Posted in Lessons by The Books Production Team on January 21, 2009


typewriter5          So, because I believe in a crazy little thing called science, I’ve come to realize over the course of the last decade that the earth, due to humanity’s general negligence, is actually getting demonstrably warmer.  Shocking, and groundbreaking information – I know.  Now, like most problems (remember that hole that used to exist in the ozone layer), I assume that if we band together as a world, we can stop or reverse this process.  But unfortunately, this realization, and this problem, has caused a significant disruption in my lifestyle.  You see, the problem for me is this: a lot of the things that I have traditionally enjoyed doing are contributing factors to the “global warming” phenomenon.  And because I hang out almost exclusively with ultra-liberal academics and urbanites, I’ve had to find creative ways to assuage my guilt and justify my lifestyle decisions without actually giving up any of the things I love.  This has been an adventurous, and sometimes expensive process, but after all, that’s the American way.  Yet, while this may sound a bit like I’m unwilling to sacrifice for the betterment of humanity, the truth is that I’m simply willing to pay more not to be inconvenienced by my own energy gluttony.  For instance, I really like to leave every single light on in my house all day long.  I do this because I don’t like the dark – it makes me depressed, and when I’m depressed, I do shitty work.   Luckily, the electric company has come up with a plan for selfish, but environmentally conscious, consumers like me (those who like light), and for an extra twenty dollars a month I can buy completely limitless wind power from some sky-farmer in Kansas.  Evidently, at least according to Ameren UE and The Wizard of Oz, it’s really fucking windy in Kansas (and there’s a reason that the band Kansas’s greatest hit was a song called “Dust in the Wind”).  So that’s one problem solved.

          More to the point for this post, however, is the fact that like almost every other red-blooded American, I also really like to drive.  And of course, given what we know about car exhaust from government reports and pictures of Los Angeles, this presents a problem.  Driving, as we are all well aware, kills the earth.  So, in an attempt to be a better human, lately I’ve been working on my walking skills.  And this does help out with half of the driving equation.  Because I live in a neighborhood where everything is conveniently located, and I’m less than a mile from my office on campus, I’ll often go days at a time without moving my car.  Walking, it turns out, is actually pretty fun.  But this doesn’t get me past the larger problem of how to transport myself from St. Louis to, say, Chicago – if I want to go watch the Cardinals play a game at a Wrigley Field.  Because whether I fly, or drive, or take the Mega Bus – I’m forced to deal with something.  In the case of the first two options, I’ve got my carbon footprint to think about (which Al Gore’s magic machine tells me is good, but still not zero).  In the case of the latter choice, I have to ride the bus – which takes seven hours and greatly increases my chances of either being squeezed into a corner by someone who weighs 400 pounds or repulsed by someone who refuses to bathe.  So, what do you do?  Well, I’ll just tell you.  You do exactly what Al Gore himself does – you buy carbon offsets, and voila, the environmental problems concerned with taking a Road Trip are now eliminated (you gotta love casuistry – hey?).  Now, if I want to go visit Philadelphia or Seattle, I can, and I no longer have to think about the possibility of confining myself to a six-block radius in the Central West End.

          But you know what’s weird?  As I sit here and read back through what I’ve typed so far, it occurs to me that the most interesting part about this whole runner that’s going to take us into today’s lesson is the fact that 9 years ago, at the apex of one of mankind’s most gluttonous and credit-fueled decades of materialism ever, we wouldn’t have even considered needing to justify the environmental consequences of taking a road trip.  As strange as it seems, the world was an incredibly different place in the year 2000.  Most of you folks out there reading this are a bit younger than me – not much, but enough that when we start talking about nine years ago, it makes a difference – and you were probably in middle school when the whole Y2K scenario played itself out.  But for all intents and purposes, this century didn’t roll over on the morning of January 1, 2000 when none of our banking software crashed – as certain millennialists feared it would – but rather on September 11, 2001, when a bunch of angry zealots commandeered four planes and flew them into two national landmarks.  That changed everything – forever – at least in terms of our relationship with oil, which really is what drives much of the world economy.  All of the sudden, as we found ourselves engaged in a war, as our international backing faded, as our failure to ratify the Kyoto treaty began to loom larger as a secondary reason for other countries to hate us, and the price of gasoline started slowly creeping towards a temporary high last year of over four dollars per gallon, the idea of wasting fuel on a road trip became so 1990s.  And nothing exemplifies this fact better than the movie Road Trip, which was released in 2000 – the last year of the 1990s.

          If you contextually analyze the movie Road Trip, you’ll see that it featured a virtual who’s who of 1990s youth comedy cast-members.  Breckin Meyer?  Sean William Scott?  DJ Qualls?  Amy Smart?  They were all coming off of roles in blockbuster 1990s movies like Can’t Hardly Wait, American Pie, and Varsity Blues.  And yet now, in what seems unthinkable given the composite stardom of the ensemble cast and the film’s enormous financial success, almost none of them have gone on to monster movie careers.  And this doesn’t even consider the fact that the picture also featured Tom Greene – who at the time had his own popular MTV series and was married to Drew Barrymore.  Essentially, the cast of Road Trip has gone the way of the actual road trip, in that they are much less culturally relevant now than they were a decade ago.  At least, this seems to be the case with my students when I discuss the idea of road-tripping places; because when I do so, I often get blank stares – which leads me to believe this once important right-of-passage is now much less popular than it was when I was in college.  And really, environmentalism aside, this is a social shame – because there’s no better way to quickly build friendship intimacy than by sharing 12 hours in a car with someone.

          When I think about the friends with which I am the closest, almost of all of them have one thing in common.  We’ve spent significant time together in an automobile criss-crossing America for one reason or another.  In 1998, fresh out of high school, Jay and I took his mother’s Park Avenue on an 8000 mile, three-week road trip through the American west.  In 2000, Ben and I drove to Florida.  In 2001, Ben and I kidnapped our roommate Mike when he was passed out at a sorority date party and drove him to Mt. Rushmore (he woke up dazed and confused in Sioux City, Iowa) before heading south to camp for a week in Boulder.  These days, Myles and I drive to Georgia every November.  And Matt and I have been back and forth to Cleveland more times than I would have ever imagined going to Cleveland in my life.  Each of these friendships is all the stronger for those road-trips and those memories.

          When else, in the course of your day-to-day life, do you ever spend dozens of consecutive hours just talking with your friends?  Sure, occasionally these types of meaningful lengthy conversations happen when a bottle of Jack Daniels happens to get opened early on one of those Friday afternoons that stretches into the dawn of Saturday morning.  But when do you do it sober?  Almost never – because life is really fucking busy.  But when you throw yourselves together in a car – there’s nothing else to do except to talk, and talking with our friends is a very important component in maintaining a friendship.

          Sure, potentially, you can also travel with your friends via airplane.  But the conversations that happen when travelling by car are so much better than those that occur miles over the heartland in a Boeing 747.  For one thing, there are other people around to listen in on your conversations on a plane – which limits intimacy.  For another, the nature of air travel deems it appropriate for the passenger to zone out by reading a book, or to put on a pair of headphones – which again makes talking difficult.  But when one friend is given the responsibility of driving a complex machine 75 miles an hour on America’s rapidly deteriorating interstate highway system, the other friend feels a greater responsibility to keep the driver awake and entertained with talk.  And, most importantly, driving through America allows you to discover all sorts of unexpected gems along the way that you could never possibly visit through the air – because the only place that airplanes stop, if all goes according to plan, is at other airports (although that guy did land his plane in the middle of the Hudson River last week – which was pretty exciting).  As an example, let me just introduce you to one of the places you can stop when driving across America.  During the course of my road-tripping career, I’ve been three times to the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota (which is this just bat-shit crazy building made entirely out of corn) – and I’ve been there with three different people.  Now, years later, when someone brings up the Corn Palace, we’ve all got that inside joke, that collective piece of memory that bonds us together.  And that’s the beauty of the road trip.

          So, let me close with this.  Road trips are cheap, awesome, and you don’t need a reason to take one.  Plus, college is the perfect time to try one out – because someday you’ll probably have money and the thought of taking three days to get somewhere won’t seem appealing.  Just remember that life is about the journey, not always about the destination; and just make sure to buy some carbon offsets before you go – because that way the trees that you pay to plant in Oregon will neutralize your exhaust fumes as you drive through the beautiful forest.

          NOTE: Also of interest, some guy named Flavius really doesn’t like the site, which he makes ardently clear in a comment on the What Readers are Saying page, so check that out when you get a chance.  Good to know we’re not keeping everybody happy.

2 Responses

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  1. Third Bass said, on January 21, 2009 at 2:45 am

    For my money (and I’m paying an extra 72 cents to offset the power consumption of my laptop as I read and comment on this post) this is the best Dr. Wizard post to date. Cheers!

  2. RC said, on January 21, 2009 at 2:52 am

    Good column, Joe, but have you REALLY purchased carbon offsets? If you have, is there any way I can interest you in a beautiful bridge I have for sale?

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