And this is where a most important theme emerged, although it still slips by me, feels not-quite-tangible, and I grapple with my ability to articulate it...because the basic premise is a kind of ghost, a Derridean notion of the trace every word is and leaves, an encounter with the state of wistfulness and desire that characterizes living: nothing is ever truly finished. Phish is my favorite band in part because there is no "authoritative" version of any song, since many songs were played live before they became studio recordings, songs have multiple incarnations as each time they are jammed out a new textual, musical world emerges, and songs listened to outside of the live Phish show inevitably present themselves as truly different experiences than those we "do" with Chris Kuroda's lights, with the crowd, with Trey Anastasio's elated smile, and so on. This blog will not feel finished. This trip is not yet finished. That's the way things are, and often I worry that literature (and even more insidiously, bad TV and film) is trying to sew up the cracks in reality by inventing "endings" that are not the only real ending, i.e., "endings" which are not: "and eventually, all these characters would have died, had they ever been actually alive."

Over the weekend the music fixed us in emotive bodies with gorgeous harmony, asked us to focus outside ourselves and get ready for the fight for the working class AND our right to be weird, loosen up our identities and become overflowing cups of love, train us to be freedom fighters for people far away, and also, invited us to hop in a space ship and take off for planets yet unknown. We read sections of Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and then Phish played us the song, "Thus Spoke Zarathustra." We also ate $1.00 grilled cheese together, napped in the shade of an enormous stage set, and talked with many other Phish fans who had innumerable philosophies on how to listen to and incorporate the music and its effects into life. The validity of ecstasy, of peak experience, of overwhelming joy and deep terror and big balls and mischief and true comrades was pounded into me with every kick of Fishman's drum. 

When we'd totally won Superball IX and it was time to leave, we entered our temporary Ted separations. Anth drove back to NYC with Janet, Max and Linz. Linz got on a plane and went back to summer school in Berkeley. I drove with Aaron and Karine up to Montreal, with one very important stop along the way: Boldt Castle, in the 1000 Islands. 

There is something perplexing at every turn in Boldt Castle. This is because it is a "restoration" of a building and a vision that was never actually created in the first place. It's an opulent mansion begun in 1900 that fell into disrepair before it ever was actually opulent, before anyone lived there. In fact, no one has ever lived there. CG Boldt was building it for his wife as a romantic gesture of a summer home. She died unexpectedly in 1904, a bit over a year before the Castle was scheduled to be finished, and he ordered work to cease on the behemoth. The place changed hands many times, was open for tours as early as the 1920s, but mostly people were touring an empty shell of a place, and were asked to be interested in the many carefully-cut pieces of granite on the outside. Eventually, it got spruced up. Bizarrely, it's all wrong. The furniture is a motley mix of things that belonged to various people related to the Boldts, and pieces that sort of resemble things a rich person would own at the turn of the century, and only about ten of the 127 rooms are "done." Aaron, Karine, and I went up every flight of stairs and realized that we much preferred the un-refurbished floors where people had covered the plaster with graffiti since as early as 1917. In the same huge mansion: layers of graffiti, fake rooms for people who didn't ever there, and a constant piping of an old Enya album (Shepherd Moons?) into every room through a series of speakers that were added to the mansion in the 1990s. We walked the grounds, in a slight daze, and came upon a gorgeous stone fountain. The basin was painted a garish blue and Karine and I said, simultaneously, "Oh, that blue is all wrong!" And then after our ferry ride back to Alexandria Bay we had a lively conversation in town over a few beers during which we decided that Boldt Castle is what happens when people become obsessed with the notion of Finishing Projects.

It seems to us that artists invent "finished" as a psychological trope to keep from going crazy with perfectionism or self-loathing, to let go of things that have been sold or published, or to create space in which to envision new projects. That Phish is able to keep making old songs different and new, to never let them be finished, seems a grand act of meditative calm and will. That Raymond Hawkins keeps improving the Citrusville Sports Tournament annually seems more understandable, but I think it's possible we'll all play the last Tournament without knowing it's the last one, and one day we will all just notice he grew out of it. And Boldt Castle will never be finished, as long as the non-profit running it now keeps getting half-baked ideas about how to simulate its authenticity. One can learn this lesson about the impossibility of endings on LSD, of course, and one can learn it by becoming a mystic, and one can learn it in meditation, and one can learn it in moments of sudden revelation due to art or sex or other pleasures, but I also think it has to be practiced somehow, thought through constantly. Because the impulse to tie things up in a narrative, to have discrete packages of memory or identity or accomplishment can be so very strong. 

Now I am in Montreal, where the lilt of spoken French graces outdoor patio bars and the staircases are wantonly adorable. And more comes, more comes, more comes.