I don’t remember exactly when it happened — it was somewhere between our troops parachuting into Afghanistan and the fall of Mazar-i-Sharif — but one night my wife said, “You’re addicted to the war.”
“No, I’m not,” I said and continued reading an article about the Bush family’s business ties to the bin Ladens.
But a few days later, as I plowed through a week’s worth of talk shows I’d saved on TiVo, it struck me that she might be right: If you’re watching archived episodes of Hardball, it’s time to shut everything off. To regain my sense of proportion, I needed to tear myself away from my cable box, my DSL, the three daily papers that greet me each morning and the dozens of magazines lying on my office floor like autumn leaves. And so, armed only with the obligatory cell phone (“Call me if they blow up L.A.”), we hopped in the car and headed north, fleeing the media and its faith in the Eternal Now.
For the first hour or two, my fingers kept inching toward the radio knob, but my wife put on a Mingus CD that goaded me through the Tejon Pass. Down below, the San Joaquin Valley looked more desolate than ever, a vast gray sprawl of whooshing dust that seemed to be auditioning to play Oklahoma in a remake of The Grapes of Wrath. Stopping for gas in King City, I couldn’t resist buying the local paper, the Rustler, which headlined a local gang shooting, ran a Hollywood column that casually named Jodie Foster’s girlfriend (to my knowledge, no major American paper has ever done so), and mentioned the war only in a column bristling with raw hatred for Arabs. The world of big media “sensitivity” was melting away.
Many hours later, in the full blackness of night, we were heading up Highway 1 far north of the Golden Gate Bridge. After miles of cliff-side curves, I reached a straightaway and was about to floor it when I slammed on the brakes. In the middle of the road stood a deer, not frozen in the headlights as the cliché would have it, but preternaturally calm, posing like a prima ballerina on center stage. I looked at her, and she at me. Time abruptly shifted gears: We couldn’t move until she did. The seconds stretched like taffy until suddenly, capriciously, the doe bounded into the darkness. We sat stunned for a moment, then resumed our journey. But things had changed. Now attuned to the life along the highway — a raccoon scurried across the fringes of our high beam, a family of three deer dawdled on the road’s narrow shoulder — we drove the final 10 miles to our motel at a crawl.
In Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, a middle-aged Czech gets a surprise visit from his aging mother. He recalls how, during the Soviet crackdown on Czechoslovakia in 1968, she’d driven him nuts by being obsessed with the pears ripening in their garden. As everybody else was agonizing about the tanks in Prague, this crazy old woman was thinking about pears. But as time passed, he came to believe that his mother’s sense of reality may have been keener than his own, that the pear world is actually more important than the tank world. “Tanks are perishable,” he concedes, “pears are eternal.”
In the small coastal outpost of Gualala, I awoke the next morning hoping that like a Zen master I could become so mindful that I’d be able to see the whole universe in a Tomales Bay oyster. But the tank world still had its grip upon me, and I turned on the motel TV to see if everything was still there (“Ah, a commercial.” Click.) Such rudimentary news was all I needed, and I slowly began opening myself up to the pearishness that surrounded me: the canopy of wet trees along the Russian River, the golden grapevines under gray skies near Ukiah, the treacherous mists of the winding highway between Willits and Fort Bragg, where we passed the police dealing with three cars that had just plunged off the road. At the Monterey aquarium I grew transfixed by the delicate, translucent moon jellies that drifted in the water like parachutes held aloft by the calmest of breezes. That night we stayed at a cheap motel in Gilroy, Garlic Capital of the World, and when we woke the next morning, our room was heady with a sharp sweetish stench.
I can only imagine how that odor clings to the thousands who work there every day. Each time I drive around the state, I’m startled again by just how much hard forgotten labor has gone, and still goes, into making my gallivanting possible. All those miles of roads built on mountainsides and sea cliffs. All those spider-webbing irrigation pipes and power lines stretched across inhospitable land. All those fields planted and tended and picked clean, year after year. All those factories and gas stations and greasy spoons like the diner in Fort Bragg where the waitress said she dreamed of moving to Sacramento.
No Californian wrote about this undervalued labor more famously than John Steinbeck, whose career reminds us how tricky it is to sort out the perishable and the eternal. Not so long ago he was reckoned one of the world’s major writers, a Nobel Prize winner translated into scores of languages (I remember being in a Moscow bookstore where his novels lined shelf after shelf). These days, he’s badly out of fashion — almost no one would call him an all-time great. No one, perhaps, except the city fathers of Salinas, who have erected the National Steinbeck Center in honor of their greatest homeboy. The irony, of course, is that, during the writer’s heyday, the local landowners despised him for such “red” novels as The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle, the very books that lured us to the Steinbeck Center in the first place. Now that he’s safely buried, this mediocre museum is being used to promote local tourism and the rebuilding of the city’s quaint Old Town. Does this mean that Steinbeck actually won — the folks who once hated him now get their identity from his work? Or have his enemies exacted ultimate revenge by exploiting his name to push their own interests?
When you’re hooked up to the mass-media IV, it becomes very easy to think that the world stinks — innocent people get bombed, madmen send deadly letters, the rich show their respect for the WTC dead by lobbying for extra tax breaks. But as we drove home after a week in the pear world, even the southernmost reaches of the San Joaquin Valley now felt suffused with a rich autumnal beauty. Cotton bales cast long purple shadows in the golden afternoon sun; clumps of tumbleweed lined the meridian like a pride of crouching lions guarding our way; in the far distance, the mountains shimmered with impossible promise, like the reflection of a mirage.
Arriving back in our unnatural city, a desert disguised as an oasis, I turned on the TV to see how the tank world had survived my inattention. Okay, it seemed. Afghan men stroked their clean-shaven chins, women beamed at being relieved of their burkas, Saturday Night Live was doing skits about Kandahar. The stack of unopened magazines and newspapers rose to my knees, many of them filled with the usual Thanksgiving corn.
But for once this didn’t bother me. I thought about how I’d soon be heading home for the holidays and how my own aging, frail mother always leaves food on her patio to feed the animals. “Look at the squirrel!” she’ll cry, no matter who’s talking or what news may be on TV. And then pointing at some bushy-tailed critter nibbling on a cob of dried corn, Mom will cackle happily, delighted by simple things, the undiminished wonder of the world.