“Can I go outside and play, Mommy?”…”Sorry, son. GoogleMaps isn’t working right now.”

I am fascinated by GoogleMaps. And I’m terrified by it. I’m afraid it’s eating the sun…

The things that can be done with a computer these days blow my mind, partly because I just can’t understand it, and partly because I remember the games I used to play on the old green-screen gem my Dad bought to take to Costa Rica with us. One in particular stands out: a sort of choose-your-own-adventure based on the Wizard of Oz books. Two dimensions, little shaded cut-outs immobile on the tiny monitor. Do you follow the Yellow Brick Road, or do you stay and fight the flying monkeys? Either way, you’ll move on to another set of cut-outs and another static question, until the cows come home or you fall asleep.

A couple of years ago (and this demonstrates the extent to which Luddite tendencies dog my trail), I sat down to play another game, based on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, that I’d pulled out of the bargain bin on a whim. And I spent the next few weeks with my lower jaw sitting on the floor and flies moving in and out of my head. The sheer magnitude of the trajectory leading from Pac-Man and Frogger to this wonder of animation and movement left me speechless. I felt kind of like a caveman, thawed out at the height of the 20th century, and confronted with a nine-lane superhighway.

So, I’ll be the first to admit that technology can lead us to some awesome places. But here’s the rub: at the same time, it can also keep us from going to some even more awesome places…and this is what worries me.

Lately, I’ve been spending way too much time screwing around on GoogleMaps. Anyone who knows me knows I’m more than a little obsessed with the UK (or, for that matter, anyone who’s bothered to read the title of my blog); furthermore, anyone who’s seen my bank statement knows I can’t afford to hop a plane and go there at the moment. So, instead, I go by proxy. I can tool peacefully along English and Scottish highways and byways, and see some beautiful scenery, and not have to worry about those pesky extra baggage fees, or whether or not some security guard is going to see my digital outline naked. It’s all pretty impressive, and technology makes it possible.

I was so caught up in my e-exploring that I never stopped to think about the wider implications of what I was doing. Then I heard something that really made me stop and think. I heard that the Google-guys are mapping the Grand Canyon. Folks with panoramic cameras strapped to their heads are wandering the trails of the Canyon so that we don’t have to. Now, instead of the bothersome hike, we’ll be able to take in the wonders of nature from the comfort of our office chairs (complete with cup-holder and “magic fingers”).

I remember going to the Grand Canyon as a kid on a trip the family took to California. I remember the sensation of standing on the edge of emptiness, with only a strong puff of wind between myself and a better acquaintance with gravity. Such an experience brings with it two realizations very important to this art we call “being human.” First, it makes one aware of the bigger picture–some call it God, some Nature. Either way, perched on the rim of everything like that, a person tends to appreciate his or her place as part of a whole, pieces in the puzzle that adds up to the universe humanity calls home. The second realization is an extension of the first: how small are we? In the words of Shelley, I am Ozymandias, king of kings. Millions of feet have stood, and will stand, on the spot upon which I stood as a child; my footprints will blow away with the wind, to be replaced by others equally transient and, ultimately, insignificant when compared with the yawning chasm we so arrogantly call a “nature preserve.” A visit to a place like that reminds us abruptly that we do not preserve nature. Nature preserves us, and will survive us and whatever effort we make to wipe it from existence.

Is this sort of experience, tactile and immediate, to be found in the land of computerized tourism? I will not be convinced that it is. And perhaps you aren’t either. Perhaps I’m preaching a sermon no one needs to hear. Certain things cannot be duplicated, you might say: the wind in your hair, the smells and sounds of Nature, the feeling of miles flowing away beneath you as you drive. But think of the things we can do now, care of technological advancement, that we could not do just a decade or less ago. When I sat in front of the old green-screen playing my Wizard of Oz game, all of this seemed about as likely as a flying DeLorean, but nevertheless, here we are. What happens when that breeze, and those flowers, and the receding asphalt all find their way into and out of that computer screen sitting on your desk? What then? Perhaps paranoia is my name; perhaps not.

Now, this is all well and good, coming from a guy typing a blog post, yet another of the many venues provided by technological advancement. I can now communicate my thoughts and feelings with people I have never–probably will never–meet, and they with me. It is part of the Great Democratization of Information, a return to the Victorian literary ethic, when every man was a philosopher, every woman an orator, every person a published author, with the digital corpus to prove it. But is it real, or is it a bait and switch? At what point do I devote so much time communicating with people I don’t know that I forget to communicate with the people I do? Is it even real communication? Do I really know you, or you me, if we cannot see one another’s expressions, hear the tones of each other’s voices? How do I respond to you if I do not see how you respond to me? Is it dialogue if I can log off at the first sign of disagreement? All of these are important questions that have been sublimated by the rise of faceless (and consequence-less) relationships encouraged by social media. I can “friend” someone without the obligations that come with being a friend. I am an icon; I need not really even exist.

Let me leave you with a thought. (Just one.) I work in an academic library. I spend eight hours a day holding books, thumbing through them, smelling the new paper. In this line of work, we are beginning to undergo something of an identity crisis, again because of the ever-expanding information society. The “e-book” is on the move, and we face the very real possibility of the traditional library becoming not a repository of knowledge, but Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe for those who have never experienced the physical process of print research, and for whom the ease of discovery has watered down its triumph and joy.

I face this possibility with both the nostalgia of personal experience and the pragmatism of historical sensibility. I don’t know what to make of it. I think of the medieval scriptoria and of the monks slaving over vellum and parchment by the light of a guttering candle, each letter a painstaking labor of love and devotion. These same men rebelled at the advent of Gutenberg and his press, because in their minds the automated process destroyed commitment, leached the sacral element from the very words on the page. It was easier, they asked, but was it better? Today, having accepted the printing press as routine, we are faced with the same process, digitized. In the midst of whatever gains we make through “worldwide” access, do we ever pause to think what might be lost? I do not claim any sacred status for the printed word, but what value lies in the expenditure of time and effort in dusty research libraries that disappears with the simple click of a button? Is it worth as much if it costs us nothing? Is the Great Democratization of Information merely a convenient disguise for the amelioration of experience?

We are entering a period of ubiquitous vicarious living, and we don’t even see it coming. We are ceding the experiences of life, the making of memories, to computer programmers and Web designers. Like the medieval monastics I ask: It may be easier, but is it better? Are we diluting J.B. Priestley’s “thickness of life” with the shallowness of Web-based living? What are we giving up to capitalize on our gains?

I am fascinated by GoogleMaps. And I’m terrified by it. I’m afraid it’s eating the sun…

Surviving the Morning After

Election day is at hand, and the question on everyone’s mind (at least insofar as my television tells me so) seems to be “What’s going to happen today”? Meanwhile, the question foremost in my mind is “What’s going to happen tomorrow”? Because that’s when we really find out what lies in store for the American polity over the next four years (and beyond). And, to my mind, this has very little to do with who wins the popular vote (or the electoral one), because I’m convinced, cynic that I am, that either way, we stand a good chance of losing.

Since the last election, we have lost an important element in our political process: our minds, collectively and individually. It might be argued that, between 2008 and the present, a greater percentage of the American electorate has found a voice, but I’m not convinced that this is a good thing. It should be, mind you. It should be the greatest thing about a democratic system. It should be resoundingly wonderful that, in this country, groups like the Tea Party and other grassroots start-ups have the freedom to come together and have their collective say on the state of our Union. But the benefits of that freedom tend to be drowned out by the language used to express it. And I don’t mean profanity–I have a great fondness for certain four-letter words judiciously applied–or issues vocabulary. I’m referring to the languages of fear, hatred, prejudice, closed-mindedness–in short, the languages we’ve all been increasingly guilty of using lately. Let me be clear: this is a non-partisan observation. Neither side of the proverbial aisle is in any position to throw that first stone, unless they do it straight up in the air so that it hits them first.

Our “dialogue” has been co-opted into guerrilla sideshows (the Birther movement, the “secret Muslim” brigade, etc.) and a do-nothing Congress in which victory goes to him what don’t cry Uncle. One side finds itself compelled to ramrod legislation that the other side then finds itself compelled to block in whatever way works. We don’t talk to each other anymore; we talk at each other, about each other, at each other’s expense. I’m a little surprised I haven’t seen groups of rogue voters roaming the streets, beating each other with campaign paraphernalia (but, hey, Election Day is young). We have descended into a Mad Max politics that threatens to divide us as a nation to the point of total impotence, a nation in which a broken financial system and a growing debt are weapons to be used rather than problems to be solved. And this is only Tuesday…

Tomorrow, we will wake up–hopefully–to discover that one candidate or the other has won in a decisive fashion (so as to avoid the kangaroo solution), and when that happens, we have a choice: we can dig our heels in, throw ourselves on the floor in a grown-up temper tantrum, and spend the next two to four years rubbing it in or cussing it out; or, like mature, intelligent people deserving of the democracy we supposedly honor and cherish, we can reach across the ideological divide and embrace those who oppose us, try and actually carry on a conversation that doesn’t involve insults or invective. You know, actually, like, get something useful done.

What will it be: the land of the free, or the home of the deranged?

Ripping Van Winkle a New One

Last night, 2 AM, November 4, 2012. Daylight Savings Time ended. And I tripped on my way to the top of the hill.

Tammy and I spent the day in Austin yesterday, a quickie outing, the only kind we really get anymore. These trips are almost preordained, timeline-wise. We head down in the morning, get an early lunch (eating is pretty much the only reason I go to Austin), do some vintage store browsing, basically piddle around until enough time has passed since lunch that we can justify eating again, and then, the crowning event of all trips to the capital, a final stop at Central Market to load up on the necessary extravagances of life (tea, in Tammy’s case; beer and coffee, in mine). But yesterday was different; it was special. There was an extra hour built into our day by the backsliding clock. We could party until our socks fell off. Hip Freakin’ Hooray!

Every year since I’ve been able to make my own decisions, there has been a ritual I have performed on the day Daylight Savings comes to an end. This was especially true when I was working in the church: Sunday was my main workday, so I could use (in theory) all the rest I could get. So, every year I swore to myself, tonight would be the night. I would finally take advantage of the extra hour and get a really good night’s sleep, be nice and refreshed for a hard day’s work. And, every year (predictably), that extra hour would instead become one more hour to stay up and accomplish the night owl’s usual nothing…and then spend the next morning yawning my head in two.

Why should this year be any different?

I woke up this morning to a harsh reality. I had turned, like a zombie at a fruitarian convention. From an hour and a half away, in one of the few places in Texas we can actually call enjoyable without triggering the gag reflex, Tammy and I had made it home and gone to bed by (time change considered) 9:30 at night. The argument I’d been having with myself for over a decade had been won, apparently by my aged self. Because that’s what it comes down to: I’m old enough now that the need for sleep trumps my nocturnal tendencies. I haven’t quite made it over the hill yet, but the hill’s getting steeper as I go.

Suspicions have been circling in the back of my mind for a while now. I turned thirty-five just one short month ago, and you might protest that this does not actually constitute old age as it is classically known. Granted. But tell that to the guy who tried to pull an all-nighter about two weeks before his birthday and discovered he was literally physically incapable of doing out of necessity now what he used to do for kicks in college. All the coffee in the world (or at least in my kitchen) wasn’t enough to keep me from collapsing under my own weight in the wee hours; super glue could not have kept my eyes open; rigor mortis would have failed to keep me upright.

So, fine, thirty-five is not “old.” It’s barely even middle age. But before all you sept- and octogenarians roll your eyes and tell me I’m exaggerating, stop for a second and remember how you felt when you were in my shoes–the day you realized you could not remain young forever. At least not by the clock.

It comes for us all, at different times and in different places. For me, it came at 7:45 on a Sunday morning, after a really good night’s rest. And the sad thing is, it made perfect sense. Maybe that’s the weirdest element of all.

It’s all sleepy-time from here…

A Gentle Reminder

I arrived at work this morning only to discover that I had been carrying around with me, attached to my newly-laundered shirt, a rogue dryer sheet, and it called to mind a favorite poem of mine:

To A Louse (by Robert Burns, 1786)

On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet, At Church

Ha! whare ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie!
Your impudence protects you sairly:
I canna say but ye strunt rarely
Owre gauze and lace;
Tho’ faith, I fear ye dine but sparely
On sic a place.

Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
Detested, shunned by saunt an’ sinner,
How daur ye set your fit upon her,
Sae fine a lady!
Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner,
On some poor body.

Swith, in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle
Wi’ ither kindred, jumpin cattle,
In shoals and nations;
Whare horn or bane ne’er daur unsettle
Your thick plantations.

Now haud ye there, ye’re out o’ sight,
Below the fatt’rels, snug an’ tight;
Na faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right
Till ye’ve got on it,
The vera tapmost, towering height
O’ Miss’s bonnet.

My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
As plump an’ grey as onie grozet:
O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
Or fell, red smeddum,
I’d gie ye sic a hearty dose o’t,
Wad dress your droddum!

I wad na been surprised to spy
You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit duddie boy,
On’s wyliecoat;
But Miss’s fine Lunardi! -fie!
How daur ye do’t?

O Jenny, dinna toss your head,
An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
Ye little ken what cursed speed
The blastie’s makin!
Thae winks and finger-ends, I dread,
Are notice takin!

O, wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An’ foolish notion:
What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
And ev’n Devotion!

My advice to us all today: Let us not take ourselves too seriously, because the folks who are looking may not be looking for the reasons we think…

Everybody have a great day!

Past Prologue

The old barn.

The blue gate. In the foreground, there used to be a red hay barn in which we grandkids used to play. Climbing on piles of hay bales may not be wise, but it sure was fun. Sadly, the barn was torn down several years back to keep it from collapsing under its own weight…

Cows and trees.

V and Francie’s old place (or what’s left of it).

The road less traveled…

The LaCygne power plant. One of my favorite sights from the farm. On a still, cold day the plumes go on forever…

Hay bales. Sometimes they take up so much space that they look like herds of buffalo…

The government tried to assign street numbers to the rural roads several years back. Didn’t go so well. The farm’s still sitting right where it used to, on Rural Route 3…

We all have places that awaken in us stirrings of memory, where every detail holds for us immense significance (even if the source of that significance be insignificant on a global scale). The Durst family farm does this for me. No matter where I am in the world (and I have been many places), this plot of earth calls me back and reminds me of who I am and where I (and those before me) came from. It speaks to me–I heard its voice as a child, and I hear it still, the insistent tones of something both fundamentally human and fundamentally natural, the fulcrum in the connection between humankind and the earth we call home. I am not a farmer, but I come from farmer’s stock–I do not feed the world, but I belong to the line of those who have. Whether or not I ever lay hand to plow, the hands that did are an integral part of who I am, and I cannot understand myself without first understanding them…

***********************************************************************************

Southeast of the old house lies a field I have traversed dozens of times, from childhood through the present. At the moment it is planted, but since I can remember it has been used as pasture, and venturing across was for neither the faint of heart nor the fancy of footwear. One eye to the horizon, one eye to the ground–those of you who have spent any amount of time on a cattle farm will know what I mean by that. To the left runs Miami Creek, winding its way toward the southeast and the Marais des Cygne, and beyond that, the Osage. To the right, an old, crumbling barbed-wire fence (three strands against straying stock) divides the Durst land from their neighbors to the south. When I was very, very young, it belonged to a couple named V and Francie, at whose house I spent many an hour, staring through the grating in the living room floor into the basement (which hole for some reason I found extremely fascinating). The old house burned in 1998 or ‘9; now all that remains are a few lonesome outbuildings and a water tower or two.

If I had a dime–as the saying goes–for every time I’ve wandered off down one of the gravel roads surrounding the farm, the good old “mile roads,” I’d be a rich man. Financially, at least. In some ways, the mere fact that I have had access to these out of the way avenues fills me with feelings of a different kind of wealth. Everything around me moves so fast: weekday becomes weekend becomes weekday again, clouds fly overhead like some sort of time-lapse film, and it’s hard even to keep up with myself. Which is why walking these lanes bears such an attraction to an overburdened soul supercharged with an overactive mind. Here time almost ceases to lapse, at least for me. I’m transmogrified, alchemized, into my childhood self, waiting impatiently beside the cattle chute for Grandpa and a chance to “steer” the tractor across a pasture or two. I’m young again, ready for a mad dash through pig-puddles in search of the “peepers” called forth by a night of gentle rain, or for a channel-cat hunt at one of the myriad watering holes/stock-ponds scattered around the property. I’m ME again, washed clean of the intervening years of experience, heartache, and “knowing better.” And for an instant–just a brief fleeting instant before I remember who I am–I feel the grip of immortality, given force by my own tarrying ghost which will, I hope, haunt these backroads long, long after I am no more…

Yesterday I Voted. Then I Littered.

Yesterday I betook myself to one of the local early voting locations and cast my ballot. Afterwards, as usual, they gave me a little sticker declaring to the world that “I Voted!” I detached the sticker from its backing and placed it on my shirt and blithely tossed the rest into the passenger seat, rolled down my windows (as it was one of the few Texas days nice enough to do so), and headed for the grocery store. What happened next was a tad predictable. As I pulled out of the parking lot–hard left on Bosque to avoid being creamed from the right–the breeze streamed through the interior of the car and took hold of the waste paper lying in my front seat, picked it up, and tossed it out the window. Yes, my friends, I messed with Texas.

But that’s not where I’m going with this. Instead, think metaphorically with me. Most of us–myself included–could describe our political activity within the very narrow parameters detailed above. We show up to the polls, cast a vote, plaster on the sticker, and head for the hills…until such time as the next election calls us out to do the same again. We vote, then we litter. And as we leave the polling center, some guy in a lawn chair outside hollers at us: “Thanks for voting!” As if we have played the only part we can play in the political process. Which is exactly what the media and the mainstream politicians want us to think. We vote, and then we litter. We slap a tag on ourselves–Checked by Polling Center #4–and we forget about it. We go on about our business. From the polling booth to the supermarket, and beyond! Granted, we may spend several months beforehand beating our loved ones about the head and face with opposing (and oppositional) viewpoints, but for the most part, we vote, and then we litter.

Meanwhile, for two to four years, nothing changes. Politicians squabble, legislation comes and legislation stagnates, the media tells us what we actually want (being as we are too stupid to figure it out for ourselves), and we watch and pray, for the end is near.

So, to my New Cycle’s resolution: I will make sure from this day forward that the polls become the least of my political activity. There is more to be done, of greater import, in the space between even-numbered Novembers than during them. There are things that talking heads may talk about, but about which they will never do a thing…because if they do, they won’t have anything left to talk about. They won’t have any convenient anchors to hang around their opponents’ necks during the next political popularity contest. Anchors, by the way, that between elections are kept in storage around our necks.

There are things only we can (and will) do. If we want reform, we the people, we have to go and get it, because people who pose for a living are never going to give it to us. There’s a reason pundits go on about grassroots movements: they are truly the only kind of movement that has ever effected any significant change, and this is true because those movements are composed of people who have more to lose than TV time and a government salary, and who aren’t guaranteed a lecture circuit or a news network commentator’s position in the event of losing their jobs.

So this time, don’t vote and then litter. Don’t pull away from the polling place with a self-satisfied feeling of having “played your part.” Instead, take hold of the dissatisfaction you’ve been feeling for the last two to four years, and find a way to do something about it. Because nothing will ever change unless we change it.

Straightforward?

A letter to the editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald suggested that “the first and primary purpose of the government is to protect the people.” Agreed. But are the implications of this statement, as it subsequently suggests, “very straightforward”?

What is involved in the protection of the people? Funding of police and armed forces? Fencing off our southern border? Or perhaps something more substantive, such as easily affordable health care (protection of existing life) or continued subsidies for higher education (protection of future well-being)? Might we think in terms of protection for, not just protection from? Also, what exactly does it mean to “live within the law”? Is it enough to protect those who follow the letter of it, or should we also seek to chastise those who circumvent its spirit?

In reality, there is very little about these questions that is straightforward. And herein lies our problem. “Straightforward” keeps us from effective and repectful dialogue, which is what we desperately need in order for anyone’s interests truly to be protected. Ultimately, “straightforward” ensures we will learn nothing, because it makes us believe we know everything. Perhaps what is really lacking in our society at this moment is a little more “confusion on government’s responsibility.” Or at least a greater willingness to admit that we all have questions, and someone else might just have some answers.

What Can I Possibly Say?

Like many of my fellow Americans, I cannot wait for November 7. At this point, I don’t even have the strength to qualify that with any sort of “as long as” modifier. Election cycles tire me. They anger me. Not, mind you, because of the expression of opinions and ideas opposed to my own. The freedom to hold one’s views, idiosyncratic as they may be, without constraint from any outside agency, governmental, religious, or social, is the essence of true personhood, and personhood is the essence of democracy. Indeed, without idiosyncracies it could be argued that democracy has no meaning. So, by all means, voice it loud and voice it strong!

At the same time, though, voice it constructively. Voice it in such a way that people are inspired to listen (or at the very least, so that they are not inspired to show up at your house one dark and dreary night with an armload of torches and pitchforks). This requires a return to what might be called universal statesmanship. Too often, we call down curses from heaven on the heads of our major political candidates for behaving like so many feces-tossing primates on campaign tours and in campaign commercials only to log right on to Facebook or Myspace or Twitter–pick your poison–to do the exact same sort of thing ourselves. Each of us has the right, even the responsibility, to engage in political debate. However, we also carry the responsibility to engage in said debate in a manner respectful of all the others out there who are attempting, as we are, to make themselves heard.

It has been suggested that during this election cycle, social media users are losing friends faster than they can make them, to a large degree because of political commentary AND THE WAY IN WHICH THAT COMMENTARY IS PRESENTED. It is as if we have forgotten that in the end we all want the same thing, for ourselves and our friends and families: a good life in a prosperous country, playing an appropriate role in a peaceful world. We want our lives to mean something. We want to be proud of the nation we inhabit, the country that we share. No one in this conversation is intent on voting in the destruction of the United States, no matter what any given news outlet may insist on telling us. In the end, we all want the same thing. We just want it from different directions, and with different emphases. And in that realization lies the seed of useful debate.

It has also been argued by some that the proliferation of social networking is a booster in the development of democratic expression. I could not disagree more. When I am willing to say something to another human being in a vicious and hateful way simply because of the physical distance created by Facebook or Twitter, I would suggest that perhaps that something does not really need to be said, or at the very least might benefit from rewording. Remember when our parents used to say “If you’ve got nothing nice to say, it’s better to say nothing at all”? In the information age, when we are freed by technological advances to insult others and run away, when all that’s required to belittle our fellow Americans is a user name and password, I think a new adage is in order: “If it’s something you wouldn’t say to a person’s face, you might want to reconsider what you’re saying.”

James Madison supported a multitude of voices because in that cacophony lies the greatest preventative measure against tyranny. The person with two eyes sees better than the person with one, and the person with two ears hears more clearly than the person with none. We tend to attack that multitude because it keeps us from getting our way, from seeing our pet project ushered onto the national stage. What we must recognize is that the voice that stymies us is also the voice that protects us. If I somehow am able to silence you, then another’s ability to silence me is increased through my own efforts. The harder I try to hurt you, the greater the likelihood that I will end by hurting myself.

I will not argue the assertion that Facebook may be the means of our salvation (at least in the area of civil discourse), but that all depends on how we use it. If we use it irresponsibly, it may also be the means of our destruction. No greater engine of democratic debate has yet been imagined than that of social media, but the truth is that Madison was only half right: the multitude of voices in and of itself can be as dangerous as it is helpful. If that multitude thrives on and is fueled by anger and hatred, if it becomes one more field of battle in the “us against them” war that is contemporary American political action, then it can only harm the interests of our nation (not to mention our personal relationships). If, however–and this is the IF that counts–the social network is able fully to embrace the “social” side of its existence, if it is used to connect us with each other rather than becoming another reminder of all the things which supposedly divide us, then we’re onto something. Then we’re headed towards a healthier, more fully fleshed understanding of what democracy ought to be: a conversation among equals in the interest of a better world.

Research Trip, Day 2

I tend to be something of a pessimist when it comes to complicated plans and seat-pant-pilot endeavors (even though the latter describes well most of what I do). Take, for example, my four-day trip to Greeley, Colorado, to interview a Presbyterian priest for my Master’s thesis–you know, the trip where I took my little mini-recorder and forgot to press record. A whole day’s worth of conversation down the tubes, since of course, having relied upon the gadget, I failed to write anything down. Lesson learned; still a snafu. So, when I got up on Thursday morning (day two of my trip), I had no idea what to expect (or do) and every conviction that it would all go horribly, terribly wrong. Would I once again–metaphorically–forget to press record?

Imagine my surprise when, at the end of the day, I looked back on a series of (mostly) successful efforts to forward my project. Outside of a somewhat irritating encounter with a grouchy old man at the Chamber of Commerce, all went well and productively.

My first order of business took me to the Butler Chamber of Commerce (and, no, not to the old grouchy guy…yet). The first time I was there, I went in search of the aerial photograph of the “Butler–Shine On” event I mentioned in an earlier post. I’m hoping for this to be the centerpiece of the book. It was, after all, the image that set me on this path to begin with: the perfect shot of community in action. If we could arrive at a place where more people could come together for more efforts such as this (however ridiculous outsiders might believe them to be), we’d be heading somewhere useful–instead of rolling down the highway like an isolated snowball headed for a virtual hell…

Having achieved my first goal (and in nice, large format), I decided to re-familiarize myself with the Bates County courthouse (finally complete after what seems two or three decades of renovation) and Butler’s square. Here are the results:

From the east.

The old BC National clock.

From the northeast.

From the north.

Honoring the first engagement of African-American Union troops of the Civil War, at Island Mound, Oct. 29, 1862.

Where City Hall used to be (no, not in the water tower--in the little building beside it...)

From the northwest.

West side of the square.

Southside Cafe

From the south.

Gazebo view.

Random presidents. Not really sure about that one...

Next came lunch with Brian Phillips, executive director of the group that runs the Poplar Heights Living History Farm and the Family History Center, who has graciously consented to act as co-author (not being strictly a local, the Arcadia policies require that I find a co-author who is). Lunch at the Flaming Lantern (http://www.urbanspoon.com/r/210/1064263/restaurant/Missouri/Flaming-Lantern-Butler). It’s been a while since I ate there, and it has really never been one of my favorite places, but I have to say that it wasn’t at all bad. They’ve added a sports bar to the place since Tammy and I left town (which for Butler is tantamount to the repeal of Prohibition). One thing that must be said for them: Get the Suzy-Qs. The rest of you might know these as curly fries. By any name, they are quite simply spectacular. Seriously, if you’re ever headed up or down Highway 71 (or I-49, as they’re getting ready to call it), give ’em a try. East side of the highway, north side of the road (across from the abomination that is the new Wal-Mart).

After lunch came the second visit to the Chamber to drop off a copy of the Arcadia proposal. Enter grouchy old man. Exit Vance, quickly. ‘Nuff said.

Then it was off to the Bates County Museum, but on the way a quick stop at the Stop Light Market (two words, not one). Another place to stop if you’re ever in Butler, especially if you like odd handmade foodstuffs. The market is run by a Mennonite family from the Rich Hill area, and carries everything from cornmeal to gum drops. I picked up a small bag of honey-roasted soybeans (not a fan favorite) and another small bag of okra chips (which are absolutely fantastic). Bigger bag next time…

The Bates County Museum, from which I hope to obtain some of my older images, used to be located on the southeast fringe of the square. Now, it it housed in what was once the Poor Home (what Dickens might refer to as the “work’us,” and Butlerites lovingly refer to as the “nut house”), on the outskirts of town to the west. (http://home.earthlink.net/~bcmuseum/id6.html) It is a lovely two-story, red brick structure dedicated to the history of Bates County from its beginnings in 1841, through the Civil War and Order No. 11, up to the present. During my visit, I became a card-carrying (sans card) member of the Bates County Historical Society, and met the sitting president of the Cass County Civil War Round Table. Goes to show, you never know what’ll happen in the course of a day.

Next stop: Oak Hill Cemetery, home of the world’s smallest tombstone (according to the Ripley’s folks). It belongs to Linnie Crouch, presumed infant, called by some a boy, by others a girl. No one knows. Some Internet death certificate research over my father-in-law’s shoulder (man KNOWS his stuff) indicates that Linnie’s parents MAY have been Daniel Crouch and Belle Miller, but beyond that (which is far from certain), and a story which credits his father with the carving of the headstone, all that remains is a small, stone Bible with little Linnie’s name on it. A mystery, dated April 25, 1898…

Smallest tombstone in the world.

To cap off a long day of hand-shaking and amateur photography, two final stops. First, a nice panoramic view of Passaic, a town numbering 40 in 2009 (and according to some counts, 2 in 2011), between Butler and the family farm. Here’re the pictures. Pretty much what you see is what you get: an intersection…

After braving the overpass...

And this one, just because I thought it was cool.

And, finally, a quick jaunt out to the Island Mound battlefield, some 11 miles southwest of town. There’s a grand opening coming this October, to mark the 150th anniversary of the engagement, and one assumes more will be added to the aspiring state park, but for the moment it is pretty much a pasture with a sign stuck in it:

Island Mound on a gray day...

 On October 29, 1862, the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers took on a larger Confederate force in the first Union action of the Civil War carried out by a unit composed solely of African American soldiers. Multiple perspectives confuse the issue a bit (with some Confederate reports suggesting the total annihilation of the Kansas Volunteers), but the consensus of late is that the day went ultimately to the smaller, Union regiment. I’m still in the middle of learning about this battle myself, so I won’t throw out too much (possibly misleading) detail just yet, but if you’re interested, here’s a web site for you: http://www.mocivilwar.org/history/battles/island_mound.html

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Here endeth my first day of research and relationship-building. At the moment, things are stalled as I await news of the project’s reception by the national offices of Arcadia Publishing. I’m told that news may arrive by the end of the week, and I’m about as nervous as it is possible to be. I realize that for some this experience of mine may not seem too terribly important, but to me it is the next step toward achieving a goal I set for myself in junior high (if not earlier). It is destiny, and it is calling. For those of you with children, think about those nine months leading up to the birth, and you’ll know roughly how I feel right now. Not to put too fine a point on things, the future seems pregnant with possibilities that quite recently seemed beyond the realm. So, cross your fingers with me if you care to, and we’ll see what happens…

Will It Float?

When last we left our intrepid wanderer, he had managed to corner himself in a ridiculously tight deadline. Would he escape? Would he ever be seen again? More importantly, why did he pick today to send Robin for coffee and donuts? Stupid Batman…

Well, the deadline has come and gone, and all (so far) is well. Full proposal submitted, hopefully a confirmation from the Bates County Museum soon to follow. And then, sit back and wait for the shoe to drop. In the meantime, socks it is…

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So, back to my travels…

If you’re interested, a link to my route on my way north: http://maps.google.com/maps?saddr=Woodway,+TX&daddr=Denton,+TX+to:Whitesboro,+TX+to:Ada,+OK+to:Henryetta,+OK+to:Caney,+KS+to:Yates+Center,+KS+to:Kincaid,+KS+to:Mound+City,+KS+to:LaCygne,+KS+to:Amsterdam,+MO&hl=en&sll=37.020098,-95.899658&sspn=3.784605,8.453979&geocode=FVC-4AEd8sQ0-ik_9VsoZIZPhjEkbyIiFltTVg%3BFXnR-gEd9N01-inRsYjAoExMhjEb-xRIy3REcg%3BFZqNAQIdPFE5-ilj6PTYS_BMhjEJqJLvayE6RQ%3BFQOeEgIdN848-ilNOl9lfmqzhzHGcchQ0Ju-tQ%3BFdLEHAIdiW5H-ilbfjEwFzi0hzHmIELcrWl9-Q%3BFQXANAId5iRI-iklUt6zAGW3hzFmQL9mLAhnnA%3BFTsFQgIdujlL-ikbjfmwLQC5hzGdHkqDreX0DA%3BFWQeRQIdThJU-ilHkACUnJu4hzGAqwg1LY0NBw%3BFVcDRgIde0JZ-imtonWLT2nHhzGg50yGt2VMRg%3BFcUsSQIdfA5a-ilv6ryQqUfHhzFRw4CNgfdt7A%3BFa4rSQIdPq9c-inJdFAWHDvHhzGtIu_0_IOaDA&mra=ls&t=m&z=7

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There’s something about old farmhouses that warms my heart. Solid and square, two-story boxes with a door and windows, the only asymmetry the result of the ubiquitous front porch jutting from the house’s facade, roofed, double-pillared, inviting guests to sit and take a load off, perhaps to sip some cool beverage or other while chatting and watching the sun sink below the horizon on a fresh, spring day, or the burnished leaves drift lazily to the ground with the crisp autumn breeze. Through the screen door, left open for hospitality’s sake, the aroma of dinner in preparation and the concomitant kitchen chatter may float into awareness, bearing with them the ghosts of thousands of foregone meals and conversations that go hand in hand with a well-storied home. These houses promise secrets of small proportions, but of tremendous import to one seeking the remnants of the past as expressed in the everyday lives of the present. Do I romanticize? Definitely. Doesn’t mean it’s not true…

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Someone asked me: What do you do to pass the time when you’re in the car for that long? My answer: That’s why cars have windows (of course, besides the whole matter of “not running into things”). Who needs music or books on tape when one has all the lyrics, all the plot- and storylines, one needs rolled up in the towns, homes, and people flashing past outside. There is more art in a single hand-painted store window, more drama–comedy, tragedy, farce, romance–in the tilt of a weathervane or the sag of a barn roof, than is found in hundreds of pages of novel-writing and hours of minutes of recording time (or rather, those pages and minutes could not exist, and would not make sense, without that spinning rooster or that roofline).

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Anyone who says there is nothing interesting or attractive about Kansas has either spent too much or too little time there. Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and lack of the same fosters ignorance. The thing about Kansas is that it is unpredictable. Many times I’ve been headed down a long, flat stretch of highway, convinced that’s all I will see, when a sudden cleft in the ground has plunged me several yards down, through a briefly winding maze, into a surprise ravine or valley, just enough difference to pleasantly punctuate the journey. Or, to my infinite delight, I will happen upon some random piece of fascinating architecture, a church steeple or an old windmill peeking through a canopy of trees in the middle of an otherwise bare landscape. The trick is to let the landscape happen to you, instead of forcing your own preferences upon it. Only then can beauty be appreciated for what it is, and not overshadowed by what we think it should be…

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This just in…

Initial pitch has gone well. Museum endorsement is in. On with the show…