Monday, December 10, 2018

Four Diversions for Sleepless Nights

December is a rather busy month for most of us, but there still might be days or evenings when we have time to unwind and the notion of picking up an old-fashioned book or movie is more appealing than whatever is on the screen of our cell phone. The following recently have occupied some of my time (mostly in the middle of the night) with mixed results:

Earth Descended by Fred Saberhagen
20th century science fiction by the better authors has a special quality to it. Even when the themes are adult (as they often were by the 1960s) the tales to modern eyes commonly have a refreshing innocence. Even when they are un-PC (as they often were throughout the era) they are absent the meanness that permeates so much of present day writing and culture. Saberhagen is one of the better authors, best known for his “berserker” stories about self-replicating doomsday weapons. Earth Descended is a collection of a dozen of his short stories written between 1968 and 1981. Saberhagen’s style evolves interestingly in this period from straightforward to experimental and from optimistic to cynical.

The stories bear little similarity to each other in any way other than in prose style and by broadly fitting a definition of scifi. They include a berserker tale that intersects (really) with Sherlock Holmes. There is a magic-filled fantasy story (“Earthshade”) originally written for Larry Niven’s Warlock series. There is an interstellar generation ship (“Birthdays”) of a peculiar type. Observer created reality becomes all too literal in “Recessional.” Mortality is optional in “Calendars.” There is even his own scifi version of Theseus in Crete. The collection is science fiction as we all too seldom encounter it anymore. Recommended.

**** ****

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2011)
This dramedy was recommended to me by the Amazon algorithm as a movie I might like. It is reassuring to know that Amazon and Google don’t know everything about me yet, perhaps because Alexa isn’t listening in my house. (It amazes me that so many people are complaisant about installing web-connected listening devices in their own homes: devices that listen carefully enough to judge the quality of the relationships in those homes. The Independent reported research by Imperial College Business School concluding that “digital assistants could predict with 75 per cent accuracy the likelihood of a relationship or marriage being a success.” I’m sure the unsuccessful will get unsolicited ads for marriage counselors and divorce attorneys on their smart phones.) Anyway, this movie by the Duplass brothers just didn’t work for me.

Jeff (Jason Segel) is a 30-year-old man-child living in his mother’s basement in Baton Rouge. He doesn’t believe money is one of the important things in life but does believe in fate and the interconnectedness of the universe. Signs is his favorite movie. When he gets a wrongly dialed call from someone seeking “Kevin,” he takes it as a sign to seek out Kevin. Along the way he interacts with his ultra-materialistic brother Pat (Ed Helms) who is letting his marriage and other important things in life fall apart. Pat suspects his wife might be cheating on him, though it would be hard to blame her under the circumstances. The frustrated hardworking mother (Susan Sarandon) of Pat and Jeff, meantime, has a secret admirer at work. All of them end up en route to New Orleans. Events occur on the trip that are supposed to be heartwarming (I think), but to me they seem so contrived as to take the viewer (this viewer, anyway) out of the moment. The supposed denouement of the film (the revelation that Jeff is not such a loser after all) is frankly still up for debate at the end. One good deed during a crisis on a road trip is not a validation of a general lifestyle; it just means that Jeff is a nice person, which no one ever doubted.

This film has generally positive reviews, with the adjective “amiable” turning up a lot, but to me its mere 83 minutes seemed very long. Thumbs Down.

**** ****

Killing Dylan by Alastair Puddick
This mystery novel published in 2016 is enjoyable from start to finish.

Freddie Winters is a mystery writer who was college friends with fellow writer Dylan St. James. Freddie is published and modestly well-known but he has to scratch for every pound and frequently has to dodge his landlord for lack of funds. Dylan, by contrast, is enormously successful with his more literary fiction that, according to Freddie, “has me choking on my own bile. Fortunately for Dylan, however, it is the same type of stuff that has middle-aged, middle-class women recommending it to their book clubs.” If you detect resentment at Dylan’s success in that, you’re right, and Freddie avoids Dylan for that reason.

Dylan doesn’t return the ill feelings, however, and one day he shows up at the coffee shop where Freddie commonly uses the free Wi-Fi. Dylan says that someone is trying to kill him but the police aren’t taking his claims seriously. He asks for Freddie’s help as someone good with mysteries. Attacks by auto, letter bomb, and even a speargun lend credibility to Dylan’s claims. Freddie looks for a motive from Dylan’s ex-wives, doctor, publisher, and others. The writing is good, the characters engaging, and the plot twists are clever, suspenseful, and funny. Thumbs Up.

**** ****

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)
The plot device of an ordinary person caught up against his or her will in a spy adventure (e.g. the esteemed North by Northwest and the disposable The Man Who Knew Too Little) is an old one, but it still can work if done right. This one is done sufficiently right: it is no modern classic, but it is amusing and is full of more well-choreographed mayhem than any Bond film.

Audrey (Mila Kunis) discovers the hard way that her boyfriend Drew is an agent. When he is shot in front of her, she and her friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon), believing they are in danger whatever they do, try to complete Drew’s mission by delivering a flash drive to Vienna. It doesn’t go well. In chases from Vienna to Prague to Paris to Amsterdam to Berlin they try to stay alive as the body count mounts and they try to figure out who is on whose side. And yes, it is a comedy, sort of. Thumbs Up – not way up, but up.

Trailer: The Spy Who Dumped Me

Monday, December 3, 2018

Headshrunk Supers

In an October 31 post below regarding the first season of The Adventures of Superman, I repeated the oft-mentioned observation that superhero stories are very much of a type with ancient tales of heroes and demigods. In fact, the ancient heroes and gods turn up in modern tales with some frequency, such as Ares in Wonder Woman and most of the important characters in Percy Jackson & the Olympians.

That observation prompted a revisit to the multi-volume The Golden Bough by James George Frazer. Originally published 1890, it remains the single most important work on the origins and evolution of mythology, not just in the West but around the world. That assessment is likely to annoy a modern anthropologist, most of whom make a point of dismissing Frazer as unscientific. Yet, though his sources are literary rather than archeological and his analyses necessarily speculative, he more often than not is convincing on the fundamental points. This is why he was such an outsized influence on foremost members of the literary and intellectual scene of the late 19th and early 20th century, including Robert Graves (whose The White Goddess is another essential tome on mythology), W.B. Yeats, Aleister Crowley, Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Campbell, T.S. Eliot, Carl Jung, and many others. He still appeals today. Camille Paglia commented that even though he might have been superseded on details, he “will remain inspirational for enterprising students seeking escape from today's sterile academic climate.”

Frazer is definitely worth a visit on his own merits. His discussions of fertility cults, resurrection myths, scapegoating, sacrifices, and more are endlessly fascinating. (Single volume abridgements of The Golden Bough are available, but if you have the time tackle the full set.) However, revisiting his work proved a misstep with regard to considering modern superheroes, who belong to a later stage of mythology. They are adventurers in the mold of Theseus, Hercules, Perseus, and Bellerophon. Frazer doesn’t ignore these completely, but the older and deeper entities such as Isis and Osiris interested him more. While I don’t regret the diversion into Frazer, more recent books on the modern superheroes themselves were, perhaps unsurprisingly, more directly useful. There is a plethora of such books from which to choose, but I went with The Avengers and Philosophy, which contains contributions from 18 philosophers, and The Psychology of Superheroes with contributions by a couple dozen psychologists. Are these authors overthinking the subject? Well, yes and no. There really are ethical questions raised in the context of comic book superhero tales, and the characters work only to the extent they reflect something about the human condition. It’s important to note that both books rely primarily on comic books as sources, not movies. The storylines there differ from the screen versions substantially. Nonetheless essential character traits are usually unchanged by the transition to screen.

Mark White, who edited the collection of essays that make up The Avengers and Philosophy gets us started by contrasting the ethical systems of Captain America (a deontologist), Iron Man (utilitarian), and Thor (virtue ethicist). The classic example to contrast the first two is the trolley car conundrum. A runaway trolley with 5 people aboard is headed for a certain lethal crash; you can prevent it by throwing a switch that diverts it onto a track where one person is standing and will definitely be killed. Do you throw the switch? A deontologist says no; it is never right to choose to kill an innocent person and that is that. A utilitarian says one death is better than 5; throw the switch. This is why Iron Man and Captain America were on opposite sides of the Civil War. Iron Man (Tony Stark) says look at the outcome, which will be better if we cooperate with the Registration Act. Captain America says forget the outcome: the Registration Act is wrong. Thor has another approach altogether. He strives to be a virtuous person: loyal, honest, brave, true, honorable and supportive of comrades even if that comrade is Loki. He doesn’t much interest himself in other ethical minutia – and that is the potential problem. One can have all those virtuous traits in a bad cause.

Other authors in the collection discuss responsibility for unintended consequences, ask if might is right, ask when ends justify means in war, and ponder the possibility of redemption. Several superheroes (e.g. Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch) had stints as villains, after all, while others (notably Black Widow) are ambiguous. Forgiveness is not much in fashion in the 21st century, but in the comics, at least, it’s discussed. There is even a discussion of the nature of reality with regard to She-Hulk who is aware she is a character in a comic book. There also are discussions of love, which in the real modern world all too often resembles something out of a comic book. You’ll never look at the Avengers quite the same way again after this book, and that is all to the good.

The Psychology of Superheroes poses questions (and offers tentative answers) that are much more personal. For example, Robin S. Rosenberg, who edited the collection, asks in her essay, “So how different would Superman be if he had grown up in a different part of the country?” Suppose Clark had grown up in Brooklyn with unsupportive parents? What of Clark is nature and what is nurture? Robert Biswas-Diener in his essay discusses Peter Parker. Yes, we all know the guilt trip over his uncle’s death that led to his crime-fighting, but is that the reason he continues? Biswas-Diener thinks not. After all, he has done more than his share taking down supervillains, but he doesn’t retire. Biswas-Diener thinks he simply enjoys the opportunity to use “the full range of his strengths.” Other authors discuss such various topics as the effects of prejudice (Magneto), the deliberate simplification of one’s public persona to reassure others (Superman), and the employment of the dark side of one’s character (Batman) to positive ends. Chuck Tate suggests, “Maybe this apparent contradiction explains why Superman and Batman can’t get along. Superman knows that the Batman is closer in motivations and behavior to the villains.” There is much more on the expression and suppression of aggression and anger, on psychopathy, on the psychology of readers of superhero comics, and on the inmates of Arkham Asylum.

The reader can’t go wrong with either book. For those who feel a twinge of guilt at “wasting” time on superficial superhero comics and movies, the books offer a way to turn them into meaningful entertainment. By sharing our insights from them with those in our company who just seek pure escapism, we thereby can be supervillains. That prospect has an allure, which is something upon which Dr. Rosenberg might have an opinion.

Suzi Quatro Official Suburban Superman

Monday, November 26, 2018

Rolling Doubles

For reasons I can’t explain there is a small pleasantness to numbers in which the digits are the same, as when the odometer of a car turns to 44,444.4 miles or when the time is 11:11. Again, I don’t know why. It’s not as though I pop champagne corks to celebrate such events, but if I notice one I might smile. Perhaps that is odd. Perhaps not. As that may be, a birthday in a couple days will be a double. I would smile more about it if it were a lower number, but one takes what one can get. It brings to mind earlier doubles.

11: Age 12 is normally the peak of boyhood – presumably of girlhood, too, though I have no direct experience of that. 12-year-old boys (generalizing, of course) are confident, bold, and surprisingly competent. (The majority of adult Americans, including college graduates, get by on a typical 12-year-old’s math and reading skills, either because they never exceed that level or because they backslide to it after a brief bump-up in high school and college.) At 13 all that boyhood confidence drowns hopelessly under a wave of hormones and teen angst. The highest stage of childhood is traded for a new status as the lowliest of teenagers – a status underlined by a transition to high school. I effectively skipped 12. For me 11 was as close to that exalted position as I got. The reason is a peculiarity of private schools.  Private secondary schools traditionally are Grades 7-12 (Forms I-VI) and mine was no exception. So, “high school” for me started in Grade 7 at age 11, thereby vaulting me (socially, if not numerically) completely over 12 all the way to the self-conscious and awkward teens – made extra awkward by being the youngest in my class and therefore, in that first year, the youngest in the whole school.

Digging Anthracite 
All the same, 11 was a good year. I put 6th Grade behind me. In the summer that followed in those pre-videogame days there was much summer biking, playing in woods and streams, and (on rainy days) model-building. Random memory: in early November a black mare named Anthracite ran off on me despite my constant tug on the reins. She ran until she reached a stream at which point she planted her feet at the edge. I didn’t stop. Splash.

22: After a very mixed 21 in which a happy college graduation was followed by post-graduation blues and anomie, I regained some footing at 22. Travel helped. Random memory: While driving across the Utah salt flats from Nevada to Salt Lake City the white salt reflected the blue sky perfectly. So, it looked for all the world as if the mountains beyond the flats were floating in the air. 22 was a good year, too.

33: By this time I owned my own little cabin in the woods and had met a few other of the usual “adult independence” benchmarks, much to my own surprise. This was a transitional year in significant ways. My youthful hard-partying days phased out during the year; I became virtually a teetotaler by the end of it. My first really serious romantic relationship had gone south at age 27, and I spent the next several years deliberately avoiding anything serious in favor of casual tête-à-têtes only. Yet, by the end of the year I was in an exclusive relationship again and remained in one for 3.5 years, a personal record.

Random memory: My significant other was arrested. She didn’t do it. She had a similar name, a similar description, and the same model car as a woman wanted for robbery. After being stopped on the highway, she was released when it was clear she wasn’t the suspect, but not before a fingerprint check.

44: The calm before the storm. Let’s just leave it at that.

Random memory: My tuxedo cat named Succotash sat on the couch next to me. She suddenly popped up her head and looked around with a wild look in her eyes. She leapt off the couch, ran the length of the house to my bedroom, jumped up onto the bed, and vomited on my pants, which lay on top. It was a deliberate choice to throw up there in particular.

55: The calm after the storm.

Random memory: Every now and then I revisit high school skills that have faded. I’m not sure why I engage in this strange behavior given that the only reason the skills fade is that I don’t have a need to use them regularly. Perhaps it’s an unconscious (until now) way to deny aging. If so, it doesn’t work. Anyway, because it coincided with other events I can place securely in time, I remember it was age 55 that I last revisited my old algebra text, which I still had (and have) on a shelf. (I didn’t have the temerity to tackle trig or calculus.) Sadly, I’d probably have to do it again before successfully factoring any but the simplest quadratic equations, and what is f(x) anyhow?

**** ****
The next double is almost here, but just “almost” so there isn’t much to say about it yet. With any luck (and I wish the same luck to the reader on whatever highway number on which he or she may be traveling) the route through the next year of life will be the full length, will have few potholes, and will not be without kicks.

Nat King Cole – (Get Your Kicks on) Route 66 (1946)

Monday, November 19, 2018

Wanda at 48

The first Kurt Vonnegut story I ever read was Cat’s Cradle, a quirky apocalyptic novel published in 1963. I picked it off a drugstore paperback bookrack during some summer month in 1966 or 1967. Cat’s Cradle is science fiction, more or less, and I commonly read science fiction recreationally during my teens as I still do today. It already had something of a cult status, but I wasn’t aware of that back then, nor was I familiar with the author. I’m pretty sure I picked it out based solely on the description on the cover. Thereafter, however, I did make a point of seeking out Vonnegut, usually buying the hardcovers of his new works rather than waiting for the paperbacks. As the 1960s closed, Vonnegut tried his hand at drama. His play Happy Birthday, Wanda June, starring Kevin McCarthy and Marsha Mason, opened at the de Lys in New York on October 7, 1970 and closed March 14, 1971.

I was a broke college freshman in Washington, DC, at the time, so I didn’t see it then, but I did buy the book, which I have read with pleasure repeatedly since and still own. There also was a 1971 movie starring Rod Steiger and Susannah York. It is not uncommon for authors to hate movie adaptations of their work, sometimes with cause and sometimes without; Stephen King famously disliked Stanley Kubrick’s award-winning version of The Shining, for instance. Vonnegut in the intro to Between Time and Timbuktu had this to say: “I might as well say something about the filming of my play Happy Birthday, Wanda June. It was one of the most embarrassing movies ever made, and I am happy it sank like a stone.” In truth the movie isn’t as bad as all that. It isn’t actually bad at all, though there is no denying that the script, which repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, works far better as a play with a live audience than on the screen. I was pleased to get a chance last Saturday (48 years late) finally to see it on an off-Broadway stage.

Harold Ryan is a Hemingwayesque character: soldier, mercenary, hunter, and adventurer. He has been lost in the rain forest for eight years in the company of Looseleaf Harper, who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. Harold is presumed dead, so his wife Penelope (an obvious nod The Odyssey) has been dating a vacuum cleaner salesman named Herb and the very pacifistic Dr. Norbert Woodley. Both of them are despised by Paul, the son of Penelope and Harold. It is Harold’s birthday, so, in an attempt to please Paul, Herb buys a birthday cake even though it reads “Happy Birthday, Wanda June.” Wanda June is a 9-year-old who was hit by an ice cream truck earlier that day, which is why the cake was never picked up at the bakery. She provides some surreal narration as do other deceased characters. Harold is not dead, and his sudden arrival home creates an uproar. During his eight years in the forest a major cultural shift has occurred with regard to sex. He is dismayed to find that his notion of manliness is an atavism and that his wife is no longer the air-headed carhop he married.

The Wheelhouse production of this play currently at The Duke theater made some directorial choices at variance with both the original production and the movie including a different ending. In 1970 Kurt Vonnegut experimented with different endings, so it is possible the Wheelhouse ending was one of them, but it is not the ultimate one in 1971 or the one found in the published play. It is one that puts Harold in a far worse light, which is in keeping with the Wheelhouse choice to present him as animalistic (literally sniffing around) and crude to point of pantomiming sex acts. McCarthy and Steiger in the role, by contrast, made him gruff, blustery, and offensive, but not a comic book villain: villain, yes, but not to such an extreme. Since Vonnegut remarked on his own inability “to make Harold or anybody thoroughly vile,” I think McCarthy and Steiger had it right. The point, after all, is that there is some appeal to Harold – he did after all fight Nazis and explore the wild among other impressive things – even though his time has passed to the point that he has (without changing) become a villain. The 21st century tendency to portray opponents – not just on stage but in real life – as not just wrong but evil might have influenced the presentation of Harold as so much more detestable. That said, the play still works, and I like everything else about the Wheelhouse presentation. The surreal elements were handled well within the limits of the sets, and the small cast was used creatively. All of the actors, including Jason O’Connell (Harold Ryan), were enjoyable and effective. Vonnegut’s offbeat sensibility is as captivating as ever and his dark humor still bites.

Despite my reservations above, this is still very much a Thumbs Up review. It is worth catching at The Duke during its final weeks. Happy Birthday, Wanda June is revived elsewhere around the country from time to time as well, and I recommend not waiting 48 years to see it.

Introductory Scene from The Wheelhouse Production of Happy Birthday, Wanda June

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

November Homestead

I like summer in toto better than autumn in toto, but November nonetheless is my favorite individual month. There is Thanksgiving, of course, and a good excuse to overeat is always welcome in my house. Additionally, I have a birthday late in the month, and who among us has so little of Narcissus in him or her not to enjoy a celebration of one’s own existence? Several other anniversaries and circumstances also contribute to making November just a little extra special in my book.

No month is perfect, however, and one serious drawback that November shares with February, May, and August is that quarterly property taxes are due on the 1st. New Jersey has the highest property taxes in the nation bar none, a personal income tax second only to California, and a ludicrously hard to calculate sales tax of 6.625%. Living costs are high (22% over the national average) and incomes stagnant. Moneywise magazine placed NJ as the second worst state in which to retire. (Kiplinger more kindly ranked it 4th worst, after New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland.) So, it is no surprise that NJ has the highest net interstate out-migration of any state, with 63% more residents leaving than moving in each year. Consequently, even amid the general pleasantness of November, while writing oversize checks for the powers-that-be to squander I’m apt to consider whether to join the exodus and enjoy future Novembers elsewhere. So far I’ve resisted the call of the wallet, mostly out of nostalgia though this is a costly indulgence.

In a mobile world in which people move from one abode to another thousands of miles distant with scarcely a thought, I’m an oddly atavistic duck who lives 11 miles (18km) from the hospital where I was born. Except for my 4 college years in Washington DC, this is as far away from that point as my residence ever has been. I’ve traveled, of course, but home base always has been in close vicinity to where I presently reside. There is something… well… homey about it. It is hard to turn onto any local street without evoking memories: some good and some not so good, but all of them formative. I’m only 3 miles (5km) from my old prep school, 4 (6.5km) from my old brokerage office, and 10 miles (16km) from Morristown High School where my parents met. I live on a street I helped construct (my dad was a real estate developer); I built by hand several of the granite crossdrain headwalls. I live in a house built by my parents. There are traces of personal history everywhere, most of them invisible except to me. The tax collectors may chase me out yet, but for now I’ll pay the premium to stay.

Raked, reseeded, and hayed
Change is as much a constant locally, of course, as it is in the world at large, and that is fine; I still can see the old layers beneath the new. For example, I noticed a few days ago that one personal trace has transitioned from detectable to undetectable to an objective observer. As long ago as 1978 I gave a driving lesson to my girlfriend of the time. (For a more detailed account, see The Driving Lesson.) It did not end well. Though 25, as a resident of NYC she had never gotten a license. The lesson took place on the street where I now live, which was newly built in ’78 with no houses yet constructed. Things went wrong at the cul-de-sac when she failed to distinguish between the brake and the accelerator. With the accelerator pushed to the floor, we leapt the curb in reverse and climbed halfway up a grassy slope. Up until this very year, the faint traces of those car tracks on the slope remained barely visible if one looked closely enough. No longer. The slope recently has been raked, reseeded, and hayed, so the tracks are gone. I still can see them, though, even if no one else can.

Garbage - Driving Lesson

Sunday, November 11, 2018

November 10 Intraleague Derby Bout

In its final bout of the 2018 season, the Jerzey Derby Brigade won – and lost. It was an intraleague game in which the JDB divided itself into two ad hoc teams: Turkey and Tofu. (As someone with vegetarians and carnivores at my Thanksgiving table, I’m familiar with this particular division.) The question was how closely the skill sets in the two groups were balanced.

Early on, the scale seemed tipped toward Tofu. #8 Lil MO Peep (Tofu) put the first 10 points on board starting a trend for the team that would last through the first half. The blockers didn’t noticeably pull their hits on their own league-mates, with Lil MO Peep (Tofu) taken down hard and #3684 Californikate (Turkey) stepping over the top of a downed blocker, and #128 Val Royale (Tofu) in a late power jam knocking on #66 Little Loca. Despite a power jam in which Californikate added 23 points for Turkey, Tofu finished still in the lead, 87-96.

In the second half the scale wobbled as a series of hit-and-quit jams closed the gap between the two teams and put Turkey into a 1-point lead. #235 A-Bomb (Turkey) expanded the lead to 114-108. #8 Lil MO Peep recovered the lead for Tofu in a power jam 118-125. #8 Lil MO Peep, #2 Tasty Twolips, and #235 A-Bomb all showed the success smaller jammers can have, able as they are to exploit holes that taller skaters such as (still successful) #3684 Californikate often have to power through. Blocking and jamming remained competitive and included close jammer-on-jammer action including between #235 A-Bomb vs. #8 Lil MO Peep and #66 Little Loca vs. #66 ShenAnakin Skywalker. In the final minutes Turkey edged ahead. In the final jam #3684 Californikate (Turkey) pushed through tough blocking and called the jam when the clock ran out.
Final score: 186 – 173 in favor of Turkey

Happy Thanksgiving

#66 ShenAnakin Skywalker (jammer)
#64 Madeleine Alfight (blocker)

#3684 Californikate (jammer)
#530 Deadpoole Slap (blocker)

Scores 2018 Season

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Road Less Traveled

For armchair historians, personal travel journals breathe life into the past as few other documents do. They are no substitute for broader histories to be sure. A few writers deliberately combine travelogue and history as Herodotus (c.430 BCE) did so extravagantly, but in most cases the historical notes in travel journals are incidental, as when Pausanias (c. 150 CE) gives background to the sights in his Travels in Greece, or when Bill Bryson describes a road trip around the 1980s USA. Nonetheless, journals give a far better sense of what it was actually like to experience a given time and place than a general history ever can. One short but interesting account, which I revisited this past weekend, is that of Sarah Kemble Knight who traveled from Boston to New York in 1704.

I live in the outer suburbs of NYC and have traveled to Boston and back numerous times over the years. The trip is less than 5 hours by car or 4 hours by train. (I’ve flown there, too, but that is pointless; yes, the flight itself is only 50 minutes but the time spent to, from, and at the airports wipes out any advantage.) I couldn’t help but imagine what the journey was like when the paths were less well-worn and the en route conveniences scarcer. In the center of my hometown a restaurant is still in business that opened as a stagecoach stop in 1742, but even this establishment was decades in the future from the perspective of Madam Knight.

The widow Sarah Kemble Knight ran a boarding house in Boston. Leaving her mother and offspring to run things in Boston, she embarked at age 38 on an overland trip on horseback to New York in order to settle her husband’s estate. I-95 was not an option. She was unaccompanied except for the several guides she employed in sequence along the way (most of them carrying post), often on routes that scarcely qualified as paths through largely unpopulated land, “the way being very narrow, and on each side the trees and bushes gave us very unpleasant welcomes with their branches and bows, which we could not avoid, it being so exceedingly dark.” Rivers needed to be forded or canoed: in the latter case the horses either swam or were rafted.

Sarah has chances to eat at the post stops on her journey but is rarely impressed by the rudimentary fare, “what cabbage I swallowed serv’d me as a Cudd the whole day after.” There are inns, of sorts, along the way, but most are no more than private homes with a room or two for travelers. She describes one room as “a little black Lento, which was almost filled with the bedsted, which was so high I was forced to climb on a chair to gitt up to the wretched bed that lay on it.” Sometimes, though, she was forced to rely on the kindness of strangers who did not host guests as a business; one night she stayed in a hut with clapboards “so asunder that the light came through everywhere…The floor the bear earth; no windows but such as the thin covering afforded; the door tyed on with a cord in the place of hinges… The family were the old man, his wife and two children; all and every part being the picture of poverty…I Blest myself that I was not one of this miserable crew.” She nonetheless appreciated the roof for the night and picked up a “Tattertailed guide” who also stopped by the hut: “as ugly as he was I was glad to ask him to show me the way to Saxtons.”

Sarah finally had a good breakfast when she reached New Rochelle. She liked New York when she got there: “The Cittie of New York is a pleasant, well compacted place.” New York at the time (population 4937 in 1700) was smaller than Boston (population 6700). She ate well there, too, and had good accommodations. The trip to NYC had taken two weeks. She did not return to Boston until 5 months after her departure. Her journal remained in manuscript until 1825 when it was published in tandem with another manuscript as The Journals of Madam Knight, and Rev. Mr. Buckingham: From the Original Manuscripts, Written in 1704 and 1710. The Introduction to the 1825 edition remarks on the comparative ease of travel in the modern 19th century with its comfortable inns and “elegant steamboats.”

It is striking to a 21st century reader that at no point does Sarah Knight express any concern for her safety from any of the rough characters she encounters. This is not because she has a particularly brave nature: she has no qualms about expressing terror at other risks such as drowning in rivers or even just traveling at night, but she doesn’t fear harm from people. Nor is this proof of naiveté, for her trust proves well-founded. While some of the men and women she meets are gruff or rude (or drunk), none is in any way menacing and most are helpful, though a few need to be nudged in that direction.

John Waters thumbing to SF
This is still more often true today than we are apt to acknowledge. True, there are human predators out there as there always have been, and nowadays their crimes are very high profile. Yet, while petty thieves and con artists are common, the odds of encountering the lethal kind of predator are low. Film director John Waters in 2012 put this to the test at age 66 by hitchhiking from Baltimore to San Francisco despite being told by all his friends that it was much too dangerous in “today’s world.” He was given rides by a cop, a male nurse, an indie rock band in a van, a Republican town councilman, and truckers, among others. All were at least polite. Most were kind. A farmer in Kentucky thought he was a homeless man and tried to give him $10 for a meal when he let him out of the truck. John made it to SF alive and well. This is as I would have predicted, but it says something about modern expectations that the experiment was deemed extreme enough to be worth a book (Carsick by John Waters).

I traveled more when I was younger than lately. My longest single road trip was about 10,000 miles (16,000 km) driving around the USA for a couple of months in 1975. Most of the time was spent on extended stopovers. When actually on the road I always exceeded each day the 216 miles (346 km) that Madam Knight journeyed in two weeks – not always by a lot (Phoenix to Las Vegas, for instance is just 300 miles) but it always was enough to have seemed a lot in 1704. (I didn’t keep a journal in ’75 but later reflected back on the peregrination in short pieces here and there as in The Roxy Caution.) In some ways, however, a horseback journey through semi-wild country sounds more fun than cruising the Interstates, even if the cabbage encountered on the way repeats.

Canned Heat - On the Road Again