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Scrap of Scripture: Drowning in a Lake of Stew

There’s a lake of stew
And of whiskey, too
You can paddle all around it
In a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
Harry McClintock, Big Rock Candy Mountains

In The Big Rock of Candy of Cockaigne I very briefly explored the myth of Cockaigne as laid out in Francine Prose’s book Gluttony and the hobo paradise song, Big Rock Candy Mountains. Today, on Scrap of Scripture Day, I want to season that with some another songs and cook it in a base of cruise ship. Yesterday, I feasted on the fantasy of a world where tables made of pancakes might mean that no one went hungry. Today, we will explore some the digestive difficulties. (You may suffer from some image/metaphor indigestion by the time I am through dishing the dose).

If you haven’t already followed the link to the lyrics, I encourage you to do so now, or to listen to it.

The song takes us to a land where “handouts grow on bushes” and “the hens lay soft boiled eggs” and “where they hung the jerk that invented work.” It is a fantasy of ease put in the mouth of a hobo, an outsider not constrained by or to the work a day world. When it was first recorded in 1928, most folks’ work, in and out of the home, involved physical labor, much of it arduous, work that could grind the body down. Many folks were not getting enough calories to make up for the intensity of their work.

To give you some sense of how much work household chores could be, please indulge me in a digression into some family history. In the early 1960’s Daddy and his second brother took their money from their paper routes and bought their Momma a fully automatic washing machine for Christmas. My father was 14 and his brother was 12, keep this in mind. Their old machine was semi-automatic. There was a motor, but laundry was a multiple step process. You put the clothes in one tub and then turned on the motor to let it agitate with some laundry soap. Then you moved the clothes from that tub to the next for the rinse. (There might have been another tub step after that). And after the rinse, you sent the clothes one at a time through the wringer, which couldn’t deal with anything too thick, like jeans. Jeans had to be wrung out by hand. Laundry even with a bit of motor was a lot of physical work. Their Momma was the main bread winner; their Daddy a no good drunk. So they already were doing their own laundry, on top of school work, on top of extensive paper routes. Which is why as soon as they saved up enough money they bought a damn fully automatic washer.

By the time O Brother Where Art Thou made Big Rock Candy Mountains hip for the hip, most people in the US were finding their bodies breaking down due to a lack of physical labor and an excess of calories.

Rollin’ and a-tumblin’, place me on the mountain
Fly closer to the sun
Wailin’ and a-rumblin’, my fantasy crumblin’
Come, come with me on my Candy Mountain
Candy Mountain Run
Bruce Hornsby, Candy Mountain Run

Most of us need to visit the Big Rock Fitness Mountains. Where “the salads grow on bushes” and “the trainers make you work your ass” and “not so little streams of sweat come trickling down our necks.” I may have to write a parody.

All this makes me think about the cruise I took this summer. Now, why I was on a cruise is a long story. Let’s just say that taking a cruise wasn’t my first choice, but I was determined to make the best of it and let the writer in me soak up the sounds and sights, figuring, quite rightly, that I could use it later.

Cruises are the land of Cockaigne crossed with the Big Rock Candy Mountains crossed with capitalism. Food is everywhere and always available. It almost is as if the ship is built of food. The average person gains at least five pounds while “cruising.” Alcohol goes rushing down their necks. Many seem drunk the whole trip. The passengers gleefully revel in the fact that they are not at work and do not have to do any work. The cabin is cleaned, towels are laundered, food is cooked and served, plates are washed, booze is brought right to you, you don’t even have to belly up to the bar. It takes hundreds of employees to make the trip “labor free,” but we were encouraged to think of the staff as happy house hobs ready and waiting to serve.

After a few days, I was ready for the trip to be over. Endless excess is exhausting and boring. The trip made me realize that my paradise would have a little work; not the crushing work done by my hard scrabble ancestors; not 40 plus hours a week of bad for our made to move bodies office work. My paradise, my land of Cockaigne, my Big Rock Candy Mountains, would require just enough labor to keep us healthy and happy. At the very least, we’d have to sing for our suppers.

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