The stickers for Hillary are still affixed to the rear bumper of my silver Saturn Vue. I am not sure if they communicate a message of defiance, nostalgia, laziness, or some amalgam of all three. Nevertheless, the stickers remain, at least for now. I can tell you that I feel hopeful when I see similar proclamations around town, on car bumpers or in windowsills or on tee-shirts, for Hillary, or Bernie, or Obama.
I have been reading (or to be more precise, re-reading) the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which in fact is a single tale, splayed across 1,000-plus pages, but helpfully summarized, near the conclusion, in a couple phrases from the Gaffer: “…trapessing in foreign parts, chasing black men up mountains.”
The epic is not especially useful as a guide to modern life. Its setting is an agrarian, pre-industrial, quasi-fairyscape populated by elves, dwarves, wizards, hobbits, and so on, while utterly lacking in district attorneys, nurse practitioners, tax preparers, and science editors. If I were asked to set off to Mordor to destroy a Ring of Power, my first worries would be negotiating the necessary time off from work, whether the wife and boy would come along, and the travel arrangements. I’d choose the Cirith Ungol Hilton, while my wife would prefer AirB&B with a nice orc family.
The moral of LotR, I think, is to do your best to accomplish whatever you deem must be accomplished, regardless of whether you think you will succeed, or even if success is possible. As one chapter gives way to the next, the narration makes it increasingly clear that the Quest is absolutely nuts—complete, barking madness, doomed for certain failure. But the hobbits plod on anyway, ignoring all logic as well as their parched mouths and empty stomachs, and the legions of baddies all around them, and in one very grisly chapter, the bleak, awful countryside filled with spiky brambles that pierce through leather jerkins and into the skin when you fall on them. With assistance, our heroes manage to complete the Quest, causing all fortunes to reverse almost instantly, but the ending seems beside the point. Frodo could have failed just as easily, allowing the Big Bad to take over the world and unleash the looting and pillaging, the cutting of funds for health care, and the deportation of all undesirables and everyone who didn’t vote for him.
I have had exactly one conversation with a Trump supporter, as proclaimed by a bumper sticker on his pick-up truck. This was last August, well before the election. The encounter came in rural Nevada, my presence because of a road trip vacation with the family; his because he lived there. He was middle-aged, decked in blue jeans and a cowboy hat, not terribly muscular but no one you’d want to challenge to a fist fight, as he was tall and broad and well-tanned, and he looked like he could hold his own with the liquor, which he was not drinking at the time.
Resting on a trailer behind the pick-up truck, improbably, was a metal-and-cloth sculpture, about 8 feet tall. The sculpture is why I struck up a conversation.
“Yessir, I’m taking it to Burning Man,” he told me with a wide grin.
“Really?” I asked. As I knew, and presumably he knew as well, the Burning Man festival is, at least by reputation, a huge gathering of the counterculture, now attracting some 50,000 people every year to the Black Rock Desert of northeastern Nevada. The sculpture, upon closer examination, resembled the stick-figure symbol of the festival.
“Oh yeah. I spent all summer welding it. I figured I had to share it with the people.”
He went on about the sculpture and how much he liked it. He showed me the cushion at the bottom, which he explained was like a trampoline but not as springy, so no one would get hurt.
I considered asking the artist whether he thought that a government led by his preferred candidate would try to curtail or dismantle Burning Man, which to me seemed (and alas, still seems) like actions such a government would want to take. Burning Man is all about free expression, the flaunting of standard social mores, and perhaps most significantly, the rejection of capitalism. Festival participants are expected to bequeath goods and services to one another without payment. How could any megalomaniac billionaire with the reasoning abilities of an 11-year-old accept a construct as radical as Nudity Welcome, No Money Allowed?
But I didn’t raise these questions. I ended the conversation and let the man and his sculpture go on their merry way. Sorry, I didn’t get his name, and I didn’t give him mine.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I drove across Nevada on Interstate 80 at least six times, first with my parents and brothers on a family vacation to San Francisco, and then with my father to and from college at Stanford. The towns along this stretch of highway—Wells, Elko, Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Lovelock—seemed interchangeably dry, dusty, desolate, and pointless (Who in their right minds would live here?) In my college years the towns seemed like a test of some sort, the first test before the real ones on math and chemistry and biology. Each town needed to be passed successfully, otherwise I’d be stuck there.
The largest of these Nevada towns, which today has grown to a small city, is Elko, which has a claim or two in history. In 1973, the journalist and madman Hunter S. Thompson organized a retreat in Elko for the leading liberals of the Democratic Party. At the time the liberals were divided in loyalty between George McGovern and Ted Kennedy. Thompson wanted to unite the two factions, have them hammer out a platform, and then lead the party to victory in 1976. He chose Elko for its remoteness, limited accessibility (the liberals were as stuck there as I would fear to be a few years later), and for quirky charms like the giant stuffed polar bear in front of the Commercial Hotel. (The bear’s name is White King, check it out.) The liberals indeed came to Elko but failed to produce much, despite Thompson urging them onward. There’s a story about Thompson absconding to nearby Wells with Doris Goodwin’s baby sitter to buy tire irons… but maybe that’s for another time.
Last summer, on our family road trip, we drove through Elko on my urging. We stopped at a city park, we checked out a thrift store (or would have, because it was closed), and we took a quick look at White King, which seemed much smaller and less impressive than my imagination had expected. In fact, all of Elko seemed…well, quite normal, quite ordinary. They have Starbucks, Walmart, Home Depot, gas stations, motels, fast food–like everybody else does. I expect the Internet connects Elko with the rest of the world just like it connects every other community with the rest of the world. We didn’t stop in Battle Mountain and Winnemucca and the other towns on my list, but I noticed them in passing—and they looked like any other set of towns off any other Interstate highway.
Please don’t ask me what any of this means.
Defiant, I do feel defiant, but nostalgic as well. I am horribly tempted by nostalgia, which may be a symptom of the years I have achieved and the more advanced ages I am approaching. I am tempted by laziness, too—and writing this essay is an attempt to counter that laziness. Judge my success for yourself.
On my commute to work, I turn on National Public Radio and, as a general rule, listen to reports of the outrages of the Trump administration, many of which involve denials and condemnations of the media who are reporting the outrages. On the drive home, I play CD’s of my favorite music from days gone by—my college years, or soon thereafter. Most of the songs I have heard dozens of times and they hold no surprises.
The world is changing, and not for the better in many ways. I take a perverse pride—and the key word here is perverse—in reports of global climate change. Record high temperatures in the month of January, cracking ice sheets in Antarctica, open waters at the North Pole—all such news portends disaster for the planet, or at least the planet as we know it, but also is exactly what scientists have been predicting and the current crop of empowered government office holders (from the President on down) have been denying. I’ll cast my world-view with the scientists. That tanned guy in Nevada can go jump on his trampoline.
To close, here’s a quiz about Seinfeld, that wonderful comedy show from the 1990s. You can find the answers to the quiz on the Facebook page for the Fergus Falls Review.
1. In the world of Seinfeld, baseball player Danny Tartabull shares which personality quirk with Elaine’s boss, Mr. Pitt?
A. complaining bitterly about ill-fitting socks
B. delighting in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade
C. eating snack foods with a knife and fork
D. removing the salt crystals from pretzels
2. Zoologist Jim Fowler is famous for his work on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. What is his connection to Seinfeld?
A. a guest on Kramer’s version of “The Merv Griffin Show”
B. a guest of Regis and Kathy Lee when Kramer visits to promote his book about coffee tables
C. the owner of a dog that Elaine and Newman try to kill
D. a celebrity on the cover of TV Guide, and then on the subway
3. Actress Liz Sheridan, who played Jerry’s mother, had a youthful romance with which cultural icon?
A. Frank Sinatra
B. Mickey Mantle
C. James Dean
D. Jack Palance
4. Which key Seinfeld plot point was suggested by a member of the studio audience, just before the taping of the episode?
A. a Junior Mint as the candy that falls into the patient’s body
B. the line “Not that there’s anything wrong with that” to defuse discussions of homosexuality
C. John F. Kennedy Jr. as the subject of Elaine’s fantasies
D. The name Dolores, which rhymes with a female body part, for Jerry’s girlfriend
5. In “The Little Kicks”, Elaine’s spastic gyrations are based on the real-life dancing of which celebrity?
A. First Lady (at the time) Hillary Clinton
B. Singer and actress Barbara Streisand
C. Newscaster and interviewer Barbara Walters
D. Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels
6. At the end of his Seinfeld episode, what does the Soup Nazi do?
A. He joins Babu Bhatt in a lawsuit against Jerry.
B. He revamps the soup kitchen into a fruit stand.
C. He falls painfully onto one of Kramer’s pasta sculptures.
D. He gives up the soup kitchen and moves to Argentina.
Match the character to the name
7. Rightful owner of a marble rye
8. Bizarro Newman
9. the president of NBC
10. owner of a pen that can write upside down
11. Jerry’s “gum buddy”
A. Jack Klompus
B. Mabel Choate
C. Russell Dalrymple
D. Lloyd Braun