The American Scene

An ongoing review of politics and culture

Articles filed under A Backpack and a Small Rolling Suitcase

Photos Of The Day

When I walk on this path from The Sea Ranch Lodge down to the beach I always wonder if it looks like Scotland, where I’ve never been, and then I start fantasizing that I’m walking down the fairway of a links golf course, as described by John McPhee, whose Paris Review interview is well worth reading if you’re at all into writing, or his books, or conversations with living legends.

I’d also like to offer a rebuttal to everyone who has ever claimed that California doesn’t have seasons:

That’s taken in the Anderson Valley, where they make this especially good Gold Pale Ale. That brewery is nearby a lot of Mendocino County wineries, and the fall colors on the vines make for a lovely spread this time of year. We missed seeing the harvest by just a few weeks. Farmers hurried to get the last of the grapes off the vine to avoid several days of rainy weather.

The last advice I’ll give before disappearing into the sunset is this: if at all possible acquire some fresh figs, mindful that you’ll need to use them within a day or two of taking them home. Cut them in half, rub olive oil over their surface, sprinkle on a bit of sea salt, put goat cheese in the concavity, put them in the microwave just long enough to warm the goat cheese — do not put them in the microwave for too long! — and when you take them out, drape prosciutto over the top before serving as an hors d’oeuvre, or for those lacking in self-restraint a whole delicious meal, though I don’t recommend doing the latter very often.

It turns out this is the most sensible blog post I have written all year. Okay, now that sunset, seen through the woods atop the bluff.

On The Coast, Amid The Redwoods

Few things satisfy me as much as driving on certain stretches of Pacific Coast Highway, a road that is easily the best in America, and that I can’t imagine being equaled elsewhere. There is a mile or two in south Laguna Beach that I associate with summer days at age sixteen, driving with Feel Flow or Scarlet Begonias blaring on the stereo, sand on my feet, surf wax beneath my fingernails, and windows down to achieve that singular sensation of evaporated saltwater on skin dried by a warm 55 MPH breeze. Call it beach feel, which usually also involves a slight sunburn, muscles tired from fighting currents all day, and the kind of hunger that makes an In’N‘Out burger even better than usual.

Oh to once again have summers off! Instead I’ve long since grown particular to a gorgeous stretch just north of Hearst Castle, where every spring the green hills on the east side of the road are abloom with lavender flowers, and the highway itself runs at sea level, putting impossibly gorgeous seascapes right there to be admired without fear of plunging over a cliff. The drive through Big Sur is as gorgeous. Its only drawback is the fact that it’s so often shrouded in fog, thwarting many a trip to Napenth.

These last few days I’ve traversed what for me was a virgin stretch of Highway 1. I’d never been north of the Russian River before when traveling along the coast. Perhaps it’s the excitement of discovery, but I’m suddenly wondering if there is any part of PCH more impressive than the drive that takes you from the Russian River to The Sea Ranch, California, where I’ve just taken up residence for a month and a half. Here’s a photo taken steps off the side of the road, perhaps an hour from where I’m staying:

The Sea Ranch itself is bliss. It’s an easy walk to Coast Highway, and at the same time nestled in a redwood forest. If there is a better smell than evergreen trees mingling with sea air I haven’t found it, and while I can’t see the surf from my window, I can hear its faint roar. I’ve been writing on the back deck with scenery that looks something like this:

But there’s this forest thing where light filters down through the trees in beams that I can’t seem to capture. As my girlfriend said, if I could I’d probably be a photographer rather than a writer. Where I grew up, heavily wooded areas weren’t a part of my normal experience, so this effect is still magical to me. The house is owned by an artist who must glory in this light. One hint is that there are skylights in every room here. Sunrise filters through them in spangled patches.

The hiking trails that run through the community are on the ocean side of PCH too. Today’s outing ended here:

One thing I wonder is whether we’ll continue to enjoy sunny days, or if this part of the coast is as fogbound as points south. Either way I highly recommend this place to anyone eager for an adventure.

Cheeseburger in Parisdise

I was invited to a costume party last weekend which required each guest to come dressed as a celebrity. I figured Jimmy Buffett was a natural, both because he is my lifestyle role model, and because the “costume” can be reduced to wearing a Hawaiian shirt and chugging rum from the bottle, i.e., calling my normal party behavior a costume.

But it became clear that this was a fateful decision when I learned that Buffett was playing one show in Paris on the night before the party. I walked down to the venue to buy some paraphernalia for the costume, and naturally found myself drawn into the concert.

It was pretty slack and desultory at first, but about halfway through the show, the band went into a killer cover of Southern Cross – a song that could have been written for them – and then Monsieur Buffett proceeded to tear it up for the rest of the night.

One of the many great things about living here is the fun of having typically American experiences completely out-of-context. The annual late-September Buffett concert in Paris has become, like the seven-a-sides in Hong Kong, a ritual gathering point for expats for thousands of miles around. This created a hilarious Anglophone bubble in the middle of Paris. About the only French I heard came from Jimmy at the mic (who, having lived here years ago, still seems to have pretty passable French).

A surprising number of his songs reference the city. In fact, he closed the concert with a great acoustic version of He Went to Paris, which is a song that Bob Dylan cited as one of his favorite tunes by one of his favorite songwriters. Though not many of us here are living a Lost Generation literary life, it still felt very bonding.

Living in Europe has created for me a mostly pleasant sense of distance from a lot of the day-to-day of U.S. politics, hence my limited blogging over the past months. Or maybe it’s just that the warm summer breezes and French wines and cheeses have put my ambitions at bay.

Photo of the Day

That’s taken inside Aurthur Bryant’s Barbecue, a Kansas City, Missouri mainstay where we happened to go while the Chiefs were playing. Delicious food. The walls are filled with pictures of famous folks who’ve eaten there before: Jimmy Carter, Sarah Palin and John McCain, Steven Spielberg.

In that restaurant, the neighborhood that surrounds it, and several other places in the city, there is an empty feeling, as though you’re walking around a place that is past its prime. There are a lot of vacant buildings, a lot of available space, not so many people out on the streets. You’ll know someone who lives in a converted Nabisco factory, or down in the West Bottoms, where there used to be brokerage houses and meat packing, but now there are huge abandoned structures that host an occasional craft fair and a haunted house at Halloween.

Later today I’ll post some photos from Kansas City, Kansas, a far more desolate cityscape, and interesting in its own way.

Leave the Wall - Remember You Must Always Leave the Wall

In the fall of 1989, I was taking a course called “Comparative Socialist Politics” which dealt with the differences in political structure and political history among the various Communist countries, with a particular focus (as I recall) on Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. (We did quite a bit on the Soviet Union, naturally, a little bit on China, nothing at all on Vietnam, Cuba, etc.) At the start of the semester, this was a course in the Political Science department; by the end of the semester, it was offered for History credit.

In the fall of 1989, I was taking a course called “Comparative Socialist Politics” which dealt with the differences in political structure and political history among the various Communist countries, with a particular focus (as I recall) on Poland, Hungary and Yugoslavia. (We did quite a bit on the Soviet Union, naturally, a little bit on China, nothing at all on Vietnam, Cuba, etc.) At the start of the semester, this was a course in the Political Science department; by the end of the semester, it was offered for History credit.

Just kidding, of course, but it was incredible to suddenly see the entire curriculum become both instantly irrelevant – over the next few months and years, the countries that were our primary focus underwent radical political change, and were no longer “Socialist” (i.e., Communist) polities – and vastly more relevant – suddenly, it was actually useful to know something about the political history of these countries, because they were no longer Soviet satellites, presumed to be controlled from without; it actually mattered who was who in Poland, in Hungary. And that’s to say nothing of what happened in Yugoslavia.

That summer, I set out to see at least a little bit of history first-hand. I flew first to Prague, where I had pretty much exactly the Before Sunrise experience of my dreams, and so I remember almost nothing of the city. From there, I went to Berlin, where big chunks of the wall were still up.

I title this next image, “neo-conservatism enters its second, more aggressive phase.”

Probably my fondest recollection of Berlin was my encounter with a group of anarchists who had an encampment in the Potsdamer Platz on what was technically East German territory but on the West German side of the wall (a result, no doubt, of some kind of surveying or construction glitch). Because the territory was East German, the West German police had no authority to enter the little strip of land; because it was on the West German side of the wall, the East Germans, as a practical matter, could not get at them. And so a filthy little settlement thrived, after a limited fashion.

Of course, now that the wall was down, they had no future. Their anarchist paradise was destined to be paved over to put up a parking lot, a shopping mall, a cinema multiplex . . . etc. When I met them, their backs no longer against the wall, most of the anarchists were quite forlorn.

Except for this one. But I think he was high.

Okay, I’m no Christopher Isherwood. So sue me.

in praise of oddballs

There’s a certain kind of person who has always fascinated me: the person with deeply eccentric interests who pursues those interests despite the indifference or hostility of others, and in the end makes a great success of it. An example: A. Wainwright. Wainwright was born and raised in Blackburn, Lancashire, but as a young man fell in love with the Lake District, and eventually contrived to move there. For much of the rest of his life he took every possible opportunity to walk the fells of Lakeland; and, as a man whose marriage was deeply unhappy, he had many such opportunities. The local bus service ferried him from trailhead to trailhead, and as he walked he often paused to sketch the terrain and draw his own maps.

Eventually he decided that he would write his own guides to the fells — but insisted on not just drawing all the maps vistas himself, but also on hand-writing all the text. In the end he produced a large collection of guidebooks filled with pages like this:


These guidebooks proved to be tremendously popular, and are still in print, even though they are outdated in many respects. (They are being revised and updated by a man who once worked with Wainwright.) Wainwright became so famous that other walkers would hail him on the fells, at which point — being grumpy, reclusive, and eccentric — he would turn away and pretend to be relieving himself on the trailside.

I have only been able to hike those fells a few times in my life, but each time I’ve taken the relevant Wainwright book with me. Even when they’re not quite right they’re useful and delightful.

But here’s my point: What in the world ever made Wainwright think that hand-written guidebooks were a good idea? He had to have been producing them primarily for himself, to scratch some deeply personal itch; he couldn't have envisioned an audience of more than a couple of dozen fellow eccentrics. And yet sales of his guides exceeded the million-copy mark when he was still alive.

It makes me wonder what I might have done with my life if I had heeded my inner promptings in the way that Wainwright did — if I had always read just what I wanted to read, and written just what I wanted to write, and did just what I wanted to do whenever I could manage it. I would probably be living under an overpass somewhere: the world rarely rewards its eccentrics in the way that it rewarded Wainwright. But I can't help thinking that we would be better off if more oddballs were as single-minded and indifferent to public opinion as Wainwright was — and if the rest of us were more attentive to what the oddballs are up to.

November 5, 2004

To: Verizon Wireless Customer Service
From: Conor Friedersdorf
Subject: Can You Hear Me Now?

Dear Underpaid “Customer Care Associate”:

I once answered phones for Mazda Motors of America, manning the 1-800 number customers call when their vehicles break down.

“Zoom zoom,” I’d greet callers.

My supervisor never told me to say that, but I found caricaturing the summer job helped to make its degrading moments more palatable. So many callers were primed to “tear me a new one,” as we say in the business. Thankfully I devised a strategy to check their tirades:

Me: “Zoom zoom! This is Mazda.”

Customer: “My Miata just broke down for the fifth time!”

Me: “Yelling at me makes some Mazda owners feel better, sir. Go ahead.”

The Preemptive Theory of Customer Service worked nine times out of ten. Perhaps you can employ it to your advantage?

Surely our rapport now approaches what I felt for a few favorite customers who empathized so fully that it seemed they too were staring at the pale gray walls of my cubicle, listening to the portly co-worker across the aisle clear the phlegm from his throat. They alone fathomed my power: my ability to subsidize repairs, to send them leather driving gloves or deluxe floor mats, to provide free oil changes to last ten thousand miles!

Are you imbued with similar discretion?

If so, consider my plight. I’ve given Verizon Wireless the best years of my mobile-phone-using life. But I’m moving to Europe in a few days, two months remaining on my service contract.

Surely we can find a way to overlook this unfortunate circumstance? If so, I’d love to re-sign with your employer when I return from Europe (having already written its Customer Service supervisors to commend the prodigy who kept my business).


Conor Friedersdorf
Account #145656998

p.s. Do you drive an aging Mazda 626? Good luck with that transmission!

April 1, 2004

To: Michael Doyle, Brian Buckingham
CC: Nicole Bennett, Nicholas Fonte, Tara Plochocki
From: Conor Friedersdorf
Subject: Insufferable Overachievers

Read the full article

September 2, 2003

To: Nicole Bennett, Nicholas Fonte, Tara Plochocki
From: Conor Friedersdorf
Subject: Let’s All Move to Spain…

…one year from today.

I’m serious.


No Ordinary Venue

Sorry to have been away for so long, but not sorry at all about the reason – I’ve been on vacation, in Iceland.

Highlights included:

Snowmobiling on a glacier.

Walking amongst (and I do mean amongst) the puffins and great skuas on Ingólfshöfði.

The look on my son’s face when he found out Icelanders eat puffin.

Bathtub-temperature swimming pools everywhere.

Sparkling cool waterfalls everywhere.

Seeing a blue whale fluke on a whale watch out of Húsavík.

The look on my son’s face when he found out Icelanders eat whale.

Hiking the lava fields near Mývatn.

Horseback riding in the somewhat-less-active-and-a-bit-older lava fields also near Mývatn.

The look on my son’s face when he found out Icelanders eat horse.

Never being blamed by anyone for having participated in the destruction of their economy. (Not that I personally did any business with the Icelandic banks – I didn’t – but they were pretty much all wiped out because of investments in structured credit products.)

Anyway, I’m back now. But I miss being there. It’s a marvelous country. Go visit.

September 1, 2003

To: Brian Buckingham
From: Conor Friedersdorf
Subject: My Debt to You


When I arrived at college you lent me a copy of The Sun Also Rises, supplied Henry Weinhardt’s beer until I turned 21 and introduced me to caps: “It’s not a drinking game, it’s a drinking sport.”

More importantly, you went to Seville first and insisted I spend my semester abroad there so fervently that I followed.

It’s payback time.

You’ve been working a year longer than I for far more hours every week. In the next six months your fancy consulting firm will pay you twice my annual salary. As a Christmas bonus I’ll get a $20 gift card to Ralph’s Supermarket; you’ll receive a check with three zeroes. And did I mention that you’re working for 70 soul-crushing hours a week?

In a year’s time, you’ll be even more ready than I am to return to Seville. I’ll be there: I hereby commit.

Will you be?

Hasta Pronto,