I’m pissed, y’all. And I’m trying to process it, so bear with me.

The plan, in a nutshell, was to drive around like the heroes of Rampage and climb some rocks. In doing so, we would be diving deep into the beating heart of America with a sturdy American truck, trying to get a read on what makes this country tick. Travel, they say, is a brilliant teacher, and I was eager to learn how well a lifetime of liberal indoctrination had prepared me for getting by in the so-called flyover states.

Flyover State of Mind?

And let me tell you, I wish I could distill the galaxy of lessons learned during our well-nigh 6 years of RV Projecting. It would take volumes…not to mention every wild sunset, the 4AM fuel stops, epic summits, unforgettable successes and failures, friendships of every duration and intensity, gut-dissolving tragedies…aww heck. Look at me. I got to ramblin’ again. Point is, I’ll die one of these days, but with a smile on my face. I won’t feel like the good Lord gypped me.

The adventure has been a good one for us, and it’s not what I’m pissed about. See, we returned to my parents’ place in the Bay Area for Thanksgiving and some restful family time. The newspaper comes every morning, which is weird for us…and I’m pretty pissed at what I’m reading.

We have a dysfunctional government being run by saboteurs. Public things–lands, services, schools, discourse–are disappearing faster than the coral reefs I used to study. And to gaze beyond our own hideously protruding navels for a moment is to gaze upon Syria, North Korea, South Sudan, oh, the Rohingya, don’t forget climate change and net neutrality. I think we’re still in Iraq and Afghanistan and Guantanamo, but I haven’t checked for a while. 

Make America Electrolytic Again

How could you let this happen? I mean, 6 years…that’s not even long enough to itch, but it was apparently long enough for a handful of greedy old white dudes to undo centuries of advocacy for public lands. You got hooked on your social networks, you sniped at the other side with high-powered memes, and though you did your best to be allies to the under-represented, Russian bots and mega-churches and gerrymandering and latent sexism proved too formidable for Rhyme and Reason.

I mean, I know it’s not all your fault. I’m just pissed and needed to vent a little. I apologize. And I admit we share the blame. We haven’t exactly been calling our senators in between redpoint burns.

On one hand, I do have faith in the strikes-and-gutters model of history, that the axis will wobble again and bring some light to this really, really dark time.

On the other hand, I’m afraid of what we’ve lost forever.  Of what we’ll continue to lose. Not just the cultural sites or the polar bears or the net neutrality…we seem to be on the verge of losing the last few threads of democracy that dubiously unite our nation.

I have hope, though. While out hiking or biking, I’ve had no arguments with strangers. I haven’t seen anyone call another person a Nazi or ignorant or racist. Throughout our adventures, people from all walks of life have shown us incredible generosity, and we’ve become close friends with people we might’ve ignored or written off years ago because of our own prejudices. We’ve learned to have a little more patience, with each other and with strangers. I’ve been called Oriental by people who have never been told that we don’t use that word any more…those same people have invited us into their community, into their family, and are almost singlehandedly keeping the cultural heart of their village alive.

This isn’t to boast from a soapbox about how we’ve embraced the hot new trend of compassion. Rather, it’s a reflection. I have recognized and overridden my biases in some cases, but biases are like ticks on Little Dude: If you find and deal with one, you can bet that’s the tip of the iceberg.

I mean, all I’m sayin’ is, if I was a tiny parasitic insect, I’d probably be looking for some luxurious hair like on this goofball. You know?

Perhaps the most important lesson from our travels is the power of perspectives. It’s scary, though, this notion of walking in their shoes. To acknowledge other perspectives is to allow for nuance. For example, I can imagine a scenario in which I defiantly display a Confederate flag from my vehicle…which is a very, very uncomfortable thought. This is what Zimbardo and Milgram were trying to teach us: we’re all capable of considerable cruelty, depending upon the circumstances. They demonstrated that evil can be easily rebranded as good, as in, “necessary for the experiment,” or “better than letting a member of the other party win a senate seat.”

In some situations, I am brave. In others, I am a coward. Joe Maier is brave where many are cowards. Straight Outta Squampton, 2013.

What’s frustrating, then, is that all of this rancor, all of this bickering and shaming is, to use the parlance of our times, totes unnecessary. Now, I ain’t sayin’ we’ve seen it all, but we’ve seen more nooks and crannies and brooks and trannies in this great land than most, and for all the diversity on display in the US of A, there’s more common ground than battle ground. We really all can get along.

And we have to get along. I tell ya what: if I were in public office, any office, I’d be pretty happy to sell each and every one of us entitled little snivelers out to the highest bidder. What’s it going to take to convince the population that it’s largely in agreement with itself?

We were once asked by some teenage boys if we would take a look at an unconscious man who might need help. Apparently a drunk had passed out, slouched against the side of the library. We observed that he was breathing regularly, so we told the kids we thought there was no immediate emergency.

As we later parted ways, these 14 year olds urged us, with a mix of genuine concern and sanguine resignation, to beware of our trailer, especially after dark. “Some people in this town are just, you know, stupid, they just don’t respect other people’s things.”

I’ve tried to imagine growing up in a poor town on the edge of an Indian reservation, in a place with many complicated, unresolved historical conflicts along several intersecting ethno-cultural dividing lines. The kind of place where I’d feel compelled to warn outsiders about the bad elements that roam the streets under moonlight. The kind of place that only gets Sinclair Broadcasting channels. The kind of place that people like me usually avoid stopping in. In a very large country like the US, there are many such places.

…Three Different Ones

So what if I hadn’t been such a fat baby, and the stork made it past the coast before getting tired and dropping me off with a pair of academics in a loving, mixed-race marriage? What kind of person would I be if 33 years’ worth of Sunday mornings had been spent in the pews instead of playing sports? How would I feel about climate change if everyone I ever looked up to thought it was a conspiracy? And if I feel unrepresented on Capitol Hill now…

In the Buddhist sense, we’ve learned that we know nothing, which is why I can’t really offer a panacea for society. But I can say this: the power of stories is immense. Just look at #MeToo. We must remember, though, that stories don’t have power unless we are brave enough to share them, and brave enough to listen to them.

Lastly: A good story is always true. Forget about fake news…go read The Sneetches, or Calvin and Hobbes, or The Phantom Tollbooth, and the truth shall set ye free.

Image linked by URL and used with no permission whatsoever. For what it’s worth, I do own all of the C&H anthologies.

Leave a Reply