Time and travel and a little sex

In recent years I have been driving mainly in Kansas and between Kansas and New Mexico. The years of my grand road trips were long past. During vacations in the 1980s they amounted to some 40,000 miles mostly in California, Arizona, South Dakota and western Texas; after 1994, during a continuous road spell lasting more than three years, I added 120,000 plus miles while investigating all states west of the Mississippi. What made these travels unforgettable was the lack of communication. I carried no cell phone, I wasn’t connected to any form of Internet—I was almost permanently out of reach. I picked up what today is called snail mail maybe once every two, three months from a post office in a town chosen because its name stood out on the map and because I expected I would move in that direction and eventually land there. Loveland. Truth-or-Consequences. Happy (where I noticed the Happy Bank—sorry, I wouldn’t want my bank to be happy, I want to be happy). Hope (with the predictable yet unforgettable sign at the end of town: “You Are Now Beyond Hope”). Places with names like these. I would be handed a pile of general delivery letters some of which were months old by a post mistress who, with a sigh of relief and a smile, said: “Finally, you’re here. I wondered…” Reading the letters and responding to them took a few weeks because, why hurry?

The absence of continuous communication and of set goals and dates in the future really turned my trips into… travels, journeys, explorations, adventures. It left me with all the time in the world to experience each location where I chose to linger; it allowed me to hike deep into nature and learn to enjoy solitude, learn to discover there can be progress in the absence of progress—and, no less, it allowed me to be just as happy and anticipating when the moment was there to return to (a form of) civilization. There was time plenty for discovery, for focusing, for learning, for thought, for dreaming, for not just meeting new people but engaging and enjoying new friendships left and right in many of the twenty-five western states. I wasn’t the stranger who passed through in the darkness of night; no, in most places the days spent lasted long and were sunny and, yes, very bright. At no time was I feeling I missed something: the news, a message, an event. Indeed, a Dutch friend died while I was incommunicado—but would he have lived if I’d had a phone to connect to?

Seventeen years after the long journey was ended by settling first in Abiquiu, New Mexico then in Matfield Green, Kansas, I am on the road again for an extended trip. Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California. All roads are familiar—not because I am per se in need of a déjà vu experience but because I cannot find many roads I haven’t traveled before. I do not feel the need to visit specific places and sites because I’ve been there, done that. I just want that old experience of being on the road. Yet, I have a big problem: now I have a time frame, I have a cell phone, and I carry a laptop with Internet connection with me at all times. This isn’t a journey; this is just a 21st-century-style trip, no more. This is similar to feeding on fast-food—in and out and still left with taste buds and a stomach begging to be satisfied. This time I cannot disappear, cannot hide, I cannot linger for days or weeks on an end. How awful …

While approaching Amarillo, Texas my thoughts are on John Kerry. Not that, normally, I spend much time thinking about him (and I don’t think much of him either). In the many months he is U.S. Secretary of State, Kerry has travelled and travelled and travelled all over the globe. There hasn’t been a day I could not watch him deliver a speech about the part of the world he was visiting that specific day or the area where he would be the day after, or the world in general. Fly a couple of hours, run energetically down the plane’s airstairs (although not as energetically as President Obama, but who can?), shake hands, be driven in an armored SUV convoy to a non-descript yet authentic-looking location, meet more people, talk, shake hands, deliver a forceful yet cliché-ridden speech (since light travels faster than sound, he appears bright until you hear his words), dive back into the black SUV, run up the airstairs, wave from the airplane’s door–and be gone. Next stop ….…… However strong his staff, however advanced the technology that surrounds him on each and every moment of his travels, and whatever Kerry’s personal intelligence—this guy spending his days without breaks cannot have the inner peace to deeply reflect on the situation in the part of the world he was just visiting, neither on the background of the problems he will have to solve on his next stop, nor on the situation of the world in general today, let alone tomorrow. He doesn’t know shit, as they say here in Kansas cattle country. He cannot feel much, either—he just doesn’t have the time and quiet to develop feelings–he doesn’t even have the time to consult his own intuition. He’s on the move—the ever-flying pretend-statesman who manages to not solve any of the world’s problems; he probably only adds to existing problems; or he creates new ones by his snap decisions, his hastily assembled opinions. The good thing is few people are waiting for, or paying much attention to, them anyway.

Just west of Amarillo, Texas I learn from the local affiliate station of National Public Radio (NPR) a few things that make me aware of Kerry, even more than secretaries Kissinger, Rice or Clinton before him, allowing himself, very un-statesmanlike, to fall victim to the modern times, victim to the state-of-the-art in technology. Kerry is a significant victim to the fact that today all travel can be done at high speed; and that all facts and myths, all truths and all lies can travel to and from him at an even higher speed. He has fallen victim to believing he knows it all while not really understanding what’s going on in his own mind, let alone other people’s, including other statesmen’s minds; and victim to the fact that, says the voice on the radio, he “has bootstrapped himself beyond human understanding and control.”

Steven Hawking, that guy in his wheelchair and with the computer voice, who recently (while discussing his dramatized bio pic) confessed his “ideal role would be a baddie in a James Bond film,” has claimed that technological progress, while perhaps intended for human betterment, might lead to a new kind of existential threat because of “the law of accelerating returns.” This is the law Kerry cum suis constantly show not to be aware of. The state of technology (in general, and especially in his capacity as one of the best-outfitted world leaders) gives Kerry the tools to wreak havoc by distancing himself from real knowledge as well as the consequences of his own words and actions. Is the possibility of blowback ever being discussed? Has he really tried to look through his opponent’s eyes? Kerry, of course, is not alone at suffering from this disability—most of us commoners, too, “are too blinded to see that exponential technological growth exceeds our ability to foresee and prevent unintended consequences.” But Kerry is a statesman, or is he? He’s the one who communicates and debates with other statesmen about our future. He should give this some thought, shouldn’t he? Maybe he should fall back to a previous generation’s means of intercontinental travel, the steamboat; a sea journey would provide him with abundant time for relaxed reflection—ask Woodrow Wilson. Better still, sail the oceans. Ancient statesmen would often arrive at their destination only after the problems they were sent to tend to in the faraway colonial world were long solved, or already forgotten; this heavily contributed to the fact that they themselves couldn’t throw more oil on the fire with the no doubt silly plans they had concocted in a delirious and unguarded moment while rocking the waves–which then allowed them to gain a place in the history books without too many negative marks. I must say, it’s not fair, talking like this about Kerry all the time–although I don’t get it why the U.S. Department of State proudly announces that the Secretary already has collected some 650,000 air miles, six-hundred-and-fifty-thousand miles (!), as if this means something—it’s similar to Hollywood’s announcement on a Monday that this or that movie made a zillion dollars in one weekend at the box office, and believing therefore this must be an excellent movie. I know, we all know, Kerry is just one of a whole bunch gotten lost in the 21st century. Look at me: anxious to relive a three-to-four-year journey-without-technology-as-a-companion, now, in 2015, on a road trip lasting just three weeks while carrying a carload of e gimmicks …

By the way, that I am not getting really lost I thank to a pile of old-fashioned yet well-designed maps printed on heavy paper. They provide me with more than the ill-defined directions on a small screen: they supply me with lots of background information. They deliver a broad view, put a place into its surroundings, tell a story about the lay-out of the land, point out worthy side-step destinations, make me familiar with place names, and even indicate area history. These print maps are beautiful, they are works of art. They can absorb me for long periods when I myself am not doing the driving and am able to drag my eyes away from the ever-changing landscape along the road.

In Kingman, Arizona I turn off to where I expect to find the Hill Top Motel, a Pop-and-Mom place where I’ve stayed several times in the past—as it happened in a room adjacent to the room (119) where Timothy McVeigh stayed for four days before driving his rental truck filled with explosives to Oklahoma City to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in April, 1995, and killing 162 employees and visitors. Longer ago Crosby, Stills and Nash took a much-needed shower in room 131. While many of my old hang-outs have disappeared over the years to make place for ugly box-and-chain hotels, Hill Top is still owned by the same Dennis Schroeder who in 1981 started the tradition of raising the national flags of all the countries he’s had guests from; they cover much of the globe. It is such a pity that most old, characteristic motels like Schroeder’s have disappeared or become cheap living quarters rented by the week or the month (if not the hour). Their attractiveness is gone, a thing from the past; look at the bad shape the buildings and grounds are in: it’s hard to believe that long ago they showed a certain beauty and charm, were well cared for, and offered a pleasant break from long road travels. During my first travels in the American West, in 1980, these graceful motels were abundant; many supplied their guests with the unforgettable 25 cents “Magic Fingers Bed Massage”. In the mid-1990s I could still find many–the boxes, though, were already appearing on the horizon.

The boxes. How ugly they are. Today they dominate the scenery at all turn-offs from freeways, at the “Anytown USA” drags that connect old-town Main Street with suburban America, in the shopping areas as well as in the industrial and otherwise commercial sections of town. So efficient, so cheap to build, so easy to leave behind when new opportunities call with their own short lifespan. I don’t dare to guess how many of these structures came to stand empty within a mere ten years or so after having opened for business. All over, they give testimony of a society dominated by quick success and “fuck what comes after us.” So seldom it is that one sees an “old” box being refurbished and given a new future; most of them remain empty, to rot and to fall to ruin. There is not much attractive architecture to be seen in today’s America. A quick arch or similar adornment added to the main entrance is about all the “design” a box building gets; some architects have become quite savvy with finding smart and cost-efficient solutions drawing the attention away from the endless monotone of straight lines and square corners. Sometimes these are somewhat pleasing, but only to the hurried eye.

What I do not see while on the road is any really sexy architecture (I am not meaning the designs of decorative add-on doorways that happen to resemble a vagina). I do not discover the influence of any female on the design of present-day buildings, not even on the ones that are supposed to attract whole armies of female customers. This confirms “long-suspected ‘truths’—that man builds and woman inhabits; that man is outside and woman is inside; that man is public and woman is private; that culture is male and nature is female,” wrote Agrest, Conway and Kane Weisman *. They continued that, looking for a gendered perspective of architecture, one finds that today women are playing more important roles in the production of architecture than in any time in American history; they lead toward the cutting edge of design; they are winning awards and competitions; yet, while constituting roughly fifty-five percent of the enrollment in the nation’s architecture programs, they form no more than twelve percent of registered architects and tenure **, and they continue to encounter obstacles created by gender prejudice. “Nevertheless, they are strongly represented in the discourse of architecture: as theorists, historians, critics and educators. They are in the forefront of the debate—a debate that is reshaping the way we think about our built environment.”

As Bingler and Pedersen *** wrote about the scarce examples of today’s American state-of-the-art architecture: “Architecture, of the capital A variety, is … capable of creating signature pieces, glorious one-of-a-kinds. We’re brilliant at devising sublime (rather bombastic) structures for the global elite who share our values. We seem increasingly incapable, however, of creating artful, harmonious work that resonates with a broad swath of the general population, the very people we are, at least theoretically, meant to serve.” I cannot wait for the debate about sex in architecture to become universal and lead to the abolishment of box and other male-dominated architecture, to make place for more female shapes of buildings as shaped by female architects, or sensitive men.

“The inscription of the sexualized body is a central and recurrent theme in Western architecture,” said Agrest, Conway and Kanes Weisman, “but that body is neither innocent nor androgynous. It is the reification of the male longing to appropriate an exclusively female privilege: maternity. Thus the insistence … that male architects ‘give birth’ to their buildings.” Man’s inevitable state of childlessness gives rise to “an obsession with ‘reproducing himself’, with the systematic erasure of woman and her contributions.”

See, it is roaming thoughts and silly observations like these that come to me even while on a not extremely slow road trip and that escape John Kerry in his haste to arrive at the next venue from where he has to save the world. There is an ancient Dutch saying: Haastige spoed is zelden goed (hurry doesn’t often lead to something worthwhile). Let’s ponder about all the good that could come of Kerry slowly travelling the earth. Or, rather, imagine the good that would be accomplished if he just stayed put, in Washington D.C.

* ‘The Sex of Architecture’, Diane Agrest, Patricia Conway, Lesley Kanes Weisman, editors.
** American Institute of Architects (AIA), 2013.
*** Steven Bingler, Martin Pedersen, ‘Building on the Common Edge’.

Ton Haak, Januari 2015