Yesterday, near the end of a daylong cattle-buying adventure in the soggy Willamette Valley, I enjoyed quite possibly the best hamburger I have ever eaten. I don’t throw out praise like this very often, so you can take it to the bank. If you ever want a GREAT hamburger–that is, if you aren’t sulking around under the funk-inducing burden of “white privilege,” or terrified by the notion of radioactive hogs on the loose in Europe, or the continued creep of the toxic monster from Fukashima–I recommend stopping at Poppa Al’s, in Mill City, Oregon. If you enjoy food, American roadside chow, then step inside and order The Hillbilly, with curly fries–or tater tots, if that’s your thing–and a Root Beer. Gorge thyself on Hillbilly perfection. Don’t ask about fishing the river a few feet away. The cook doesn’t know because he is busy cooking the greatest hamburger in the country. He only thinks about hamburgers, and perhaps that few years he spent in prison–trust me, he did–somewhere in California. When you are done, wobble back out to your rig–in our case it was a four-door pickup towing a trailer full of Texas Longhorns, and power up the road in a rainstorm with a food-coma smile that lasts for hours. I’m not kidding. It’s that good. By the way, is there a monument anywhere to that genius who invented the tater tot? And if not, why not? I would like to imagine that somewhere in Idaho, perhaps next to a statue of a grinning JR Simplot, there exists a small memorial plaque honoring Mr. Tater Tot–God Rest His Soul.
A few weeks ago I was reminded, over dinner with a friend, that we are living in a strange environment of First World Problems. Radioactive hogs and tide-driven islands of toxic debris are merely footnotes in the discussion of what ails us. Each day brings a new bout of whinging about a ludicrous catalogue of non-problems. And it is becoming very difficult to avoid. Airports are an excellent laboratory to prove the point. Between televisions, hanging in every corner and spouting a kind of shrill hysteria, and the disease of mobile phones, one is virtually inundated with “news” and “tweets” and texts and emails and phone calls, or by people enraptured by them. The people in an airport actually look like enslaved robots–which reminds me of this news, learned incidentally, that Lowe’s Home Improvement Stores will be employing robot greeters in the near future. The future is a Phil Spector Wall of Sound that actually makes people look like Phil Spector.
There is a great deal of money to be made in the pimping of non-problems through the media, which is a diabolical machine that can never be turned off. Allen Ginsberg once told me, while playing on his squeezebox and stuffing his face with a gift basket of nutbread, that the problem with television, and by extension all media, is that it is a one-way conversation. One can never talk-back to the machine. Good point.
Perhaps that is why I increasingly prefer our local paper, which comes out only on Wednesdays. Once a week seems an appropriate number of times for the town cryer to come piping through the village. By Wednesday, of course, it is possible to predict the content of “The Nugget” from page one to the end, but that is the beauty of it. While the rest of the world is riding downhill on a skateboard with speed wobbles, our little paper comes reliably stocked with old, almost moldy, news, and angry letters to the editor tackling decidedly First World Problems–whether or not the new streetlights in downtown Sisters violate the “dark sky ordinance”, or if the City is responsible for shoveling snow in front of the bookstore. These are First World Problems, which might properly be defined as Not Problems. Occasionally–okay, admittedly more than occasionally–I crave stories about radioactive hogs and toxic monsters, or exploding rockets, or how entire midwestern cities are collapsing back into the earth, or how scientists have discovered that drinking milk is now destroying the world, but after a few minutes of that I begin to feel physically ill. You’ve heard of slow food? Perhaps we need to focus on slow news, and then, most definitely, slow politics. One sometimes gets the sense that had Congress not met since 1941, we might be better off.
And so yesterday was a delight. A news blackout. A day with friends, sharing our First World Problems while bombing around the Willamette Valley, loading longhorns in the rain, shooting at ducks, standing in the muck of a dairy farm and laughing at the manure ponds that were “built for the kids”. For me, it was new country, and like all new discoveries it formed in slowly building images, of pastures so green they hurt to look at, of cornfields full of geese, of giant sows in a wallow, of old red barns leaning just a degree too far. Driving around that beautiful valley, I kept thinking of William Blake, of singing “The Nurse’s Song” along with 300 other people in a packed auditorium. If you had heard it, that singing, you might have understood the power of poetry to slow the world to a manageable speed. Sing it to yourself, perhaps, until you find the melody. You’ll see what I mean.
The Nurse’s Song (William Blake)
When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still.
Then come home my children, the sun is gone down
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.
No, no, let us play, for it is yet day
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly
And the hills are all cover’d with sheep.
Well, well go and play till the light fades away
And then go home to bed.
The little ones leaped and shouted and laugh’d
And all the hills ecchoed.