Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Laura Lansing Slept Around: Road Trip, Days 4 and 5

We woke up this morning in Memphis, had lunch in Nashville, and tonight are sleeping in Knoxville. I love saying that.

I've never been to the south before, so there was a little thrill in crossing the state line from Oklahoma into Arkansas yesterday—even if we drove straight across with almost no stops and without even taking a picture.

My I-love-the-world glow faded some in the cold icy light of an Oklahoma City morning, as we slid out of the motel parking lot after not enough sleep and a heater that noisily pumped hot air into the room all night long. Yesterday's travel became a Point A to Point B mission—Oklahoma City to Memphis—and we accomplished it without a lot of touristic fanfare.

But our spirits lifted as we crossed the Mississippi River toward the lights of Memphis. I'd booked us into a Holiday Inn smack downtown, two blocks from Beale Street, and even though we were too tired and it was too cold to do much adventuring, we were both happy to be there. And when we walked out the front door and I saw this...

...I couldn't help myself. I squealed.


"What ducks?" asked Stan.

"Isn't this the place with the ducks?"

"What are you talking about?"

I started to doubt myself. And then I saw the bronze duck webprints in the sidewalk outside the Peabody hotel.

Indeed, it was the home of the famous Peabody ducks, which have swum in the hotel fountain since the 1930s (not the same ducks), and which are marched with red-carpet formality and John Philip Sousa accompaniment from their rooftop home into the elevator and down to the lobby fountain at 11 each morning. At 5 each evening, the ritual repeats in reverse. We'd missed the march, but paid a visit to them on the roof.

Afterwards we walked down to Beale Street, and were sad to discover that the birthplace of the blues is now a Disneyfied theme park—a deserted one in the dead of winter. Horse-drawn Cinderella-style carriages decorated with Christmas lights trolled the streets offering rides. Barkers tried to lure the few shivering tourists into their clubs and restaurants, where bad blues covers blared through the windows. We passed.

Today we drove from western Tennessee to eastern Tennessee, with a midmorning stop at Loretta Lynn's Kitchen in Hurricane Mills. I bought Loretta's blackberry preserves, strawberry jam and moonshine jelly, and trotted out for Stan my favorite Loretta Lynn Fun Fact: She became a grandmother at the age of 29.

At lunchtime, we made our way through downtown Nashville to Hog Heaven, a barbecue place we'd read about in the tour book, which turned out to be a tiny shack with one outdoor counter and no indoor seating. Undeterred, we bought our food (pulled pork for me, with turnip greens and blackeyed peas; greens, peas and barbecued beans for my Beloved) and sat in the car next to a McDonald's to eat it. Will the glamour never end?

"California!" said Drew, the young musician working the counter at Hog Heaven. "What the hey-hey are you doing all the way down here?"

It's a question we've heard in various forms along the way, and I get a charge out of saying, "We're moving from L.A. to New York," which always gets a cluck of admiration.

Of course there are downsides to traveling cross-country on a deadline, and today demonstrated the great big one: We saw nothing of Nashville, one of the great American cities. Not that I regret for a minute doing this drive rather than taking yet another plane trip, but it becomes obvious that this is a note-taking trip, not a sight-seeing one. And that we have to return.

That's okay with me.

* * *

Before I was so rudely interrupted by a non-working Internet connection at the Holiday Inn in Memphis (otherwise a great old hotel—and an excellent mattress), I put together a playlist of songs to commemorate our trip through Day 4, which ended in downtown Memphis.

Starting out
On the Road Again (Willie Nelson)
Every time we take a driving trip we sing this as soon as we get on the highway. This usually consists of: "On the road again, da da da da da da da da da..something something something...and I can't wait to get on the road again." Unfortunately, most of the versions I can find on the internet are of live performances with dubious Willie quality, so I haven't provided a link to the song.

Los Angeles, I'm Yours (The Decemberists)

Route 66 (Bobby Troup)
For obvious reasons. I adored the Depeche Mode version in the 1980s, but it's been replaced by a pesky remix with a too-insistent guitar line, so I'm also providing a link to the Rolling Stones version of the 1960s. And may I just add a personal tribute to Bobby Troup, whom I, as a kid, knew only from the 1970s TV show "Emergency!", in which he starred as an ER doctor and his wife Julie London co-starred as a nurse. And Randolph Mantooth starred as a paramedic. Why do I remember this?

Winslow, Arizona
Take It Easy (The Eagles)
POSTSCRIPT: After all these years, I just learned from my friend Carolyn that Take It Easy was co-written by Jackson Browne, and I would herewith like to give him the appropriate credit. (And credit to Carolyn, as well.) Thank you both!

Albuquerque, New Mexico
Point Me in the Direction of Albuquerque (The Partridge Family)
Hey, I didn't say I was creating a list of brilliant music by genius songwriters. I watched "The Partridge Family" faithfully when I was between the ages of 9 and 14, so this is like a free-association exercise for me. You say "Albuquerque," I say, "Point me in the direction of."

Tucumcari, New Mexico
Willin' (Little Feat, as covered by Linda Ronstadt)

Santa Rosa, New Mexico
Santa Rosa (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band)
A little gift to and from My Beloved, who often drew his comic strip on deadline while listening to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Amarillo, Texas
Cadillac Ranch (Bruce Springsteen)

Okemah, Oklahoma—home of Woody Guthrie
Oklahoma Hills (Woody Guthrie)
As sung by Johnny Cash and Flip Wilson!

Muskogee, Oklahoma
Okie from Muskogee (Merle Haggard)
As sung by Haggard and Willie Nelson. I have to admit I didn't know anything about this time-warp song except the title, and was kind of dazzled to watch an old 1968 video of Haggard singing "We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don't take our trips on LSD/We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street...". Wow. But I did enjoy the irony of watching Willie Nelson join Haggard for a duet on this ode to all-American purity. Note that Nelson joins in after the marijuana line...

Clarksville, Arkansas
Last Train to Clarksville (The Monkees)
Okay, I have no idea if this is the Clarksville mentioned in the song. I have no idea if the completely fake Monkees thought of any real-world Clarksville at all. In fact, Clarksville, Arkansas probably doesn't even have trains. But you say "Clarksville," I say...etcetera.

Memphis, Tennessee
I've Been to Memphis (Lyle Lovett)
I love Lyle.

Monday, December 28, 2009

And She Slept Here, Too: Road Trip, Day 3

The last time we drove across the continent, from east to west in the summer of 2002, I ended up with ooey-gooey feelings of love for the whole country. Maybe all those peanut butter sandwiches on Wonder bread gummed up my brain, but I swear I loved every mile of highway as we threaded our way from New York through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois... Even the places routinely deemed boring by East and West coasters—Iowa, say, or Nebraska; "So flat!" "Nothing but cornfields!"—struck me as exquisite in their own right.

And damn if I didn't find myself falling right back in love again today as we drove through Texas and Oklahoma. And I defy you to round up 10 people who will extol the beauty of the Texas panhandle.

There's just something about how the landscape of one state eases into the topography of the next—the red plateaus of New Mexico flattening into harshly beautiful Texan ranchland—that makes me happy, giving me a touchy-feely sense of the interconnectedness of everything, while appreciating each state's distinct sense of place.

Very distinct.

Where else but Texas, for instance, would a quirky millionaire decide to plant 10 Cadillacs nose-down in the middle of a field just west of Amarillo? Or to let them become a community art project, so that the spray-painted Cadillacs change color and design hourly?

The Cadillac Ranch we went looking for (in fact, we missed it on our first pass and had to double-back from Amarillo to find it). But its little buddy, the 5-car VW ranch down the road in Conway was one we happened on by accident while looking for a restroom.

Maybe it's because the land is so flat there in the panhandle, but the folks in Texas just can't help sticking things in the ground that stand up tall for all to see. Like the "Biggest Cross in the Western Hemisphere," in the town of Groom.

But as we crossed into Oklahoma, I had the sense of the sky coming down to meet the earth. It was a great big swoopy sky, and the cars on the highway with their headlights illuminated looked like tiny shooting stars streaking through the Oklahoma galaxy.

[photo by my Beloved]

Over dinner at the historic Cattlemen's Cafe in Oklahoma City's Stockyard City district (where I had a tiny twinge of guilt over tucking into one of the cousins of the fuzzy-faced moo-cows we'd driven past all afternoon), we talked to our young waiter about life in and out of Oklahoma. He's a native, but has lived in Los Angeles twice and hopes to get back there again "so I can play golf all day." He's also been to New York, and loved it. He'd happily go back there, too.

"We're here in Oklahoma," he said. "You want to go one place or the other."

As I looked at him, I thought of friends in L.A. and New York who would have swiftly agreed with him. But I found myself wanting to raise a little defense for his home state. And I thought, how odd is that?

My Beloved says of driving across the country, "You can drive east, into the country's past, or you can drive west, into the country's future."

To me, it's all a present.

And Laura Lansing Slept HERE: Road Trip, Day 2

When I realized that our route across the country was going to take us straight through Winslow, Arizona, I immediately made plans to have my picture taken standing on a corner. Yes, I am just that cheesy.

For anyone who isn't familiar with the phrase "standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona," I'll explain that The Eagles' song "Take It Easy" played approximately every five minutes on the radio during my high school years, and every 15 minutes in the 20 years after that. Its opening lines —"Well I was standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona/Such a fine sight to see/It's a girl, my lord, in a flatbed Ford/Slowin' down to take a look at me"—spring as easily to my mind as the national anthem. Er, more easily.

So after waking up in Flagstaff, Arizona to brilliantly sunny skies and tiny ice crystals covering the roof and trunk of my car....

...and after a mobile breakfast of Grape-Nuts poured into yogurt containers, and after listening to radio advertisements for the Meteor Crater ("Feel the impact!"), we arrived in Winslow, where I discovered I was not the first person to think of having my picture taken standin' on a corner. In fact, standin' on a corner in Winslow, Arizona is practically the town's biggest industry.

We stood on the northwest corner in Standin' on the Corner Park, next to a mural of a girl in a flatbed Ford and a bronze statue of...Glenn Frey?

We stood on the southwest corner, outside a gift shop that played The Eagles in constant rotation on outdoor speakers.

We watched a Japanese couple stand on the southeast corner taking pictures of the southwest corner. And we stood on the northeast corner, outside another gift shop where the owner cheerily told us to "Take it easy" as we left with "Standin' on the corner" refrigerator magnet in hand. As we headed back onto the road, a couple from Iowa arrived in a white SUV with "Take It Easy" blaring out of their car windows.

Mission more than accomplished!

The next several hours were a spectacular tour through the Southwest and Tony Hillerman country—red plateau cliffs glowing under blue skies. I kept trying to capture the landscape, but the drama refused to be corralled into an iPhone lens. This was about the best I could do:

We had lunch at the counter at Earl's Restaurant in Gallup, New Mexico, where the deliciously spicy posole brought a fine sweat to my forehead and I dipped Navajo fry bread in honey.

We passed through Albuquerque without stopping, but of course were lured into the "world-famous" Travel Center at Cline's Corners, picking up prickly pear marmalade and red chili-shaped salt and pepper shakers. (Come on, could you resist?) The sky was dark when we came out, and we spent the next hour and a half driving through the pitch black, while I exchanged text messages with The Child, who was on her own California road trip with her dad.

Me: BTW, favorite highway signage of the day: "Gusty winds may exist."

She: Truly an extraordinary revelation, and one that definitely required signage.

At 7 p.m., we turned off the highway in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and onto historic Route 66, where Elvis welcome us to the Motel Safari.

With a good mattress on our king-size bed and excellent reception on the flat-screen TV (this is the Route 66 of 2009, after all), we could finally, really take it easy.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Laura Lansing Slept Here: Road Trip, Day 1

This was a big day. I sold my house. My daughter left her childhood home and probably won't ever see it again. I cried. Then, like Holly Hunter in "Broadcast News," I looked at my watch, wiped my face with a Kleenex and said, "Okay, we gotta go." And my Beloved and I got in the car and headed east.

Of course it's not entirely that simple. Escrow is just beginning and who knows what can happen. We fly back to L.A. at the end of January and still have to deal with clearing and moving out of the condo. But I've changed my address with the post office and on my magazine subscriptions. And as many belongings as could fit in my Honda Civic are making the trek east with us. So it's the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning. Or something.

I'm writing now from a motel room in Flagstaff, Arizona, where it's—wait, let me check the weather app on my phone yet again—yup, 4 degrees. Officially the coldest I've ever been. Tomorrow: Tucumcari, New Mexico. We're taking Route 40, the interstate that replaced Route 66—not that anyone could forget Route 66 for a split second.

I love being on the road. Desert or ocean, cornfields or Rocky Mountains, flatlands or vertiginous mountain curlicues, I love watching the landscape roll by through my smudgy car windows. I love car food: trail mix and Cokes and peanut-butter sandwiches and gas station coffee. I love maps, and we have billions of them.

We've been planning this trip for weeks, me obsessively plotting routes and counting hours to see how many miles we can accomplish per day without destroying my Beloved's back. We have eight days to make it to New York in time to meet The Child, who will fly there on January 2. So far, one day down and still on schedule.

We hit the road a bit late this morning, got snarled in Vegas-bound traffic on I-15 in San Bernardino, then finally got clear sailing through the Mojave Desert.

We listened to the driving mix The Child had made for us, a travel-themed edition featuring The Decemberists' "Los Angeles I'm Yours" (How I abhor this place/Its sweet and bitter taste/Has left me wretched, retching on all fours/Los Angeles, I'm yours), Brandi Carlile's "Dying Day" (Chasing miles through the night time/Making tracks with no time for looking back) and the Dixie Chicks' "The Long Way Around" (I hit the highway/In a pink RV with stars on the ceiling).

I was excited to hit Needles, California, home of Snoopy's brother Spike, before crossing into Arizona and into a classic western-sky sunset.

It was pitch-black by the time we rolled into Flagstaff—465 miles, a time-zone change, and a world away from where we started. And tomorrow, as Willie Nelson would say, we're on the road again.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Delicate Balance

Hello? Is this thing on? HELLO? Oh, what the hell.

Kate Hepburn here. Susan's been trying to scratch out something or other on this bloggy thing, but she hasn't been having much luck with it and I'll tell you why: The girl's gone crackers.

Yes, I know she looks all right. Not as thoroughly bathed as I'd recommend, but not drooling or twitching. But I'm telling you, she's scattered. Wiggy. Loony.

You don't believe me?

Remember the rains that hit Los Angeles like a freight train the other week? Well, some of us—some of us raised on the eastern seaboard with a little sense in our heads—look at a rainstorm and think: "Close the windows! Get out the rubber boots!" Susan sees rain and thinks, "Free carwash!"

Oh, that's not the loony part—the car was disgusting. So she drives the beast out of the garage, parks it on the street...and the sun comes out from behind a cloud and stays out for the next four days. From Monday till Thursday. Which is when she looks at her watch at 10:20 a.m. and realizes it's street-sweeping day. From 10:00 to 1:00.

Out she goes, flying down three flights of stairs like a lunatic, panting up to the parking officer who is just that minute writing a ticket.

"I'M. MOVING. THAT. CAR!" she says, flailing an arm in the direction of a formerly blue Honda now thoroughly camouflaged under layers of grime.

"Citation's already in progress, ma'am," says the implacable officer of the law.

Result: An unwashed car and a $60 parking ticket on her own street. A street on which she has her own free parking space, in a garage. And that's not even the nuttiest part: This is the third time she's done this.

Then there's the curious incident of the dryer repair man in the daytime. Some of you know a bit of this story—the Russian repair man who, without touching, opening, or testing the non-heating dryer, tells Susan that she must "re-pless de gess heating coil" for a mere "two hondred seexty-seffen dohllars." At which point she thanks him and points him toward the door.

A moment of clarity. Until she calls Sears and agrees to pay $200, sight unseen, for a dryer repair and a one-year warranty on a dryer she's going to own for another month. The Sears repair man arrives on Friday morning, turns the gas valve 45 degrees to the "On" position, and leaves, problem solved.

Beat, beat, beat goes her head against the toasty-warm dryer. Come Saturday morning, Susan and that nice-looking man she calls her Beloved join their friends for coffee therapy. First stop, Trader Joe's—the coffee bar offers a 20 percent discount with a Trader Joe's receipt. Susan buys a little something. Walks out of Trader Joe's. Puts her change in her wallet. Crumples the receipt in her fist and throws it in the nearest garbage can.

Oh ho, stay with me! Half an hour into their coffee date—Susan having paid full price for her drink—she gets up to refill her cup for 65 cents...and while chatting with her friends, throws her coffee cup in the trash.

You see what I mean. Loopy.

Some would say it's sad in someone so young. I say: Baloney! She's plenty old enough to know better. She's 48, for pity's sake. When I was 48, I toured Australia for six months starring in Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure and The Merchant of Venice. All those cities, all those parts, all those lines of dialogue! But I didn't go gooney-bird over it.

Susan chalks it up to the stress of selling her house and moving cross-country. Insists she's fine most of the time. Says this odd behavior just oozes out between the cracks.

Oh yes, packing, cleaning, strangers poking into your closets—I know, I know. Such a torment, so painful! YAWN.

Listen to me: Be more of a pig.

I spent most of my life as an absolute pig, concerned only with me, me and me. Not worrying one whit about other people's feelings, what anyone thought, what other people needed. Granted, I was Katharine Hepburn and I could get away with it. I can't speak for you.

But I'll tell you, a few piggy qualities come in handy. Pigs don't worry about new carpeting. They don't fret about real estate prices. And they don't get wiggy. They just put their snouts down, snuffle up their food, and move on.

Oh, you don't have to be a complete pig. Even I learned to soften up when I met Spencer. But for heaven's sake, toughen your skin! Grow a few piggy whiskers! That'll put some healthy distance between you and all that nutty stuff out there.

Because that's where the nutty stuff belongs, my dear. Out there.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

As You Like It

I've been a little blueish, perched here in my fake museum house with its odorific new carpet, stark walls and echoing rooms devoid of furniture.

My Beloved is still in New York, The Child still at school, so I'm bumping around here by myself for the time being. Just me and the carpet guy, back by popular demand; Sam the handyman; and the Russian dryer-repair man. (He: "Det vill be two hondred seexty seffen dohllars." Me: "No senk you, I coot be buying nyew one for det much.")

We were in New York for Thanksgiving, the first time since my junior year abroad that I wasn't at my parents' house surrounded by the clamorous Champlin clan. We're usually 30ish at dinner, scattered among several tables, every chair in the house and the piano bench pressed into service, sisters manning the mashed potatoes and the salad and the gluten-free pumpkin pie, brother wielding the ancient carving knife and fork, the under-12 set in the back bedroom draped over the king-size bed watching Nickelodeon before dinner.

In New York we were three in the apartment, once The Child and I found each other through the throng of the Port Authority bus terminal after her six-hour ride down from college. She and I spent Wednesday afternoon in the kitchen, listening to her "Music to Bake By" mix as we made two pies, pumpkin and lemon meringue...

...and a batch of cookies that emerged from a deliciously disastrous pie crust dough. I called them Mortification Cookies.

At dinner on Thanksgiving we were eight around the table in my Beloved's younger son's apartment, where Peter and his beautiful Portuguese bride, Mariana, cooked the first turkey of their lives—perfectly. Every one of the six chairs in their jewel box of an East Village apartment was pressed into service, along with a trunk topped with cushions.

We devoured everything...

...except half the turkey.

Then we sat with tiny cups of perfect espresso and talked for a few more hours.

Late that evening, I called home to L.A., where I got passed around the living room inside the telephone receiver—"Have you talked to Susan yet? Here, talk to Susan." I missed them, and they missed us, but it was okay, too. My family is like a down comforter, and I felt the poofy warmth even across the country. Plus now I have family in New York, too.

The next day, the three of us took the subway to Times Square for a matinee of Finian's Rainbow—my Beloved's favorite musical—on Broadway. I spent the whole first hour and a half waiting for my favorite lyric: "For Sharon I'm carin'/But Susan I'm choosin'."

Afterwards, we walked through the holiday gift booths in Bryant Park and watched the skaters as the lights in the Empire State Building came on.

It was a very New York holiday, festive and busy. So the re-entry to L.A. was a little rough.

My voice—when I had occasion to use it—seemed literally to echo off the blank walls of the apartment. The blank kitchen window, missing the grotty mini-blinds that we'd thrown away without yet replacing, stared balefully at me in the evenings. I'd reach for the television remote to have a little friendly noise, only to remember we'd already gotten rid of the TV in the living room.

But this is temporary. I've met with the realtors, I've ordered the rental furniture, I'm tidying things up. The place will be on the market probably by the end of next week. Then we'll ring down the curtain on Act I.

For L.A. I'm carin', but it's New York I'm choosin'.