The Magic that was this Journey

Saturday, April 2, 2011

11 – 4/2/11: The Accidental Traveler

(Tipping my hat to Ann Tyler, author of The Accidental Tourist)

In The Accidental Tourist, the protagonist, Macon Leary, writes travel guides for people who don’t like to travel and are forced to do so on business.  Like his readers, he hates traveling and does so only "with his eyes shut and holding his breath and hanging on for dear life" (

I’ve become, it seems, the Accidental Traveler. Not because I’ve come to hate this traveling (although I am still complaining about the quality of roads in the East and the density/aggression of drivers) but because I am having many accidents with this old RV.  Shutting my eyes, holding my breath, and hanging on for dear life while in reverse is obviously not a good strategy. The most recent was a scrape with a large, stately maple tree in my mother’s yard.  This scrape, or conflict, resulted in the driver’s side back corner being mutilated and a goodly amount of the fiberglass torn off.  It is temporarily repaired with the handyman’s secret weapon: duct tape.  Indeed, anything is possible with enough duct tape.

Like the dark day in Fresno when I backed into a sawed off tree limb (still attached to the tree, mind you) and cracked my back window, it was a dark day in Toledo.  A very dark day, indeed. I’ve been rethinking my primary relationship with this, or any, RV.  Perhaps it is not in my destiny to be an RV owner and operator. Or, as a friend said, maybe this is my “training RV.”

Still, me, the girls and this old injured RV need to limp on home and will be starting West/Northwest on Monday. The weather on the northerly route looks mild (read: no snow) and presuming Interstate 94 through North Dakota and into Montana is open, this is the route we will take.  Skirting Chicago, through Wisconsin (with a stop in Madison, of course), and across the northerly plains/mountain states back home to Washington.

I’ve taken time off the “American Crossings” project while visiting family in Toledo but I did have an interview with two remarkable people while in Akron: colleagues and co-authors, Kathy Feltey and Bridget O’Neill Susel (we coauthored the 1998 Public Administration Review piece on authentic public participation).

When asked what comes to mind when they think of government, they said: “big” and “polarized.” 

When asked if they differentiate between the political and administrative sides of the house, Bridget said, “yes, because I live it and have the conversation about the differences with constituents 2-3 times a week” (she’s working for a city government). She went on to say that the political side of the house is not representing constituents; rather, they are representing themselves. Both said that the degrees of machinations and positioning that happens at the political level creates a huge disconnect between politicians and citizens.  “Us” is an afterthought, is not central in the political processes and there is no sense of a political collective.  Instead it’s “us versus them.” And, depending on who is in power, administrators get pulled from one side or the other. 

When asked what they want from government, Bridget said, “I really, really, want a whole paradigm shift.” Kathy wants, “a move to true representative government with the priority on how to create communities where people can live and thrive, where the focus of government is on shaping/regulating what is needed for people to thrive (food, water, air, education, infrastructure, etc.). And government needs to be organized with living and thriving as a priority.  Bridget wants the political side of the house to get out of the way of administrators who are trying to do just what Kathy wants. They want administrators to have the tools they need to do the work needed for the public. Central to this is recognizing that public goods and services need to be managed and implemented in the public sphere, that privatization sucks the public out of public goods.

Interestingly, neither want a more direct democracy.  Both want a representative system that works and working requires more than a two-party system.  A two-party system sets everyone up to see things as an “either-or,” or a “this-or-that” instead of seeing a spectrum of possibilities.  They also think the two party system pits citizens against each other in either-or situations, causing more conflict and incivility than is necessary or really there. A paradigm shift would involve moving to a multi-party system.

And, a paradigm shift would separate politics and administration in some significant way so that administrators could do their work without the push and pull, or back and forth, of the vagaries of the (two-party) political system.

I’ve heard some politicos say that our two-party, “this or that” system works because, in the end, the pulling back and forth averages out to something moderate and stable.  I’m not sure about this, as I watch worker and human rights being thrown upon the budget pyre as a result of what appears to be a national shift toward fiscal conservatism. I’m not outraged that we have to change the way we spend public money—this is a hard truth. But, I am outraged that those in power, in some powerful states like the one I am currently visiting, are not willing to interrogate the excesses of early 21st century capitalism to find ways to generate revenues by closing  loopholes that contribute to the historically unprecedented inequality in our country. And, I’m outraged that so few people are not outraged by this.

Perhaps, like Macon Leary from The Accidental Tourist and like me as I reverse this old, injured RV, most of us (save those relative few protesting in the streets) are living life with our eyes shut, holding our breath and hanging on for dear life.  It’s time to open our eyes and breathe.


  1. Scars and dings are a form of map, aren't they?

    I think part of the problem is that the word "government" is now tainted, and that the average person takes government for granted; it's the same with "taxes." There is also a sad lack of proportion in contemporary thinking: for instance, last election here in WA the electorate ended up shooting down taxes on soda, etc., that added (literally) only pennies to a purchase--if no one said anything it's doubtful we would notice the hike, but it was treated (by the well-funded soda industry) as a major threat to our pocket books. Likewise, we worry about abductions, which are rare except in cases of parental tanglings. we (rightly) mourn the loss of 3,000 on 9/11 while far more are killed by guns and auto accidents.

    Finally: I'd say Red Green is proud of you!

  2. That old RV you use to drive into trees... It is much like our government. And you can't escape the fact that you own and operate a RV/government, can you? Also you willingly accept that your term in office isn't ending until after many more thousands of miles are endured, correct?

    And thank goodness that the in-between/average of both ends of the political spectrum isn't the one doing the driving!

    You can never legally drive down the middle of the road, ya know! You have to stay to the left or the right depending on which country you're in.

    So in fits and starts, via one extreme or the other, we move forward, just like the pendulum, just like the pistons in your engine!

    And when it comes to the dirty details of politics perhaps too many of our values in america/modern society revolve around our ideology as separate defensive/reactionary competitive cults?

    To that I ask: What of our obvious slouching towards a well organized world of cooperation, tolerance and harmony?

    Of course to answer that you have to drive on the left side of the road or as Wallace Stegner says:

    "For somehow, against probability, some sort of indigenous recognizable culture has been growing... It is a product not of the boomers, but of the stickers, not of those who pillage and run but of those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in. There are many of these, too, than there used to be, and they know a great deal more, and are better able to resist and sometimes prevent the extractive frenzy that periodically attacks them."