In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck turns phrases through multiple states of America, with his stately blue standard poodle at his side. He covers miles and answers the deeply American urge to be on the road of discovery. His questions seem to be unanswered though, only finding further ambiguity around every turn. A fair amount of whiskey and coffee fit to eat with a fork is involved. He encounters kindness, and the most abhorrent "vomiting of demoniac humans". He puts his feet in cold streams, decides not to shoot a pair of coyotes and argues politics in his home town with his staunchly Republican sisters. He comments on the "real man." Charley is completely self-possessed throughout.
The weird thing is how it could've been written yesterday, aside from some use of words that should be forever banned from our vocabulary. He taps into the bizarre way Americans are all linked, despite disparate ethnic origins and a general distaste for his NewYork license plates from anyone west of the state line. He has a point about our collective alikeness. And our individual uniqueness. Paradox in red, white and blue.
Prior to my rereading of Travels…, I reread Wild. This book now turned movie about a woman trekking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) has received critique from those that are in the know about hiking the PCT. You cannot just get a pair of ill-fitting boots and a ten million pound back pack and hit the PCT! She did though, and though I can see the point of the experienced hikers, I think they miss the point of her story. A heroin abusing, grieving woman in her 20's, now orphaned and completely clueless about the trajectory her life should take. That is the story: a search, a quest. Not unlike 58 year old Steinbeck, looking for America, and maybe a little for himself.
Recently I trekked through the Bay Area (San Francisco and environs) with my two teenaged daughters. We stayed in the lap of luxury, in some soulless high rise Financial District Hotel with a staff who were truly lovely. We walked to restaurants, great and mediocre. We drove to find playgrounds: water slides, the Sausalito Bay to stand up on boards and paddle against the fierce wind, rock climbing on a man-made wall in the middle of the Mission district with no parking anywhere within one hundred miles. We watched Giants swing bats by the Bay from the truly highest seats in the stadium, and I kept picturing Harry Potter et al at the Quidditch World Cup, just wishing I had one of those pairs of magical binoculars.
My eldest and I ran the half marathon in San Francisco. It was most memorable for the cab ride there, and the cabby himself, but I cannot describe him as my author-daughter has already claimed him as a future character in one of her books. I have learned not to cross the authors in my life.
I have a weird perspective on life. I had these parents who were both fully present and got the hell out of my way. These days that would be called "neglect." "Why are you not helicoptering about your children?", the authorities would say. "You mean you did not drive 150 miles at 5:30 on Saturday morning to watch their cross country meet? What is wrong with you?" My parents had their own life, and they loved me. That's all I needed. And they gave me the tools to live independently and well. I bring this up because I have been thinking about loss, and what is important in life. I lost my parents as a 20-something year old, not so much older than my own children. I start to picture them without me around, and my main hope is they wash their sheets weekly and occasionally cut their fingernails. Also, that they have compassion for their fellow human beings and animals too. And they always, ALWAYS, appreciate Beethoven and John Coltrane.
My weird perspective, I think brought on by an early realization about mortality (said goodbye to Dad the first time at age 5, in the CCU) is I am often overwhelmed by beauty, but it does not have to be what I see at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or even the grandiose redwoods I run by regularly in my own back yard. I mean the small beautiful things that just present themselves, almost constantly but only if you are awake and not sitting there obsessing about your glory, fame, pocketbook, getting through the next light before it changes or fitting into those jeans from when you were 23. Things that can even be there after you have witnessed the greatest sufferings, as I do frequently in my line of work. Like today, when I walked out of the hospital in Fortuna, the sky was painted with clouds that would make the most sappy of paint-by-numbers paintings blush. I stopped, looking at the sky and picking the gravel out of my flats from the parking lot, filled with awe and gratitude. And also very hungry, as the overcooked broccoli at grand rounds did not offer much sustenance for my long afternoon in the field. As Mary Oliver said so nicely: "what is it you plan to do with this one wild and precious life?" Today's answer: no more overcooked broccoli, unless I am really, really hungry, then overcooked broccoli might be the cat's pajamas.
Curt Harper is a 49 year old autistic surfer who, if this 19 minute movie can be believed, has the answers Steinbeck and the author of Wild were looking for. He shows up for the waves, for his job, for trains (he admires trains), for dinner with his (might I add here amazing) parents, and for the groms who delight in his presence.
Spend 19 minutes watching this. Or not. But either way, I think the pleasures and answers to life might not be so much complicated as they are mystical. Or perhaps just hysterically funny, like a cab ride to a half marathon on a Sunday morning. If you want more on that, read my kid's book.