Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 5, 2010

Little Phoebe

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”

We probably all recognize the quotation, even if we can’t come up with the correct attribution. That’s Robert Louis Stevenson, joining in on the Victorian era’s passion for pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps bushwah that more or less saturated the culture at the time. He continues from that point to say something about labor being more important than the result. His near contemporary, Longfellow, on this side of The Pond gave us the similar:

“Let us then be up and doing/With a heart for any fate/Still achieving, still pursuing/Learn to labor and to wait.”

Welcome to 1882, kids. Andrew Carnegie is making his fortune and so is Horatio Alger, and what have you done lately? What in the heck H.W.L. meant by “learn to wait” I have no idea, although I’ve had that quote in my head since at least 1965.

I have to observe here that, checking my facts for this article, I’ve just discovered that I’ve been misquoting Stevenson for more than 40 years, even though his travel quote was one of the Twelve Things Thou Shalt Memorize that hung on poster boards mounted above Mrs. Drake’s blackboards in high school English. I’ve been saying “happily” instead of “hopefully.” Is it POSSIBLE that Mrs. Drake had it written down wrong? The universe tilts on its axis with the mere expression of such a possibility. I’ve clearly just misremembered.

Hmm… The Longfellow quote was up there, too. Not only did I have an extremely Victorian education, but it’s entirely possible that those are the only twelve things I know, and I’ve gotten at least one of them wrong!

I’ve already made a couple of mentions of my recent trip to the east coast, although I didn’t go to the trouble of retitling the blog “Under Eastern Skies.” I like traveling, which is good, because my job requires some traveling. Sometimes not much, sometimes a lot, especially at this time of year. There are few things more stimulating and energizing than the routine of getting geared up and packed to go, arriving at the airport, sitting on the plane and either working or not working, maybe listening to the iPod, maybe reading a few chapters of that book that otherwise has been sitting on the side table. You look out the window and there’s the Grand Canyon or Meteor Crater or the Mississippi. Then, you land, and you’re in another time zone, another climate; you’re driving the rental car on new freeways while you’re looking at different trees, you’re tuning in that radio station they have there that you always like. Everything is different and interesting.

Granted, a lot of the zing has gone out of travel in the past ten years, although said de-zinging is not entirely due to the pains of security lines and getting to the airport 5 hours early to allow for them. Consolidation of airlines and the elimination of flying stock has made certain that any flight not booked three months in advance will be spent in a middle seat next to the restroom at the rear of the plane, and if your flight doesn’t go off as planned, well, there’ll be another one tomorrow … or the day after that.

Novelty, of course, is always stimulating. New sights, new patterns of living, new landscapes, new trees and flowers and cloud patterns. One hopes that it will be a positive and interesting novelty, providing stimulation of the uplifting and enlightening sort, though that’s not always the case. I had that feeling at the start of the most recent trip. I was going out for four days, but my years of practice had allowed me to pack everything into carry-on luggage, I was checking email on the Huckleberry, making some calls, grabbing a cup of coffee: I was in command. Heck, I was George Clooney in that recent movie, except that I didn’t have free use of the Admiral’s Club lounge and I wasn’t the handsomest man on the planet. Other than THOSE minor differences, I was George. Of course, one can also always find oneself experiencing the novelty of being in Kansas City in February with the temperature at around 4 degrees when you have a coat appropriate for maybe somewhere in the 30s. That’s stimulation of a not-so-positive sort.

Even the mundane hotel room is stimulating, after a fashion, though it quickly wears off and just becomes another place. The threat there is that all this novelty, combined with a different time zone, might provoke one to be lying awake at 1:00 a.m., resisting the temptation to turn on the TV. Do not turn on the TV in a city far from home in the wee hours. That is a Bad Travel Decision. If you do, you’re sure to get a triple feature of “Blue Velvet,” “Godfather II” and “The Shining,” and life, as your cranium knows it, will end in madness and despair.

The trip goes on, and there are constantly new scenes, new people, new food (which can be Very Good or Very Bad, excepting coffee, which is always Bad except at home) etc. etc.

But there always comes a moment when it’s over, and it’s time to go. Nighttime is the most likely time of reckoning, when you’re in that stupid little cell of a room, with no books or magazines to read other than “Guest Seattle!” or “Discover Denver!” (explanation points figure large), no friendly, familiar refrigerator containing a jar of peanut butter, and no view of the good ol’ back yard out the window. But it can happen at any time: driving down Dale Mabry Blvd. in the torrid heat of a Tampa afternoon, walking from in from Monroe Street into the lobby of the Palmer House in Chicago, or on a Wednesday night in Austin trying to find a place to eat that isn’t built for a weekend crowd of 500 and tonight it’s only you. Wherever, whenever, that’s the moment I think of Phoebe.



Phoebe visits our back yard because of the pool. She’ll perch up on the fence or on the pool pump, examining the premises, but eventually she flits down to the edge of the pool, looks all around her to make sure the coast is clear, and then in a sudden acrobatic flurry zip out over the pool, dip her beak into the water for a drink, then pivot in mid-flight and return to the lip of the pool.  A handy 15,000-gallon water trough for a 4-ounce bird! But this morning drink is fraught with danger, because of The Cat. It’s not our cat, although it treats our back yard as its domain. We have no idea if it belongs to someone or just roams. It’s a big cat, gray with lighter stripes. It’s a mighty hunter. Over the years, I’ve buried lizards and birds and squirrels left dead or twitching from this creature’s hunting instincts. Not eating. Just hunting. If there were an NRA for cats, it would be a charter member. The worst was the eviscerated but still living baby possum I had to put out of its misery. Blasted cat. I am terrified about the cat getting little Phoebe. She seems alert enough, but that cat is canny and quick. It would only take a moment of inattention. Whenever I see Phoebe at her perch on the lip of the pool, I’m constantly scanning the rest of the yard, to see if the cat is there, ready to pounce. So, the thought of Phoebe, without me there to keep the vigil for her is terrifying.

She’s just a symbol, of course, for all the other Bad Things that could happen when I’m not there. The Unnameable, Unthinkable Things that could happen to The Counselor or that are happening with colleagues whose jobs are threatened or already lost. At these moments, far from home, every uncontrollable circumstance is a dire threat. I’m not there, and I should be. I could save them, but I can’t help them from this non-smoking room with double bed in the Best Western in Arlington Virginia.

That, in the end, is what makes traveling not so hopeful, and something that can’t end soon enough. All I want is to get home, and make certain the unspeakable threat is not there, crouched just out of sight behind the bougainvilla, and beyond my ability to do anything about it.

Fly, Phoebe, fly.

© 2012 Brad Nixon

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