The Accidental Tourist: A literary guide to business travel, basically

It’s been a few years since my college girlfriend loaned me her copy of The Accidental Tourist, but it’s a book that’s stayed with me — not because of its theme of embracing life and moving outside your comfort zone but because of what it taught me about how to pack a suitcase.

Anne Tyler’s book is about a guy named Macon (William Hurt in the movie), who writes passport-sized travel books for “accidental tourists” — business travelers, mostly, who have to leave home and want to make the trip as painless as possible.

Of course, the point of the book isn’t to give travel advice. Being an accidental tourist is really just a metaphor for Macon, who divorces his wife (Kathleen Turner in the movie) after their son is killed, only to get involved with a free spirit (Geena Davis), who brings him back into the world.

I think that’s what it’s about, anyway. I don’t really remember much about the plot. What I remember, every time I take a business trip, is the travel advice:

  • “Bring only what fits in a carry-on bag. Checking your luggage is asking for trouble.” This is absolutely true. Since I read the novel, I think I’ve checked luggage only a couple of times, and both times, it got lost.
  • “One suit is plenty…. It should be a medium gray. Gray not only hides the dirt; it’s handy for sudden funerals and other formal events. At the same time, it isn’t too somber for  everyday.” One suit (I go with dark gray), a couple of shirts and a couple of ties, and you’ll be fine. I’m told it’s different for women, that they’re expected to wear something different every day, but I’m a guy, so no one expects anything of me, fashion-wise. One suit is plenty, and only the shoes you’re wearing.
  • “Always bring a book, as protection against strangers.” I used to bring a book. Now I carry a tablet. Either way, it’s good advice and worth following, even though it works only about 50% of the time. I don’t think I’m a rude traveler. I’ll smile, say excuse me and engage in small talk while we’re getting settled in, usually something like, “Boy, they don’t give us a lot of room, do they?” but then I’m done. I’d rather read. It’s amazing, though, the number of people who don’t notice or deliberately ignore basic social cues such as their seatmate’s refusal to make eye contact or his responding to their questions and comments with a simple, “Uh-huh.”

You might disagree and think I’m a jerk because I don’t want to talk for a couple of hours to the random person wedged into the seat next to mine, and that’s fine, you might be right, but trust me on taking only one carry-on bag.

Cool hand, Luke

I finally let Thing 2 (the 5-year-old) watch Star Wars. We watched the original trilogy over a period of about a week.

We watched the movies together. I explained the parts he didn’t understand and, when things got scary, I told him to cover his eyes or reminded him that it was only pretend, and I fibbed my way through what I thought might be the really disturbing parts (I said they were only burning Darth Vader’s costume on the pyre at the end of “Return of the Jedi”).

I thought he’d have questions about Luke Skywalker being Vader’s son and Princess Leia’s brother, but he took both revelations in stride. His only question came a couple days after we watched “The Empire Strikes Back,” on our way home from preschool.

“Dad,” he said, “where’s Luke’s hand?”

“Well, Darth Vader cut it off with his lightsaber,” I said, thinking maybe I’d made a mistake and that he wasn’t old enough to watch the movies, even though most of his friends had.

“But he gets it back, right?”

“Well, they give him a new hand, remember? On the spaceship, at the end of the movie? They give him a mechanical hand.”

“But where’s his real hand?”

“It, uh, fell.”

He was quiet then, but he asked me about Luke’s hand again the next day and the next, and I then realized he wasn’t thinking about Luke Skywalker as much as he was Mark Hamill, who played him. He wanted to know what happened to the actor’s hand in the scene where it looked like it got cut off.

“That was just pretend. He just pulled his sleeve down over his hand so you couldn’t see it, but it was still there, like this,” I said, pulling my sleeve down over my hand.

He understood and demonstrated to Sweetie when she got home from work.

I thought everything was OK until a few days after we’d watched “Return of the Jedi.”

“Dad, what happened to the snow monster’s arm?

“What do you mean?”

“When Luke cut it off. He didn’t have any sleeves. Where’d his arm go?”

PHOTO: Luke’s mechanical hand, from The Empire Strikes Back. Part of last summer’s Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination movie prop exhibit at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, Ala.

Elvis is still everywhere

Originally posted on another blog on Aug. 16, 2010.  Reposting it here on what would have been Elvis’s 76th birthday.

PresleyPromo1954PhotoOnlyToday is the 33rd anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. He was 42 then, so that means he would have been 75 today — the same age as the Dalai Lama and Woody Allen. That’s hard to imagine.

Still, I think it’s fair to say that Elvis changed the world.

Yeah, it’s easy to goof on Fat Elvis, with his sequinned jumpsuits and voracious appetite, but I’m not talking about Fat Elvis.

I’m talking about Skinny Elvis, the good-looking kid from Tupelo who walked into Sun Records in Memphis and basically invented rock’n’roll.

Of course, some people say Elvis didn’t invent anything, that he basically took rhythm and blues and made it safe for White America, but that isn’t quite right.

Somewhere in Peter Guralnick’s 2 volume biography of Elvis (if you haven’t, read it), he points out that Elvis was a sponge when it came to music. Elvis listened to everything — R&B, bluegrass, country, gospel — and processed it, synthesized it. He took all these musical strands and wove them into something else, something new.

Sure, odds are someone else would have done that if Elvis hadn’t, but Elvis did, so let’s give him credit.

He was sexy and dangerous, too, and that’s something teenagers hadn’t really seen before, at least not in one package. Girls wanted him, and boys wanted to be him. You wouldn’t have had The Beatles if you hadn’t have had Elvis.

John Lennon (I think) said Elvis died when he went into the Army, and I agree. Elvis’ music was never as raw as before he was drafted.

In the 1960s, he made a string of dumb movies and went Vegas, and in the ’70s, well, we all know about Elvis in the ’70s, but by then, he’d already changed the world by changing the music.

I think those early records — “That’s All Right,” “Mystery Train,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky” — earned him a lifetime pass and more than made up for later songs like “Rock-a-Hula, Baby” and “The Wonder of You.”

“Blue Moon of Kentucky,” after all, was a bluegrass tune — in waltz time, at that — until Elvis got hold of it and turned into a rocker in 4/4 time.

I’d argue that is something close to genius.