Listening to: “Place to Be” – Nick Drake

So I know I ought to be writing about my Great California Adventure–getting skewered in the foot by a stingray and hobbling on crutches up and down the Pacific Coast, etc.–but instead I’m going to write about what’s on my mind at the moment.

I don’t know where to start on this, or what exactly I’m talking about. But I’m thinking of two people, people who were about my age, who have died in the past twenty years–Christopher McCandless and Rachel Corrie. I’ve talked about Corrie before in this blog. I’ve more recently learned about McCandless, after watching Into the Wild and then doing some research on my own.

There are several reasons I think of Corrie and McCandless on a similar level. First of all, I was introduced to both stories via artistic renderings–Corrie via My Name is Rachel Corrie, McCandless via Sean Penn’s film (I’m going to have to read Krakauer’s book next). Secondly, both stories really haunt me. Both Corrie and McCandless had the nerve to go off and do things on their own, against all advice–things that I myself would love to have the time, the funds, and the bravery to do.

Both, too, died tragic, improbable, and wholly avoidable deaths–Corrie in 2003 at 23 in Gaza, crushed by an Israeli bulldozer, McCandless in 1992 at 24 in the Alaskan wilderness, of starvation. Both have had cults built around them, in equal measure with people who fervently hate them. Both went into their chosen situations half-cocked: Corrie to Gaza with little prior knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, McCandless to Alaska with no prior experience in the far northern wilderness and fewer necessary supplies. Both willfully revolted against their upper-middle-class upbringings. Both loved reading and writing. Both, it seemed, had an undeniable zest for life.

With all these things in common, there’s one thing that makes Corrie and McCandless polar opposites. Corrie saw what was wrong with society and chose to dive in and fix what she could, to surround herself with people, to foster communities. McCandless saw what was wrong with society and chose to abandon it, to forsake friends, family, community and live completely on his own. Both ran–from Washington to Gaza, from Virginia to Alaska–but Corrie ran into new arms and McCandless ran into empty space.

Which is the better path? Both tempt me.

And in the end, both have come to stand for something larger than intended. Neither set out to be martyrs–both had a future in mind, never intended to die. But both ended up that way. They’ve each come to stand for something larger than themselves. They’ve each been lionized and demonized–words like brave, smart, strong, stupid, foolish, inexperienced–it’s all… I mean… what can you say about a person who died pursuing the path he/she chose, other than, it ended? Judgment doesn’t help. It never does. (Sayeth the girl who gets paid to judge other people’s artistic endeavors.)

What I’m saying is: we live in a time when frontiers, so they tell us, are few. Even the abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilds has become a tourist attraction ever since McCandless died there 16 years ago. Even as Kushner’s rabbi says of the dead immigrant woman in the opening scene of Millennium Approaches: “You can never make that crossing she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist.” He even capitalizes “Great Voyages.” That line always makes me want to cry.

But what Corrie and McCandless prove is that yes, you can. You can be brave, you can leave it all behind, you can find something new under the sun. The rules are laid out, the path is well-trod and ready for you to follow, but you don’t have to. You don’t have to. You don’t have to. There might be a lot wrong with America, but we can still choose what we want our lives to be. It’s getting harder, when so much around us is standing at the ready to choose for us. The frontiers may be shrinking on this Earth, but they’re not gone. Not just yet.

And maybe they were naive; maybe people can tell them they didn’t have the right to do what they did. But they did anyway. And they didn’t wait till they were old, till things were settled, till they knew which way was up. They thrust out in the full thick of youth and confusion and unanswered questions. They sought the answers in new places. They dared.

Is it fair to think of Corrie and McCandless in the same discussion? Who knows. Have I oversimplified? Definitely. I just had to get this down.

Listening to: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” – Bob Dylan

Talk about yer misnomers. “Wintry mix?” What is this weather, a delightful tossed salad with a few rutabagas tossed in for seasonal flair? A delightful mix tape to listen to on the Solstice? No. No. “Wintry mix” should be called “assy hell.” “Assy hell” would be vastly more appropriate to describe March snain careening at your face as you come up from the subway into the windy gloom of Dewey Square.

I know I haven’t written in awhile, as I have been both busy and traveling. My job sent me to New York and Philadelphia, to chat up our teams of writers there. It was good times.

In Philly, I saw the greatest drag show ever at a dive bar called Bob & Barbara’s on South Street, which included a variety of glitzy queens, a stripper dangling his barely-sheathed cock along a drunken birthday girl’s face, and hunky bartenders in Speedos serving up the “special”—PBR and a shot of Jim Beam in a tiny plastic cup. I sat on a bench in Rittenhouse Square and ate street-cart cheesesteak.

A sick but kind-looking man with a bag of medications and the lump of a catheter underneath his jacket asked me for train fare. He said he’d just been released from the hospital after kidney surgery, needed to get back Lancaster, and his car had been booted. He said he had HIV and he’d asked fellow black gay men for help and none of them would help. “My own people,” he said. He could have been scamming me, but I honestly don’t think he was. I gave him $2.50. His image sticks with me.

I stayed alone in a Westin, all expenses paid. It was my first time alone in an honest-to-god hotel room. I’ve been alone in sketchy hostels plenty of times (although you’re never really alone in hostels), but never in a nice hotel room. I started laughing when I walked inside, bounced on the huge white bed, spent twenty minutes examining the minibar, the “refreshment” drawer, the dual-headed shower head, the bathrobe, the Gideon’s bible, the view into the shopping court below. I realized I could’ve done anything in there, and no one would know. It was all about discretion. I felt like I ought to order myself a fancy hooker and a room service feast.

In New York, I spent most of the weekend wandering around Williamsburg with Rachel. We walked down to the East River, where real estate junkies had suddenly realized they could build condos that looked out on a perfect view of the Manhattan skyline. At the moment, it’s a big stretch of flattened grass. We stopped in a garden variety of trendy restaurants and bars and stretched out the day with wine and beer. I think if I move there eventually, Tucker will be alright. Lots of dogs, lots of green spaces.

And back in Boston now, busier than ever, wasting time that I don’t have on this blog. I saw My Name is Rachel Corrie a few weeks ago at the New Rep, and it’s really stuck with me. Not just in that it made me want to look further into the Israel-Palestine awfulness, but that Rachel Corrie was a very good writer. Also, that she really dedicated herself to changing the world as best she could and as best she understood it.

The part of the night that really sent me over the edge, though, was that Rachel Corrie’s actual parents were there. They joined in the talkback after the show, and the actress who played Rachel sat next to them, looking at them in awe, red-eyed, humbled.

I started reading her journals this week. She kept them for years–these go from when she was ten right up until her death by Israeli bulldozer in Gaza in 2003 when she was 23. Though some of it is very teen-angsty (albeit extremely articulate teen angst), a lot of what she wrote really feels like I’m hearing someone else rephrasing my own thoughts. If she hadn’t ended up becoming an accidental martyr, I think she could have gone on to be a very fine author.

Written when she was 18:

“I think my soul is nomadic. I’ve always stared upward at airplanes cutting white paths through the sky and wondered where they’re going. I’ve always turned my head a little to listen out of one ear to the people speaking in Spanish behind me on the bus. I’ve always stayed awake all night on the log silent car rides across Montana and Wyoming, watching the muscles of hills in the moonlight, watching the lights of small towns fade into darkness behind me, watching the infinite bald stripe of highway connect eastern horizons to western horizons. I’ve always been jealous of migratory birds.”

Which, in turn, makes me think of Angels in America:

“The oboe. The official instrument of the Order of Travel Agents. If the duck was a song bird, it would sound like this: nasal, desolate, the call of migratory things.”

O, pity us poor, poor privileged white folk, trying to do good in the world and always sinking back into useless self-reflection.

… got that that was sarcastic, right?

PS: You all failed my movie quotes quiz by not answering it. Failed. Shame. Shame heaped upon your heads. Tangental pseudo-religious shame.