Sunday, October 4, 2015

Two Places Not to See Before You Die

One of the pitfalls of living in the idyllic setting of your choice in the absence of unpleasantness is that sooner or later you will have a rude awakening when one of the banes of your former life suddenly intrudes upon you and unsettles you even more than it did previously. The effect can be like suddenly going from a John Constable painting to the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx, or from an essay by Alexis de Tocqueville to a song by Cyndi Lauper. This can happen when you drive or fly to another part of the country or simply by inadvertently switching on a daytime television program. When you are working and occupied you become accustomed to distractions and psychological noise and accordingly build up a resistance to them, like germs, but in their absence over extended periods you may become vulnerable to them once again, even hypersensitive.

Although I'm sure many would just write me off, as Spiro Agnew would say, as an effete snob, I sometimes feel as if I have the curse of good taste while living in a barbarian civilization that considers it a borderline crime. However, I don't think of myself as an expert in much of anything and would describe myself as a dilettante in most things. The problem I have seems to be that I recognize unimaginative repetition more readily than most people and become bored and annoyed when presented with something that is little more than a repackaging of something that has already been done. This is why I come down so hard on most of the arts. It is an offense to me that after centuries of great literature some schmuck can still crank out what I consider to be literary garbage, and no one bats an eye. In a way it is as if people actively discard the past and prefer to reinvent the wheel because it is easier and more soothing than actually producing something memorable. Of course, this all occurs against the backdrop of capitalism in which, to look at it honestly, the only thing that usually counts is the passing of money from one hand to another.

Whenever I depart from my little utopia it doesn't take long for me to observe that most people are living compromised lives and probably don't know what they're missing or that they are in some sense victims of a political and economic system that is reeling out of control. I see obese people everywhere who are going to have shortened lives while subsidizing the food and pharmaceutical industries and are never giving it a thought. They don't think they have a problem, and no one will step in to explain the enormity of it all. Most television programming is so unsatisfactory to me that I can barely even watch one episode of a celebrated series that wins multiple Emmys and has ample space devoted to it in literary reviews, where sycophantic doyennes will join the chorus if the money is right.

What started me thinking about this post was the book 1000 Places to See Before You Die. We have a copy here, which I haven't looked at for quite some time. By coincidence, I have seen several of these places, but my tendency is often to go in the opposite direction and avoid what is said to be essential. In this vein I like to think in terms of places that I haven't seen and would rather not. Originally I wanted to go to many places because during my childhood my family was financially strapped and we rarely did anywhere interesting. After moving from England we went on one trip to Niagara Falls and two trips to Cape Cod, and that was it. At age 18 I took a train from Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan to attend college, sight unseen, in Indiana, and that was my first trip west of Pennsylvania. I had managed to make it all the way through high school with very little travel. Since then I've been able to see most of what I wanted to see in North America and Europe, and now, living in a place that I like a lot, I have little desire for more travel. The crowded, no-frills flights and security procedures these days are special disincentives to travel in themselves.

Because I dislike so much about American culture, there are quite a few places that I'd just as soon never go. I never wanted to go to Florida, but had to make a short business trip there once. I've never been to Texas, which I think is a plus, though it's so large that there must be a few good things there. I've always wondered about New Orleans, but think I would find it far too touristy, and I don't particularly like the music. Generally I don't like the culture of the South, though I've spent time in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Maryland, which all have pretty parts. Perhaps my favorite travel in the U.S. is driving on the high plains between the Rocky Mountains and the Cascade and Sierra Nevada ranges, where the vastness gives me a feeling of awe similar to the feeling I get from stargazing.

At this point I am trying to uphold my standards and am continuing to avoid going to Los Angeles or Las Vegas, because they seem to me like epicenters of the cultural depravity of the U.S. I suppose that if someone twisted my arm I might go, but, even then, it would probably be as an anthropologist rather than for pleasure as a willing participant.


  1. You do Ms. Lauper a slight injustice. She's not that bad.

    1. Well, she may have had more of an impact on your adolescence than she had on mine, because I was 33 when "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" came out in 1983. I just watched the video and don't think I'll be viewing it often: I suppose you could say that she influenced popular performers all the way up to Pussy Riot. I could probably have found a better example but didn't want to spend time looking for something that I would find unpleasant.