Interstate 80: A Cross Country Travelogue–Part 16

Part 16:
This is what I’m thinking about as
we speed by Lincoln, Nebraska with its sort-of classical looking capitol
building with domed tower, and its PhDs leaning into classroom corners with
growing cobwebs and head towards Kearney. 
And I have faint stirrings of regret for this first marriage to a
gorgeous Polish Catholic woman who graduated from college in physics in two and
a half years cum laude but was
alienated from her own family of birth—the only thing that mattered.  In the end what my Ex wanted was what my Mormon
faith was selling:  family.  It’s what we all want.  But what is being sold doesn’t exist anymore,
including (and arguably especially) in Mormon Utah.  This is the travesty of my pioneer ancestors
who came west, driven by a nascent faith. 
The faith matured as, it would seem, everything in America matures—into
an industry where everyone’s on message, and the sales force is out in
force.  There’s money to be made.  Illusions to be sold.  Piety and money.  The Chosen People and property.  Love all around.  “Families are Forever.”
Joe and Cheryl and I are more of
the family norm, these days.  And we’re
actually more traditional than most.  A
married couple raising a child.  We are
one of 60,000 grandparents in the Beehive State alone who are raising their
grandkids.  Most of us don’t have
custody.  Many of us aren’t getting child
support.  Retirement funds are being used
for college.  Second mortgages for food
for that extra hungry 6-footer standing at the refrigerator in his too-short
pajama bottoms.  And religion’s response
to all of this is, we’ve got to get back to Leave it To Beaver.  Damn the torpedoes.  Full steam ahead.  Never mind that we are chasing a damned
illusion and spawning even more devastation by our not acknowledging
reality.  I’m starting to sound like a
preacher myself.  Maybe I’ll start my own
religion.  Mid-wife a new persecution
complex of the righteous.  This is the
land of opportunity, after all. 
Entrepreneurship abounds.   Might
be better off just starting another multi-level marketing scheme.  “Xango Makes Your Dreams Come True!”
It’s really getting cold now.  The Nebraska sky is clear, but this place is
damned, damned cold.  It’s time to
EconoLodge.  We exit north off of I-80 on
this New Year’s Eve.  They’ve had  snow here recently, mounds of it, not only
crusting the curvilinear exit, but clumped dangerously over black ice.  The city is surprisingly far off the
interstate, and the road has not been plowed, or barely.  We dodge the drifts, slow to a crawl, tires
spinning.  My first thought is that
Kearney has been hard hit by the recession, to the point that now they don’t
plow their streets.  We find out later
that if it’s less than six inches, city plows are not dispatched. 
We wend our way to a strip mall,
park, emerge.  It’s time to secure some
warm-wear.  Or warmer-wear as the case
may be, now that we are in sub-zero Nebraska. 
For me, a change of footware after four days on the road would be
sufficient for my needs.  While physically
I’m contracting everything, including my brain, Joe is stretching outside the
car.  He’s wearing his tinted John Lennon
glasses, the ones Nana is always asking him to take off when he’s indoors or, as
we are now, in the gloaming.  Some
argument about how he needs to see where he’s going, but she doesn’t understand
that this is an identity thing unlike all the accoutrements we all buy—not
because of functionality—but because it tells us who we are.  All I can think of when I see him walk
upstairs wearing his sunglasses at home is if he’s smoking pot and trying to
hide it.  This is a conversation we’ve
had openly, many times.  For all intents
and purposes, he should be thick into the stuff.  Not only does an absent man in Joe’s life
whose name here shall remain obscured qualify as a pot-head but so do most of
Joe’s friends, including the one across the street where strange cars are
starting to stop by at all hours of the day and night.  
We head towards a Wal-Mart-styled
store, the kind of outlet that can’t decide what it is, with little order to
the chaos of stuff that ranges from peanut butter brands I’ve never heard of to
bunny slippers.  Dented cans labeled frijoles instead of “beans.”  Tonight, in celebration of the approaching
new year, we are determined to find a next generation EconoLodge—a Ramada or
Rode Inn with a swimming pool.  And so here,
in this mart filled with the rubble of our marketed land, we are in search of,
yes, staggeringly true on this cold New Year’s Eve—swimming gear.  This is part of Cheryl’s campaign to make the
cross-country trip from hell less hellish, in the same line as the Rock and
Roll Hall of Fame.  Me?  I’m headed for the liquor store.  (Hey. 
It is New Year’s Eve after all.)
The liquor store is a happy
place.   Christmas decorations still
abound along with a card board stand-up of a grinning Captain Morgan.  The end caps are filled with strangely shaped
bottles on sale and people are smiling. 
Two of the clerks, a rubbery-faced middle-aged guy and a woman in her
30s in an Absolut T-shirt and hair that looks like it hasn’t moved in a decade
stand side-by-side behind the counter, ribbing each other, saying “Howya
doin’?” to the customers and shaking brown paper bags out with a snap of their
wrists.
“Biting cold out
there.  Yep.  A biting cold,” says the guy to a senior with
a blue parka puffing around his torso. 
“Find what you’re
needin’ today?  Got a party you’re goin’
to?  Looks like maybe I should join ya!”
he says, eyeing the case of PBRs and the cheap bottle of champagne.  This is definitely beer country, with the
year-end nod to the bubbly.  I feel
somewhat conspicuous standing among the wine bottles with a vague calculus in
my head consisting of our credit card balance (rising precipitously since we
left Maine), local norms (beer, beer…or beer) and what walking to the counter
with any one of these bottles of vino will say about me:  that I’m not from here.  That I’m superior than Kearney-ites, that I
am one of the chosen, whatever that means in these post-church days of mine.
            I
end up with the sort of wine I end up with in Salt Lake, though admittedly with
much less mark up (a kind of forced tithing foisted on unbelievers).  A cabernet from Sonoma—definitely on the
cheap end of that exceedingly wide continuum—with a label that looks smart
without looking gimmicky. 
            “Howyadoin?”
says the woman with the hair.  I might be
looking at Midwest Gothic, but having spent New Year’s Eve once before (along
with Thanksgiving and a few other holidays) with former in-laws , and my Ex, I
am uncomfortable operating strictly on mean stereotypes.  Or, I like to think that I don’t operate
strictly on mean stereotypes, which is to say, dear reader, that I always
operate on stereotypes, often on the mean ones, but I have a whole menu of ways
that I keep myself from knowing that. 
            “Doin’
great,” I respond, dropping my final consonant as de rigeur.  “Been driving
four days now.  Got stranded in
Boston.”  I’m looking for a response but there’s
nothing there.  Maybe she doesn’t know
how far away Boston really is. 
            “My,
my,” she says, and I can sense that the jolly factor in this place is pretty
much just skin deep.  The face of
retail.  I try to engage her on a more
local, potentially meaningful level but it just comes out snarky.
            “Roads
don’t seem very well plowed around here. 
Driving in this evening.”   This
is where I learn about the 6 inch rule. 
She busies herself with something under the counter. 
            “I
guess us Nebraskans don’t consider it worth the trouble to plow when it’s just
a skiff of the stuff.  Anything
else?”  Her smile is tight.  The same tight smile I recognize as the
flight attendant’s.
            I
look over at Captain Morgan, who seems more larcenous than ever in this fluorescent
lighting at the end of the first decade of the new millennium.  Perhaps a nip of him is in order I
think.  Instead, I reach for a bottle of
the cheap bubbly and plunk it on the counter.
            “Now
that’s the spirit,” she cackles, snapping the paper bag open with practiced
ease.  The shared experience of buying
things hides a multitude of animosities. 
Maybe consumerism really is the gear box that makes the world
turn—socially constructed or not.
            Conveniently,
the package store is connected to the K-Mart-with-an-identity-crisis, and I go
looking for the other two.  I find Cheryl
wandering, a black leotard thing on a hanger dangling from her hand. 
            “No
swimming suits.  This will have to do,”
she says.  I like her persistence.  Nothing is going to keep her from getting
into a hot tub tonight.  Joe and me?  We’ll manage somehow in our skivvies.  I look around for Joe.  We gotta get out of here.  I turn back toward the liquor store, then
wander towards the back.  There are rows
of metal shelves picked over from the holidays, cluttered with stray faux-terra
cotta planters, boxes of cheap Christmas lights, one torn open, its contents
spilling out like guts.  A solitary
artificial wreath with bright red plastic clinging rubber cranberries. 
            I
find him in the hat department.  For
miles now he’s been talking about getting what his Nana calls a “watch cap,” a
knit hat that has apparently returned to vogue for the high school set, at
least those inner-city kids in Salt Lake. 
He has a gray one on his head, and he’s looking for a mirror.  He sees me standing there with my bag of
papered booze, and he turns away, annoyed it seems, that I’m there.  I pad after him, pretending to look at the
collection of four-foot tall electric Christmas candles (for the lawn, I presume)
and wire reindeer implanted with pointy holiday bulbs.  One of them is tipped over on its side.  Road kill. 
Joe turns the corner of one aisle. 
This is where I try to remember to practice my breathing according to
the principles of mindfulness.  I’m ready
to go—got the booze under arm—and I’m waiting for my family, each lost in their
own hemisphere.  Buying things.  Re-connecting with that thread that brings us
back from our wandering across the prairies. 
This store could be anywhere along Freeway USA, from Farmington, Maine
to Cheyenne, Wyoming.  We may not be
power shopping, but we’re drinking at the trough that makes us all
American.  Swiping our nearly maxed-out
Visa at checkout is the final recognizable nodule on the familiar parabolic arc
that sends us back out into the world happy with our purchases, again part of
the collective. 
            There
is no mirror for Joe to see himself in with his new watch cap, so he pulls it
off his head, and gives me a quick, sidelong glance.  I suspect he’s worried that he doesn’t look
acceptable in it.  He ambles towards the
front of the store, looking for Nana, avoiding me, his shoulders rounded, the
cuffs of his drab green coat with the hood down to his knuckles.  I pad after him, breathing in, breathing
out. 
            Experiencing the full breath body I breathe
in…
            Experiencing the full breath body I
breathe out…

Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue (Part 15)

PART 15
            As we re-enter I-80 in Omaha the detritus of American culture piles up fast and furious. 
“Donate your pop cans to the new Library”
“Unwanted Pregnancy?”  (On a black and white billboard, a close-up of a youngish woman looking into the camera with a slightly quizzical look.)
            “Get out of Debt Today!” (Credit Advisors fronted by a grinning woman—brunette—in a bright blue blouse.  All teeth.  A phone number below inviting YOU to “become a C.A. [Credit Advisors] Success Story!”
Giant murals on thirteen abandoned grain elevators near the interstate 480 exchange:  wild colored patterns; huge plant-looking images.  Some kind of art initiative.
Brookside Church, slouching toward I-80.  Huge.  Sprawling.  A “mega” church where a muscle-bound Jesus really packs a punch. 
The billboards, thankfully, begin to die out as we drive towards Lincoln, one of America’s university towns (and, here, coincidentally the state’s capital) where all of the progressive intellectuals fled to during the Reagan years.  Bastards.  Just when we needed army captains of the enlightenment and they decide to crawl into their ivory towers believing they’d been promoted to Colonel just because of their fucking PhDs. 
Here’s a question for all university professors:  after you retreated from reality, why couldn’t you be satisfied with just tipping your domino with the malleable minds of 18-year-olds and help change the world that way, or at least keep it from sliding back into the dark ages of a the current tea party?  Instead you decided to just talk the inflammatory talk of disgust and outrage, fire up the acolytes and then let them (us) walk the walk.  News Flash:  Your fawning 20-year-olds weren’t Students for a Democratic Society and what’s more America in the 80s wasn’t what it was when you were bumping around Berkeley and Boulder in tye-dye.  No, you’re little pieces of clay-to-be-formed were late boomer-latch kids taking their cues from George H.W. Bush and the latest iteration of the country’s real religion:  consumerism.  Why weren’t you there running interference by growing up yourself, instead of hanging out at the student union ?  By the time half of you–out of guilt?–decided in the mid 90s that everything, including literature, was political and that culture, including politics, religion and the family, for God’s sake, was a socially-constructed web of…blah, blah, blah, by the time you decided this, humanities majors, inflamed with your outrage and holding signs, were flying off to the West Bank to get run over by a front end loader.  Meanwhile, you’re sitting back in Lincoln, Nebraska learning how to surf the web and steadfastly refusing to enter the real world.  Thanks a lot, Noam.
This is a road I’ve traveled before exclusively in service of my first marriage back in the late 80s.  I’m not referring to graduate school in culture studies and rhetoric—although that was a complicating sub-text to the marriage—but literally.  I’ve traveled this road.  My Nebraskan wife and I used to fly into either Omaha or Denver and then motor out to McCook, four hours away from either end for family occasions which she tried to minimize as best as possible, not being particularly fond of her father.  In fact, her Polish Catholic parents never met mine—some lame excuse for not coming out for the wedding in a rural pioneer temple, surrounded by my very Mormon family.  Her brother and sister-in-law stood in for the occasion, although sitting out is a better term.  Not being LDS they were relegated to a waiting room downstairs from the sacrosanct upper “sealing” rooms where marriages are performed but only in front of the “worthy”—i.e., those who are the new chosen people. 
So this is a warning to all Americans:  go ahead and vote for a Mormon president if you insist, but don’t let your kid get serious with a Latter-day Saint.  She’ll tell your son that she loves him first and her faith and family second, but it’s a lie.  One year after the “civil marriage” (even if it’s in another house of worship) and she’ll be reconnoitering with her bishop and a couple of well-scrubbed missionaries to get her bewildered husband (a redundant term, really) into the waters of baptism and into a Mormon temple where the real marriage has to take place for eternal salvation.  It’s like some of my Jewish friends when I lived in New York who were very clear that it was fine to fuck around with gentiles till the kosher cows come home, but when it comes to getting married, he better be wearing a keepa and standing under the canopy.  We have a Mormon version of that, and many of the flight attendants of my tribe, fresh out of BYU or the UofU were just as willing to hit the hay with a pilot on a layover, move him into a Salt Lake suburb, get knocked up, then call the missionaries.  It was like a ghost at the end of the first four principles of the gospel:  faith, repentance, baptism, confirmation…converting your gentile husband. 
It’s actually a good deal for everyone.  Families are made eternal in the temple of the Lord and the corporate church gets 10 percent tithing of the pilot’s considerable flight deck salary.   The arrangement is even beneficial for the pilot, in the end, who would eventually divorce his Mormon wife and two kids in Sandy, Utah and thus acquire a second alimony which is a requirement to become a captain…that is, you have to at least two alimonies.  Unlike the Catholics divorce ain’t such a big deal for Mormons.  Yes, the kids get screwed—as they always do in a divorce—but since the days of my Grandpa John Lowe Butler, divorce was the practical antidote to all the Mormon marrying and giving in marriage. 
And so it came to pass that I did divorce my first wife, but before that I was, at least on paper, a happy Latter-day Saint in the grip, as all real Latter-day Saints are, to the cult of family.  Thus even on a layover in fucking Omaha on New Year’s Eve—mere months before my final separation from my first wife–I was dutifully driving in a rental across the prairie to be with my wife’s family at a brother’s  home in Kearney, Nebraska…without my wife in tow. Yes.  I was within duty’s distance of family, and, especially because they were not of the faith, I felt impelled to show them just how important family was to me. 
This is how it works for those who have a testimony of the Gospel with a capital Mormon “G.”  You find yourself driving three hours out and three hours back to watch your Catholic in-laws toasting the new year in with champagne, while you drink apple juice.  Your reward?  You get to report for airline duty downstairs at the Red Lion Hotel, two hours after you’ve gone to bed.  And you’re wife wasn’t even with you.  Sheesh.