Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Creature Comforts

There's this kind of camping, where you carry a home with you. But that's not what we meant by camping when I was a child. We meant this kind of camping . . .
. . . though we never ran into a bear. And the tent wasn't nice nylon with mesh windows, but canvas (it was the 1950s), which smelled faintly of mold, despite my parents' good housekeeping.

Daddy Longlegs sprawled here and there on the walls of the tent. Beyond the painfully bright Coleman lantern there were a million mosquitos and the darkest dark.  You used a smelly outhouse a long way away or squatted behind a bush.  No friends, no books, nothing to do.

When as a grownup I tried it with a friend, I further realized that the ground beneath the air mattresses was lumpy and unforgiving.  The fire that was inviting at night was dead by morning, and it took a long time to get a fire going and make coffee. Once I had used up a roll of film and hiked moderately, there was still nothing to do but become increasingly aware of how uncomfortable folding chairs really are..

Living as if the technological advances of the last hundred years had not happened seems to have a sacred quality for some people. It does for me too. I'm not being sarcastic when I say I love nature, especially as seen from the windows of my air-conditioned home, which has flush toilets, hot running water, a real refrigerator, and a gas stove. What I like most to do in nature is sit with coffee when no one else is awake, and gestate a poem. I would also like that a lot at a cafe in Paris. You see what kind of person I am. Maybe people are different in New York City, but in the Midwest you feel a kind of shame for being so thoroughly urban.

I did for several years go to the church's annual Labor Day campout. It was in nature, and not air conditioned, but there were things to do with people I liked, the cabins had toilets, other people cooked for you. One year I asked a man I knew whether he was going, just making conversation. Sal was a big guy, an executive who had a lot of money and who seldom spoke, and was thus generally esteemed. In response he chuckled as if the very idea was absurd, and said, "I like my creature comforts."

Creature comforts. Into my mind sprang a memory of the best hotel I've ever stayed at, which had one of the first glass elevators in America. The lovely shower with lots of fluffy white towels. Room service. Several restaurants. These are the luxuries of civilization, the things that give us comfort.  Like many who have been in the trenches, I like them.

I remembered this recently after talking with a friend about living a life that matters. I don't have as many conversations about that as I used to, my energy being more limited, but I do think about it. It is very hard to help people by setting out to help them, as so many social programs have shown. On the other hand, you never know when you might help someone just by being authentically yourself.  Sal was not a religious person, but he did me an appreciable favor just by being who he was, fearlessly, thoroughly civilized.

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