Archives for the month of: June, 2014
J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI warned motorists against picking up hitchhikers in this anti-hitchhiking poster. "Is he a pleasant companion or a sex maniac?"

J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI warned motorists against picking up hitchhikers in this anti-hitchhiking poster. “Is he a pleasant companion or a sex maniac?”

One hazard of packing for a move is that books can distract you from getting anything packed. So I’ll limit my gawking to one every few hours. The first I’m blogging about, “The Hitchhiker’s Field Manual” (1973), was pretty surprised the Deep South was not more hostile to freaks.

I picked up this little gem by Paul DiMaggio at a “Friends of the Public Library” sale eons ago, and I’m surprised it lasted until Dollar-a-Bag Day. Naturally, I was curious when I ran across it on my shelves about what it had to say about where I am leaving, Alabama, and where I am heading, Michigan (I’ll excerpt that chapter in another post). You can snag a copy of your own on Amazon (low price: $5, used, of course). Kirkus Reviews was complimentary, calling it “A useful, cautionary, and generally encouraging thumber’s guide to cross-country travel.”

The author laid on a heaping helping of stereotypes about the South, trotting out fears of rednecks and anxiety about provincial culture. But he still thought Alabama was pretty mellow, at least compared to other states. “The South is not the bummer it is cracked up to be,” he wrote in one chapter introduction. “If there is an exception to that rule, it is Mississippi.”

Ah, then. But what about Alabama? Here are some excerpts:

  • “There is something about the name Alabama that strikes fear into the heart of the Northern or Western freak. I’ve been trying to figure out just how much of this is real and how much is cultural paranoia. The answer not surprisingly is a little of each.”
  • “For one thing, everyone sees alien environments as more threatening than familiar ones. In your own home area you go with the flow; in foreign climes many people, especially freaks, give off uptight vibrations, causing a reciprocal reaction. Thus you should take care while traveling through the deep South, but don’t get freaked out by it. …
  • “Hitching in the deep South does present some real problems to the non-Southerner. … In many areas, particularly in parts of Alabama and Mississippi, there is still a great suspicion of and dislike for Northerners. Often this hostility can be broken down by genuine friendliness on your part. However it is true that Southern culture is more conservative and conventionally oriented., and that a freaky appearance will elicit more hostility than in other areas, although not that much more than in the Midwest. … Finally, Southerners tend to still take seriously ideas of good manners and respect for elders. Thus a great emphasis is placed on consensus and formality….
  • The incarnation of all that is bad in the Southern character is the redneck. If you travel through the South you will probably encounter him. He is violent, opinionated, and if he is drunk, he may insult or even attack you. …
  • The opposite side of the coin is that many aspects of Southern culture work in favor of the hitchhiker, especially if he looks fairly straight. If Southerners tend as a group to be suspicious of outsiders, they also tend to be friendly and open, at least superficially, to people in general. Southern hospitality is more than a myth. In the percentage of rides in whcih intoxicants are offered to the hitchhiker, the South is rivaled only by California. (In the South, you get beer and booze, in California dope.)

Wow, man. So many negative vibes about the South! But wait. There’s a flip side to the 1973 freak stereotypes about Southerners:

  • “Southerners are very often amicable and generous, and almost always courteous and civil. The pace of life is slow by Northern and West coast standards, and most people will either be cordial or mind their own business. And Southern freaks are mong the world’s nicest people.
  • “So even in Alabama, which is next to Mississippi, the deepest of the deep South, it is far from impossible to hitchhike. First, as I said before, stay out of small towns altogether. Never go into bars. Stay on the interstates. Hitchhiking busts are rare and less of a danger than local vagrancy or loitering hassles. If you stay on the main roads and don’t look outrageously freaky, you should have much trouble.”

DiMaggio provided several local notes about which cities were more tolerant, what local statues said about where hitchhiking was permitted, and so on. But I’ll close with his note on the state’s two major college towns:

  • “Finally there are two major universities in Alabama: Auburn and the University of Alabama. Both of these are pretty friendly if you can find the right people.”

DiMaggio noted the phone number for crisis centers in Auburn and Tuscaloosa, as well as numbers for Outreach of Huntsville, which it noted was “Jesus people.”


During the school year, I relied on running to melt knots in my thinking about research or teaching challenges. It’s only now, during summer break as I focus on research and my move to Michigan, that running’s only purpose is to run and fill my mind with nothing but the run. For an academic prone to overthinking, that’s harder than it sounds.

I’ve been reading a page or two here and there of Dainin Katagiri’s Returning to Silence: Zen Practice in Everyday Life, a soulful book on Vipassana meditation. Vipassana is a Zen meditation style that calls on the practitioner to sit, setting aside thought and ego in order to simply feel and be and see things as they really are rather than experiencing our own projections of what they are “supposed” to be. The end is to be at peace and to reduce suffering. Click here for a thorough explanation.

The Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship has sessions every first and third Saturday at 10 a.m., and I sat zazen there for the first time in a long, long while last weekend.

The first 10 minutes were challenging. My mind raced with things I planned to do, such as writing projects and chores and arrangements for the move. Then I remembered to gently remind myself that the purpose of zazen is to sit and be present, not to ponder the past or focus on the future. I visualized a pebble dropping into a pool of water in the creek where I grew up in Kansas in an exercise I learned at the first Vipassana group I’d sat with at Ecumenical Christian Ministries at the University of Kansas some 20 years ago.

With my mind still and my attention on following my breath, feeling the fullness of my lungs and abdomen on inhaling and the emptiness on exhaling, aches and pains in my back and spine showed up. “Where did those come from?” I thought, followed by me reminding myself, “It doesn’t matter. What matters is to notice them, bless them, and release them.”

It is remarkable how following the breath reveals stresses we’ve been ignoring because we’ve been so busy. More remarkable is the way letting yourself just grow full and empty with your breaths can melt away those pains.

The routine at AAUF is to chat a little bit while waiting for everyone who’s coming to show up, listen to a Zen reading relating to Vipassana and/or loving-kindness and peace, sit zazen for 20 minutes, do walking mindfulness meditation, then sit zazen another 20 minutes, followed by a second reading. By the end of the second zazen session, I had no idea where the time went. I knew only that I felt tremendously restored and asked myself once more why I hadn’t been sitting zazen more often.

With that in mind, I thought I would try Vipassana running tonight.

The idea is to let the run be just a run: no using it as a way of working out research or teaching problems, no planning for the rest of the week, no pondering finances or cooking or other mundane matters.

The purpose of the run is to run, notice the world and the wind and the heat and the landscape, and to follow the breath. It’s OK to get caught up in the beauty of the world momentarily; such reveries are the poetry that makes life wonderful.

But attention must return to the breath (in, fullness; out, emptiness), strides (foot rising, foot falling, foot striking, foot rising, foot falling, foot striking), and aches and pains. It’s OK to set a timer on the stopwatch, but I found myself running past the 12-minute countdown timer I had set. It just felt better to run until I felt I needed to rest, then walk awhile mindfully, then resume running.

Getting started was easy; for the first few minutes it was “rise, fall; empty, full; lift, land.” Project outlines and organizational matters darted into my head and bounced around until I remembered:

“The purpose of the run is to run.”

I noticed the moon, waxing full, over the Old Rotation, Auburn’s historic experimental ag research station, where innovations in cotton, corn, and field pea crop rotation were discovered early in the last century. The sweet scent of magnolias would not be ignored.

Again: “The purpose of the run is to run.” Step. Step. In. Out. Full. Empty. Heat up. Cool down.

A familiar pattern emerged: The distractions were thick for the first 10 minutes, followed by focus and the occasional mechanical self-inventory:

  • “Does my foot hurt because I landed on it wrong, or because it’s been hurting all this time and this is the first time I’ve been mindful enough to notice the pain?”
  • “Is my lower back sore because I’m running with bad posture, or because it’s injured?”
  • “Am I gasping because I didn’t inhale as deeply as I should have, or because I’m about to have an allergy attack?”

And then: “Mmmm. Magnolias.” “Oh! That moon!” “Oooooh, that breeze.”

I don’t know, come to think of it, whether mindfulness was easier to maintain during running meditation than sitting meditation. Was I just more pleasantly distracted? Is it OK to be mindful of the world we move through as well as the body we occupy while in running meditation? Is being aware of both simply a way of being at one with the world?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do know I feel restored. At peace.

Poynter has a trivial little piece about a newspaper that accidentally sent an electronic front-page dummy to Newseum’s gallery of front pages. No, that dummy copy didn’t appear as today’s front page of the Hamilton, Ohio, Journal-News, so it’s really a no-harm, no-foul situation. But it’s an excellent reminder why you should never put joke headlines and filler on electronic dummies.

To the desk’s credit, the dummy contained no stupid pranks and no dirty inside jokes, which have certainly gotten papers in hot water in the past. But the Newseum glitch brings to mind a designer who was fired at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch some years back (2005? 2006?) after sticking a filler line that read “DRINK VODKA” at the bottom of a column of type that came up short of the assigned space.

C’mon, folks. Always seek the inoffensive fix in that instance. Two possibilities are to insert a soft return on a dense paragraph to create a widow or to just vertically justify the column.

Of course, this incident also brings to mind a framing question: Why did Poynter choose to blame the newspaper for its honest mistake rather than blaming Newseum for not noticing the problem and requesting a resend? Staffs are short everywhere, but isn’t getting the right front page more central to Newseum’s mission than sending the right one is to the Journal-News?

Dummy page on Newseum

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