Recently I have been writing a series of articles about the United States, moving state by state, one after another, from west to east. Because they are written for travelers, the articles deal mostly with places tourists might want to visit: museums, zoos, aquariums, state and national parks, monuments, landmarks, shopping areas, strange anomalies, oddities, historic buildings, and so on. I had to research what each state had to offer and then present it in an appealing way. In the conclusions I would insist that the readers were really missing something if they didn’t visit.
I learned a lot about this country. Well, all right, most of the basics I already knew, but there were a few surprises. Every state I wrote about by the time I was finished I wanted to visit. I would love to see all those places and do all those things. Learning is a passion with me; I can never get enough of it. And I never tire of traveling either.
Perhaps some people really have the leisure to wander from place to place taking in the sights, but for me it all had an air of amusement park unreality. In a perfect world it would be wonderful to devote oneself to the idle pursuit of such trivia, but this world is far from perfect.
Since I came to San Diego I have done no sightseeing whatsoever. Wait, let me correct that. One day recently I went to pick up one of my sons coming in from Los Angeles, but his train was delayed. With nothing to do I wandered into nearby Old Town State Park. I was dumbfounded. It was fascinating. It’s a whole town square set up as it was in the old days, with many of the buildings turned into free museums in which you can see various facets of life in historic San Diego. I was disappointed when my son sent me a message that his train had arrived; I could have wandered for hours.
But thinking of the country as a conglomerate of tourist attractions seemed as unrealistic to me as what you hear during election time from the different candidates. That’s another thing that has been going on recently: national elections. To me it seemed another circus, another amusement arcade. One candidate badmouths his opponent, the other retaliates, and at the same time the world burns. They take time out from everyday life to frolic down the campaign trail, but it has nothing to do with what they have done before or will do after. They have speechwriters and campaign managers and secretaries and relatives and aids and assistants telling them what to do, what to say, how to dress, how to wear their hair, how to use gestures to maximum effect. They have millions and millions of dollars to spend on advertising that is meant not to proclaim truth but to sway the masses. Reality gets put aside at campaign time. It is impossible to cut through all the bullshit to the truth. Campaigning should be forbidden. Aspirants should announce their candidacy and then their ability should be determined by what they have done and said through their political careers, not by what they spout when they are on stage.
In a way the tourist attractions I described above are more real than political candidates before an election. They are there. They can be seen with all the cracks, crevasses, scratches, scrapes, and impurities. A political candidate should be able to stub his toe and let loose with a string of expletives without it becoming a scandal.
I guess my point is that appealing and interesting and fun as all these tourist attractions are, they are not what constitute a city or a state. It is the people that matter. And it’s not all the glamour and glitter of the campaign trail that makes a politician. What did that man or woman do when they were nobody, nothing, in their own eyes and in the eyes of others? How did they comport themselves when no one was watching? What do they think of when they are alone, in the dark nights of their soul? How honest are they to themselves, let alone to others?
I muse as a poet, I suppose, and not as a practical person. But then, the country and the world at large could use more poets, more minstrels, more monks, more mystics, more people with great hearts who will do great deeds and speak great truths. How many of us believe that politicians speak the truth or will do what they promise at election time?
The point of all this? I don’t know if there is a point. If I went to see each and every one of those tourist attractions in all fifty states that I wrote about, would I know more about the country than I do now? Perhaps. But it would not be because of the bright lights and glitter of the amusement parks. It would be because of the odd moments on the way when truth popped out in the lives of ordinary people. Most of the time people just live, try to survive, get by the best they can. To dwell too much on the touristic trappings is to miss the point, to miss the powerful pulse of real life. I couldn’t do much about that in the articles because that wasn’t what I was commissioned to do. So I present it to you now, a day after the presidential election, as a purging, a purifying, a catharsis. Time to return to the real world, and get on with it.