I was in a Travelodge in downtown Missoula, Montana, staring at a mirror across from the bed facing the television set when I forced myself to get up and write. I had just returned from the border of Idaho and Washington, at Lewiston and Clarkston, where I had taken my eighteen month-old son to see his grandfather for a few days, for only the second time. I myself had only seen my father twice since college.
I wanted to believe that something special would come of the trip,that epiphanies would be reached, that my father, my son and myself would be transformed. I wanted the trip to become a journey for us all, but most of all for me. During our time together, the three of us had laughed and hugged, eaten, and played with toys together.Photographs were taken. Now, the trip was nearly ended, with my father listening to Art Bell back in Clarkston and my son already asleep on the bed in the Montana motel.
I did not yet feel transformed, and time was running out. Seeing my father made me reluctant to give up and return home without doing something to prove that the trip had some deeper meaning that justified the effort. This is why I write: to convince myself that I am the hero of my own life.
Motel rooms are pretty much all the same, yet their accidental contents reveal the unique struggles of the people who have occupied them for a night. On the morning of July 9, in room 214 at the Travelodge in Missoula, the cleaners had missed an empty box of Wonka Nerds,little candies that come in a variety of artificial fruit-like flavors.
The empty box of candy had been purposefully balanced, like a precious statue of the Virgin Mary, by a previous travelodger upon the top of a frame anchoring a lamp to the wall. Hidden by the lampshade,it could only be seen by someone standing within a few inches of the mirror hanging next to it.
Willy Wonka, a fictional character created by Roald Dahl, believed that his candies could reveal the essential characters of the people who ate them. Of course, Nerds are not really made by Willy Wonka.They're made by the Nestle corporation, which has bought the legal right to use the Wonka name on its candy packages. There are no oompa loompas at Nestle.
Nerds are not nerds because they study hard and have broken and taped glasses. Nerds are nerds because they have a weakness that prevents them from satisfying the demands of the dominant culture among their peers. Thus, it seems strange at first for a candy to be sold under the brand name Nerds. However, it is important to note that in the case of Wonka Nerds, there is no suggestion that the people who eat the candy are nerds. Rather, the Nerds are the candies that are eaten as they are shaken out of their box. To buy Wonka Nerds is to become an eater of nerds.
Nerds are inert, featureless lumps until they are eaten. Only when they are ground between the teeth of a nerd-eater do they become at all flavorful. The stimulating potential of a nerd only becomes apparent when it is crushed.
I had been proceeded in room 214 by a nerd-eater who had improvised a shrine to his or her personal conquest: this was my unexpected epiphany, realized at the end of my journey, long after I had left my father behind. Although I had traveled almost 3,000 miles with my son to find meaning in my relationship with my father, my only insight had nothing to do with my father, but with a box of candy that could be found in any supermarket in the country.
Well, that's one version of the truth. Another truth is that I could have found meaning in the motel room's lampshade as easily as I found meaning in the box of Wonka Nerds that had been hidden behind it. I could have found meaning in my son sleeping on the bed or the silver diamond fabric patterns on the red upholstery of the chairs in the room. I could have found meaning in the magpie that flew across my path as a drove through Lolo pass. For that matter, I could have found meaning in a thousand things my son and my father did together in my presence during our stay in Clarkston.
I chose to perceive meaning in the box of Nerds, but this tiny achievement followed a million instances of purposeful neglect. I chose not to pay attention to the potential meaning that was nonetheless present in almost everything that occurred from the moment I entered my father's house.
The reason for my selective perception of significance is fairly obvious. To observe deep meaning in my interactions with my father would require that I actually do something proportionally meaningful in recognition of the significance of the situation. If I actually allowed myself to consider the way that my relationship with my father shapes the very essence of my being, I would have to transform my behavior and my manner of thinking to actively incorporate this knowledge into my identity.
The same could be said for my relationship with my son. Fortunately, his extreme youth makes it almost impossible to avoid direct and unusually honest interactions with him. As we age, my son will probably learn to avoid direct acknowledgment of the power inherent in our relationship, devoting himself to toys of increasing complexity instead.
Of course, if we didn't distance ourselves from the powerful metaphors that surround us throughout every day we would go crazy. It makes sense to be selective in our symbolic perception -- such discretion is a sign of a mature ability to prioritize. As much as we might like to think that we could open our minds wide enough to accept all of the profundity of the world around us, such extreme openness would more likely destroy our minds than lead to any real enlightenment.
It's easier to find meaning in small things that can be easily discarded than to confront the potential of the ever-present and non-disposable symbolic aspects of our personal and professional relationships. The temptation to focus on purely symbolic victories to the exclusion of victories with a literal impact threatens to devastate the lives of modern Americans.
We Americans are compulsive shoppers, relentlessly seeking salvation with our credit cards. When faced with the choice between truly transforming ourselves and finding anchors of symbolic achievement in our lives that we can possess without exerting ourselves beyond the level of comfort, we usually choose the quick and easy simulation of growth. As a society, we have abandoned the open spaces of the natural landscape through which we once moved to construct a world full of temptations to sit and escape into little fantasies of movement. We would feel bereft, but we have accumulated all around us little symbols to convince us that our lives are rich with meaning.
Americans fear drug and alcohol addiction, yet are mostly unconcerned about the way that they've become hooked into getting little emotional highs from things they buy. People endure jobs that they hate just so that they can sneak off and get another hit, another little product that they need but don't need. We indenture ourselves to banks just in order to buy things that make us feel like our lives have some kind of meaning.
When I say this, I'm not just judging others. I'm as guilty of this kind of thinking as anyone else. Just last week, I bought myself an expensive shirt with the guilty feeling that it might help me to establish greater credibility in my work. Of course, the best way to establish credibility at work is to do better work, but that's difficult. It's easy to spend too much money on a shirt than to go through the strain of substantial self-improvement.
I'm going to try to change this dependence on symbols of pseudo-acheivement. I pledge that every day I'm going to spend at least one hour actually doing something that will improve my life and the lives of the people I love. In order to make sure that I stick to this pledge, I've just bought a seventy-five dollar Franklin Planner organizing binder, a CD-rom with motivational software, a pair of work gloves...
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