Lost Footprints: Returning to the Places of Childhood

When I was a child, about once every two years my extended family would descend on a small island off the Gulf Coast of Florida called Sanibel.  We came from Michigan, Texas and Oregon.  We created on Sanibel a reality separate from the ordinary world, where we combed the beach for shells, swam out to sea, played volleyball and tennis, read and exchanged books, and stayed up late playing raucous games of canasta.  All of us gathered together–aunts and uncles, parents and grandparents, children and cousins who saw each other only once or twice a year.  Together we fashioned a space in time and place that existed only when we were together and unraveled when we parted.

What can I say? Sea gulls are always awesome.

In early November I drove my grandmother from Michigan to Florida, where she will spend the winter.  One day I crossed the new causeway to Sanibel in search of the reality I had known as a boy.  But though Sanibel remains beautiful, though the ocean laps at the shore and murmurs in the same language as when I was a kid, though pelicans still glide across its roiling surface like World War II bombers and conchs, clams and sand dollars still pile up on its beaches in infinite number, this is not the Sanibel I knew growing up.

No, that’s not right.  Sanibel remains the same; I have changed.  I’m not that little boy anymore who strolled alongside the ocean and believed it held all the answers in the world; not that boy who dreamed of quasars and nebulae, of unpacking the universe and deciphering its mechanism; not that boy who fretted over girls, wrote little poems about cresting waves and grains of sand, and wandered the beach for hours in search of the perfect sea shell.  No, I’m someone else.

Today I stroll down the beach.  The ocean laps at my feet.  I leave footprints in the wet sand and the waves sneak in behind me and wash them away, so that if I turned around I would see only an incomplete trail of footprints the waves had not yet erased.  A stranger may happen upon my trail just after I’ve left the beach, and though he could say briefly that a man had walked there, he could not tell you where that man had come from.

I feel like this image encapsulates the human experience.  We move through life leaving footprints in the sand.  Before we’ve walked ten steps the world wipes away the evidence of our presence.  Maybe we walk faster, sprint and get ahead of the deleting waves, but they always catch up with us.  We can pound the sand and so leave deeper impressions.  Our footprints may last longer, but still the lapping sea fills them in, erases them.

I returned to Sanibel in search of footprints I left there as a boy, but the ocean had long since washed them away.  It’s a mistake to believe that the places of childhood should somehow be faithful to me.  How many little boys felt about Sanibel as I did?  It was, is, will be their island, too, even as it really belongs to no person.  And that’s OK.

Osprey eating a fish.

Grandma knitting at the beach.

Sanibel Island, Florida.

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Concrete Entanglement in the Lone Star State

You can read the identity of a place in its transit system. How people get around a city says everything about who they are, the nature of their relationships, their shopping habits, how they have fun, even where most of them come from and where they’re going. If someone asked me to choose one feature of Texas that is emblematic of its identity, I would point not to its capitol building, whose dome looms larger than that of the U.S. capitol, nor to cowboy hats or oil rigs or the ubiquitous longhorn. No, I would point to its highways that unravel outward from every urban center and ribbon the state from east to west and north to south. I would rattle off the major interchanges, the nodes of this sprawling vehicle transmission system: the “High Five” in Dallas, the I-35/290 interchange in South Austin, the Beltway 8 Interchange in Houston. These knots of crisscrossing freeways rise from the Texas landscape as cathedrals might in many of the world’s great cities. And although they may be primarily utilitarian, they are also a profession of faith in and allegiance to a way of life, to a culture of cars and commerce and absolute freedom of movement.

A degree of artistry suffuses these monuments to life by car, most visibly in the symbol of Texas chiseled repeatedly in the massive concrete supports that hold flyovers aloft. Whereas elsewhere one might best appreciate the scope of a metropolis from a hill or from across a majestic river or lake, here, in the Lone Star State, a similar view may as likely be had from an overpass climbing and curving several hundred feet into the clear Texas sky.

These interlacing symbols of the Texas state of mind are by no means static. They evolve over time, and new ones grow annually out of the earth, as if vast tectonic forces continually heaved them skyward like mountains rising from the plains. The beginnings of an interchange are messy. Sounds of jackhammers and earth movers fracture the air. Colossal concrete pillars litter the terrain and dust wafts in the wind. A cacophony of horns honking and brakes squealing forms part of this chaotic birthing process, until finally a finished work emerges and the vitality of a populace flows through and brings the steel and concrete giant to life.

To some the highways of Texas may be a blight on the landscape, walls of traffic and noise that segregate one part of a city from another. They foster anonymity, lack of cohesion and a feeling of perennial displacement among the population. The impersonality of urban sprawl prevented me from ever feeling kinship with the DFW metroplex. I was always a stranger here, and the city, a clumsy behemoth only dimly self-aware, never cared that I existed. Yet since I was a little boy growing up in Austin I’ve seen our sprawling highway infrastructure as representing possibility, vitality and the irrational exuberance of a state on the move. Driving I-75 through Dallas or I-35 out of Austin I felt as if I was joining a society of nomads thronging along an asphalt ribbon of nowhere, bounded by somewhere, leading anywhere, so that the highway was an interstice between states of permanence. As a tree-hugging conservationist I’ll always argue for more trains, subways and denser urban spaces, yet the cloverleaf interchange will forever remain an entrancing symbol of the frenetic energy of my home state.

The Many Worlds Theory of Travel: A Week in Costa Rica

 

In March of 2011 I traveled to Costa Rica to escape the chaos of Dallas and swim in the warm, green waters of the Pacific Ocean, peer into steaming volcanoes and immerse myself in one of the friendliest cultures in all of the Americas.   I planned to travel alone, but what began as a solo trip quickly morphed into a social adventure.   Saturday morning, during a layover at Miami International Airport, I met a Harvard MBA student named Faith who, like me, was traveling alone to Costa Rica.  We agreed to visit a volcano together the next day, and Faith invited me to join her and the rest of her friends when they arrived later in the week. 

Manuel Antonio

Meeting Faith set in motion a chain of events that introduced me to a platoon of boisterous Harvard MBA students, occasioned a whitewater rafting trip on the Chirripó River in the Costa Rican rainforest, and made possible an overnight stay in Manuel Antonio, a small town on the Pacific coast where the rainforest stands tall and Capuchin monkeys leap about high in the canopy before swinging to the ground eager to observe people observing them.  Here, in Manuel Antonio, cliffs loom high over the Pacific, rocks thrust out of the green water like fins of ancient sea monsters frozen in time, and waves crash against the rocks and cliffs in their perennial quest to prove the dictum that nature is both patient and persistent in its pursuits, and that nothing, not even the hardest stone, outlasts eternity. 

Manuel Antonio, Pacific Ocean

 

I enjoyed the three days I spent with the Harvard crew.  Their numbers included six men and three women.  Seven came originally from India; one, Faith, from the Philippines; and one from St. Louis.  I laughed with them.  I joined in conversation about health care, auto insurance, education, love, power, fame, and ambition.  With Gaurav, paddling on the Chirripó River, I felt like I forged the sort of bond that only shared physical exertion affords.  I’ve never been around such raucous laughter and fluid conversation, in which some set of unspoken rules governs the group’s collective behavior.  Everyone gets a hearing.  Everyone understands that most, though not all, of the topics of conversation fall in the category of banter and so merit a degree of lightness and jocularity befitting banter. 

El Volcán Arenal

Yet at times I felt like the outsider I in fact was.  I’m a school teacher, not a Harvard MBA, by which I don’t mean to signal any sort of elitism on the part of my companions.  They were kind people, and they graciously included me in their group.  They simply exist in a different world.  They strive after different goals.  Drive and discipline as much as intelligence explain the trajectory of their lives.  As a group they share circumstances and experiences that only members of their group would understand. 

Manuel Antonio

When the loner in me took over, I left the group and wandered the beach at sunset.  I talked with local restaurant owners and beach bums.  Enrique, an extreme biking aficionado who bore all over his body the scars of his pastime, compared relationships to “la guerra” and marveled at the power women have over men.  Late in the evening, still in Manuel Antonio, I sat alone on the beach and sipped a bottle of Imperial beer.  I breathed in the heavy salt air and stared at the surf rolling in.  The whites of the breaking waves glowed phosphorescent in the moonlight.  Palm trees cast shadows across the white moonlit sand and boats winked their lights at me from the sea. 

The Central Highlands Near San José

In Costa Rica I wove in and out of different worlds: physical worlds, social worlds, internal and external worlds.  In a span of three days I was a loner wandering aimlessly in a foreign country; I was a school teacher laughing and singing American rock classics with Harvard MBA students; I was a foreigner talking in Spanish with a local about the travails of relationships, or with a restaurant owner about his road trip seventeen years ago through the western United States.  I was also a nobody sitting on a moonlit beach with eyes closed, listening to the ocean whose roar cancels out everything else in existence and becomes the one true thing in this world.

The Harvard Crew

In case there was any danger of my remaining in the trance I had fallen into on the Rich Coast, soon after I returned to DFW reality served up a dose of the harsh truths that govern our day-to-day lives, the truths that society determines and perpetuates.  At school on the Monday after my trip, in the course of a conversation about careers and goals, one of my most thoughtful and perceptive students asked, “What profession could be lower than teaching?”  The ocean may roar in Costa Rica, but whatever truth it contains remains hidden from view here in the big city.  It’s around here somewhere, but you have to look pretty hard to find it. 

San José

Central Highlands, near San JoséSerene park inside the ruins of the the cathedralBird of Prey near el Volcán Arenal

Ruins of a Cathedral in Cartago, near San José

Serene park inside the ruins of the the cathedral

Bird of Prey near el Volcán Arenal

Amtrak: Everyone’s Here (Boston to Seattle by Rail)

And so they are: professors, vagabonds, business people, teenagers, families with children, the lost, the lonely, the desperate. All of them are here. In one car two academics discuss health care. In another a woman talks software design on her cell phone. In the lounge car a twenty-one year old college student holds forth on everything under the sun–music, guitars, literature– but he is especially keen to describe Florida thunderstorms and hurricanes, and the fact that until this moment in the Montana Rockies he had never seen snow fall, “the act of it,” he says, “I’ve seen it on the ground.” There’s also Courtney, who is returning to Sacramento, CA from Wisconsin after a three-year absence. She’s lonely and lost. She can’t find a job. She misses the friends she left behind three years ago in California, just after graduating high school. Everyone on the train treats her as if she were their daughter.

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This good will is the best thing I take away from this one hundred and thirty-hour trip back and forth across the continent’s midsection. Most of these people would never cross paths anywhere else in life–not at work, not aboard an airplane, certainly not sitting in gridlocked rush-hour traffic. Each person normally lives in his or her own separate universe. But on the train universes dance around one another and for the duration of the ride share a continuum. They operate on the same laws. They merge. The journey is cathartic, confessional. People mostly get along.

Still, there remains an exception to all of this goodness and conviviality. In this bizarre multiverse of differing personalities and backgrounds there exist a few heartbreaking cases. There are people, only a few, with nothing and no one, who lack either home or destination. Some of them brood quietly. One man, who sat behind me and happened to stay at my hostel the night before, talked to himself incessantly from Seattle to Spokane. He spun conspiracy theories about the “diabolical people from Seattle”. With every step down the aisle he moaned and whimpered like a wounded bear. He clutched at his hip and grimaced. He shrieked in his sleep and jolted awake as if from a nightmare, only to find that he was still living one. I wish I knew what to say beyond providing a description. I can’t omit this encounter because it was too real.

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So to make myself feel better I’m going to imagine that this man will get his life together. He’ll call his brother in California (whom he mentioned in his dialogue with the ether). He’ll get a job, an apartment. He’ll see a doctor and somehow manage to pay for hip surgery. His nights will be restful and he will sleep without pain, without grunting and panting all through the night. I imagine that he’ll wake up early each morning, shower, brush his teeth, dress in dark slacks and a button-up shirt and, with a quick sigh, leave for work. No doubt he’ll complain about work–the monotony of it, the feeling of being a cog in the inscrutable machine–but beneath the surface he’ll like the routine and the meaning it gives to his life. And he won’t worry about diabolical Seattleites, and he won’t rage at the world. He may even come to like it. Or so I imagine.

Boston to Seattle by Rail: Somewhere in North Dakota

Trains nowadays are so quiet that you can barely hear the famous clickety-clack of the wheels gliding on the tracks.  You hear only the conductor’s whistle, the squeak of the joints between cars, the squeal of brakes. The train rocks you; you’re in its care and it babies you, soothes you, makes you feel safe.

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The beauty of the train is that where it doesn’t skirt a major highway, there are no gas stations or novelty shops or McDonald’s to obstruct your view of open farmland and grassland. Of course you’ll see cattle, fences here and there, farm houses and grain silos spaced miles apart, but these accouterments of humanity don’t clutter the landscape. They’ve been here for a long time and so seem as natural on the North Dakota prairies as the immense skies that hang over them.

The land opens up like a book and the railroad runs down its crease. From here you can read the text of the country inscribed in curly-q creeks, parenthetical folding hills, ruler-drawn wheat rows and farm houses that dot the landscape like periods. Moving westward through Montana, distant mountains thrust upward to punctuate a geological narrative written across thousands of miles.

The wind here deafens, though it’s only a gentle breeze. The creeks thunder, though they’re mere trickles. Here everything quiet becomes loud. Sounds blossom out of the silence and thereby reveal their full shape and texture.

I like North Dakota because here nobody screams at you. With whom can you be angry when you’re all alone? What is there to hate when you’re surrounded by grassland and bald hills? Hating this place would be like hating a shoebox: childish and useless. The landscape is what it is, but then people are who they are, too, and we hate them even so.

I like North Dakota because here people speak softly, especially when they speak out of conviction. A North Dakotan named Larry raised the possibility of busing homeless people to abandoned military bases where they could make a life. He felt strongly about this idea, however impractical it may be, but he voiced it with such a calm and mild manner that I never dreamed of entering into a heated debate over it.

Elsewhere in the country, on cable news, in magazines, on blogs, Americans are shouting and spitting at one another, whereas here the people whisper to each other across the prairie, knowing that voices carry far in this quiet land, and there’s no need to yell.

This is a hasty impression based on a few conversations and grounded in naive romanticism. I know that, but allow me my fantasies!

At the Dance Club: Power, Beauty, Influence, Inspiration

At an undisclosed dance club I witnessed power of a sort I had never seen before.  A lone woman in her mid-twenties wandered onto the dance floor during a brief pause between songs.  Her skin was tanned.  Her black hair gave off a rainbow sheen that shifted in the dim lights of the club.  It hung to her shoulders and swayed from side to side as she glided to the center of the dance floor.  Where other women in the club wore elegant dresses with low necklines, she wore a simple pink tank top and white shorts that revealed an athletic body with soft curves.  Where the other women wore high heels and lustrous footwear, the woman in the pink tank top wore only flip-flops.

In the idle moment between songs, the throng on the dance floor milled about, sipped martinis, laughed and yelled at a volume still adjusted to the music that had just cut off.  They took no notice of the woman in the pink tank top who had wandered into their midst.

Then, the music resumed.  Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop The Music” issued from the speakers and the woman in pink began to undulate to the song’s rhythm.  The music worked its way slowly through her, from her hips to her arms and her legs, even to the tips of her slender fingers, until the whole of her being became a physical extension of the music that pervaded the club.  Her movements rippled through the throng on the dance floor as waves of gravity through space, and, slowly at first, but with quickening speed, the dancers around her fell into her orbit.  Their movements mirrored her own.  Their bodies turned toward hers.  First one man joined her, then another.  These men flew in like comets, and like comets they soon hurtled outward after their brief encounter with the sun at the center of their solar system. 

The woman in pink danced at first with her eyes closed, lost in the music yet aware of everyone around her.  Then she opened her eyes and in an instant rested them on everyone in the club, as if every dancer enjoyed her undivided attention.  Each person felt her stare as a private linking of souls, as if they alone existed in her world.

When the music stopped, the woman in the pink tank top stopped dancing, too.  The solar system that had coalesced around her flew apart in an instant and scattered in all directions.  As she glided off the floor, as inconspicuously as she had glided onto it, some of the dancers whom she had drawn into her orbit stared after her as planets longing after their wayward sun. 

What is power?  There’s brute force power—the power to force action in others.  There’s power in beauty and grace, in movement and skill.  There’s power in doing something well and inspiring awe in those around you.  There’s power in suggestion, in planting seeds of thought and action in those around you and waiting for them to act of their own accord, influenced by your suggestion, but not forced or coerced into action.  The power of influence spreads surreptitiously.  It ripples from its source like waves in a pond, often accidentally.  Brute force bangs its chest and howls, makes itself known through volume, because in these acts lies its power.  It barks and flexes its muscles, shakes its fists, and sometimes levels blows against those whom it wishes to control. 

The woman in the pink tank top walked into a club knowing no one.  She danced with grace, skill and beauty.  She drew people into her orbit in spite of herself, not in an effort to control, but because she was herself.  She was authentic.  She was joyful.  Maybe it’s a mistake to use the terms “power” and “influence” to describe what she possessed.  Maybe the better word to use would be “inspiration.”  The woman in the pink tank top inspired a crowd of people she did not know to array themselves around her and to dance to her rhythm, to give rise to something transcendent, an organized system that didn’t exist before her arrival.  A person may play the violin to perfection; she may sculpt statues with precision or write computer code as poets craft verses.  A person may simply show kindness.  Any of these acts, done well, can inspire.

Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”: Beyond Words

There are books you avoid because their heft intimidates you and there are books you avoid because you doubt they can possibly live up to their reputations.  Then there are books you avoid both because you fear them and because you can’t imagine a work of literature achieving the perfection so many attribute to it.  For me, ten years ago, Crime and Punishment was such a book.  Until about a month ago, Les Miserables was such a book.  And until today, War and Peace was such a book.  Now, I get it.

Tolstoy didn’t write a novel.  He created a world.  He outdid historians in his depiction of the Napoleonic wars and their effects on Russia and Russians.  He elucidated the aristocratic lifestyle.  He philosophized and quested for meaning and purpose in life.  He revealed the constrained circumstances of Russian women who depended on marrying well to advance.  He expounded on the ineffability of human life and historical events.  Etc.

The powers of language are always suspect in this book.  Tolstoy writes now with precision, now with force, now with delicacy, yet from his argument–sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit–that life and history defy description emerges the idea that language itself is deficient and even dishonest.  Tolstoy takes feeble words as his tools, pieces them together, and in doing so transcends their limitations and creates something that is far larger than its constituent parts.  His underlying thesis (or, rather, one of his underlying theses) is that no essay, no historical tome, no library of a million essays and historical tomes can describe or explain a historical event, be it large or small.  You can’t tell what happened; you have to show it, and even then you’ll leave out almost everything. 

I know almost nothing about Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, of what it meant to be a Russian before, during or after the invasion.  I know almost nothing about who or what drives history, about who or what causes people to be good or bad, smart or dumb, brave or cowardly.  But about all of these things I know infinitely more than I did before I picked up War and Peace.  Which is saying a lot and almost nothing at all. 

I leave off with two quotes by Tolstoy that sum up his book better than I can:

“The subject of history is the life of peoples and of mankind.  To grasp directly and embrace in words–to describe–the life not only of mankind, but of one people, appears impossible” (p. 1179).

“What is War and Peace?  It is not a novel, still less an epic poem, still lesss a historical chronicle.  War and Peace is what the author wanted and was able to express, in the form in which it is expressed” (p. 1217).