A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Saturday, July 30, 2011

More Thoughts From The Road

This is not so much a taut string of a story as it is many pieces of twine, rope, lamp cords, bits of rags and so forth tied together ad hoc; taking whatever is available to try to get the job done.

It is the story of the disconnect between the events of importance that ultimately control our lives and our daily movements.  We have been separated from, at least in our minds, the designs and devices that can influence the forces that have power over many of the important decisions that dominate our lives.  This is a hunt for an understanding of that disconnection.

Traveling around this country, talking with people in restaurants and other places, meeting people in camp grounds and generally paying attention to what there is to see creates a dissonant contrast to the news in the media, left, right and ‘center.’

This trip I rode state roads and farm roads as much as I could; camped in out-of-the-way areas.  Toward the end of the first day I checked out a lake in the middle of the Texas panhandle; most of the lake was gone, dried up to half or less of its former size. Boat ramps ended like luckless roads in fields of weeds.  Campsites looked out over the dry lake bottom that had the feeling of unfurnished rooms. 

I rode on, finally stopping at a little ‘recreation area’ on Dead Indian Lake (in the Black Kettle National Grasslands, if you know the history, the irony stings) 5 miles from a town of less than 100 people.  I was the only human there.  I heard coyotes singing love songs. Bullfrogs, owls and herons did a little R&B. A raccoon raided my food, politely taking only one small package of cheese, but didn’t stay for a chat. 

The news on my iPhone told of plutocrats working to damage my children’s chances to fulfill their goals for their future and to make the acceptable poverty of careful choices that I have chosen for myself into an a nearly unlivable poverty of deprivation.

None of this was obvious on the road.  In the middle of the afternoon heat (103º F) I had stopped in Channing, Texas under ‘the’ tree.  A few mostly empty buildings gathered around two secondary roads that across at right angles with a train track paralleling one of the roads.  A big pickup truck, clearly headed away from me, hesitated and then made a deliberate turn in my direction.  The man offered to open a nearby building to get me water if I needed.

The waitress in a tiny, well populated café in Watonga, Oklahoma preformed exactly as she had when I was there 4 months ago, and as she had for the last 25 years would be my guess.  I got the normal stares owed to an old man stranger in a motorcycle riding suit, nods of appreciation from some men, often looks of mild displeasure from some women for stirring the wanderlust, one more time, in the men who nodded.  It was life as usual, not any life that you would see in our society’s stories, but still the life that most people lead.

Let me expand on that: All of these people have real lives with real stories, but the stories of our society no longer include those lives.  So, real lives are lived in the shadow, or better, the glare of the impossibly unreal stories that have become our society.  Amy Winehouse died during my trip, but so did my mother’s brother.  Harry: merchant marine in the Big War, deepwater sailor all his life, rider of the rails in the Depression, a man who lived when stories mattered.  I was camping near Okemah, Oklahoma on Okmulgee Lake when uncle Harry died.  Okemah was where Woody Guthrie was born and lived until 1931; Guthrie, a man who told the stories of people like the man who went out of his way to check on me, the middle aged waitress and my uncle Harry.

As my trip began, my society’s story was of “conservatives” and “liberals” fighting over a Federal budget on the brink, Midwestern heat wave, Google + was challenging facebook, an English prince got married with everyone wearing some really swell clothes, terrorists were doing something really bad somewhere, a new illegal war in Libya, wikileaks as evil, Rupert Murdock’s media empire doing illegal things (and lying about it), someone on TV did some really ‘something’ thing…

All of this with the often ignored sub-text stories of 9% unemployment (a nearly 20% real unemployment), wealth (and income) inequities at record and increasing levels challenging the economic and physical safety of ‘regular working people,’ environmental disregard dangerously impacting biospheric integrity and capacity, the armies of my country occupying other lands, wikileaks as good, Fukushima’s continuing radiation release… It was just all too much.  There was not one thing that offered an action to be taken. When the tornados came through, at least, people could hide in their storm cellars.

From the motorcycle the world rolling by me was intensely real: ancient sand dunes in eastern New Mexico, horizon to horizon rolling plains of the Texas panhandle, the thoughtful and the thoughtless fellow humans on the road.  The hundred and then a thousand houses with various and often inexplicable accouterments of the living inhabitants: from plaster lawn deer to home made dirt-track cars, miscellaneous antique farm equipment to different forms of trash – all displayed on hundreds of miles of more or less mowed lawns.  Almost every house in a little town in Oklahoma had what looked like most of the major appliances along with other furnishings on their front porches; now what was that about?

Two gentlemen came by where I was camped in eastern Oklahoma to empty trash from a nearby garbage barrel – they were not ‘garbage-men,’ they were improving the place for all those in the area. After normal rituals of greeting we spoke of the heat, which was considerable.  One of the men was quick to point out that while it may feel hot no records of any kind had been broken; that was, of course, completely untrue, but is what happens when one’s politics is in uncomfortable confrontation with the reality of a thermometer.

At another campsite my neighbors were biologists collecting bats and various rodents for genetic population studies.  They wanted to talk biology.  They wanted to show me their collected specimens.  It was seldom that they camped near someone interested in talking about the difference between the genetic and biological concept of species.  For me it was a fascinating ‘blast from the past.’

Along much of the road other realities pressed their way forward. Giant, multistory drilling rigs – smart rigs that can drill down and sideways, ‘errorless’ drilling avoiding all hazard to surface dwelling man and beast.  These towers are set on a footprint of about 2 or 3 acres with supporting portable housing, materials, equipment and utility yards.  The air around them smelled of oil, and I assumed that that breath-catching smell was fracking chemicals. 

Mile after mile of production wellheads with surrounding tanks and pipes spotted the fields along side the road.  Humans were busy beavers here: farming, drilling, truck driving, digging.  How then to explain the nearly empty little towns, the main streets with every storefront empty except for the antique shop (most often closed) where the drug store used to be.

It was my hope that compressing all of these moments and observations into units of time that typically make sense would somehow also make the compressions make sense; I assumed, and still assume, that a collection of events, real and related in space and time, form the evidentiary basis for reality.  All I was doing was trying to slice across the behavioral landscape in a different way, exposing the layers of interaction not usually seen.

All of these people and all of these places seemed to me to need the same things, things stolen from them by crimes of wealth, the lies of media and the afflictions of power.  I could almost grasp it, felt that I could almost discover the words. 

There are so many of us. We are so various. What is needed to be done is so foreign to our present beliefs and understandings: just as our numbers and our powers are unnatural, so what we must do and how we must live in this present time with those numbers and powers must also be unnatural to immediate individual desires and habits. 

That is the overpowering sensation, repeated over and over again: Mostly original short-grass prairie and a plowed field; the plowed field and the drilling rig; the gentle kindness of people and the incredible pain delivered and about to be delivered onto the Great Many, here and around the world, by plutocratic humans and general circumstance; the little towns grown from mutual and local exchanges of goods and services and killed off by the erosion of mutual interest; thin lines of “nature” snaking through farms and towns, streams and creeks struggling to keep the land alive in a world increasingly covered with lawns and concrete.

It is clear; nothing will do but communication, understanding and wise planning.  The status quo is first of all impossible – there is no status quo, there is no present condition, only processes of change.  In a remarkable reversal of the earth’s most powerful forming forces, it is now that great motive force of change, humanity, that is the ‘creature’ in need of protective conservation, while the technological and environmental forces that we have set into motion surge around us, a powerful machine out of our control.

There is a great longing for sense and order in every one I’ve talked with, but they don’t seem to have the tools to create them; they try to acquire them ready made mistaking religion, money, guns and even education for solution.  That man who drove out of his way to offer me water, he and I were in complete sympathy in our interaction, but I suspect that he might have taken exception to my attitude toward Christianity; we could share the water of life and the good-will of one human for another, but reject each other based on different views of an anachronistic system of belief that has gone through thousands of iterations in 5000 years.

To the biologists, smart and dedicated people, but possibly also too comfortable in their certainties and uncertainties, my thoughts are similar: take the tissue samples, plot the distribution of genetic variation and correlate to biological species variation, write another paper on the details of evolutionary process in a particular group of animals, but also stop in Watonga and try the Spanish omelet – and tip the waitress like she was your sister.

The Tower of Babel story is wrong.  We built it and have continued building it until it now does reach heaven – and we have found heaven empty except for our projected hopes that there would be someone there to take responsibility other than us.  And now the tower and its many relations are in danger of falling under their own weight.  We dare not knock them down since their uncontrolled falling would destroy us and we dare not leave them up since they will surely fall on their own soon enough.  And then I realized one source of my fascination: the road is just the tower laid flat over the ground.


globblog said...

A truly inspiring essay - I find "travel" essays generally are more about a journey but not necessarily in the geographic sense. Kerouac comes to mind: "Isn't it true that you start your life a sweet child, believing in everything under your father's roof? Then comes the day of the Laodiceans, when you know you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, and with the visage of a gruesome, grieving ghost you go shuddering through nightmare life."
- Jack Kerouac, On the Road, Part 1, Ch. 13
Ron LoLordo

James Keye said...

I thank Mr. LoLordo for his kind thought. As an aside, I met Kerouac in a little college bar in Florida a few years before he died. We talked a bit and I, to my small but continuing regret, turned him down for a game of chess. I found the dissonance more than I wanted to handle: an oldish man (to me in my meager life experience) in a very rumbled blue-grey suit, seemingly needy and tired; and ‘On The Road’ and the embodiment of Beat culture. I would like to think that I was somehow pure in my response, but it was really more boorish and frightened than thoughtful.