Monday, February 28, 2011

A Man Far From Home

Imagine if Tom Sawyer was plucked from the banks of the mighty Mississippi and placed in the confines of any major U.S. city. That's how I'm feeling these days.

Sometimes when I think about my life in Chicago it sickens me. I sleep on the tenth floor of a ten-story skyscraper overlooking hundreds of brick buildings -- concrete as far as I can see. I spend my days confined in one of those brick buildings, which aren't easily distinguishable from one another: a fourteen-story skyscraper. I travel to and fro between those buildings on an underground train (when it's too unbearably cold to walk).

Skyscrapers and trains - that's a large chunk of my life in Chicago. Skyscrapers and trains are two of the defining symbols of the American industrial age, symbols of modernity. Skyscrapers moved Americans upwards and trains moved us westward; both ushered in a new era of mass production and unprecedented capitalism. In my mind, though, they're more important symbolically for what they destroyed: the golden age of American agrarianism, Tom Sawyer's kingdom.

And then I think about how I spend my time in this concrete world, Chicago, largely rotating back and forth between a laptop and television set - two more American symbols, representing the dawn of 20th century technology and the boom of the computer age, respectively. I think about it and I realize how little my life equates to my own grandfather, or my own father's (!) life and it disappoints me to no end. I feel like if I walked into a bar and met Tom Sawyer, we wouldn't have a lot to talk about, and that's plain depressing. Sure, modernity has it's perks, but I'll take a fishing pole and miles of open field over reality television and fancy buildings any day. As Ronnie van Zandt lamented, "I can see the concrete a' creepin'/ Lord take me in mind before that comes". Well I'm living in the world Ronnie reluctantly foresaw.

This past weekend found me driving into Petoskey, the flagship setting of Up North, Michigan. As I gazed into the pine-soaked countryside, I felt in touch with reality for the first time in a long time. Peering out the car window at hunting cabins tucked in amidst the evergreens and at roadside hole-in-the-wall bars, you could feel that you were entering into a realm of the past, a simpler place. And I could envision the men lurking in those cabins and seated at those barstools; you knew that they had a grip on reality, that they didn't know what the popular reality shows were or what the next Apple product was -- and they didn't give a damn.

Up in Petoskey I love to sit on the back porch staring out into the woods. It's a place where a man can sit with a glass of bourbon and listen to nature without hearing a honking car or a police siren; a place where you can sit at a rustic bar where Hemingway once frequented or walk the trails he traversed and feel like the world you live in isn't so different from the one he described in all those stories.

I've been a day back in Chicago, now. And I feel lightyears away from Tom Sawyer and Ernest Hemingway.

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