Thursday, September 21, 2017

In Which I Revisit Maycomb and Have My Mind Blown

Here's an admission: I wasn't falling over myself to get my hands on Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman when it first came out. I guess I loved To Kill a Mockingbird so much that I found it hard to get my head around the idea of a latter-day Atticus Finch as a white supremacist. (Having finished the book, I don't know what other term to use. Atticus asks Scout whether she cares to deny that Negroes are "backward." Even though he seems to believe this is a temporary and conditional state due to circumstances, the argument, falling from his lips, is chilling indeed.)

Two years ago, I argued with myself over whether or not it was cowardly to forgo reading the book simply because I didn't like the premise. After all, it was quite a literary event to have anything at all from Ms. Lee, not to mention another novel featuring Scout, Atticus, and the other more or less immortal residents of Maycomb County. I felt I would be missing out on something, even though I was sure I'd be disappointed in the book. By the time it came out, I had pretty much decided to give it a pass, and I put it in the back of my mind until I saw a copy at a friend's house a few weeks ago. I picked it up, read the first two pages, and was hooked. The opening scene, which describes Scout's homecoming on a train from New York, was almost perfect, if slightly cooler and more aloof in tone than its predecessor. (Well, hang it all, how do you expect a narrator describing an adult Scout's point of view to sound? She's no longer a child, after all--but still.)

When I got back to civilization (i.e., a place where I have a functioning library card), I came across Go Set a Watchman on the shelf and checked it out. While the experience of revisiting the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird a couple of decades down the line (in their universe) was mind-blowing, I also think Go Set a Watchman is a less assured novel than the former. Where Mockingbird incised its characters on your brain with the sharpness of a chisel and few words to spare, Watchman reads more like a draft in places. In particular, the portrayal of Scout's Uncle Jack, especially in the climactic scenes in which he tries to explain her father to her, is weak. With his pedantry, he's almost too eccentric to be taken seriously, and that's saying something in the universe of Maycomb County.

Scout discovers that her father and her oldest friend (and sometime boyfriend) Henry both belong to a citizen's group that has arisen in opposition to the activities of the NAACP and opposes equal rights for blacks. That Scout herself is angry about the Supreme Court's ruling against segregated schools and its perceived interference in what she perceives as a state's rights issue is one thing; what she can't condone is Atticus's feet of clay on the issue of basic human equality. I agree with her on that point.

While all of us have inconsistencies and changes of heart, the turnaround displayed by Atticus, erstwhile epitome of fair-mindedness, is almost too extreme to be believed. If he sided with his fellow Alabamians on grounds more similar to Scout's, it wouldn't be so shocking, but to hear him ask Scout if she really wants Negro children to attend the local school along with whites somehow doesn't ring true. The Atticus of yore was too decent a man to put forth such a question; you would expect him to be the first to say that the fastest way to equality is through education. Scout is made to feel that she is being unfair to her father and would do better to think about moving back to Maycomb permanently (where presumably she would come to understand why folks are the way they are faster than she would in New York).

Scout makes a sort of peace with her father, though it's a fraught one. In the end, she comes to realize what has been implied since the beginning of the novel, that she is in the unenviable position of being neither here nor there. She's too much a Southerner to be a New Yorker, and too much a New Yorker to ever live in Maycomb. This novel could have been subtitled, No, You Really Can't Go Home Again. I felt sorry for Scout, who seems somewhat adrift at the end of the novel, though her position is not an unusual one.

Certainly many Southerners had these very arguments in the 1950s, but I can't help but feel that the Atticus in this novel is not the same as the one in the earlier book: he's a variant. It actually seems that Ms. Lee may have been trying out slightly alternate versions of her Maycomb universe, and that this accounts for the awkward gap between the two books; I think I remember reading something to that effect. It's not uncommon for stories from ancient mythology to have inconsistencies, but time and distance make this almost inevitable. It's much more jarring when it happens to characters that many of us grew up to consider near-contemporaries because they seem much closer to flesh-and-blood people.

It's strange to think of the Maycomb, Alabama, of Scout's, Jem's, and Dill's childhood as a kind of paradise to which there is no re-admittance after a certain point. It was full of so many examples of the ugliness of human nature that there is nothing remotely paradisiacal about it, except in the way that a childhood home, filled with security and love, comes to seem Edenic when one looks back. In fact, the most enjoyable parts of Watchman are the flashback scenes in which Scout revisits youthful adventures that were not a part of the original book but that seem to have been lifted seamlessly from its pages: an escapade in which she, Jem, and Dill are caught red-handed re-enacting a revival by Atticus, the visiting minister, and the minister's wife; and the story of Scout's attendance at the high school prom, accompanied by a major wardrobe malfunction. Both episodes have the humor characteristic of To Kill a Mockingbird and were some compensation for the darker tone of Go Set a Watchman.

Childe Roland and the Dark Tower even make an appearance as a symbol for Scout's (sorry, I mean Jean Louise's) position in Maycomb, which pretty much lets you know you're in existential territory. Everybody has to grow up some time, I guess--but still.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Jane Austen in Scotland

This week I finished Val McDermid's retelling of Northanger Abbey while watching a gray September rain and nursing an upset stomach. It actually wasn't a bad way to spend time (other than the upset stomach) because Ms. McDermid's Northanger, with its Scottish setting and teenage girls enthralled by supernatural lore, was made for just such an occasion. As you've realized by now, I'm a big fan of Jane Austen, and while you might think that would make me leery of any latter-day attempts to spin her, I've found that in general her material holds up quite well in a number of different hands.

I understand that this book was a bit of a departure for the author, who specializes in crime fiction and suspense. In Ms. McDermid's hands, Northanger Abbey becomes much more like what I would call a young adult novel than Austen's ever was. To some degree this may speak of the difference in maturity between a teenager in Austen's time and a teenager today, notwithstanding the fact that Ms. McDermid's Cat Morland is in many ways a levelheaded and exemplary girl. I felt that the story took the viewpoint of its young protagonist sympathetically and without irony--if I hadn't read the original, I would have thought I had picked up a teen novel by mistake.

Cat is a young woman of 17 with all the typical concerns of a teenager on the brink of adulthood, although she does share with many of her peers a fixation on vampires that borders on obsession. I certainly had my own preoccupations as a teenager, though vampires and werewolves weren't among them, and I tried to view Cat and her vampire-crazed friends through the lens of an adult looking back at the rich fantasy life of my own teen years--but I still had trouble finding Cat's difficulty in distinguishing between reality and fantasy believable. It may be that I'm missing the gene that lets people appreciate the supernatural, because I understand that the Twilight series, for example, counts many adult women among its devoted fans--I'm just not among them.

It would be too simplistic to assume that people are attracted to bloodcurdling tales in equal measure to the tranquility and perceived safety of their own lives (though this is very much the case with Cat, a vicar's daughter with a remarkably happy home life). Be that as it may, I usually make my apologies for my own lack of interest in the genre by stating the truth, that I find real life quite scary enough without throwing the supernatural into the mix. I do remember a pre-teen interest in Hitchcockian suspense, the tales of Edgar Allen Poe, séances, and slumber party ghost-telling sessions, but again, I would say none of that is unusual for the age group. In my case, those interests had mostly disappeared by the time I was Cat's age, which is not to say that I was more advanced than other people, but merely that I had left behind any tendency to find romance in horror, if in fact I ever had it.

What I could sympathize with is Cat's proclivity to let her imagination run away with her (just as her predecessor Catherine Morland did in Austen's original) when introduced into a wildly romantic setting with a new group of people quite different from her own work-a-day family. You can see the budding writer at work, using the materials in her new circumstances--an atmospheric, castle-like dwelling, an aristocratic family, a tyrannical father, a romantic attraction--as the building blocks for a story she is trying out in her head. That she woefully misinterprets the circumstances surrounding the death of her new friends' mother years before is not surprising, as her limited knowledge of the world and matters of the heart make this line of thought predictable for someone with an active imagination.

What was less understandable was how Cat could seriously view her new boyfriend and his father as potential vampires and still be willing to go off on her own to visit them in their remote Scottish lair--but I guess this is just me being difficult. Apparently, there are those who would jump at just such an opportunity, and Cat and her friends are among them. If I found Henry Tilney's ability to overlook Cat's silly meddling and tendency to poke into matters beyond her knowing to be remarkably forgiving, I also found Cat's contrition and embarrassment to be convincing. She is sensible underneath it all and probably in need of just such a comedown to begin leaving some of her more girlish preoccupations behind. Her imagination is so full that it sometimes spills over awkwardly into real life; it takes a growing maturity to distinguish fact from fiction.

I enjoyed the updated setting that brought Cat and her friends to Edinburgh for the arts festival (instead of Bath, as in the original). I thought Edinburgh the perfect setting for a budding writer with a love for the Gothic to get both her first taste of a writer's life and to take her first steps toward adulthood. I found myself thinking, "This would make a good series!"--though Cat has grown up enough by the end of the story that the possibility is actually closed off before it can gain traction. It's too bad in a way--Cat poking around in other castles and abbeys of old England could have provided entertainment enough for several more sessions of rainy days.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Dresses and Queens

Last week, I sort of promised that this week I would venture into pop culture territory if nothing intervened. It's true that there are at least three hurricanes veering more or less in our direction, but since I'm not in the actual vicinity of landfall, no matter where they hit (unless it's in the middle of the continental U.S.), I can't beg off pop culture duty due to emergency weather-related status. So there's no putting off this jaunt into television land.

Therefore, I will go ahead and tell you that after hearing about Game of Thrones for years, I finally caught a few episodes on TV over the last few weeks. One minute I was innocently flipping channels and the next I was immersed in a battle involving some rather large dragons, what appeared to be an army of the undead, and a fellow with a blue face. Such was my introduction, with little knowledge of the back story, to the world of Westeros and all the rest of it. My initial thought was that it was a rather grim place, but on the whole, no worse than some other places we've all seen.

My other discovery was Say Yes to the Dress, a program I find almost compulsively watchable, in almost the same way that a box of assorted chocolates is compulsively eatable. You might think that after watching a few brides try on gowns, share stories about how they met their grooms, argue with their mothers about what's appropriate in a neckline, solicit advice, shed tears, and go for a happy ending (or not), you'd have your fill and never need to watch again. Don't all these dress tales have basically the same plot, anyway? Well, yes and no. The story of a bride-to-be and her dress turns out to have archetypal resonance: like any fairy tale, it has endless variants and an ever-evolving cast of characters, who, while filling a finite number of roles (counselor, sidekick, mother, court jester, fairy godmother), manage to make the story new and different every time.

Has anyone else managed to mention Game of Thrones and Say Yes to the Dress in the same breath? I hope not. My apologies to fans of both shows if anyone thinks I'm denigrating either one by bringing them together in this way. If Yes to the Dress seems too frothy a confection to stand up against the epic grandeur of Thrones, and if girls just wanting to have fun resent any implication that their nuptial preparations bear any resemblance to the maneuvering of scheming queens and warring kingdoms, all I can say is, in my opinion, "It isn't, and they do."

Characters on Game of Thrones are always talking about someone else wanting them to "bend the knee," to pledge their allegiance to one ruler or another, often someone they deeply distrust, have a conflict of interest with, or despise to the bottom of their boots, and the most common way out of this appears to be talking endlessly without ever coming to terms or giving one's word without meaning to keep it. Those who stick to their principles have a hard time of it with this hard-bitten crew. In fact, the choice to "bend the knee" or not actually seems to have quite a bit in common with the decision to say "yes to the dress"--or not. In both cases, there is power in delay and approval withheld, even for someone in a vulnerable position. Saying "yes"--whether one is a courtier or a bride--amounts to a life-changing decision that sets an entire process in motion whose ends cannot be entirely foreseen by anyone. It makes little difference whether the "yes" is enthusiastic or grudging, freely given or coerced. Larger forces are at work in love and war.

Now that everyone is thrown off-guard by this metaphor-juxtaposition-conceit-or-what-have-you, I might as well deliver the coup de grace, which is: I suspect that Game of Thrones and Say Yes to the Dress are actually the same program. Queens, dresses, what's the difference? The characters are being asked to commit to a choice that in itself is only the prelude to whatever follows, the joining of two people or the joining of two kingdoms (two or more: in Game of Thrones, the relationships may be polygamous--though none of the brides I saw on Dress seemed interested in more than one groom, which points to the limitations of this otherwise spot-on comparison).

If someone out there is complaining, "Well, there's just no end to this folderol, if Game of Thrones and Say Yes to the Dress are the same program, next you'll be telling me that Property Brothers is the same thing as the CBS Evening News"--and I'll be forced to say, "No, it isn't." Property Brothers is an enjoyable fantasy that indulges the belief that people have power because they can knock down walls and install expensive bathroom fixtures in their homes. The CBS Evening News is, I assume, a journalistic venture, and thus in a different category altogether.

Is everybody clear?

Friday, September 1, 2017

Eventful Week, Unvarnished Telling

Never a dull moment here at Wordplay. I'm speaking to you this week from my former home city of Lexington, Kentucky, to which I was forced to repatriate by financial concerns. My plan to do temp jobs while searching for a regular job in California should have worked but didn't; if those employment agencies are placing anyone anywhere, it certainly wasn't me, unless you count nearly ending up in the poorhouse as a placement.

In a city the size of Los Angeles, in the summer, that is certainly surprising, if not shocking. And then there was the agency that actually lost all of my application materials clean out of their database, or so they said. I was told by another agency, when I questioned the lack of opportunities, that a temp agency was a free service, as if to imply that my actually expecting to get a temp job after spending hours filling out multiple forms was unreasonable and ungrateful. What I do know is that the agencies profit greatly from the labor of their workers, who are their single asset, but I guess the woman at that agency somehow thought I was born yesterday.

After several surreal days of contacting and re-contacting employment agencies, potential employers, YWCAs, and other agencies about jobs and possible housing options (including shelters, which aren't even that easy to get into, even if you wanted to be there), I realized that unless I wanted to sleep in my car, I was going to have to leave L.A., at least temporarily, and try something else. Since my plan consisted of returning to the very place I'd worked so hard to leave, it wasn't ideal but was really the only thing I could think to do; I do, after all, have more of a history and a network here than I do in Los Angeles, not that it has done me much good in recent years in terms of job-hunting. It really shouldn't be this difficult for a flexible, well-qualified person, but somehow it is. Someone asked me if I thought I'd been blackballed for some reason. Who, moi? If I find out that that is the case, I'm definitely suing. And it's definitely not true that I'm working undercover for the FBI or anyone else, though I don't suppose anyone is really gullible enough to believe that.

I was contacted yesterday about a temp job in Lexington that I had only applied for yesterday morning, and I had to scramble to find some suitable writing samples on hand to send in, but I did so. I still don't know whether it will lead to anything, and I haven't received the link to the writing test I was asked to take, so although it sounded yesterday as if they were rather interested in me, it may come to nothing, as many of these things do. I don't mind whether I work here or in L.A., as long as I'm working, but I hope to get back to California as soon as possible, as that is where I had planned to stay.

The trip back wasn't easy, though I did get to break it up by visiting a friend in Texas. I wasn't in the hurricane--that was one thing I did manage to avoid, except for a downpour or two in North Texas, which may or may not have been Harvey-related. It was disheartening to see the very sights I'd whizzed by only three months ago coming at me in reverse, but I tried to make the best of it. I continue to be amazed at the beauty of our country, and even if I myself am not a desert person, I enjoyed looking at the often stunning scenery of the Southwest. (Even if the Mojave Desert isn't the most inviting place to pass through when you're driving by yourself, I realize it has its own beauty and would probably be better appreciated under different circumstances.) I enjoyed the clear night sky over Flagstaff, Arizona, the rock formations, mesas, and canyons of New Mexico, and the rolling range lands and big, open sky of Texas, not that I was that thrilled to be seeing them again so soon.

I am now sitting in a hotel room in Lexington watching the rain fall and enjoying even that, since I have always enjoyed summers in Lexington--with their varied but generally warm and humid days and long, drawn-out evenings--more than any other season. I like a lot of things about Lexington and Kentucky, despite having found life here limiting in so many ways for so long. One question I have answered for myself concerns my ability to go somewhere else alone and establish a new life: I can do it just fine, and that was something I was never sure of until I tried it. I like California and think it realistic to suppose I could be happy there with a job and a permanent home. It was the obstacles to achieving those modest and reasonable goals that were the real problem.

I can hear my readers now complaining, "Oh, Mary, won't you ever get back to writing about anything besides your job search and your struggle to get established in California? I used to love your (insert the option of your choice) book reviews, film reviews, dream interpretations, random observations, advice to the lovelorn, household hints, groundbreaking journalism, dissertation previews . . . soooooo much. This summer it's been one long travelogue, when it hasn't been you complaining about not having a job. It's just no fun any more."

Well, here's an idea. Taking a page from the temp agencies, I must remind you that this, too, is a free service, and if you're reading it, you're benefiting from my talents without giving me anything in return. If just one person on your block bought a copy of my book, you could all pitch in together, and it would likely cost each person only a few pennies to have a brand-new copy of a tasteful item that you could all share (you could read it aloud on long winter evenings or set it on your coffee table if you want to show people how smart you are). Think about what a difference that would make to my bank account! Incidentally, though it may not matter to you, my blog appears to have many more readers now than it used to have, so I'm not so sure that people don't prefer the unvarnished truth, whatever form it takes.

I can't offer you any sky miles, travel points, or gift cards as an incentive to support a writer, but I can offer my sincere thanks to those who do. And if you can't afford to buy the book, no problem. I don't so much expect people to support my career as to avoid hindering it. If you do that, you're asking for trouble, and people who ask for trouble rarely avoid finding it, like whoever is responsible for the magically disappearing text, opening and closing applications, and randomly appearing highlighting that have plagued me the entire time I've been writing this blog today. I should be paid handsomely just for persevering through this nonsense. My feeling is that somebody out there needs to get his own blog.

To fans of Jungian interpretation and Hillmanian seeing through, I say (along with Shiva), "Fear not!" I have been watching television! It could be that next week, I'll want to address Yes to the Dress, Game of Thrones, or both, if something more interesting doesn't happen before then. But don't expect a long, tedious, respectful study of either one--it's likely to be something vastly more playful, if I do indeed get around to it. I never take anything I see on television very seriously--and I don't recommend that you do either.

Goodbye until next week--and consider supporting a writer today!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Wordplay's Tony Bennett Moment

Attentive readers of this blog may recall a post in which I compared San Francisco with New York and London and gave a sort of Jungian interpretation of the character of all three. (I was looking at New York from a distance only, as I've spent little time there.) What I said about San Francisco was that it was introverted and hard to know and that it felt claustrophobic. While I don't actually disagree with this assessment after spending a few days there earlier this week, I felt my old fondness for the city returning even before I got there.

My feelings are caught up in a persistent sadness hanging over my last couple of visits and the death of a friend who lived there. Nevertheless (and quite surprisingly to me), I found the old San Francisco magic starting to exert its influence in the soft air and misty dampness that emerged somewhere around Vallejo, unmistakable harbingers of the city. I had too many happy associations with visits past to be able to deny the anticipation this created, and it wasn't even destroyed by the yellow ticket I got for not having enough cash for the toll. (Here's a hint, though, to the bridge authority: credit cards--embrace them. I'm not sure why you remain seemingly alone in taking cash only. I thought even Popsicle stands took credit cards these days.)

I had been in touch with an old friend before arriving but had no place to stay on my first night. I made my way through construction- and pedestrian-clogged downtown streets out to the avenues, where I managed to find a parking spot and a Starbucks where I could plug in and investigate the possibility of hostels and tourist hotels. I found a number of places, some with suspiciously low prices (if they were genuine) and was also considering 24-hour coffeehouses if worse came to worst. I was getting up to leave when someone brushed almost imperceptibly against me; I turned around and gave my signature dirty look to the gal who did it. I felt rage rising up and considered whether a verbal response was called for (I decided it wasn't because that would have required me to actually talk to the person, which may have been her ulterior motive, for all I know). Let it pass.

I began to feel the "I hate San Francisco" part of me taking ascendancy, so I decided to drive out of the city and try to find a low-cost chain hotel. That might or might not have worked even if the Silicon Valley weren't presently experiencing a second-wave boom (with prices to match) and even if there weren't some sort of classic car show taking place in Pebble Beach that apparently justified tripling hotel prices as far away as Morgan Hill. However, it didn't work, much to the surprise of more than one hotel clerk who seemed surprised that I didn't consider $140 a bargain for a tired and threadbare hotel right off the interstate. Instead, I ended up at a 24-hour Denny's near San Jose, drinking coffee, having breakfast, and thinking about the unlikely but undeniably true chain of events that had led to precisely that moment.

Back in San Francisco as dawn was breaking, I weathered the strangeness of the early morning crowd at Starbucks on Fillmore, played "move the car when the two-hour free parking expires," took a brief catnap while parked on Clay Street in Pacific Heights, and discovered how difficult it is these days to find true rock and roll on the radio in the City. The latter circumstance seemed so unlikely that I was considering asking for help in finding a rock station if only a knowledgeable-looking person would happen along. Maybe Pac Heights wasn't the best place for it, as I saw very few people who looked like they ever listened to rock music, most of them being either elderly or otherwise lacking in anything remotely resembling a rock 'n' roll vibe. Such is San Francisco in the year 2017, where the Summer of Love is almost as if it never happened, depending on how hard you squint.

What San Francisco hasn't lost is a certain psychedelic quality, which requires no mind-altering drugs but is present in the very air (though I don't know: perhaps there is something in the water that alters the behavior of residents over time?). I told my friend that it was very noticeable, in this introverted city, how many pedestrians made eye contact with you over the course of a day; I was wondering if there had been some major catastrophe in the news that I hadn't heard about that was causing people to eye one another closely, but if there was a precipitating event, I never found what it was. I would have enjoyed my walks better if not for this peculiar and unnatural watchfulness, but I wasn't altogether surprised, since San Francisco seemed altered in some indefinable way the last couple of times I was there. I can't account for it, but I do not think it a change for the better.

I found the spirit of the old San Francisco coming on me at odd moments, as if to prove that, yes, the heart of the city is still beating somewhere, hidden away in some obscure corner or shabby coffeehouse. Stopped in traffic, I would look up and see an elegant, many-turreted Victorian with a broad front and crisp paint and think, "Yes, I could live there." Searching for a parking spot, I would top a hill and glimpse a sudden view of the bay, a lovely vista that was free for the asking and almost made the frustrating parking game worthwhile.

Returning from an excursion to Marin, I would see the gigantic towers of the Golden Gate bridge, stately and serene in the golden afternoon light, framed by hills--an enormity almost too much to absorb, as if a race of Titans (instead of mere men) had placed it there as a token of might. I would think, looking out at the ocean as we crossed the bridge, "I don't know what I'll be doing a week from now, but I'm going to hold this image in my mind as a reminder of where I was today." Glancing down a side street on the way in from the Sunset district, I would encounter an enchanting view of a street of cozy houses with a leafy burst of fall color, a quiet street that whispered, at least in my mind, an invitation to come back and walk around some time.

Peering up while stopped at a light, I would see a white curtain blowing in the breeze at an open bay window, a homey and domestic sight in hyper-sophisticated San Francisco that suddenly made me wish it was my window and that I was returning to it after an ordinary work day. I would see how green the grass was in the city parks, catch sight of a laughing child in its parent's arms, get a peek of a morning side street full of cafes in the Financial District, read a sign for a show at the de Young and wish I had the time and money to attend, and pass a corner apartment building with an empty lobby and plate glass windows that was gorgeous as it was but seemed the perfect spot for a tiny cafe.

I was sorry to leave San Francisco, despite the strangeness that hangs over it, because it is a place that manages to maintain its beauty in spite of whatever miasma may be clinging to it. I saw many streets, buildings, quarters, and corners that seemed to call out for further exploration, and I hope to be able to accomplish this some time. I don't know if I could ever live there permanently, and I don't know if I could be happy there, but I could spend some time wandering around, looking here and there, trying to avoid the noise while letting the city itself, the actual city, speak to me. If L.A. is a prehistoric creature disguised as a trendy starlet, a nymph, San Francisco is a cultured dowager hidden behind the face of a computer geek, a graceful lady currently incarnated in a techie, persona. She may be acquainted with sailors and robber barons, but even earthquakes can't dislodge her.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Travels with Wordplay

Wordplay has spent the last few days touring the Southwest/Rocky Mountain region, waiting for job applications to bear fruit and connecting with family and friends, or trying to. As you may recall from last week, I was trying to avoid throwing myself on the mercy of charity by making my resources last as long as possible. This strategy would only work if it ended up saving me money, and the jury is still out on that aspect of the adventure. One thing's for sure, I have seen some places I haven't been to before and revisited some old ones, seeing them, as it were, in a new light. I've never been to the Southwest or the Rockies in late summer, and it's remarkable how a different slant of light transforms a landscape into something almost new.

What about a Jungian travelogue this week, just for a lark? That's not something you see every single day of the week, especially one written under annoying conditions in which a persistent wi-fi issue in a public cafe makes typing nearly impossible--which in itself seems like a great reason for continuing. Is it a conspiracy to prevent free speech? Is the person sitting next to me emitting negative gamma rays? Is Mercury in retrograde? Does this cafe need to replace its router?

Rather than draw any rash conclusions, perhaps it's more constructive to proceed with my groundbreaking travelogue and avoid getting sidetracked by minutiae, though whoever/whatever is responsible for this horrible connection probably deserves to have their ears boxed, at the very least. A day in court is probably more like it.

I headed out of L.A. via the 210, and the trip in reverse (I came into town that way) wasn't nearly as bad in the murderous Polar Express runaway train sense of bad as the journey west. We don't want to let you into town, but feel free to leave whenever you want to, is that it? Even the roads were in better condition on I-15 heading toward Nevada, though I put no great stock in that as an indication of anything, except perhaps the fact that too many people go to Vegas on vacation to let those roads deteriorate to any great extent.

What follows are archetypal impressions of some of the high points of my trip, and, as always, the opinions are entirely my own.

Las Vegas -- Never been before; not really my scene, though I was curious to see what the famous skyline would look like. If you're going to drive through, might as well do it at night, which is when it's really meant to be seen, was my reasoning. By the way, I have nothing against people going there, per se. Indulging in a little bit of what wouldn't be good for you in big doses is probably not a bad way to let off steam. For most people, it's merely entertainment, a way to escape the everyday and indulge in a little bit of frivolity--though it can have a strong undertow for some. The skyline was as glittering as one could wish, but some of the drivers are much less stellar. They in the business of running people off the road there? And that traffic stop that seemed somewhat gratuitous? No, thanks. Archetypal assessment -- Like going into the anteroom of the Underworld, from which you can still see daylight if you don't start mucking around in backrooms and alleys. Hades rules, not that that's a reason for you to cancel your vacation. Have fun, but don't forget to go home at the end.

Arizona Portion of I-15 North -- What the heck was that? "Watch for Falling Rocks?" All I saw were rocks. I'm sure this is seriously scenic in daylight, which is the reason I'm glad I was doing it at night. I was still trying to recover from Vegas and was in danger of scenic overload. Archetypal assessment -- In the dark, it looked like the aftermath of the clash of the Titans.

Idaho Falls, ID -- All I can really tell you is that I unexpectedly had the best sandwich and Caesar salad combo of my life in a downtown cafe, to the point that I had to tell the waiter about it, and that the back of the Tetons, normally visible all the way from Idaho Falls, could not be seen that day due to haze. (I say the back of the Tetons, but of course that's all relative. What I really mean is that the famous view, the one everyone is familiar with, is on the other side.) Archetypal assessment -- Olympus, brooding, hides its head in the clouds.

Salt Lake City -- I always wanted a closer look at its downtown, so being in great need of a break, I spent one night. I was nearly run over by a truck just before I got off the interstate in an inexcusable display of poor driving (not by me), but exit the interstate I did. I found a modest hotel with scary hallways but nice rooms and a view of the city lights from my window. I had a pleasant walk through a pedestrian-friendly downtown full of shops, businesses, cafes, and gardens, under a dramatic sky that threatened a storm at every moment but never really rained. I watched the sun setting behind the Mormon Tabernacle building and peeked in at the fountains and courtyard of the downtown mall. Archetypal assessment -- The Mormon Tabernacle building looks a little bit like Oz when they turn those green lights on at night, which gives it a bit of a fantasy look, but the main public library is as high-tech as they come. Salt Lake City seems to have it both ways, being both ethereal and gear-heavy. And those views of the mountains! Jacob's ladder might be sitting there in some back street, with angels going to and fro at all hours, each carrying an i-Pad.

I-80 Across Nevada -- Just don't do it if you can help it. The salt flats on either side of the road in the Utah portion throw off an uncomfortable glare; there are very few places to stop for gas; there's a section in which low-flying planes are a real possibility; the local microclimates make for sudden squalls during which tractor trailer trucks are prone to coming up right behind you and honking madly (Buddy, there are plenty of lanes here. If you think this is going to get me to pull off the road, you're sadly mistaken.); and you're out in the middle of nowhere--relatively speaking--for an ungodly amount of time. Archetypal assessment -- It's a bit like Eurydice and Orpheus ascending from the Underworld; just don't look back. The entry into California's Sierra Nevada after you pass Reno almost makes it worth it--but maybe not quite.

Sacramento -- Old Sac is fun in a half-kitschy but educational sort of way. Motel 6 in North Sacramento? Not so much. Downtown Sacramento is rife with handsome Victorians and wide streets, and the state capitol is impressive. Archetypal assessment: Zeus and Hera reside here, so you know the trains are going to run on time.

Davis, CA -- Reminds me of a Midwestern college town; I thought of living here once. Archetypal assessment -- Funny business with the wi-fi here. Hermes?

Sunday, August 6, 2017

I Visit Skid Row and Come Away Chastened

Lately I've been thinking of ways to economize on my lodging as my job search continues, so I decided to investigate community resources that might be available to someone in my situation. The answer, as I discovered, is not many. Most of the resources are allocated (as is fitting) for people in very dire circumstances, and I guess the assumption is that middle class people have enough of a safety net in friends and family. I ascertained this for myself by visiting a downtown women's center, where I was told that they serve only the homeless, meaning women who have been living on the streets for a year or longer.

My immediate thought was that in that case a homeless person might be half-dead by the time they got there. I was incredulous, but I realize I shouldn't have been. I applaud the work these people are doing, but of course their resources are limited. Another agency I was directed to had a basement parking structure that was locked but so grim in appearance that I imagined a sign above it in medieval lettering saying, "Abandon all hope ye who enter here." Seriously. I could picture driving into it and never seeing the light of day again, so I was left to consider other alternatives.

This was my first visit to that part of downtown Los Angeles, and although I didn't find anything that would benefit me there, the streets were teeming with life, the good, the bad, and the ugly all side by side and on top of one another. The big flower markets and the homeless camps were within steps of one another: one block was lined with sidewalk tents and the next was clogged with tourists. I navigated a couple of narrow side streets packed with small shops and pedestrians that suddenly reminded me of London. I saw several landmarks--City Hall, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, and Olvera Street--from different perspectives than I'm used to. And finally, I figured out how to get onto Sunset Boulevard from downtown without the weird little detour through a sketchy neighborhood that I remembered from the past. Have they possibly done some road work in that area?

I was sitting at a traffic light across from Olvera Street when I had one of those past, present, and future deja vu moments I was talking about last week. That is, I looked over and saw the exact spot where years ago I stood--on my first visit to L.A.--and looked with yearning in the direction of Sunset Boulevard, the street sign being all I could really see of it. I had been dropped off at the train station by the Amtrak bus and had a few hours to spare before catching my train back east, and boy, was I itching to see at least a little of the city I'd heard so much about. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be any way to take a bus tour like I'd done in Chicago, and I'd been warned before I got there about wandering around alone (this was shortly before the city erupted over the Rodney King beating). Thus it was that my first experience of L.A. was limited to Union Station and Olvera Street, which nevertheless left a lasting impression.

As I was sitting at the light yesterday, I thought to myself, "This is one of those watershed moments in your life in which you realize that the present has finally caught up with the past (or perhaps it's the other way around). You'll remember this moment all your life." The truth is, though, that while I knew it was true, it didn't feel like a transcendent moment: I just felt like my everyday self, sitting in traffic, with my usual concerns, worried about splurging for coffee but feeling that, for the money, it was probably a good investment in mental hygiene, a small treat in lieu of bigger ones--and wondering when the light was going to change.

Despite the visit to Skid Row, it was a beautiful day. I was annoyed that my rental deposit from my old apartment has yet to arrive in the mail, but I still went in search of and found the cup of coffee I was looking for. (Well, maybe not exactly that cup. The coffeehouse, while suitably funky, was too full of hipsters, lending further credence to my feeling that I can't possibly be one.) The coffee was good, but the neighborhood didn't please me as much as it had on first impression. I capped it off with a walk in the park anyway (I do like the park) and was once again visited by local wildlife in the form of ducks and turtles as I stood enjoying the view across the water.

I had first taken the precaution of removing my road atlas, which contained a copy of my birth certificate and a job application, from my car and carrying them with me as I walked. That was after I noticed a white truck idling in the street near my car after I had parked it. Thinking that that looked a little peculiar, I decided to err on the side of caution, since my car's been broken into before. The truck pulled away as soon I started walking back to my car, not that it looks anything like a vehicle a typical thief would target. Never a dull moment, right? Actually, I think I would welcome a few dull moments, or at least a few ordinary ones.

Well, on the bright side, I am finding my way around a little better every day. For the second time in a row, I managed to get back on the Glendale Freeway going in the right direction and even remembered to get out of the exit lane in time to avoid a hair-raising last-minute scramble and a trip back to the neighborhood I had just left. I had decided against filling out the job application in the coffeehouse, where I didn't feel at ease enough to concentrate on it (I fell back on my library book, Martin Chuzzlewit, instead), thus necessitating a stop in a second cafe for the purpose of completing that task. I justified it in my mind as a business expense, though it will probably mean skipping coffee altogether for the foreseeable future.

With the job application completed, I headed back to my hotel, still wrestling with the same career and financial difficulties as before but having somehow managed to enjoy the day in spite of it. I'm a realist, but I try not to let that get in the way of a sunny day. The short cut I took on the way back didn't work out, as sometimes happens with my short cuts, which turn into learning experiences instead. I ended up in Long Beach, and it's a mystery to me how that happened, but it let me realize that some of the little trips I'd taken earlier, apparently fruitless, had paid off by allowing me to recognize street names and get myself going the right way while bypassing an area I'd rather avoid.

If there's a moral to this story, I suppose it is this: never drive into an opening that looks like the gates of hell. Nothing good could possibly come of it. Or else it might be: either you're a hipster, or you're not. Visit a hipster joint and find out; you'll soon know. Or possibly: you can learn something from everything, even if it's taking a wrong turn, as long as you figure it out in time. Or maybe it's all three.