Significant Places

Upstate New York may not get the attention that the state’s largest city does, but it is a place of wonder.  One of those sources of significance is the unique blend of individuals who’ve impacted both American culture, and, in turn, my life, that called this region home.  It’s difficult to describe what I’m feeling as I’m standing next to Rod Serling’s grave.  This is a man who held a profound influence over my outlook by letting his imagination go where it would.  It’s more than the Twilight Zone—although its theme is one of the ringtones on my phone—it’s the sense that I somehow knew this man I never met.  It’s also the sense that his gravesite is so humble, in a rural area outside a small town, the kind that often featured in the stories he wrote and presented.  It’s the sense of connection.

As I young person I practiced writing short stories based on the mood set by the Twilight Zone, with a dash of Ray Bradbury thrown in.  From a small town myself, imagination was my means of enlarging my world.  We didn’t have the money to go many places but the magic box in our living room could take me to weird places alive with transcendence.  The results were beyond price and there was something deep and liberating here, even for a kid whose religion said it was all nonsense.  Even religion requires escaping sometimes.  I know the publishing world has moved beyond what was fashionable in the sixties and seventies, but that can’t dislodge the shard in my chest right now.  If there are spirits in cemeteries, they are here.

Some time ago I began, as I had time, uploading my photos of famous writers’ graves (along with those of other recognized names) on Pinterest.  On the way to Interlaken, I wondered aloud why nobody seemed to show an interest.  I find cemeteries peaceful places, and sacred spaces are those where people significant to us have been, in some form, at some time.  I know Rod Serling loved upstate New York.  It was his escape from the busy life of a writer whose cachet was marketable back in the days when anything seemed possible.  Retreats are those places we go to restore ourselves when work simply won’t allow creative people to have unstructured time.  I wasn’t expecting a huge mausoleum or towering monument here.  Others have found their way to this place nevertheless.  I am in a sacred place and the quiet here is kind of a prayer.

Abroad at Home

Now that I’m back in the United States (but still traveling), I’ve been thinking about impermanence.  That is to say, when you plan an international trip you like things to be somewhat familiar.  At least I do.  For example, when arriving in customs and immigration anxiety can run pretty high.  Having once been stopped at the border of Canada, I have bad memories of how even friendly nations can treat one with suspicion.  Upon arriving at Heathrow, however, entering the United Kingdom was simply a matter of scanning my passport and smiling for the camera.  (It was much more difficult getting back into my native US, ironically, in both these cases.)  Believe me, I don’t mind the improvements, but I didn’t know to expect them.  The same was true of the change in currency.  I even learned that all those pound coins in a box at home, so solid compared to American money, we’re no longer good.  Money for nothing, or nothing for money?

Currency is highly symbolic.  Retiring a form of currency, of course, disadvantages those who live abroad.  And I’m not picking on the UK here.  When my wife and I visited what used to be Czechoslovakia (which is now no longer even a country), our Deutschmarks exchanged for fistfuls of colorful crowns.  This was shortly after the Velvet Revolution, and times of uncertainty tend to devalue the symbols we use to represent buying power.  Although we went from Prague to Vienna, we didn’t have to change all our Czech currency to Austrian.  We didn’t exchange it all, knowing that it was very likely that Czech money would change before we ever got back.  Indeed, the country we visited is no longer a political entity and we’ve not had the opportunity to return.  Who can see the future?

Impermanence is part of being human.  Apart from issues such as global warming, which is creating a more and more inhospitable climate for all species, these changes are based mostly on human culture.  The British currency system was only decimalized in 1971.  Some forms of currency were then no longer legal tender.  I used to collect coins, and constantly changing money is a boon for those who stay with it.  If you keep old coinage long enough, its symbolic value increases beyond what it’s face value ever was.  That’s probably not good investment advice, but for me it was a matter, at least in part, of believing in permanence.  If I take a wheat-back penny from 1909 and hand it to a clerk (where pennies are still accepted), it’s legal tender.  It would have, however, bought much more back when it was first minted.  The symbol itself, it seems, has changed.  And that applies even at home.

Fantasy Land

As a naive kid with a solid master’s degree, I was accepted for doctoral work at Aberdeen, St Andrews, Oxford, and Cambridge.  Only Edinburgh, however, was able to come up with some funding that made it possible for me to matriculate.  I’ve always been particularly grateful to Edinburgh since otherwise I would never have made it that far.  Oxford was, also, a little confusing what with all its different colleges and specializations.  As an American in the pre-internet age it wasn’t easy to learn about such things and academic advisors in the US didn’t have much helpful input to offer.  Like Harvard, however, Oxford is the single university that opens career doors for academics in my field.  I didn’t know that, of course.  Still, Oxford is a fine place to explore and despite my grousing about being made to travel, I was pleasantly surprised by the opportunity to partake of a high table dinner in Christ Church Hall.

I’d been far too busy to plan this trip, and I didn’t realize the significance of this dinner until I walked into the hall, and suddenly realized—as everyone else in my party already knew—that this was the Hogwarts Hall from the Harry Potter movies.  There’s an air of ancient tradition here, and it’s clear that my employer is held in very high regard in this particular shire.  I wasn’t aware that this would be part of the meeting I was here to attend, but I did wonder again at just how much popular culture drives our awareness and perception of ancient things.  Even my own reaction of recognizing this as the hall in Hogwarts was instructive.  Had I not seen the early movies of that series I’d likely have been simply impressed by the grandeur of the place itself.  My most recent books explore this same phenomenon, but in a different key.

Between gawking at J. R. R. Tolkien’s house that morning and ending the day at Christ Church, there was an element of fantasy to this trip for which I was simply unprepared.  Of course, it was a business trip, and I have trouble planning to have any fun on such occasions.  I take work far too seriously to let down and enjoy, unless I’m instructed to do so.  As I ran a couple of other small errands in Oxford, I realized there’s much yet to explore about the city.  I spent over three years in Edinburgh and didn’t see everything there by a long stretch.  And I doff my cap to Scotland still, for had my alma mater not made this possible I wouldn’t have had dinner among the Potter fans at all.  If movies didn’t tell us what to think, it would be just another old building in an ancient college defined by tradition.

In Middle Earth

I try to make the best of business travel.  I had all-day obligations this time around, but fortunately my hotel was next to a place of some renown.  The house where J. R. R. Tolkien lived was practically right next door.  This is the place where the Lord of the Rings came into the world.  I have always tried to visit sites of literary significance when in new places.  When we were more able to do so, my family would take such literary pilgrimages annually, especially in the autumn.  Being a believer in the confluence of science and spirit, I can’t help but think there’s something sacred about the place where great literature was born.  Of course, in Oxford you can find sites for Lewis Carroll and C. S. Lewis, as well, among many others.  These days everyone seems to associate the place with Harry Potter, although J. K. Rowling started that particular series in Edinburgh.

Tolkien has become a deity in his own right, I suspect, for creating an entire world to which millions of fantasy fans come.  His actual house, however, is privately owned.  Besides, I’m here on business.  Still, falling asleep so close to where Tolkien dreamed his Middle Earth dreams is akin to inspiration.  Writing as an avocation makes such encounters almost worshipful.  I read the Ring trilogy and The Hobbit many years ago.  I haven’t seen any of the movies, however, since my own imagination seems sufficient for me.  Tolkien took me, for many hours, into another world.  Somewhat like work has done this week, I guess.  Were it not for business, Oxford could be a magical place.  Living in a location where imagination is valued and encouraged makes a huge difference, I expect.

Years ago, Edinburgh was an inspirational place to reside.  Although my main writing output at the time was a 300-page doctoral dissertation, it was a place that has inspired much of my fiction.  Tolkien, in truth, was just as human as the rest of us.  His work was largely based on ancient Germanic traditions that were also reflected in Wagner’s Ring cycle.  We are all borrowers, in some sense.  Adapters.  Oxford is one of those places with a long sense of continuity with the past, in a singular tradition.  It has become modern in parts, but with medieval streets.  There are cars parked along Northmoor Road, and nobody else seems to be here for a pilgrimage today.  Perhaps it’s for the best; how could the workaday world possibly improve for the use of imagination?

Selection, Natural or Not

Darwin is extinct, it seems.  At least in the UK.  Perhaps I ought to explain.  I do not travel to England often, and I’m not always good about changing cash before I go.  Usury doesn’t sit well with me, and someone taking a cut just because I have to travel (usury actually doesn’t sting so much when you make a trip by choice) seems unethical.  When I discovered I was required in Oxford, my wife suggested I take some cash.  I went to the attic and rummaged through papers from a trip sometime within the last decade (my passport is still good, so it had to have been in this time frame), and found some ten-pound notes with Darwin on them.  They didn’t smell bad to me, so I said “I’ll just take these.”

I suspect that, like most people, I keep a pocketful of change as a souvenir when I travel to foreign shores.  So I had a few bank notes that hadn’t seemed worth changing back at the time.  Bread cast upon the waters, and all.  I had to make a small purchase in Oxford and the clerk said, oh so politely, “That’s old money, I’m afraid I can’t accept it.”  Interesting.  I had no idea money had a sell-by date.  She said “The bank will change it for you.”  Banks handle all kinds of money.  I walked to the nearest bank and the polite young man (all the bank tellers carry tablets here, like iPads at the Apple Store) told me that banks don’t do that service unless you’re an account holder.  “The good news,” he said, “is that the post office will do it for you, and it’s less than 300 metres from here.”  I was up to a 300 meter walk, so I went.  The British post office isn’t just a place to mail letters, I knew from living here years ago.  The woman at the counter frowned.  “I don’t know why banks send people here,” she said.  “We can’t exchange pounds for pounds.  I can change it into dollars for you.”  Of course, there was a charge to do so, just as there was a charge to change the notes from dollars to pounds in the first place.

Sadly I handed Darwin over and received American faces in turn.  Such is natural selection.  Ironically, just a few days ago I was at a farmer’s market (in the United States).  The man next to me received a silver note in change—he commented that these bills are somewhat more valuable than a standard Washington.  They are still accepted however, as legal tender.  In fact the last time I went to a US bank to turn in change, the bank officer looked at some very eroded coins and said, “As long as I can verify it’s US currency I can accept it.”  I still find occasional old coins in circulation.  Updating currency and then charging for having old money seems like it ought to count as usury.  But then, perhaps my ethics are simply outdated. 

On a Jet Plane

So I’m heading to England.  Not for pleasure—this is a business trip.  Long ago, back when I worked for Routledge, I discovered that I dislike business travel.  Unlike vacation planning where the possibilities spread out beautifully before you—for this is free time and you decide—business travel is, like Peter was told, “thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.”  Indeed.  Business travel is at the whim of the man, and you can’t really look forward to the sights, the relaxation, or even being given the choice of where to go.  You’re on assignment.  Or consignment, I can’t recall which.  The carefully honed routine with which you hold back the chaos of the world is blown apart.  It begins with the red eye.

You see, companies don’t like you to make your own travel plans.  You might chose a flight that’s pennies more expensive than some itinerary that routes you through Albuquerque at four a.m.  It’s not like you’ve got anything better to do, right?  And since you’re exempt, we’ll take your Sunday, gratis.  Where’s your team spirit?  As I’ve grown older, I’ve become a creature of habit.  The hour of the typical red eye is when I get up to write.  That can’t be done in an airport, or on a plane, where everyone can see you.  No, this is a private thing.  Everyone else must be asleep.  Most of them, preferably, in another house.  So I’m flying to London and catch a late-night bus to Oxford.

Part of my worry, dear readers, is you.  As this blog approaches its tenth birthday, I’ve been in the habit of posting daily for many years.  Mostly at the same time—weekends and commuting days are exceptions, of course—and when you’re changing time zones you might do well to have Rod Serling with you.  I can’t figure them out.  British hotels, also, do not offer wifi in their rooms unless the boss wants you to pay extra for it.  And considering the mandated flight behavior, that’s best just taken off the table.  So, as I prepare to leave before sunrise on one of the longest days of the year, I don’t know if or when I’ll get to post over the next few days.  I won’t even know what time it is.  Like pay toilets, charging for internet access ought to be criminal these days.  But opportunities to take money are everywhere.  And those of us who travel for business always rely on the kindness of capitalists.

Whose Bus? Omnibus!

The long-distant commute is an extended social experiment.  Although some of the people on the bus know each other—from overheard conversations while in line it’s clear that many of these commuters go to New York daily—they want to sit alone.  The idea behind a bus, short for omnibus (Latin, “for all”), is essential equality.  When I commuted daily from central New Jersey, I was a passenger from the originating city on the route.  By the time New Jersey Transit buses got to New York it was rare for a seat to be empty.  Now I take TransBridge, a bus line that operates out of Bethlehem.  The buses are much nicer, but I’m no longer from the originating town.  By the time the bus arrives at 4:30 a.m., it’s already half-full.  (Half-empty if you’re an optimist.)  That’s not a problem, of course, but the way people claim territory is.

Typically those who get on at the initial stop sit in the aisle seat, place their bag in the window seat, and do their best to fall asleep before reaching my stop, which is only 15 minutes away.  When you go to get on, in other words, there are almost no seats and the happy, dreaming commuter knows you don’t want to wake him or her to get them to move their bag and let you in.  Like most people I’d like to have two seats to myself—who wouldn’t?  But the fact is the bus will be full and these people who do this every day should know that.  But still they try to block others out.  As a social experiment, it is worth some consideration.  If you put your bag in the aisle seat it’s easier to accommodate the person who’ll inevitably sit next to you.  But this is Trump’s America—everyone for himself.

I’m a fairly quiet person, and I don’t want to disturb anyone’s slumber.  Many people not only sprawl out like they’re in bed at home, but they wear dark glasses and headphones so that you have to nudge them to get their attention.  Then they act as if you’ve insulted them.  Or they’re doing you a favor by letting you sit in “their” seat.  I suspect the fact is that none of us wants to have to go so far to work.  And I know that sitting next to a stranger can be less than ideal.  When I buy my ticket, however, I know that I’m opting for an omnibus, and those who do so should be clear on the concept before handing over their money.  Or maybe I’m just dreaming.