The Question Concerning Technology

I bought a new phone the other day. Herbert Welsh, walking from Philadelphia to New Hampshire a hundred years ago, would have called my old phone a wonder.  But my LG Optimus S was aged and overloaded, and could do nothing but make phone calls, send and receive texts, and show me exactly where I was, anytime, anywhere, on a map.

That’s all. Back in 1915, that would have seemed a miracle.  One hot afternoon in 1915, out of cash in Middletown, New York, stranded in the “financial desert” along the road from Port Jervis to Newburg, Welsh was saved when a local merchant advised him:

“I’ll tell you what you do; ‘phone your bank in Philadelphia to wire you that money and you’ll have it within an hour” A bright and happy thought, surely, and how stupid I was not to have found that out myself. It worked like a charm, and here’s where having an expert telephonist like Dorothy Whipple came in handy. In a moment she was conversing easily with [the Philadelphia banker]…and my mind was in a moment set completely at rest. I blessed the long-distance telephone which could do such wonders.

Dorothy, like the millennial in your office, who not only knows what Meerkat does but knows what to do with it, could take full advantage of one of youth’s blessings: easy familiarity with technology.

We who are old have to figure out for ourselves, “What kind of technology do we want use?”

My walk will be not one of those stunts where you try to live like it’s 1900.  In something as fundamental as my shoes, I will be taking full advantage of Goretex, Otholite and Vibram. And I can’t imagine how I could present myself fit for dinner–after a 20-mile walk–in anything other than light-weight quick-dry nylon clothing.

But in the related technologies of communications and navigation I will be choosing restraint. Herbert Welsh relied on printed maps to find his way, and the US Mail to keep in touch–he wrote postcards to friends and letters for publication to the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

Walking in May 2015, I am choosing to bring a series of pages torn from old DeLorme Atlases, back issues of National Geographic, and my collection of USGS 7.5′ quadrangles. My antiquarian fondness for printed maps may seem quaint, but it is not unconsidered. I have earned, after all, an academic degree in geographic information systems.

172px-HeliocentricTo find my place on a map is a skill. Here is the world, where am I in it? My GPS, which can instantly create a map with me at its center, starts with me and creates a world around me. But as Copernicus’s mom, and mine, used to say, “The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know.”

I also am choosing not to blog my walk. Writing these anticipatory pages the last few months has made it clear to me that I would spend way too much mental and emotional energy in such an endeavor.  But I will take a photograph or two every day, attach them to a GPS map and post them on Instagram, so  that anyone who’s curious can follow me–and maybe even find me if I’m passing through your neighborhood.

At the heart of my walk, a conflict between solitude and sociability confronts me. I plan to spend eight hours a day alone and afoot. But I also plan to eat and sleep almost every night with people: with strangers from Couchsurfing, with friends new and old, with relatives I haven’t seen in decades–that’s a lot more companionship than I’m accustomed to.

My daughter (who used to laugh at my intellectually challenged “smart”phone) texted me (of course!) a warning when I got my promising and powerful  Moto X: “Don’t get too download happy–you probably feel like you have more space than you know what to with!”

I replied that I wasn’t filling that space fast, because “I kind of enjoy having so much empty memory.” A phrase which, as I texted it, seemed not to make much sense, but which has grown on me. Empty memory is something worth cultivating, at almost sixty years old, and a good response to the question concerning technology, too.

 

(Days Thirteen through Fifteen) The Hudson River Valley

I have legal documents to prove I was born in the village of Websterin southeastern Massachusetts, in 1956, and that I enrolled the second grade in the New Boston, New Hampshire, Central School in the fall of 1963. The complex migrations of the intervening years–the Statt family Völkerwanderung–are as mysterious to me today as any second century migration is to European historians. The witnesses are all dead: father and mother, aunts and uncles, brother and sister. And I only am escaped to tell…

Fine NGS Interactive Map of the Hudson River Valley
Fine NGS Interactive Map of the Hudson River Valley

We spent my first few years here. The Hudson River Valley is the setting of my earliest memories; the familiar landscape of many of my dreams. The houses we rented that short decade dotted the map of Putnam County, New York: Mahopac, Croton Falls, Lake Carmel, Peekskill.  Low-ceilinged stone cottages; overhanging cedars and oaks; a faint smell of damp clay from a muddy stream–a kill— leading to a wide slow-flowing river.  The scent of mud in the leafy woods would be familiar enough for me to smell “home” here right away.  I haven’t been this way for fifty years; in the third week of May I’ll be walking through, moving at a pace that will try my sense of smell.

Erickson's Ice Cream Parlor and Marina
Erickson’s Ice Cream Parlor and Marina

Elizabeth Wheeler, my mother’s mother, lived on Lake Mahopac, in a apartment above Erickson’s Ice Cream Parlor and Marina, and we spent a lot of time there, eating, swimming and playing in boats. When my father was away, Grandma drove us–my mom, my brother, my sister and me–to Bear Mountain, Sterling Forest, Boscobel or the Croton Falls Reservoir for outings. At this time, my father was frequently incarcerated and institutionalized, in punishment for dark sexual crimes, which I didn’t understand then, of course, but even today I’m not sure what he did or with whom. My sister Sarah was born here in 1959 and died within six months; the cause was obscure. For my parents, it was no picnic.

W300px-Bear_Mtn_Bridge_crope did eat a lot of picnic lunches in the parks in those days. Crossing the Bear Mountain Bridge–a bridge built in 1924: in 1920 Herbert Welsh had to cross the on a “ferry that carried us over the lordly river…Let it be noted by the indolent among my readers that this was the only occasion in our long journey when we trusted to any artificial means of transportation.”–crossing the handsome Bear Mountain Bridge,  my brother John and I, in the back seat of Grandma’s Valiant, sang the first song I ever learned by heart:

The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
The bear went over the mountain,
To see what he could see.
And all that he could see,
And all that he could see,
Was the other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
The other side of the mountain,
Was all that he could see.

As a child I was pretty sure that the mountain that befuddled the bear must be Bear Mountain. This children’s song worried me to the bone. It spoke to a deep disappointment that I was feeling already, having lost my little sister, and wondering where Daddy was.  Four years old, I was aware our family was somehow amiss. All that I could hear, was a lyric that warned things might stay that way. The bear spoke to me of darkness, silence, and solitude: the dusky woods, the somber Hudson, and me, alone. That hopeless loneliness still haunts me, the fear that maybe I won’t find a pot of gold, or blue birds flying, on the other side of the mountain.

I think of this time and place as my Unheimliche Heimat (1995), a phrase I borrow from W.G. Sebald’s 1995 book of essays about postwar Austrian literature.  “Strange homeland” works as a translation, but misses the pun on “un-homely home,” and also Sigmund Freud’s well-known translation of  “unheimlich” as “uncanny,” Freud says the uncanny is “that class of the terrifying that leads us back to something long known to us, once very familiar.”

The English theater director Katie Mitchell, speaking in the film  Patience: After Sebald, has said, “the most uncanny place is one’s own home.” I will see what I can see.

 

To a Mountain in Tibet

The illusion that speed saves time is shattered, in the end, by death. When someone near me dies, I’m reminded that none of us has world enough, or time.

9780061768279When British traveller and storyteller Colin Thubron lost his 97-year-old mother in 2006, he went for a long walk.  To a Mountain in Tibet is the story of that walk, to isolated  Mount Kailas, the source of four great rivers of Asia and almost as many religions.The ritual pilgrim practice involves walking around the mountain–clockwise for Buddhists, counterclockwise for  Hindus–not to, or up the mountain. “Its slopes are sacrosanct,” Thubron notes, “and it has never been climbed.”

Thubron is not a believer, but the romance of that massif enthralls him, and he makes the circuit.

This is a breathtaking book, haunted by death. As Thubron walks, he remembers. Struggling to breathe in the thin mountain air, he recalls his mother’s breathlessness at the end. Musing on Buddhism and Hinduism or Himalayan botany raises memories of his father, who served with the British Raj in India. The sheer pyramidal faces of Kailas remind him of his sister’s untimely death, aged 21, in an accident in the French Alps.

Many walkers and writers try to meld memoir and travelogue; few do it well, because the way memory works on foot is not altogether as straightforward as prose. Thubron, also a novelist, dances gracefully bewteen now and then–from an exegesis of the Tibetan Book of the Dead to a memory of his mother’s grief at the loss of her daughter, to her hospital bed, to describing a vertiginous high-altitude monasteimgres-1ry.  The narrative structure is more like a vernacular temple than an architectural drawing. It’s a pleasure to explore, if you read slowly.

Maybe the apparently formless scaffolding of To a Mountain in Tibet just reflects the dizzying effects of altitude sickness; but it also feels like the way my mind works on a long walk. Thubron walks and writes with integrity and honesty, and maybe that’s why he never reaches any conclusions.

You cannot walk out your grief, or absolve yourself of your survival, or bring anyone back. You are left with the desire only that things not be as they are. So you choose somewhere meaningful on the earth’s surface, as if planning a secular pilgrimage. Yet the meaning is not your own.

I am undertaking a secular pilgrimage myself, revisiting some of the haunted lands where my sister Sarah Elizabeth Statt (1959-60), my grandmother Elizabeth Wheeler (1900-1967), my mother Mary Putnam (1926-1999), and my brother John Charles Statt (1953-2007), were born and died.

In the last year, my ex-wife and my mother’s sister both died, in New Hampshire. I rented a car, filled a thermos with coffee, and jumped onto Interstate 95. New Hampshire is less than six hours away, that way. But I was responding to death.  Is a fore- and afternoon on the road an adequate show of respect? It seems too fast, just as the life that has brought me from New Hampshire to Philadelphia seems too fast–even though it has taken almost 60 years.

I don’t believe I need to hike a magic mountain to remember. But walking can be an act of mourning, too, moving slowly where I might hurry–that helps.