Friday, December 07, 2007

The Month That Was - November 2007: When I left town at the end of October to head to the Islands, I noticed on the way to the airport how we were at the peak of fall colors in my neck of the woods and I vowed to run around with the camera when I got back to see what I could capture. By the time I got back the trees were mostly bare. Winter was just outsie the door. Now we are getting highs in the 20s and are under a winter storm watch as I write this. Can I go back to the Islands yet?

Actually, I did take my usual Thanksgiving trip to Vegas (and won, wee-hee), but this time it was just a bracket for three days in Death Valley. More on that next month. For now, you get the write up on last month's trip to St. John, USVI.

Sorry for being so late, and so brief, this month. I am currently bogged down with the football column as I will be through the next couple of months.

Inside the Glove
On the Road at 47
Inside the Glove: Here in my beloved home state, things are still screwed up and I am not just talking about the weather. Detroit was recently named the most dangerous city in America, with it weak sister to the north, Flint, coming in at number 3. As I have discussed before, whenever something like this surfaces, Detroiters, including the media, fly into a fits of indignation and denial. To wit:

"It really makes you wonder if the organization is truly concerned with evaluating crime or increasing their profit," said [Police Chief Ella] Bully-Cummings, who noted the complete report is available only by purchase. "With crime experts across the country routinely denouncing the findings, I believe the answer is clear."
That has to be one of the stupidest responses in history. Does she suppose that naming Detroit the most dangerous city was going to make them more money than naming, say, Baltimore or Pittsburgh the most dangerous? This is mentality of the chief of police of the city.

And we have:

"What I take exception to is the use of these statistics and the damage they inflict on a number of these cities," said Mayor Robert Duffy, chairman of the Criminal and Social Justice Committee for the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
In other words, it may be true, but how dare they say it. Really, the mindset of the responders tells you pretty much all you need to know about why cities like Detroit and Flint are in the toilet. They believe it's all a matter of perception. It's nothing that a big marketing campaign or the proper spin in the press or just not saying anything about it can't fix. No doubt that they would just use the phase all defenders of Detroit have used for decades now: "It's not that bad." Sorry, it is.

While we are on the topic of quotes about Detroit, here's Jack Kerouac from On The Road describing a Detroit during a visit in the late '40s.

"If you sifted all Detroit in a wire basket the beater solid core of dregs couldn't be better gathered."
Some things never change.

And get this, over in the Wall Street Journal, Jake Halpern writes about Buffalo, NY, making some of the same arguments I have in the past about Detroit, specifically: the devotion to finding high-profile projects that generate good press is a detrimental distraction because the only thing that will really change things is when the environment for all businesses is attractive, not just the fancy ones who you've bribed with tax breaks and hold press conferences for. Anyway, it is obvious from reading this that Buffalo is in bad shape, but then there is this throwaway line:

"[Buffalo] is the second-poorest major urban area in the nation, just behind Detroit."
Yes, Detroit is even pitiable by the standards of Buffalo.

Statewide things are not much better. We still can't attract businesses here, but every once in a while the Governor bribes a high profile company to relocate here with egregious tax breaks, which she can do without disrupting the government revenue since she recently slapped a service tax (essentially a sales tax on services in addition to goods purchases) on the citizens. But at least she gets some good press and that's what counts.

Economically, Michigan is pretty much doomed. We are at the start of the "taxes chase business away/economic activity drops/government revenues fall/government raises taxes to make it up/more businesses leave" spiral; same one the killed Detroit. There will be a crisis -- it may take two or three more tax increases -- but it will happen. Only then will things start to change for the better.

Although to give credit where due, some Detroit suburbs actually made the top 30 for safest: Troy and Sterling Heights, for to name a couple. For those of you not interested in being employed here, that actually works out pretty well. Outside major metro areas, Michigan is one of the most beautiful places you can imagine. It can be full-on backwoods outdoorsy, there's as much shoreline as either coast, it's quite inexpensive, very safe and rarely crowded (and getting less crowded every day). I have pointed out how it's a perfect alternative to a family Disney trek.

In fact, speaking for the tiny minority of us who have a secure Michigan-based income, it's kind of nice not having to worry about sprawl or squalor affecting our upstate paradise. So do come visit, we need your money. But mind the deer.
On the Road at 47: Yes, I know On the Road was published 50 years ago. The "47" refers to me. I am that old and just read it for the first time. Is that sad? On the Road is, among other things, a book entirely possessed by the youthful spirit of its author. Could it possibly have any relevance for a man my age?

There is little plot in On the Road. Jack Kerouac, in the character of Sal Paradise, recounts his travels around the country, primarily in the company of Dean Moriarty (real name Neal Cassady). They barrel around the continent -- New York, Denver, California, and finally into Mexico -- with no real plan or specific intentions. They are just compelled to be in motion. They are searching for something spiritual, but what it is they do not know, nor can they describe it. Yet they dash about the country in beaters or borrowed cars, live hand to mouth, impose on friends and strangers, chase women, indulge in drink and tea (marijuana), all the while reveling in the world and the people they meet. As Dean Moriarty would put it, they are searching for "It."

Here's the famous quote that sets the tone:

"The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles..."
Now you tell me: Is Kerouac really searching for "It" or is he just looking to be entertained by the world?

This is, of course, what youth is all about. You have no idea what you are doing or why, but the compulsion to move and search is irresistible. And, as in most youthful endeavors, people get hurt in the process, generally wives and girlfriends, and innocent bystanders are usually left to clean up the mess. Such actions are shallowly acknowledged then almost immediately rationalized away in the standard manner of post-adolescence. For the middle-aged, this book is a sincere look back past 20 or 30 years of personal development; all the energy, madness, hubris, frustration and pain are there to see.

To anyone old enough to "look back" at youth, this is old news. But what I found most interesting about it was the sincerity and, to a lesser extent, the naivete. As Sal and Dean dart about the countryside, they truly open themselves to the people they encounter. Some of these are people who would eventually become that core of what was known as the Beat Generation. Others are standard workaday folks. A few are real low-lives. But in all cases they listen, watch, and speculate on these people -- their inner natures, their dreams -- all done with the expectation that there is something in there worth learning, something they don't already know.

One of the attractions of On the Road is nostalgia, although the American landscape described is not all that much different. Yes, things are more convenient and homogenized now, and no one hitchhikes anymore, but speaking as someone who has done a number of road trips out west, it's still easy to get off the beaten path. What is really lost from those times, and probably never to be retrieved, is the unaffectedness of the people. I know twelve-year olds who are more cynical than Sal and Dean. These guys sit and chat with drunkards, petty operators, and a variety of other marginal characters and try to intuit something from them, some sort of deeper understanding. Most of the young people I know are too affected by sensory overload and way too drenched in irony for any such thoughts. They would pass these people off with a disdainful "whatever" and some snidery. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing. Although it seems cold, a natural skepticism protects those who aren't necessarily experienced enough to spot troubling circumstances reliably. The fact of the matter is, a lot of what Sal and Dean engage in is childish self-delusion and fantasy. On the Road could not be written today because we are too wise, too young.

In time, most of the real world counterparts to the characters in On the Road revealed themselves to be the lost causes that a middle-aged man like me would see them for. William Burroughs (Old Bull Lee) spent most of his life drugged and wasted, eventually accidentally murdering his wife while "playing William Tell." There is a section of the book where Dean and Sal bunk at the house of Old Bull Lee/Burroughs and his wife. It's very creepy to read this knowing her fate. Neal Cassady managed to inspire many fringe types well into the '60s eventually driving the bus for Ken Kesey and his band of freaks, although in his old age, he fretted over the life he'd led and the mess he had made of his children. Alan Ginsberg (Carlo Marx) faired pretty well. He gained fame (or perhaps infamy) for his poetry, eventually turning to activism, devoting his creative energy to the transient socio-political concerns which, given the scope of what Kerouac and Cassady dreamed of, seems a bit small.

Kerouac himself never fell for the infantile lunacies of the '60s counter-culture. If he was just hoping to be entertained, he eventually went beyond that. He continued writing, completing several more books. His quest for the spirit of things quite logically turned to Buddhism. It seems Keroauc was the only one who came to see that there was no "IT" to find, or that the journey was the "IT." He drank himself to death in 1969.

As with any book, what's left when you strip away the cultural baggage is the writing, and the writing is worth far more than the price of admission. Whatever you may have read about the energy and poetics are true. The book begs to read through in long intense stretches. What's even more remarkable is that when you step back and think about the events that transpire, they are often very prosaic -- an extended and uncomfortable car trip, a dingy job to come up with enough money to move on, a meal in a diner -- and yet it all becomes very compelling.

The Beats, and Kerouac especially, were probably the last real literary movement. Journalists like Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson took the style to heart and brought about the primacy of non-fiction we have had since. After them the world moved on to film and video as its primary source of cultural cohesion. Because of its powerful influence On the Road may not seem all that special, the effect having been diluted by decades of progeny, but it still stands out and still arrests your attention.

Even if you are a middle-aged, you should read it. I may have seemed a bit put off by its juvenile excesses, but I am very glad I did. It's all well and good to look with distaste on the shameful behavior of youth, but I can't help but acknowledge that 25 years ago, if Dean Moriarty pulled up in a beat up old car pointed west and asked me to get in, I'm sure I would have. Or regretted it if I didn't.