Saturday, September 14, 2013

Uncle Christmas

I was at my dad’s house when the call came in.

Uncle Harold had passed away in northern New Hampshire, a mere two weeks after being moved to a hospice care facility a few blocks from his home.

It was just around Thanksgiving, and while many would say that his death was something to be thankful for because it meant he could stop suffering, it was hard to feel anything except sadness, and perhaps a bit of resignation, mixed with pain upon remembering one’s childhood and how a keen sense of the Gothic keeps most people from flinging open the cellar door to the horrors of first-awareness – the first time you were aware of death (and attendant rot), of religion (and the lake of fire that awaited you), of parental love (and the betrayal, forgetfulness, and simple asymmetry of the fact that the prodigal is always the pet, the beloved, the favored, and ultimately the doomed.)

It was my understanding that Harold was always the coddled, favored baby. I paid little attention to that when I was young. I had my own sibling rivalry narratives to attend to.

For me, Uncle Harold symbolized the coming of Christmas, and it was usually the weekend after Thanksgiving when the doorbell started to ring with packages and other special deliveries: neatly wrapped presents from Uncle Harold, placed under the Christmas tree, and duteously squeezed and shaken and sniffed until finally the sheer impossibility of guessing what he might have sent made me leave them in peace.

Still, I liked to creep out of bed in the middle of the night, turn on the Christmas tree lights, and gaze upon the shiny bows, wrapping paper, and ornaments that festooned both tree and presents.

When I was growing up, it seemed to me that Uncle Harold had the most exciting life of anyone I knew. He was constantly sending letters posted from exotic parts of the world – from ports in hot, exotic climes where people wore long draping outfits through which air hot, dry air could flow, and where the custom of the landlubbers was to sleep through the heat of the day in siestas or to sit quietly and reflect upon one’s life while large ceiling fans slowly whirred overhead.

Uncle Harold was in the Merchant Marines, and he traveled by merchant ship to all the important (and exotic) ports of the world.

Technically, Uncle Harold was a Vermont resident. But, that is not how I envisioned him. He traveled all around the world, and I imagined him face-to-face with elephants, rhesus monkeys in the employ of dockside organ grinders, fortune-tellers, and mysterious strangers.

I wasn’t quite sure what his job was in the Merchant Marines, but I think I remember my dad saying was that he was a cook. Being a cook in the Merchant Marines seemed very interesting to me as well, and I wondered if they ever incorporated local specialties – mainly sweets and breads – into the dinner. Envisioned empanadas filled with chicken or spicy ground beef, or sweet, nutty baklava, prepared with honey, pistachio nuts, and saffron, the Azerbaijani way and not the Turkish way.

In the days before the Internet, but fully within a time of global communication (albeit slow and expensive), each country and even each city had its own culture, with unique language, religion, dress, cuisine, holiday celebrations, work and family customs, cuisine, were overtly unique, unlike today, where cities are, at least superficially, similar.

I could imagine Uncle Harold in Casablanca, inhabiting the same “noir” space as Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  I could easily see him in Alexandria, Egypt, wearing a fez, and eating a breakfast of dates, flatbread, and feta cheese.

What I remember most about Uncle Harold of those years, besides the exotic persona, was his generosity. He never failed to send birthday cards, which always delighted and surprised me. Why me? What did I do to deserve a card? The truth was, nothing. But, Uncle Harold felt a bond and a serious commitment to family, which I think was quite remarkable, given the times we lived in. These were, after all, a time when all the eternal verities were questioned.

Each year, sometime after Thanksgiving, the magic would happen, and mysterious packages would start to arrive. They were elaborately wrapped, each with cards, intended to be deposited under the Christmas tree, with absolutely no opportunity for opening until Christmas Day.  Uncle Harold always sent me a gift, as well as a gift for my brother, sister, and parents. Sometimes he sent food packages for the entire family. They were invariably from the high-end gourmet catalogues that fascinated me with their glossy pages and descriptions of petit-fours and other very exclusive, “haute monde” items.

My sense of Uncle Harold as a world traveler, raconteur, and gourmand was reinforced every Christmas. The fact that Vermont was the playground of the Rockefellers, and then, later, aggressively environmentalist, was cemented. Vermont might be quaint, but the residents were discriminating world travelers – more than you might expect in a place that prided itself on its catamounts and white-tail deer.

When I learned that Uncle Harold had passed away, I felt a sharp pang of sadness. I felt sad for his loss, but perhaps a sharper pang because I realized that his last decade of life was so antithetical to the life he lived when he was always on the high seas, moving from port to port, alive, alert, and eager to share his encounters and experiences with his young niece.

It seems unfair – very unfair – that Uncle Harold had to suffer so long, and for people to have memories of Uncle Harold, the frail man who rarely traveled more than 10 miles from his home.  How ironic is that?  He used to stay at least 1000 miles from home in his passages in the commercial vessels.

As I consider Uncle Harold, his life, and his impact on me, I realize that the letters from faraway lands and the presents arriving at the door were pure magic for a lively-minded grade school girl who dreamed of some day going on missions and living in exotic lands.

Did that actually happen?  Yes, in its way, I suppose. But that’s another story for another day.

Today, though, I’d like to think of Uncle Harold beholding those amazing lands and seas.


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Lost in Paradise (Still Manages to Be Walt Disney World)

It was around 9 pm at the Beach and Boardwalk World; or I suppose that's where I was, given that I took the wrong turn, after having been intrigued  by a shop with the same Dooney &Burke retro-Disney designed messenger bag I had purchase a few weeks earlier at disneystore.com.

Was the amount I paid online the same as in the store? I was gratified to see that the pricing was consistent.  I contemplated purchasing a few bags of the same design, but then thought better of it. I’m not necessarily a hoarder, but I do seem to have a difficult time letting go of vintage bags and designer items. In theory, I could sell them on eBay, but it’s tedious and frustrating to do so. Perhaps if I had an assistant who would deal with all the mechanics of it, I’d feel comfortable, but as it is, I just feel a sense of dread.

Walt Disney World opened in 1971. The retro views and art evoke the late 60s and early 70s fascination with the Space Age, and an affirmation of values that differentiated us from our Cold War obverses. Instead of Mao suits and a “Great Leap Forward” we embraced fairy tales and frontier homilies that suggested that if you ground yourself in early American values, your fate would be a certitude of prosperity, joyous family relations, and above all, a validation of imagination and creative reach.

These were some of the thoughts I contemplated, so it was not too surprising that I took the wrong turn. With a start, I realized I missed the bus back to the Contemporary Resort, where I was staying, and the Boardwalk was many worlds away.

But, perhaps I had willed it this way. Walt Disney World offered me various options; I chose a combination of boat and bus.

The weather was glorious and cool, and standing at the back of the boat, breathing the humid air, the smell of swamp, I looked at the American flag flapping at the back. My uncle in Lake Placid has a boathouse filled with vintage mahogany Chris-Craft “cigar boats” he restored by hand.

A surgeon by profession, he also had a talent for surgicating wood, and so had, in addition to his meticulously restored wooden boats, an entire Adirondack “Camp” (a 14-bedroom lake house), outfitted in faux-Stickley and other Craftsman-vintage furniture. He told me the key was in the fittings. They needed to be authentic. I had questions, but he did not like to listen to or answer my questions. He preferred the role of seed-sower and scatterer of wisdom. It was my job to harrow my heart and mind so that these seeds would sprout and not be carried off by an adventitious bird.

He took me for a spin in one of his boats. He mentioned that it was leaking, but not to worry, he had a good bilge pump (although it was on the fritz at the moment). As we slowly settled deeper in the water, and the shoreline receded, he regaled me with “fun facts” about Lake Placid. It was the deepest lake in the Adirondacks, and the coldest. Did it have a creature as did Lake Champlain?  A lake monster of sorts? The sound of the engine drowned out my words, which were not projected with any sort of confidence, so it was less than surprising that they sank somewhere in the depths.

As we tooled, lower and lower in the water, across Lake Placid, he pointed out the Gilded Age “Camps” – some no longer extant having been burned to the ground by reluctant heirs who found, to their dismay, that the Township of Lake Placid relied exclusively on property tax for the maintenance of their schools, fire department, police, water and sewage, road salt – in short, everything.

I would have preferred to see someone turn a “Camp” into a church of sorts, and use it for a renewal of the utopian experiments that so characterized upstate New York during the 19th century. A “New Oneida” anyone?

But, no one was listening to me, and, the grand utopian experiment that was Walt Disney World, was, at least in terms of physical security, much more benign, although there are those who would argue that ideologically, it was not so. I like utopias, and don’t much care for dystopias, so it probably is more likely that a “better world” is more feasible in central Florida, the 1980 Lake Place Olympic Games notwithstanding.

I had no idea of the name of the central Florida lake, and wondered how many alligators the park might hold, and if / when any escaped Burmese Pythons made their way here, and if they found it to be the pristine Edenic habitat that they found the Everglades to be. I would think that unless they could subsist on dreams and air, there would not be much to forage for. There was precious little trash, and it was hard to find stray pets or unattended toddlers.

We docked at Hollywood Studios, and so I made my way to the bus destined for the Contemporary Resort. I was impressed to be surrounded by impeccably groomed and comported young children, who either slept noiselessly or quietly conversed with siblings, discussing math facts and maps. One 6-year-old girl waxed eloquent about addition to her younger brother, who clutched a box containing Star Wars action figures. They seemed so beatifically calm that I wondered if they piped in some sort of happy gas, or did they put it in the water? I would consider living here if this is truly how people behave.

Social engineering on a large scale is not easy; change is never easy to manage, at least when it comes to the hearts, minds, and attitudes.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

P. G. Wodehouse: Why Not the Canon? A Contemplation of His Early Works

P. G. Wodehouse did not make the canon, at least as far as I can tell. I’m not surprised, really, when considering how so many of his themes and characters repeat themselves. Also, one might view his work as a bit sentimental and lacking introspection. I don’t agree with those views.

My sense is that Wodehouse became considered a “popular” writer (as did Anthony Trollope and Booth Tarkington), and they fell out of the canon in the late 1980s, during the celebrated “canon wars” –

I remember the 1980s on the Norman campus quite clearly. I would wander through Gittinger Hall as I was taking other course, just because I found the territory so fascinating. I took my first English course after graduating with my B.S. in Geology. It was taught by Larry Frank and covered gothic fiction. I loved it. I had a relaxed summer – I was selling oil and gas prospects after having returned from Amarillo, and I had a very flexible schedule. I could easily take courses, so I did – English courses, Music theory courses, and even an Astronomy course (which I dropped because I found it tedious). It was during the oil boom, and we were buying and selling leases, and even participating in drilling wells. I thought (hoped) it would go on forever. I had gotten back into swimming and tried out aerobics (popularized by Jane Fonda) and sometimes would even go to back-to-back lessons. I did not run too much, but sometimes mixed that in, along with long, long walks.

I took more English courses starting in 1985, eventually taking many undergraduate as well as graduate courses. It was a time of awakening, and I was fascinated by the ideas surging forth. Yes, it was ideological and political, but also there was an “undiscovered treasure” feeling in it all. Women and minorities whose writing had been more or less ignored became career-builders for those who dedicated themselves to them and who successfully introduced them into the canon. Kate Chopin was one writer who made it into the canon in the 1980s. She had been well-known for writing short stories or serialized novellas that appeared in popular ladies’ magazines. Zora Neale Hurston was rediscovered (thanks to the efforts of Alice Walker), Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy, and Russian futurists were almost mainstreamed. Modernists ruled. Heaven help you if you were a realist or humorist. Even the women fell out of favor. I’m thinking of Pearl Buck. Of course, some of the issue was political correctness. It’s hard to read Tarkington, Wodehouse, and Buck without cringing at times.

Nevertheless, they’re really quite wonderful – they describe the readings, writing, cultural institutions, new technologies (they were, after all, in the midst of another Industrial Revolution). For example, a Baedeker is a short name for a guidebook to foreign countries. So, for the first time I understood Mina Loy’s title, “Lunar Baedeker” – it’s a guidebook to the moon (or being moonstruck) – and that’s precisely how those magical years of discovery hit me. It was amazing to find entire new territories of writing – In the 90s, I had the amazing privilege of working in the collections of the Huntington Museum rare books collection and reading letters of H.D. discussing her psychotherapy sessions, and I was even more aware of the general times, the general zeitgeist.

Ironically, men who gained fame in the same way (for writing serial novels for the magazines), fell out of favor. In addition to Wodehouse, Trollope, and Tarkington, others also fell out of favor. John Dos Passos was deeply admired, but is more or less invisible today. O. Henry, Saki, and Jack London were also admired then, but not so much now. Occasionally, you’ll see “The Gift of the Magi” in a composition anthology, and perhaps “Call of the Wild” – but they are not the standards they once were.

I’m not even going to touch British literature from Restoration through the Victorian age. Women were incorporated into the canon, even the ones whose work was fragmentary and written pseudonyously (Ephelia in Charles II’s court), and the solid establishment pillars were pulled down as conservative critics got a short, sharp haircut and lost their strength.

But to return to the point at hand, I’m enjoying discovering for the first time the highly popular works of the past. They are engaging and entertaining, and they even contain elements that make them intriguing to me, a person who tended to favor the cryptic and inaccessible (while harboring a guilty appetite for Victorian and Edwardian detective novels).

Here is a brief overview of what I liked most in Wodehouse’s Uneasy Money (1916).  It’s in essence, a meditation on what the prospect of “easy money” does to people, either in the form of inheritance or by marrying into it. There are also a number of reflections on morality and ethics; namely, what it means to be “straight” vs “crooked.”

There are many stock elements:

Plucky women making their way in the world, supporting themselves:  Elizabeth Boyd and her bee farm, Claire Summers and the chorus, Polly, now Lady Weatherby, dancing barefoot in dance halls, a sensational hit as “The Barefoot Countess.”

Good-natured, decent, with internalized code of honor (which also slows them a bit): Bill Chalmers, Lord Dowlrish

Dissipated artists: Nuttham Bloomingdale Boyd, Elizabeth’s brother

Captain of Industry: Dudley Pickering, worth $30 million due to his cars

Lord Weatherby: aspiring painter (but sadly lacking in skill)

Quirky, mischievous animal: Eustace, the monkey

People who should not be carrying guns, carrying them: Dudley Pickering

Legal advisor whose error sets everything in motion: The youngest Nichols, who was Bill’s school chum, alerts Bill that he will inherit $5 million dollars from the man he cured of his golf slice. A later will was made just before the man died, but this does not come to light until later. In the meantime, Bill sets off to New York to find the woman he has supplanted, in order to do what he considers to be the right thing and to give her half.

Golf: Important here because Elizabeth’s uncle left everything to Bill after he cured him of his vicious slice

Pastoral ambitions:  Elizabeth and Bill both have desired to have a bee farm in the country

My favorite scenes:
Eustace, the monkey, wreaks havoc, throws eggs at people, while the publicist is energized by the possibility that the plan to garner publicity for Polly, Lady Weatherby, the Barefoot Dancing Countess, by having an unruly (or even marauding) exotic pet, will work. Obviously, I like physical humor (!) and irony.

At any rate, after reading at least 20 Wodehouse novels at this point, and continuing to study them, my thoughts are continuing to develop.  I do think that Wodehouse is definitely in a category by himself -- there are some subtleties that make the works different than, say, the work of prolific romance writer.

So -- I'll share those thoughts later, as they gel. 

Friday, September 06, 2013

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s Political / Social / Industrial Novels

Industrial novels that deal with the impact of technology and technological change on society. The focus on the elements of the Industrial Revolution that are extremely transformative and disruptive, namely, steam-powered factories of “Milton” (in North and South) along with the coming of the railroad in Cranford.

North and South:
Factories have transformed the town of Milton, provided work, but have also resulted in labor problems as global pricing pressure drive wages downward, and the workers protest conditions, low wages, and the idea that workers are squeezed in order to assure huge profits of the industrialists.

The airborne cotton fibers (“fluff”) results in chronic and ultimately fatal medical conditions (seems like emphysema brought on by breathing the particulate matter); Mary dies young as a result.

Waterways are polluted with dye, which creates a ghastly impression when one of the striking workers – the one with nine starving children, who hurled a rock, hitting Margaret Hale – drowns himself, and then is dyed himself purple with the dyed factory effluent.

The great “masters” of the factories develop a political philosophy that resists interference by the government and regulation. The idea is that good practices will prevail naturally (and do not need to be legislated) because safety, fair wages, and good working conditions make sense, and in the end will lead to increased productivity. John Thornton espouses this philosophy, and delivers an extended explanation and apology to Margaret.

Mrs. Thornton, as John’s mother, suggests a new social order will emerge, which is a blend of meritocracy and capitalist.  She looks at the role of an industrialist as a very responsible one, because society itself rests on the prudent, responsible, and just administration of the business, which extends along the entire supply chain, from raw materials to transformation.

The suggestion is that labor relations will improve once the various parties sit down with each other and get to know each other, and treat each other with mutual respect.

Gaskell’s descriptions are very realistic, and the insights into the psychological conditions and the inner thoughts are insightful, compassionate, complete, and realistic. There is little melodrama – if so, it’s only in Cousin Phillis, where Phillis goes into a deep and dramatic physical decline that parallels her emotional state.

Gaskell describes the impact of the factories on the city, and does not shirk from describing the air pollution, water pollution, and the dangerous conditions within the factory. She also discusses the noise, and the oppressive, gray, depressing appearance. Margaret Hale, who has come to view Halston as a kind of idyll of England (until she returns after the death of her mother and father, and sees just how dreary and unenlightened life can be there, and comes to realize she has romanticized it), and London as a place that establishes the norm of polite living (until she returns and finds it stiff and stultifying), first encounters Milton in a state of shock. Her father has renounced his comfortable position in a crisis of faith, goes to Milton because his old friend from Oxford can help him find students to tutor.

Cousin Phillis:
Phillis is a victim of changing times; her cousin comes to visit, and they develop a brother-sister relationship. He desires to be a good engineer; his father, an inventor, has achieved significant social mobility through his ingenuity, and owns the patents on several very valuable (and profitable inventions).

Her cousin comes into her life because he is working on the construction of the railroad, ostensibly in design and engineering.

Phillis meets her cousin’s boss, who has just returned from Italy, where he was involved in railroad construction. He helps her with Dante, acknowledges and appreciates her intellectual curiosity, and gives her the impression that he will return to marry her. He leaves for Canada, where he will work on the railroad there. He meets someone and marries her; Phillis’s cousin receives a letter with the terrible news.

When he does not return, she becomes very ill after the shock – almost dies of heartache.

Phillis: educated in an eclectic, questioning way, in an inclusive, all-encompassing method of inquiry, guided by her father, a rector.

In this way, she reminds one of Frances Trollope, whose father was a rector, and who has a quick wit, a sharp, observing eye, and a solid facility with various languages, literatures, and cultures.

Phillis also echoes the protagonist, the doctor’s daughter in Wives and Daughters, who is also a self-taught, self-guided reader, who dedicates herself to the pursuit of entymology, yet also remains a dutiful, diligent daughter.

Phillis’s father, a rector and also a farmer who participates in the responsible husbandry of his working farm, is an avid reader, scholar, and thinker, but resolutely Classical. He is a perceptive judge of character, and finds Phillis’s beloved to be rather disrespectful, and his mannered way of jesting to be ultimately corrosive, and undermining of authority and the eternal verities.

Is the narrator reliable? He may be, but not entirely, as he displays resentment that Phillis did not find him attractive, and his initial puppy love is rewarded with a rather blunt denial of any possibility – ever – of their being more than friends.

Industrialization collides with traditional agrarian worlds (as it does in North and South, and also in My Lady Ludlow). The summer storms, the depictions of the flowers, birds, bees, cattle, are made in a very nostalgic way, and yet, the limited scope of life, the potentially grinding monotony, are also honestly depicted.

Harvest time is a time of dramatic change; and the scene in which Phillis, her cousin, and his boss are caught in the rain, is a turning point. The rain, a kind of baptism, brings all together, or a kind of primordial bath which strips away the skin of external difference.

Gaskell’s nostalgic view of agrarian life brings to mind some classic English landscapes, specifically The Haywain and some of Turner’s paintings. In this case, realism alternates with Romanticism.

My Lady Ludlow

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s My Lady Ludlow is a strangely affecting novella, which, once finished, makes the reader feel as though they really knew Lady Ludlow, and the dramatic changes which occurred during her lifetime.

The novel opens with the arrival of a poor relation whose mother has tried to place because she is unable to afford to care for her eight or nine children upon the death of her husband.

Lady Ludlow, whose nine natural children have all perished, save one, often allows the daughters of poor relations to live with her and to be educated, and to work as assistants.

The novel is essentially the chronicle of radically shifting times, and it contains a story within a story, which makes the reader aware of the dramatic changes in France (during the Revolution) as well as in England. One of Lady Ludlow’s aristocratic distant relatives flees France to stay with them, but ultimately, the son returns to France to rescue his cousin for whom he has formed an abiding tendre but whose object of love has no respect or regard for him whatsoever. Ironically, his love, Virginie, is a progressive who has a great deal of sympathy for the publicans’ desire for liberty, equality, fraternity, but they turn on her as they do all the aristocracy. Her cousin comes to rescue her, and they do find love at the end, but with a tragic outcome. They are both guillotined. I’m not doing the story justice, because there are a number of subtle narrative elements that heighten the drama and introduce a truly Romantic element in the story. What it does within the framework of the larger narrative is to reinforce the differences between the values of the ancien regime and the revolutionary, republican upstarts.

The differences in viewpoints between the pre-revolutionary world and the post-revolutionary world are telling:

--the modern person speaks of “rights” whereas before, the thought was of “duty”
--education has uplifting, transformative potential; whereas before, breeding is all; one cannot transcend one’s origins
--the Church of England is the true church (although there are fond feelings for the Catholic church), and dissenters and dissenting is not acceptable
--the aristocrat has an obligation to his or her title and place; it is important to notice and to serve, and to protect and preserve one’s grounds, position, people, property
--there are irresponsible nobles; titled men may gamble, be profligate, and ignore their responsibilities. It is important to compensate for that if possible.

Lady Ludlow changes and comes to accept changing times:

--she accepts the daughter of man who jilted Miss Golindo (and broke her heart), who subsequently died, leaving a “love” child and orphan, whom Miss Golindo took in as her own daughter
--she recognizes the efforts of a rector who has radical, seeming dissenting ideas, such as teaching the children of the poor (including poachers) to read and to do math
--she invites the local gentry ladies to tea, and when their manners are not up to the standard of 18th century aristocracy, instead of ostracizing or scorning, she accepts and embraces the practice

The description of the manners and the materials of daily life within the manor house is minute and absolutely fascinating. We learn about the daily work in the manor: preparation of medicinal potions, the putting up of preserves, jams, and special fruits; the fashioning of lace and fine needlework.

Lady Ludlow powders her hair, wears an elaborate wig, and lovely lace cap; her dress is of the 18th century, and not in the “classical” or “republican” lines of the early 19th century. She maintains her wardrobe as a matter of class. Each article of clothing has significance, and is of very high quality.

The household is run very strictly, with a certain regularity, with the goal of making sure she is a responsible mistress of the property that passed into her hands and which is her responsibility.

Industrialization intrudes in certain ways: the railroad allows quick delivery of mail; it leads to more mobility of the labor force, and a change in desirable education. It makes it necessary for individuals at all levels of society to be able to read, write, and to do math.

My Lady Ludlow is filled with illustrative vignettes and insights into the worldview and mindset of an incredibly kind-hearted, generous, and intelligent woman. She is truly a leader, and a woman born into dramatically changing times. Her story is essentially tragic and heroic; when she passes away, she has outlived her son (who was irresponsible and profligate). The stately home will most likely be destroyed; her times have irretrievably changed. Nevertheless, the acts of kindness and generosity she has been able to effect will live on.

There is keen nostalgia, and yet a recognition that the world has changed, and universal education is necessary. But, to what degree, and to what purpose?  Lady Ludlow desires above all stability, balance, dignity, and hierarchy. That said, she does show compassion and does accept those who would ordinarily not fit within her structure (Miss Golindo’s adopted daughter, and the son of the poacher).

What makes My Lady Ludlow fascinating to the 21st century reader is the resonance with extreme social changes, and the impact of industrialization on society.









Thursday, September 05, 2013

Tourism of the Mind: The Place From Which You Cannot Return

Are there place you can go in which you really can NOT return unaltered?

I’m thinking that it’s harder and harder to find them. Most places you travel to do their best to help you feel happy, and to reinforce your pre-existing beliefs and values.

Chain hotels, conference centers, and resorts are like that. They’re like artificial flavoring and preservatives to one’s consciousness.

Who wants that?

 It sounds like a comfort zone experience until you start to realize it’s more like the MacDonald’s hamburger a guy kept for 13 years to see what would happen to it over time.

In a word, nothing.

The hamburger mummified rather than decaying. It’s also like the loaf of Mrs. Baird’s white bread that accompanied a big order of barbecue for an office group lunch. The plastic-wrapped loaf sat out on the countertop in the office  2nd-floor kitchenette and turned into a lab experiment. One, two, three… then five, six weeks passed, without any discernible alteration in the “bread.” It even stayed bolster-pillow soft for at least three of those weeks.

I think that if you go to a tourist resort destination in a country that lives, breathes, and eats tourism, you’re likely to become that loaf of Mrs. Baird’s white bread.

Not even the most dramatic “tourist spectacles” (juggling flaming hoops, jumping over fire, banging on steel musical instruments, and energetically choreographed gestures that mimic Dionysian abandon) are likely to change you. You might overeat, drink too much, and get sunburned, and if you suffer a bit, you can then feel temporarily miserable and less sorry to go back to your predictable routine.

However, that said, if the resort is beautiful enough, I think that transcendence is possible.

You can find yourself transformed, simply your eyes are opened and you see magic.

Magic is all around you, and you, yourself become magical. The exaltedness takes over, and all feel are waves and waves of exultation and “lifted-upness” that is, without putting to fine a point on it, worthy of Sir Philip Sidney’s “Astrophil and Stella” and the power of poetics, as the language takes you from the “dungeon of the body” to the high reaches of joyous union with a higher plane of awareness. It takes you out of your daily cares, and scrubs you clean of all the dark, toxic residue of negative thoughts.

Granted, it takes quite the resort to achieve what amounts to a mystical, transcendent experience, but it is absolutely possible. Think volcanoes in the Big Island of Hawaii, the arches at San Luis El Cabo, the long serpentine trail on a ridge just north of Beijing on a feeder edge of the Great Wall.

And, think of your own back yard.

It’s all in how you see, breathe, and approach life.