Friday, July 22, 2005

When I die, bury me with Sarah Vowell

Children of the 70's and 80's -- unite. Forever in the love shadow of those swinging 60's children, raised under our school desks waiting for The Cold War to unleash nuclear holocaust (but please, God, do it before Gym class cuz I hate taking showers with other girls), haunted by visions of orange plaid wallpaper and shag carpets, we've never been given our due.

Scratch the surface of a late Gen X'er and weird stuff bubbles up.


We were the last official products of a working, thriving public school system. Which means we're literate, capable of thinking for ourselves and still curious about life. However, we're the first test subjects for early cable television...which means many of us spout off the names of the first MTV "Vee-Jays" when asked for a listing of important people of our lifetime.

Take Sarah Vowell, for instance. Quirky, wittier than most of her writing predecessors, when Vowell's on a roll she's unmatched.

Reading Assasination Vacation, I'm struck by her ability to make relevant and timely the plots and problems plaguing our former presidents in a country where internal turbulence is as big a hallmark as apple pie.

Hard to say if we consume more violence and death at home than we export, but the book's a great reminder that it's always been a part of our social fabric.

This alone would make for interesting reading, but in Vowell's deft hands it becomes art. Who else would enlist the aid of a friend who drives (she has no license because she perfers a paranoid anonymity, another mark of our generation) to embark on a road trip tracking John Wilkes Booth's fateful ride through Maryland, post assasination? And who in God's name could make said account enlightening, moving AND funny?

Only Ms. Vowell.

Until this book, I thought I was the only whack-job willing to trek miles for some bizarre obsession. My love of writer's gravesites is looked on with horror by friends and family, as some strange Tim Burtonesque fetish, best not mentioned during holiday get togethers.

Whether or not accounts ever receive publishing, it's still so much more than that.

Beginning years ago during a trip to MA to see my birthmom, a happy stroke of luck and geography placed her within a short drive of Concord, MA and the final resting places for Louisa May Alcott, Emerson, Waldo and Thoreau. It was then an overwhelming desire to commune with the remains of the greats took hold. Alcott's family just wasn't enough.

Close in life, Bronson and his family, including the esteemed Louisa, are even closer in death: in a large cordoned section of the cemetary, strewn with overgrown grass and markers smaller than landscaping rocks, rests the entire brood. It's a vision that fills the typical commitmentphobe Gen X'er with both wonder and fear... From that mix of horror, awe and comfort, a new hobby was born.

Eternity with one's family can be heaven or hell. Either way, it's both too close for comfort and a warm blanket of wish-fulfillment for our seemingly unending, unconscious desire to live The Donna Reed Show.

In direct contrast to that is the grave of Daniel Chester French, whose entire life played out in the far west Berkshire mountains at Chesterwood.

Ever the appreciator of a good aesthetic, French has a glorious flat, ground-level headstone more detailed and ornate than most in Sleepy Hollow Cemetary. Not only does it cover him, both literally and figuratively, but I believe a loved one or two is tucked away under there, as well.

Guess having his wife take his name was not enough; she's stuck spending an eternity in his shadow - or, rather, that of his headstone.

This simple fact kept me stranded, water pouring down my body, staring at French's grave until it became a blurred, foggy mess through rain-covered glasses. Unmoved by the honk of my mother's car horn, unswayed by the calls of my half-brother Jeremy, I felt planted, compelled to try and better understand how centuries had passed and in some things, little has changed.

Unlike subsequent generations who've spent most of their lives visiting sites of interest through the virtual route of a modem and pc, many of my generation are driven towards the tangible, messy reminders of what being alive really means.

Find-a-Grave.com or websites dedicated to the story of that fateful night in Ford Theatre will always be too detached and clinical for me. And I'm more than okay with that.

Happy with it, in fact.

For some of us, coming of age when everything was in total flux, when movies hit their apex through the gritty realism of Scorcese and John Cassavetes, back before scripted reality television and our culture's relentless drive towards physical perfection and mental vacuity, nothing less will do than a full-on hands in the dirt celebration of our perfectly imperfect time on earth.

What better physical reminder that it only takes one instant to level the playing ground between our own mostly unheralded simple lives and that of the man who wrote the Gettysburg address?

The only difference over time will be the size and shape of our headstones.
Comments:
I am a product of the 80's generation... MTV from the begining..
all that stuff... United... baby!
 
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