June 21 – It’s six minutes past 6 a.m. Mountain Time. I walked into the Starbucks at the confluence of Highway 59 and Camel Drive about 20 minutes ago.
I got up a few hours ago in a sleepless daze and wandered into the Walmart to check the time. It was 4 in the morning. “Jumping Jack Flash” blared from unseen speakers. I made my way to the men’s room. A male employee walked past me, muttering “it’s a gas, gas, gas.”
The whole scene made me uneasy. It was disconcerting to hear vintage Rolling Stones in the harsh light of America’s retail colossus. And I love the Rolling Stones.
In a side note, since this is post concerns the inner life of this journey, we have not spent a penny in Walmart since May 2 in Austell, Georgia, the evening before we rolled into Tallapoosa. I don’t offer this as holier-than-thou homily. At least I hope I don’t. We are in no way immune to the weakness flesh is heir to. But we made a vow back in May and for once have held firm.
One of the greatest side effects of this quixotic odyssey is I get to spend an inordinate amount of time with Max. As a family, we’re remarkably suited to each other. The narrow confines of the Behemoth don’t hem us in and cause us to turn on each other.
When I stepped out of the Behemoth in the predawn darkness, I looked around to see what must have been a million dollars worth of luxury RVs. Our nearest neighbor was in a 40-foot leviathan that surely cost more than our overvalued former home. Several similar rigs were parked nearby.
Where do I get off calling our creaky metal box the Behemoth? It is humble, but at least in its size, it’s about perfect for us. I credit this largely to Becky’s easy-going nature. Her indifference to comfort, let alone luxury, is otherworldly. I can’t believe my good fortune. That we are in Wyoming three months after leaving Pennsylvania is a testament to her belief and support.
She is the business manager of this threadbare operation. She spent the past couple days researching agents and sending out queries, as she has done in the past. The odds remain stacked against us, but I’d have no chance if it weren’t for Becky.
Max is like most kids, I suppose. We are biologically disposed to see him as something more. He seems remarkably precocious in some ways, behind the curve in others. His laughter is infectious. He’s insistently mischievous.
He delights in reeling off lines from the Honeymooners, Simpsons and Almost Famous. Recently he cut loose with an inspired impression of Jeff Beebe, Jason Lee’s character in Almost Famous.
“That is the fucking buzz,” offered out of the blue.
Where do you draw the line between riotous laughter and stern discipline? I think we draw it too close to the former, but that’s how we roll. Hopefully he gets enough discipline to save him from turning into a monster.
Six weeks shy of his 6th birthday, he still demands help getting dressed and hates to sleep alone. He retains the sweet, breakable voice of a toddler. I hope we haven’t infantilized him with an overdose of approval.
Almost every night he awakes at some point and entreats one of us to join him. It happened a few hours ago, while I battled my sleepless funk and prepared to surrender.
“Daddy, can you sleep with me?”
I curled up next to him and put my arm around him. He chattered effusively about the video game he got hooked on yesterday, an offshoot of the cartoon “Phineas and Ferb.” He told me all the reasons I should give it a try, including the freeze ray, the mole digger and the exploding pineapple.
He’s an amazing kid, and he brings us so much joy. He’s also a lecherous little kid with an uncontrollable fascination with his mom’s private parts.
One night a couple weeks ago we passed a bar called Toby Jugs while strolling Main Street in Hays, Kansas. I wondered whether the name indicated it was a “gentlemen’s club” of the sort that catered to adult predilections (it’s not). Max asked what we meant by “gentlemen’s club,” and we told him rather frankly it was a place men go to see naked women.
“Oh, oh, oh!” he interjected. “I want to be that gentleman.”
Last night we walked over to the Kmart, which strangely sits right next to the Walmart, and impulsively bought one of those $5 DVD collections that includes 10 mediocre-at-best films. When we returned to the camper, Becky read the capsule descriptions, including one about an unhappily married woman who became “wrapped up in a dangerous affair with her handsome stepson.”
When Becky had concluded her rundown, Max quickly cast his vote:
“I want to watch the one about the woman who gets tied up!”
Oh Art Linkletter, kids do say wonderful things.
Well, Max wanted to know the reason for our laughter. This time we told him his misquote contained nuances too delicate to explain.
He’s taken to photography lately. When we were in New Orleans City Park last month, he announced his intention to be my photographer. Then he wandered down by the water’s edge and took pictures with his Leap Pad while we sat at a nearby picnic table.
In a few minutes, he came running back in our direction.
“Daddy, you’ve got to interview this guy!” he said. “This guy is awesome!”
Whatever species of waterfowl he was, I agree. It was awesome.
Sometimes he’s hard to reel in. He’s an inveterate imp, much like his old man.
When I was a graduate assistant way back in the previous century, my professor looked at me one day and said, “John, I am worried about you. You are dangerously unfocused.”
Now that I see what he meant, I wonder about Max. He’s insouciant and carefree, possibly to his own detriment. He seems more like me all the time.
I hope he survives my wayward influence.
I know time is short. Kids who are 5 today will be 18 tomorrow. I fear, like any sentient adult, time’s indifferent onslaught.
That hit home again the other day outside Devils Tower during my discussion with Brennon Moor, who promised his mom at age 5 he’d never leave home until he finished four years of college. Now he’s 18, and he’s bent on joining the Marines.
And there’s nothing she can do but hope he changes his mind.
The raging river of time cannot be dammed. Traveling about the west, with its awesome panorama of geological history on display around every curve, you are constantly reminded how ephemeral our lives are.
It troubles me that I’m an old father, at least in terms of chronology. Emotionally, I’m right there with him. I was 44 when Max was born, and the years have washed past with ever-increasing ferocity since. I look at his cherubic face and wonder what he’ll be like when he’s my age. I know full well I’ll likely be long gone by then.
Nothing unusual about my worries and fears. They’re quite ordinary.
And maybe that’s the underlying thesis of this ramshackle narrative. We are all complex beings with simple desires. We want to feel loved and appreciated. We want to have some semblance of security. We want our children to be safe and have an opportunity to pursue happiness.
The oracles of the mainstream media might tell you otherwise, but we have a lot more in common than the veneer of difference which divides us.
Editor’s note: I apologize in advance for the following diatribe. I have labored to spare this journal the taint of my personal beliefs. To quote Charles Durning in Home for the Holidays:”Opinions are like assholes. Everybody’s got one and everybody thinks everybody else’s stinks.” I only wander into the following chasm in the effort to find some sort of framework for this ridiculous odyssey. That’s all.
Five hours ago, I lied awake in bed thinking about what my friend Lauri Lebo wrote in an email yesterday. She said I need to nail down what it is I’m searching for out here and work harder to reflect it in my writing.
I tried to still my mind and find a way back to sleep. It wasn’t happening. Too much caffeine. The thoughts wouldn’t stop ricocheting about my cerebrum.
I thought about Ron Schneider, who owns the lone gas station in Cody, Neb. He invited first me and then the family into his Buick on consecutive nights for guided tours of western Nebraska’s evocative Sandhills.
I thought about Miss Nita Givens, the African-American owner of Champs lounge, a dark little bar in a predominantly black neighborhood in south Kansas City. We spent a beautiful afternoon there with the Lebo-Rakoff-Lebos a couple Saturdays ago, and Nita not only made us feel at home, she made us feel like family.
I thought about Everett Owens, who showed up at the history museum in Aliceville, Ala., at a moment’s notice and spent the next three hours showing us the vanished steamport of Vienna, high above the Tombigbee River.
I thought about 96-year-old Nettie Greer in Friars Point, Miss., and 90-year-old Jessie Vardano in the Treme section of New Orleans. I thought of Ben Davis, who left his family in Texarkana, Ark., to work in the cleanup effort after Hurricane Katrina. He worked so much he was able to buy the Treme Laundry on St. Philip Street.
I thought of Herbert Via and Shelley Smulsky, who welcomed us into their homes in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Herbert, who turned 84 after our visit, recently had a foot amputated. He is in bad shape, it seems. Godspeed, Herbert.
And I thought of Anthony and Audrey Williams in Tallapoosa, Ga.. Without warning, we appeared in their driveway one Friday afternoon in early May.
“Have you gotten lost in our big city?” Audrey said as I ambled diffidently toward the porch.
That’s how we met Audrey Mae Robinson Williams. We drove out of that driveway 11 days later. They barely let us go. When we left, we knew we’d be friends forever.
And then I thought about David Brooks, the respected New York Times columnist and author.
David Brooks is roughly my age. He graduated from Radnor High School in 1979, the year after my buddy Peter Canale graduated from the same school. Radnor sits along Lancaster Avenue, fewer than eight miles from the house I grew up in.
There our paths divide.
Back in May, David Brooks and his wife purchased a century-old home in the Cleveland Park section of the nation’s capital.
The tale of the tape: Four million dollars, five bedrooms and four-and-a-half bathrooms.
In July, our house and adjacent half-acre lot in the other Washington, purchased for the inflated price of $235,000 six years ago, will be sold on the foreclosure block.
I’m not bitter about this, though you might think I am.
I just think David Brooks is bad for America. I’m not alone. Bashing David Brooks has become something of a cottage industry on the internet, with Matt Taibbi and Charlie Pierce among his most brilliant tormentors.
In the wake of the 2000 election, Brooks published a celebrated essay in Atlantic magazine, parsing the cultural chasm that divides so-called “Red States” and “Blue States.”
This is how he began his essay:
Sixty-five miles from where I am writing this sentence is a place with no Starbucks, no Pottery Barn, no Borders or Barnes & Noble. No blue New York Times delivery bags dot the driveways on Sunday mornings. In this place people don’t complain that Woody Allen isn’t as funny as he used to be, because they never thought he was funny. In this place you can go to a year’s worth of dinner parties without hearing anyone quote an aperçu he first heard on Charlie Rose. The people here don’t buy those little rear-window stickers when they go to a summer-vacation spot so that they can drive around with “MV” decals the rest of the year; for the most part they don’t even go to Martha’s Vineyard.
The place I’m talking about goes by different names. Some call it America. Others call it Middle America. It has also come to be known as Red America, in reference to the maps that were produced on the night of the 2000 presidential election. People in Blue America, which is my part of America, tend to live around big cities on the coasts. People in Red America tend to live on farms or in small towns or small cities far away from the coasts. Things are different there.
Everything that people in my neighborhood do without motors, the people in Red America do with motors. We sail; they powerboat. We cross-country ski; they snowmobile. We hike; they drive ATVs. We have vineyard tours; they have tractor pulls. When it comes to yard work, they have rider mowers; we have illegal aliens.
This is classic David Brooks. What seems at first the reasonable result of careful research in the end adds up to 266 words of unalloyed horseshit.
David Brooks is an American phenomenon. He recalls the insufferable jackass in “Annie Hall,” back when Woody Allen was indeed still funny, who wouldn’t stop pontificating about Marshall McLuhan while waiting in line at the movies.
Allen caps the scene with a comic deus ex machina. He introduces McLuhan himself, who rebukes the blowhard: “You know nothing of my work. … How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!”
Only David Brooks is not just some pretentious Ivy League professor with an overblown ego. He is the conscience of conservative America. He has the ear of educated liberals, too. He is abidingly popular among otherwise intelligent Americans of all stripes.
How David Brooks got to be anything of the sort is totally amazing.
I could be wrong. But from where I sit in the plush surroundings of this Red-State Starbucks, it seems he has his well-respected head shoved so far up his ass he’s likely to be gnawing on his duodenum any day now.
I have lived in two states in my life, both of them squarely in the “blue” category. While I agree Woody Allen is no longer funny, I’ve never set foot on a sailboat. I cross-country skied once, when I was 18, during a church outing. I’ve never been to Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve never quoted an apercu by that empty suit who goes by the name of Charlie Rose. And I’ve never hired an illegal alien to mow my lawn.
But such is David Brooks’ point of reference. I’m not the first or most articulate to make this point.
So, what is my point?
I have traveled back and forth and back and forth and back again across this country for 11 years running. I have talked with more regular “Red-State” Americans than Brooks has dreamt of in his pseudo-intellectual philosophy.
My experience not only strengthens my belief that David Brooks is a charlatan, it dumbfounds me.
Yesterday I described Tom Brokaw as a “siren of sophistry in the service of the moneyed classes.” I woke up this morning and realized how wrong that was. And I regret the error.
That siren of sophistry is named David Brooks. Dividing Americans into red and blue, real and elite, or any other meretricious dichotomy paves over the bonds we share and imperils us all. It only serves the purposes of our corporate masters and the demagogues and shills who do their bidding on Capitol Hill and in the state Legislatures.
David Brooks is bad for America.
In fact, I already have a tentative title for a future project: “False Prophet: Why David Brooks is Worse for America than Rush Limbaugh.”
Because no self-respecting Ivy League scientist or card-carrying intellectual would ever mistake Rush Limbaugh for a reasoned, thoughtful voice.
Sadly, you can’t say the same for David Brooks.