Armchair Peregrinations


January 30, 1999

The College of Charleston is only about seven blocks from where I work and is a favorite place of mine to walk to during lunch break or after work. A very old college, it is spread throughout an historic section of Charleston, and many of the academic offices are located in old houses that date back to the early and mid 19th century. It is a lovely place to slowly make your way around, amid oak-covered walks, particularly when classes have not just changed and the throngs of students have subsided.

I like the stimulation a college campus gives me. I've spent so many years taking courses in universities that I can't seem to do without them, although I'd just as soon not be in school now. I'm taking grad courses through distance ed, so one could say I'm still involved with what has turned out to be a path of "lifelong learning" through college.

In addition to the stimulation of just being on a college campus and the memories it brings back, good and bad, I like to encounter occasionally the full hustle and bustle of students changing classes, that certain atmosphere that is a college no matter where in the country. Here one encounters youth on the threshold of new lives, just starting out on their own, the excitement of independence, first apartments, big, thick new textbooks, novels to read for English classes, history, literary criticism, earth sciences, philosophy -- I remember well my years as an undergraduate. There's a lot I'd like to forget about those times, but gradually, with the passage of time, I've become kind of nostalgic about that era, so different from later years when I took courses to be credentialed as a teacher or to prepare for a possible life in academe. The thought of teaching in a college has always been tantalizing, and I did teach for two years in a deep South university before leaving doctoral studies behind.

So, I must say the university experience in all its manifestations has been a major part of my life over the years. I've taken more courses than I can remember. Today, when I walk through the College of Charleston campus, I feel connected to something vital, to youth and learning and possibilities far beyond mere imagining. I feel connected to the idealism of the young and the foolishness of that age, too. I see cycles being repeated from my youthful college days. I try to observe what's going on everytime I'm there and to benefit in some small way from my observations.

The other day, for example, I made a point of jotting down what was on some of the posters and announcements that covered a wall along a sidewalk on George Street. Here is what I noted: The CAB (Campus Activities Board?) was sponsoring a dinner and film night featuring the movie "Ever After;" a Reggae Night was upcoming; meetings and presentations of The Alliance for Planet Earth and Students for a Free Tibet; Spring Rush for Zeta Phi Beta; "The Truman Show," followed by free pizza and discussion; Animal Ethics: A Documentary Discussion with the topic, Amimal Research in Science -- Lethal Medicine; Peace Maker -- film and discussion on Nelson Mandella. I remember being struck by how interesting all this seemed and wondered if I'd be participating in any of those events. Activism on this campus is alive and well, at least there's probably a small core of students seriously interested in and involved with social issues. What a charged atmosphere for protest and activism when I started college in the late 60s.

I headed back to work that afternoon after my walk to the college, a copy of the latest issue of the student newspaper in my pocket, relaxed from sitting a while in the courtyard by the student center, and glad in the knowlege that this is a thriving and vibrant college campus that has always been an integral part of Charleston's past and present.

January 27, 1999

I remember one of those rare occasions when we had snow in central South Carolina. The mountains have it much more often, but it's just about unheard of in Charleston. It was the winter of 1982, and I was in my apartment in Columbia, surrounded by woods full of oaks and hickories, cut off from the clamor of the city -- a little haven tucked away outside the city, as you know from my writing about it before in this journal. The morning it snowed, about 2 inches or less, the city practically shut down, as so many places do in the South when it snows. I stepped outside to walk along a short path through woods to the railroad tracks, and I was struck by the absolute silence. The snow muffled the normal noises, which were few enough on that particular morning, and I felt I could have been wandering on snowshoes in some Jack London inspired Yukon wilderness setting.

So rare and special is snow here that when it does come down, we're beside ourselves. We get kind of giddy with surprise and delight. We may have seen it only a few other times in our lives, so it's greeted with awe and exclamations of wonder. Everything seems perfectly pure and clean for awhile. The birds chirping around the bases of trees seem to have this world all to themselves and fit in perfectly with their snowy surroundings.

At the Horseshoe on the USC campus later that morning, college students were out throwing snowballs at each other and having a great time away from classes just being kids again. I felt like kind of a kid myself. That was almost 20 years ago, but I remember it distinctly. I also wrote about the experience in my journal that year on Jan. 17, 1982:

Snow fell last Thursday in large, heavy, wet flakes that quickly covered the ground. It was beautiful to see, drifting down, gradually powdering the trees and bringing a momentary hush to the world until the voices of children and adults were heard, voices of happiness and wonder. So rare is snow here that its coming is about the only time otherwise shuttered-up neighbors come out and greet one another. It is reminiscent of times when people were closer and friendlier as neighbors.

Tonght all these years later, I'm sitting here looking at two snowy winter scenes of landscapes deep in the country with streams flowing between snow-covered banks. I can only imagine how peaceful and quiet a walk along those two streams would be, bundled up good, breath visible in the cold air, making deep footprints in the snow. It all seems very remote to me this mild winter in Charleston where the past couple of days have seemed more like March than January.

It was such a perfect day to be outside today that I almost didn't mind the traffic as I walked to the College of Charleston at lunchtime to get some fresh air. I sat for awhile in the courtyard in back of the student center, feeling a just-right cool breeze, gazing at the steeple of Grace Episcopal Church rising up in back of some bare winter trees in this very special spot to which I like to retreat when work has been hectic that morning. I was in a pleasant daze for long moments, soaking up some of the winter sun and not feeling any worries or stresses during those brief moments of quiet reverie.

January 25, 1999

The rain started about 8 Saturday night and continued for the next 24 hours, off and on, not too heavy, but a thorough soaking of the ground and some minor street flooding ensued. We need all the rain we can get, as the autumn just past was total drought. Hardly a drop. Yesterday afternoon, I took a walk in the neighborhood, and noticed the air was as fresh and clean as it is when I stop on some back road deep in the countryside. A long rain will do that. The sun came out Sunday and it was just a beautiful mid-winter day.

*****

I did something last night I don't do that often -- channel surfed among the cable TV offerings for about an hour. I watched briefly: British Prime Minister Tony Blair debating his conservative rival in the House of Commons about the release of imprisoned terrorists; Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa being interviewed about the impeachment trial on MSNBC; a portion of the powerful documentary on the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, known as The Farm, and at 18,000 acres the larges prison in the U.S. with a population of around 5,000, I believe; snippets of the latest angst on MTV's Real World (I like the see all the scenes of Seattle where the rather preposterous, but stupidly fascinating show is filmed); a glimpse at the Weather Channel meteorologist taking about the Jet Stream; a documentary on some ancient civilization on the Discovery Channel; nothing worth watching on VH1; a dramatic movie on Odyssey showing a father and son with two dogs chasing a beligerent grizzly bear; a very fast stop on the Shopping Channel, Headline News, History Channel, TBS superstation, etc, etc., or, as the lingo has it today: blah, blah, blah.

Now there is a method in this madness. I have a number of channels I like to flip through, including the travel and outdoor channels, not mentioned above, and I do this generally just to get an idea what TV watching is like after spending so much time on the Internet. I pay $35 a month for cable TV and watch maybe two hours a week, and a half hour of that is always Washington Week in Review. I can't give it up, though, because there might be some really good movie to come along on the Bravo channel.

This quick surfing of cable channels is in some ways a lot like surfing the Internet, flitting about the entertainment garden like some methodical butterfly sipping nectar here and there before moving on to the next flower. You control where you're going with the remote control zapper, just as on the Internet you click to another Web site with a quick movement of the mouse. There's occasional nourishment in these stops, some fascinating little insights, such as the workings of the British House of Commons on C-SPAN, noted above. Then there's always the chance of seeing Ron Howard in his older youth on the perennially rerun show "Happy Days." I watched a bit of that, too.

After an hour of this I quickly tire. It's the perfect metaphor for our attention span deprived minds in this age of instant electronic gratification. Bored with one thing, move on to another. No wonder kids have so little patience for reading. That takes real effort. But this cable TV surfing is an innocuous enough pastime, if you don't sit there hour after hour doing it. There's always the chance I'll stumble on something really interesting. Even some of the ads can be quite funny and entertaining as the one about the Air Crisps snack: junk food without the junk.

This quickly processed and quickly forgotten parade of sights and sounds is a way to mindlessly relax, but real edification in the medium is rare. You have to sleuth out the good stuff in advance, write it down, and go to it when it's on. More often than not, though, I'd rather just jump all over the place. I guess my attention span's not what it used to be.

January 22, 1999

There was an interesting article in the New York Times yesterday lamenting the fact that e-mail will destroy the handwritten letter as an art form, and historians and biographers will lose an essential trove of first-hand information because people don't save e-mail as letters were often saved in boxes and trunks, and e-mail is a mere form of communication, like a phone call, rather than a thoughtfully prepared discourse that flows from the heart and mind and soul. Well, to this I say, yes, in one sense, and no in a number of others.

The writer quotes a biographer who says, "E-mail is not the same as mail; people don't use it for contemplative purposes. People used letter writing to figure out how they felt about things. You usually use e-mail for business purposes, not for venting your feelings." Of course, there's some truth to this. I used to really like writing letters, when there was someone who would reciprocate. But I have found over the years that generally people don't like to write, unless they're writers. It's a really simple premise. Most of my friends and family members would rather pick up the phone than write a letter. Consequently, I don't write many letters. Writing a letter takes real effort. Picking up the phone doesn't. I know it's very different when you hear the person's voice on the phone. But you can't relive the conversation as you can when you re-read a letter and linger over especially meaningful portions.

It's quite ridiculous to say people don't vent their feelings through e-mail, or that it differs fundamentally from letter writing. It is easier in the sense of typing and hitting the send button when you're through. But in most other respects, I think it greatly resembles the experience of writing a letter. When I write an e-mail, it's usually about something I've read that another person has written or else the subject is something I've been thinking about and planning in my head for days before I actually put my fingers on the keyboard and start typing. Similar to letter writing?

I will confess that typing is very different than picking up a pen and scrawling your thoughts out in longhand. The two physical processes are very different. They call forth different mental processes and states of mind. All my previous journals were written out by hand. But I don't write handwritten letters anymore, nor do I write jounal entries on paper.

The article also says e-mail is quickly deleted and forgotten. But my experinece, and I'm sure many others feel this way, is that e-mail in the form of personal correspondence from someone whose opinions and thoughts you value, is printed out and saved. I have thick folders full of e-mail correspondence. But again, it isn't the same as pulling out a stack of folded letter-writing paper upon which correspondents have exchanged thoughts.

E-mail is quick and affordable. I can't imagine life without it now. There's always a thrill when that unexpected e-mail pops up in the window from someone you were hoping to hear from.

Perhaps it's true that much correspondence will not be preserved and saved, and that would be a great loss. But as e-mail increasingly becomes the preferred means of written communication, more effort will be made to preserve the rich troves of writing that come across the phone lines and into millions of personal computers.


*****

It felt like a March day this afternoon. There was a nice wind blowing, temperatures were in the mid-70s and a certain feeling was in the air. Winter was not only hiding, but getting farther away. It really felt good to be outside today. Near where I work, I looked down as I walked to my car and saw the first yellow dandelion flower. Soon, in a few weeks, the first daffodils will make their appearance. I'm looking forward to that time and nice cool evenings to be out rocking on the porch.

January 20, 1999

This is an entry about junk and keepsakes, and bits and pieces of paper, and all the other various artifacts and personal flotsam and jetsam that accumulate in boxes over the course of a few years. I can't believe what a packrat I am. I don't like to throw away anything in the firm belief that some day I will go back and rummage through some of this debris that reveals so much about me and try make some sense of it. That "some day" has not turned out to be too far in the future. It's tonight, on a clear and somewhat cold January evening in Charleston. I have decided, for the purpose of this ongoing literary effort called an online journal, to dig into one box in particular and see what's there and write about it. Otherwise, it might have been many months or even years hence before I made any sort of foray into this uncharted territory. The sturdy security box I'm looking at, which I buy in great numbers from Office Depot, is bulging at the sides from being stuffed full of so many various items I didn't want to immediately toss away at some particular point in the recent past. Rather, I found this box, located at the foot of my bed, useful as a not-so-temporary repository.

I have boxes like this in all the rooms of my apartment. They are stacked up in the living room in corners, heaped up in the spare bedroom, tucked away in the walk-in closet. What's in most of them, I have no idea. There are a lot of books which I don't have shelf space for as well as many folders of articles printed out from the Internet. Various other things. This doesn't include the piles of papers, magazines, books, leaflets, and various publications, notebooks from grad school, and the like, which are lying around waiting to be either thrown out or put in yet more boxes.

When I first moved into this place four years ago, I had just a few boxes of books and memorabilia which I had been storing and carting around with me through various moves around the country. Now they have a real home, and I just keep adding to the accumulation. I survey the scene some mornings and just shake my head in disbelief. It's got to be weeded out. I can throw away the obvious junk and paper that serves no real purpose; it's not even nostalgic. But deciding on the other stuff will be hard. But it must be done, or I will lose the battle for space to maneuver around in.

I've written before in this journal about how telling are the contents of simple folders that I've had for many years, containing mostly clippings from newspapers and magazine articles. But these boxes house a wondrous collection of items from the past, and they have have a little bit of my history stamped on them. Some of them I just can't part with, as I'm discovering anew tonight.

Pardon the list, but here are just a few of the things I found in this box, pulled off the top or rummaged from deep down in its contents: The Southern Ethic, a book of photographs of people and places in the South, produced by Southern Exposure Magazine in 1975 and which I have dutifully held on to these past 25 years; a bank statement from October 1997; a birthday card from my sister; an article from Smithsonian magazine on Thomas Moran, the great artist of the American West; the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Eastern Region; a copy of my 1985 travel journals; a holder for CDs for my Macintosh computer that came with the machine and which I used for exactly two weeks and then forgot all about; a Gibbes Museum of Art brochure as well as one on the South Carolina Heritage Trust program; a recent church bulletin; a booklet on the Thomas Wolfe boyhood home in Asheville, N.C., which recently suffered a terrible fire; the books Corporate Media and the Threat to Democracy and Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book; a receipt from Belk Department Store; health insurance information; a copy of the local weekly newspaper when it was called, for some reason I still can't fathom, Upwith; a copy of ComputerLife magazine; a pocket planner and address book; and a UPS delivery notice.

A lot of these things I'll keep. I'll just transfer them to another box which will hold permanent keepsakes. This box will accompany me on any future moves. I don't plan any soon, but I'll be prepared.

I guess, as with the folders I've described previously, these boxes of books and mementoes contain irreplaceable records of where I've been, what I value, what I've read, magazines and articles I've deemed worthy enough to save -- and all because I want to selectively remember my past. These "things" -- physical, tangible, and real -- help me reconstruct so many pieces of that past. A bare apartment or house would perhaps be neat and uncluttered, but it would be sterile and unappealing to me. I need to be surrouned by those tangible reminders of who I am. It would interest no one else but me. There is nothing of any great value. The books, I'm certain, would find a home outside this domain where they presently reside. But that would be it. I'll part with a lot of this stuff soon, but a lot will remain, and for good reason.

January 17, 1999

After much scanning the skies, checking the weather, and general procrastinating throughout the morning yesterday, I grabed my camera, atlas, thermal cup of iced tea, and a jacket or two and headed out of the city on a day trip to my refuge from the urban madness, the ACE Basin, about an hour's drive from Charleston south on U.S. 17.

Why I had to deliberate so much I don't know. For as soon as the outskirts of the city were reached, the whole tenor of my day changed and I began to relax, very imperceptibly at first. It always hits me first when I see the marshes surrounding Rantoule Creek and the great tidal open spaces begin to appear.

Getting out of Charleston was the usual ordeal: terrible drivers running red lights, slow drivers in the left lane on the expressway, two changes of the stoplight at Sam Rittenburg Blvd. and Highway 61, merging into a lane of traffic when the car in back doesn't want to let you in, etc. etc. Actually, I think all of these things just mentioned are what compel me to stay home most weekends, or head for the beach. That's only 20 minutes of traffic.

I pass the location where the new nature preserve county park is getting ready to open and just count the days until that magnificent natural area is available to the public, and I won't have to drive so far to find some peace and quiet. It should be open in late spring.

Turning off the highway to the wildlife refuge is like turning into a different world. A well-graded dirt road takes me far into the refuge past tall pines and maritime forest and to the great open expanses of former rice fields that now are home to alligators and feeding grounds for numerous animals and birds. Silence and the wind. Fresh air over the marsh. I walk down the trail to a section of maritime forest on the other side of the marshes and rice fields where sweet gum, magnolia, live oaks and other trees typical of this type of woodland thrive. It's so quiet that the intrusion of small airplanes overhead is terribly obnoxious and seems to last unendurably long. When the last plane is gone, I find myself sitting on an embankment of dry leaves looking at the sunlight and shadows among the trees and delighting in the bare essence of branches and limbs, clean, bold and leafless in the bright winter light on this near perfect day.

Heading back along the trail to my car, I see hawks soaring overhead on thermals, small birds flitting about in the underbrush making their busy little sounds, and the silent alligator in the marsh to my left which, just minutes earlier as I passed in the opposite direction, had made a terrible splash that seemed to be coming from an object far greater in size.

I wander around the remains of the old hunting lodge, abandoned for some time now, and which seems to deteriorate more and more each time I vist this spot over the years. Huge live oaks surround it, keeping it in a kind of perpetual shade. The whole time I have been here, I have not seen another human, not a single car passing on the dirt road miles from the main highway.

It's always a shock to emerge on the main road after an afternoon in the refuge, but do so I must. The road back from Walterboro takes me past classic South Carolina rural countryside, woods bare and open, fields brown and long since plowed under, cows munching from bales of hay, open for them to feed on. It's a January scene. The winter landscape is fully realized.

I pass through the small town of Cottageville and soon will be at the intersection of Highway 61. Fifteen more miles along this scenic route past the Ashley River plantations and gardens, including Drayton Hall, and I'm back in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Home, sweet home!


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