misc

On Resting, And Living, In Peace

Mom and me

My mother passed away last Wednesday. She left us peacefully, in her sleep.

Her death stands in stark contrast to the freewheeling life she led. Us kids, my oldest sister and me, were merely along for the ride.

Many that know me know that I cut off any relationship with my mom in high school. It wasn’t due to any lack of love, but I had my own self-preservation to think about. A decent life could not co-exist with my mom.

I’ve reacted to the news the way anyone would react to the death of a long-lost aunt or distant cousin. There’s that tickle in the brain when you lose someone you love but have no real relationship with: it hurts a little, but only a little.

I just finished reading The Grapes of Wrath, and in the book the character of Ma Joad becomes the head of the family after instability rocks the ground underneath the Joad men. Through her steady hand and strong will, Ma Joad becomes the solid foundation of the Joad “fambly” – despite the move cross-country to a state full of unknowns.

My own life has lacked one continuous “Ma Joad” figure. When I was young, my Grandma Bonnie (my mother’s mother) was there for me. As I grew up, my Grandma Maxine (my dad’s mother) and my Grandpa Bill (my mother’s grandfather) helped me along until I moved in with my dad right before high school. I needed the help because my own mother was the anti-Ma Joad: a constant source of chaos, instability, and high drama.

But all that is gone, now.

My sister gave me an old photo album Monday night, when her, my grandma, and me paid respects to my mom in our own, traditional way. Inside were pictures from when my parents were still together and I was a newborn. These pictures, combined with many others I have from my childhood, reveal the chimera that was my mother. Sweet, fun-loving, easy to laugh – this is what I remember and saw in those pictures. In fact, it’s obvious that she cared about me as a baby. Then there was the ugly side.

Which is why looking through the pictures points out my mom’s tragedy. A person so vibrant and so happy eventually ruined her own life with drugs and alcohol. Things could have been so much different.

As it was, I never had that sense of “fambly” or stability that I read about in Grapes. I attended 10 different elementary schools, three in the 5th grade, and four different junior highs. We lived in more houses and apartments that I can remember. We were homeless for a while. Life was a whirlwind, and that kind of living has a tremendous effect on kids.

So there are other things, besides pictures, that my mother left us. For myself, I’ve learned over the years that I have a neurotic attachment to stability. I have my schedule, and my routine, and I hate it when things don’t go “according to plan.” I show up early, and I fucking hate moving. The direct result of my mother’s chaotic life was an aversion to chaos; I swung toward order and ritual, and I swung hard.

My sister – my poor, poor sister – is another story entirely. She bore the full brunt of my mother’s behavior, and she deals with the consequences ever day. And because she never left my mother behind, my sister is having the most trouble dealing with my mom’s death.

But even she said, at dinner the other night, “I kind of feel relieved.”

This is the legacy of my mom. Being with her was like living in Florida, knowing there’s a high possibility that a strong hurricane would come and blow your shit out to sea.

I chose to up and move to my dad’s when I was 14, in search of a stable household and a parent who didn’t abuse themself or those around them, but I’m sure in some ways my mom never left me. She was always outside the boarded-up windows I built for myself, howling away and wrecking havok.

It’s sad that we all feel relieved now that she’s dead, because we should be feeling something else. Not sadness, not peace, but that we lost something important to our lives.

That’s not how it happened, and so I haven’t felt much at all in the week since she’s been gone. I did such a good job of keeping her out of my life for the past few years that I didn’t really lose anything when she passed. She was gone to begin with, in my eyes.

Now she’s finally at peace. And so am I.


Hit the Road, Jack

My life is renewed when tires meet the road.

It’s always been that way, for as far back as I can remember. When I feel pressed down, or stressed, or worried, I hit the road and I’m made whole. Maybe it’s the self-induced isolation, or maybe it’s giving myself time to think and unwind and enjoy the scenery. I don’t know enough to explain it, but I know that it works.

So it was this weekend, when I left town to see my good college friends Andrea and Keith. On the way to see Andrea in Harrisburg, PA, I took a small section of the old Lincoln Highway – what is now US-30. I’ve been to Pennsylvania twice, and driven through it twice, and have never seen much of the state because it was always dark when I drove through. It’s a beautiful Commonwealth, full of hills and trees and old American farms, and traveling down an old highway reminded me of the Route 66 trip, if only briefly.

My visit to Keith’s was an exploration in the truly unknown. Nobody thinks of Columbus, OH when they think of big American cities, but I do now. It’s a fine town, complete with a fully-operational Apple Store and a (ahem) major American university. Keith made an excellent host and tour guide, and gave me a whole-day’s respite from the road. I like driving, but I also like not moving for a while.

Monday, my birthday, had me hitting the road once again, knowing that when I got back home things would go back to normal. Sure, it’s nice to return home from a long trip, but I dread the part of me that feels like I never left in the first place. The road’s romance is short-lived, it seems, and I only get the benefit in the doing. And maybe the remembering, days and weeks and years later.

I drive to escape, mostly. To get out of town, to Go Somewhere, and leave the everyday behind. I surely can’t drink and eat like I do when I’m on vacation. And I can’t suspend life’s rules like I do when I’m on the road. All I can do is take a little piece of the road home with me. See this big, beautiful country we live in. Perhaps take some pictures, too.


Standing At The Waterline

“Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top.” – Hunter S. Thompson, 1986

As General Motors and Chrysler crumble and teeter like a top-heavy Jenga game, I can’t help but feel apathetic. These are the people who inspire the need for a new car. In fact, their whole business (or lack of) depends on Americans buying vehicles that lose their value the minute they leave the dealership lot.

How strange, I think. But maybe not. Our whole economic system, after all, depends on the new, the shiny, the weird. Maybe it plays to the Grand Ego of our country – the one that says we’re the best, so we need the best.

I’ll probably never buy a new car, so my economic decisions won’t ever help to save an ailing auto company. GM will survive or die without me. There’s comfort in that thought; I have no individual responsibility for saving a company that was once the symbol and thermometer of American progress. I’ve checked out of the system. No fault of mine.

Used vehicles are the lifeblood of my place of employment, and there’s dignity in that thought. When all the banks are dying or being bought up like on-sale antiques, credit unions stand apart thanks to their not-for-profit status, their democratic decision-making, and their responsbility to serve the underserved. I didn’t know a lot of this when I got the job, but as the years have gone on, I take pride in my industry’s philosophy – probably because it matches my own.

Used cars. Used Macs. Used CDs on eBay. Even used clothing, when it smells decent. Perhaps I should have been born in the Depression. Lord knows I’m still lucky enough to have a job in the current one.

Our generation may have a wake-up call coming. America’s ego has been made flesh in every generation since the Baby Boomers, and while our generation is politically active and commercially cynical, it still thinks a lot of itself.

Republicans, and a lot of Democrats, see nothing wrong with this. They’ve been selling the idea of America as a Place That Does No Wrong for a long, long time. It’s only lately that our giant national id has been laid low. Being humble is not an American trait that comes naturally, but lately we’ve had no choice.

I know this personally. 2008 was a stupid, stressful, bumble-headed year for me. It taught me a lot about my limits and faults, and I’ve thought a lot about them this winter. It’s been good for me.

Which is why I can only wish the same for all of us, as a country and a people. The world is too nasty and too chaotic to keep our national credit card on an over-the-limit status. We’re now at the waterline, as Dr. Thompson mentioned, and the sharks are circling nearby.

That adrenaline rush we feel in our gut is evolution at its most basic: fight or flight. Which way do we go? Do we strive for a more meaningful and fulfilling life? Or do we seek meaning in a life looking for a bailout?

We’ve been at the top of the food chain for a long time now. But the sharks have been around a lot longer, and they have no ego to keep in check.


It’s Morning Again In America

It was about 4 p.m. yesterday that I stopped caring about being a participant in the election and wanted to be merely a spectator. With the highest voter turnout ever and hundreds of volunteers spread across Jackson county, helping to turn the “birthplace of the Republican Party” blue for the first time since LBJ, my modest phone-banking efforts Tuesday afternoon were strained. My ear was rubbed raw, my voice was scratchy, and I had been up since 5:30 a.m.

Besides, I had a hot pot of Election Night chili waiting for me at home. And friends, you can’t argue with that.

But what an incredible ride. I think the New York Times put it best:

The election of Mr. Obama amounted to a national catharsis — a repudiation of a historically unpopular Republican president and his economic and foreign policies, and an embrace of Mr. Obama’s call for a change in the direction and the tone of the country.

It was a catharsis of sorts for me, as well, after the incredibly upsetting weekend I had. That Mark Schauer commercial I was in? The Jackson Citizen Patriot’s Chris Gautz suspected something from the beginning. How did all those unemployed people get into that factory, he wondered.

Then, on Friday, The Adrian Telegram broke the news. Little ol’ me and my one-hit-per-day personal blog injects some extra controversy into the campaign. Suddenly I’m an “actor,” and the entire premise of Schauer’s ad is thrown into question. This weekend, the Battle Creek Enquirer picked up the story, and Chris Gautz from the CitPat writes an “I told you so” column.

And it was all kicked off by a press release from the Walberg campaign. Someone had found my blog post, and they were telling all.

First, a confession: the whole deal was totally my fault. I should have kept my big mouth shut. Despite Walberg pulling his own shenanigans and generally being a big creep, it was naive of me to think that no one would stumble on my personal blog.

This all went down Thursday, so the rest of the weekend I kept my head down, made phone calls for the Schauer campaign, and tried to make up for whatever damage I had caused. Tuesday night I even skipped the big Democratic party at the Michigan Theatre; I just wanted it all to be over.

Luckily, Schauer won the election after the returns from the local cities – Jackson, Battle Creek, and Adrian – came in reliably for the Dems. My original thoughts behind volunteering for Schauer (Obama will win Michigan, but the 7th Congressional race would be much tighter) turned out to be spot-on, because we didn’t know Schauer won until Wednesday morning. So my little controversy amounted to little more than a blip on the local political radar, though it was enough for folks to pick on me at the Democratic office.

I spent yesterday morning at the St. John’s polling location, not far from downtown, then I came back to the Dem office to eat lunch and make calls for the rest of the afternoon. It was amazing to see such a hub of activity: Obama voters by the dozens streaming in and out (and an incredible amount of African Americans helping), phone lines buzzing, and the mood of the place steadily rising as we all felt the Change coming. A lady came up from Oklahoma to help out with the election, and one of the guys she called was so excited about the day’s events he asked her out on the spot, right there over the phone.

With the local elections now out of my hands, I went to grandma’s for a bit, and then came home to concentrate on watching CNN’s iPhone-like touchscreen numbers and listening to MSNBC’s commentary for the rest of the night, watching state after incredible state fall for Obama. I heard Tom Delay, that know-nothing fool, predict that it would be Nancy Pelosi, not Barack Obama, that takes control of the country. After Ohio went blue, my grandma called crying.

The Michigan ballot proposals, one for legalizing marijuana for medical use and one supporting stem cell research, passed in a state that, only four years ago, voted to add a one-man, one-woman marriage clause to our constitution. Incredible.

On several levels, this will be my first active, participatory election. It’s the first I’ve given my heart to a politician that had a slim chance of winning. It’s the first my name saw shame in the local newspapers. It’s also the first that I can say, with all honesty, has made me question whether this whole political thing is right for me.

The amount of energy it takes to run something like a Congressional race is staggering. It’s like having sex for for a full year with someone you can’t stand the site of, and – at the climax – you have a 50/50 chance of either getting off or having a stroke mid-coitus.

But like sex, most of the fun comes in the participation. In college, I liked campaigning far more than I ever liked governing. The thought that a few of my efforts helped stem the tide of idiocy is comforting; even my slip-up couldn’t stop Schauer from winning.

As Andrea said, I wonder what’s next. My God, can we really look forward to at least two years of campaign-free news cycles? Will the economic turmoil cast us over the cliff? Will reason and decency and hope be enough to undo the damage done to our wonderful country?

I like to think so. This morning my thoughts reached out to Ronald Reagan, my childhood president, when he said, “It’s morning again in America.” Barack Obama is our generation’s president just like John F. Kennedy was my grandma’s president, and just like FDR was my great grandpa’s president. It remains to be seen what kind of impact he’ll actually have in the White House, but who can doubt things will be different from here on out.

Hope springs eternal.


Americans Are Masochistic In Maine

You start throwing around phrases like “economic downturn” and “…not since the Depression,” and it makes one question the sanity of cutting out of town on another cross-country trip – where even the Hamptons are facing declining real estate values.

Gas. Wheat and milk. The price of everything, except houses, is going up, and here I sit on the edge of discovery, ready to journey into the heart of Old America and look into our revolutionary past. What shaped us as a country? Where did the Founding Fathers come from? Is fresh-off-the-boat crab meat really that tasty?

The answers to these questions, and more, I hope to find when I set out on May 16 to the original colonies. I’ll land on my own version of Plymouth Rock, I’ll walk down the streets of Philadelphia, bread in hand, and I’ll swim in the same pond that taught Thoreau to abandon his fellow citizens and embrace the wilderness as the last respite of a sanity-seeking intelligence. If he could spend time in prison to protest his country’s war-mongering, then surely I can sit on the banks of the Delaware and find out if Washington’s late-night crossing was worth the trouble.

Jefferson taught that a government should keep its powers within the confines of the Constitution, except while he was president, and so I don’t feel so bad taking my government money and putting it into my gas tank to run wild all over New England. If Route 66 was a quest to discover the world and my place in it, this trip is a journey to the roots of our country. What makes us tick? Where do we come from? Why can you talk about the weather with anyone, anywhere, anytime and not sound like a raving lunatic?

I’ve decided that I renting a car for this trip would be a waste. The states are so small, and the driving so non-perilous, that my little Suzuki should do just fine. It would have croaked on the side of some Colorado mountainside, but I believe the rolling hills of Vermont will not be such a chore.

I’ve also decided that, since the states are so close together, the back roads and state highways will be more than adequate to see everything I want to see in a reasonable amount of time.

The trip begins where our Declaration of Independance did: in Philadelphia, a logical starting point to a trek so historical. I’ll lay eyes on the Liberty Bell, and Mr. Franklin’s printing shop, and the building where demigods, as Jefferson called them, met and decided to try out a nation-sized experiment. From there it’s down to Maryland, up to Delaware and New Jersey, and straight through for a night (or two) in Boston and on to Maine, where I’ll stream through Route 1 and 3 on back to New Hampshire. Vermont is a resting stop before tackling Saratoga and upstate New York, with a finish through wherever I think the Adams Family (presidential, not kooky) would want to see last.

These trips are the travel equivalent to a Greatest Hits album: not a full picture, but a quick browse-through of the catalog. I may not get to a Red Socks game, but I’ll be sure to grab a picture of Fenway if I’m in the neighborhood.

The vacation time is set, the money is in the bank – what I need now are a few B&B ideas and a map of rest stops for those nights I feel like braving the New England spring nights in my spacious backseat. Nothing beats an economic downturn like a trip out of town and a few adventures along the way. Clinton and Obama can fight for the few remaining states until they’re blue-er in the face; I’ll be finding out about the prize they so greedily seek.

All that’s left is the getting there.