Dallas, August 2016
I knew it would be a tedious trek but I did not count on just how tedious and depressing and surreal but what better place to free-fall into the depths of depression than Dealey Plaza in Dallas where a U.S. President was so brutally slain more than half-a-century-ago; a place where the direction of the USA was diabolically diverted into decline.
The three-hour drive from Austin feels like six, the road flat and dry with the unmerciful hot trying to penetrate our air-conditioned bubble through every crack or just by broiling the windshield.
The Dallas skyline finally appears and a jumble of highways suck us, the artist Van Stein and me, into its “historic” downtown.
Moments later, before we know what hit us, we’re smack outside the Texas State Depository from which Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly shot President John F. Kennedy as he rode in an open limousine down Elm Street.
We ascend to the sixth floor, now a museum, though the only real “attraction” is the corner window from which Oswald may have concealed himself, taken aim and shot.
We descend and alight from the building to inspect the infamous grassy knoll.
So-called “conspiracy theorists” have long speculated this mound to be the true location from which a shooter stood.
It is certainly closer to an “X” permanently taped onto Elm Street marking the spot where Kennedy took a fatal head shot, a trajectory that makes far more sense than Oswald’s distant perch from on high and consistent with a frontal bullet impact, as graphically captured by Zapruder’s infamous eight-millimeter film.
around the Museum Café and Gift Shop full of cheap souvenirs from China this
thought reverberates around my aching skull:
I’m not over it. I’m depressed.
Which is exactly what I am supposed to be this day, the fourth stage of midlife crisis, what this summer trip to Texas is all about.
Dallas does not disappoint.
During the mid-1970s I became obsessed with the JFK assassination, which I attribute to mild ADHD.
My quest for knowledge, which came late (customary for ADHD enjoyers, who only switch on around the age of 20 when most others switch off), focused on the forbidden, the mystical, the esoteric, sparked by research into the Kennedy assassination.
At some point, I created a montage on poster board of images that emphasized conspiracy theory over lone-nut whitewash and I showed it to my father, the artist, looking for commendation.
What I got was the exact opposite.
“You’ve got to get over that,” he said.
And he was right.
Not just for my own sanity but because all of human history is, as Napoleon put it, “a pack of lies agreed upon.”
And so, finally, here in Dallas, I let it go (try to anyway).
Earlier, in Austin, I went looking for the third-stage of midlife crisis: anger.
I found it at the LBJ Presidential Library, where we're supposed to learn how Johnson anguished over Vietnam, no mention of his Texas cronies profiting on armaments and war support services while millions of lives on both sides were extinguished, countless more lives destroyed through drug addiction or losing loved ones, no mention of the so-called domino effect and how Johnson lectured the American public that if we didn’t take a stand in Vietnam the rest of Southeast Asia would fall and Communist combatants would roll up on the shores of Hawaii.
David Halberstam called those Kennedy academics who went on to mis-advise Johnson The Best and the Brightest.
Even the worst and the dimmest might have done a better job.
Needless to say, no mention of napalm, of Rolling Thunder, the sustained bombing campaign that cost money, lives and led to America, for the first time in history, losing a war (albeit one it never should have fought).
But what truly causes the bile in my stomach to revolt is a serial on a TV screen showing something called Times of 1957-1965.
An old TV commercial advertising Alka-Seltzer immediately follows JFK's delivery of the most inspiring line of his inaugural address...
This is not a memorial library but a hellacious monument to whitewash and prevarication.
Anger realized, before noon.
Here are two pics illustrating LBJ's legacy you won't see at his Library:
Okay, so maybe renewal is about mid-life crisis.
And though I’m quite likely beyond mid-life, let’s face it, sixty is the new forty, which means I fit very rationally (as in rationalizing) into the first of six stages of mid-life crisis: DENIAL.
Rationalizing this further, I decide to abbreviate my trek on the basis that I’d already covered the first third—from Santa Barbara to Texas—on previous road trips, right?
So why not fly to Texas and carry on east, take in New Orleans with its voodoo culture and famed cemeteries (a metaphor for death) and roll to St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast in Florida where Ponce de Leon discovered the Fountain of Youth (a metaphor for rebirth).
Yet the deeper my research into Austin, my intended first stop, and its “Sixth Street live music scene,” the more I rationalize that this city’s historic downtown and nightly live music is an ideal setting all on its own for renewal; about re-experiencing young adulthood in a music and merriment zone, or REPLAY, the second stage of mid-life crisis.
Tagline: Mid-summer, midlife, writer and artist (Van Stein) flux off like snakes shedding skin to renew their lives.
“It’s going to be filthy hot,” says Thomas Sanchez over coffee at Starbucks in Montecito, trying to divert me northward toward Seattle or Vancouver.
But the Pacific Northwest sounds awfully sedate, just the kind of summer trip a sexagenarian would take—and what’s summer without hot weather?
And though I friggin’ hate the heat, I think of Native American sweat camps and saunas and how heat is revered for its healthful and spiritual qualities to detoxify the body and boost endorphins, a natural purge that, like snake skin-shedding, ultimately leads to… renewal!
The Big Seedy, we soon discover, is not just hot but grimy, like most American cities, having grown (and still growing) without any kind of building oversight—aesthetics and community-planning shot to hell, like cancer cells run amok.
The historic and reputedly haunted Hotel Driskill offers refuge and provides novelty when I opt for their LBJ Suite just for the hell of it because a) it’s available for one night only and b) they offer me a super-duper discount and c) with Lyndon Baines Johnson it’s definitely the hell of it.
This is where the old bull-crapper stayed when visiting Austin and also the room in which he watched the 1964 election returns roll in and I sure hope his ghost lives here because I’d like to give it a swift kick in the ass.
The artist and I park ourselves at the Driskill’s famed bar to absorb the vibe and clink their house cocktail, Bluebonnet (Tito’s vodka, Crème de Violette, St. Germaine).
It’s already dark out when we take our first run at “Dirty Sixth,” the temperature hovering around 93- degrees, a night illuminated by colorful neon signage and rock bands competing with conflicting sound waves and booze barkers trying to drum up biz (“Two dollars a shot!”)
So now I’m wishing I’d stayed in my room and drawn the curtains and at this point I’m not planning to venture from the Driskill bar even though Van Stein plans to paint the bats when they swarm from the underside of South Congress Bridge 15 minutes before sunset.
I change my mind, make my way to the Colorado River where the artist is already laying an undercoat and at 8:05 on the dot a 1,500,000 bats awaken and fly off in waves, heading east.
I’ve only ever associated bats with Halloween and vampires so this is a cool learning experience and a message from the universe to pay attention to bats, an Austin phenomenon I’d not known till deep into this trip.
That night I dream I have the ability to take giant steps and hover above ground, defying gravity.
Upon awakening I enquire into the dream symbolism of levitation:
Lifting up your emotions and thoughts beyond normal to benefit the spiritual state, enlightenment.
And that’s how I feel this day, returning home, the sixth and last stage of midlife crisis:
ACCEPTANCE (the same word I wrote in caps in my journal in 1972 after being blown away by Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan).
I pop bats into a search engine and learn that these winged mammals (who most people regard as creepy) symbolize death and rebirth because, after “going inside” to roost, they emerge at dusk “from the womb of mother Earth.
If the bat has been "flying" into your life as an animal totem, this symbolizes great intuition and utilizing your sensitivities to explore the world around you. The Native Americans sought the bat for its connection to the "other world.” If this animal totem has appeared to you in your dreams or in waking life perhaps it is a sign that it is time for you to go within. It might be time to take some time off and go on a vacation and bring a journal with you as a way of becoming quiet and allowing your true self to speak... and explore your inner demon.
And though I'd hoped this midlife adventure in Texas would conclude a much longer mystical journey initiated by my father in a dream, I realize it’s not over yet.
The timing of this message itself is an exercise in synchronicity:
One week before launching to Austin I had booked a family stay in Sedona, the same mystical locale in northern Arizona where we’d vacationed just before I rediscovered the notes about my father’s dream visit, a discovery that launched this quest.
One year, full circle.
Take some time off, a vacation, become quiet and explore your inner demon...