close to home

I'm sure you've heard the phrase, "That hits close to home." Sometimes it is used when a joke that would normally be funny "hits someone too close to home," inevitably making the joke not only no longer funny but incredibly insensitive. Sometimes you hear it when someone is telling a touching or sad story, and the person next to you bursts into tears and you know that it has "hit close to home."

The other day I was in Borders (quite possibly one of the best places on earth) and literally stumbled upon a book titled "The Lost Continent," by Bill Bryson. I say I stumbled upon it, but I like to think that it called my name, like all good purchases do :). I read the cover and flipped through the pages, and although I couldn't quite bring myself to purchase it that night (A new book would have been an affair to those papers that were not yet graded and still needed my attention), I put it back on the shelf and whispered, "I will come back for you later."

And why was I so drawn to this book that I had never heard of, by an author I had either never heard of or couldn't remember ever hearing of? Well, three reasons:
1. The subtitle: "Travels in Small Town America." Small Town America being a place for which my heart often longs.
2. The cover has a faux coffee stain, as if Bryson wrote the book in a coffee shop in a small town diner.
3. The first lines of the book: "I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to." I was interested and flipped to page two and read, "You can always spot an Iowa man because he is wearing a baseball cap advertising John Deere or a feed company, and because the back of his neck has been lasered into deep crevices by years of driving a John Deere tractor back and forth in a blazing sun. His other distinguishing feature is that he looks ridiculous when he takes off his shirt because his neck and arms are chocolate brown and his torso is as white as a sow's belly. In Iowa it is called a farmer's tan and it is, I believe, a badge of distinction." And I knew I was hooked.

So today, as Brent went off to work, I packed up the last of my papers to grade and headed for Barnes and Noble (yes, this time I had to go to Barnes and Noble and felt as if I were cheating on Borders. Long story short, I needed to buy some books for my classroom and my school can clear purchase orders through B&N...alas, the cheating). I found the books I needed for my classroom and somehow ended up in the exact section that "The Lost Continent" was in. Interesting. Normally I stand around and debate whether or not I really need the book, or if I can defend my purchase of yet another book, or if the 10-15 dollars is really worth it. Today I just picked it up, keeping my whispered promise from days before.

I finished grading my papers (Hallelujah...ALL of them!), and, to quiet the frugal voices that were raising in my head over the purchase of my book, decided not to purchase a coffee in the store and begin reading there. Instead, I packed up my items, gently tucked my new book by my side, and headed back home where I made some iced coffee and muffins and then sat down to enjoy the fresh-smelling pages of my new purchase.I made it through the first chapter and decided I had to write this. Maybe I should have titled this: A girl, A book, and the Love Affair. I decided on "close to home" because, although I got a kick out of his Iowa descriptions and connected on a certain level with them, as I turned the pages I had both of the "close to home" sensations mentioned at the beginning of this post. As I read his words it was a joke that almost wasn't funny because it was so personal, but I found myself literally laughing out loud on my couch in my empty apartment; however, at the same time it was touching in a way that almost made me want to cry (OH to be a writer that stirs up those emotions!). What were these words that hit me so "close to home," you may be asking?

It may not seem like much to you, but they were actually about previous family vacations. Even though this is already a little lengthy, I have to share some of what I read. If you are a member of my family or have heard of my family's vacations you may laugh, and if you haven't you may wonder:

From "The Last Continent" by Bill Bryson

" On vacations my father was a man obsessed. His principal obsession was with trying to economize. He always took us to the crummiest hotels and motor lodges and to the kind of roadside eating houses where they only washed the dishes weekly.... But even that was a relative treat. Usually we were forced to picnic by the side of the road... and it was always incredibly windy the moment we stopped, so that my mother spent the whole of lunchtime chasing paper plates over an area of about an acre. My father invested $19.98 in a portable gas stove that took an hour to assemble before each use and was so wildly temperamental that we children were always ordered to stand well back when it was being lit. This always proved unnecessary, however, because the stove would flicker to life only for a few seconds before puttering out, and my father would spend many hours turning it this way and that to keep it out of the wind, simultaneously addressing it in a low, agitated tone normally associated with the chronically insane. All the while... my sister and I would implore him to take us someplace with air-conditioning, linen tablecloths and ice cubes clinking in glasses of clear water. "Dad," we would beg, "you're a successful man. You make a good living. Take us to a Howard Johnson's." .... And after [having eaten]...we would mistakenly turn off the main highway and get lost and end up in some no-hope hamlet with a name like Draino, Indiana, or Tapwater, Missouri, and get a room in the only hotel in town, the sort of run-down place where if you wanted to watch TV it meant you had to sit in the lobby and share a cracked leatherette sofa with an old man... .... After a week or so of this kind of searing torment, we would fetch up some blue and glinting sweep of lake or sea in a bowl of pine-clad mountains...and it would all almost be worth it. .. "
and later

".... From time to time I would pass a sign that said HISTORICAL MARKER AHEAD, but I didn't stop. There are thousands of historical markers all over America and they are always dull. I know this for a fact because my father stopped at every one of them. He would pull the car up to them and read them aloud to us, even when we asked him not to... You knew before you got there that they were going to be boring because if they had been even remotely interesting somebody would have set up a hamburger stand and sold souvenirs. But Dad thrived on them and would never fail to be impressed. After reading them to us he would say in an admiring tone, "Well, I'll be darned," and then without fail would pull back onto the highway into the path of an oncoming truck, which would honk furiously and shed part of its load as it swerved past us. "Yes, that was really very interesting," he would add reflectively, unaware that he had just about killed us all."

This book is going to occupy me and humor me and fill me with beautiful moments of my past. I'm sorry for those of you who do not get excited about books in this way and have a hard time understanding my joy in finding a great new book (but mostly I'm sorry you don't get excited about books!).

And before I go, lest you think I am bitter, I must add this:

Dad, THANK YOU for taking me on trips like this. I would not be who I am without the portable gas stove dinners you served on rocks all over Montana and Wyoming and Virginia. I would not have the stories to tell had we not "gone off the beaten path" a time or two (or three or fifteen) and stayed in those motels where leaves floated in the pool and owners set up the breakfast "buffet" while holding their poodles. I would not know so many facts or have seen (or claimed to have seen) so many "wagon ruts" had we not stopped at those famous brown signs. Not many people can say they have been to Gettysburg and Fort Laramie and Scott's Bluff and Stonewall Jackson's home and Monticello and The Museum of the Fur Trade and the new Lewis and Clark interpretive center and...many more, but Kali and I proudly can! I know we always begged to go somewhere that "normal" people went, but ya know what, I went to Disneyland this summer, and I think you knew something Kali and I didn't know all along when we were begging. So although we like to make fun of you and these trips at times, we know how blessed we are to have slept under the stars and fly fished in the rivers and walked the battlefields. And thank you.

(And I hope you know this still excludes that trip to Montana ;)Last family vacation. Musuem of the Fur Trade.

I'll let you know if I find any more treasures in this book. Now if you don't mind, I have a new friend to get back to :)

And sorry if I'm on blog overload for writing 2 posts in one day.


Micah Wolf said...

I understand how you feel about a new book...I feel the same!

great post

Kali said...

There are so many things to say I don't know where to start. I'm just not quite sure that someone else could have written that! I mean seriously - was someone following us around on family vacation? If he had only mentioned the "short cuts," I would be convinced.

Also, I hate that photo & my sense of fashion reflected in it. I am actually wearing both that t-shirt & those shorts now...at 9 months pregnant. Why did I think that was a good idea?

Anonymous said...

Wow. I guess I plead guilty to most of that, but really.... I never pulled out in front of a truck did I? I know there was the time, headed to Colorado, Mom was about to go crazy looking at the back of a motor home we had been following across Kansas on a two lane road.( No it was not a short cut) Shortly after we got around it I stopped at a "historical Marker" just long enough that the darn motor home went chugging by us before we could get back onto the road!.........
You would think I would have learned.


*carrie* said...

Funny. =) I've several books by Bill Bryson, including that one.

I love how you called those "nathan" muffins in your last post. He would be pleased. =) I need to post a couple new pix--you would not believe how grown up he's becoming!

Anonymous said...

Kelsey - you crack us up!! We've had a long weekend (Omaha for Keaton's BD & Treynor for Arlyn's BD) but were laughing our heads off reading this. "Oh to be a writer that stirs up those emotions" - you already are, my dear. You already are.
Aunt Linda & Uncle Alan

Anonymous said...

Your words certainly "hit close to home" making me laugh and cry at the same time! Laughing, because as you know, those are the kind of vacations we take too....and crying because I hope our kids will someday appreciate these vacations in the same way you do now. (We also stop to walk around old cemetaries). I can't wait to read Bryson's book! I suggest you write one someday too. It would be the best!