Thursday, October 18, 2007
Finding My Way
Originally published in the New York Mills Herald on October 17, 2007 and credited to my alternate identity, Elisa Korentayer.
This summer, my parents gave me a hand-me-down GPS system that my father had won, used, and found cumbersome. It’s a small black plastic box with a tiny screen the size and shape of a wedge of cheese, a miniature toy-television set that’s always playing the “map channel.” Suction-cupped to my windshield, it presides over my view of the road ahead, jutting out over the rearview mirror and getting caught up in the fold-down visor. It is rather cagey about its plans. It will only tell me what the next step is, and not what the turn after that will be. I can also see exactly why my father found it cumbersome. Before—or, occasionally, during—each trip, the GPS requires that I spend a good few minutes tediously spelling out the destination address by selecting one letter at a time with one input button. When that’s complete, the box proceeds to tell me what to do in a melodious female voice. “In 500 feet, turn left.” Pause. “Turn left.” Pause. “Drive 64 miles.”
The experience of driving with a GPS is a strange combination of relaxing and distressing. It has successfully directed me to some rather far-flung places over the last few weeks, yet I am rarely able to let go of the suspicion that, this time, it will lead me astray. Maybe this time it really is mistaken about where I am, what road I’m on, and which is the fastest route to my destination. In the midst of endless farmland over miles of unfamiliar county roads, I wonder where it’s taking me and just how far away from my original destination I could end up. In my rarer moments of faith in its omniscient directional powers, I can relax. I can free my mind from thoughts of maps and directions, how many more miles to the next turn and whether I’ve already missed it or not. This weekend, on a creative research trip that coincided with a visit to an old college friend, I noticed that, strangely, my faith in the GPS contraption is a lot like my faith in myself. Variable, periodic, and tending towards doubt. I also noticed how valuable it is to have direction of any kind.
I drove down to Southern Minnesota on Thursday to do songwriting research. I am working on a project to write songs about members of the fringe, oddballs, or otherwise fascinating characters in Minnesotan history. I am now at the stage where I need to find Minnesotan characters and events to be the subjects of new songs, and I figured that the best way to find those characters would be to travel to new areas of state and talk to people. I decided to give people a brief description of who I am and what I’m trying to do, and then ask them to tell me about local figures who have become the stuff of local legend.
I began by visiting the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Walnut Grove, MN, one of seven such museums in the upper midwest. I had no plans for what would happen after Walnut Grove. Generally, when I’m doing creative research, I start by figuring out a destination that appeals to me on some level, and then I practice my “Follow My Nose” philosophy, in which I posit that the next best thing to do is always the most appealing thing that arises from the last thing you did. At the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, I told the staff about my project, and the head of the museum came out to find me and tell me a few places within a short drive where I could find information on other characters. Aha! My next destination! From Little-House-on-the-Prairie-land, I drove to Windom in Cottonwood County, MN, where I learned about Jake Van Dyke, bootlegger and pride of Edgerton township. When Van Dyke was arrested in 1923 the community of Edgerton was thrilled; not because they wanted him off the streets, but rather because they were so proud to have such a large boot-legging operation in their town. From Windom, I drove to Slayton, MN, where a trio of local historical society volunteers told me about the local characters that are featured in their cemetery tours. From Slayton, I navigated my way to New Ulm, where I made it to the Brown County historical society, learned about some of their local murderers, and then treated myself to German food at the prestigious Kaiserhoff Restaurant.
Friday was the highlight of my research trip: the Spam Museum in Austin, MN. I know, I know, it doesn’t seem like a museum dedicated to Hormel’s canned spiced ham product would be likely to produce stories about Minnesotan characters. But, then I got there and realized, hey, spam is a Minnesotan character! The entire museum is decorated in the blue and yellow of the spam can label, and every exhibit is clever, appealing and engaging. They even broadcast the original Flying Circus skit that features Monte Python’s now infamous “Spam Song.” The hostess in the lobby directed me to my favorite exhibit: a film about the Hormel girls, whom some of you old-timers may remember as an all-girl orchestra with dancers that would perform a weekly radio show in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. I was smitten with the idea of these women who were Hormel sales-ladies by day and dancers, singers, and violin- or trumpet-players by night. On their way to the next day’s performance, the women would stop at grocery stores to ask the owners how well the Dinty Moore chili was moving off the shelves.
Since I was already in Southern Minnesota, I figured I’d drop on down to Iowa City for the weekend to visit an old college friend and his family. My college buddy—I’ll call him Tom—was a year ahead of me at Yale and was my introduction to the northern midwest. Unlike most of my predominately northeastern or west coast blueblood classmates, Tom was a good Lutheran boy from Appleton, Wisconsin. I met Tom when I auditioned for his singing group, and over my undergraduate years at Yale we maintained a unique friendship through a diligent determination to spend time together, as we had few friends in common and no overlapping activities. Tom was my introduction to the Midwestern mindset. Though he was Pre-Med, Tom was always more relaxed than most of my other classmates, and always far more willing to take a moment to sit down and talk. Competing about just how much busier you’ve made your life than the person you were talking to had made his/her life was an Olympic sport at Yale. But Tom was far less concerned with informing his peers about just how busy he was, and far more dedicated to the art of concerning himself with people. He was so unique in my experience at Yale, and so calming to me, that I nicknamed him “V8,” after the famous vegetable-juice drink and its commercials that showed how V8 straightened out people who otherwise lived their life at a crooked diagonal. These days, Tom is completing his second-to-last year of the 14 years of training required for him to become a Laryngologist, a specialist in vocal medicine. He lives with his Wisconsin-born-and-bred wife and two young sons in Iowa City, and spends up to 80 hours a week working in the Otolaryngology department of a research hospital. Spending time with Tom after a somewhat spontaneous and undirected research trip among historical societies and museums in Minnesota farmland, I began to yearn for a career where one has a clear map of how to get from here to there.
Despite the difference in the two parts of my trip, one clear theme emerged from both: my desire for direction. Though no life comes with an instruction manual, Tom’s career gives him a lot more direction than mine gives me, and I crave the direction he has. With no clear signposts along the road towards my songwriting project, I often find it very difficult to figure out what comes next. I wish I could buy my inner life a GPS system that maps out my desires and goals, that charts the best route to get from where I am now to where I want to be. As an artist, I don’t have a 14-year training period that tells me exactly which road comes next and which direction I’m supposed to be heading in. My direction has to come from the inside.
Thankfully, there was also a surprising moral lesson from my weekend trip: I already have an internal GPS; it’s called my gut. I’d love it if my GPS was a bit more direct and louder than a whisper. I’d love it if a melodious female voice sounded in my head to announce, “In 500 feet, turn left.” I’d love it even more if it always showed me the entire list of directions that will get me to where I want to go. The GPS in my gut may not be a top-of-the-line model. I may have to input my destination in lengthy strings of keystrokes, one letter at a time. I may not know what happens after this next turn, but at least, when I listen to it, I know what to do next. Amazingly, neither the GPS in my car nor the GPS in my gut has failed me yet. Maybe it’s about time to have a bit more faith in both of them.
This made me think it could be a good prelude to a Twilight Zone episode.
A strange new device... a product of the ever onward push of technology.
Her destination, Elisa is about to find out ... is the Twilight Zone.