Sunday, April 15, 2012

How To Prepare For A National Election

Sufjan Stevens--"Too Much (live)" (mp3)

No, no, no, this is not about politics! Wait! Come back! I know you don't read political stuff. We've learned that over the years on this blog. I promise, this is not about politics. I promise. This is about America.

Regardless of which way your preferences tend, there is one thing that you will have to concede: the candidates know your country a lot better than you do. All of them. For months, even years, they have been to the major cities, the small towns, the unknown corners of states we may know only by name.

Most of us don't have that luxury. It's not an easy thing to mobilize and venture out to inhale great gasps of miles in one or more directions. Even harder now, I suppose, with gas prices, though I would argue that adulthood and responsibility are the real deterrents.

Me, I haven't taken the great cross-country trek for 11 years. In the summer of 2001, I spent about 6 weeks studying Lewis and Clark in Spokane, Washington. Before that, I took the trip with wife and baby daughter in June of 1990, at least as far as Colorado and New Mexico. Even earlier, in 1980 I traveled from Philadelphia to Santa Cruz, literally coast to coast. And the first time, in 1978, I drove with college roommates to visit a college friend who lived out in Colorado.

So here's what I'm suggesting, times being what they are: take the great American trip, but take it with John Steinbeck.

In the summer of 1960, John Steinbeck and his poodle, Charley, undertook the great journey, a travelogue captured in his wonderful little book, Travels With Charley (In Search Of America). They took a northern route across, through Maine and South Dakota and Washington, and came back along southern roads, through Texas and Louisiana, among others.

In his words, "Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country...I knew the changes only from books and newspapers...So it was that I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land. Otherwise, in writing, I could not tell the small diagnostic truths which are the foundations of the larger truth."

I found many pleasures in the book, chief among them, perhaps, the realization that so many problems that we, with our short memories, feel are utterly contemporary--waste, nuclear threats, the plethora of tasteless fast food, military spending, the anonymity of interstates, urban decay, guns, illegal immigrants, our basic cowardice, the blandness of religion, racial confrontations--were issues that Steinbeck encountered on his casual journey. There was some comfort in this for me. I know that seems strange. But the reality that our current morasses were neither recently created nor ever solved with any finality says to me not that we are a hopeless case, but that we are still a work-in-progress and that we have as much chance of finding some solutions as those before us. I never went in for that "Greatest Generation" bullshit anyway.

But that's maybe getting too political. The day-to-day joy of reading the book came from Steinbeck's (and Charley's) meetings and conversations with random citizens and with each other--the savory and unsavory characters that we are bound to meet when we leave the comfort of our familiar paths and interactions. Each one of those characters, those encounters, the observations that followed served to instill in me that feeling of what it's like to be on a long trip which may or may not have a destination, the reminder that even if we know where we're going, we have little control over what happens in between the departure and the destination.

And I felt in touch with America again. Yes, it was the America of my youth and the book stirred some nostalgia in me, but these days we tend to focus on how different everyone is, due to outlook, religion, race, or geography, but Steinbeck's trip succeeds in capturing the things that we have in common. I won't elaborate on those; I suspect what you see will be different from what I saw.

Yes, take the trip with Steinbeck, if you can, but also realize that he left wife at home, child in private school, and every other responsibility that holds us back, to confront something that he thought was important. And he's not even sure that he succeeded in his mission. That's risk. He concludes like this: "I do know this--the big and mysterious America is bigger than I thought. And more mysterious."

What better preparation for what will doubtless be a divisive national election than making our country too big to swallow instead of the small, digestible bites of what we think matters that our media feeds us each day? It takes a writer to show us what we do and don't know, without neat packages and easy answers, and John Steinbeck is that writer. There's something about this book that makes me say, the heck with "the issues," what about the country? Who are we? What do we share? I wish I could explain it better. Read it. Maybe you can.


troutking said...

One of my top 5 all time books. I love the road trip and I wish I was personable enough to talk with people like Steinbeck did. I know Charley helped start many conversations, but no way I'm getting a dog! Also, unfortunately, I don't like most people. But I do love this book!

Susan said...

Okay, Bob. I've been looking for a good book to read, so I'll go to the library this morning and check this one out. When I've finished, I'll let you know what I think. (I have to say I've never read this particular Steinbeck book.) And Jeff, if you ever want to borrow a dog, I'm sure someone next door would loan you one.

Sara C said...

A. I always read about the politics. Bring it!
B. I love this book although I haven't read it in many years.
C. My dog and I are thinking about it.

Bob said...

@trout Steinbeck certainly has a generosity of spirit that I don't have either, though having a well-stocked bar in the back of your custom-built truck doesn't hurt when you're trying to meet strangers either

@susan You won't be sorry; you'll just want to get on the road

@Sara Take the whole family. why the heck not? There's nothing more amazing to young eyes than the things in those big states out west

cinderkeys said...

He probably made most of those interviews up. But it still tracks what people were thinking about back then.