Dancing Alone
In Mexico
From the Border to
Baja and Beyond

Ron Butler
(University of Arizona)
Butler is a professional travel writer, and many of these articles first appeared in Travel & Leisure, Américas, MD, and Hemispheres, the magazine of United Airlines. Which may explain their rigidity, the feel of formula, and --- ultimately --- their tediousness.

For there is a strict formula to travel writing, especially when you write for the likes of T&L. Keep it light. Stuff it with facts. You can be a little funny, but don't shake up the reader, and --- most of all --- remember that travel writing is not meant to discourage the footloose, the foolhardy, and especially the bourgeoisie with fat credit cards.

"Night Ferry to La Paz" --- as an excellent example --- makes the journey from Mazatlán to Baja a fun-filled lark, watching "the ship's bow slice through the warm blue water." We get a description of the locals ("La Paz and Mazatlán are perhaps the only two ports of call they'll ever see..."), the usual soupçon of facts ("moving due west along the Tropic of Cancer..."), a dab of color ("a backdrop of mahogany-colored mountains whose base was speckled with the blue, pink, and white colors of beachfront hotels...") and even a touch of philosophy ("I wondered how the lights that seemed so dim inside could glow so brightly from outside.")

It's throwaway hackery, stuffing for the fat ads that fill throwaway magazines. But, unfortunately, it's not only bad writing, it's misleading. For anyone who has travelled on the only boat going between the mainland and Baja, it's a journey from --- or in --- hell: hot dirty cabins, wretched food, and for those of us who are slipping into senility, a nightmare of tiny, narrow stairs.

Getting the tickets is a study in travel-war: jostling people, jammed against the window, vainly hoping to catch the sole clerk's attention, greedy to get their berth. The fact that it takes place early in the morning makes it even less appealing, unless you are into screaming hoards at 6 am. On top of that, Butler's statement that "several other ships have been put into service across the Gulf of California, serving the peninsula from Puerto Vallarta, Topolobampo, and Guaymas" tells us that his most recent journeys have been either to Mars or to Venus --- since most of those bilge-filled cow-boats went out of business, thank the lord, many years ago.

When we got to "Frieda and Diego: A Love Story," we were thinking the title was a joke. You can call their time together what you want --- A Fight to Remember, Marriage Mayhem, Beat Me Daddy 8 to the Bar --- but, please, spare us: don't call it "A Love Story."

Moreover, he manages to cook down their strange time together into the usual fact-choked, wooden prose, vide,

    Among the many famous houseguests were film star Edward G. Robinson and his wife, Gladys. While Kahlo entertained Mrs. Robinson on the roof terrace of her house, Rivera, always his wife's biggest fan, showed the actor some of her paintings. Robinson bought four of them for $200 each.

It's that kind of breathless now-you-are-there prose that drives us up the wall: How does Butler know where Frieda entertained Gladys? Hell, how does he know she was entertained? Who says that Rivera was his wife's "biggest fan?" And who cares what Robinson paid for the paintings?

Ironically, when Butler drops his clichés, his writing begins to connect. The first essay of them all tells, in simple, direct style, of the breakup of his marriage --- and the resulting strain it puts on his time with his beloved children. Most of his journalistic tricks are dumped --- and we have here a man telling a story from his heart: not something to make a few bucks, but to give us (and him) a touch of humanity.


--- L. A. Bloom


Tales from
Rhapsody
Home

Or, What They Don't
Tell You About
Senior Living

John Gould
(Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill)
John Gould has been a columnist for the Christian Science Monitor for almost sixty years, and he's written a ton of books --- twenty-nine to be exact. Having just passed into his ninth decade, he and his wife have moved into Rhapsody Home, a place "somewhere in Maine" for Senior Citizens.

When people write so much for so long, they are either going to grow and get better and better, like Shakespeare, Thackeray, or Dickens --- or they are going to find a formula that works, and play that old harp over and over again until it's time to hang it up.

Gould has obviously decided that he is going to be neither a Shakespeare nor a Dickens. He is thus a moderately interesting hack writer, kind of an ageing Art Buchwald. His sole uniqueness lies in the fact that he was writing columns when Buchwald was still in diapers: Gould wrote his first in 1942. You can imagine what his political stance and style of writing has been, working for the Christian Science Monitor for lo these many years. I mean, they ain't hiring Gonzo journalists there at the home of Mary Baker Eddy.

Gould writes about small-town New England life with a folksy style that Garrison Keillor has adopted to the Upper Middle West. Like Keillor, it's stories of fishing, family, funny neighbors, cooking --- all those small-town stories, and small town characters, from so long ago --- the world that we find, with nostalgic dismay, has quite disappeared.

The solution of local, national, and world problems are, for Gould, quite 19th Century. All we need is less talk, less whining --- and more honesty and hard work. However, for him, a soul change comes about when he and his wife enter Rhapsody Home, which --- as we read more and more about it --- turns out to be nothing more than a warehouse for geezers (or, as a local delivery man has it, "God's Waiting Room.")

It's a sad environment, and instead of mildly amusing stories about the neighbor who built a windmill, or a grandfather who farmed alone and sold honey and talked to the bees, we are presented with the closed world of a nursing home where the food is awful, the conversation is about spleens, liver, and bladder, and the management is --- as typical in such places --- cold, distant, and totally unresponsive to the needs of those who have to live there.

Gould's first problem is the window in his bedroom that cannot be opened. All these years he and his wife lived with the windows open and the fresh air of the night blowing through the bedroom, for when he was growing up,

    Fresh air was promoted as being good for us, and to insure longevity, the child must learn to endure the rigors of nighttime winter...As I recall, my bride wore earmuffs on our wedding night...we opened the window onto the sea to hear the breakers and get a breath.

In Rhapsody Home, the window was never meant to open, making it a fitting symbol of the No Exit world they have been moved into.

§     §     §

For those of us they laughingly call Senior Citizens, there are several ways of dealing with extreme old age. One is, obviously, and most commonly, what we could think of as the Lawrence Welk Solution: abject surrender (be a good patient, a very good patient, until one needs to be patient no longer).

Another is rage: taking on the world, not lying down and surrendering ("rage rage against the dying of the light.")

Then there is mystical clam, or calm. (I'm dying, I might as well get used to it; I think I'll become a Buddhist --- Ommmmmm....)

And finally, there is Gould's approach...neither surrender, nor sputtering outrage, nor mysticism. It's, rather, a timid anger, which, in his case, translates into carping. Carping about the insurance agent that drops him after insuring his house for all these years. Carping about the food --- Rhapsody Home serves beef for supper five days in a row. Carping about the window that will never open, and the noisy fan that is sent in to take its place. Carping about the extra $15 he must pay to have his wife bathed: she can't get into Rhapsody Home's bathtub --- they live in place for old folks, they have made the choice to live in a place where the bathtubs are inaccessible.

For some of us, this stiff-upper-lip school of writing just won't do. Here we have an experienced writer, one, obviously, with a gift of words. In response to the insults dumped on him and his fellow ancien régime prisoners, we want to read that he organized serious protests --- called in lawyers, organized pickets, communicated with the local newspapers, notified the stockholders, the legislators, wrote bitterly and well about a system that brings obscenely high returns to those who are insensitive to the needs of those in its care.

With his talent for words (almost three-quarters of a century of daily writing!), with his connections (judges, legislators, the Maine power people he names in boring detail), Gould has the ability to shake up the world of geeze warehousers. This book would be a fine place for him to question this darker sides of our society: why we are so content to salt the old folks away, out of sight, out of mind. It's time for a polemic: J'accuse!

But what do we get? Gould writes mildly, "after our own children were grown, my wife's parents came to live with us. In those days the elderly where not sidetracked into Rhapsody Homes." Instead of a serious diatribe about a culture that holds its old and its wise in such scorn, he contents himself with a melancholic whisper: "They've taken me out of the Maine woods and buttoned me up in the new wilderness of tranquil senility."

--- Lolita Lark


The
Wildest
Dream

The Biography of
George Mallory

Peter & Leni Gillman
(Mountaineers Books)

They were certainly golden --- that generation of English gentlemen that came to maturity just before WWI. They were the ones that travelled to the North and South Poles, climbed the Alps, wandered the velt, booked passages to India. They were educated at Oxford or Cambridge, played rugby and cricket, and, sadly, many lost their lives at the Somme, Menin Road, Polygon Road, Passchendaele (750,000 Englishmen died fighting The War To End All Wars.) George Mallory was one of those who survived, only to perish five years later on Everest. His body was found in 1999, a few hundred feet from the summit, almost three-quarters of a century after his third and fatal attempt.

The biographers Gillman had a mountain of material to draw from when they set out to tell the story of Mallory. He was part of the Cambridge intellectual set which included James and Lytton Strachey, Duncan Grant, and Maynard Keynes. According to the authors, not only were there intellectual pursuits --- plays, recitations, music, study groups --- there was "L'Affaire George," the nighttime adventures of Mallory and James Strachey. As a matter of fact, The Wildest Dream is more than the story of a nice-looking, smart Edwardian. It's the story of a nice-looking, smart Edwardian that's been gussied up, to excite and delight us. Not only do we have the cover, George in the buff --- see above ("I am profoundly interested in the nude me"), but chapter headings that come right out of the old "Traveller's Companion" series from Paris: "A Taste for Risk," "Fresh Pleasures," "A Strange Thrill," "Immortal Love."

Much is made of George's ethereal beauty. Lytton Strachey is quoted as writing to Clive and Vanessa Bell,

    My hand trembles, my heart palpitates, my whole being swoons away at the words --- oh heavens! I found of course that he's been absurdly maligned --- he's six foot high, with the body of an athlete Praxiteles, and a face --- oh incredible --- the mystery of Botticelli, the refinement and delicacy of a Chinese print, the youth and piquancy of an imaginable English boy. I rave, but when you see him, as you must, you will admit all --- all!

So? We are reminded of Humbert Humbert's final take on Lolita --- that she was rather tediously common, with terrible taste in goopy soda-fountain concoctions. After wading (and climbing) through George's life --- at the front, at home with his wife and three children, up on mountains --- we find a ho-hum albeit god-like figure, who is being given 287 pages because

  • He hung out with the Cambridge Smart Set --- Keynes et al;
  • He was, like many Edwardians, a non-stop letter-writer, giving future biographers a mountain of material to weed through to gain their keep; and
  • He had a rather spectacular death --- albeit one that was also rather foolish (one doesn't treat Mount Everest like the playing fields of Eton).

With all this excessive titillation, and that sexy cover --- the Gillmans have done their best to breathe some life into this rather emotionally flaccid character. It's too bad that Mallory was, as Lolita would say, such a dull-bulb.


--- Ignacio Schwartz
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