Big Dog In A Small Truck Take On The Huge Land

Recently I read and reviewed Our Towns, a contemporary book documenting a couple’s travels across the U.S. with their stops in a variety of cities and towns. I compared it to a modern Travels with Charley, which made me decide to read that John Steinbeck non-fiction classic. Actually I should say re-read, as I discovered that gem probably close to three decades back when I was going through a period of trying to read classic “literature” and found it a short hop from Steinbeck’s novels to his travelogue.

For those unfamiliar with it, Travels with Charley is an account of a trip around the perimeter (more or less) of the Lower 48 that the celebrated writer took some 60 years ago now. He drove the miles in a pickup with a camper back, with his big poodle, Charley along for companionship. It was eminently interesting and well-written and mixed a yearning look back from the aging writer with glimpses of a marvelous future. Now, it’s more a look back and a measure of how we’ve changed. And how we’ve not.

Some things are indeed changed, and for the better I’d say since 1960. Our idea of “men” has evolved, more in some areas than others, but 1960 Steinbeck was still of the generation that settled differences with fisticuffs, more often than not in a bar, and hunted because there was stuff to kill. He lamented only seeing two fights along the way and packed along a rifle and shotgun, more just to fit in than to utilize them. He seemed to lament that he was tired and didn’t feel like shooting coyotes he saw in the desert, all the while worrying about Charley while in New England, fearing his dog would be shot as soon as it exited his truck by over-zealous gunmen who’d think it a deer. He shares stories of old logs being full of lead and cows being shot by wonderful “outdoorsmen” who assumed them deer. Doubtless we still have deer hunters and hunting season, but it’s encouraging to me that we have somewhat more respect for wildlife – and dogs and livestock – than we did in that day and age.

Another thing John lamented was the disappearing regional dialect and accent. He said upon reaching Montana “here for the first time, I heard a definite regional accent, unaffected by TV-ese.” He feared that the telly would soon wipe out every regional variation in dialect and accent and we’d all be talking like Walter Cronkite or Lucille Ball before long. My sweetie works in Customer Service for a company that operates in about a quarter of the country; she can assure you that just hasn’t happened. Sometimes it’s difficult to know that Cajuns of the backwoods of Louisiana are even speaking English, and there’s no mistaking the Bostonians who drive their cars by turning on the “khakis” or the traditional Bronx cadence from just over a hundred miles away from there. Native Mississippians sound little like native Minnesotans although they’re bound together by one great river. Myself, I’ve been asked where I was from many times when in Atlanta (usually in a friendly but inquisitive manner) and in Texas had one woman suggest “You’re not from here – is that a Chicago accent?” I told her no but not far off… I was from another Great Lakes city. We southern Ontarians don’t think we have accents, but we sound different to those in the Lone Star State, even if we watch Friends and Masked Singer shows together. Steinbeck misread the future on that.

Another difference is not in the story, but the reaction. Steinbeck was amazed at the mobile home parks springing up everywhere, and was in awe of them. It was a new phenomenon which made eminent sense to him. “They are wonderfully-built homes, aluminum skins, double-walled, insulated…” and convenient, he figured. “If a plant or factory closes down, you’re not trapped with property you can’t sell…he rents a trucking service and moves on” to the next city with the next batch of jobs waiting. Now, I daresay Steinbeck wasn’t wrong in the convenience or affordability of them, but for better or worse, very few these days share his sunny take on them and the parks they are located in. Ugly it is, but true as well that a good chunk of the country automatically look at the residents not as smart, adaptable people but uneducated, dirty dolts. Why else do we all understand what someone means when they say “trailer trash.”

Some things never change though, one of the big examples in the U.S. being the Texas spirit. Steinbeck says “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is a mindset” and in fact, “a nation” even. He notes the huge state varies from flat farm fields covered in snow in winter in the Panhandle to sandy Gulf beaches and citrus orchards along the Rio Grande… nothing in common but for the energy and bravado of the residents. Not to get him wrong, he says he likes Texas, married a Texan and was treated with fantastic hospitality when in the Lone Star State. He points out at home, Texans tend to be friendly and welcoming, but as soon as they pass by Texarkana or El Paso they feel self-conscious and ill at ease and turn into the loud, boorish Texans of Hollywood stereotypes. Sentiments that seem about as apt today, as I write this from Fixer Upper-land, as they were to him back then.

Sadly some of the worst things Steinbeck documented are still among the truest. He lamented the bland highways, saying one could drive from New York to L.A. without seeing a thing, and that the cities they line are coming to all look the same, with the same chain stores and takeout restaurants. If he thought that then, imagine if he could see it now that McDonald’s have served “billions and billions” and Walmart isn’t just a small town five and dime in the hills of Arkansas!

Perhaps the most glaring example of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” though probably makes the book hit many book clubs and reading lists this year again, that being discrimination and racial unrest. He speaks of growing up in a town where there’d only been one Black family, and they were well-liked, hard-working people no one had any grudge against; spoke of being reluctant to even visit the “South” due to their attitudes and hearing time and time again speeches against desegregation and jokes about thinking Charley , his darkish dog, was a “N”word, time and time again before he even left Texas, let alone hit Mississippi and Alabama. He watched in horror as crowds gathered along the street to yell insults at one tiny Black girl being led into a “White” school in New Orleans by federal marshals. Certainly the circumstances have changed and progress has been made, but it’s discouraging so much of the national debate and daily news still revolves around racial problems in the land.

One universal Steinbeck uncovered unintentionally in his wanderings seems the same for any long distance voyager, be they astronauts, merchant marines, Ewan McGregor riding his motorbike across continents or even Dorothy in Oz: the trip that begins a happy adventure becomes a drudgery, a mere race to the finish line in its last miles. Visiting is great, it would seem, but really there is no place like home.

Washington Could Learn How To Behave From The Beehive (State)

I’ve never been to Utah. Never much wanted to go either. It seemed to me to incorporate most of the bad traits of the American West and not so many of the good. Dry, shapeless arid desert land with the scorching summers of mid-Texas but snowy, cold winters of my homeland to the north. Arid miles broken only by one big lake …which is salty.A huge, mysterious military base conspiracy theorists say took over from “Area 51” when Nevada became too touristy. Besides a few scenic rock arches in the south of the state, not a lot to see and one mid-sized city notable for being the home of the Mormon Church. But maybe I owe the state an apology, because at least politically, it seems to be the shining light for the entire U.S.A.

I’m referring to newfound heroes Spencer Cox and Chris Peterson. Cox is the state’s Lieutenant Governor, Peterson a professor. Both are running for Governor this November. And both have done something revolutionary for the times – they have agreed to be civil, to respect one another and the public as well. They appeared in a couple of TV ads which quite unlike the typical political ad of the day, they smile and tell voters “we can disagree without hating each other.” It seems like it’s so obvious that it shouldn’t need to be said, but alas, this is 2020. So they are revolutionary, and to them I say “amen” and “bravo.”

The pair appeared today on the Today Show and told Savannah Guthrie, controversial host of last week’s discussion with Donald Trump, that they for the most part like each other and respect one another. Both said they would listen to the other on significant issues if elected.

“We can debate each other without degrading the other’s character,” Peterson, the Democrat says. If only the big boys in Washington could take note and do the same. “Our common values transcend our political differences.”

Cox, the Republican, said people “are hungry for decency” and “as our national dialogue continues to decline, my opponent and I decided to try something different. Let’s make Utah an example to the nation.” Both agree that the “peaceful transfer of power (is) integral to what it means to be American.”

Amen to them both for stating the obvious. Or what should be the obvious but in this day and age is not, even to the sitting President.

I don’t know what big issues in Utah state politics are this year and don’t have specifics on what either candidate suggest to rectify the problems. But I know if I was in Utah, I’d be reasonably confidant good solutions to the problems could be achieved and not be too worried whichever candidate won. Either seem like they have the decency and intelligence to make a good governor. Hell, why stop there. With their “radical” way of thinking, I daresay many Americans might not mind having either one in the White House.

Sad to have to say that saying civility and courtesy still matter. But the fact that a Republican and a Democratic opponent are saying so gives me hope for the future of the land.

Mexico’s Improbable Star

Youtube launched the career of Justin Bieber. He was an unknown Canadian kid, putting home videos on the website when he was “discovered” and a year or two later, we all cursed Youtube. But we knew Bieber’s name. It seemed fitting because to many, like me, when you think “Youtube” you think music. The new MTV, a video jukebox of music videos both official, and homemade by fans. But there are of course, a lot more things going on that lure the billion-plus users to the site some five billion times a day!

I for instance am a weather nerd, and have seen countless videos of tornadoes and other storms from the ground captured on video by both professional storm chasers and amateurs who happened to be at the right (or wrong?) place at the right time. My sweetie loves seasonal decorations and has found a whole network of ordinary people who craft and decorate their homes for July 4th, fall, Easter, Guy Fawkes day, Halloween, and of course Christmas. She’s gotten a few good ideas from them and doubtlessly hours of relaxation watching Dollar Tree signs being repainted into something decorative and pumpkins repurposed. Recently the two of us happened upon one of the internet’s most unlikely stars – Dona Angela, a 70 year-old Mexican grandmother.

Angela is an aging farm wife who lives in Michoacan, a rural area of southern Mexico, and speaks no English. She cooks traditional Mexican food in a most rustic way… and has over three million followers!

Remarkably, the Spanish-speaking lady who seemingly has no running water nor kitchen in the house, only began posting videos mid-way through 2019. One of her daughters (her two daughters and husband occasionally show up on her videos to assist, or enjoy her finished food) was a Youtube fan and started recording her mom with the phone and posting the videos. Within two months, the “channel” – De Mi Ranch e Tu Cocina (“from my ranch to your kitchen”) had hit an extraordinary million subscribers. Now it’s well past triple that, and some individual clips, like one for enchiladas have been seen over seven million times.

Dona cooks in what seems to be an outdoor, but partly enclosed kitchen, which revolves around a large wood-fired stove. She uses mainly traditional implements like a molcajete, a stone mortar and pestle she grinds spices and flattens dough on. The tomatoes, peppers, avocadoes and more come from her garden as do, one would suspect, the chickens and pigs that provide most of the meat and occasionally wander by. She says “I don’t use measurements, I just grab with my fingers.” When you’re 70 and have probably been cooking for six of those seven decades, you can probably do that and get good results! Likewise, the cooking temperature is unregulated since it’s just coming from a wood fire in an iron stove. Her one concession to modern times is an electric blender she likes for her sauces. She shows you the ingredients, how she prepares them, how she cooks them up, in a variety of old metal and clay pots and pans, and let’s you know how they turned out … mostly “just like I like it!”. This I, and most of us, know from the subcaptions, since she speaks only Spanish. One video showed her getting Youtube award plaques for hitting first 100 000 then one million subscribers. She opens the boxes and is obviously delighted with, but she and her daughter tell the viewers there’s a congratulatory letter too but neither of them can read it, since it’s in English.

Over the wood fire she creates a mouth-watering assortment of Mexican staples like salsa, mole (a type of soup, not the little critter), napoles or cactus, tortiallas and of course, tamales.

Forbes recently listed her along with Selma Hayek as one of the most influential women in Mexico. One could imagine that with that endorsement, not to mention the Youtube plaques, she could easily turn the fame into a Food Network show and big-selling cookbook. “The Pioneer Woman From South of the Border!” Nor is it hard to cynically wonder if the wood stove and rugged kitchen it sits in aren’t a soundstage, perhaps beside a fancy home with state of the art food processors and microwaves. But that’s not Dona, apparently. Both the Houston Chronicle and NPR have featured her lately, and both failed to be able to get her to speak to them. She will apparently answer a few questions about her cooking, or defend herself to critics who suggest her stove looks dirty or such, but when it comes to mainstream media… and the dollars they represent… she’s a ghost. Making herself a “star”, or getting rich by her recipes isn’t in her plans apparently. Making more tamales and atoles by hand over a fire outside, for her family to enjoy, are.

I think there are a few takeaways from this.

For instance, these days we can become successful on a low budget. Yes, it’s still uncommon, but one can become a well-loved author without having Random House or Penguin backing you; one can become a star musician in your basement with a computer, an instrument or two and video camera. That’s a definite plus to social media, a part of our lives which has its share of negative attributes as well. A 70 year old cooking tamales outdoors in the 1980s would have been known only as far and wide as her crowing roosters could be heard. Now, she can be an international influencer. A tween Justin Bieber singing in his bathroom in the 1970s would have likely been stacking cans of beans at his local Loblaws ten years later, not on magazine covers. I suppose we shouldn’t blame the internet for that…

Secondly, we all have stories to tell and talents to share. You might not be able to cook from scratch, but if you can fix an oil pump or make a nice wreath for your door at Christmas for ten bucks or get rid of a wasp nest in your shed without using toxic sprays, or…well, you get the idea, there are people who’d like to know how. You can make others’ lives better by sharing. Likewise, maybe you have lived through history. Veterans. White House staff. People in the San Francisco earthquake in the ’80s. Firefighters. Best boys on 20th Century Fox sets. All have stories that would be interesting for the rest of us to hear. I bet you do too.

As well, your own family’s history is worth documenting… and there’s no better time than now. Maybe it’s the food you cook, like Angela, maybe it’s the trips you took, maybe it’s the array of cars you owned or the girlfriends/boyfriends you hung out with before you got married… there are a lot of stories there that you might like recalling. And future generations will thank you for. My mom was in London during “the blitz” in World War II. She saw the Queen Mother walking around the rubble talking to people, which probably colored her views on the royal family for life at a very young age. My dad worked with John Kay of Steppenwolf, before he was a rock star in Steppenwolf. So many stories and traditions to share… it might not make for Youtube videos, but that part of your heritage is worth preserving, just like Dona’s old ways of making her own tortillas.

Lastly, be authentic. Be yourself. Dona Angela is. She could wear designer clothes, disguise the wrinkles on her face, flash name brand spices and fancy cookware at the camera. Maybe sip on a Coca Cola with the label front and center in exchange for endorsements, be phoning up the newspapers and public radio for interviews to talk up her web videos. But she does none of that, and her fans love her for it. We already have enough fake “reality” anyway.

Maybe you’ll never get to three million subscribers on Youtube, or 100 000 readers here on WordPress or be on any list made by Forbes. But you do have something to say, and share.