Social Class Reproduction

Four Rules for Teaching Writing:
Image result for image: joy of writing
Always give writing assignments that

1. you will enjoy reading;
2. students will enjoy writing;
3. students will enjoy reading what others in the class have written
4. you will enjoy writing.

If any one of these conditions were not true, then it probably wasn't a very good assignment.

Advice I give to my students: When your words surprise you, you know you are writing.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Day 23. September 11th

We wake a 7:30. A chorus if birds are singing outside the tent. After a while, we get going. Lola hangs around me closely while I’m taking the tent down and packing. It’s a quiet morning, other’s not up, or at least outside yet. By 8:30, we’re almost ready to leave, and I take my eye off Lola. I turn around and she is gone, down by the lake I assume. I walk down over the rise and see her over to the left by the pier. She is rolling in ecstasy on her back again. I know this will not be pleasant. I go over, and yes, this time she is rolling around on a large, dead fish—looks like a pike that has been in the sun for seveal days. Lola gets a vigorous bath in the lake. She doesn’t like that.
We are off by nine. It was a pleasant campsite. I have planned my time and expect to arrive in Livonia, Louisiana, where I will be staying with my friends, Renee and Paul, in their resurrected Cajun planation home that had been in Paul’s family for centuries. It’s one of my favorite houses.
At about ten, we stop for a breakfast, after which we make good time through south Texas. The landscape gradually changes from mesquite to taller trees and mildly rolling hills, the houses still far between. I know my trip is essentially over, although Baton Rouge is really the endpoint, as it was the beginning.
Driving in the United States is, compared to driving through Mexico and Central America, emotionally flat because I know what to expect. Consequently, for the first time since I began this journey back, I plug in my iphone and start listening to the theorized final chapters to On the Road, theorized because a dog had eaten the end of the scroll version. I don’t like it as well as the version that ended with what we know were Kerouac’s actually words. I think the theorized version ends flat.
Then I start listening to Helen Macdonald’s memoir, H is for Hawk. Macdonald is a lovely writer—perhaps too lovely, but I love here themes, all of which speak to my journey: death of a loved one, stuttering attempts to recover, failed subsequent relationships, loneliness, interspecies communication (in Macdonald’s case, people and birds; in mine, people and dogs). In one section, while describing a U-2 pilot’s experience while flying alone for 1-12 hours on the outer edges of the earth’s atmosphere, she quotes, I think, Marianne Moore, who said something like, the best cure for loneliness is solitude. That is it, exactly. Driving alone through Central American and Mexico does not make me a U-2 pilot, and I do not have a book as my co-pilot (as did this U-2 pilot, who had a habit of reading Once and a Future King as he flew—I have Lola), but driving alone through strange country for three weeks provides plenty of solitude, enough to make one an existentialist.
I hit Houston by 1:30 and follow the GPS directions (59 to I-10) straight through downtown instead of taking either of the two possible beltways. The GPS was right (in contrast to its usual information Mexico and CA). But about a little east of Beaumont, I hit stopped traffic. It soon becomes apparent that no one is moving. I am worried, because I know Renee and Paul are expecting me for dinner somewhere around six, but I text my situation and Renee, as always, is gracious, and tells me not to worry.
After about a half-hour of getting nowhere, I see a smart driver drive off the road and across the dirt/grass to the frontage road on the right. I squeeze over in the right lane, and do the same, see the traffic piled up down the frontage road but the entrance to I-10 going West (back) is clear, and so I do a quick map check, take I-10 West (back), take the first road north that I can, another slanting northeast, and after a while, one south back to I-10 to circle around whatever accident is on I-10. I think driving through Mexico and CA, particularly on the way down without maps, has made me a resourceful driver.
I lose about an hour and a half. I’m not going to make it to Renee and Paul’s until 7:30-7:45. I settle into driving this last stretch, listening to H Is for Hawk.
It’s getting dark by the time I pass Lafayette. A little later, I reach the Atchafalaya spillway crossing the incredible Atchafalaya swamp. It goes for about twenty miles. I am coming back to Baton Rouge, and I’m a little bit sad, because this is where a wonderful part of my life with Sarah was. Traveling the spillway, I go through this period of my life, almost as if I’m in a time warp.
It does not escape me that I am nearing the end of my road trip by returning to Baton Rouge on September 11, commemorating the day when thousands lost people they had loved, leaving the survivors to cope with that horrible loss and struggle to repair their broken lives. Or that Sarah died on August 11, 2011. If I were a numerologist, I would try to read this language of loss, noting perhaps that we survivors are odd, not even.
But these things happen. It happened to Helen Macdonald and so many others I have come to know who have lost at least half of their lives. We are left to find our new ways on a strange road. I think my road trip through Mexico and Central America and back has been a metaphor for my journey without Sarah, going down without maps or language and coming back with both. My Spanish is still quite terrible. Going down, I met with anxiety any situation in which I had to speak. Coming back, I looked for situations in which others would tolerate my tortured language.
I’m a little proud that I have made it. 

Day 22 Rolling Around in Someone Else's Shit

We wake at 7:30. I take care of a few emails, correct some things in my last night’s blog, walk Lola, and we’re off by 9:00, our usual time. No restaurant at the hotel, so I’ll find a place on the road.
I expect an uneventful day. The drive north will be mostly flat and with mesquite dominating the landscape.
In a way, I am looking forward to the day, the end of my Mexico/Central America trip, but in a way, I am not. I really like Mexico. Many parts of Mexico are beautiful, and the people are gracious. I love talking to them. And in contrast to the rumors one hears about the police and military, they have without exception been friendly and helpful. So I am sorry to be leaving.
I am surprised by the landscape. It is generally flat and full of mesquite, but this landscape has its own magic. There are rises and to the west, I can see the high mountains. But here’s what’s best: I have taken a road not often taken by gringos. This road goes through uninhabited country. I rarely see a car or truck. I am by myself, the land, the sky, and Lola and I moving through it by car. In the car, I am fixed: it’s the landscape that changes, like a movie. I think of Einstein again: Everything depends on what you imagine as a fixed point. I suppose we all imagine ourselves as the fixed point and it’s everything else that changes.
My movie changes after about an hour. I merge onto 101, and there is a lot of traffic. It’s kind of like people got into my space, and I don’t like that too much. But the time moved swiftly, too swiftly because I don’t want this part of my life to end.
But it does. I hit the border at 12:30. Borders come on you quickly. Suddenly, you have military checkpoints every few miles. The military rarely ask for any identification. When they see my bikes and hear that Lola and I have driven from New Jersey (I always say Philadelphia) to Panama and back, they want to know more about what I’m doing. And I invariably end our conversation by saying, me gusta mucho Mexico. Es un bien pais. And we leave each other with smiles.
Then the border is suddenly there. I measure what I have learned by the lack of any anxiety when approaching the border. I chose the Hidalgo over the Brownsville border because of all the stories about Brownsville, but I doubt that there would have been any difference. The border is a snap. The Mexicans give me a couple of stamps and point me toward the gringos. There is a bit of a line at the USA side, but I spend my time looking for a camp site. Like everyone else, the Americans are surprised that I have driven by myself (with Lola) through Mexico and Central America. One young woman, the border officer asks “And nothing happened to you?” She means kidnapping and extortion. I say, no, not even close. (Well, I did have to pay a couple of bribes.) But violence? Not a chance. This is the difference between what we hear about things and what they are, which you can know only when you try them out for yourself.
I am a little foolish: I have 70 miles of gas left and I just want to get out of McAllen—I really don’t like cities—before I stop for gas. But suddenly I am in Texas country, and in south Texas, there is nothing leading to nothing. After about 40 miles and no towns or gas stations, I go into my oh shit mode. I dial back to 50 mph to get better mileage. I pass one 300 hundred citizen town and no gas station. Finally, I hit an inspection station and I ask the young officer (I have noticed how everyone is young) if there is  a gas station ahead. I think I say, hay un estacion do gasolina Adelante? I have a hard time remembering that I’m in English speaking country. Whenever I meet someone, I say Hola.
Yes, thirteen miles up the road. That is good. I have 40 miles of gas left.
I guess I am on the downside, leaving Mexico. I hit the gas station and everything goes wrong. I try three pumps and various things are                           wrong—like I can’t read the instructions or the machine won’t accept my card. On the third station, the machine doesn’t let me extract my card after inserting it.
I go into the store, and the clerk says, yes, some of the stations aren’t working. A man comes out with a pair of pliers and extracts my card. I give the woman my care to pay from inside and fill up my tank. I am momentarily happy.
I buy some junk food and leave. There is a huge desolate area in back of the station, so I drive there and let Lola out while I decide where I might camp for the night. I see Lola playing around in the weeds and then peeing and pooping, and I a few minutes later, I see here rolling around on her back. In the sand, this is OK, but in the weeds, this is never good news. I call her and she comes, but boy does she stink. I don’t know what kind of shit or dead stuff she was rolling around in, but it stinks.
I very stupidly get mad at her. I blame her for rolling around in shit. I take her over to an adjacent car wash and put in two quarters and can’t get any water. I try another station with a quarter and nothing happens. Three women are washing their truck in an adjacent station, and I ask them how this works—like I want to douse Lola because she really stinks. They tell me you have to put in 1.25 to get it to work. Well, I don’t have 1.25 in quarters and the store is a long walk away. I see a sink with a water faucet, and I consider trying to put Lola in the sink, but the sink is more like for a kitten. I turn the water on and see that the water just pours out of the sink underneath, and I make Lola stand underneath the drain while I wash her with a towel that I will throw away. I am still blaming her. She wonders why I’m so angry. She thinks, all I was doing was rolling around in shit that smelled so good.
I get over this. I know there is a message here—and there is.
I study my map and find a campsite an hour away—near Mathais, Texas. We get there by six, and it is beautiful. I pet Lola and ask her to forgive me. She probably thinks maybe I should try rolling around in someone else’s shit.
After we have put up our tent and settled in or the night, I begin writing, Lola lying in the grass beside the picnic table on which I am writing. Lola loves to camp. If I could depend on her not to wander off while I’m writing, I wouldn’t have to leash her, but we haven’t got there yet. She doesn’t go far, but I need to get her so that when I say lie down, she’ll do that and stay there until I say it’s time for a walk. She’ll get there. She has come a long way since I first got her.

The evening is quiet. As usual, I’m the only tent camper, so no one else is in the tent area, and the RV campers seem to have gone inside. One quiet boat is on the lake. The lake has become smooth, the sun is setting. The dragon flies are thick over the shore. You would have to work to find anything wrong with this world.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Day 21. I’ll Be Back

I will try to make this a quick entry because I want to post the last several entries that I haven’t been able to post because I’ve been camping. If any of you are reading every post, there will be too much to read anyway because each day brings surprises. On the other hand, although I am writing for friends and family, I am also writing for myself, very much as I write in my diary. I want to keep track of important events and what they mean to me.
Today is going to be difficult to describe, not because so much has happened but because I’m near the end of my trip and what has been a spiritual journey. Although I look forward to seeing friends and family, in many ways I don’t want this trip to end, which it will do tomorrow—at least the Mexican and Central American part. I expect to hit the border around one and set up camp in Texas, then join my friends, Renee and Paul, in Livonia, Louisiana on Monday.
When I wake up this morning and look out the hotel window, I see one, that the hurricane is fully over, and two, that no storm surge swamped my car. I have a full agenda for the day. I have to get to a branch of Banco Aztek (the only bank that changes dollars to pesos) to get some pesos. The price of this hotel nearly wiped me out, and the one thing I learned on my way down is that in Mexico, you had better have your pesos. Dollars don’t work. I have to have some breakfast. No dinner last night because of the storm and I was worried about the dearth of my pesos, thinking if I can’t get an exchange,  I have to have enough (300 pesos) to make it to the border, because I have to make it to the border on Sunday.  I need dog food. And I need to get close to La Pesca, where I would like to camp, so that I know I’ll make the border on Sunday--the limit of my visa.
The day starts well. I start walking Lola on the beach and then remember that Jesse was going to call me in the morning, but I had left my iphone in my room. Lola was running around on the deserted beach, so I let her continue on her merry way and I went back to the hotel room to get my iphone. I knew that Lola would get worried when she discovered I wasn’t on the beach, and I like that. I came out on the porch to my room and waited a few minutes and then saw Lola come bouncing up from the beach, looking for me. I watched her track me. Her nose followed my exact path until she figured out that I had gone back to our room, and she started on a straight path here.

An Olympic size swimming pool is in the way of that path, the water flush with the top of the wall so that it looks just like another surface. Lola tried to run across it and fell in. She does not like to swim in water over her head, so she had a brief panic, then made it to a wall and got out and came running to the stairs and up to where I was standing. I suspect only other dog lovers will know why this scene was important—and a little funny when she discovered that that blue surface was water.
I packed and planned, and we were out by nine. I was hoping to make La Pesca by six, which would give me time to set up camp before the night hit.
On the road up the Emerald Coast, I checked out all the camp grounds where I could have camped last night if I hadn’t panicked when I learned from Heather and Jesse that I was on the southern edge of a hurricane and decided to take the nearest hotel room that would permit a dog. I plan to return.
I drive for about an hour to Gutierrez Zamora. It’s a few minutes after ten, so I head into town to see if there is a Banco Aztek there. After a few blocks, I see several trucks of the national police parked and several heavily armed policemen hanging around them. I park and ask them if there is a Banco Aztec in town.
They are so cool. First, they try to explain directions. They are complicated and they see that I zoned out after the third turn, so one of them said, “Sigue nosotros,” and I said, “Muchas gracias.”
Four of them pile into one of the trucks, two in the front seat, two standing up in the truck bed, the way soldiers and policemen in Mexico do. They also put on their bullet-proof vests, helmets with dark visors, and strap on their submachine guns. Then they proceed to lead me through town to the Banco Aztec. I really want to use my iphone to take a video of them leading me through town, but I think I had better not.
The money exchange is quick. That is one thing down that I don’t have to worry about. Across from where I had parked my car and left Lola inside is a small restaurant. I go in and order breakfast, huevos mexicano, without knowing what I am getting. A mother and her daughter are running the place. I am their only customer.
This is charming. While I am drinking coffee and waiting for whatever I have ordered, the mother clomes over and sits down and wants to know where I am from and why I am driving with a dog (she can see Lola watching me from across the street). She asks what many Mexicans and Central Americans ask me: esta solo? They really want to know why I’m alone. I explain.
As with the policemen, the military men who check me on the road, and these people who ask my why I’m alone, I use every event as a chance to practice my bad Spanish. I love to use my poor Spanish. I’ll talk to anyone about anything.
I can eat only 1/4th of the eggs, tomatoes, and other things and tamales that finally come. The daughter wraps them up for me for later. I enjoy these simple exchanges.
I drive out of town, stop at a Pemex and get gas and at an EXXO to get dog food. I am on the road.
The drive is simply beautiful through minor mountains and the kind of twisting roads I love. I keep careful track of where I am and where I am going by constantly checking my GPS and my map of Mexico. The GPS doesn’t work very well—it just gives you a vague idea of the major roads and where you might be, but by cross-checking the GPS with my map, I don’t make a single mistake until I hit Tampico. I don’t know how I managed to make it down through Mexico and Central America without maps—that’s why I was so frequently lost.
When I reach Tampica, I ask the man in the toll booth for the best route to Cuidad Victoria. I am pleased that I understand his directions and am doing well for about a half-hour at which point, I know I have made some kind of mistake. Really, I have been complimenting myself on my Spanish and how well I am doing that at some point, overly enchanted with my accomplishments, I miss a sign. So I am back to my usual: every few blocks, Donde esta el major calle por Ciudad Victoria?
I guess I lose about an hour, but then I am finally on my way out of town.
This is the good part—once I am out of the major city. The sky ia beautiful: a mixture of towering cumulous clouds and low flying dark clouds left from the hurricane and stratus clouds streaking across clear blue skies. I see a rainbow.
With one slight hiccup, I make the right turn at Villa Manuel to head for La Pesca. There is a funny scene at the gas station with several men—they all all interested in Lola, who guards my car.
That’s about it for the day. But the most important part is while I was driving and knowing this would be my last late afternoon drive in Mexico. I really like Mexico and the people here, and particularly the small, out-of-the way towns. I am pleased with myself—not always the case, and I’ll spare you the examples. My marker is the difference between going down through Mexico and coming back. I feel as if I can go anywhere.

It’s dark by the time we hit Soto La Marina, where we could turn east for an hour drive to La Pesca, where I know I can camp. But I decide, uncharacteristically, not to push my luck and stop at the first hotel I see and check in. Lola and I go for a long walk, then back to the room where I eat my huevos Mexicano.  I am going to be very sorry to leave Mexico. I’ll be back.