Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Long Night's Journey into Day: July 21-22

When I climbed aboard, the conductor lady told me to find a seat upstairs. There were only a few seats on the first level of the coach cars. They appear to be a step up from the regular coach seats, a little bigger, maybe softer, fewer people. I left my suitcase on the first level at the porters'(?) suggestion and climbed the narrow stairs to the second level. The cabin lights were dimmed and only a few people were talking softly. I found a pair of unoccupied seats, set my backpack on the aisle seat (on the left) and leaned back in the window seat (on the right).

A mother and her 3 kids were in the row behind me. They were pretty quiet, but I still figured my luck was improving when they got off at Omaha 'round about midnight. I was wrong, oh so horribly wrong. They were replaced by a couple (in their 60's, maybe) and their 4 girls around the age of 10. The girls were somewhat lively, but the parents were ornery. It just didn't seem like the daughters' moderate unruliness warranted their peevish chastising.

Of course, as an outsider you never know how often they have to put up with those annoying little habits. To top it all off, one of the girls was sick and would throw up into one of the Amtrak-provided plastic bags at least twice an hour throughout the night. Even taking that into account, I still much preferred the kids to their parents. Although they were quite affectionate with the sick girl, this threw their ill tempers into greater relief.

Being new to train-sleeping, I tried a couple different positions. Just leaning back in the seat didn't work since I'm a side-sleeper. I tried the same thing on my side: no dice. I lay down across both seats with my legs folded against my belly and my head resting kinda awkwardly on my mom's inflatable neck pillow on the aisle arm rest: snake eyes. I lay diagonally across both fully-reclined (45 degrees at most) seats on my side: like throwing a seven when you don't wanna throw one (whatever that's called).

Long story short, I did not sleep that night. Mainly I stuck with the horizontal position until my neck got sore. Not a great night, but not as bad as it could've been. It was an early morning for most of the passengers as the sun woke us up to catch the tail-end of Nebraska with its rolling prairie occupied by horse and cattle ranches. The soil became drier and hills popped up when we crossed into Colorado.

There was an elongated stop in Denver, and then we snaked our way up into the mountains. The views were beautiful. Unfortunately, that was when my sleep deprivation caught up with me. Despite the unpleasantness of maintaining consciousness (exacerbated by the aforementioned parents behind me), I bravely fought off sleep, yielding only a few minutes to "the cousin of death." (I think that's what Shakespeare wrote. It was either him or Bruce Vilanch.)

But the damage was done. I could not enjoy the scenery in my sleep-deprived and old-ornery-parents-of-10-year-olds-aggravated state.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reunion and Departure: July 19-21

Last night I got a decent night's sleep, incredibly, and am now in chipper-enough spirits to relay the story so far.

Last weekend my mom organized a family reunion at the Dunn family farm in Iowa. I rode down on Saturday with my parents and sister, Theresa, who just finished grad school at Penn State and moved to Austin, TX with her fiance. The occasion wasn't as nice as it should've been. I was not in the mood to deal with Mom. I swallowed my discontent in traditional silence, but that, predictably, made me quiet and ill-at-ease. And constipated. (TMI?)

My aunts, uncles and (most of my) cousins from Chicago, Dubuque, Champaign-Urbana and Georgia were there. This was the first reunion with the next generation. My cousin Erin's 5-month-old son Will was there and quickly became the center of attention. We usually don't see each other more than once a year and we're not the most extroverted family anyway, so the baby was a welcome social lubricant and filler of dead air.

I used to feel gipped because my family was so often shy. (Those of you who know me understand how hypocritical that was.) Nowadays I take responsibility for picking up (a fair share of) the slack in the conversations. Unfortunately, the lid on my internal turmoil also tamped down my interest in social interaction around Mom. It's sad to say, but I think if she hadn't been there, I would've enjoyed the reunion a lot more. ("Isn't it ironic? Don't ya think?")

The official function was a Sunday luncheon at Flatheads, the bar in St. Anthony. "St. A," as it's known locally, is the town nearest the family farm with a population of a couple hundred. Even that seems like an overestimate, though. All 16 of us filed into Flatheads, a suitably small, casual establishment with a big-game-hunting theme. We divided into the time-honored adults and kids tables, a quaint distinction now that every "kid" is over the age of 21.

Over pizza and fried pork tenderloin sandwiches, the adults chatted easily, while the kids sputtered along. We're still learning how to relate to each other as adults. The familiarity and informality we had as kids is gone. Getting together on a somewhat-annual basis will do that to ya. It's like we're trying too hard to keep the conversation polite. We don't wanna offend anyone with a bold question or comment. As I said, I was way off my game, so nary a peep could be heard from my corner of the table.

I felt better on Monday, but by then the Illinois and Dubuque contingents had to leave. Even with my improved mood I wasn't feeling gregarious, so I squandered my last chance to converse with the remaining Georgia relatives for at least a year (except Uncle Mike, who owns and visits the farm often for maintenance and caretaking). Cousins Laura and Susan whipped up a batch of spaghetti for an early supper, immediately following which I said goodbye and left for the train with the folks.

That was a tense ride. By the time we hit Zearing (5 miles into the trip), I wasn't sure I could handle the stress. On I-35 my anxiety let up as I initiated another game of "Name That Tune: Classic Rock Edition" with Dad. He got "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" and almost choked up telling me the origin of the song title. It was what a kid carrying his brother said to Father Flanagan (he of Boys' Town fame) when they showed up at the father's door. When we stopped for gas at a Des Moines suburb, I told Dad it'd been a tough weekend for me. I didn't say why, and he didn't ask.

The decent atmosphere prevailed until we reached Osceola, a town well south of Des Moines and site of the nearest Amtrak stop. The station was old and maintained on the cheap. The ticket office was barren and strewn with loose papers, like an overseas military HQ in the last days of the British Empire. The benches, though, were classic and in reasonably good shape. The lady in the ticket office informed us the train was running an hour late, giving us 2 hours to kill.

We cruised a residential 'hood and parked in the town square to walk around. It was a typical small town Main Street. Most of the buildings were early 20th Century, half of which housed local businesses: cinema, hardware store, tailor, medical equipment, tavern, Chinese and (Midwestern) American restaurants. The other half were empty. At the conclusion of our walking tour the boredom was overpowering. I realized what made it so unpleasant was being with my parents. I said, "I can't remember the last time I was this bored." Dad laughed and said I should get used to it if I was gonna travel by train.

We drove around some more. Mom was antsy to get back to the station. Dad shot her down but drove us back to the station anyway, in that aggressive-passive way of his. I unloaded my backpack and suitcase again and carried it to the side of the station, to avoid the stuffiness inside. Outside there was an intermittent breeze to relieve the humidity lingering before sunset. The silence and tension rolled in like a debilitating fog. After a half-hour of stupefaction, I reminisced about the delights of visiting the farm in the summer as a kid. The emotion welled up into my mouth and barely affected my speech on one phrase.

Shortly thereafter the station worker called us to the platform. Just to be safe, Mom and Dad hugged me in the station. That was almost visibly emotional for me. They appeared to be holding it back too. It took a while for the train to arrive. They came out there but kept their distance (I'm guessing) so as not to confuse the conductors. It was after dark at that point. When the train finally pulled up, it was otherworldly. A sleek, silver double-decker roared into the sleepy hamlet, slicing through the peaceful night as if opening a portal to the future. I thought of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Strange that a retro mode of transport dazzled me so. My nerves had a lot to do with it, engorged as they were on my parents' (mainly Mom's) anxiety.

I waved goodbye to the 'rents anticlimactically and boarded the train.

Train of Lost Souls

Yesterday I embarked on a month-long cross-country excursion on Amtrak. I'd been planning it for a few weeks and meant to announce the trip beforehand on my blog, but I didn't get around to it. The plan was to do a lot of writing on the train, but it hasn't worked out that way so far. Right now, due to total lack of sleep last night, I'm not too keen on starting the travel-blog. I have a lot to say, but no real interest in writing it down tonight. First I wanna try and get some sleep before I arrive in the Bay Area tomorrow evening.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Scourge of Growth

Tonight, as I spend the Fourth of July at home alone (Don't cry for me, Minnesota.), I'd like to finally tackle a subject I've alluded to before: the insanity of an economy that requires infinite growth. My fear is that my high-minded posts are boring, and you'd rather read my ruminations on the candy aisle at SuperAmerica. (Actually, my real fear is that nothing I write is interesting to anyone who doesn't know me.) While the candy aisle at SuperAmerica could be the subject of a great essay (I'll hafta add that to my list of blog ideas.), I hope my more serious pieces are at least as compelling.

I've developed a theory of how economic growth became the panacea of our time. Throughout history, groups of people have conquered or wiped out other groups of people. In the novel Ishmael, the catalyst of this phenomenon is identified as agriculture. Although Jared Diamond seems to contradict that idea in Guns, Germs and Steel with his depiction of jungle tribes in Papua New Guinea as being in a constant state of war. Whatever the origin of this impulse, history is littered with military conflict and its attendant carnage. The victors tend to be the societies with larger populations or more advanced martial techniques/technologies. I think this is the primary motive for growth: the need to grow a population larger than one's neighbors to provide for a larger army. Also, a larger population generally leads to greater social complexity, creating a niche for scientific specialists who can develop superior weapons and armaments. In the modern world this motive has more to do with economics. The larger a country's economy, the more influence it can wield politically.

The second motive for growth is greed. A society's elite, corrupted by power, usually increases its share of the wealth as the pot grows. The growth of the society exacerbates the corruption by making it more difficult to be discovered and rooted out. For example, if you live in Minneapolis, and the decisions that really affect your life are made in D.C., it's a lot tougher to check up on the politicians than it would be if they worked in St. Paul. The sheer size and complexity of the federal government hinder the average citizen's ability to correct its operation, i.e., to make it truly democratic. Thus corporate welfare continues to climb, while people welfare continues to dwindle, even though public opinion would like those trends reversed.

While I know this essay is already rife with digressions, I'd like to take a moment to elaborate on the corrupting effect of power. People on the Left, like me, keep wondering, "What is Bush thinking?" His actions seem so illogically harmful that their justification eludes us. (I'm sure the Right asks the same question about us.) I think the answer lies in the old maxim, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Rulers often become convinced that their own aggrandizement is the best way to help the country. In Bush's brain, he probably still believes that giving Big Oil huge tax breaks, drilling in ANWR and occupying Iraq are essential to our national security and prosperity. The fact that these policies also enrich himself, his family and his friends is just a happy coincidence. But I think his self-delusion only extends as far as the Iraq War's necessity. Its rationale must be crystal clear to him. When he talks about bringing democracy to the Middle East, I'm sure he knows it's just a convenient cover story. Sure, it'd be great if democracy spread through the region like an invasive species of mussel, but they really don't give a fuck as long as the oil is flowing (to the U.S., obviously).

Which brings us back to the problem of growth. Not only has Bush been brainwashed to believe that what's good for Big Oil is good for the country, he's also dead certain that economic growth is mandatory if you want prosperity. Unfortunately, every other politican seems to believe that too. They think our current economic model is the only viable option. Therefore we must keep growing the economy ad infinitum to appease the system we've got. Rather than the economy working for our benefit (its supposed raison d'etre), we work for the benefit of the economy, a.k.a., the Fat Cats. The political elites reject the idea that we can change the system to something that will work within ecological limits. Interestingly, they also profit the most from the current arrangement.

If I may self-consciously digress once more, the whole idea of people serving institutions instead of institutions serving people is one of the great plagues of civilization. On a nighttime constitutional to the Loon a few weeks ago, I saw the dark side of JFK's famous inaugural line, "Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." I'm pretty sure he meant we should help each other out, but underneath it lies a disturbing strain of nationalism. (Of course, when it's your nation it's called "patriotism.") From a humanitarian perspective, nations only exist to serve human needs. When a nation asks its citizens to do something contrary to their interests, that nation becomes a burden to be thrown off and, if necessary, replaced by a government that enacts the will of its citizens rather than dictates to them.

It's after midnight and my eyes are getting bleary, but I think I can wrap this up and still salvage some coherence. The reason I'm writing this is because economic growth has become an existential threat to humanity. Growth means increased pollution. Growth means increased consumption of natural resources. Growth means increased destruction of the planet. There may only be a few years left to avoid catastrophic Climate Change, according to NASA's James Hansen. Yet the politicians keep whining about protecting the economy, a human construct over which we have complete control, rather than protecting the earth, our only habitat, which has complete control over us. I'd hate to think our species could be doomed by a failure of imagination.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Summer's Eve

Last night I was walking through the dusk. This is only noteworthy because, although I've taken many strolls recently, few of them have been nocturnal. I'm more vulnerable to depression and anxiety in the evening, and therefore less inclined to venture outside. When I wake up, the day is a blank slate on which a very productive story could be written. As the sun sinks in the west, I've inevitably wasted opportunities and left many things undone, foremost among them finding a girlfriend or even a sustainable, emotionally fulfilling friendship.

The occasion was just a visit to Rainbow to pick up a family-sized bag of Cheetos and a six-bottle-pack of Coke (A man can work up a powerful appetite when he's unemployed.), a stop by the Loon to purchase the 3 new flavors of Mountain Dew and make my voice heard as a consumer (I can't help it. The colors look really tasty.) and a sojourn to Hollywood to rent a decent-looking documentary on World War I. (How much do you know about World War I? If you're an American, like me, probably very little.)

It's nice indulging in a promenade on a summer's eve. (Remember that feminine hygiene product? Yeah.) The sky is pretty, the temperature is cooler (but still uncomfortable in this case) and the sun's tyranny is at an end. Also, there are shadows in which anything could be lurking: a mugger, a possum, a new summer love? As I passed the laundromat by Muddy Waters and the Leaning Tower of Pizza, I caught a subtle insinuation of Deep Woods Off on the breeze. It was a fond reminder of summers-gone-by. I don't know if I can reclaim that feeling.