Whether I'm going to the moon or out to buy shoe-laces, the anxiety I accumulate between waking and finally steeling myself up but to put both feet on the floor next to the bed is always more than double the anxiety of any other journey in my day.
By Mark Fenton
Published April 28, 2009
In March of 2009 I traveled from Hamilton to Albuquerque and back. How well you're able to deal with this essay will come down to your patience with how I counterpoint the Albuquerque trip alongside a walking tour of strip malls at Upper James and Rymal Road in Hamilton.
Anxiety before a day of travel is common, but my anxiety is never due to a fear of flying. The period during which I'm actually seated on the airplane between terminals is the one period during which I feel absolute serenity.
For example, I was aware of but barely interested in the massive turbulent thumps and windsheer on our approach to Chicago Midway. If I'm going to die it's out of my power; if I'm not going to die it's out of my power. So I don't worry. As I'm not prone to motion sickness I usually use the time to read and barely notice where I am.
What stresses me about traveling is stuff like ground transport to the airport, getting through the baggage check, airport security, customs etc. In other words all those things I in fact do have the power to get wrong.
My wife's anxiety level as we approach the airport security people is also exacerbated out of her fear that I will, in her words "go indie journalist" and emulate a special needs guy, or pretend to be a guy who really is taking something illicit onto the plane and is nervously overplaying his suburban ordinariness until he's in a sweaty lather, which my impersonation of will make the security people take our whole family into a cinderblock cell for interrogation and cavity searches, when we could have easily been shunted onto the plane like everyone else.
I'll admit that my predilection for performance-art-in-search-of-an-audience is hard to resist as a coping strategy when our collective anxieties fuel themselves into a collective fury and I personally enter a hallucinatory state of panic from which any radical behaviour would be welcome deliverance. Someone might want to help me with this.
A more useful coping strategy, I find, is allowing the chorus of "Destination Moon" by They Might Be Giants to run through my head as though on loop. The song concerns the travel day of an astronaut. Right away there's one big extra leg that I never have to deal with. Already I'm loving this song! Comfortable as I am traveling in jets and helicopters I don't ever want to travel by rocket. All thoughts of rocket science inevitably lead me to a single terrifying-for-me image of Wernher von Braun in the Marshall Space Centre 1964.
If you allowed your Scientific American subscription to lapse in the '60s and '70s, you might not know that he got his foot in the door as Hilter's rocket man and inventor of the deadly V-2 missile.
Then, feeling the gig was constricting his personal growth, applied for and was accepted by NASA, relocated in the US (I know, I know, it was more complicated than that) and became one of the chief scientists behind the first moon landing. He's a man I just plain don't trust.
I am haunted too by the rocket trip where Bugs Bunny ends up at wrong destination for failing to take that "left turn at Albuquerque". (Laugh if you will, but early childhood reruns in a town with one TV channel have left a psychic residue, with regard to both rocket travel and Albuquerque.)
Anyway, here, after way too much buildup, is the stanza from the TMBG song I like to hum on the way to the airport.
By rocket to the moon
By airplane to the rocket
By taxi to the airport
By front door to the taxi
By throwing back the blanket
Hanging down the legs
What I like about this chorus is that the travel legs, while differing radically in distance, are made equal in descriptive line length. The jet trip has the same word count as the rocket trip. The taxi trip has the same word count again. The walk from the front door to the taxi is one word more, but when the alarm goes off the action from being horizontal in bed to putting two feet on the floor (despite this distance being virtually 1/∞ the distance of the rocket trip) will, when you download this song, occupy double the memory of any other travel leg.
(That's right, as the sole ass-kicking song on the otherwise lackluster John Henry I'd recommend going $0.99 individual track download on this. [Editor's note: this assessment, while broadly fair, nevertheless does an injustice to the equally excellent tracks "A Self Called Nowhere", "No One Knows My Plan", "Extra Savoir-Faire" and "The End of the Tour".])
Whether I'm going to the moon or out to buy shoe-laces, the anxiety I accumulate between waking and finally steeling myself up but to put both feet on the floor next to the bed is always more than double the anxiety of any other journey in my day. This is partly because I'm never sure until I see my own feet on the ground that I haven't been transformed during the night into a gigantic insect.
But mostly I think it's because between a night's sleep and confronting the tasks of a new day, I can never be sure my brain and body haven't forgotten all their functions.
When I returned from Albuquerque I discovered that my shoe laces where in a terrible state of repair. I confess to being a cretin when it comes to lace maintenance.
(I know you know what a shoelace looks like. It's just that the photo on the Wikipedia page for shoelaces [yes there IS one and yes I DID go on it for fact checking, and yes I too marvel at a community of strangers driven without remuneration to construct an entry on shoelaces] was so elegantly composed that I couldn't resist reproducing it - the balance of tension and serenity redolent of a black mamba in an advanced yoga position.)
The problem is I've never learned to tie my knots tightly enough that they don't come undone from bedside to wherever the day takes me, and they always come undone when I am mobile and focused on something important and so I make a mental note to bend down and retie them at the earliest opportunity and never do, and needless to say the aglets are, in a matter of days, soiled and crushed like a discarded snakeskin and finally just disperse into the dust and then the lace ends become frayed and dirty and unsightly and what should be a tight geometric web above the tongue is buckled and homely. I'm ashamed of this.
I am self-conscious of being seen restringing shoelaces at work so after purchasing new ones.
I return to my car and sit cramped in the driver's seat restringing them.
I carefully leave the laces in one shoe because I need the pattern as a template for the one I'm stringing, THEN, when I'm sure I've got it right, the new shoelace becomes the stringing template for the second shoe, and I will thus always have transferred the stringing pattern correctly from the time I purchased the shoes through each time I string new laces, and so I have never had to consult the internet for how to string a shoelace which would be a pain to do in my car on my Blackberry.
On the day in question, my peripheral vision caught the car next to me pulling away and I hadn't seen anyone come into the car during the ten minutes I'd been restringing shoes so I know the driver was watching what I was doing and I HATE this and I hate that I have no right to hate this as I spend a good deal of my life watching people at such tasks and even recording them. I am a terrible person.
Footwear was on my mind. After I was done restringing and had sat breathing deeply for a spell, it occurred to me that I was only a short walk from Winners and this would be a good time to buy socks.
I am not following this thread any further right now because you are tired of it and probably only surfed into this essay because you were interested in Albuquerque.
If you're planning a trip from Hamilton to Albuquerque, one of the ways you can do it is by traveling from Hamilton to Buffalo via ground transport and flying from there which will probably require changing planes. My connection was at Chicago-Midway.
I often lament the speed at which people travel today, that we bypass major cities in a matter of minutes and don't experience them. In the not too distant past we would have had to stop at every town to eat, spend the night and absorb the vibe.
I think that kind of travel kept us more in touch with distances and durations, not to mention the modulations of culture. To this end, despite the fact that my daily commute is not "walkable" it is a goal of mine to walk every "stretch" of the way to work, if only in 200 metre increments which means parking on the shoulder 200 metres beyond where I walked yesterday, walking 200 metres and returning to the car.
I have often been tempted to put the car into neutral and push it the 200 metres, as the forward and back walk is the very definition of futile. However my status as a coherent individual is already tenuous enough among my coworkers, some of whom might pass me on their way to work and they'd slow and say "looks like you need some help" and then I'd have to say "thanks but I'm just pushing the car because I want to," so I haven't done this.
With the 200 metre walk I could bluff with something like how I thought I'd seen an aircraft in trouble, but it obviously landed at some farmhouse and everything's fine.
So driving rapidly past Niagara Falls I wished I might have stayed there for a time. Because a reference to Niagara Falls in a John Ashbery poem called "The Serious Doll" had been haunting me.
As each particular
Goes over Niagara Falls in a barrel one may
Justifiably ask: Where does this come from?
Whither goes my concern? ...
They are lined up by the factory balcony railing
Against blue sky with some clumsy white paper clouds
Pasted on it.
Taking these images in reverse order (am I really, at this late hour, expected to become poster boy for chronology?) I imagined a leisurely trip in which I stopped in Niagara Falls, wandered idly, and maybe photographed white paper-like clouds across the water on the American side.
And I imagined myself so free of deadlines that I would check into a hotel and linger perhaps for a day, perhaps for a year (in a hundred years what difference would it make to anyone either way?) I imagined myself staring out my window-for surely all hotel windows face the falls-until the myriad details began to puzzle me,
almost but not quite forming narratives.
And I imagined looking past the steam of late winter, my attention moving to things in the water before the great Fall.
going so close as to discover a stranded barge from another era;
its rusted-out shell being assaulted by pounds of pressure I can't even imagine, yet locked forever in place by the rocks. That's as stubborn and eternal a battle between motion and stasis as I'll ever need. And I would make a note to research this boat, when I was finally home.
I have never been subject to an overflow of powerful feeling when visiting Niagara Falls. It is a place I like being without knowing why, and without feeling any reason to recommend it to anyone else. A place where there's little to do and yet multitudes swarm to stay in its hotels. The Falls focus my mind and empty it, as some people tell me meditation is supposed to do.
Tradition has it that 19th Century honeymooners went there to consummate marriages. Hence Oscar Wilde's famously sardonic quote that the falls were "the bride's second great disappointment." That may say more about Niagara Falls as a tourist destination than it says about post-marital sex. Niagara Falls is one of the less sexy places I've been. It's a better place I think to wander alone and relinquish one's connection to things.
In the unfortunate event that I should permanently disgrace myself, lose all hope of redemption, and sever all ties with my community and loved ones, I often wonder what sort of city I'd choose to die in. Aschenbach in Thomas Mann's Death in Venice chooses...um...well Venice. (I know there's a better way to reference this but can't seem to hit it today.)
If I were a lost soul dying like a 21st Century Aschenbach, I wouldn't choose Venice. I would feel that the beauty of the city was taunting me.
(I don't really remember anything from the Visconti film of Death in Venice, I'm just using this photo because it's more visually descriptive than, say, a photo of a page from the book).
Then there's the example of Nicholas Cage's character in Leaving Las Vegas (Isn't it great that once again the title contains the story's address? But then am I supposed to list Hamilton, Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Chicago, etc. in the title of this essay? They all equal players but surely I'd lose all my readers in a titular list.) who goes to his chosen city to drink himself to death.
But Vegas doesn't work for me either. The relentless pursuit of pleasure would remind me too much of my own failing flesh. I think Niagara Falls would do nicely as a way-station. Motion in Niagara Falls is downward and away. I could meditate myself out of the world, and nothing would pull me back. And there's something vital, dare I say spiritually hopeful in massive kinetic and usable physical energy such as one seldom experiences first hand.
(An internet search tells me the stations on the US and Canada side collectively transform 4.4GW from falling water to electrical energy) Metempsychosis from my current state to an undiscovered state in the undiscovered country. Foretold in a roar of raw power.
Nature does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Everything science has taught me, and continues to teach me, strengthens my belief in the continuity of our spiritual existence after death.
-Wernher von Braun
The Ashbery poem references the most enduring folklore of Niagara Falls: going over the Falls in a barrel. I promise you I don't want to do this any more than the people in the stranded barge did. There is, of course, a long list of people who have, intentionally and unintentionally.
My favorite is Bobby Leach who on July 25, 1911 went willfully over the Falls in a steel barrel to survive with only broken kneecaps. What interests me is the manner of his death. While touring New Zealand years later he slipped on an orange peel and died from complications due to gangrene. This fact demands consideration.
Since the pilots I work with have all at various times embraced risk more than I ever have I asked one for his take on the sad and paltry demise of Bobby Leach. His response: "It's the simple stuff that kills you."
I will leave you and Niagara Falls with that. As I say, I was merely driving by when I had this rumination and didn't have time to explore the place.
I did, of course stop at the Buffalo airport which unfortunately I have no photos of. I had an hour to kill and was going to take some photos when I remembered an excerpt from an interview with the English composer, Brian Ferneyhough, about the various exercises he gives his composition students.
I might say to the class one day, "Ok, this week we're going to write a one hour piece in one minute." What can you do? You do a few scribbles on a piece of paper. But those scribbles have some relationship to musical events and musical processes and presumably sounds at some point. And another week I might say, "Ok, this week we're going to sit down and spend an hour writing a piece that will last one minute." ...[The student] necessarily will enter into a different sort of transactional relationship with musical notation-the intensity, the degree of specificity with which the composer can bring into being the sorts of sounds that he wants.
At the Buffalo airport I went BFO2 (Brian Ferneyhough Option Two). Using the hour-long wait time at the boarding gate to compose a single image, and I produced one sketch and one sketch only, oblivious of the fact that my shoelaces had come undone and I was disheveled and sprawling amidst my scattered carry-ons, appearing to passers-by like some Ne'er-do-well being flown home at the expense of his E'er-do-well brother.
At Chicago-Midway I again had about an hour and again went BFO2, in this case looking though the window to exterior airport gates. I'd gotten round to my laces and my shoes were tight this time, so I'm not overcompensating with uptight crosshatching in the drawing like I was in Buffalo.
It was my first ever stop in Chicago. As I was not outside the airport at any time and so have never in my life "gone into the city" can I say that I've been to Chicago? On takeoff and landing, despite the windsheer that was making most of the passengers wish they'd walked, I clearly identified the Sears Tower and the John Hancock building.
(Seated as I was on the aisle a photo would have made it look way too much like I was photographing the belly of the man in the middle seat or the breasts of the woman by the window, and everyone seemed to be in a bad enough place already so I restrained myself, but I swear I'm not making up the fact that I identified the John Hancock Building and the Sears Tower.)
I surveyed the full skyline. I saw cars maneuvering their way through interchanges intricate as the schematics of a properly tied shoelace.
Basic shoe-tying knot (again this is from the Wikipedia on shoelaces which I can't recommend highly enough if you require remedial shoe-tying as I do.)
I would like to say I've been to Chicago but I don't believe I'm entitled to do so.
I'm only really comfortable describing Hamilton, because I've lived here long enough and walked certain walks enough that I feel I've sort of earned it and will get back to it now.
Here's some more material now on the walk I took after I left Zellers with my laces, relaced my shoes in my car (see above) and proceeded on foot to Winners. And here's where I finally go BFO1. The walk takes about a minute and my documentary of it consists of about sixty photos. No, I'm not going to subject my readers to the whole series. Hit my E-mail if you want a complete set.
There's an efficient pedestrian shortcut by the Pet Centre.
You can't really tell from this repellant photo but the passageway is through that rectangle under the Goodlife Fitness sign. If you've never taken it before you will be on pins and needles wondering what destinations this passageway will empty you onto.
And the exit view does not disappoint.
OK. That's not the best angle. But what they've done is create a covered pedestrian way. What I call a "place for walking meditation." I traverse it whenever I can.
There's a right angle turn.
But really there's no other option but to go right here. You can't get lost.
Like Lot's wife, or Orpheus, or I'm sure a dozen stories that a multi-disciplinary-world-lit-Jungian-archetype-oriented professor could put you in touch with, I can never resist a backward glance at the happy time I've just experienced
knowing full well that the very act of looking back enables loss and anguish at that loss. The wisdom imparted in these stories is that one must accept that things pass away, and move willfully forward. But there it is. Despite knowing better I want to regain a paradise that barely ever was.
Don't look back is probably good advice when going over Niagara Falls in a barrel too. Remind me NOT to take my camera.
Here's the next thing I like on this walk. The "Mandarin" canopy, which I assume directs people into a restaurant I've never been in. Pagoda-like it emulates Chinese architecture. Can I now say I've been to China?
When you finally get under it and look up, there's glass skylighting
reminiscent of the canopy in Monet's St. Lazare Train Station
How close is that! Can I now say I've been to France!
At Winners I bought six pairs of socks. Already my laces had become untied and already I could hear the recently virgin aglets crunching under my heels.
By the checkout was a table of Margarita mix. I guess some people just grab a bottle on impulse with their big glob of clothing. Of course it reminded me of my recent trip to Albuquerque (which I know I haven't exactly got to yet so I'll probably have to save most of it for another essay and hope no one's hugely disappointed.)
And as I exited, the Mexican restaurant across the parking lot
reminded me of the photo I'd taken of contemporary Albuquerque adobe townhouses.
The world is international. It has become easier to travel but harder to look. By the way, if you were curious about that boat that got stuck just before plunging over the Niagara Falls like some daredevil in a barrel and were irked that I didn't give you the back-story, you'll be happy to hear that I DID look it up when I got back to Hamilton.
Turns out that what I referred to as a barge is actually called a scow (a steel cargo boat with a blunt bow) that got separated from its tug by a sandbar and, after careening toward the Falls with a terrified two man crew, ended up hitting a rock and sticking there.
The crew was rescued some days later after a grueling process of getting a man out on a rope to bring each of them back. While awaiting rescue the crew, starving and almost frozen, worked tirelessly to sink as much weight as they could down into the water so that the scow wouldn't become dislodged and go over the falls.
It doesn't sound like they needed to worry. This happened in 1918 and it hasn't budged despite its prominence in the Niagara vista. Unlike emotional attachments, physical objects are unaffected by our looking back at them.
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