Went running tonight past a house that had a number of books and magazines piled up at the curb for trash day.
One was a small red book with a large title rendered in all lowercase letters: “heroes for my son.“
It seemed sort of forlorn and sad, regardless of whether it was the dad throwing it out (a baby-shoes-never-worn situation?) … or the son (“no thanks, Dad, I’ll pick my own heroes”) … or maybe even the daughter. (“Dad wanted a boy and he bought this book and I was a girl and he gave it to me anyway,” little Braydenita says, rolling her eyes.)
I also wondered whether the book came pre-filled with heroes — and whether they leaned toward the General George Patton side of the spectrum, or the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. side of the spectrum — or if it was a book of blank pages for the dad to fill with his own inspirations.
I did not stop to seek any of the answers; I just kept on running.
When I run, am I running away from death, or toward it?
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The Internet tells me the book was published in 2010 and was a best-seller. It comes filled with heroes of the socioliberal variety. Of course there is a follow-up for daughters — no author of a successful book ever leaves a sequel on the table.
I had two sons age 10 or under in 2010 and yet I was never aware of this book, nor did anyone ever see fit to give me a copy. On one level it’s just as well; it doesn’t sound like my cup of tea. On a different level, it’s another of a lengthening list of examples of mass American popular culture motoring off in other directions while I sit in one place.
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(art for art’s sake)
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A little while ago an old friend of mine posted his yearbook page to Twitter. He went to one of those small private schools (graduating class: 43) where all the seniors get an individual page to fill with their own coded twaddle, and he shared his page. It was — and I think he would acknowledge this — filled with coded twaddle.
(There were 300 or so kids in my graduating class, so we each got a portrait and a senior quote limited to a certain number of characters. Longtime readers will recall that Neil Peart and Jesus Christ accounted for the largest percentage of these senior quotes. Each copy of the yearbook also came with a stapled packet of senior wills — half a page per student — which is where we put our ration of coded twaddle. Hopefully at least a few of the copies have fallen out and gotten lost over the decades.)
Anyway, after glancing over my friend’s page, I noticed that the photo included a small portion of the next page. I could tell that my friend’s classmate, anonymous to me, had included a timeless classic-rock lyrical reference:
“What a long strange trip it’s been — Dead”
I was struck by the thought that tens of thousands of American kids — maybe even hundreds of thousands — have slipped that line into their final yearbook entries since “Truckin'” was released in November 1970.
Which makes it a shared delusion of titanic proportions. No 18-year-old has any idea what a “long strange trip” is. It doesn’t matter whether you’re headed to college and work, or the military and work, or just work. Over the next 60 years, it’s gonna get a whole lot longer and a whole lot stranger. An 18-year-old hasn’t even left the starting blocks yet.
And the more affluent their community and surroundings, the more absurd the reference becomes.
What, you got loaded and drove around town? Got chased by the cops out of a house party? Smoked a joint and then went to work at KFC and collapsed giggling in the walk-in cooler? Had your boyfriend’s younger sibling unexpectedly come home while you were stealing an intimate moment? That’s only strange if you’re blinkered enough to be unfamiliar with the millions of other people who have also done it, or done something similar.
(This is not to suggest that the hotel room-backstage-onstage-taxi-plane-hotel room-backstage-onstage-taxi routine of a touring rock band is all that strange either. Indeed, its mundanity has frequently been commented on. And the Dead’s trip would get considerably longer and stranger after they celebrated it on vinyl. As of November 1970, they hadn’t yet gone on hiatus and come back again, dropped the “Phil and Ned” bleepblorp madness on stadium crowds, played at the Egyptian pyramids, temporarily lost their lead guitarist to a diabetic coma, or had a Top Ten hit. The Dead still have a better claim to the phrase than any suburban teenager, though.)
I give even more points to those insouciant youth who credit this snippet of unearned wisdom to “GD,” “Dead” or some other shorthand.
As an anal-retentive reader of liner notes as well as a Deadhead, I would credit it to either the Dead’s lyricist, Robert Hunter, or to the four credited co-writers, Hunter, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh and Bob Weir, who allegedly worked out the song while sitting together beside a hotel pool on the road. Lyrics were firmly Hunter’s domain, generally speaking, and I don’t think the latter three contributed on the lyric side, but … well, well, well, you can never tell.
The casual credit to “Dead” bespeaks a certain unfamiliarity with the details — nay, an active disinterest. That’s the kind of credit given by a person to whom “Truckin'” is just another song on classic-rock radio, wedged in between “Barracuda” and “Don’t Fear the Reaper” and “Teach Your Children” and “Turn The Page” and “Never Been Any Reason.”
That’s the kind of credit given by somebody who’s mentally rifled through the bag of Party-Hearty Rock Songs, the bag of Mysterious Rock Songs, the bag of Potentially Transgressive Rock Songs, and the bag of Mildly Profound Rock Songs, and opted for the last.
No matter. America’s legion of Long Strange Trippers has lived and learned. They are part of the broader population every day, teaching algebra and writing parking tickets and selling insurance and coaching Little League. They are older and wiser. More so than I, perhaps.
Maybe they know whether they are running away from death, or towards it.