Saturday, August 21, 2010

8464.1- A Long Drive Inside A Car

I'm back in Oregon. My amazing journey is over. I'm sorry to have been so silent on the last half of my voyage. The long days of driving sapped me of creative energy. After nine hours on the road, all a man wants to do is sleep. 

Here's a rundown of the backside of my trip. I just reread that last sentence. Rundown the backside? Yuck. I should rephrase that.

After leaving New York, I headed down to the DC area to visit my old friend Matt. Matt, as you may recall, is my aunt Judy's son. He's the little tyke I used to babysit. The one who tried to sell his dog with a sign made of cheese. He's the closest thing to a kid brother that I have. Matt was the coolest kid I knew. I had so much fun playing with him when I babysat that the five dollars an hour I got was just the icing on the cake.

Matt is all grown up now. He's on an internship with some interesting engineering company that does interesting engineering work in DC for the summer. He told me what it was that he did, but it was so interesting that I promptly forgot. It makes sense, though, Matt's interest in engineering. He was always building cool inventions with tape and cardboard. I'm glad that he has found his calling and that he's happy. It was good to see him. Not having any biological siblings to corrupt mentor, I take a lot of pride in seeing him grow up and become a man. 

Next, I headed down to Asheville, North Carolina to visit my mom's best friend, Adrienne and her husband, Jim. My mom used to work with Adrienne at the welfare office in Lebanon, Oregon. Adrienne was the first black woman that ever worked there. She was was also the first black woman that most of those hicks had probably ever seen. The people in the office were cold toward Adrienne until my mom had a chat with them. She threatened to personally kick their asses if they didn't start being nice to her. If you didn't know my mom, here's a little piece of trivia: if she threatened to kick your ass, it was not an idle threat. The people at the office knew it was better to heed her advice than to have to sit on a special pillow for a week, so from that day forward, Adrienne was treated very nicely. 

Adrienne is an angel. She is one of the nicest people I have ever met. She embodies the term "southern hospitality." When I arrived she and her husband had cooked a delicious meal consisting of two kinds of chicken, steak, biscuits, corn, salad and all the fixins. It was quite delicious and a very nice treat after all the uggy road food I had been eating. In the morning we ate eggs, bacon, sausage and grits. I must have a little southern in me because I think grits are the best thing since crusty french bread. 

For the brief time that she was in Oregon, Adrienne was like an aunt to me. (I have quite a few adopted family members.) One time, many years ago, she took me Hanukkah shopping for my mom. I wanted to get my mommy some perfume so she could smell pretty. Being an over-enthusiastic child, I picked out the most offensive-smelling perfume in the store. But Adrienne encouraged me to buy what I thought was right. "All the women in Georgia wear that perfume," she said, mustering some positive encouragement. That sold me on it. When I gave my mom the gift and repeated Adrienne's words in a bad imitation of her southern accent, my mom was so tickled that "all the women in Georgia wear it" became a catchphrase often repeated in the ensuing years. 

I think the reason my mom, a loud, opinionated, boisterous New Yorker and Adrienne, a polite, genteel Southerner became friends is that they were both fish out of water. In a small town like Corvallis in the 1980s, you stood out if you talked or looked differently from all the others. They were drawn to each other because they knew what it felt like to be on the outside looking in. When my mom died, Adrienne flew in to be with me, just so I could have a shoulder to cry on. I will never forget her selfless gesture toward me in my time of greatest grief. I love her like family and visiting her was one of the most relaxing, healing parts of my journey. 

Upon leaving Adrienne and Jim, I found myself with nothing to look forward to but five days of driving. It was time to wrap it up. I had a self-imposed deadline for my trip and thoughts of my impending move to Portland were beginning to seep into my consciousness, but I still had people to see in California.

The next few days were a blur. I didn't have much fun driving. I wanted to be back on the west coast with my family. I relished every state border I crossed, every timezone I passed into. I was on my way to see one of my favorite people, my cousin Sarah, and her beautiful family. My desire to see them almost caused me to miss what turned out to be one of the best stops of my trip. When I got to my motel in New Mexico, I had a choice to make about the next day: I could either drive for thirteen hours and be in California the next day, or I could drive for six hours and see the Grand Canyon and then arrive in California the day after. Being as sick of the road as I was, I was leaning toward skipping the canyon, one of the destinations I had put on my must-see list since before I even left. I called Sarah and she emphatically told me to go to the Grand Canyon. I followed her advice and the second I saw that giant, gaping hole I was glad I did. (Yes, yes, I know- I said "giant, gaping hole.")

The Grand Canyon was beautiful beyond my wildest expectations. The ground drops away and beneath you to valleys filled with more canyons filled with more valleys and canyons. It stretches into the horizon. I was struck by the sheer scale of it all. In college I took geology for my slacker science credits. I actually found it fascinating and unexpectedly found myself engaged in what I had assumed would be sleep-through classes. Nothing I had seen on our geology field trips could prepare me for the formations in the Grand Canyon. I strongly advise anyone who hasn't witnessed it to seek it out. Words and pictures cannot describe what it feels like to be there and stand on the edge. Nature!

The next day, I was in sunny southern California to visit my uncle Barney and aunt Ellen before heading to the Bay Area to see Sarah. I had a nice couple of days with them. They live in Hermosa Beach, which is one of So-Cal's quieter beaches. We rode bikes in the mild sunny weather and ate some good food. Barney is pretty good pals with Wee-Man (from Jack-Ass) so we went to Wee-Man's taco joint. Unfortunately Wee-Man was on a fishing trip, so I didn't get to meet him. But I did see some pictures of the fish he caught which he had texted to another friend. (Barney just recently got a cellphone, texting is still a couple of years beyond is grasp.) 

When I left Barney and Ellen, I took the Pacific Coast Highway to Pacifica, which is about twelve miles away from San Francisco. It was a beautiful drive, full of curving roads and endless coastal vistas. 

My cousin Sarah is probably the person I am most comfortable with in the entire world. She is my aunt Helen's daughter. Geoffrey, whom I visited in Illinois, is her older brother. As a child, I was very close with both my cousins. But eventually Geoffrey became a teenager who wasn't interested in making quarterly trips down to Oregon. But Sarah and I are only a month apart in age, so while Geoffrey was off doing teenager things, we were growing up together, going through similar developmental stages. I love Geoffrey, he is one of the wisest, funniest, worst drivers I know. I am honored when he calls me brother. But if Geoffrey is my older brother, then Sarah is my twin sister.

Growing up, Sarah had a profound influence on me. When I was a kid playing make-believe, I used to say "let's pretend that we are [super heroes]." But one visit, Sarah was saying "let's be like [superheroes]." I thought this was so cool. It was a shorter way of saying it, plus it took it out of the realm of pretending and into the world of being. Sarah and I would have weekly phone conversations that lasted hours. I have never enjoyed talking on the phone very much, but I never have minded talking to Sarah. We would sing Janis Joplin songs. We would talk about our crazy parents. She has been with me through most of the milestones of my life. I love her unconditionally. She will always be there for me and I will always be there for her.

Sarah is married to Ruben, and I cannot think of a better match for her. Ruben is a great guy. He's funny and smart and above all else, he is good to Sarah. They are the type of couple that others hold up as a shining example of a working, happy relationship. They have a young son named Sam, after our grandpa. Hanging out with Sam and Geoffrey and Gretchen's son, Otis, has reassured me that I really do still like children. My former job was great- I loved it. But I changed as a person and it was time to leave. Spending time with my nephews (we are ignoring semantics here- they ARE my nephews) has made me realize that I still have that spark in me to appreciate children and their magical, wonderful perspective on the world.

In my travels I have seen many things and gone many places. The biggest lesson that I learned was that the people in my life are the most important things to me. I love my friends and family with all my heart. They are all I have and I need them. If I saw you on my journey, thank you for sharing your time with me. If I wasn't able to visit with you, or you live in Oregon and weren't a part of the itinerary, I'm sorry. We will have plenty of time to share memories and experiences in the future.

My trip may be over, but my adventure is just beginning. Soon I will be moving to Portland to start the next chapter of my life. Thanks for joining me on this trip. I hope you'll stick around for the next exciting adventure. 

And now, back by popular demand: more jokes (and stray observations) about states!

Washington DC

•Not actually a state.

•The only place where the drivers are worse than New York. The people there have an undeserved sense of superiority that they think gives them the right to drive like assholes. Senators in official cars, diplomats and other government types will all run you off the road because you are not as important as they are.


•Some of the nicest, most polite people I encountered on my trip. However, they take it a little too far. When I was trying to pay for my meal at a restaurant, an employee was standing in the aisle. I had to brush by him to get to the cashier, and being used to the New York way of doing stuff, I had no problem asserting myself and pushing past. When I bumped into him, he profusely apologized for bumping me. I told him, no, it was I who had bumped him, and then he said "I'm sorry for being in your way, sir." This guy would be eaten alive in the city!

•The restaurant I was at was a Cracker Barrel. If you have never been to or heard of Cracker Barrel, I highly suggest visiting one as a cultural experience. I saw it as a microcosm that helped explain America's struggle with obesity. I have struggled with my weight my whole life. As a child, I was picked on for being fat and developed my humor as a mechanism to deflect negativity. Now, looking at childhood pictures of myself, I realize I wasn't even that big, compared to the size of some of the children now. I got used to being the fattest guy in any given room, but at Cracker Barrel (and a growing number of other places) I was average. This disturbs me. I have been trying to be healthier. I want to live a long life. I feel I was robbed of some of the best years of my relationship with my mom. We were just moving past the parent-child part and into the friend part. I have to live healthier. I owe it to myself and my family. But my experience in Cracker Barrel illustrated a lot of the problems with the way we eat in this country: First of all, mac and cheese, french fries, baked beans and fried apples are NOT vegetables. The only thing green on the restaurant's "vegetable" list was canned green beans. And each meal comes with at least two "vegetables." Which leads me to another issue: portion control. My meal included an entree, three "vegetables," free biscuits (yes, plural), jam and a drink. The waiter brought four plates of food out! And the whole meal cost around eleven dollars, which is another problem. I understand that when it is cheeper to feed your family inexpensive crap than wholesome food, many people do not have the option of eating well. It becomes a choice of having enough unhealthy food or not enough good food. This needs to change. Everybody needs access to inexpensive, organic, locally produced food. This processed and shipped shit gots to go.

North Carolina

• I'm a pretty quick study. I get what you are saying, buddy. Move on. But in NC, I found myself standing around for whole minutes waiting for whoever was speaking to finish drawling out their sentence. Come on, people! Spit it out.

•Asheville was a nice hippy enclave amidst the hillfolk in North Carolina. I am very comfortable among the tattooed and pierced and tie-died people of the world. Plus, the city was very pretty.


•I saw only two roadsigns for Little Rock, Arkansas' biggest city. I did not see the city itself, but according to the signs it's still there. I'm sure we would have heard if it disappeared. 


•I drove through Oklahoma.


•More like Texass.

•Actually, that's not fair to Oklahoma. I found myself rather liking Oklahoma City. The people there were pretty mellow. 

•The best thing about Texas is that I don't have to live there. I only drove through the so-called panhandle (it's more like smokestack) and it was almost too much to take. I had much more fun in the Texas-like areas of Red Dead Redemption (a very good video game) than in the real state. You can't turn off the console and go outside if you get bored of the real Texas, because when you go outside, you're still in Texas.

•The "city" of Amarillo is really just a bunch of car dealerships, strip malls and chain restaurants sprawled out for what seems like twenty miles. Guh. There were a couple tall buildings in the distance, though. I noticed them because they were the only thing in the whole state that blocked my view of the nothing.

New Mexico

•Starting to get nice again. There's some majestic desert scenery there.

•Albuquerque, in addition to being a fun city to spell, is actually very, very pretty. The whole city fits in naturally with the land around it. It blends in a way that is appropriate instead of jarring. The roads are made of pink, turquoise and earth-toned concrete that complement the natural scenery as well as the stucco and clay buildings. Albuquerque was indeed a treat.


•Thanks for keeping the foreigners out, Arizona. I feel so much more secure. Oh, my glorious American rights. 

•Actually, the majesty of the Grand Canyon was worth driving through this politically suspect state.


•Eh... It was mostly about the people for me. I've been to Cali before. I'm over it.


•Still the best.

I want to share a strange, powerful experience with you before I go today. As I was hiking back to my car from the rim of the Grand Canyon, I stopped to take some pictures along the path. A little purple flower caught my eye, but I passed it by. I was done. Tired and eager to make a few more miles before dark, I continued up the path to my car. But something told me to go back and snap one final photo of the little purple flower. Purple was my mom's favorite color, you see. It seemed appropriate. So I went back and took the picture. It was near the ground and my old bones were tired from my trek, so I just held the camera at a low angle and blindly snapped a photo. When I got to my motel that night and uploaded my photos, I was shocked by the photo I had taken.

The beam of sunlight shining down on that little purple flower is my mom. She told me to go back and take that photo because she had a message for me: she is always going to be with me.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

6571.1 (Again)

Wake up
Drive 200 miles, listen to music
Gas up (Pumping your own gas? Awesome.)
Drive 200 miles, listen to music
Gas up
Drive 200 miles, listen to music, talk on the phone
Gas up
Sleep now

This has been my life for the last couple of days. Pretty interesting, no? Actually, with all the bananas and coffee, you can add another poop somewhere in there.

I'm making my way out to California to visit my family and begin the last leg of my trip. I will write more about my adventures at a later date. For now, I'm headed back on the road. I'm planning on making it to the Grand Canyon today. I'll let you know how that goes.

Monday, August 9, 2010



I just wrote for two hours and accidentally erased my entire post. I'm pissed off and tired. Stupid Alec. Sorry. I will try to reconstruct it tomorrow.

I just wanted to let you all know that I haven't forgotten about you.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle

The crowd is full of people my age. Regular guys in their early thirties who relied on this music to help them get through adolescence. We are no longer full of bile and angst. But the music takes us back to our younger days. For a few hours we forget that we have become The Man. We are teenagers again and Billy is an omniscient deity who knows the pain we feel. And, fuck it, we are going to mosh.

My extended stay in New York is bookended by two sets of concerts: Smashing Pumpkins and The Flaming Lips last Monday and Tuesday followed by The Dead Weather and Arcade Fire (with Spoon) this Tuesday and Wednesday. And although these are all rock bands, each one has its own distinct flavor and its own distinct crowd.

Most concerts that I attend are a bit of a challenge for me. First of all, being a larger gentleman, there's the issue of standing on my feet for three or five hours. After the second hour, it begins to be a struggle but I always manage to push through. The biggest issue is that I have an aversion to large crowds. I get anxious when I am in social situations with large amounts of strangers. I enjoy my personal space. That's why I have never been a big fan of house parties. I lack the genes for drunken small talk and random "WOOOOO!"-ing.

I have always felt like an outsider. I am socially adept enough to be able to pick up on certain cues and get a good read on the crowd, but I feel as if I'm faking it, just reacting the way the situation dictates. I feel like an alien observer, sent from another planet to compile a report on human social interaction. In high school and early college, this outsider perspective frequently held me back. I would stay confined in my comfort bubble, only venturing out when the peer pressure got to be strong enough to burst it.

I am a different sort of person. That's the conclusion I have reached through my three decades of observing human interactions. I think my mind works in ways that most people's doesn't. That sounds a bit pompous. I'm not claiming to be a genius or anything even close to that, it's just that I tend to draw parallels and reach conclusions that other people don't immediately see. I've been told that I am funny. I think I probably am. But what most people don't realize is that frequently when you are laughing at something I have said, there was no intention of humor behind it. This can be very frustrating for me at times. I accept the fact that, yes, I do frequently try to make people laugh. But I also have a serious side, and sometimes when I am trying to express it, the message gets misconstrued and people end up laughing. It happens in school, at work, at home.

When I was in journalism school we discussed communication models. Basically it breaks down to this: In communication there is a sender and a receiver. The sender creates the message, encodes it into symbols (writing, speaking, singing, painting, body language, etc.) and transmits it through a channel (this blog, a song, a movie, conversation) for the receiver to decode. Simple, right? It should be, but along the way there is noise that interferes with the message. This noise can be environmental (literally, noise) but it can also be internal. This internal interference is where I believe most of my communication problems stem from. For some reason the systems for understanding that I have wired into my brain are slightly different from that of most people. To me, the message that I am trying to send is clear as day. But once the message leaves this here transmitter, it's meaning gets altered. Everyone's perception is affected by their own experiences. Everyone is wired to receive messages according to what they know about the sender, the subject, the channel, etc. There are an infinite number of factors that interfere with the communication process. Or maybe it's these factors that inform the process. Whatever the case may be, I frequently have trouble with noise disrupting my messages.

I kind of went off on a tangent there. The point I was trying to make is that I feel (and this may just be my own internal noise) like I am frequently misunderstood. When I am in a small group, or with close friends, I have a better chance of getting my point across. But in larger social situations, when there is a lot of noise (still talking about communication here, but environmental audio noise is a factor, too) I get uncomfortable. Communication is extremely important to me and I tend to be very careful about the ways my messages are structured, so when there is a large potential for interference, I get uncomfortable.

(Um... That was an interesting trip into my psyche. I didn't mean to get all academic on you there. All I wanted was to write about my concert experiences, but these communication issues have been on my mind for the last week. Sorry.)

I think my ultimate, highly unrealistic goal is to create messages that are immune from noise. This is impossible, I know. But I feel that by striving for this simple, unattainable goal, I will be able to at least hone my craft.

OK. I'm done with all that. Back to our regularly scheduled program.

The Pumpkins show was a test of endurance. We arrived early and found a nice spot about twelve rows back, the closest that the mob of people already in attendance would allow us to get. (Although, the whole concept of "rows" is misleading when there are no seats.) My friend Noah is kind of a Pumpkins fanatic. Strike that, he's a Billy Corgan fanatic. (In case you don't know, Billy Corgan is the frontman, the heart and soul of the band.) He has seen more Pumpkins shows than he can count. He even saw Billy's short-lived Zwan experiment. Noah's relationship with Billy and his bands has followed the course of most romantic relationships. That is to say, the early years were intense with shared emotions and deep connections. But people grow and change and it gets difficult to stick it out when both partners have a different idea about where the relationship should be headed. Billy went in a direction that many of his early fans objected to. They broke it off and decided to treasure the memories of the good times. But Noah, loving partner that he is, stuck it out. He supported Billy through his transitions. And although he has faced disappointment, Noah remains steadfast in his love for the band.

I think sometimes we treasure our childhood obsessions because it simply feels good to feel passionately about something. As we grow up and become jaded to the magic of the world, it is comforting to return to an earlier time in your life- a time when you still cared deeply for something, anything.

So we scootched up as far as we could go, planted our feet and waited for the show to begin.  The three opening bands sucked ass. That's a bit unfair to them. I get it; it's hard to be a no-name band opening for a rock legend. You have to warm up a crowd that has never heard of you and doesn't want to hear from you. It puts a band in a difficult position. I appreciate all the hard work and grinding it took to get up on that stage. But I'm sorry, Mr. Skinny Emo Man, I do not want to hear you sing about what a rock star you are. You are not a rock star yet, so why don't you shut the hell up and bring out the band that we all paid money to see.

Once the real show got underway, the Pumpkins played a lot of new material. This was to be expected, of course. For an artist the new stuff is just as significant as the old stuff. Sometimes even more so. Anyway, Billy serenaded us for a while with his latest songs. But once they began to play "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," shit got real.

Now, I'm a thirty-year-old man. My youthful mind cannot wrap itself around this fact. My body, however, frequently realizes it. When Billy declared the world to be a vampire, there was a surge of energy through the crowd. Suddenly we are all teenagers again and here's this guy who knows what we are going through and he's singing directly to us and it's magical because all this time we thought no one else knew. And being teenagers in the 1990s we know no other way to show our appreciation to him but by moshing. So that is what we did.

Here's a crowd of young professionals and college graduates jumping elbows-first into each other, pushing, pulling, flailing about. The temperature rises from all the energy being expelled in the room. Everyone is singing, bouncing, feeling the music, living it. We may not be rats in a cage anymore, but we still have quite a lot of rage, apparently.

This was a moment that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I felt like I was in a storm in the middle of the ocean, struggling to stay afloat in the crashing waves. There was no fighting it. It was either join in or sink to the bottom. With that one song, Billy had demonstrated to us the raw power of music. But for me, it isn't just about music. It is about the emotional power of all art. To be able to elicit such a deep, primal response in such a large audience is a demonstration of art's ability to bring us together. Billy, I am in your debt. Thank you for sharing your art with me.

The moshing continued for most of the rest of the show. It got to be a bit much for me, but the crowd quickly formed a defensive wall of people who wanted no more of those youthful shenanigans. I enjoyed my place on the front-line, using my substantial frame to redirect moshers back into the fray. Walking out of the venue, I was ready to collapse. But I knew that I had witnessed something special. All the discomfort was worth it, just to be carried away by that one song.

I bet there was a lot of aspirin taken in New York City the next day.

The Flaming Lips show was an entirely different experience. The crowd was smaller, more mellow. The Lips are one of my current favorite bands. Their optimistic, happy and weird-as-hell songs speak to where I am in my life right now. I probably have listened to more Flaming Lips on my trip than any other band. So my anticipation for that particular concert was off the charts. It did not disappoint.

There was a sustained feeling of pure joy in the room. (Coincidentally enough, this was at the same venue as the previous night's Pumpkins show. It was an interesting juxtaposition of different energies in the same physical space.) It could have been the all the happy rainbow confetti being constantly dumped on us or maybe it was the abundance of giant three-foot balloons bouncing around or maybe it was the naked lady dancing on the giant LED screen or it could have been fact that the band entered from said lady's glowing LED vagina or maybe it was how Wayne, the lead singer, crown-surfed the room in a giant hamster ball. Whatever the reasons, this was an energetic, fun show. They played good music and we had a good time. That's pretty much all there is to say about that.

I will be leaving New York this week. I'm a little sad about that. I think that one day, when I'm rich and famous, I'll keep a little place in the city. Here is a brief list of some of the things that make New York a special place to me:

• The food. Oh, the food. Anything you want, whenever you want it, often delivered right to your door. Highlights have been the Vietnamese sandwich shop, the mac and cheese store (That's right, only delicious, creamy mac and cheese... It. Was. Heaven.), pizza to cry for, the hipster meat shop, and momofuku- a fancy, popular place where an old high school acquaintance now works. I could spend the rest of my life eating one meal a day at a different restaurant and still never experience all that there is in this city.

• Stuff to do. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of doin' stuff. But if you are the type who likes stuff, this city has plenty to offer: concerts, shows, bars, parks, comedy clubs, pool, think of it and it's here.

• The rooftops. I have always been drawn to rooftops. If there is an easily accessible rooftop and I am near it, chances are that I will try to go up there. This city has the best rooftops I have ever seen.

• My friends. I love you guys.

I want to end by expressing my sincere thanks to everyone who has been keeping up with me through this blog. Writing is how I want to make my living and this is a small step in accomplishing that goal. Thank you for the support and comments.