Sunday, May 29, 2011

“Is it true?”

“Is it true about George Wallace being a great man?”

“Excuse me?” I replied. Actually I had not heard the name clearly or I might have asked, “The Las Vegas comedian?”

“Is it true that George Wallace put Alabama together? My father voted for him.”
Now, I got it. His wife had asked me where I was from. I had said, “Montgomery, er, Auburn, Alabama.” I occasionally make the mistake of saying “Montgomery” as I lived there 40 odd years before I moved to Auburn and then to Opelika, a nearby city. Most people would just say “Where?” if I said I was from Opelika, so I finally decided the correct answer to the question about where I was from would be Auburn. Most people have heard the name because there is a great interest in sports in America. Nothing much distinguishes Opelika except the interesting fact that the movie Norma Rae, one of Sally Field’s finest performances was shot on location there. No one actually knows that but it is the only distinguishing thing I can remember about Opelika.

Auburn, Alabama is a different story. Auburn University Football is fairly well known. There really is some kind of comment there about the wonderful movie about a millworker;s triumph, a work of art, being eclipsed by something as artless as sports, but I could get in trouble for such nonsense. At any rate, most people who recognize the city name say “War Eagle!” as either a heartfelt emotion or a goodwill gesture. “War Eagle!” is the battle cry of the Auburn Tigers football team and pretty much the cry for any Auburn sports team or athlete. Of course, there are fans of the rival state team, Alabama Crimson Tide who in politer moments might just say “Oh.”

I think I have blogged about this nagging problem before. I work for the City of Auburn, I live (or used to live) in Auburn. I’m proud of my city. I received the Employee of the Month award last year and it was for my service to the city, the citizens and not the War Eagle. It is one of my proudest accomplishments outside of managing to graduate from college under the circumstances at the time. I’m proud of my son for reasons he knows very well, and I’m proud of my daughter for reasons she may not know, but I hold securely in my heart. But as for my own accomplishments in life, Employee of the Month was a biggie. A gesture of appreciation went a long way for me. 

I love my city actually more than the place I grew up. Anyone who knows my personal history knows the problems I had in my job in Montgomery. Even now the terror of that experience keeps me from relating it in public writing in any detail. Terror is terror and it belongs in the past but the fact is, my health problems resulted from that hour of my life. Now that the problems seem to be finally and entirely diagnosed, I have no ill will against people or institutions, just no love for locality.  The love of my birthplace is long gone as is the apartment complex I grew up in, and the hospital building on Maxwell Airforce base near Montgomery where I was born, and the replacement hospital facility where my mother died. I believe that too is gone. I hope I have that correct, I really do hope it is gone.

George Wallace,  now there is a person also long gone. George Wallace was governor of Alabama for quite some time. I was not politically minded during his reign but our paths crossed just a bit. First, there was the lady who ran a convenience store near my home. We called her “Swansy” which was her last name. She was a thin elderly lady and we bought our cigarettes from her. I worked at that store as my first job for 75 cents a day, free Icee drinks, and all the “hoop cheese” you could beg for or sneak. The cigarette thing came later. I started smoking about age 14 as my “peers” began smoking. Swansy would always ask whether the cigarettes were for our parents. They weren’t and she knew it.

For some reason, once, Swansy was mad enough at me to call my mother and tell her that I bought cigarettes and smoked them myself. My Mom, always with unshakeable presence of mind replied, “Of course he smokes. Anything else?”  When I got home she asked me if I smoked. I did my usual dancing around the subject and she told me about Swansy. I said, “Yes I smoke some.” She asked why I had never smoked in front of her and I told her I did not want her to know, of course. From that day I was allowed to smoke in the living room. I think I was about 16. It took a while to actually smoke in front of my parents but once I did, it felt comfortable knowing that my Mother supported me in all things, at all times. It is not an unreasonable suggestion to say that my Mother was a saint. She was to me.

I’ll leave her sainthood for another more important day, but let me get back to George Wallace. Swansy had us young kids handing out Wallace bumper stickers on the busy corner in front of the “Handy Andy” convenience store. Cars would stop at the Court Street and Delano intersection and we would hand them out for hours on end.

[A hamburger from room service, I’m unbelievably blessed.]

Now the upshot of all this work was that Swansy wanted to show off  to us by taking us to some Wallace for Governor type event that was held at some hotel ballroom or conference room. I want to say it was in the old Diplomat Inn, but that does seem like the wrong side of the “bypass” in my memory map of Montgomery. At any rate, after some amount of argument with some officials about how hard we had all worked for the campaign, Swansy, true to her word, got us in to see George Wallace. He was seated at a table behind a white table cloth. I remember especially being impressed by the white table cloth which a decade later would represent pomp and cheesiness. But at the time, it worked on me. I was in awe of meeting the man whose name was on the stickers I had handed out in the hundreds if not thousands.

Swansy may have only used us to meet Wallace but the fact was, we met him in rather informal circumstances that I honestly can remember very little of except a pat on my head, with a little twist to muss up my hair a bit. The next time I met George Wallace was at a campaign rally a few years later. We kids had snuck behind the stage at the Coliseum  and watched Wallace speak from the back. After his speech everyone crowded around him to shake his hand. We just snuck in there and I found myself unable to get back out. The crowd had surrounded Wallace and he must have shaken my hand at least 3 times before I could extract myself. Then I wondered, as I have in many moments in my life “Is that all there is?” I stood on the stage for quite a while watching people shake Wallace’s hand.

I happened to go to school at Bellingrath Junior High which was right on the same corner as the church where George Wallace’s wife Lurleen was eulogized after she died of cancer. I believe she was governor at the time. [Still no Internet, but I do have a few fries left from the room service tray.] I watched the television cameras and event with supreme awe. I saw Wallace but did not meet him that day. The next time actually I met him was in an elevator in the Liberal Arts building at Auburn University in Montgomery where I went to college. I believe I was coming out of my sociology class but anyway, there he was in his wheelchair, a result since the assassination attempt on his life when he ran for president. It was the third time I had shaken the man’s hand, well, 5th if you count the three stage handshakes separately. By that time I was clear on his politics and knew the racism he represented. But he was in a wheelchair and looked so pitiful. Also he had asked the person who was pushing his wheelchair to let me into the elevator [for Steven, that is “lift” should you be reading, and earlier Mom = Mum :) ] even though I was declining entrance due to the obvious space problem. “Come in, let him in,” he said. Again, less for respect and more for pity, I asked “Mr. Wallace, are you teaching a class?” He answered affirmatively and made small talk that I should remember but don’t. The lift eventually made it to the bottom floor and he was off. I remember feeling that same “Is this all there is?” feeling.

My final encounter with George Wallace was not in meeting him personally but picking out books for him to read. Many times an ordinary looking man would come into the library, I only remember his white shirt now and it seems like he stooped some. Eventually, I came to know that this man was delivering books to George Wallace. They were mainly biographies and political things, but there was a lot of variety. Only a few times had I been called to pull a particular book, and that one was always a biography. Again, George Wallace was pitiable. Eventually I asked a question of the man who took care of him and he said “constant pain, continuous pain” which was not publically known or known by me at the time. I envisioned this poor man who had such an ordinary caretaker.

This man emphasized the pain Mr. Wallace was in quite a few times afterward and once it appeared that George Wallace was about to die. He told us it was coming and sure enough, CNN and the rest showed up to cover what turned out to be a false call. Soon after that he did die.

The man on the cruise ship who asked me tonight about George Wallace really didn’t know why I paused so long before answering after I figured out the what the heck he meant. His wife had just given me a pitch to join the Disney Vacation Club probably to get some kind of referral. They were looking for someone named “Pat’s” cabin and this lady’s husband had done almost no speaking before he heard “Alabama.” I think there was some kind of learning disability involved in this roughly 50 year old man because the question had been asked in such a strange reflexive way. Finally, it clicked in my head that his father had voted for Wallace not in my bumper sticker days, but in the year Wallace had run for president and had been shot. Wallace’s racism was known to me by that time and coded as an “anti-bussing stance” in those days.

“It’s true that he was a very successful politician.”

After all, I’m on a cruise and have a new attitude about politics. I didn’t relate that this same hand that had shook George Wallace’s hand a number of times, also shook Barack Obama’s hand with tears in it’s owner’s eyes over the new world being witnessed step by step. I looked at my wife next to me, both of us were in tears. Nor did I tell him that one of the greatest moments in all of my life was the moment that CNN stated they had some news we were all waiting for on that wondrous election night that followed months afterward.

Good-bye Montgomery, really, good-bye.

The Long Way Forward

Sitting in an alcove of the Cove Café shuffling papers between stacks, folders and and a briefcase of sorts, she seemed to be completely oblivious to her surroundings. She sat on the floor using a coffee table as a desk for her computer. I sat down on a nautically decorated purple and gold sofa that shared her work area. It was also a coffee table after all. As I looked closer I could not make up my mind what the exact theme of the sofa was as I stared at an identical one across from mine. Surely these were the points of the compass in gold, but absent my being on a cruise ship, I’m not sure what theme I would have chosen for it. At night I suppose the compasses could remind one of stars. If traveling in Mexico the larger circles might seem more like ornate suns.

All the while she kept shuffling papers. She would type for a while and move on to the next document. I resisted the temptation to look closely at her  papers to clarify what she was doing. As closely as I examined the sofa I was completely successful in ignoring everything about her while concentrating on my eBook reader, or more accurately stated, my book. The sofa opposite me faded into a background and I began reading about the subject of perception.

Alan Watts wrote a book that was quite an influence on my life.  It was a little pretentiously entitled The Book and was designed to be the book that would give the reader a way of understanding the strange secrets of life, like a marriage manual given to newlyweds, only for less prurient reasons. I had actually intended to do exactly what the typing lady was doing, well assuming she was not a very highly paid medical transcriptionist or something equally dull. I wanted to write on this cruise but no subject occurred to me except the cruise ship, a cop out I did not want to indulge in. She looked like she was fairly intellectual, her face pale white with the look of someone who did not get out in the sunshine much. Her eyes and somehow her reddish nose indicated a bookish inner life. It was all in the perceiving, much like the design on the sofa. I merely perceived a portrait of her life from these observations of her obvious work ethic and physical appearance. After all, who would sit on the carpeted floor typing on a computer in a public café?

I found it hard to concentrate on The Book as the atmosphere of the café became a bit distracting. The weather had begun to chill on the trans Atlantic crossing and the café, where the coffee isn’t free, was warm and popular. I recalled a day I had been in Disney World when a very unseasonal cold spell forced me in my t-shirt to investigate a lot of shops one spring day. I remember learning a lot about Disney retailing watching people shop, browse, and strike up small talk. As I get older I find it harder to make the most out of adverse circumstances but in those days I went more with the flow of life. Finally, I went with stream of life and purchased a Disney sweatshirt which I had not budgeted for.

The Book was really about coping with this natural flow of life. An essential element of Watt’s way of thinking is the philosophy of Tao. Life is a flowing river, it follows the Tao, or way. We find ourselves in a canoe-like boat guiding ourselves down this all important river with very little chance to actually affect our overall fate. We can paddle hard to get to a particular place we may spot in the stream ahead but the stream carries us ever onward on a general course we cannot influence. Sometimes with minimal effort we can make course changes as if with slight movements of our paddle while at other times we are fighting the unchanging current to very little avail. Such is our choice and lot in life. The practical wisdom Taoism gives is in how to cope with the flow. This I could have learned from an experienced surfer if only I had the right perception to guide my philosophical understanding. And while this deterministic world seems a little on the depressing side, that too is mere perception, and rejoicing in the beauty surrounding our journey is an equally valid way of experiencing things.

This was precisely why I started writing today absent any other topic except my surroundings. It was this way of perception that I seemed to forget somewhere along the great path. And, oddly, I focus a lot on perception at my job. I focused on it when I took psychology. I studied it in management courses when I changed to a business major. The point is that I studied about how other people perceive reality. I, of course, believed I possessed the only accurate perception of life. It is only time, thought, and various religious moments that brought enough wisdom to rid myself of a portion of this illusion.

I usually appear absent minded to others. Frankly, I am absent minded. I don’t seem to be concentrating when in fact I am, just not on anything anyone else might think important at the time.  I can see that taken to an extreme one would appear crazy following this particular course of the stream. Who would fill the insane asylums of the world if it were not with those like me who regarded a great deal of what everyone else thought as unimportant in detail?

Who was this lady typing and shuffling papers?  Unless she was a famous writer, why would she be on a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic obstinately ignoring everyone around her to accomplish her tasks? And I, too, the next day, am sitting here doing my writing in the chair whose lower part had yesterday been used as her backrest, my feet now planted where she had been sitting. So I, too, am out of place with my typing and non-cruise-like tasks; although I am at least using the chair in a more traditional way as I type, with my laptop on my actual lap.

Events have changed dramatically in the past week as 5 nights in a row the instructions have been to move the clock forward an hour for each time zone we crossed. I am now 6 hours from my usual time zone. My dinner time started out as a late dinner and now is a late lunch.. The Pope apparently has uplinked to astronauts on the space shuttle for some reason I cannot divine without sound on the café television. (I think they have wireless headphones for the sound or something which I am definitely now recommending for every restaurant trying to lead a double life as a sports bar.)  Apparently, there are demonstrations ahead of election day in Spain, a cruise destination in a few days. My perception of the world has changed as I am insulated from this news. It nags at the back of my mind that demonstrations might be a rarity before rather than after an election. But I will trust in the solitude of unknowing for another week. Hopefully my safety will once again be the result of the stream’s mighty flow.

I continued to completely resist any attempt to notice exactly what the pale typing lady was doing.  Later I related the event to one of my dining companions, an exceedingly likeable Englishman. He suggested that he might not have had the same willpower to resist taking a peek. I’m not sure why I prided myself in the achievement of focusing on my book while ignoring the Pope, seemingly important information about a future port of call, and the strange typing lady. I guess I usually never get long uninterrupted times to read so I am making the best of it. As a child I remember having days and days to read during summer vacation. But at that time, I read little philosophy.

It’s not really the absence of time to focus on any particular thing that is missing from my life but the problem comes in with the number of competing things that seem so important. Admittedly, I do seem to have plenty of time to watch television, but that is a sharing experience with my wife. I hardly want to watch anything alone. We have begun reading at night after our television time before our sleep, she being quite a bit more successful at this latest reading pattern in our lives. I still find things I have to do or television shows I want to watch. It is sad really to think of the lack of focus in my life.

I have been on many cruises on Disney ships but none on any other cruise line. I know many of the things this lady is missing but I too am choosing to not be distracted by  activities available around me. Does this mean this lady is also a frequent cruiser or maybe just a bored new one? For an instant I flash to the possibility that she might actually be a member of the crew or important entertainer, but I think it unlikely.

It  is hard to explain what I find so alluring about Disney cruises. The first thing the non-Disney cruising public ask about is the kids. While I have no reference points from other cruise lines, the kids are the best thing about Disney. Their joy infuses the voyage with the exact way of perceiving things one should have on a vacation. The children influenced by the dreams of Walt Disney lead us.

Last night I watched children alternately gathering and throwing confetti up into the air. This cycle went on for over an hour after I began watching. Disney has great confetti, although my experiences with confetti are probably out of date. This modern confetti was thin and floated slowly. Disney has other types of confetti, the most beloved being the “pixie dust” silver Mickeys. These kids were having the best time they had ever had in their lives with thin pieces of paper. Dollar bills would not have held so much interest. The kids could have been anywhere but their perception was magnificently changed by the Disney characters that must have appeared during the original flight of the confetti that resulted in a great tide of confetti that covered the carpeted floor. If the magic felt by these kids doesn’t fill any adult with wonder then certainly they don’t belong on a Disney cruise.

I’m fairly certain one of my dining companions doesn’t belong here. He keeps switching dining rooms appearing to be bored like an epicurean in search of nirvana. His domination of the conversation when he is present is an adverse influence on my particular perception of an enjoyable dinner. I have had loud and sometimes dominating dinner companions but never to a degree that crossed the barrier into offensive. He reminds me a bit of Rapunzel's mother in the Disney movie Tangled at times. “Oh you are such a bore, just kidding, my princess.”  But isn’t any unique influence from outside our experience just a little jarring? We learn to enjoy something and inevitably the current of life changes and that thing is modified or taken away. We meander through life and ultimately our job is to learn to navigate the flow, or at least Alan Watts and I think so.

I do not have an objective viewpoint when it comes to Alan Watts and Taoism. I have read the book before and it influenced my life early on. I went on to study Zen Buddhism and Taoism. Now as the water current has changed in my life so The Book seems a little different now. The wisdom is there but I ask myself a question now. Once the wisdom is achieved then what is next? If I have a goal oriented life at all then there obviously seems to be a predictable tragedy that will sometime occur. People around me always seem to vigorously ignore this obvious inevitable discomforting outcome, at least in polite company. And I am decidedly in polite company, except for my annoying but thankfully infrequent dining companion in search of the ideal dining experience and just maybe this odd lady sitting on the floor doing hours of work in the midst of sounds of laughter, stains of conversation, tinkling glasses and a background of ethereal music befitting a good cruise ship café.

I once tried to live the ideas of Taoism and Zen. Even today I see that there is an underlying current that never fails to go it’s own way. It follows many rules that are as good to know as the rocks ahead on a whitewater rafting adventure. Recently I have felt some amount of understanding about the flow of life and it’s relationship to politics, economics, and war, among other things. Yet, I was powerless to help steer the collective boat. I could only watch from a distance with an ever increasing understanding of the peril ahead. Paddling furiously to no avail,  my efforts seemed more like mental illness than anything resembling any influence on the great ship of nation. I guess my question after a week of this extraction from my normal daily life is about what the heck was I thinking? I’m not one to ignore my responsibilities in life but, goodness sakes, how little influence I have. Perception is a strange thing.

Three noteworthy things I have learned in the past couple of hours. Coffee is good for writing, writing is hard work (whether it be good or bad) and given limitless time I could probably write an arcane book of immense proportions.


Gibraltar Near Spain

“…you know it ain’t easy, you now how hard it can be.” – Lennon-McCartney

I did the Beatle’s touristy thing in Gibraltar and pilgrimaged to the courthouse where John Lennon married Yoko Ono. Did John change his name to John Ono Lennon there? I have no idea, and without the Internet I need to face the fact that I’m a librarian who knows how to look things up, and that is my skillset. Also, I might add, I can ask directions in English speaking locales. Which great ancient Greek philosopher was famous for the ability to look things up and ask directions? I don’t need the Internet to know that none of them would fit the bill. I’m just not an original thinker, but of course, I would like to be.

By the by, Sky News is tonight’s soundless television selection in the café where I have been writing on this cruise. I have been writing just for fun and because sleeping is difficult. Sky News has the suckiest news crawl across the bottom of the screen that I have ever seen on any news network, bar none. It reports the same fairly bland headline about an AP story concerning the IMF scandal over and over.  Sixteen, or so, words are repeated in a hastily crawling alert along the screen bottom with the label: “breaking news.” Either this is the slowest news day in the history of mankind, or they are trying to hypnotize their viewers with sheer redundancy, like the swinging of a pendulum. “You will now enjoy the commercial break as you wake up completely relaxed, attentive, and refreshed.” Yet, there are no commercials on Sky News, or I haven’t noticed any.

Fox News uses this same moniker, that of “breaking news,” as  bullwhip on the viewer to make opinions seem like news. '”Breaking news” to Rupert’s network could be pretty much any story that implied the correctness of Fox News’ political stance. But Fox News just leaves the breaking news sentence fixedly on the screen while placing an actual varied moving news crawl below it. I mean, the viewer can read one sentence, 16 words in length, without it crawling across the screen, even Fox News viewers.

Sky News, apparently with 4 sheets to the wind wearing a beany cap with propeller spinning, continues with this idiotic news crawl which has no need to be crawling and there is no end in sight. Could this be a glitch or someone asleep at the tiller?

Actually I have heard before of Sky News but until now I have never seen it. I want to say I have some distant memory that Sky is another Rupert Murdoch affair but I see no skimpy short dresses on leggy women or any overweight apocalyptic blackboard demagogues, so I’m probably just wrong… being Internet challenged at the moment. 

Just to prove my point I’ll type the repeated sentence, because honestly, you might think I am exaggerating being as familiar as you must be by this point with my usual aimless style of writing. So, here is the “breaking news!” that has crawled across the screen repeatedly for 30 minutes and I don’t doubt it could go on for hours or perhaps the whole day: “BREAKING NEWS -- AP: Court officials say judge agrees to change bail address for former IMF chief Dominique Straus-Kahn.”  I’m all for international news but seriously, having not followed the story in much detail previously, I cannot imagine the significance of this sentence, not in the least because the wording is incomprehensible.

Let me give you an example of how any competent news agency would handle an important news story crawl: “BREAKING NEWS: Aliens have invaded Earth. Aliens appear to be green and have large hairy ears. They poop canned tomatoes. The world waits to see how invasion will affect IMF chief Dominique Straus-Kahn. BREAKING NEWS: Aliens have invaded…”  In five minutes they would change out the details for future iterations. For any story less important than an alien invasion, there would be other news stories added to the crawly thing, for variety. Who in heaven’s name wouldn’t want more details about something seemingly important enough to repeat endlessly like this? It is self parodying. Sure, some stories might be important enough to repeat the main idea, but only 16 words? Over and over? Tornado warnings in my area, informing of the possibility of imminent danger carry more than 16 words in repetition, despite their sincere need to be as repetitive as possible.

I am seriously thinking I would endure Fox News to get rid of this crawl. It is mesmerizingly anger producing. When in the name of mankind and everything that is holy will they stop repeating this sentence?

The Sky Crawl (a reporter was just labeled a “Sky Reporter” which might lead one to think she was a Delta Airlines magazine writer) …the Sky Crawl, I say, is like my elementary school blackboard upon which I had to write the same sentence 100 times during recess once as a punishment. I was talking to classmates during class and never forgot this lesson I had to write: “An empty cart makes the most noise. An empty cart makes the most noise. An empty cart…”   Oddly, empty book carts make an awful racket on the beautiful but rough surfaced stone tiled floors in the library where I work. Definitely the architect was not a librarian. I’m reminded of the empty cart lesson by this racket a few times a week but I still talk way too much. The lesson was learned, but I have nothing to fill my cart with at times, like in this blog entry for example.

[And the café closed after an uninterrupted hour of the same sentence.]

Hey, wait a minute. I have deeper more original thoughts than a network news crawl writer. Perhaps there is hope for me…  I wonder, though… would news writer or library architect suit me better?

Yes, Yes

My favorite port, the last time I took this same Trans Atlantic repositioning cruise on the Disney Magic, was Cadiz. This time it appears to be the same. My excursion went extremely well. I’ll have to research where I went because I have forgotten the name. It was an equestrian event I would unintelligently call dressage. It was simply beautiful. Then there was the bodega afterward. I sat with some very enthusiastic young Canadian folks and their mom. They were of drinking age and the bodega was really what we would call a winery. They aged sherry there. We ended up sampling five bottles of sherry at our table, some of the best cheese, also the best brechuto (sp) and a huge egg/potato omelet sort of thing cut into many pieces.  There was more than plenty of this food and sherry. It was beyond excellent. I liked every one of the kinds of sherry, though three stood out above the rest for me, all sweeter. Nonetheless, all were, like I said, beyond excellent. I don’t like wine, by the way. Apparently, sherry is my drink, or maybe it is Europe. The young folks at the table related their excursion of the previous day and it was really one I wished I had had the courage to choose. They hiked and apparently had to jump off a few cliffs into pools of water on their way, as well. At the end of this sherry tasting, one of the most delightful moments of my cruise thus far, these three kids took three of the unfinished bottles with them and invited me to take one as well. Well, I couldn’t very well take it home and I’m not really supposed to be drinking on the cruise either. I declined, explaining that I was not supposed to be drinking alcohol and they really already had the best three bottles. And we shouldn’t push our luck wink, wink . They were on a different touring bus but later when we gathered after our excursion, I noticed the mother standing to the side. I went over and as I conversed with her, I realized just why her kids were so intelligent and delightful: it was probably mom’s influence.  I think the reason her kids struck me as so wonderful was their politeness to an old and rather fat guy like me. They had treated me as a complete equal and that is rare indeed, from any age group. I find this commonly lacking from people of my own age group in these times. This mom had what I would have guessed was an Illinois type of look and accent, but she was Canadian, I knew. I asked her if all three were her own kids (two boys and a girl) and she affirmed that they were. I complemented her on their manners and she joked in a concerned way, “Did you see what they brought back?’ Right on cue, the three came walking up from behind me smiling and holding their bottles. I stood with them in the line to get back aboard the ship for a minute but realized we were near the end of a long line of excursioners.  I thanked them for the nice conversation but excused myself to head out for a walk in Cadiz. They invited  me to share their sherry with them later but I declined reminding them I was not supposed to drink.  I thanked them and excused myself again from the line to use the time remaining in the day walking through Cadiz.

I walked and took about a hundred or more pictures. I wandered recklessly and was quite happy to still be a little tipsy.  Finally, I accomplished a subconscious goal of getting lost entirely. I reasoned my way back towards the ship and had almost made it sighting some familiar workmen hammering, and then I took a wrong turn at the very last bit. So I tried reasoning again and decided to walk downhill, figuring that would lead me to the ocean. It did, and there was no shipyard in sight. There really was no problem as there were taxis around. I hailed a cab by walking up to it and asking, “Speak English?” He shook his head and said “little” and I realized our conversation would be in single words or phrases.  I threw out the phrase “Disney Magic Cruise Ship?” and he nodded and replied “Mickey Mouse.” “How much?” I asked. “Is meter.” I said “How much?” again purposely. He got my point and said “3…4 Euro, maybe.” I opened the front door and pointed to the seat and asked “OK?.” He smiled and said, “Yes, yes.” I started a conversation with one word “volcano” and repeated the word. He thought a second and said something that sounded like “Vulcan” and then unmistakably added “Iceland.” I exclaimed “YES!” then I said “Last year, the same.” He thought for a minute and nodded his head vigorously and said, “Yes, yes, same.” I pointed to myself and said, “Me, last year, Cadiz, Disney Magic, the same.” He thought then laughed heartily saying “Yes, yes, very funny.” He laughed loudly over and over. Soon, he pointed down the street to the welcome sight of the Magic and it’s highly recognizable smokestacks. I said “Oh, yes, here is fine.” He said, “No, no.” He thought for a while and put together  “Still …is… uhhh… far.” I nodded and laughed and said “Yes, yes.”  I next said “My father, umm, a taxi driver like you." I pointed at him exageratedly. He understood and said "Your father taxi man." I laughed and said "Yes, yes." Finally we were at the port and the meter clicked a fraction up to 3.29 Euro. I gave him a five Euro note and he pulled out a changer and started pressing buttons. It was exactly like the changer my dad had used except made for Euro coins. I had played with my dad's changer countless times when I was a child. It was endless fun to a young boy to pretend to be making change, pressing buttons and shooting out coins from Dad's old changer. I waived off the change the cab driver was offering. It was really quite a small tip but the guy smiled largely and and could not express his obvious appreciation. He just seemed so happy. I looked over my shoulder as I was walking away and he was still smiling and watching me. It was magical, really.

Later that night, as we pulled out of Cadiz, I talked to a retired Canadian school teacher at length about politics, schools, the military, recent wars and lots of other topics. It was fascinating that we held such a long conversation and that it flowed so seamlessly, punctuated as it was by quite a few A's at he end of his sentences. A few minutes later I was talking to a very nice couple at the front of the ship as darkness had completely taken hold and the stars were bright above. After having been reminded of my father by the cab driver, now  I was reminded of my mother, as well because a meteor brilliantly crossed the sky. I startled and pointed at it and said, “Oh…but it is always too late to point.” “You must have seen a shooting star,” said the wifely half of the couple. “Yes, yes…..I did.”

Hobby Horse

I’m positive now that I take life too seriously. This thought has occurred to me on many of my longer vacations. The problem is, I forget the lessons I believe I have learned on vacation when ordinary life is revealed again. Normal life shouldn’t be so oppressing but I’m guessing it will be, absent some unique strategy I can formulate on this vacation. But after all, it’s not like life is a party for my benefit, as it is here.

With my mind full of vacation sugar plum fairies and I can afford to relax.

Long ago, I read another influential book (leaving Alan Watts alone for the evening.) I remembered bringing it up in table conversation the other night. The name of the book was Future Shock and it was about a predicted overabundance of choice.  It was basically a one hit wonder as Alvin Toffler, and I believe his wife (I currently have no Internet to research such matters,) tried to follow up the bestseller with other sequels and original books. None were successful, as far as I can remember, but Future Shock itself was the darling of the psychology majors like me for a time. It faded as Toffler became less respected in his subsequent failed efforts.

The prediction of an overabundance of choice has really come true in so many ways. The scientific part of the idea was that there might actually be a limit beyond which human beings can process the information needed to make correct choices. Television channels are one obvious example of too much choice. One could readily spend all of one’s time watching only entertainment with no substance in one’s life whatsoever. The endless pull of the insignificant affects not only adults but especially children who grow up with less historical experience to see the inane for what it is. When I was younger, the television choices were much smaller in number. There were three major television networks in my home town and all showed the evening news at precisely the same time. News was not very entertaining to a child but there was no Cartoon Network to switch to and avoid such harsh realities of forced knowledge of world events. There were no VCRs or DVDs, there was the evening news and you could pick one of three, or you could play with your slinky on a rainy day.

Actually, as a child I spent much less time than I do now watching television. I spent more time playing outside. I can only remember one show that I never missed each week and it was “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” James Bond was a favorite of mine and when looked at from a child’s perspective, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” was a weekly spy drama akin to Ian Fleming’s masterful character. I think this show probably began my love for television drama. Strangely, looking back at the show, I would have thought that it was a lot more serious than it actually is. Television has always had to attract a large audience and adults were obviously drawn in by the campy nature of the show. I completely missed this tongue in cheek humor as a child.

I’m really torn between wanting the choice that hundreds of television channels provide and the necessity that every person have some knowledge of economic and political affairs in order to be proper citizens. The overabundance of choice has at least provided dramatic shows that do not have to be all things to all people, but choice has been the enemy of a general level of competent citizenry in my experience.

As an offbeat example of the historical change that has gradually occurred, the weekly magazine TV Guide was quite a political force in my younger days. Today, it is another entertainment rag if it exists at all. You might find it hard to believe that TV Guide had a political viewpoint and discussed serious subjects but I assure you that it did. There were editorials and articles promoting television as an educational medium, for instance.  And yes, I actually did read the articles, not just the show listings, just as I actually read the articles and interviews in Playboy magazine (as well as..). This admission seems highly amusing and not credible to anyone I inform. I’m not sure I had any kind of a proper education in school, but I certainly did focus on learning what I could, and what was immediately available in my home life included the articles I read in magazines and inevitably the shows I watched on television.

TV Guide greatly inspired me to choose educational television programs over the junk. I can remember the “vast wasteland” theory as a guiding influence. I cannot remember which chairman of the FCC used that phrase (no Internet, remember) to describe American television but it was a revelatory moment to me. I really had no idea that such an opinion was possible. Television was one of the more enjoyable things in my life. Yet, there it was, described as a vast wasteland by someone who should know. I began choosing my shows more carefully, much more carefully than I do today, even.

As an example, there was a show called “Firing Line” hosted by William F. Buckley. It was on public television, or PBS, the shining light  in the darkness of the vast wasteland. While I could not at first  follow even an inkling of the discussions, I  gradually learned to understand things. I doggedly watched what was an incomprehensible show to me. I remember making a game of it. How much of the vocabulary could I understand? Perhaps I could understand 90 percent of the words but Mr. Buckley’s sentences seemed to be utter nonsense in their length and complexity. Always, I remember his sly smiles as if to congratulate himself on just how well spoken he had just been. His smile and twinkling eyes always hinted that he had just made what he believed to be an unassailable argument. I longed desperately to understand. As time went by I remember discovering that I had actually understood a number of Mr. Buckley’s sentences in a row. Soon I would get the gist of the conversations. I was still very naïve politically. I cannot imagine I understood the simplest political notions in any thorough way. I remember discussions of the Vietnam war and personally disagreeing with Mr. Buckley at times and yet agreeing with him in other instances. Perhaps I was developing a realistic notion of the war; I cannot be sure. All I know for certain is that other kids my age were not watching “Firing Line” and making a game out of how many sentences they could understand in a row. In the end I must admit that I accomplished quite a feat for a boy educated in the deep south.

I don’t, however, think my early quest for more educational fare in television and magazines is the reason I take life too seriously, or at least not directly. I have always felt that I lived in the shadows of intellectual giants, and that I never really had what it took to be successful coming from a relatively impoverished educational background as I have. The problematic idea that pushes me in the direction of taking life so seriously is the seeming lack of understanding the average common man has of his obligations as a citizen. It’s not that my understanding is so superior. It’s that there are unmistakable signs that this common man is hopelessly lost…scarily lost.

The exceptions that prove the point are the “news junkies” of the world. The 24 hour news cycle is absolutely a brave new frontier in the vast wasteland. Even shows that appear to be educational and self aware (I’m thinking of Rachel Madow here) are in the end, somewhat vacuous in the long term. The misconceptions or utter fabrications of the other side of the spectrum represented by Fox News are avoided. The bread and butter of the show is the exposure of Fox News to a great degree, but that achievement is grade school in level. What kind of audience does PBS’s Frontline have, the sole high exception I can immediately think of to the vast wasteland? I wager their audience is probably extremely small in comparison. The amazing thing about Frontline is the perspective it gives.  You could watch the barrage of daily news continuously and never get this overall deep perspective on a story. There is simply too much choice. The networks have too much time to fill and the insignificant blends with the significant in a tangle that probably confuses the most able of our citizens. Watching Frontline (and to a small extent, Rachel Madow who actually is intellectually astute and has been known to stay on topic for periods of time that are similarly antithetic to the chase of ratings) is often a revelatory experience the size of an earthquake.

Frontline uses good investigative reporting coupled with the perspective of time to reveal self-evident truths that were anything but self-evident before the viewer began watching. And while Frontline style documentaries were present in the early days of commercial television, they are no more. Even with cable networks with names like The Learning Channel, The History Channel, and The Discovery Channel there is much learning, history, and discovery. These once promising new sources of television nonfiction now prefer the equivalent of alligator wrestling or cake throwing contests to pull in the ratings. Frontline proves that well funded educational fare can break the barriers and improve the citizen voters, but instead of reading the ballot, understanding the issues and exploring these important choices, most of our voters are searching for the country’s best hamburger and fries, or watching the cake contest at the local fair.

My recent rediscovery of the joy of nonfiction books (some are hopelessly awful while others seem sheer genius, choices…choices…) has cemented the idea that there is just too much, way too much, in the way of expansive choice in entertainment and that short attentions spans have, obvious to anyone, come along with this. Entertainment in the form of scripted or unscripted “reality” shows is just too plentiful for it not to be the popular choice of the average man, while the evening news, I assure you, has become pure entertainment compared to the days when I had to watch it as a child. There are more seductive choices now than my slinky toy and competition demands the fluffy stuff and the overstating of the oversimplified.

I don’t want to stretch the point too much. Obviously, the Internet is a new frontier of choice that is positive in it’s provision of depth. Life is not television and many people I know are not even vaguely influenced by entertainment or television. What I am saying is that the reason I have taken life too seriously is that I feel the level of public discussion is dangerously distant from William F. Buckley, his politics aside. It is not my responsibility, but I have tended to take it on. (I wonder what ratings William Buckley’s show got, remembering that there were 4 networks, including his venue of PBS.)

And I see, here it is, staring at me in black and white. Why should I be so serious on my vacation? What kind of fool am I to be worrying about things I think are more important than prepaid downtime? (Actually, it is a novel experience to blog on vacation.) I have pushed the rock up the mountain and had it roll back down too many times before to ignore the fact that I should be enjoying old age and to hell with the consequences for those who will never know the world I grew up with. I will never know my own parents’ world either.

Perhaps everything is relative like this, which is a thought that always provides comfort. But even if it is not, I will remember the enjoyable day I had in Madeira, before I started writing this nonsensically motivated thing. Please, remind me to write about the pictures I took. Or please, Michael, my main reader, remind yourself to discuss each picture at length.  That should prove to be relaxing and yet expressive. The result could be thought of as a botanical notebook of life.  After all, could I now be more positive that I have taken life too seriously? I think the real answer to all my post-vacation-return-to-ordinary-life problems is to make an effort to be more serious about the educationally mundane, while simultaneously being less serious about the seemingly important great problems of our time. I think they call that a hobby.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The End, Redux

All of life's a birthday cake, take a piece but not too much. - "It's All Too Much" George Harrison

New Blog:
Torpedo Sandwich of Truth  (rated "footlong" for political content, and possibly other not polite things. No readee if you no likee.