September 22, 2010


Unreflected-upon institutions

When I think back on my night visiting Georgia & Kris, I’ll think: woods. I’ll think: warmth. I’ll think: wonderful conversation. And I’ll think how I was made to consider my trip in a hard, new way.

After my crashy-crash landing at Stephen’s house outside Burlington, I spent a night at a campsite on the other side of the city and the next morning, after a two-hour romp around the block with Rennie, broke camp and followed my Google Maps directions to a house in Underhill, a small town about 45 minutes away. Situated off of Route 15 at the base of Mt. Mansfield, my destination was to meet yet another friend of a friend, except this time, the Facebook element actually had a two-degree separation. Remember Ed and Mary Anne from drum camp in May? Well, it goes like this: Mary Anne is my friend on Facebook; Ed is my friend, but not on Facebook, and Georgia is his longtime friend, hence the two degrees.

I met Georgia first. I had just driven down a long dirt road off the main highway to find her house tucked up under some trees in a grass clearing by a pond. Everything was lush and emerald green, and then her house was a rustic brown with red accents, and it was inviting before I even made it inside. A cat was sitting on the grass and Rennie was growling at it, so that I was scolding him, trying to get him to calm down a little, before I let him out, when I noticed that someone was standing outside my window. I jumped.

Then I realized who it was and laughed at feeling silly for having been caught in this conversation with my dog. Hopping out of the cab, I shook her hand and felt silly again, this time because I was wearing shorts. I had gotten dressed during a sunny, warm morning but by the time I arrived sometime mid-afternoon, it was under an ever darkening, continually brooding sky, and there was a pretty stiff wind blowing through, so that my wardrobe was just odd. I was freezing.

I changed into pants and put on a sweater (yes, one of my two), and Georgia made some tea, and her partner, Kris, joined us on the sofas and we just sat and got right into talk about travel— this trip of mine, their past trips, their ongoing love of exploring places. They wanted to know more about this journey I am on, and apologized for wanting to know more—said they knew that everyone asked me the same questions. I waved them off. I figured that if it was already getting old to talk about it after a month, I’d chosen the wrong thing to do. I said it was funny that I was even doing the trip, because I first moved to Europe in 2005 to get away from using a car. Now driving has become the center of my existence.

Then Georgia and I took Rennie on a walk down the road to some land, where the owner is happy to share his open space with dog owners, who can let their pups run off the leash. Looking at the landscape in the early evening light, the blueness of winter starting to settle into the air already, I asked her how she could stand the winters. She has had her house for 25 years and although she grew up in Florida, her family went there during the summers, until she eventually just moved there, so she merely laughed at my question and said that you simply put on more clothes. If you’re hot, she said, you can only strip down to your nakedness. And then what do you do, if you’re still hot even then?

When we got back, we opened the bottle of wine I’d brought, and over a dinner of assorted vegetable dishes and chicken salad and a wholegrain loaf of bread, I said, “I’m reading Blue Highways,” to which they both laughed and sighed with approval.

“Least Heat-Moon,” one of them said, which is the author’s pen name. “I wonder if he wrote any more books.”

And we talked about how gutsy he was, interviewing people and saying whatever he wanted to say to them, asking them whatever he wanted to know. Kris said she would love to go to Detroit and talk to the people there about how they feel on matters and what they are doing, now that the car industry has taken a dive. It’s true; it would be a good assignment and it seems at least one person is already doing it. But when I was dragon boat racing in Lake Orion, one of my teammates even told me I should go see Detroit as it is now, because there has been such a decline from the past to the present (this isn’t the first time people have talked about a need to save it from itself, by the way, nor has it been a sudden death), but I went right on through, sidestepping the city because I had no contacts there and because I wanted to get to Canada before dark.

I could be interviewing so many more people in so many more places, as I go through their towns, and I have not yet done that, because I have been focusing on my hosts’ home lives and what they show me from that, so I have not made time to go out and meet people on the street, for example. And I do find myself torn between what I could be doing and what I am doing. Am I going about it the right way? Is it wrong to knowingly miss landmarks, because I am more concerned about seeing people and not just any people, but my friends? Is there too much comfort in that? Not enough room for controversy?

The next morning, I woke before everyone else and made coffee, so I could pore over the Aug. 30 issue of The New Yorker in which there was an article that Georgia had told me the night before that I must read. It was all about these two wealthy brothers, the Kochs, who have apparently been financing stealth government attacks for years and are connected to groups, like the Tea Party, that want to defeat President Obama, and her point in recommending it was to acclimate me back into current events, in which I am admittedly behind. So far on this trip, I have found reading to be the hardest thing to work into my schedule.

So, we had all three been talking about the changes in American society and culture, and how Kris felt like it was an interesting time for me to be coming back and wondering aloud what impressions I would come away with. It was almost overwhelming for me to think about— the things I need to be paying attention to, the publications and blogs I should be reading, the places I should be going, the people who I should be interviewing. But I don’t mean that it was overwhelming in a bad way. I need that kind of feedback and input. It’s just that sometimes I think, “What is this fluff that I am producing?” and I might read something like The New Yorker and then doubt everything I am doing, thinking that I should be out there with them, doing grittier pieces like that.

But I am also part of something totally different. I am being allowed into people’s homes and I have permission to see people at their most vulnerable— or are they at their most polished? Whichever it is, I am a guest and with that comes a certain set of rules: rules of respect, rules of engagement, rules of interaction. It’s all pretty sacred, really, which makes me hyper-aware of what I can and cannot say. I think it also shapes what I see insofar as to say that it could shape what I choose to see. I don’t know. And do I want to know? Doesn’t this world have enough angry commentary on all the wrong that there is?

I was just finishing the Koch brothers piece, when Kris woke up. Georgia had already left awhile ago to get to the YMCA to swim, before getting to the office, before a business trip to Baltimore that night, so Kris and I stood by the kitchen sink and philosophized about the country once more. “Unreflected-upon institutions,” she said; that’s where we find ourselves, such as this fairly recent argument that going to college is a waste of time.

Yes, you can say that the economy has been playing a role in that one. And of course, I, of all people, who took a year off to go West and work, before enrolling for four years to get a degree, must agree that college is not for everyone— not straight out of high school, at least, but maybe not ever. Still, I could understand what Kris meant when she said “unreflected-upon institutions.” It was like Socrates saying that an unexamined life is one not worth living, and it made me think of taking things for granted, of complacence and of a conversation I had just had with a pediatrician, who was telling me about how she and her co-workers are having to educate the public on vaccinations. Immunization was long something that everyone just did, without thinking about it, she said, but now people are questioning it, wondering what they have to lose and what their child will suffer from the shot, and they are reading inconclusive studies that are sometimes inaccurately portraying the effects of such shots, and that is a real problem, she said; no one seemed to realize that an epidemic would be a big problem, because no one had ever had to live through one.

It was a self-interest, she said, without consideration that not getting a certain vaccine could be disastrous for other children, who for some reason have not been immunized. In an era where people are traveling to other countries more and more often, getting exposed to things that have not been eradicated all over the world, she said that parents have to be more vigilant than ever about getting their children up to date on their shots. In her case, she said she doesn’t want to get a flu shot every year but she does it, because she also does not want to be the carrier of the virus to other people. Furthermore, as anecdotal proof that in fact no one wants to be part of an epidemic, when H1N1 became a real threat, she said, people were coming into the office and being rude to the front desk and demanding to know why there was no vaccine for it. And the anti-immunizers were right there mixed in with everyone else.

You have then an example of an institution being questioned. But is it being reflected upon? Or is it another trend being mindlessly followed?

A few times so far on this trip, I have thought about this one time during my freshman year in college, when I went to visit my aunt and uncle in Atlanta for the first time on my own. Driving back to my dormitory that night, I merged onto the highway and set my cruise control, settling into the hour-and-a-half-long drive out of the city and across the fields to home. An hour later, when I should have been crossing the Athens-Clarke County border, I was passing the state line into Alabama. I had gone the wrong way, because it was my first time taking that route and because I had not yet discovered that just because you’re on the road doesn’t mean you’re going in the right direction.

It’s a lesson that I think can be learned and relearned and maybe never fully put to rest, because if we’re not careful, we can all find ourselves driving down the road, completely oblivious to which way we’re going. It’s something that I am conscious of on a literal sense every day that I climb into Roxanne and set out to find a new place, but it’s also something that I am trying to keep in the forefront of my mind in a figurative sense, too, because while I don’t think we always need to know where we’re going, we do need to know how we’re going. And we need to be constantly evaluating that.

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Michelle Shepherd Coggins
    Sep 22 2010

    Love to follow your travels and to read your thoughts. Keep them coming and continue to be safe and have fun 🙂

  2. hillary
    Sep 22 2010

    I don’t think anyone I’ve talked to would say what you’re doing is comfortable. Going into people’s homes-both friend’s and stranger’s-is courageous and living vicariously through someone who is voluntarily pushing herself out of her social circle is inspiring. There is a definitely a personal aspect to what you’re doing but it translates to all of our lives too. In a time where there is so much negative big-picture stuff all over the news and the blogosphere, I find it relaxing to read your focused and positive take on current American life. You can’t do it all. You can’t get distracted by what you could be doing. You just have to do what you can and are doing. Keep it up.

    • Sep 22 2010

      Well, I wasn’t fishing for compliments with this post but yours sure cheered me up. Thank you.

  3. Momminerd
    Sep 22 2010

    Hillary, you snatched the thoughts right out of my head and wrote them down before I could copyright them! I have nothing to add. (Not! Of course I do!) Margaret, since you are the one slogging from
    place to place, deep into the unglamorous daily details of your odyssey, and then thoughtfully selecting the choicest morsels for the consumption of your reading public, I can imagine that you might not see your adventure through our admiring eyes.
    Am reading the NYorker article on the Koch clan…I was unconvinced of their evilness until I read of their attitude toward
    the environment. I learn something from you every day!

    • Sep 22 2010

      Thank you and I am glad you are reading that article. It’s a good one.

  4. Sandy Mabery
    Sep 22 2010

    Margaret Two Sweaters…A good Indian name for you 🙂

    • Sep 22 2010

      Love it. Except it will soon have to change to Margaret Four Sweaters.


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