Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Mark and Me

An important announcement. Henceforth this shop will no longer carry the Mark Twain line of products and services, popular as they may be with our current customers. The stock has run out and will not be replenished. The Twain brand will no longer form a part of this inventory.

I mean it. I’ve gone sour on this guy. I will no longer use Twain’s life as a yardstick and standard of judgment upon all other lives, and raid it for metaphors, and chop it into anecdotes to illustrate common wisdoms. I will stop coughing up Twain quotes at every chance. Henceforth I will quit the footrace I’ve run with this man since my 20s, which I long ago lost but never abandoned. I’m kicking him out of the cabin. He will no longer rattle his sarcastic bones in my closet.

It’s time. Some fascinations really do need to end, and especially those that beckon downward. Nowhere have I read more avidly, imagined more vigorously, yearned more desperately than in the study of Clemens. Nowhere have I failed more completely than in his comparison. With his success as the standard, he has strained my labor and blighted my career--to use a word he would surely approve. He has made me nostalgic for an age I never knew, and no doubt made my company tedious sometimes when it might have been otherwise, more like his.

No one ever explained him, is the problem. Probably no one will. What James Couzens said of Henry Ford he could have said of Clemens. You can’t analyze genius.

Oh, how I hate the G-word. But Clemens surely had something, something that not even he understood. He could mesmerize with words, even himself. Whatever fear he felt, whether on the page or the stage, the words took over when he began to produce them, and that was that. The words followed their own way. There was something from Beyond that spoke through their strange and beguiling combinations, that shines yet through those truer-than-life word pictures, which I’m finished describing as talent. It was much more than that.

And let us not speak of the voice, which had a power all its own. The drawl was hypnotic, the slow cadence pulled you into participation, brought you into its own sphere of experience. You could not be in a room with that drawl and want it to stop, hope it would stop.

It’s a significant loss to American history that recordings of Clemens’s voice, made upon wax cylinders as he dictated his autobiography in 1906, have never been found. (Nor have those of William Dean Howells, who followed Clemens’s example in dictation.) Even Howells said you had the best of Mark Twain when you had the voice. To feel the utmost of his powers, you had to share the room with him, your eyes and ears awake to the performance. Whatever the voice might have told scholars, maybe it would have given me, finally, the man instead of the miracle. I have gotten right sick of the miracle.

These thoughts come courtesy of an octagonal aluminum garden house in my Aunt Renoir’s backyard, where I am now sitting. I had been taping a tear in its plastic roof, on this warm September morning, wondering if I should move my computer into it, when I began to think about Twain’s famous octagonal study in Elmira, built for him as a gift on a ridge above the Chemung River.

I have been in that study, that structure in which much of his greatest literature came into being. It felt odd. Who knows but that something about its shape, some bounced-back convection of brain waves, didn’t ignite genius in there like a vapor explosion. Clemens wrote much of Huck Finn in that study, and Life on the Mississippi, a good bit of Roughing It, and much else that has expanded the vocabulary of American letters. I would say he averaged 16.5 brilliancies a day there, a pretty good pace.

Well, maybe if I tried writing here, in my own little octagon, I could enjoy that kind of success! Maybe I could produce great literature and earn several fortunes and be hunted up by universities conferring honorary degrees! Maybe I could have that kind of life, see the great wilderness of a young America, witness gunfights in the wild west, go around the world on a steamer. Maybe I could pan for silver in Nevada and set fire to Lake Tahoe and cruise the Mississippi in a paddle wheeler. Maybe I could--

After a quarter hour of this I decided what I really needed was medication, and went and lay down. For it is no good, you see. Even I can understand that, sometimes. It is no good singing someone else’s happy song if you have the chance to sing your own. An easy lesson, but difficult to embrace. Why be the Elvis imitator when you can be McCroon the Wonder Scotsman?—a lesser light, perhaps, but steadfastly his own man. Why dance the dear old Twist when your own steps include double knee swirls and fast-action rump gyration and a complete backward somersault over an open fire pit? People might wanna see that. Imitation is a form of enslavement. Don’t go that road.

I know it, of course. Probably I always did. It’s one of those truths we don’t want to believe. However, I believe it now. You can’t be the man you never were in the first place. Forget it. Quit the whining already. Grab a rag and do some dishes or something. Hit the road till your head’s clear, don’t stop for lunch meat.

Yeah, that's the way. Say goodnight, Huck. You can go to hell without me.

Statistical Anomaly

Written Sept. 9, 2007

I am having the strange experience right now of being shut up in a remote cabin with nothing to occupy me but a couple cans of beer and this computer.

It was because of the Boy Scouts. They called Thursday for help moving boats on Friday—apparently a storm forecast for the weekend put them in a panic. And so I rose at 4 and drove four hours to the scout camp in Middlesex County, and yesterday moved two boats, first one of our Morgans, then the Hunter, to their haul-out at Yankee Point. I traveled twice along the 15-mile route, and was retrieved each time but the ever-untiring T. J. Auth in his red James Bond speedboat. (Two and a half hours down in the sailboat, less than half an hour back in Bond style. Why do I like sailing again?) For company I had only myself and at one point a brace of dolphins, who surfaced six feet from my boat and made me scream in my brother’s ear as I spoke to him on the phone.

Naturally I didn’t want to leave afterwards, but elected to stay the night in one of the camp’s cabins. These little cabins have no running water, most of them. But they do have air conditioners and microwave ovens, and a striking hilltop view of the mile-wide Rappahannock. They also have—most significant to me—coffee machines. So when I tucked in last night and opened the window to the murmur of forest sounds, I didn’t figure I’d be rising early.

And I didn’t. I rose way late and did nothing, and went on doing nothing all day, and only very slowly persuaded myself to leave tomorrow. (This same storm might pound Elizabeth City tomorrow afternoon.) But for the moment, here I am, shut up in this very Kacsinski-esque cabin, minus the books and bomb-making materials, and waiting for the urge to overthrow capitalism and the spirit-killing, ever-expanding structure of technology that has made such a slog of human life.

But I find myself not in the mood for violent overthrow tonight. I find myself troubled.

Two nights ago, the city of Elizabeth City phoned me at about 8 p.m. to say someone had found my wallet—I didn’t know it was missing—and could I possibly retrieve it soon, as it would become official “property” at midnight and retrieving it would become much harder.

No need for encouragement: I got to the police station before the voice mail finished. Lisa, the dispatcher, apologized for making me fill out a form. I found myself remaining quite patient.

The wallet came back containing every one of the seven library cards I have collected in the last three years, also my driver license, also my credit cards, also the $160 in cash I have been carrying. A young couple had found it, he from California and here with the Coast Guard, and she his sweetheart, a local girl. Lisa had no phone numbers for them.

“I thanked them for you,” she said. “I knew you would be grateful.”

Yes. Grateful is one word for it.

I have lost my wallet no fewer than three times in the last five years, two of those times on the hard streets of Philadelphia. Each time it has been returned to me, containing everything I lost with it including Schlockbuster Video card and ShopTite supersaver card, also postage stamps. Two of those times, the finder had to play the detective in finding me, for my phone number appeared nowhere in my documents.

Now, here’s the disturbing thing. I have tried very hard to remain cautious and eternally vigilant against trespass against me. We should all keep a wary eye open, no question. You can’t watch the news without acquiring a fresh batch of murders, rapes, robberies, confrontations at knife point, scams, ruses, organized deceits, fires. Each night a new assortment. I am no different than anyone else, I fear for my life out there. People are crazy, kill you for a piece of Velveeta.

The trouble is, my experience—and I’m sorry to confess this—my experience has so far failed to ratify this picture.

Oh, I know I’m not normal. No doubt I’m a statistical anomaly, a man who by some unknowable grace of god has gotten this far in the world without being shot, burned, stabbed, cheated, scammed or hated in an organized way. People return my wallet when I lose it, what are the chances? I leave my doors unlocked and find my stuff still there in the morning. I leave stuff lying around all the time, and find it still lying around when I come back.

The consequence is, I find myself becoming…less…vigilant.

I know, it’s crazy. I shouldn’t take my eyes of the scoundrels out there, the villains, the humbugs and frauds, those ever vengeful, ever exploiting figures we glimpse on all the most instructive TV programs.

I know I should be locking my doors every night, so that thieves and murderers can’t cut my throat. I know I should lock my car when I leave it, so the smash-and-grabbers must at least make noise when they steal my phone charger. I know I should breeze past the man broken down on the highway, as his steaming radiator could be masterpiece of trickery, and I need only to turn my back and he’ll brain me with a spanner.

It's the patriotic thing to do, as well. We got to be scared in these times, we got to be as frightened as possible. Even the government says so. It'll make us stronger.

So I’m gonna try harder. As a matter of survival. I’m gonna start watch the TV news again. Every night, I vow. With a little effort now, I can fear my way into--if not a happier future, at least a more secure one. And what could be more important than security?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

On Ranger Road

Sometimes we hear an irrefusable voice from within. It speaks in its own language, but is nevertheless understood. It speaks without volume, but is audible always. It speaks without force, yet its command shines with overwhelming radiance. Recently this voice spoke in me. It said: go camping.

The Outer Banks of North Carolina, clogged with development perhaps, still have room enough for the occasional little camp ground, often in someone’s back yard. You’ll find more of them the further out you go, as the tourists, like in number to the grains of sand on a beach, become outnumbered by the grains of sand on the beach.

At the far end of the Banks, where the long arm of shore is interrupted by towns with names like Salvo and Waves, where every quarter mile shows you another chance to stop, and raise a tent, and heat a can of beans, and be eaten by flies, and sleep with a broken clam shell digging into your backside, the command speaks with special emphasis.

The Mighty Ranger got me pretty far out the first day. Rodanthe, North Carolina: Not even a wide patch on the highway. Rather a temporary suppression of the wild vegetation that wants, yearns, perishes to take back these islands. Private property here, as in most of these towns, has expanded to its federally protected limit. If a lot doesn’t belong to someone now, it never will. That fact, and the place’s remoteness, have preserved in it some flavor of the frontier and recently-settled. Builded lots alternate with wild meadows of beach plum and bayberry. After a windy spell, drifted sand buries the roads.

My tent went up exactly in accordance with the printed instructions, which were sown onto its storage bag so that first-time tent putter-uppers couldn’t lose them. The campsite lay on the sound side of the island—never will I understand why the western side of barrier islands go unpeopled throughout the summer—and the sunset, as well as the full moon afterwards, brought a warmth and contentment that you often find in dreams of happiness--if you could ignore the Grateful Dead playing from one of the nearby RVs.

Q: What do they say at a Grateful Dead concert when the drugs wear off?
A: Man, this music sucks.

Development takes place under great restraint in the Outer Banks. And the sheer extravagance of miles protects it from overcrowding, mostly. Miles-long stretches of surf-washed beach contain not a single soul, and what souls do arrive do so in a motor vehicle. But this is an eastern-end phenomenon. In big tourist towns like Nags Head and Kitty Hawk, you’ll find the full array of beachside commerce in full throb: jet ski rentals, custard stands, drive-through liquor stores, “sundry” shops, big box retailers, and often entire blocks of new retail shops, which universally contain at least one t-shirt store, also a den of knick-knacks featuring carved wooden light houses, sea captains standing at ship wheels in their sou’-westers, shot glasses mounted on wood blocks and many sizes of souvenir plate, all made in China and stamped with the magic words, Outer Banks.

Well ahead of the national mania for three-letter place names, the Outer Banks staked its claim on automobile bumpers, rear windows, license plate brackets and refrigerators throughout the country: OBX, the sign of a proud vacationer.

Further down, past wastes of grass and drifting sand, on a road as straight as a sunbeam, another oasis rises, a cluster of towns huddled together like three men trying to keep warm: Waves, Rodanthe and Salvo. Beyond that, Buxton, and then the town of Hatteras, home of the tallest brick light house in the country, 208 feet, now the centerpiece of a national park. And lo, for miles along the beach, four-wheel-drive vehicles gambol and frolic, many with the fence of fishing poles clustering from their grills, and coolers held in their own protruding balconies before or behind. Their tires are deflated to 20 psi, as advised by the signs.

At island’s end one of the truly amazing North Carolina ferries will take you to the next stage southward—“truly amazing” in this case meaning “free.” North Carolina operates a fleet of ferries, some of them making two-hour-plus trips every day. But you’ll never pay more than $15 a ride. Locals pay $100 for a free yearly pass. For the ferry south of Hatteras, no rider pays a cent.

Ocracoke Island: about 20 miles of beach grass with a town sprouting at the end.

Actually a village. There is something eternally small about Ocracoke the town. It stretches a mile from its sandy north to its watery south. Rampant development has not taken over, as if the modern ethos of headless growth could find no place to stand. You are as likely to see electric carts whisking about as automobiles, and more likely to see bicycles. Not so likely are you to see banks of condos, or hulking hotels by the sea, tarted up with ornamental mermaids and pink paint. Beach scrub and wild oaks break through every patch of ground that a house does not occupy, and most of those houses go back 70 years.

By unspoken consent, the automobiles creep along the roads, often letting the bicycles set the pace. The National Park Service information center provides—who could possibly think this a good idea?—a vast public parking lot where visitors may leave their vehicles and explore on foot. Almost every house is rentable, but the proportion of vinyl construction (read: modern) is as low here as anywhere on the American coast. Here again, remoteness equals repose. The madding crowd prefers easier access to its maddingness.

Which has its detractors.

“It’s a good place to visit,” said the manager of my campground, a resident of seven years. “But you’re dependent on ferries. The nearest Wal-Mart is two hours away.”

Right. I’m definitely coming back.

But she is right. Few of the appetites usually sated in a beach town can find satisfaction here. There is not a single funnel cake stand. Mini golf they have none, nor golf of ordinary size. Nor water parks, nor movie theaters, nor boardwalks, nor “go-kart” tracks, nor tarot readers, nor hermit crabs, nor traffic jams nor beach inspectors, snow cones, invisible dogs or crystals.

They do have an ice cream shop, and a general store selling camping supplies, and a little community theater tuned to visitor interest, seafood restaurants, a fancy sandwich shop and about a dozen mouse-sized art galleries featuring local artists, which you will always find on distant islands. For no remote locale is so forlorn and dilapidated that some dreamy heart will not believe it the prime spiritual meridian of the world.

Some of the tourist books warn about this: “Don’t come here for the typical busy shore town experience,” one of them says.


The next ferry ride lasted two and a half hours, traveling south from Ocracoke to Cedar Island and its long woody passage south to Beaufort, where I got out the bike.

Make note of this: Beaufort, North Carolina (pronounced BO-fort), must be conscientiously distinguished from Beaufort, South Carolina (pronounced BYOO-fort) if you want to see the place your friend Emily called her favorite southern town.

Chances are you’ll reach BO-fort before you even know BYOO-fort exists, and then have deep confusion over which she meant. And she’s in the middle of the Pacific so you can’t call.

So you’ll assume she meant BO-fort. And why not? Here are some dignified pre-war mansions, like she described, and the remnants of a once busy waterside street, now given to the usual pursuits of the no-longer-relevant: restaurants, sport fishing charters, art galleries. Here is the charm of the 19th century separated from its coarseness and cruelty. And here also, the fleet of cruising boats fresh off the Intracoastal Waterway, which touches the ocean here. They come here to wait for good weather before jumping to Bermuda and the Bahamas. The prospect of a long boat ride: That would have appealed to Emily, certainly, whose blood is salt water.

I drove 15 miles out of my way looking for the campground I’d called, mostly because it sat behind a locked cyclone fence that I refused to believe could surround a campground. It looked like a boat and RV storage facility. But I got a spot by the river before a beautiful old house—a spot they reserve for tents, so apparently there is some decency among campground owners.

And so on around Camp Lejeune, next day. I had to stop for a view of the perimeter fence, now converted into a large Welcome Home bulletin board. If the folks around here really supported our country’s mission, they’d not make their loved ones feel so welcome upon their return home. I have no patience with people who claim to love this country and then undermine its raids of conquest in this fashion.

Retail offerings are the television of driving, and here the programs were not high brow: local yokel tax preparation, dollar stores, always the dollar stores, bait shops, army surplus stores and a store selling both guns and hardware. I’m not sure what it is about guns that let’s them be sold in combination with other commodities. In Elizabeth City there is a store that sells guns and jewelry. I’m waiting to see one selling guns and ice cream.

And so on around Wilmington, down a highway that changes without notice to a crowded commercial strip, and so on to the only campground I could find.

Campgrounds have an ambience all their own, and sometimes you can smell them a long way off. It was a mistake not bringing a guide. Very little tourist literature of any kind lists campgrounds, so you find yourself watching for those ridiculous signs picturing teepees.

I wish I had seen a teepee where I stopped, for the place was in exhilarating. It contained the obligatory crowd of permanently placed RVs, now doubling as vacation homes for many. These provide campground owners with income through the winter. But camping amid a crowd of RVs is like pitching a tent in a junk yard.

Not that RV owners lack loyalty to their choice of temporary residence. No. You are as likely to see mirror balls, lawn jockeys, cutesy wooden figures and picket fences surrounding an anchored RV as you are the regular double-wide trailer these people call their permanent home. (This is one advantage marinas have over trailer parks: it’s hard to surround your boat with this stuff.)

The ambience is largely the same but the character of the place differs.

In this particular place, signs performed the work of running the park smoothly. Signs had much to say about my behavior. They advised me I would be trespassing if I drove into the park without registering. They advised me that littering would get me thrown out, that making trouble for my neighbors would bring the sheriff, and then get me thrown out, that overloading the washing machine would bring a sinister result otherwise unspecified. They told me that vandalizing the men’s room would get me prosecuted, fined, and thrown out.

Most of the signs, scrawled on cardboard with a broad felt-tip, seemed the inspiration of a moment, suggesting a lightsome and freewheeling approach to rule making. I could not but admire the efficiency of legislation that arose impromptu, as it were, to meet the need of the hour. I resolved to try it in my own life if I could discover any conduct of mine that needed alteration.

Never camp in a commercial campground if you can do it in a state park. Or a national park. The camping there is quieter, cheaper, prettier, more interesting, and there is a notable scarcity of threatening notices nailed to trees. Also, no RV can rest there for longer than a day. If I’d driven another two miles I could have stayed in a beautiful state forest with no company but birdsong.

Next day, down to Southport, another town with plenty of free literature and a historic district. I’m going to save that for another time. I had to get back to Elizabeth City the next day, driving five hours in torrents of Labor Day traffic. The mighty Ranger continues to roll strong.