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Friday, December 30, 2011

Big Sur Essay: Day 2 (Alfred Molera State Park, Cooper Cabin, Nepenthe again)

Dec. 6:
    I tossed and turned all night, unable to find a comfortable position, waking every fifteen minutes or so and eventually entertaining the type of sleep that places you just at the surface of dreams and of wakefulness.  I rose at ten AM, feeling as if I hadn’t slept at all.  My time table is off.  I am a wreck. 
     I need coffee.  I need air.  I cross the street to the gas station.  A bus sits adjacent the station’s offices.  Painted in bright blue and yellow colors, the bus testifies to the spirit of Big Sur’s whimsical side; it doubles as a cafe. I flag down the attendant, a mid- twenties Mexican man, and ask him for coffee.  He jogs over, steps inside the bus and I follow him in. 
    It is a cramped space with a small counter at the front just behind where the bus driver would sit, if there was a seat.  After paying the two dollars for a small coffee, I stir in my creamer and sugar, then stand outside, at a wooden railed patio and stare out at the creek below.  The water slushes and sluices.  The air is brisk and the coffee is good, strong (nutty, dark, with undertones of honey).  I regard the bus for a moment.  It seems to say to me, “all of life is a lesson in seeing,” and I am reminded of what Emerson once wrote, “In the woods we return to reason and faith.  There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,--no disgrace, no calamity, leaving me my eyes, which nature cannot repair,”   A bus that goes nowhere, fueled only by the child’s imagination of wonder and play.  Is this the lesson I am to learn?  What lessons will Big Sur teach me today?  How will she leave me at the end of the night as I return to my cabin, either empty or full?  My goals are simple ones: experience life to the fullest,  rekindle the art of seeing, yield to nature and let it work its magic so that I may be reawakened to what's important.  Perhaps that’s a bit dramatic, but I have always been dramatic, giving myself over to the sentimental at times when I should use my head more. 

     My first stop is Alfred Molera State Park.  Last year I spent half a day here, following the trail as it tilted up then sloped downwards, taking me across several wooden footbridges, then placing me on a trail that took me through a grove of eucalyptus trees.  I found an old cabin constructed on the top of a mound, Cooper’s Cabin, but I didn’t stop long enough to take it in and this time I promised myself I would.  Now as I followed the trail past the tall distressed pines, I saw remnants of storms, drought, pestilence.  Several trees with their gnarled roots exposed looked as if covered in a layer of ash, their bark flaking off, revealing patches of black wood beneath.  I passed the spot where the creek widened, where the weeds sprouted from the banks, and the sunlight glittered across the surface, creating a dance of shimmering gold.  Last year, I climbed a tree whose limbs arched over the creek, and found it again, but didn’t have the heart to climb it.  Last year I followed the creek as it led me to the ocean. Once there, I stood on a beach covered in smooth misshapen rocks the size of grapefruits, oranges, and smaller ones like lemons. They were gray and white and tan stones.  I remember standing before the eddying water, unable to cross to the beach where beyond it the ocean trembled and blasted the cliffs, and I sat down on the rocks and thought to myself, what have I done with my life? Who have I become? I have no more influence on this world than a molecule of air that goes unseen.  Thinking I needed to change the world in some small way, I picked up a rock, weighed it in my hands and lobbed it high and far into the water.  The water plopped and splashed.  There, I thought.  I have moved a rock from one place to another place.  I have done something and changed the world.

Now as I walked I looked up and saw I was being followed by a Monarch butterfly. It fluttered above me, crossed my path and ranged into the bushes.  It followed me all the way to he cabin where I lost it in the trees. The cabin looks like something out of a horror film. Built from the material surrounding the area, the shimmed walls and shingled roof made out of redwood, has frayed, faltered, grown grim and ashen. A perimeter fence surrounds the structure and the small yard it encloses is overgrown with weeds, pine seeds, pine needles, and the slivers of bark ripped from the surrounding eucalyptus trees.  Built in 1861 by J.B.R. Cooper, a Monterey sea captain and merchant, and George Austin, a New Englander, the cabin is the oldest structure in Big Sur. The plexiglass sign standing at the top of the wooded walkway that leads to the cabin states that Austin’s Massachusetts origins are revealed in the “lap jointed and pegged corners of the cabin.” It is a primitive building technique prevalent in New England, the placard says, but virtually unknown west of the Rockies. How far men travel, to what distant lands, in search of forgetting their pasts, yet, the skills and techniques they’ve honed over years, generational knowledge passed down to them serves to control the wild world they confront. And I think of the saying, “No matter how far you go, there you are,” though I can’t remember who said it.  Having given up seafaring for life on the land, Cooper’s cabin was built to house his ranch hands who came to help raise his livestock and perform dairying duties, producing beef and cheese to sell in Monterey. Looking at the place, I cannot imagine anyone finding comfort living here.  There is no deck, no outhouse, few windows.  It seems, even in this bereft state, a jail, meant to keep inside the dangerous element, or is it really meant to keep those inside safe from Big Sur?  I take several pictures, imagining ghosts peering at me from the shadows of unlit corners, and then return to the trail to follow it to my destination: the ocean.

     As the trail narrows, delivering me into the thick woods, I start to see trees scarred with initials, declarations of love, and markings that look like leftovers from a more primitive life: spirals, circles, turtles, birds.  Their roots, half buried in the earth, climbing into the riverbanks, look like the remnants of a broken language.  White rocks in the shallows resemble the tops of skulls, malformed by the coursing waves.  It’s as if I have stepped into the past again, ancient scents and trees drunk on the silver water grown delirious by the ocean’s spray, have kept things in a suspended state. Here also, all sounds soften, rage of the ocean is distant; there is not a snap of twig or hiss or cricket chirp.  Here, nothing moves except the sun flashing red through the trees and the gentle push of the water to my left. 
    Reaching the mouth of the trail, I receive my first glimpse of the beach.  All those grapefruit and orange and lemon sized rocks have gone.  Now it's a stretch of powdery white sand that resembles snow. The creek is still wide and impassable and so I pace the narrow stretch of beach back and forth, looking for a way across to where the ocean meets the stretch of beach.  But how to cross?  The water, though not deep, still looks dangerous. 
    Over the sand bank I see the shape of a man, cut in silhouette.  I want to call out to him and ask him how he got across, but at the risk of shattering his solitary experience, I remain quiet, observant.  Does he see me?  I am not sure, but almost as soon as I place my foot on the surface of the water, I see him lift a backpack and retreat into the hillside.  What to do?  There are no rocks here for me to toss into the water, just twigs, branches, the ashy remnants of a beach fire, a few dusty beer bottles, but little else.  I sit.  A helicopter passes overhead.  I sit.  I contemplate climbing the cliffs so I can cross over to the beach, but the rocks look slippery, craggy, draped with moss.  After a few minutes I return to the trail, defeated by an experience I don’t understand the meaning of. 

    Walking back through the woods I think to myself how life throws up its barriers, and no matter what we do, we cannot overcome them. It’s lovely to say to oneself, there are no obstacles you cannot overcome, but I am meant to learn a deeper lesson here.  There are some barriers too insurmountable, and to risk defeat by crossing them is to do so under the threat of death. What if I had mustered the courage to cross the river, shallow as it was, the currents not so strong as to push me into the ocean and drown me? What was I afraid of, getting wet?  Was I afraid of failing or, perhaps, succeeding? 
     Passing a sign that read Headland Trail peeking out from a bush and so I take it up a flight of winding stairs to the top of the bluffs. From the top I can see the beach, the cliffs beyond, the top of a limestone mountain called Pico Blanco.  Three pelicans, looking like pterodactyls, sun themselves on the huge outcroppings of black rock at the ocean’s edge.  Flocks of seabirds career below me on the beach, rising up like giant mists from the beach and then after a few moments of delicious flight return to their places on the water. I snap a few pictures with my camera.  A hawk enters the scene and hovers, glides, then joined by another hawk sails away beyond the bluffs.  The sun is bright.  The air feels warm.  Everything is arranged to provide the “authentic” Big Sur experience, but somehow, this time, as opposed to last year, I am unimpressed.  I remove my shirt and stand at the edge of the cliff on a carpet of sand and take in the air, the light, the sounds of the water, still without a way to cross down onto the sand. I sit with my legs crossed and I close my eyes and let myself sink into this experience, but all I can hear is the chattering in my own brain--music, bits of lyrics, broken melodies.  Slowly, my mind calms.  Slowly, the restlessness is washed over by the music of the water  After a few minutes of this meditative bliss, I leave feeling a little better about what I am doing here.  What am I doing here?  Reaching I suppose for a feeling I had lost on the way to pursuing my dreams as a writer. 
As I walk down the trail, I feel things.  The silence here is gigantic, an interminable peace that imbues you with the sense of your own insignificance.  The woods make their argument against the structures we build, the houses and cities and buried fiber-optics and bridges of communication, through their sheer numbers. Thera are too many trees, too many hedges, plants, flowers, insects, animals.  Too much water and air.  I feel I am choking on Big Sur’s beauty now, drowning in its natural sounds: the surf, the birds, the coursing water.  What does it all signify?  What is it meant to reveal?  Surely the world exists for us to notice it, as Rilke would say.  What I know is I don’t really want to understand it.  I want to feel it, because feeling is a kind of understanding that seems more true than thought--feeling sinks its teeth into the heart of the matter, plants itself in your soul and makes understanding a part of you.

Reaching my Jeep, I settle my camera inside and decide to get a bite to eat.  So I return to the Big Sur River Inn and after filling up my tires with air at the gas station, head to the General Store for a homemade burrito. (This is not important to mention, but I’ll mention it anyway, because perhaps there’s some hidden symbolism here that I am blind to that some reader will seize upon and make for him or herself a richer meaning.) I ordered a carne asada burrito, with salsa, jasmine rice, black beans, and guacamole.  It weighed at least a pound in my hands and cost me almost eight dollars. I took a seat at one of the iron tables facing Highway One and ate, but couldn’t finish it, so threw the rest away.  I sat and contemplated things, the walk to the beach, being followed by a butterfly, seeing a quorum of fawns (did I fail to mention them?) It is five or so. Full yet unsatisfied, I decide to take a short nap.

When I approach Cabin 3, I see a note tacked to the door jamb. Please see the management, it says.  I wonder what it could be? What could be wrong? I walk back across the highway to the management offices and see that it is closed. A sign says, After hours, please see concierge at the Big Sur River Inn Restaurant. Feeling too tired to deal with things, I decide to return to my cabin and sleep.  I don’t want to believe that things in Big Sur have urgency.  Let me take my time.  
    The room when I enter is warm, too warm, as I left the heater on. I remove my shoes, slip under the covers and too tired to read, fall asleep. I dream of pelicans sunning themselves on the cliffs.
    I wake and am hungry again.  I shower and putting on a fresh pair of clothes, I decide against Nepenthe tonight and settle on the Big Sur River restaurant. Entering, I greet the concierge and ask her about the note on my door and without me telling her my name, she seems to know what the note is all about.  She informs me that the carpets in my room are scheduled to be changed and as a courtesy to me the motel is willing to upgrade me to a suite, that is, if I agree.  I agree. The room brings me closer to the creek.  I receive the new key to the new room adjacent the gas station and the blue and yellow bus and I settle into my new room, Cabin 6.  What a wonderful room. It is spacious, with a table setting by the door opposite a window, a rocking chair in the corner, a day bed, and a bedroom in the back with a California King bed.  The wall in the room with the day bed is fashioned from redwood and shellacked. The bathroom’s counter is made out of the base of a redwood tree.  As before there is no bar of soap, but an abundance of towels, all white. As before there is no phone, no TV, no radio. There is, in this bathroom, no wall plug. I settle my things, then go back to the restaurant for dinner. 
    I sit at a table with a draft of my short story.  I am calling it, for the time being, City of the Stars.  The story is set in Brisbane, and it is about, well, truthfully, I am not sure what it is about.  The story seems to be carried away by its language, its lyricism, and I feel it isn’t a story at all.  By editing it I’ll see where it’s gone wrong and even though I know I am not a short story writer, I feel I must attempt to finish one story to the best of my ability so I can submit it for publication.  I feel a twang of defeat every time I read about one of my fellow MFA’ers publishing a story, an article, or a poem, making use of what they’ve learned, and although I am happy for them I wonder when will my time come?  A writer who isn’t published, well, can he still be considered one?  I suppose the question is akin to asking if a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to see it then, and so on and so on.
    There are no seats at the bar, so I take a seat by the window in the dining area. A table to my right hosts a family of Hindu’s and they seem to be celebrating someone’s birthday.  Even here, in this magical nowhere of a place, one can find remnants of my long ago abandoned past and its people.  When I was a child growing up in India, I remember bathing in mountain rivers, watching headless chickens in the frenzy of dying darting about in my grandfather’s back lawn, or climbing the eucalyptus tree that stood at the edge of his property, at the boundary wall that separated his compound from the dust filled streets of Lucknow, or being courted by a snake near a water pump at my father’s house, or dreaming of bats, my first true nightmare.  I don’t know why I am thinking these things, but they seem in keeping with the spirit of Big Sur, where the past is never truly past. 
    Receiving the laminated menu, I select a baked chicken for dinner, because I am in the mood to compare it with the dinner I had the previous night.  I order a Gin martini.  The waitress who takes my order, a short, sassy blonde in her mid fifties, I think, smiles politely and leaves.  I start editing my story while I wait for my food.  I am crossing out sentences and adding new ones and onto the third page of paragraph deletions when my drink arrives and the waitress seeing me scribbling asks what I am doing.  I am editing a short story, I say.  I tell her about the novel I have just written and feel myself sounding pretentious.  She nods and wishes me luck and I think it’s too late for luck now; what I need is time and energy and resolve to revise.  After fifteen minutes, my food arrives. It looks impressive.  Delicious, I finish everything, leaving a carcass of bones on my plate.  For two nights in a row I have eaten chicken and enjoyed it more than I could have ever imagined and I wonder at the meaning of this.
    The bill arrives and I pay then decide to go back to Nepenthe for a drink.  It is still early, around 8PM, and I am not tired.  I feel restless.  I am pushing the experience of the day out of my mind.  I don’t want to think about what it all means, yet.  I am following Wordsworth’s advice, to live life fully then recollect the experience in tranquility.
    Nepenthe is as quiet as it was the night before.  I sit where I sat yesterday, same corner, same seat and I order a Gin martini, straight up, Bombay Sapphire with a twist.  I continue to edit my story at the bar and realize how weak it is.  The words have rhythm and the sentences flow, but where is the story?  Plot has always been my Achilles Heel.  When I sense myself writing a plot driven narrative, something in me resists.  I love tangents.  I love thoughts rising out of experience.  I cross out lines and add new ones in hopes that something that resembles a narrative will take shape, but it is futile, I know.  I drink and banter with the bartender about wine flights.  Felipe tells me about a Pinot Noir from Lucia, not far from here, made by a local winery.  He offers me a taste and I refuse, telling him that tomorrow is my wine night.  I see Angela, the hostess from the night before, take a seat at the bar with who I presume is Nepenthe’s manager.  We  wave to each other courteously.  She looks as lovely as the night before: in black, not a trace of makeup, her hair piled high on her head, with that mixture of delicate care and nonchalance that defines her spirit.  I finish my drink.  I pay.  I approach Angela and say goodbye and she apologizes for being too busy to talk.  We exchange pleasantries.  We’ll talk tomorrow, she says.  I am starved for conversation about art, about music, literature, the cinema.  Such conversations lift my spirits and make me believe I can accomplish great things.  When I am away from artists, I feel my life impoverished.  How powerful words are, words of quality.  How much of conversation exists at the surface level of politeness, diplomacy, tact.  When you speak, you must speak what you know and feel and leave everything else at the door, meaning, your insecurities.  Feeling as if I have intruded on Angela and her manager, I politely say goodbye and leave.  It is only 10PM and the day is done. 
    The stars outside flicker and the moon spreads its silver threaded light across the ocean, which is, from my vantage, silent and still.  I return to my cabin and hope to sleep for more than a few hours tonight.  The room feels warm and I am comforted by its homelike atmosphere.  I open Neruda’s book of poems sitting on the desk near the front door and read a few lines of a poem, but the words fail to move me tonight.  I realize I don’t want his words in me.  I don’t want anyone’s words in me, only mine.  In my bedroom now I change into my night clothes and I do not reach for Ragtime while lying in bed.  I do not reach for my journal to write in.  Thankfully, my thoughts are no longer spiraling with bits of music and verse and broken melodies. Today has been a good day.  But I have yet to feel the water on my skin, the ocean air in my lungs, have failed to dry my naked body under the sun.  Tomorrow, I think to myself, I will go to the beach and though it will be cold I will attempt to swim.  I sigh and shut off the light.  Despite what I haven’t done, my heart feels full. 

(To Be Continued)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Big Sur, 2011 - Day 1: Prelude and Dec. 5, 2011

An Essay on my recent vacation to Big Sur (a 1st draft)

Day 1: December 5, 2011

    I was in the mood for a killing. Not of someone.  Of myself. Not of suicide.  Of reinvention. I had to get out of San Francisco.  I had to go someplace where I could let my mind drift, to a place where I could let my feelings fall where they may, to a place where the landscape provided a thousand different pathways to resurrection: Big Sur.
    Moby Dick's Ishmael says, “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” and so on, “I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.”  My substitute for “pistol and ball,” Big Sur, will always be my “spiritual home.”  What is it about the place that attracts me? The beautiful vistas, for one; a chance to deposit into the woods all of one’s fears and neuroses: the woods and water accept all of it without complaint.
    During the months and weeks leading up to my leaving, I suffered from various ailments: insomnia, a two month long flu, irritability, irascibility, a general malaise.  I felt disconnected from my work and from my relationships.  I took three hour naps in the afternoons which kept me awake most of the night.  My diet consisted of coffee, alcohol, fast food.  My exercise routine comprised two or three slow paced walks a day around Candlestick Point with my two dogs.  Sitting at my desk for hours and hours, straining both my eyes and my back, pulling muscles I never knew existed, I felt myself unraveling; so before I knew what I was doing, one morning, with my thesis complete and its revision around the corner, I sat down and booked my trip.  Four days in Big Sur should return me to myself, I thought.  Four days and three nights of bliss.  
    Having dropped off my fiancee and our dogs at Delores’ house, I left Vallejo at approximately 10:00 AM on a clear sunny Monday.  During the three-hour drive I kept thinking of remoteness.  What if there was an emergency?  The cell phone service was terrible there.  I hadn’t told anyone where I was staying and no one had asked, not even my fiancee. I kept thinking of immersions.  What would I do first?  Where would I go?  I would go to Pfieffer Beach, bathe in the winds rising off the bluffs, maybe swim if it wasn’t too cold.  I would visit Nepenthe for a sunset and steak dinner. Besides that, I made no plans.  I would go where my legs took me, find the end of the road, and stop often to take in the sights.  
    Cradled in the soft scents of eucalyptus trees, redwoods and pine groves, entranced by the bustling rhythms of the crashing surf, Big Sur connects me to a more primitive version of myself and a purer version of life.  In the city you don’t see birds, though they abound, especially seagulls at the wharf, pigeons, and crows.  Occasionally you’ll see a willet or a crane at the bay, or a flock of sparrows, but they seem disguised somehow, as if they aren’t really birds but chunks of concrete bitten out of buildings that have somehow taken flight.  City birds seem distressed, even at the beaches; they seem about as confused and erratic in their movements as the people who navigate the Embarcadero, speeding up and down Van Ness, filling the cafes in North Beach, staring out at the traffic lines on Broadway.  In Big Sur you can see birds again and see them in their natural element--cranes, cormorants, loons. If you’re lucky you can glimpse a flight of condors gliding across the cliffs, or watch pelicans sunning themselves on the ocean’s giant stone outcroppings.
    As I passed through Monterey, crossed into Carmel, then drove South on Highway One, the landscape flowered.  Tall mountains bathed in mist came into view and the entire continent seemed to shift downwards in long swooping arches, bending towards the water.  Before this land was settled, it was wild.  When I think of the miracle of this road, Bixby Bridge and Granite Canyon Bridge both built in 1932, I am reminded of man’s will to cut paths through nature, taming it, deeming it safe to experience in all its incremental bits.  I think how by taming it we have lost it, that the true Big Sur exists not now but before the first traveller ventured here, seeing the sights for the first time, but somehow, Big Sur resists this notion. The views from Highway One still impress and I suspect will continue to impress until, as Henry Miller once said, "uranium is found in the hills." 

    I wonder, though, as I drive, what the first explorers who found this area thought.  Did they feel they had died and gone to heaven? For when I think of Heaven, I think of water and mountains, I think of mist bathed forests, I think of sunlight so clear and sharp it makes even the shadows seem to shine. When I caught the first glimpses of the water to my right, the sun dappling the water, forming on the water a crystalline road, my heart skipped a beat, and it seemed to me as if the world had taken a giant breath, swallowing me up in all its vastitude. The parade of colors, the riffling brooks, the unrivaled vistas of continent and boundless ocean had drawn celebrities here.  Surrounded by the redwood forests, Henry Miller penned essays and towards the end of his life painted portraits here.  Robinson Jeffers sat on the cliffs, perhaps, staring out at the ocean at the wheeling hawks.  Jack Kerouac sped through its switchbacks in a mad dash of screeching tires and ballyhoo in his sleek black Studebaker.  Movie stars, like Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, picnicked in its parks, sunned themselves at Pfieffer Beach, hiked Andrew Molera State Park’s trails, followed the creek as it widened and deepened and emptied itself into the ocean.  In the experience of empty beaches, of forested winding trails, of being lifted by the spruce and ivy and thousand-year old Redwoods, they smoked and drank and made their declarations of love to the stars and birds and trees and tides and all that beauty, for “that,” as Jeffers wrote, “is but the beauty of God.”  Beyond that, as if that weren’t enough, Big Sur represents, in all its simulacra, in all of its signifiers, the manifestation of dreams.    

     Dec. 5:
      Chatter.  My mind filled with voices, music, melodies, bits of lyrics, bits of verse, images.  Every time I try to empty myself, my brain fills with noise--the white noise of the city.  Having arrived at 1PM to the Big Sur River Inn, the first outpost on Highway One, I am too early to check-in, and although it is a sunny day, with temperatures in the mid 60’s, I am too tired to explore.  I have not eaten this morning or afternoon, and the coffee I had drank on the drive has worked itself through my system.  My bladder full.  My eyes bleary.  I need a hot shower, food, a nap.
    I chose for my lodgings the Big Sur River Inn. I chose it because a year and a half ago, after abandoning the novel I had spent the better part of the previous year researching and writing, I needed to gather myself, to wash the toxins of writing that dark, depressing, violent novel from my soul.  Stopping for gas one day, towards the end of that first trip, I parked in an empty stall by the station, descended the wooden steps to the banks of the creek, a sward of bright green grass surrounded by redwoods.  Along the creek’s bank stood several wooden chairs, arranged in haphazard patterns, but one caught my eye, sitting as it was in the shallows.  That afternoon, my heart full, my head quiet, I read Emerson’s essays on nature for hours while the water’s rhythms lulled me.  In those moments all the cares of the world lifted and I found myself confronting Emerson, his thoughts of transcendentalism settling into my soul, providing the nucleus of the novel I was going to write.  Dusk fell and the sky darkened, the accompanying air cooled, lifting from the redwoods and pines surrounding the embankments a smell of rapture.  I sat in that chair well after dark and imagined the sound of water resembling that of crackling fire.  I felt connected. Whole.
     While I wait to check in, I eat my first meal at the restaurant adjacent the gift shop. The restaurant looks homey, like a cabin, with redwood floors, redwood posts, and a wood beam ceiling from which various colored sheets hang like sails in pastels of lime, yellow, turquoise, and red.  I take a seat by the long stretch of windows overlooking the courtyard with its centerpiece a firepit where I imagine people gathering with cups of hot chocolate, beer, mugs of coffee, guitars strapped to their shoulders and music lifting into the brisk night air.  While I wait for the server to take my order, I read the menu.  In the inside flap of the laminated was written a detailed history of the inn.  In 1888 Jay Pheneger acquired a 160 acre land grant from the federal government (no mention of how he came to such wealth) and christened the creek that bounded the River Inn to the South, his name.  The Pfieffers, Michael and Barbara (no mention of what they did for a living), who were homesteading  near Pfieffer beach and bought the property from Pheneger.  In 1926, John Pfieffer, their son, acquired the land.  Looking to form connections with travelers who happened upon Big Sur, later, John;s daughter Ellen opened the River Inn on the east side of the road and serving lodgers her would be famous hot apple pie.  The inn became known as the Apple Pie Inn and the ridge rising above it on the east side is still called Apple Pie Ridge.
   From the menu, I select a BLT on sourdough, shoestring French fries with a side of ranch dressing, and an “award-winning” Bloody Mary.  The meal is simple, flavorful, yet expensive.  Things here are of high quality, but you have to pay for it.  With my lunch finished, I drink a $4 dollar coffee by the firepit outside, and after paying over twenty dollars for the meal, walk to the motel’s registration offices to check in.
    The girl at the desk, a young woman in her early twenties surrounded by stacks of paper, talks my ear off about the weather, and I nod.  She takes my credit card, offers me their rental documents to sign, and then hands me my key.  “You’re across the street,’ she says.  I am a little disappointed to be staying on the east-side, across Highway One, and not in one of the rooms overlooking the creek.  It doesn't matter, really.  I am here.  I am lodged.  Everything is available to me. 

    Cabin 3: A single room with a queen-sized bed and adjoining bathroom with just a small sliding glass window to the right of the sink.  I enter and feel as if I have stepped into a coffin, with its pine wood walls, tan carpet, and a picture above the bed of the Santa Lucias bathed in a milky fog.  The heater is turned off and as I settle my things onto the small dresser table below the window, I see my breath crystallize. I turn the heater on and rotate the dial to ten, its maximum setting, and rub my hands.  The room offers simple comforts.  There is no TV, no phone, no wet bar, no windows, save for one, and except for a single withered leaf on the floor by the side of the bed, which, during my stay, I don’t bother throwing out, the room appears clean. On the dresser facing the bed sit various items: a tissue box, two water bottles, a small ice chest, two glasses, a digital alarm clock, a menu of motel services bound in a black three ring binder, and a Monterey Peninsula guidebook, detailing the activities, events, restaurants and retail stores for the area.  I am tired.  Though it is still early, around 2:45 I take a nap. The linen sheets smell freshly laundered.  The room warms. I am asleep in an instant, thinking of my novel and where it needs improvement. 
    These are the thoughts that occupy writers’ minds, the good ones at least, maybe the bad ones.  We are never truly at rest.  Even asleep our minds work, the subconscious drifting in possibilities. 
    I awake at a little after five.  The room is dark now, just a cool blue light outside.  It is too late to explore the area.  I feel restless.  I wash my face.  The water is ice cold, numbing my hands.  There is no soap in the bathroom, but an abundance of towels, six in all.  I have no desire to write, but know that I must so I force myself.  From my leather brief bag, I extract my red journal and my fountain pen and opening the journal to an empty page I write the following: “As the year comes to a close, I find myself once again in Big Sur,” and so on.  Reading over the words I am struck by the passage, “My eyes find it difficult to adjust to all the beauty here.  I don’t know where to look. It’s if I’m threatened with destruction at every turn and this feeling is both frightening and oddly reassuring.”  I think how true that sentiment.  Big Sur kills you with its beauty; it destroys you with its inaccessible beaches; it seduces you with its mountains, its untrammeled woods, all of which reduce you to a point of nonbeing.  Here, beauty exists in such abundance it is hard to know where to turn one’s head.  If you stare too long at something that fascinates you, something as simple and profound as the Bixby Bridge, you get the feeling of missing something, yet you cannot turn away. It is this feeling of being connected by immersing yourself in experience, of taking one’s time, of spending one’s time in the moment, drifting downwards into a dreamy wakefulness that assists in annihilating the cold dead skin in which you’ve concealed yourself.  Is that what I am doing here?  Am I here to strip away the layers of dead cells that have hardened around me like a carapace?  Shutting my journal I decide to read something.  Having brought several books with me--Rilke, Neruda, Doctorow, Emerson, and a book on writing about nature--I select the Doctorow novel, Ragtime, with its impressive psychological insights and deft descriptions.  I climb back into bed. The heater drones. I switch on the bedside lamp and finding a comfortable position with three pillows behind my back, I read.
    The story of America itself prior to WWI Ragtime, is the story of a family.  The major dramatic events revolve around a black ragtime piano player named Coalhouse Walker.  His act of revenge, or terrorism, inflicted upon the city of New York for an injustice done to him ignites people, forcing them to re-evaluate the meaning of justice.  Ironic that here I am in the countryside, far away from San Francisco, reading about the greatest metropolis in the world.  Far away from the grid of streets, of homeless men shouting epithets, the slow bustle of downtown traffic, I find myself reliving its spaces through fiction. 
    I am a style hound, always on the hunt for lovely sentences.  So, what impresses me about this novel, and in particular Doctorow’s writing, is the sentences. He writes, “It had that breath of menace which makes the beginning of the spring so unsettling,” or, “Grief and anger had been a kind of physical pathology masking her true looks.”  I am amazed by his insights.  But other sentences fall flat, such as “His monumental negritude sat in front of them like a centerpiece on the table.” What?  At times his writing reminds me of Fitzgerald, with its copious use of modifiers and personification: “Chutes of cheerful morning sun leaned like buttresses from the high dirty windows of the ward.”  I like this kind of writing.  It is exuberant, alive.  Such style dives deeper and deeper and deeper into experience, forming connections between things.  To be able to see the light transform itself into a dancer, to personify the sun in an original way, or to describe the wind or the waves, revealing the essence of things and in turn revealing the human heart’s relation to it, yes, that is the writerly gift. 
    I shut the book. It is time for a drink and a bite to eat.
    Located on Highway One, after a series of tight switchbacks that wind downwards, it feels, driving at night now, as if I am driving on the back of a serpent.  There are no lights on the road and no houses.  You drive and you see an illuminated sign on the right signaling the restaurant and you turn in to the narrow driveway, leading you to the parking lot. Above me, on the crest of this hill, stands the restaurant.  Before me sits the Phoenix gift shop and on its roof above Cafe Kevah.  I remember sitting for hours on the cafe's terrace one day a year and a half ago, watching the mists draw in from the ocean, clouding the hills.  I remember I followed a blue jay up the steps to Nepenthe and I wondered at the meaning of this.  In fact, I saw lots of blue jays on my trip last time, and so far, not a single one. 

  The air is cool tonight.  There is no wind.  No birds.  The stars are out, the Big Dipper and the moon, half a sphere up above.  Like the ocean that lays at Nepenthe’s feet, this place seems to exist to bond people in a collective bliss.  People come to unburden themselves, to feel free, and like the water beyond and the massive redwoods behind it on the cliffs, Nepenthe accepts everything, embraces it, strong in its conviction as a place where even the greatest defeats are made trivial in the face of beauty.
    For me everything about this restaurant is a miracle.  The fact that it exists at all is a testament to those who sought to preserve the dignity of artistic conveyance, for it conveys a spirit of love-- after all art, no matter what form it takes, is the expression of love.  Since I love words and the meaning behind words, their denotations and connotations, I learned the last time I was here that the word “nepenthe” is a Greek word meaning “isle of no care.”  Once you walk up its four flights of steps, entering through a vestibule of trees, the gentle sounds of a water fountain trickling, you feel your cares melt away.  Stepping onto the main patio you come to a wooden phoenix, its talons in a bed of aloe, and you get the feeling of entering a place imbued with such magic anything is possible.  Here blue jays, hawks, condors or crows could descend from the treetops, land on your shoulders and sing you arias.  Here shadows could shapeshift into people and then transmogrify into wolves.  Like everything about Big Sur and its places, there is a story surrounding the phoenix sculpture.
     The sculpture was formed out of an oak tree that once served as a gateway to the restaurant, the tree’s limbs forming a framing arch to a view of the coast.  But the tree died because of overpruning and overwatering from some overzealous landscaper, and was discarded to the bottom of Mule Canyon Creek.  The sculptor Edmund Kara rescued the dead oak, found in its textured lines and plumy bark the hint of talons and wings aflame.  From the old oak, and all of one piece, he carved out a bird, then added bronze legs to give it stability.  He transformed the tree into a phoenix, thus restoring it to a new grace then installed it on the patio to remind people that rebirth comes at the cost of dying.  Fitting, how art could take from something dead and discarded, like a memory, an experience, a way of life, and reinvent it for posterity. But then, that is the beauty of art. And its power. 
     Standing in the courtyard, the night’s cool air spreading through the dark, you get the feeling of this being the most honest place on earth.  Honesty, it's not a word I usually associate with spaces, but there is something invitingly truthful about Nepenthe.  The firepit to your left issues gentle plumes of white smoke into the night, the red glow from the smoldering embers remind you of neon signs and you think to yourself, you are still thinking of the city, even here its hold is strong.  Looking out at the shadowy cliffs, the trees silhouetted in moonlight beyond you realize that even through the pitch of night, with the moon in the sky, you can still see the outline of the Santa Lucia Mountains, the cliffs tangled with sage and purple lupine, and the majestic aubergine texture of water.  During the day the views are something else, heroic, but I always like to come here at night, where the beauty is hushed and in its somber state seems even grander. 
    The views are what drew Bill Fassett to make his lodge into a place he could share with the world.  Why hoard such gifts?  Why not give and give freely and in the true spirit of capitalism make some money?  It was Bill and his wife Lolly who envisioned Nepenthe.  Hiring Rowan Maiden, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, they built Nepenthe with material from the surrounding area--redwood, adobe bricks formed and fired by Lolly’s own hands, and local granite--creating a refuge for people to come and relax by the fire and tell stories and sing songs to one another.  They would dance while the fire crackled, recite poetry while slapping hand drums.  And come they did, from all over the world--poets, artists, musicians, actors, writers--sharing the bonds of creativity and love in common. Today Nepenthe is known as much for its “Ambrosiaburger” as it is for its stunning views.  Here people come to, as their literature says, “To lift a cup to kindness.”
    I am greeted by a waitress, a tall, lithe girl with auburn hair swirled into a messy bun.  She is wearing a scarf, a dark jacket, dark pants.  Without a trace of makeup she seems as assured in her loveliness as the vistas beyond the windows.  I sit at the end of the bar, by the front windows in a section known as “Dirty Corner.”  Here even nooks are given special significance, cracks and dens and foyers made important somehow by what happens or happened there.  The “Dirty Corner,” I learn, got its name because of several poets.  They congregated there, reciting dirty limericks to the bar patrons.
    I order a red label on the rocks from Felipe, a burly Mexican bartender with a sheepish smile.  He asks me if I like wine and I say I do.  He offers me a glass of Lucia Pinot Noir, telling me its locally made, and I refuse, saying tonight is Scotch, tomorrow wine, and the next day either Gin or Vodka.  After perusing the menu I order a baked chicken smothered with a wine and mushroom sauce, garlic mashed potatoes, and local grown broccolini. The chicken is over twenty dollars; the cocktail just shy of ten; hardly the prices for starving artists.  But I take comfort in the space, in the quiet. I am not thinking of San Francisco, though my head still swirls with song lyrics, bits of melodies, broken conversations. My mind.  I can’t seem to shut it off.
    I have brought Ragtime along with me and so I take it out and open it to where I left off.  I read how Harry Houdini, losing his mother, devotes his time to unveiling the mysteries of death and revealing the trickeries of those whop claim to communicate with the dead.  He exposes seances for the ruses they are, switching on lights to illuminate tables floating on near invisible wires.  He makes of himself a curious nuisance. I love how Doctorow structures this novel, combing the disparate lives of people who seemingly have no connections with each other but turns out to have much in common. He masterly spins his characters, culling them from historical fact, weaving them into a fictional narrative.  Here we find Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Stanford White, Harry Thaw, and “the Gibson Girl” Evelyn Nesbit.  I realize my kinship with Doctorow’s writing.  In Somerset, my own novel, I attempted the same conceit, but on a much smaller scale, taking as the central defining moment of Somerset Booth’s life the Hartford Circus fire of 1944. The real and the fictional interest me and I realize why.  At the heart of it all, that is life, we are all the same: we all have the same desires, wants, needs, yearnings, hopes; the differences among us are in degree, not in kind.  The pedestrian and magical coexisting together, each informing the other, also interests me and Doctorow’s talent is his magical ability to transform commonplace experiences into great stories, full of depth and meaning.  I realize that when I revisit the novel to revise it I’ll need to look at all the places where I can add greater tension, infuse more history with an imagined past so as to make the writing more vibrant.
    My dinner comes.  I eat and with each bite I am amazed at how incredible the food tastes. How could chicken be so tender, gravy so rich and creamy, broccolini so flavorful?  It is as if I have never tasted food before and I finish everything, leaving bones and a froth of potatoes on the plate.  I finish my drink. I walk outside to stand by the fire and watch the stars, the moon, feel the breath of darkness against my skin.  There, sitting and smoking near the firepit, sits the hostess who greeted me earlier.  We  exchange tepid hello’s, talk about fire, then about art, and about my novel.  I apologize to her for sounding like a cliche--a writer coming to Nepenthe for an “authentic” experience.  Sensing I am flirting, she tells me about her boyfriend and I tell her about my fiance back home, and then for some reason the conversation turns to birds and sculpture.  I am not cognizant of the phoenix bird behind me, just then, I am only thinking of Liz, the character in my novel who paints birds, rescues maligned birds like crows and vultures, restoring them to a new light.  We talk about Brancusi and Rodin, how without the latter the former would not have found the courage to create.  We talk about how every artwork is a response to something that has come before it, that each piece of art is contextualized by history--a notion I got from Jane Smiley.  She finishes her cigarette and I finish mine and we return inside.  Angela, she says, introducing herself.  I tell her I’ll be back tomorrow.  Good, she says. We can chat some more then. I check the time, 9:21. Still early, but after the long drive and the short nap, I feel tired.

   I return to Cabin 3.  It feels blustery now, so I turn down the heat. I settle into bed with Ragtime and hope I’ll sleep, but the noises in my head return, the bits of music, the idle conversations, bits of verse, and I keep reading and keep reading and one hundred pages later I am still wide awake.  At 3 AM, I finally switch off the table light.  I sink into bed.  An hour later I am asleep.

(To be Continued

All photos (c) 2011 SK Kalsi. Not to be used without permission.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Preface to my novel, Somerset

Preface to Somerset 
(C) 2011 SK Kalsi   

         It is often said that writers don’t choose their material.  Chosen for them the muse arrives during unguarded moments--a solitary walk through the John Muir woods, cutting a tomato for a sandwich at 2AM, swimming in the Pacific during high tide.  There is something about the feel of coursing water, the sound of a knife’s edge on wood, the flight of crows flopping through the redwoods that stirs the muse awake.
         In my case the arrival of the muse always coincides with a feeling: Fear. A sentence arrives from nowhere and plants itself in my mind, forcing me to acknowledge it.  The sentence burdens me with a responsibility to shoulder its meaning, forcing me to reveal all its implications. When I write it down and glance it over, contemplate its shape, there seems to be something indestructible about it.  I read it again-and-again, slowly coming to terms with its meaning, yet I understand nothing.  What the sentence forces me to do is acknowledge its existence on the page.  It implores me to acknowledge that it doesn’t belong to me, and this knowledge terrifies me; because it makes me ask myself, whose words are these? 
         Sometimes the fear corresponds with another feeling: Elation.  But it isn’t the elation of sex, or consuming chocolate, or riding my motorcycle too fast on the highway, but elation of another kind, that of falling through space.  A sentence, like poetry arrives, as Neruda said, “in search of me,” and finding me, I add, I confront an existential choice, either to accept it or reject it.  If I accept it, then I must also accept what I don’t know, because the sentence demands I discover its meaning through context (where does it belong?)  If I reject, then I reject something essential about truth, or, perhaps the relevance of truth to shape my future.
         I like to say the modernists ruined me.  Having always loved lyrical novels--Mrs. Dalloway, The Sound and The Fury, and Lolita, once I had read enough of them, I thought I should like to write one.  Lyrical novels freed me in a way not unlike riding a motorcycle too fast on the highway, or swimming in the Pacific at dusk; both activities, involving risk, are fraught with danger, but also involve sublime thrill.  I tried to write a lyrical novel once and gave up by the thousandth word.  I gave up and then I stopped reading.   I tried to forget the feeling of freedom and danger and for years I wallowed. 
         When I discovered Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, then Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and most recently Paul Harding’s Tinkers, their words reawakened in me the love of language.  Yes, I thought, this is why I wanted to write, to show identity through language, and to provide readers with the experience of living.  These three novels did for me what I suppose Moby Dick did for writers two centuries before.  They inspired through a detail rich prose with incredible specificity, philosophical/metaphysical speculation.  Who knew this was called Maximalism? Once again, I thought, I would like to try and write a lyrical novel, a Maximalist one, one whose language soared.  But where to start?  How?  Whereas Robinson, McCarthy, Melville explored my shared themes--time, memory, identity, death--too in awe of their style, I tried to avoid their kind of novel.  Their writing for me was a kind of scripture; so to mimic them seemed like sacrilege. Their novels seemed not just informed by the muse, but possessed by her.
         So I tried writing something else.  Something easier and inauthentic.  I failed because it was inauthentic, not true to my passions.  I needed to embrace my fears if I wanted to be a writer with something to say.  The lyrical novel nipped at me.  But I still had no idea where to start.  Or how?  Still, I lunged forward.  Begin with a sentence, I thought.  It can start anywhere. It can also start from one's influences.  
         When I set about writing my “little” lyrical novel, I knew nothing about its subject.  Having just a setting in mind (Northeastern, Pennsylvania) and an event (a terrorist bombing) I knew I wanted to tell a family story.  I wanted to write my “little” lyrical novel in a “big” way, by mining my own past, teasing out the moments, delving deep into memory and subconscious, and have the story be informed by philosophy and poetry.  But I also wanted the novel to be accessible.  I knew I needed to employ lyrical language to explore the emotional, spiritual and physical landscape of character.  I knew I wanted to explore the idea of intertextuality that Jane Smiley wrote about in her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at The Novel.  She wrote that each work that comes after refers to the one that precedes it.  Works are rarely written in a vacuum.  So I didn’t need to venture too far to discover which books spoke to me: Housekeeping, Tinkers, Moby Dick, the poetry of Rilke, Dickinson and Neruda, and as far as philosophy went, Emerson’s essays on Transcendentalism.
         In his essay “Nature,” Emerson writes, “Our age is retrospective.   It builds the sepulchers of the fathers.  It writes biographies, histories, and criticism.” Here it is, I thought, the key to my “little” novel’s essence, the history of a town, the biography of one of its residents.  Emerson later writes, “Standing on the bare ground,--my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,--all mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; all the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.”  Here it is, I thought, the essence of my narrator’s point of view: Voice would be character.  My narrator could know things he was in no position to experience, such as the intimate thoughts of his grandfather, grandmother, and other people he never met.  He could also identify with nature so completely as to disappear into it, even become nature, and through it experience the eternal.  Like my own fascination with nature, he could look at it as a cipher of the spiritual. 
         In these aforementioned works I found all my themes explored with masterful dexterity. They satisfied my obsession with time, memory and identity.  They continue to satisfy my passion for style and voice: style, that perfection of a point of view; voice that revelation of character.  But still, one question remained, how would I make it mine?  How could I put my own stamp on it?  How could I go a step farther?  Again, all I needed was to look within. 
         Being a former musician, I had always been drawn to the musicality of language, rhythm, cadence, meter; but I also appreciated musical structure, i.e. the way a song came together.  I deeply appreciate music that explores feelings of grief and sadness and loss, and revere songwriters who explore themes of love, impermanence and death--musicians drawing from personal experience to lend their songs moral veracity.  So my “little” novel would do that.  It would embrace personal experiences, nonfiction, poetry, and prose, thus uniting the various genres within a university’s writing program. So, what you have before you is the labor of a two-year’s labor of love, frustration, anger, disappointment, ecstasy, hatred, fear, and respect--for Somerset, the character and Somerset the novel. 
         Thinking back, the sentence that arrived, in search of me, turned out became the final sentence in the book, “Outside the morning is quiet as a crystal.” When I first wrote it, I had neither a conception of its meaning, nor any idea where I would place it in the novel, and certainly no idea what the novel would be about.  It was that last sentence that lead me to the first, “I am Somerset,” which bears relation to Housekeeping’s “My name is Ruth,” which bears relation to Moby Dick’s, “Call me Ishmael,” and the rest as they say is history--a history of memory and family. 
         Above my writing desk, on a shelf of books, I keep several sentimental and inspirational objects: a piece of anthracite from the coal fields in Hazleton, a smooth misshapen black rock I once found on the shores of Little Nescopeck Creek, a tree made of wire and amber beads from Lithuania, a 1920’s L.C. Smith and Brothers typewriter, and lastly a wooden sculpture from Indonesia.  The sculpture depicts a young woman with four arms leaning against a throne of feathers.  One arm holds a book, the other dangles freely, and her other two play a tiny guitar.  She strums notes with her eyes half shut.  One of her feet brushes against a swan with its wings fanned. She is The Muse of Music 
     I sometimes wonder if while writing the novel I received her messages. I also wonder what the novel would be without her subliminal influence--perhaps empty, bearing no gifts which permit the experiencing of fear and joy--a vacuum, where waves never churn, wind never bleats, where emotions lay mute in a landscape that speaks to nothing and no one.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Republicans' "Theory on Job Creation," Really?

Someone, please explain this to me: The Republicans believe their solution to the job crisis, that is, creating jobs boils down to four things: (1) Tax cuts for those who don't need them, their "job creators" (2)  Deregulation of various industries (mining, oil) (3) Repealing Obamacare and (4) Dismantling the EPA, perhaps the FDA, definitely stripping unions of their rights, and eliminating the Department of Education.  So, why was it that in 2006, under the Bush regime, during a time of the Bush Tax Cuts, corporations closed 50,000 factories and moved jobs to China, Taiwan and Mexico?  Why also, that during this time of deregulation, the mortgage collapse occurred causing this Great Recession, that, had it not been for Obama's financial actions, his policies saved the auto industry and its jobs (and all those jobs related to the auto industry, i.e. parts manufacturers, service companies, etc), saved banks, and various lending institutions from bankruptcy.  Think of where we would be now if we had allowed those banks and manufacturers to fail?

Not long ago, three years ago to be exact, I owned and ran my own manufacturing business.  My partners and I started an appliance company during 9/11 and struggled and made our products ourselves, right here in America.  We struggled during economic downturns and succeeded.  We did not rely on the government for tax cuts to ensure our success.  We worked around the regulations our industry set for us, which amounted to safety and environmental standards, allowing us to create products that were safer and more efficient than our competition.  We worked around California's convoluted Workman's Comp insurance costs.  We made choices in how many personnel to employ, how best to use our money, which banks to secure loans from when needed, how to go to market, through which partners, secured relationships with vendors and distributors, expanded, grew, sacrificed, innovated and powered our way through to make ourselves successful. So whenever I read about or hear the Republican talking points, I wonder what reality are they living in?

If a business needs government handouts in terms of tax cuts and deregulation to force not greater freedom to operate but to ensure lackadaisical business practices that puts their own customers at risk with products that are more dangerous, poorer in quality, and unsuitable for consumption, then those businesses need not be in business.  Why protect the worst in us?  Isn't that what Republicans rail against when they talk about government entitlements?  So aren't they then, by their outmoded theories, entitling a faulty business model, one that rewards the worst and punishes the best?  Who needs corporate welfare?  The unimaginative who can't compete. Did Steve Jobs need corporate welfare to succeed?

It seems the Republicans are not interested in Manufacturing jobs, the middle class, entrepreneurs and small and mid-sized businesses at all, but only pay lip service to them.  Their loyalties reside with Wall Street bankers and the jobs they create, jobs that in actuality create nothing, that manufacture no products, that require no innovations and aren't worth the paper they aren't printed on.

And how is repealing Obamacare going to create jobs?  Aren't the Republicans just mad at Obama and Pelosi and Barney Frank and Richard Dodd, and all the democrats that signed the bill, that they have taken the power out of the hands of medical insurance companies and made the playing field more equal?  Isn't it their gripe that the top 1% are no longer free to rape the American public, deny benefits, deny claims, deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions?

And how is deregulating the oil industry going to create jobs, especially after the latter have posted the highest profits ever, while causing one environmental disaster after another, effectively destroying the fishing industry in the Gulf?  It seems the Occupy Movement needs to hold Republicans more accountable at the polling booth next year, but they also need to make blasting holes in the Republicans' "theory of job creation" a central tenet of its agenda, to expose it for the ruse that it is.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Reinventing the Dead

Allow me to vent!

Famous people don't die.  Their bodies do, but their spirits enter this alternate sphere of existence where we get to make of them what we want. Some become icons, one word brands that refer only to them, Gandhi, Roosevelt, Guggenheim, King (not Don or Rodney but Martin Luther), Marilyn, Dean, Shakespeare, Jobs, the list goes on.  In life they are theirs, in possession of their identity and mind and heart and soul.  Post death, they become ours.

This remaking, this reinvention of the dead, over and over, generation through generation, not only immortalizes the dead, but makes them into character.  This reinvention allows us to manipulate them, change them, attribute to them qualities and attributes they may never have had in real life.  So, Mark Twain continues to make appearances on stage, smoking his pipes, throwing out witticisms.  He becomes interpreted by each generation that confronts his being, or absence of being.

I am writing this because I am thinking of a story. I am thinking of a story to write because I am fascinated by how memory works to reinvent the people we have lost.  I am interested in memory because resurrection is not possible in any other way other than through the imagination.  Even though the people who we have lost that are important to us we rarely know.  So imagination supplies the tools where facts are missing.  The story I am writing is called "Reinventing the Dead." It'll be up here soon.  Hopefully someone will read it.

Sorry, I just needed to vent.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Prose Music of Tinkers


Awesome!  Awe inspiring!  I rarely use these terms when describing a novel, especially a first novel; but they're the only apt words to describe Paul Harding's literary, Pulitzer prize winner, Tinkers. What makes this novel so brilliant is its language. Written in a style that hearkens back to the early 19th century, taking his literary cues from Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, Harding embraces the Transcendentalist ethos (nature as transcendental spiritual experience) in a time when brevity and minimalism seem the preferred stylistic choice amongst most authors.  His prose, bold, unabashedly musical, filled with alliteration that would make a poet blush with envy, thumbs its nose at contemporary influences.  And for that he deserves his plaudits.    

What makes his style so captivating is both its richness and its precision.  With lush and specific detail he allows entry into this strange world of a clock repairman and his father, a tinker, or door to door salesman.  Harding isn't shy of employing long sentences, parentheticals, using dialogue as dramatic effect.  He uses frequent time jumps, enmeshing present time and past and distant past, employing POV shifts, and on a sentence level, uses just about every literary trope ever created (synechdoche, metonymy, metaphor, allusion), but keeps his manufactured world from slipping into obscurantism by favoring concrete nouns and specific verbs over adjectives and adverbs (largely).

The book has been described as "a little miracle." And that it is.  It is a miracle of experience.  By keeping us rooted in the sensual experience of a man lying on his deathbed, his mind spinning back into memory, a man making sense of his life when all certainties besides death have passed, he makes us ponder the meanings behind objects--a desk, a painting, a swatch of fabric, a necklace, a pipe tree. 

What I also love about his writing is his characters' forays into speculation.  It is a wonderful technique enabling us to expand the story into realms of imagination.  Take the following passage:  "What if the wagon, instead of a house on wheels, contained a kingdom of bees? There would be a panel on one side, fixed at the top with brass hinges, which would open and be propped up with poles at the corners.  There would be windows looking into the hives.  People could stand and watch the bees work while I gave lectures on the insects' habits, their industry and their loyalty.  I could charge two cents a person.  Young children could see the hives for free  Schools could send entire classes, or, even better, I could go to the schools and set up right in the yards. I could plant a bed of flowers on top of the wagon for the pollen and put the entrances to the hives on the side opposite the windows, so that the spectators would not bother the bees." It is wonderful writing, detailed without being overwrought, favoring clarity over obtuseness for the sake of moving speculation forward.

I also love his wordplay.  For instance, "Crepsucle Borealis: 1. The bark of birches glows silver and white at dusk.  The bark of birches peels like parchment. 2. Fireflies blink in the thick grass and form halos around hedges. 3. The spaces between the trees look like glowing coals, 4. Foxes keep to the shadows.  Owls look down from branches.  mice make brisk conversations." Here Harding manages to infuse poetic diction into his prose, metaphor, barches compared to light, simile, bark likened to parchment, alliteration (bark, birches, peels parchment, halos, hedges), more simile, spaces compared to coals, etc.  His writing surprises, excites, communicates its ideas playfully; it's a refreshing change from writing handed down to us from the staccato of Hemingway.

You would never find this, "Saw grass and wildflowers grew high along the spines of the dirt roads and brushed the belly of Howard's wagon.  Bears pawed fruit in the bushes along the ruts" in Hemingway, or in most contemporary authors.  Instead you get prose that moves the story along, plot given primacy over style, style being the aftereffect of the plot.  For me, style and plot and character and theme and tone and diction are all part of a book's DNA, each like a chromosome in a double helix that spirals to form the book's identity.

Harding, it seems, can do it all.  He can convey the deepest feelings of character, his most intimate thoughts, describe the minute details of repairing a clock in an antiquated language, describe how to make a birdhouse, wax poetic, dive into stream of consciousness prose, interior monologue, write son convincingly about landscape that it would make Melville or Thoreau envious, and then turn around and give us something heartbreakingly beautiful through lush description, and then, just when you think you've seen it all, he gives you this: "Thought that he was a clock was like a clock like a spring in a clock when it breaks and explodes when he had his fits.  But he was not like a clock or at least was only like a clock to me.  But to himself? Who knows?  And so it is not he who was like a clock but me." Awesome!

How many times have I read this book?  Five now and counting.  It sits sandwiched between Madame Bovary and (ironically) Hemingway's short stories as one of my all time favorite novels.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Using Influences: Housekeeping "At the Fishhouses" in "Ketchikan"


If ever there was a story that wears its influences on its sleeve, David Vann's "Ketchikan" is it.  The story steals its influences from two sources: largely Elizabeth Bishop's poem At The Fishhouses and to a lesser degree Marilynne Robinson's novel Housekeeping.  In various interviews Vann unabashedly speaks of Bishop and Robinson being two of his primary influences (Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx being his other two), and their spirits, especially Bishop's, seem to coalesce in this story.

Let's back up.  I know David Vann, or at least I knew him, before the Prix Medicis Etranger award, before the movie rights,  before the celebrity set in (sort of).  In 2009, my first year as an MFA student, Vann was my first workshop instructor and my MFA adviser.  He would bring to class examples from his influences and we would talk about them.  He was talkative, opinionated, intellectually bright. On my first meeting with him he proceeded to recite a story from Canterbury Tales in Old English, then recited a Gaelic poem from memory.  I thought he was trying too hard to impress, to show that he deserved his tenure position at USF, which, putting pedagogy aside, he deserved on the strength of his writing. 

In workshop, he spoke glowingly of Bishop and McCarthy, Robinson and Grace Paley, as if they were the best thing since a fresh cut of grilled halibut cheek.   He didn't just talk about them, he celebrated their prose, citing what they did to achieve the effects he believed they produced without actually revealing how they did it.  In short, I didn't learn why he loved those passages and writers, aside from the general statements about landscape as metaphor for character and prose rhythm.  

Vann's teaching style--that year at least--was instruction by indirection.  He presented paragraphs and chapters from writer's he liked and asked us to ask the same questions of the text as he perhaps had asked himself.  His pedagogical technique was more Socratic in spirit than in example, because rather than engage us to talk, he offered his own opinions, leaving us to sit and stare ate him with blank expressions on our faces.  Leaving his class, I thought he failed me as a teacher.

But where I thought he failed as a teacher, he excelled as a writer.  Using his example of deconstructing text, I learned to re-examine my own prose by looking at his.  I also took a closer look at his influences, including McCarthy and Proulx.  But while I was in his class, I resisted him.  I swore I wouldn't read his work.  He was too young looking, too arrogant, too vain, too distant, too unhelpful, too sanctimonious, and too opportunistic for my tastes, teaching us in his Life After MFA seminar that to get what we wanted out of the writing life we had to be surreptitious at best and at worst a flat out liar.

It took me a long time to finally buy his prize winning collection A Legend of a Suicide (still in its first edition hard cover), took me longer still to accept that he was a good writer, and even longer to understand he is perhaps, despite all his personal shortcomings, a great one. 

What the three texts he cites as his literary influences share are a love for language, images of transfiguration/transmutation, and loss.   Vann's narrator, Roy, like David himself, has lost his father to suicide, and the five stories that make up his fictional memoir/collection, address this bitter fact.  So the hero's journey begins with a single step, and so the price of knowledge gained at the end is nothing short of reclamation of your past, of your memory weighed against fact, of your identity mutated as a result of it.  The choice for his narrator at the end is always "Fitzgeraldian" in tone: Do I give up the grand and bitter illusions of my past, or hold on to them and wallow, since there is pleasure in wallowing at some primal, reptilian level.  These are a few issues David Vann's narrator struggles with as he seeks to define himself in the wake of his father's suicide.  But he seeks more than closure; he seeks a new sense of self, unburdened by loss.  

By retracing his father's  steps, the narrator's journey takes him to Ketchikan, an Alaskan fishing town, where he hopes to befriend his father's ex-girlfriend, the woman who led to the dissolution of his father's marriage.  In Ketchikan he hopes to lay his memories to rest.  In Ketchikan he hopes to find reasons. But what costs him little now, ends up costing him a lot later.

Bishop's influence arises immediately in the story. Not only does Vann, like Bishop, explore the art of the long sentence, Vann's opening coming in at 113 words, both love to write about fishing.  In Ketchikan, Vann talks of the fishing village, like Bishop talks of the fishhouses.  Vann writes, "I walked the purse seiners and trawlers, gillnetters and great tugs, floating planks iridescent with fish scales and waved to the two or three fishermen in their lighted cabins who heard or otherwise sensed me and looked up from their odd hours, their strange, solitary lives, to nod and look down again."

Compare this to Bishop's images and language in At The Fishhouses: "The big fish tubs are completely lined with layers of beautiful herring scales and the wheelbarrows are similarly plastered with creamy iridescent coats of mail, with small iridescent flies crawling on them." What jumps out at me are the words "iridescent," used in the context of describing the fish scales. What also jumps out at me is the fact that Vann could have used any number of modifiers without having to resort to this one.  He could have, for instance, used "variegated," or "polychromatic, " but by choosing "iridescence, he creates an intertextuality to Bishop's poem.

He goes a step further and uses several lines of her poem in his story.  Upon his arrival (I am assuming, for it isn't clear), when the narrator reflects upon the water at night, he thinks, "Cold, dark deep and absolutely clear, element bearable to no mortal, etc..." which is a direct line from Bishop's poem.  He even cites the poem's originator, Bishop herself, without making it sound heavy-handed.  So many times we read writers who cite texts and the result sounds clumsy, equivalent to self-congratulation for knowing and understanding (we assume) a text.  I have never been a fan of this technique, creating a false sense of intertextuality, although, I must admit, I have used it in my own work, then quickly discarded it for the very reasons I cite above.  But Vann does it effectively.  Because he links it to character interiority.  These would be the thoughts a man who loves Bishop's poems would say when staring into water out of loss, because it is his character/nature to do so.

Where Bishop's diction fuses with Vann's is in the very last paragraph at the bottom of page 149.  When Roy steals a rowboat to go for a night time joysail (joy ride?) around the harbor, he writes: "I rowed unnoticed beneath masts and sonar, bells and spotlights, rowed, I fancied, with the seamless propulsion of jellyfish in the one element, rowed past jagged rocks onto a sea nostalgic and opaque, swelling slowly as if considering spilling over, etc." (italics mine)

Compare to Bishop: "All is silver: the heavy surface of the sea, swelling slowly as if considering spilling over, is opaque, but the silver of the benches, the lobster pots, and masts, scattered among the wild jagged rocks, is of an apparent translucence, etc." (italics mine).

By using Bishop's diction (element, jagged rocks, opaque, etc), Vann fuses Roy's mind with Bishop's so that we hear her words recombined through Roy's consciousness.  It is an effect that works, falling just short of plagiarism.  This "technique" if you can call it that, if taking stylistic cues is a technique, seemed a novel way of creating prose that admired the author's influences. I liked what he was doing. 

What he borrows from Robinson's Housekeeping is less blatant.  He takes certain stylistic cues, but also steals Ruth's (Robinson's narrator) need to speculate.  Given that Ruth engages in speculation, which, like Emerson's "transparent eye," a narrative style that is seemingly everywhere and nowhere (a sort of first person omniscient narration), Roy propounds similar speculation, similar lyricism.  Compare Roy's speculating on his father's consciousness to Ruth's speculating on her grandfather's.  Both were never in a position to know the intimate thoughts of their forebearers, yet each seems to imagine that they do.  First Roy.  On page 150 he says, "My father loved something about Alaska.  Though frustrated himself he had many friends who lived the kinds of lives he imagined."  And I am right to ask, how does he know this?  How does he know what his father imagined?

And Ruth: "Edmund was like that, a little.  The rising of the spring stirred a serious mystical excitement in him, and made him forgetful of her.  He would pick up eggshells, a bird's wing, a jawbone, the ashy fragment of a wasp's nest.  He would peer at each of them with the most absolute attention, and then put them in his pockets, where he kept his jacknife and his loose change...This is death in my hand, this is ruin in my breast pocket, where I keep my reading glasses" (HKPG 17). And I am right to ask, how does she know this?  She was never and could never be in a position to observe this, let alone to use free indirect discourse to convey what Edmund actually said in those ending lines. 

Both Robinson and Vann also employ the use of the modal verb "would," indicating the conditional mood.  Vann: "The night would grow colder, the light would almost fade, and my father would go inside, see the cabinets Healy had built, even the walls of his small cabin, etc" (LGOF 150).  And Robinson, as per the sentences above, "He would pick up eggshells...He would peer at each of them..." (17).

As I said, I had never seen intertextuality, the use of influences and texts referring to other texts, used in this way to enliven and raise prose to a level that sang.  Vann did it and taught me how.  By looking deep into the heart of his text, I found certain keys to my own writing, keys that unlocked doors I never even knew existed, let alone was searching for.  But having found them and opened them, I feel I am a better writer because of it.  

There are other influences in Vann's book as well.  In Vann's novella "Sukkwan Island," he channels Cormac McCarthy and Hemingway.  In his story, "A Higher Blue," he evokes (at times) Annie Proulx.   This "technique" is something I embrace in my own novel Somerset.  I use it to enlarge the novel's sense, to engage the reader with my own influences and to pay homage to them, because, as someone once said, sometimes imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, sometimes it is cheating, and sometimes it is just plain glorious.

I never did learn to recite poems in old English or Gaelic or Sanskrit.  I'll leave that one to David Vann alone.