Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Prologue to the travelogues

Sheerly as a historical curiosity -- and because I don't really have much time to blog at the moment and this is a cut-and-paste freebie -- I thought I'd post the very first Pierce travelogue. You can tell that I wasn't thinking of it, at the time, as For Posterity, which means it's much less self-conscious than the ones I wrote by popular demand later on. As a predictable result, it's better than the others, except possibly the Mazatlan one. But more than any other one I ever wrote, this series of e-mails assume you know all about my family; they were written, after all, to Dessie's and my parents, with no idea anybody else would ever be interested.

So back in about 2000 I wrote an explanatory Prologue for this and subsequent travelogues, and put them all in one Word document so that it would be easier to provide to those who asked (usually newly hired fellow workers who had heard about them from people with more tenure). Here's an edited and updated version of the Prologue (which itself was written a good five years ago), as newly updated in 2011, and in the next post I'll give you the first travelogue in all its silliness. ...continue reading...

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I’ve traveled all my life. By the time I was six I knew how to get from my house in southeastern Oklahoma to my grandmother’s house in Texas, six hours away by car. Most kids run away from home at some point; my bike and I made our getaway when I was six. We were headed for my grandmother’s house, and I got to Kiowa, some twenty-five miles away, before I gave up. (I was a stubborn child.)

Long trips establish themselves as landmarks for my memory. My family once, long ago, went to Carlsbad Caverns in a pickup truck with a camper shell on the back (no air conditioning, obviously), and on the way we picked up a well-trained French poodle named Chanelle, though you would have thought there were few families less likely to own a French poodle than we. I can remember stopping in Amarillo, Texas for lunch, setting a peanut-butter sandwich on the picnic table for a moment, and seeing the wind send the sandwich soaring off the table and over the rest area fence. And, although I was asleep when it actually happened, I remember hearing about how my mother found herself in the middle of a construction zone near Dallas in the middle of the night because the construction workers had already put up the exit sign for a road they hadn’t yet finished building.

There were other, longer trips. We went to Pocatello, Idaho in a friend’s motor home, with a novelty horn that played “Boomer Sooner” whenever a car with Texas license plates passed us on a freeway, and on the way we stopped at Old Faithful. We went to Deep Springs College in California, and on the way we stopped at the Grand Canyon and Sequoia National Park. (We had all long wanted to see Sequoia National Park, because of the enthusiastic recommendation of Ben Fewell, an old family friend. We were over at their house one evening when somebody mentioned the sequoias, and Ben suddenly started raving about the trees. “Once you’ve seen them, you never forget them,” he said, and then he spent about ten more minutes doing variations on the theme, and then he decided that he needed to show us the slides, and then he went and dug out the slide projector, and then he started showing the slides, and then he got to about the third or fourth slide, which happened to be a picture of the tree with the road through the middle of it. And when that picture came up, his wife Katie, in tones of surprised gratification and unexpected recognition, said, “OOHHH, hey, I think I’ve been there!”)

I bummed and thumbed my way around California after that trip (this was the summer before my senior year in high school), though I had a spot of trouble in Sacramento. I’d been getting rides with no problem and then suddenly I went twenty hours with nothing but an explicit proposition from an unsavory gentleman in one of those little Japanese pickup trucks that had just started selling well in the States. It wasn’t until I got home that I learned that I had picked the weekend that a big gay rights convention was being held in Sacramento. And there I was, a blond kid with an Afro perm (I had gotten tired of not fitting in on my basketball team), standing on the side of the road with a cardboard sign saying, “SAN FRANCISCO.”[1]

When I decided to go to school in New Jersey, I got myself the opportunity for travel east of the Mississippi. I tried never to take the same route twice, so by the time I was a senior I was driving from Princeton to Oklahoma via Quebec (that's quite literally true). Once I decided to explore an undeveloped, roadside cave I happened to notice while driving through the Appalachians somewhere, by myself; and I managed to get lost inside the cave. This was a real disaster, because I couldn’t find my way out, and nobody knew I was there, and I starved to death before anyone noticed my car... In truth, I only got out because fortunately it was a relatively small cave, so I was able to pull a Harvey Wallbanger – that is, I just always kept myself next to the right-hand wall of the main chamber until I found the crack I’d squeezed through to get in.

I even managed to get to Europe. The university’s classics department landed me a summer scholarship to the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, but I had to get there on my own, and I didn’t exactly have a ton of money. I figured out that the cheapest way to Athens was to fly to Vienna and take the train through what was in 1989 Communist Yugoslavia. I might as well have been the lone captive animal in a zoo: anybody who could speak English at all made sure they came and talked to the American. They would ask where I was from, and I would say, “Oklahoma.” They would, rather blankly, ask where that was, and I would say, “Right above Texas.” Light would dawn: “Oh, yes, Texas!” Since I was born in Texas, I decided I’d skip a step and just tell them I was from Texas to begin with. But this was because I hadn’t really thought a lot about how isolated they were, or where they were getting their information about the outside world. Eventually I told one fellow, “I’m from Texas,” and his eyes opened wide as the throttle on a redneck’s pickup truck come Saturday night. In tones of awe he asked, “How many people have you killed?”

After that I went back to saying I was from Oklahoma.

After the summer term in Athens expired, I snagged a couple of weeks of hitchhiking around Turkey, making my way to the sites of the Seven Churches of the Apocalypse. This was made much easier, and much more enjoyable, by the high value the Turkish people place on hospitality, even when their guests speak no Turkish or Arabic. For example, in order to get to the ruins of Laodicea (which no tourist ever visits), I had to hike a couple of miles down empty country roads, and along the way I met a cute little girl about ten years old. She was clearly intrigued by my presence, though neither of us could understand a word the other said, and she wound up managing, with sign language, to invite me back to her parents’ house. And there her family gave me lunch, though her parents couldn’t understand me either. We all had a great time waving our hands about, and even though I don’t know their names and never will, as far as I’m concerned they’re friends of mine.

But the biggest problem with all of this was that I kept no notes, and so, with the exception of a few isolated incidents here and there, all the fun I had is pretty much irretrievably gone. I’ve tried a dozen times, for example, to figure out where that cave was, and I can’t find it any more, as much as I’d love to take my kids there someday.

Then I got married, and before long I had four kids, and then I got a job that involved lots and lots of business travel on top of the travel we did as a family. These trips would have disappeared too, except for new technology: e-mail. I began e-mailing accounts of the travels to family members who didn’t get to go. Eventually it became a tradition, and co-workers started asking to be on the e-mailing list, and the travelogues were born.

You need to know a few things in order to understand some of the personal references.

I’m intelligent but air-headed and hopelessly disorganised, a man who’s managed to misplace several different daily planners in record time, an irrepressible optimist who can’t help but figure that, no matter how much trouble you get yourself into, there will always be a way to escape relatively unscathed if you just get creative enough and catch a break or two. Religious references will come from the perspective of a theologically conservative Episcopalian (no, that’s not a contradiction in terms), who arrived at Anglicanism via agnosticism after having started in the Southern Baptist / Disciples of Christ tradition. Political references will come from a largely libertarian perspective.

At the time the travelogues were written, I was in a marriage that was actually quite unhappy, but (a) I did not believe in divorce and (b) I had been raised to believe that part of a husband’s duty was to ensure that he never dishonored his wife by public criticism. So all of that pain was kept out of the travelogues, where I was careful to present a relentlessly cheerful view of my then-wife Dessie and our relationship. I have no intention of going back and adding things I didn’t write at the time, but where I went so far as to say things that were actively misleading, I have now taken them out. I think that’s the only editing I’ve done, and there wasn’t much required, as most of my dishonesty toward friends and family took the form of omission rather than commission.

At the time these travelogues were written, I only had four children, though I’ve acquired several more since then by adoption and, later, remarriage. Within these pages you will meet my daughter Kasia, who at the time of the last travelogue was a graceful and lovely ten-year-old blonde, and Merry, who was five years hold and never stood still when she could be jumping up and down. In between the girls were the eight-year-old twins, Sean and Kegan, who are genetically identical, but who had personalized their appearances by getting their scars in different places and getting different teeth knocked out. Despite the fact that Dessie is a brunette, all four children are as blond and fair as the blondest of Swedes, which is to say, they have slightly darker complexions than I myself do. (There used to be an official policy, in the office where I worked, that on Fridays in the summertime the rule allowing the wearing of shorts was suspended in my case unless I provided sunglasses for all my fellow workers.)

I went to work for a company called Objective Resources Group in 1996 or 1997; I was, I think, the seventh employee. A couple of years later, having grown to fifty, we were acquired by a huge multinational company called SunGard. They kept me supplied with a laptop and lots of airline tickets for as long as I worked there.

Higro Amaral came from Sao Luis, Brazil to stay with us as an exchange student when he was in high school. He later came back to stay with us while he attended college in Austin, before going back to Brazil to start his band.

Mom Shirley refers to Dessie’s mother, and her name at the time was Judy Beth Shirley. Her mother, my then-grandmother-in-law, was referred to by one and all as “Mama Sis.”

My father (“Pop”) and mother are living in West Virginia now, where my father is a Disciples of Christ minister. The fact that I’m so obnoxious could be attributed entirely to my father. For example, a very generous friend once sold me a fully functional, turbocharged Volvo sedan for ten dollars. (Look, I said he was generous.) This happened to be within a few days of Dessie’s birthday, and so it served as her birthday present from me. Naturally I told my father. A few days later, I got a check in the mail from my father for five dollars. He then told everyone he knew, “Hey, some people have trouble with their in-laws, but not my daughter-in-law – for her birthday this year, my son and I went halves on a Volvo.” So you can see that I come by it honestly.

My only sibling, Stephanie, lives with my brother-in-law Mike and my nieces Cimarron and Caramia in Oklahoma City. They don’t play much of a role in the travelogues, unfortunately, because the travelogues came about largely by happenstance, and they didn’t happen to come about on trips that involved my delightful nieces. The family are devoutly Catholic, and the girls grew up attending Catholic school. It seems that in the Catholic schools of Oklahoma, political correctness has yet to achieve domination. When I was in school, we were taught that Oklahoma’s name comes from an Indian word meaning “land of the red man.” I don’t know what politically correct equivalent is now used in public schools, but it’s still “land of the red man” in Cimarron’s school. Cimarron knows this now, but when her teacher first brought it up some years ago, Cimi had never heard the phrase. “Now, class,” said her teacher, “the word Oklahoma means something. Does anyone know what it means?” No answer, so the teacher decides to help them out. “It means land of the red…” She waits to see if anyone can guess, but nobody is guessing, so she repeats it. “…land of the red…” Suddenly Cimi’s hand shoots up, because she knows the answer; she knows, oh, yes, and she can’t even wait for the teacher to call on her before shouting out excitedly, “NECK!”

I seem to have given Tim Baber a hard time, and therefore you should know that, if we weren’t guys and therefore were not uncomfortable expressing affection in any way other than insulting each other, I would say that I have over the years found no better friend than he. Not because I really mean it, you understand; but I don’t have a ski boat and must therefore be careful to safeguard my access to the one Tim keeps in such great condition.

I have worked with a large number of client support staff, many of whom have been a privilege to work with. But the two champions, in both competence and likability, have to be Raymond Tanti and Judy Stowell. You will meet Raymond in the Melbourne travelogue, but Judy will just be mentioned in passing. This is unfortunate, as you will never meet a sweeter person. If you offered Judy a million dollars to be a jerk for twenty-four consecutive hours, your money would be safe as houses; she isn’t capable of it. And her husband has the best foreign beer collection in Omaha, at least in basements under houses that cost less than $500,000, and the Stowells are generous in sharing with the deserving among their acquaintances. What’s more, I understand that she has won at least one award for her golfing – something like a Life Achievement Award, if I remember correctly, presented by her admiring friends.

Finally, I must mention Janelle Crenshaw, who worked in the Austin office and doesn’t appear in the travelogues at all. She gets mentioned here, however, because she more than anybody else enjoyed the travelogues and urged me to write more of ’em. And frankly, I didn’t want to have to take all the blame myself.

And so to the travelogues.

[1] For the benefit of non-American readers, San Francisco is the most famously and militantly gay of American cities, as witness the following light bulb joke:
Q. How many straight San Franciscans does it take to change a light bulb?
A. Both of them.

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