Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Two Ends to the Road

Having just completed the journey from San Miguel de Allende, in Central Mexico, to St. Petersburg, I am again reminded of a rather morbid connection between the two communities and their association with two fascinating fellows from modern American literature.
In 1957 Jack Kerouac’s timeless novel On the Road was published.  Heavily autobiographical, it is the tale of a young man’s journey, the people he meets and the friendships he makes.  It is a timeless adventure of awakening that explores the diversity of American culture and is certainly one of the most significant pieces of literature to have been produced by the Beat Generation.  The two main characters are Sal Paradise, based on Kerouac, and Dean Moriarty, based on his close friend Neal Cassady. 
Like a great many individuals of my generation, I was introduced to On the Road as an undergraduate in college.  It was during the middle of the 1960’s.  I had been reading the novel and commented to one of my roommates about it being a great book.  The roommate looked at me with a sort of comical expression and said, “The guy who wrote it hangs out in the Blue Room,” a now defunct St. Pete bar we frequented back then.  That’s where I met Kerouac, not that there was much to the meeting.  Although a famous author, Kerouac was by then very much a loner who drank heavily and seemed to be lost in his own world, at least that’s the impression he gave me.
About this same time Neal Cassady was adding to his literary fame as one of the drivers of “Furthur”, Ken Kesey’s psychedelic bus that took the “Merry Band of Pranksters” from San Francisco to New York, a journey celebrated in Tom Wolfe’s 1968 novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Kerouac and Cassady were unique individuals who lived their lives on the edge, perhaps too close to the edge, because both lives were about to be cut short.
In early 1968, Cassady went to San Miguel for a wedding, where such celebrations are often wild and crazy.  Church bells ring, participants parade through the streets, accompanied by musical groups, giant dancing puppets and fireworks.  There is lots of tequila and wedding parties are often noted for the massive quantity of alcohol they consume.  On the first day of our recent visit we saw or heard six different wedding celebrations, each more clamorous than the previous.
There are conflicting stories about what happened to Cassady after the wedding he attended.  Ultimately he began walking the railroad tracks to the neighboring town of Dolores Hidago.  He was found on the tracks in a coma, suffering from exposure, and rushed to a local hospital where he died.  The actual cause of his death is still not fully understood, although drugs and alcohol were certainly important factors.  Cassady was not quite 42 years old.
The following year, in late 1969, Kerouac’s alcohol abuse caught up with him. Coughing up blood, he was rushed to the emergency room at St. Anthony’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.  He died there a few hours later, less than two years after Cassady.  Kerouac was just 47.
Back then, St. Petersburg was known more as a retirement community than a party town.  In the 1950’s Ian Fleming explained in his novel Live and Let Die, how in downtown St. Pete the “Oldsters” would “just sit in the sun and gossip and doze.  It’s a terrifying sight, all these old people with their spectacles and hearing-aids and clicking false teeth.” Certainly not the dynamic St. Pete of today.
It is now almost half a century since the passing of the Kerouac and Cassady, lives shortened by the drugs and alcohol that helped to make their experiences in On the Road so fascinating.  Unlike most of their contemporaries, they will not be forgotten.  They still live on together, crisscrossing the county in Kerouac’s famous novel – Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty – young adventurers, certainly two of the more fascinating characters in American literature.

© 2016 David Lee McMullen

Friday, August 19, 2016

Comfortable Old Books

Now that I am no longer teaching, and thus not having to read in preparation for the classes I am teaching, my reading has reverted to the genre I enjoy most – Twentieth Century British novels.  My current project is to read all of Iris Murdoch’s novels in order of publication.  For those who are not familiar with Murdoch, she was an Irish novelist and philosopher who wrote 26 novels between 1954 and 1995.
I was introduced to Murdoch by Elizabeth Dipple, a witty and outspoken Murdoch scholar and my favorite English professor when I was in graduate school at Northwestern.  In 2008, The Times of London ranked Murdoch twelfth on their list of the top 50 British writers since 1945.  Personally, I would put her higher.

At the moment, I am midway through Murdoch’s sixth novel, An Unofficial Rose.  Unlike some of my friends, I do not race through novels. I prefer to read slowly, savoring, digesting, and making friends with the characters.  As I approach the end of a novel, I often read slower, caught between wanting to know what will happen and not wanting to say goodbye to the characters. 
I tend to buy most of my books from, a consortium of used booksellers, and rarely pay more than three or four dollars for a book, including shipping.  It is not as much fun as browsing through the stacks of an old bookstore, but such places are becoming rare.

The copy of An Unofficial Rose that I am currently reading is an old hardback published by Viking in 1962, the year the novel was released.  This particular copy spend most of its existence in the Caroline County Public Library on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, until someone there decided it was no longer needed, stamped “discarded” on the inside cover and sent it off to a bookseller who sold it to me.

While many prefer e-books, I do not.  There is something comforting about curling up with an old book – the soft, well-worn feel of the pages, the dusty smell, and the underlined passages and margin notes from previous readers all provide a connection that the e-book screen does not.  Maybe this is the historian in me.  I also love spending hours in old archives.

Another especially nice aspect of reading British novels while living outside of the United States is that they often add to the expatriate experience.  The Brits had an empire that spanned the globe and provided citizens of all classes the opportunity to explore the world and its enormously diverse cultures. In An Unofficial Rose for example, there is talk of Singapore and Delhi, of beautiful young French women and Italian artists.

Mexico was a part of the old Spanish Empire, although control of Florida and other parts of the Caribbean shifted between Britain and Spain more than once. Here, while the influence of the United States continues to grow, one stills find a remarkable blend of the old Spanish Empire and the pre-European world of Native Americans.

Personally, I do not travel to take American culture with me.  I travel because I want to escape the oppression of American culture, something which is getting more difficult.  I want to see more of the world, understand the perspective of those who live outside the U.S., and perhaps have the opportunity to share my experience with those who want to travel but cannot.

For me, old books make comfortable traveling companions because they offer perspectives from different times and places that simply add to the experience.

©2016 David Lee McMullen

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Back in Mexico

Returning to San Miguel de Allende after an absence of seven years is an interesting experience.   We are staying in the same casita where we lived for almost a year back in 2008-2009, so in a way it is as if we never left.  We are in Centro, behind La Parroquia de San Miguel Arc├íngel, San Miguel’s parish church and the community’s most recognizable landmark.  

Some of the more noticeable changes are the increase in the number of tourists, mostly Mexicans, trendy shops and restaurants, new hotels and cars.  We arrived on a Friday afternoon, the start of the weekend, and as we entered the heart of the community, it seemed as if we had been ensnared in a giant traffic jam.  What makes this fascinating is that there are no traffic signals or signs in the historic parts of town, thus drivers must compromise at intersections, respecting others in order to prevent accidents.  Congress could learn a lot from their example.

San Miguel has also become a popular wedding destination.  On our first afternoon we saw, or heard, six wedding celebrations.  These are colorful events that include the ringing of church bells, musicians, giant dancing figures and intoxicated revelers parading with the bride and groom through the streets surrounding La Parroquia.  Some even conclude with fireworks.  San Miguel is one of those places that loves any excuse for a party.

There is still some of old Mexico left.  Recently, as I walked home from the grocery store, I approached an old Mexican man walking slowly with a cane.  The sidewalks here are narrow and composed of gray and pink stone blocks, the streets of cobblestones, so walking is not always easy.  Drawing near, I stepped aside.  As I cleared the way for him, his face brighten with a big smiled and he said in a warm and friendly tone, “Adios Amigo” (“Go with God my friend”).  It was a simple exchange of courtesies, a sharing of respect that made the day a little nicer for both of us I suspect.  Interestingly, the following afternoon I again stepped aside for two Gringo women.  They, however, did not even acknowledge my existence. 

© 2016 David Lee McMullen

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Too Much Stuff

As we prepare to embark on our travels, we are once again getting rid of stuff – selling it, giving it away, donating it and throwing it out.  It is always a wonderful feeling to lighten the load.  We’ve done it twice before, so this time it’s easy.  We know how to do it and we don’t have nearly as much stuff.

America’s consumer culture exploded after World War II, when all those GI’s came home and began buying houses in the suburbs.  Back then the average middle-class home was modest, nothing fancy, two bedrooms and a bath, not at all like the McMansions we see today.

The odd thing is that the size of the average family is smaller today than it was back them.  So why are houses bigger?  The answer is simply, we need room for all our stuff.  Think about the people who keep a $40,000 car in the driveway because their garage is crammed full.

Okay, I understand.  Stuff accumulates and suddenly the house is overflowing.  We’ve all seen those reality shows where people live in a jungle of junk and need professionals to hack their way in and haul away the clutter.

Stuff becomes a responsibility.  We can’t get rid of it because it once belonged to Aunt Beulah or the grandchildren might want it someday.  We feel guilty just thinking about discarding it.  We can’t take a vacation because if we’re gone too long someone might break in and steal some of it.  We can’t afford a vacation because the cost of maintaining our giant storage locker of a house continues to climb.  Ultimately we find ourselves being held prisoner by our stuff.

That’s why getting rid of it feels so good.  It’s like being released from prison. 

For us, traveling about, living in other people’s houses, enjoying their stuff, can be environmentally satisfying.  If we need something, we buy it, second hand if possible, and then when it is time to move on we sell it or donate it to a local charity shop.  We try to keep stuff moving with the hope that it will be useful to others.  It just seems like a nice way to share.

We know plenty of people with big houses overflowing with stuff.  If that makes them happy, great, but I suspect that some of them may secretly dream of the day when a big fire cleans out the house so that they too can escape the responsibility.

©2016 David Lee McMullen