Page Two: Before the Impending Flood
An erratic list of memories and some dates
"Low down leaving sun, I've done
Done, did everything that needs done
Woe is me, why can't I see?
I'd best be leaving well enough alone"
– Billy Joe Shaver, "Honky Tonk Heroes"
I talk too much and don't listen enough. Pledging my allegiance to silence without really looking for or wanting it. Dreaming of the past while looking toward the future. The temporal present is too capricious, binding, and stagnant. This column covers traveling through many different states, in no particular chronological order. It's a column about driving.
Texas, Jan. 26, 2010:
Early last Tuesday, I listened to the radio while driving around town. The big bass voice on it was clearly deeply in love with its own sounds and absolutely impressed by its own expression of thoughts. Strutting ego-first, chin-forward, having run itself up the flagpole to be saluted, the voice waited for the wind. I couldn't tell if it was Limbaugh or local. I turned the radio off.
In the evening, I watched the cable news that makes me crazy (Fox) and the news that makes me less crazy (MSNBC). I knew I had to take a break from watching the news and listening to the radio – which I have done, not just for the rest of that night but ever since then. I'm too much of an addict not to return. But for now I'm on the wagon, trying not to fall off, only to be crushed beneath its wheels.
Politics has always seemed like human theatre, stretched and strained through fun-house mirrors. Some poetry, even great poetry, has always seemed like gossip well-told. The TV news has always seemed distorted because it is distorted – because it is what it is. In a world where there is Fox News and MSNBC, where there is conspiracy radio, right-wing talk radio, and abstract, radicalized, political ranting on access shows, the meaning of the offerings is neither universal nor in any way objective. Stacked with words that are loaded with meaning, the most important part of many news programs is not what is seen on the screen but what happens in viewers' heads.
In many ways, modern news media – from giant entities in thrall to dominant ideology to the Web to revolutionary communist publications – having been freed from linear, sequential reasoning and Gutenberg-centric logic, are post-print and post-literate.
Finally, the most abstract philosophizing of such great French semiotic theoreticians as Roland Barthes and Christian Metz have been vetted into three, if not four, dimensions. Even on those rare occasions when modern news programming seems anchored in the more traditional ways of making meaning, it is not. What seem to be closed texts, as those are traditionally conceived, are actually wide open. They are made of readerly text, wrapped in the sheep's clothing of the writerly: Each viewer authors his or her own news out of and reinforcing personal reality.
New Orleans, La., 2009:
She had this dream the night before she called. This was not a recurrent dream, for this was the only time she dreamed this dream. In the dream she was telling the new tall skinny guy with a growth of beard her dream. She had been walking down the hall carrying folders. But the hall was stretching on and on forever.
He asked, "You dreamed you were old by the time you got to the end?"
"What? No, what do you mean?"
Austin, Texas, 2010:
I refuse to hate. I do not know. I will not argue politics today. I will stand in the rain singing ancient rain songs. I don't know how I know them. All I'm trying to do is not pay attention. I will mumble to myself. Sleep is the best avoidance, but when I can't sleep, I find myself slowly drenched by an evening mist that coats me with anxiety.
We drove up from Boston to Montreal. Coming too close to the sun, I had singed the wings of dreams. Nearly mad, I walked the streets of Montreal for hours, muttering poetry to myself. Being holy because of her, it was not only the very worst of my days until then, but also it was damned.
Austin, Texas, September 1981:
The first issue of The Austin Chronicle is published.
"If I'd never felt the sunshine
Hell, I would not curse the rain
If my feet could fit a railroad track
I guess I'd-a been a train"
– Billy Joe Shaver, "Ain't No God in Mexico"
New Jersey, 1952-1975:
The very core of who I am is defined and crafted by my religious beliefs. Everything I've ever done of any worth was informed by their principles, as well as the moral and ethical guidelines, based on spiritual thought, taught to me by my parents. I hope one day that my son will say the same.
Lake Arthur, La., 1991:
Fred and I are visiting some friends who are shooting a film around Lake Arthur and Jennings, La. During the day, while they are shooting, Fred and I drive around Louisiana in a rented car, eating Cajun and creole food, listening to the radio, and arguing metaphysics. (Okay, maybe not arguing metaphysics.) Our last morning there, our friend whips up a monster breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon, pancakes, and biscuits. While everyone eats and talks, her partner stands by the sink eating his way through a big tub of crawfish left over from the night before. We leave. I did not see him do so but have no doubt he finished the whole tub.
"The devil made me do it the first time
The second time I done it on my own
Lord, put a handle on a simple headed man"
– Billy Joe Shaver, "Black Rose"
She came to dance. I was asleep. She came to talk; I had no words. I was having horrible dreams when she came to visit. I talked to her, but I wasn't there. She came to sing, but I could not hear. She came to love. But then got up in the middle and left.
Maine, South Carolina, Florida, Vermont, 1972-1975:
Traveling alone meant there were many days I spoke to no one. When the call came, I was surprised. She came alone. Although we weren't together, we did leave together, driving back north. First Maine, then South Carolina, followed by Florida, and then back to Vermont. Every time, every day, every dream, every morning there was a heavy dew, whether coating New England grass or soaking rows of cotton to the point that it looked like toilet paper hanging on the bushes. After walking through it, I entered the house wet.
Austin, Texas, March 1987:
In the beginning: SXSW '87, the first one! The phone rings at 6am. After answering it and talking, I go back to sleep.
Politics has polluted my sleep. Still, I sleep all the time, as the pollution is not that bad. I'm trying to remember the sudden rain that day in Boston. It poured, soaking us as we walked back to our apartment laughing. Still laughing, soon you were on the phone trying to find a train going south. We both knew that hitchhiking was certainly not going to work in that downpour.
Vermont, End of the Summer, 1974:
The day we left Vermont, I checked the box of booze we had brought to the house at the beginning of the summer. It was all gone. Not a drop was left. I lost at croquet the night before we left. I always lost. She cheated that night, just as she always cheated, but she also lost.
There are those who know. They quite simply and completely know. They know good from evil, right from wrong, and they know the truth. Unlike them, I know nothing for certain. Unlike them, I have no truth. Unlike so many, I have been drowning. But I do not mind. Unlike me, I love the rain.
Texas, New Jersey, California, 2003:
Today (but not really today, instead six years ago), he became a man. We welcomed him as a man into the community of adults, but being so welcomed is only a beginning. The chapters on childhood are finished; new ones begin. Being of the community, it must be acknowledged, will involve not just achievements but failures, not just strengths but weaknesses, not just acts of learning and generosity but those of ignorance and selfishness. Such is how it is to be among the adults.
Standing by the Peace River, in the backyard of our house. The newspaper reporter recites Vachel Lindsay. I listen. I'm reading Larry McMurtry.
I was driving, but it was not raining. I was thinking of this painter in Chicago. Not really of her but of her work. It was easy to do so. I had vanquished romance, banishing it from my life.
I think of a songwriter who left Chicago. In an attic in a three-story house on a dead-end street, he organized the Louis Black Grudge Band, which only did Stones covers. It may still be there.
There is another songwriter, this one stuck in Chicago. I'm sure he is smiling. Although I've known him long, I don't know him well, but I'm sure he is. I'm probably wrong.
University of California at Santa Cruz, 2009*:
Visiting my son at college. My heart is bursting with a great love. But such is the way it has been every day of his life since he was born. Through every circumstance, whether good or bad. Every chance, whether he tried too hard or squandered opportunities, whether he succeeded or didn't.
An early statement addressed to him:
"To say I trust you on this voyage is a gross understatement. Already, when the occasion has demanded it, since you could talk, you have been as skilled and tenacious as any trial lawyer and as pugnacious and absolute as any moral philosopher. At the drop of a thought, you are ready to argue any issue, split any hair to prove your point the correct one. No Talmudic scholar ever pondered the words of the Bible with a greater depth than you bring to a consideration of exactly what you think your parents have said to you. Stubborn beyond endurance, yet with an overriding sense of fairness. A series of contradictions, you are unrelenting and caring, philosophical and too quickly done with any project, lazy and unstoppable, clumsy and blessed by grace."
I whisper as a prayer to the night, to my son I say welcome to the struggle. It is chaos and confusing at its clearest. It is overwhelming and corrosive at its mildest. I fear for him, watching as he enters the unending white-water rapids of the rest of his life, but I'm pretty certain he'll do more than hold his own.
Austin, Texas, Jan. 29, 2010:
"Ride me down easy Lord, ride me on down
Leave word in the dust where I lay
Say I'm easy come, easy go"
– Billy Joe Shaver, "Ride Me Down Easy"
Starting in each February, as we enter the home stretch leading up to SXSW, we have full staff meetings every Saturday. Most of the staff is working seven-day weeks by now anyway. This weekend of Jan. 30 is the last respite before the deluge.
Austin, Texas, March 12, 2010:
SXSW 2010 begins.
(Appendix 1) Vehicles driven;
(Appendix 2) States involved;
(Appendix 3) Music listened to;
(Appendix 4) Books read;
(Appendix 5) Friends that traveled with me;
(Appendix 6) Regional foods.
*Yes, it's the Banana Slugs.