Traveling Light

Traveling Light

There is a place in America that feels freer than the others.  It’s an escape and it’s far enough away that it feels strange.  The summertime Mountains of Colorado.

Maybe you can get there when you still have your youth.  Nothing can replace the smell of the air when you are breathing your bones in for the first time.  If the air is scented, as the summer mountains are, it’s a magic that never comes back and if it does you’ll always compare it to that feeling.

The flowers bloom then and a man will see them and want to cry or look at it and think ‘how come this is so beautiful, I just want to run into the hills and be free.’  But as soon as you get out of your car the boulders are so big you sprain an ankle or fall on a rock and you learn that beauty is in the eye and that’s enough.

Tim had driven into town, down from the mountain where he was working for the summer.  He’d seen the fella trying to hail a ride back up the mountain from the understood pick up point.  This was common in ski towns in those days, before CNN, the true precursor to the iPhone, a CNN in every pocket, killed things built on blind trust.

Not everything, though.  Restaurants are built on blind trust and have survived.  You can know a restaurant but you can’t know every member of the hot-line.  But consider whether this is a good idea, anymore, a CNN in every pocket.  Who will bring back the beeper?

After buying groceries, the fella was still there and Tim offered a ride.

“How old are you, brother?” the rider asked.

“21,” Tim answered.

“Aw, man, you’ve got the world by the balls.  Let me tell you something, man,” he began after getting situated and Tim flooring it for the higher altitudes they sought.

The stranger had an easy, gregarious manner, much like Tim.  Though generous, Tim had a short, quick, and sometimes rude way about him that hid nothing.  There was no lying in him.  Similarly constituted folks picked up on this and took advantage of the opportunity to save time, say what they had to say, dismissing nicety and getting to the point.  Some people have a point of view and see time slipping away.

Being a hitchhiker means you have no past or future, professionally.  Now, hitchhiking is a matter of course, with ride share, but then it was a matter of social contract.  That contract was killed and it was CNN that pulled the trigger, long before the iPhone.

There is no reputational basis for hitchhikers to stand on, as individuals.  All business is built on appearance alone.  Whether or not you’re friendly and a good conversation has no bearing on your likelihood of being picked up again.  This makes it one of the most honest conversations you’ll ever have.  It’s why no honest conversation takes place in an uber with its rating system, like it did in cabs.

The man was healthy and well fed, looked like he cut trees down for a living with an axe.

“After 35 we’re all the same age.  We’re all on borrowed time, by then, and everyone knows it,” he said.

The man looked to be about 40.  Tim considered what he said, looked sternly at the fella and did not comment, eyes burning.

“Youth is gone at that point, it takes a few years for this to set in, which means once it does it’s even further in the rear view,” he went on.

Tim looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the valley, green, red, blue, and yellow with all that sunlight, receding as they climbed the gorgeous mountainside that trailed a boulder strewn river full of clear water, towards higher and higher epiphanies of sun-splashed freedom.

“If anything, a 35 to 40-year-old is a man without a country.  If he has any brains, he’s mourning the loss of his youth, praying he used it wisely.  He hasn’t yet been invited to any other party, if you know what I mean.  He is in the wilderness, alone, man.  Build up steam right now.  Build up a head of steam that will get you to the other side, or just burn out like a meteor; your choice, both ok.”

“Where are you headed?” Tim asked.

“The Berm, to get a beer.”

“Getting loose?”

“No, man, just thirsty.  But as I was saying, if you show promise, the graybeards will open up to you and stop granting you all the exceptions of youth, the way you didn’t grant me the exceptions of a stranger, which is good.”

Tim looked at him with the same sternness and questions attached.  He looked hungry for information.  The mountain awakens in you the humility and knowledge that you don’t know much; can’t know anything in the shadow of the awe-inspiring thing around you.

“Yeah, man, you’re just seen as either unlucky or stupid for any lack of accomplishments, it’s no longer granted the exceptions of youth, as I’ve already pointed out.

“And this has nothing to do with money, man.  And don’t worry, no one is all the way there.  I’ve never met anyone accomplished in all areas of life at any age, but most poignantly, this one.”

The word “poignantly” hung there for a moment in Tim’s brain.  He didn’t want to get too lost, left behind, like the valley in the rear-view mirror.

“If it’s not love its money, if it’s not money its intelligence, if it’s not intelligence it’s empathy, if it’s not empathy it’s happiness, if it’s not happiness it’s meaning.  The wilderness finds everybody.  ‘Only the good die young.’  No one has all the bases covered.  That’s why you can’t compare yourself to anyone, man.  The wilderness finds all of us.”

Tim couldn’t imagine this.  He was Tim; 21-year-old Tim from eternity and alive in paradise.

“But it’s better to have made it to the wilderness than not to have made it at all.”

At the top of the mountain the fella insisted on leaving a 20 on the seat, quite a bit of cash then, and hopped out the car, said “I’m thirsty, think I’ll head for a beer,” and walked on down the road.

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Fishing For All The Feels

 

Fishing For All The Feels

It used to be that the way you got famous was by catching a big fish.  The world was wide and large.  The small towns that made the world had newspapers.  And those newspapers were farm teams for the bigger newspapers.  Sometimes, something horrible would happen and that was reported.  But good things would happen too; a boy fishing with his father would catch a giant, world record swordfish in the Gulf.

People would want to read about it and everyone understood why and everyone would read about it together.  You couldn’t find as many, or more, articles a click away or right next to that one telling you why to catch a swordfish was bad.  Of course, there were no clicks, then.

But I still think it’s ok if we aren’t sure what’s going to happen with the loss of universal acceptance of what’s right or wrong and the invention of everything that is right being equally as wrong.  When everyone was certain what was right they were less likely to negotiate with what they knew was wrong.  So, great wars would happen after a period of tension building.

About 20 years of relatively peaceful tension preceded The Civil War, after which war broke out killing 600,000.  Then, about 20 years of tension preceded WWI when war broke out killing 10 million.  Then about 20 years of tension preceded WWII before war broke out killing 10s and 10s of millions.

Now we seem to just fight all along the way and we don’t get the times in between where everyone is happy and agreeing in big groups together.  We’re probably back to the future, here.  This is more similar to human history.  If human history were closer to the above description of massive wars every 30 or 40 years there wouldn’t be much humanity left.

I read one of Hemingway’s stories this morning.  The one in Islands in the Stream where the main character’s son fights a giant swordfish in the Gulf for six hours, nearly breaking him in the process, before the big fish gets away right as they went to gaff him.  Afterwards, the characters joke about how it would have made the boy famous to catch the big fish and them famous just by association for being on the boat and doing the other little tasks that helped out like driving or pouring water on the boy’s feet when it got hot or serving up drinks.

It’s exaggeration and part of the story, I know, but it’s funny because it’s both true and unlikely.  It’s not really true that everyone would come together today over a boy catching a great big fish with his dad.

Times are always getting more complex but right now they’ve outpaced our ability to make them seem ordinary.  This happened on the Battlefield too where technology outpaced the Generals’ ability to deal with them tactically resulting in the aforementioned unprecedented slaughter rates in battles.

Socially, there are lots of casualties happening right now in our public discourse.  But I think this will pass.  The technological leaps made in warfare that lead to all those casualties are now being experienced within everyday institutions and politics.  Historically, war has lead the way, outpacing society level innovations and the law’s dealing with them to catch up.  This has been the case throughout human history.  Law is conservative, slow and reactionary.  It does not set the pace or the tone, it deals with it once it has been established, in the best way it can.  Survival—war, sets the pace.  Let’s hope we don’t have any more big ones.

I think the back to normal is happening already at the society level.  Communities are slowly being built back up again, but they have an online life and a community life, the way people have public and private lives.  The online portion is even starting to mirror geography, towns.  The number of people a person can know and trust hovers around 150 which is about the max number of Facebook or Instagram likes an average person will peak at with any given post or picture or life event noteworthy enough.

As much as people like to believe their era is unprecedented, it’s all normalizing just as fast as the wheels came off.  And better off.  It’s better when life is simple and we get back to living and dealing with life being hard enough as it is, with universal mortality rates and all.  No need to make this any harder than it already can be.

Hemingway is great at dialogue.  The easy banter between six characters or so gives each one personality and makes each of them known in their own way and of a type the average reader can relate too.  This is incredibly hard.

He describes action in a way that creates feeling, like you were there.  He does not describe the feeling for you because feelings can’t really be described or remembered but must be had for them to be real to us.  Like music, it’s another tool we use to have feeling.  Music is like code or a language we all understand but which only a few know how to read or write.

It’s all different ways to get at the same feeling.  Music, film, literature, or experiences and adventures all aim at the same emotion and feelings as their byproducts.  That’s what we pay for.  As someone trying to learn how to play upon these same emotions it’s useful to understand these things.  Mastery of any craft is more about doing than merely enjoying it or studying it.  But those are certainly necessary.

Hemingway was writing this story around the time that he was finishing what was arguably his best work, Old Man and the Sea.  Someone around that time commented that the main character from Old Man reminded them of Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Hemingway said in reply that while Lear was wonderful the sea was already “quite old” when Lear was king.

It’s that kind of wisdom and the ability to record it down in stories, letting the reader imagine it for himself, that made him such a great writer.

Things are always changing in detail.  Music and sports have taken the place of philosophy that, for many, was once gotten through organized religion.  Stories are still consumed but more from movies and the more realistic movies have gotten more interactive with things like video games, which itself is a common substitute for adventure to get the feeling.  Its all about the feeling.  No matter how the delivery system changes the subject remains the same throughout it all.  You and me.  That can be a comfort.

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A Close Read of Melville

 

A Close Read of Melville

What I like about writing is the complexity teased out and wrestled with in seemingly ordinary, everyday subjects.  Mystery, discovery, and detail surrounds us if you can train your eye to see it.

I read Chapter 58 of “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville this morning titled “Brit.”  It’s only 1000 words, or so, and takes the form of an essay rather than a continuation of the book’s plot.  Melville makes comparisons between the natural world and the nature of man, you and me, everyone’s favorite subject, when you get down to it.

How, in those 1000 words, does he manage to weave insights of such magnitude, I wonder. Simple.  He is a genius.  But genius is just another word for discovery.  That’s true.  However construed, it’s fun and constructive to observe a master at close range.  And where else but writing do we get to see into the mind of the great ones; get to look over their shoulder, discerning each thought, each insight and connective effort; every single line of code that conjures the greatest of master works is on display in the pages of epic books.

This is what I force my untrained eye to look for in the chapter’s opening line.  It reads:

“Steering north-eastward from the Crozetts, we fell in with vast meadows of brit, the minute, yellow substance, upon which the Right Whale largely feeds.”

Here, in essence, is a sentence containing the subject of the entire following essay or chapter.  Topically speaking, for Melville never stays topical, the passage include three things: the brit (seaweed substance), the whales that feed on the brit, and the ocean itself.

He takes these topics in order, going from big to small; namely food, animal, and environment.  The unspoken topic is the audience, human awareness, in the book the protagonist and in us our understanding of the written word as the telepathy of Melville’s mind carried forward to 2018, if you believe Stephen King’s theory of the written word.  Each topic is, in effect, swallowed by the other as the chapter proceeds.

First, Melville tells us what is physically happening to his observer on the boat.  The boat and its crew, are headed along a deliberate direction when they chance upon a grove of seaweed.  The purpose of the voyage is, of course, not the discovery of this seaweed.  The stated purpose, as dictated by Captain Ahab, is to hunt and kill Moby Dick; the whale that bit off his leg.

But the end state of any journey, chosen freely, is rarely the stated endpoint itself; the value is in the experiences that arise along those chosen roads to practically nowhere; if we are open to them that is.  And they carry meaning if we look.  Melville looks.  He sees, tells, and, in telling, discovers anew.  A positive feedback loop of discovery naturally occurs.  The lesson is to pick a path and stay on it.  No path is boring when our senses are engaged and our minds open.

Then he tells us a certain type of whale, the Right-Whale, not the sperm whale which the Pequod hunts, when not hunting Moby Dick, of course, is seen feeding on this particular seaweed.  So, what I see is a simple action describing the position of the observer.  Then I see what the observer sees; whales feeding.

Melville then describes the right-whale, and the impression the feeding makes on the senses.  He has not yet begun to do what is so incredible and which is why the book is so great—draw comparisons from this simple scene to universal truths; the kryptonite of emotion diving and surfacing, diving and surfacing, in every human heart.  For this, finally, he turns to the sea itself, pointing out how odd it is that, though some comparison can be made between creatures of the land and those of the ocean, the sea is truly unique in its capacity to create and destroy.

The sea, he shows, is unknown and mysterious, pointing out the numberless worlds traversed, unseen, and unwittingly crossed over by Columbus himself, in route to finding and exploring the great, new world of America; all the while, the sea lay hidden and untouched by the science and genius of man, which Melville mocks, not to disparage us, but to show the limits of our ordered lives and, rather, the benefits of increasing humility, discovery, and wonder, as we proceed through life.

For the sea, he shows, is neither the totality of the creatures which inhabit it nor the humans who play upon it, but the thing that “dashes even the mightiest whales against the rocks, and leaves them there side by side with the split wrecks of ships.”

Observe how no politics could be construed in this line, noteworthy in our era politicizing everything.  For, long after we, the sea, and everything in it disappears, if ever that should happen, the sea will still contain the forces carried in that line.  Immutable truths are what this book is about.

Now, Melville is in full stride.  It’s as though each chapter, at once begun on the physical plane of boats, water, men and fish, here seaweed, is just an opportunity for transition (segue) into greater and greater flights of fancy, like any journey, really.  Have a sense of wonder and instill a sense of wonder in your children.

Melville spends the remainder of the essay (chapter), showing the connections we have, all the way down to our divided souls, chaos and order, with the natural world.  So, here, he has shown his protagonist continuing along his chosen mission, tied as it has become with the will of a tyrant (Captain Ahab), but even that is a decision we all choose in the end, and this is a book about ends, the tyrant usually being our own self upon our very selves.

I picture Melville deep in thought now, sweating with excitement, in full stride, really enjoying himself, in full flow state as he writes this, discovering the universe in real time as his pen scratches across blank space, drawing from past experience as the impressions combine in his fertile brain.

He is marveling at the greater mystery of the thing holding the ordinary subjects along an ordinary passage, the great sea herself, the most tactile rendition of the universe held up on the earth’s surface, outside our very souls that is.

He wonders at the power and mystery of the ocean depths of which these whales are only messengers and people simple guests.  He describes the awesome destructive power of sea.  Finally, lest we become judgmental of that power of destruction, Melville points out our own similarities with this force, as we are mere microcosms of what we experience in nature.

By the end of the chapter he is able to write:

“For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half known life.  God keep thee!  Push not off from that isle, thou canst never return!”

Melville, in 1000 words has taken us from “the minute, yellow substance,” to the “soul of man.”  If you’re like me you’re a little bit curious about how he does this.

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