Charles Pierce is the bag of chips of bloggers in that I can’t eat just one of his palate partying posts without wanting more. And Charlie’s prolific. Some days he’ll run off half-a-dozen well-crafted, witty ripostes to yet another idiocy from the mouth of a national politician or pundit, and your humbled weekly blogger here is over at Esquire trying to read and digest them all and fully engage in the always vibrant reader commentary. At times it can take up most of a workday (and yet there’s no place to log this activity on the company’s new time cards!). Charlie often quotes James Madison with more reverence than those he calls "the Clan of the Red Beanie" use when quoting Jesus. While I was away on my recent travels, he posted this gem from Jemmy:
Let me recommend the best medicine in the world: a long journey, at a mild Season, thro' a pleasant Country, in easy stages.-- James Madison, 1794I so wanted to yell back at him through cyberspace, “Look Charlie, I’m doing it. I’m taking Madison’s advice. I’m on a journey through Tuscany and Umbria. The weather couldn’t be finer, and neither could I.” Internet was problematic throughout the journey, however. On the ship where the journey began, the cruise line--following the current vogue in capitalism of turning what used to be regarded as customer services into income streams--was charging 78¢ a minute for a connection, which was openly advertised as slow. Indeed. My one and only indulgence--in order to check mail and merely upload an already written post--cost $10. Of course, it could’ve all been for my own good. I actually enjoy getting away from the news at home when I’m traveling. I don’t think Madison’s prescription for travel as medicine works if you’re thousands of miles away and still fretting over the fate of the Red Sox and Obamacare. It’s necessary and healthy to leave all that stuff behind if you really want to embrace the journey. Not having Internet access actually helps in that regard. If I’d been charged 78¢ a minute to access the wiring in my own brain that probably would’ve helped as well. For the first 10 days of the journey—no matter how good the days were, and they were all very good--I unhappily found myself in the isolation of the late night still vexed by the handful of troubling personal issues that had managed to stowaway in my head. It wasn’t until the second week that I could feel the full lightness of being one hopes for on a journey.
Still, there was the world outside…even without Internet the graffiti on the walls, the beggars on the streets, the would-be thief on the bus in Rome are all there to remind you that there’s no real escape from troubles. What you get are different troubles. While back in the US, the population was obsessed with the Supreme Court decision on the health care act, in Italy the primary concern was with Germany’s decision on bailing out its Euro sisters--okay, the Italians were primarily concerned with their World Cup soccer team, but Germany was second, and the fate of American health care reform was nonexistent. In fact, our traveling companion, Renzo Parodi, an Italian journalist pretty well versed on current events, needed me to bring him up to speed on the US healthcare debate (translating the absurdity of “death panels” and “keep the government’s hands off my Medicare” was no easy task, even in the land of Pirandello.) Since this story was Renzo’s vacation from his own nation’s dreary political news, he jumped into it with gusto, and it was he who announced the Supreme Court’s decision to me (and even on a beach thousands of miles away and in a second language, he managed to get the story more accurate than CNN and FOX did).
A journey and/or a (temporary) news blackout represent the luxury and economy ends of psychic renewal. A mid-priced option is to read fiction (oh, and did I mention I have a novel out?). Many of us who still read fiction do so because it holds up a more reflective, contextual, and metaphoric (thus richer) version of the real world. On this journey, I read Tom Perrotta’s brilliant satire, The Leftovers. Basically, it’s a story of The Rapture--one day people all over the world are called up from their dinner tables, jobs, sexual exploits. Poof! They vanish just like that, leaving their families, co-workers and sex partners to wonder what just happened. My favorite character is The Rev. Jamison, who is so miffed that he wasn’t included in the “Sudden Departure” that he dedicates his life to compiling damning dossiers on those who were taken in order to prove that it really wasn’t THE Rapture since God would never have taken such shits and left him behind.
That’s pretty much the story with the rest of the main characters—people forced to remake their lives in the shadow of this great, mysterious happening. Once essential relationships are rendered replaceable; once unimaginable relationships are forged. Perrotta presents humanity as a molecule pierced by a fine, sharp object that forces all the atoms to scatter and then reassemble. It’s a story about the randomness of a universe and the bonding instincts of a species.
Here’s what happens when you read good fiction like that. You look around at the people who make up your world and how they came into it—the girl you met when your were both teenagers, the families you brought into each other’s lives, the Italian girl who stepped off a plane 13 years ago sight-unseen and the family and enrichment she brought into your life. You appreciate the randomness and luck involved. You know there are couples who meet at 17 and end up hating each other and battling over children and simple courtesies. You realize that some people can step off a plane or out of a car and into your life and make an absolute hell of it. You’re reminded that this is the real stuff of life—not the value of the Euro or a healthcare mandate.
Travel to older countries reminds you that human history did not start with a tea party, and that whatever outrages of politics or religion may consume our public discourse, it’s the deeply personal dramas that animate us century after century.