Most days I take the bus and el to work. I've mentioned before how one of the things I've enjoyed lately is that it's allowed me to read more.
When my friend Mark died last year, a bunch of us helped his family clear out his house. They told us to take anything that had some personal meaning to us. Among the thousands of books in the house was a weathered copy of Jack Kerouac's classic On The Road. It was beside Mark's bed, and I knew that it was important to him. I realized that it was a book that helped define a generation, the so-called "Beat Generation," whose influence rippled to Mark, me and the people I went to college with, people who are my closest friends to this day. When I saw it, through my stunned grief, I realized that I had referred many times over the years to this book but hadn't ever read it. It was among the items I took. I made a promise to him that I'd read it eventually.
For the last year, the book sat in the garage with a handful of other things I'd grabbed that weekend. My grief was still too fresh to deal with it. When my landlord began the renovations this summer, I had to move those things out of the garage. When I started school, beginning the next phase of my life, and with my grief having become more manageable, I decided it was time to start reading the book.
Today, while sitting at the Wilson el stop here in Chicago, on the way to work, I finally finished On The Road.
I had a lot of feelings reading the book. Part of the enjoyment of reading the book is the near-poetic rhythm and pace of the prose. The travels of principals of the book, "Dean Moriarity" and "Sal Paradise," obviously Neal Cassady and Kerouac himself, evoked my own memories of travels and adventures with friends.
On the other hand, I found myself uncomfortable with how the women in their lives seemed to be second-class citizens, mere props in their lives, and how the children of those unions seemed to be non-entities.
Despite that, I can see how and why this book inspired so many people in the sixties. After childhoods spent in bland suburbs, the depictions of life lived on a level of passion must have been seductive and led to many road trips and adventures.
The group of people I met in college came from suburbs, small towns, the city-- many places. I think it would be safe to say that the common experience most of us shared was that a lot of our childhoods were staggeringly boring. Our parents were concerned with getting into, and staying in the middle class, and the fact that we were often bored to tears was rarely, if ever, noticed. When we all met in college, there was a joy and excitement that we'd found kindred spirits, people who wanted to live passionate lives. There are a bunch of things-- music, art, literature-- that were totems and shared experiences of this exhilirating time in our lives. The Replacements, R.E.M., the Velvet Underground, Monty Python-- and On The Road-- were among the things that symbolized our shared experiences.
Most of us have entered middle age as parents. A couple of years ago, I was visiting Deadspot, one of my friends from those college days, and while our sons played games and watched movies, he told me about the running joke he and his son have about the fictional video game, Gandhi Street Fighter. Everybody involved, including our boys, obviously, got the joke. And as I finally finished On The Road today, I realized how we've found a balance in our lives. We've continued to live our lives on a level of passion. We love art, movies and literature, good conversations, laughter, living rebelliously and great friendships. We still travel and have adventures. But our children are not incidental in our lives; they are the center of our lives. We have learned from both our boring childhoods and the exciting first years of adulthood that we had-- to teach our children that you can live a passionate life while living up to our responsibilities as adults, and as parents. And one the central missions in our lives is to make sure that our children don't grow up as bored as we did, while still evolving into functional adults.
Tomorrow, I'll put Mark's copy of On The Road into storage in the basement. Tomorrow night, my kids, Kim and I will carve the pumpkins we bought tonight, and talk and laugh. We'll talk about current events, politics, school, what my kids are reading, listen to music and have a grand old time.
And someday, one of my kids is going to mention On The Road. And when that day comes, I'll go down to the basement and fish the book out and give it to him or her. I hope that the road my kids take is as rich and fulfilling for them as its been for me, and that they find as good a group of people-- people like Tim, Dan, Ron, Andreas, Jim and of course Mark-- as I've managed to find.