Friday, February 07, 2014

It's Kind of Like Mustard

This is the fifth installment of our new Friday Feature exploring the literature I'm teaching my sophomores in our Great American Road Trip course.  I'm so excited to be sharing some of my favorite books--stories that have inspired me and fed my sense of adventure and belief that anything at all is possible if you just set out and explore. Our current book is John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley. Glad to have you along for the ride.

“I think it is a little like my dad and mustard,” I offered.

Nineteen pair of eyes looked at me quizzically, intered to see where things were heading.

The topic was our tendency as humans to accept what is in front of us as “the way things are,” a conversation point that always brings me to mustard.

See, my dad grew up with yellow mustard.  He was aware that in other homes lived brown mustard families where Grey Poupon was slathered along hot dog buds or around hamburger patties—but this way of life was not one in which he was to dip so much as a chicken finger.  No, in my dad’s mind he had been assigned to a Yellow Mustard Home, not unlike a ridged condiment caste system.  As an adult making his own tentative way in the world of grocery shopping, he recklessly purchased a bottle of Goulden's and discovered that he liked it.  Today, his fridge boasts a large, sunny jar of French’s Yellow AND a squeeze bottle of spicy, brown as well—options! Expanded horizions!  Growth!

Our conversation circled around the concept.  First, we discussed the obvious in terms of our story line.  We’d  just trailed John Steinbeck, Charley the poodleand their truck/camper Rocinante into the southern states in the early 1960s, and, if you haven’t read the book, a cursory recollection of history will reveal the condition in which they found things.

So we discussed racism, and it’s modern equivalents (use your imagination) and our tendency as humans to cling to ideas that mesh with what we’re familiar with, what we’ve been told is good.  Then S flipped through the dozens of colorful post-it notes in her book to read this quote from Steinbeck:

In my young days in Monterey County, a hundred miles south of San Francisco, everyone was a Republican. My family was Republican. I might still be one if I had stayed there.

It was like one big “Oh” went through the room.  Travel means exposure to new concepts, ideas, products—in short, mind-expanding change.  Discovery.  Finding out who your are and what you think-- and like.  Because, yes, the conversation looped around again to the fridge.

“My family is a Diet Coke family,” A explained.  “When I got to school I started drinking Pepsi.  I feel like I am betraying the family every time I pop a can.  My roommate almost posted a picture to facebook, I made her stop.”

“When I got to school, I found out that I don’t really even like soda,” W said.  “I grew up drinking it all my life and I don’t even like it.”

“Travel is growth,” N said.  “And it doesn’t even have to be far.  Changing your route to work can make you see new things.” He paused and then asked a question I wasn’t expecting.

My students know that in 2007 I took a Steinbeck-esque triparound the country, so N wanted to know: “Did you grow?”

Wow.  How do I approach such a huge question in such a limited time? “Yes, yes I did," I said.  "Remember last class when we talked about how you don’t really discover a place by eating in chain restaurants and sleeping in name-brand hotels?”

Everyone nodded, because we spent most of Wednesday discussing the problem of processed, white bread, homogenized  America.  “I discovered that you learn a lot more when you venture off the beaten path and talk to people. “

I told them of my conversation with a young Native American selling jewelry near the Grand Canyon wherein I learned that they don’t wish to be called Navajos, because that means thieves. His tribe is the Dena—The People.  When he discovered I was from Virginia he pictured me in our Nation’s Capital and asked me to “take the news to Washington," as though I was backyard neighbors with the White House and could easily call a message over the fence.  I told him I would tell whoever would listen, and that includes you, dear reader.

I told my students of the 70-some people of Rachel, Nevada who live hours from other civilization and attend public school four long days a week.  I told them of the tiny restaurant/bar/casino that serves as the hub for the entire population, including a 5 year old who greets strangers because he’s “the nicest guy in town” and the bar tender who was a 21 year old student from my own Virginia town. She was an adventurer who got in her car one day, found herself in Rachel and decided to stay for a while. Steinbeck would have loved her; I did.

I could have shared much more, but our time was over and the point made: the world is enormous.  You’ve seen little of it.  Try new things.  Find out what you like.  Explore new places—even if they are just around the corner.

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