Friday, May 25, 2012

On The Road Again

I'm reading Jack Kerouac's On The Road for the first time as an adult, and, I have to say, it still holds up. I was honestly concerned that it wouldn't. Since jumping in the car with Sal and Dean as a teenager with my heart set on seeing the world, things have changed for me, just as they (should) have for anyone. I know things now instead of theorize them. I've been through deaths, jobs, moves, break-ups, and, most importantly, actual trips.

Grant, Rich and I had a long talk about a month back when I first saw the trailer for the upcoming adaptation of On The Road. We shared with each other what the book represented to us as youths, and we wondered what it would mean if we read it again, now as people who don't scramble together cash, who don't get a fire in their gut over the world at a heartbreaking constant. We're not socio-politico teens with angst and ideas and romance shredding our nerves every inch of the way anymore. Now we're men. The angst can be countered with logic and exercise, the ideas can be thoroughly reasoned and explained and the romance can be a campfire instead of a wildfire if you need it to be. We're not always searching for the great unknown these days. We aren't moving and shaking looking to conquer the wild moment of "it."

Or are we?

That was a lazy turn of things, but I have to wonder. I didn't smoke or drink until I was 17. I was surrounded by vices, but I saw a maturity in refusing them. I didn't think they weren't for me, and I wasn't trying to make my parents proud. I just wasn't interested in it, and, given my nature, I knew how I could get really into things if I had the taste. So I just shrugged and said no thanks. But I still saw my twenties to come as a laughing passenger flying down the road, smoking cigarettes and drinking a beer while pouring over maps with rock 'n roll blaring from busted car speakers. I was restless as a teenager, but I wasn't reckless. I sought to protect my neck too often.

But I've had those moments in my twenties. I've gotten a text from Grant asking, "How would you like to smoke cigarettes and listen to rock 'n roll on the way to Mexico?" I've had Chase put together a last-minute trip in just about every direction. When I was working Los Angeles, I had Rex and Chase drive by my work and not slow down, so I had to toss my bags in and then dive into the van, like I was catching a boxcar. I've ended up at a house party in San Francisco me and my friend didn't know anyone and I've lied my way through the woods off the Massachusetts Turnpike. I'm certainly not the drop-everything type if I have responsibilities though. I've missed a good amount of trips for family and work reasons. But I've still had enough moments of restless adventure to sleep well at night and know that I turned my twenties into the golden age of laughing insanity I was more or less gunning for. Although, I have/hate to admit, I haven't done the all-time, all-the-time-in-the-world, let's-see-what-this-country-can-do spell of a road trip through every crevice and crack of America. But you have to be an exceptional planner or be exceptionally unplanned, and I'm neither. I'm somewhere in between.

It's hard to be truly balls-to-the-wall, heart-in-the-wind restless and reckless. To steal or to work a bum job just so you can flee and hum and dive around America leaves little to be done later. Sure, as a college student, you have summer and winter breaks. Shit, I remember trying to quit my waitering job so I could travel when I was 19, but they wouldn't let me. I told my boss that I wanted to take seven weeks off. She said that was fine. So I left for two months.

Again, you can do that as a college student. You can't often do that as an adult. There's a problem though. You have the time as a college student, but you have the money as an adult. It's the age-old conundrum that spikes every wanderer's heart with beating pulses in the middle class.

But I was able to do something close as recently as three years ago when I was laid off with a severance package. Chris suggested I go to Seattle with him for a while, so I did. I was a college graduate who had just been let go by a magazine. I had the time, the money and nowhere to be. It horrified me how much I loved it. This would also be how I ended up in Austin for a month on a one-way plane ticket. And, to be honest, that September in Texas may have been the craziest month of life affirmation I've ever barreled my way through.

You have to make a living at some point though.

So, after a summer of adventuring, writing and all around kicking up my heels, I settled into a job as a copywriter. I made more money than I had previously and I felt the tug of a corporate ladder. That's fine, I came to realize, as all those paychecks could go towards more weekend trips and grander plans and schemes than I could have ever done up as a waiter who showed up only two nights a week.

I didn't understand that as a teenager though. I couldn't do the workweek math to figure out the weekend or time-off journeys. I just wanted the effects without the causes.

I wanted to roam. I wanted to slum it. I wanted to disappear into the American landscape of mountains and highways. I wanted to rattle small town bars and jump around a big city like it was nothing. Like every other teenage boy who listened to Dylan and wrote a cliched poem or two, I wanted to appreciate a cold beer like a woman who wore red lipstick. As a teenager, I wasn't interested in a life of luxury. In the last few days of my junior year, a number of my friends, both male and female, and I sat around playing cards in history class. Everyone talked about what age they wanted a career, what age they wanted marriage, what age they wanted kids. All I could drum up was, "I see my twenties as ten good years of goofing off and fucking up."

And I've somehow traded restless and reckless for new variations of restless and reckless.

I have to wonder, maybe there was something about the character Dean Moriarty (and the real life wild man Neal Cassidy) that I had longed for before I even read the beatnik holy book. I wanted to be the disheveled, unassembled characters in the books I was instructed to read in high school, even though I had to admit that, back then, I was too thoughtful, careful and cautious to really go for it at the time. Sure, I wanted to be Dean, but I was more Sal. I wanted to be Gatsby, but I was more Nick. I wanted to be the wild expatriates, but I was more Jake Barnes.

The scales shifted in my twenties, and I was every character I read. That's something you learn with age, I figure. You realize you can't identify with a singular character, which is why nobody should be able to choose what character they are from the fucking Breakfast Club anymore. Everyone kind of has traits from some or all of them. No man or woman of purpose can be dropped into a category and be left there to live.

I suppose it was a matter of want and need once. Now, it's more of being interested and uninterested. After enough moments of conquering "it" here in America (popping pills in the breeze off the Oregon Coast, watching fireflies in the in the dying sunlit woods of Missouri, swimming through an southwest storm in Arizona, jumping off river cliffs in California's barely beating heart, et cetera) and abroad (taking a long bath after a 16-hour flight with the Sydney skyline out my window, drinking heavy-handed pints in Dublin's three-story pub in the Temple Bar District, lawn-bowling with friends and a surrogate grandmother in Vancouver, et cetera), it's not a matter of me not doing what I want. It's a matter of priority. I'm not rolling my eyes at the world and waiting for it to offer itself to me. I'm not begging my own caved-in insides to let me see the world like I did as a teenager. I'm not held down by things that are within my own hands that I'm pretending aren't as I sometimes pulled as an early-twentysomething. No, it's because I like what I've done and what I have.

Sure, ideally, I'd be a well-paid writer lifting in a big city loft who spends most of his money on travel. But I'm working on that.

And maybe I'd like a boat.

And a sandwich named after me.

And, alright, to be honest, I'd really like a fancy treehouse too.

Also, time travel remains a high priority for me.

But (regular) travel's always been my ultimate goal, hasn't it? Even as a kid, I loved the line in It's A Wonderful Life when Jimmy Stewart claims his favorite sounds are train whistles, anchor chains and plane engines. I only saw the road when I was younger though. I didn't want to fly over America and I didn't want to take cruises. Obviously, I see the tremendous value in both now. But, man, when you're bright-eyed cocky piece of teenage glory set on being a poet of the people, the road is all that matters. It's the scope of the future, the wreckage of passion, the endless ride of freedom.

This book does a number on me. Even now, I think about sailing pass my work and my home to keep on the search for the proud, incurable moment of "it" and the laughter of the wild American night. But, again, at this age and beyond, I figure a person can have the know-how to cultivate "it." By your late twenties, right before your superb spinning try at 30, a person should know how to make special moments. That doesn't mean force them. But when I first read Kerouac as a teenager, I was waiting for the world to come at me. Now, I know that a person needs to come at the world.

To put it less profoundly, I used think I was waiting for ninjas to attack. Now I know that I'm the ninja.

I can find and forgive the faults in the beatnik lifestyle, but this book just slips in the back door of your soul to sleep in the padded caverns of your heart. I've argued the merits of stream of consciousness writing, and more specifically On The Road itself, on at least two or three road trips with Chase, as he wages that The Alchemist and other novels have done up the true search for meaning better since the Kerouac. But now that I'm skipping town with the musing jiver Kerouac again, I can't say any other book does it like On The Road.

Kerouac's cracked jawline of America, buckling under the pressure of words and laughs, still inspires me. It makes me think and talk funny. There's a hopeless romanticism that seems sweet and awful, as he rolls through sex as if he's coming up for air. This was the last age before rock 'n roll, when jazz (and its big family of bop, jump and the rest of the gang) was considered the beautiful wild frontier of music. Suburbia was upon the coasts and the heartland, and the new country was just starting up again. You can feel the change happening in between the lines of Sal's lonely highways. It's the dying era of the nomad and the godforsaken poetry of the roaming buds. In a time of pay phones, these guys were calling each other to meet up in Denver or Jersey like it was the middle of the night, just down the road. There's something haunting about being that free, like you could do something dangerous with it if you had the right chance. They weren't even as mad about truth as the legions that followed them. It was this weird, unobstructed pursuit of "just living." There were no steps forward while the steps back were just steps in a different direction. I can recognize the exhaustion and the weight of age in the characters, and it's sad to me that they aren't getting what they want at home, sure, but that buoyant mother's sympathy in me is brief. It's a short spurt of existential empathy. Because it's mostly awe and envy. They're fictional, yes, but just about everyone is based off a real person in the beatnik network of the time. And the moments are real. The taking of sleep, the welfare of love, the wayward sense of every direction being the right one is something everyone's gone through and maybe always kind of longs for. And who doesn't want to barrel down that eternal highway of America? Sure, if I was friend's with Jack Kerouac, I'd probably tell him to get his shit together. But, every time he'd leave, it'd be easy to admit to myself that I wasn't more jealous of any other man in America.

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