Needing a studio to work in, I was planning to choose a spot in the woods to put up a “pole barn” (two-by-fours, 4×8 plywood, a dozen bags of cement mix, rolls of tar paper, a space heater – all available at B&C Lumber). All one needs is a little place far from the hilarity of family life. With a window.
However, Brett ran across a small ad: “Shasta Trailer, 1953, $100.” One hundred dollars is about one tenth of the cost of the lumberyard materials listed above. So the fellow who was selling it, down near Auburn, was happy to haul it here himself (having pumped up the empty tires). Over the years he’d been using it only as a hunting blind, dragging it to places on back roads. Its last DMV registration was “1969,” a year when a great many things went unminded. My writing studio, now, is teardrop-shaped in profile, two-wheeled, turquoise on the bottom half, silvery on the top half, quilted aluminum, with birch-paneled interior and cabinets. It lives now under the drippy oaks off the edge of a somewhat lost meadow on the property. You have to look, if you want to see it. If you look straight at it, it tends to vanish.
John Cavendish, who knows how to do everything, came out of the woods to help me get it up level on cinderblocks. He not only knows how to do everything, he is, also, infinitely generous. Cavendish is another thing that in 1969 went unminded. (He was born here in this Western town, son of a mining engineer, and he had started at Yale. But then went to the Woodstock festival, joined VISTA, etc., never looked back.) Cavendish arrived in the morning overequipped wearing his workgloves, bearing huge rusty iron housejacks, car jacks, a block-and-tackle, his own supply of cinderblocks. He has leveled many a trailer. I’d picked out some sloping ground, and my trailer’s back end might need a small tower of cinderblocks. We backed it down the slope into place using Cavendish’s four-wheel-drive with trailer hitch.
It’s dry inside. I tore out the rickety formica breakfast table (something more like a fold-away ironing board) and installed a solid table at the window, all of old, true two-by boards. Mouse shit. Open cardboard tray of D-Con’s fluorescent pellets in the corner. I remember when I lived in Mill Valley and had received a small “forty pieces of silver” from a movie deal, I built a more opulent little studio, high on a hill, with a view above sequoia treetops, thru leaded-glass windows. Writer “A” visited and noted that other famous writer “B” would be building his studio in Berkeley with a full bath – and that yet another writer friend, “C” in Orange County, has a backyard studio that is soundproofed and feng shui-adjusted, and adobe! “A” suggested “studio envy” would come to plague a circle of writers. If they could see me now! Mine has a license plate. And a license plate frame, too, on the back end, with a witty joke for tailgaters “Stay Clear – My Rear Is Near” announcing itself to anyone or anything in the depths of the forest behind who might think of following too close.
* * * *
Hemp Is Stronger Than Iron.
It was time to cut down a stand of cedars. In so doing, I exposed some forest ground where my son discovered the frayed end of a buried length of rope, sticking up from the earth. (This is near where a barn is rumored to have once stood, as there is a squarish old foundation of stacked granite in those woods.) By pulling the rope’s protruding end, he was able to unzip the soil in a long meandering path, from its burial-horizon about two inches under the modern surface, lifting dirt-clods wherever he went. Sixty feet later, at the ultimate end of the rope, a now-rusty nail (not a square nail; not that old) had been driven through the braids, once long ago, to fasten it against a tree or a post now long-gone. The nail had corroded, it was nothing but a flexible twig of black rust, while the hemp fibers were still strong and hard and resilient. I dried the whole sixty-foot length on the garden-fence for a day or two, and put it away in the garage with other ropes, for future use.
* * * *
Last month Dash lost his first tooth and was awarded a silver dollar by the Tooth Fairy. Then, this week, another tooth came loose – (these things are smaller than the kernels at a corncob’s tapering end) – so another coin appeared under his pillow. The two shiny coins have since been prodigally lost, somewhere among hoards of plastic toys. But the two discarded baby-teeth, they have been archived, by my wife, in a Zip-Loc Baggie with a torn-off paper identifying them and dating them. This morning I was reading in bed while Dash (as a seven-year-old will) wandered around the bedroom silently exploring drawers and cabinets and dresser-tops, the mysteries of cufflinks and theatre-ticket stubs, suspenders and big old boots. I was aware of him picking through the drawer of the little writing-desk behind the bedroom door. Then he wandered away, toward other parts, wafting around the room, finally drifting down the corridor. It was about five minutes later that he drifted back to that drawer and said, with hesitation, softly but pointedly, “Dad? Why are my teeth in here?”
During that five minutes, only silence had come from his bedroom. During that five minutes, he in his sovereign loneliness was taking responsibility for the whole mysterious world. On the one hand, he had seen with his own eyes the gift of the Tooth Fairy, solid evidence of what a deserving boy he is and how ample the world is. On the other hand, there were the very teeth. I wasn’t paying attention during that five minutes while he was totally quiet. He bore that weight because it’s something children know they have to do, even in their darkest innocence. I think of it now in regard to my father-in-law’s cheery anecdote — that his cardiologist in a jocular mood told him as he went off toward the oncologist, “Beware of oncologists, Oakley, they just want to make you feel good.”
* * * * * * * *
The oldest peartree on the east side of the house has, or rather did have, three main branches. Last summer, one of the three branches produced no fruit at all, and but little foliage. This winter, all that side’s wood and twigs were clearly dead: the spurs were putting out no incipient buds. So during the February cold-snap, I sawed off that whole branch, at its base, releasing a gallon of muddy rainwater that had been steeping like coffee in its hollow core.
Now April is coming, it’s blossom time, and one of the two remaining branches is behaving just similarly.
* * * *
The neighborhood lion – a solitary female described as long-bodied and not so tall as a deer – has been spotted this spriing on the road, and Hunter (who has loved the pre-dawn hike alone to the highway schoolbus-stop every morning, lighting his way on moonless winter mornings by the glow of his phone, constantly closing it and flipping it back open to keep the screen-light) now tends to stay in bed later, do some extra history reading, and let his mom fire up the minivan and scrape the windshield frost, to drive him out to the road.
* * * *
Cut down hundred-foot cedar with swift fine effective new Husqvarna 350 saw. Saved out two eight-foot lengths of the trunk for splitting into fenceposts. Rolled them up to the meadow and, with two iron wedges, split them lengthwise into posts, 6’x6’x8”. Enlarged the garden enclosure by establishing new posts on the south side, sinking them three feet underground, leaving five feet of vertical cedar standing aboveground, and stapled up ten-gauge wire against the depredations of deer. Hung old gate from new gatepost, using the same old doorhinges. Began tilling the new-enclosed earth and, at this point, Dash appeared. His videotaped cartoon-shows must have ended. He turned on the irrigation-spigot’s rusty gush, to make mud in the new-tilled earth, while I fenced him in. Eventually he was flopping and tumbling in it, sitting in it and squashing it into little castles. By dinnertime he could claim, rightly, that he looked like an orc, and had to be hosed off on the threshold before tiptoeing through the house to the bathtub, and I told him at dinner that today had been a good day because, ninety years from now, when he’s old and grey and nodding by the fire and can’t recall much about his life’s ups and downs – and doesn’t even recognize anyone in the room with him anymore – he might yet remember with crystal clarity, as if it were right before his eyes, the great day when he was seven and played in the mud in the sun.
* * * *
March 21: started tomatoes indoors, Brandywine and cherry. And planted one row of bok choy outdoors as experiment. Lettuce, cabbage, onions, chard will go in tomorrow outdoors. Broccoli and cauliflower still to come. Potatoes and corn when frost is no longer a danger.
* * * *
March 24. Today I parked behind the bookstore/cafe on the main street, to walk around to the front for my double-cappuccino to go. On the parking pavement out back, all three waitress-barista-girls were on their hands and knees — circled in a huddle — all wearing their ripped-denim skirts and other pretty gear, bare-shouldered or silk-shirted. They were following the dopey adventures of a small, dusty, brown thing that tumbled slowly there, a honeybee who had fallen into the cannister of powdered chocolate. The entire wait-staff was outside. Work at the “Wisdom Cafe” had come to a halt while they discussed whether to let him be, or “dump a glass of water on him,” or find a little brush somewhere and poke at him, as meanwhile he blindly revolved.
* * * *
Religions make preposterous claims, but they are oddly practical claims.
Plenty of human institutions – art, for example, or poetry – are impractical-looking. A number of successful, smart people go from cradle to grave without setting foot in a museum to look at a painting. Some care little about “cuisine,” some are not meant for sensuality, or reading a poem. They get along fine. Same with religion. Some people just never look up. And they seem fine.
In the case of a tried-and-true religion, if it’s the real thing and not merely a pretext for racism or sexism or war, its practical result is (let’s face it) to transform you into a saint and mystic. That’s the inevitable point: sainthood and mysticism.
Since, in every full life, it is finally necessary to be a saint-and-mystic – yes, for every one of us; it’s the sieve we’re all inescapably ground through (most of us with the dignity of our privacy) – then a “religious” attitude of some sort becomes an inevitable necessity, whether homemade or off-the-rack.
There is a lot of talk these days – especially post-9-11 – about the obvious deludedness of religion; how ridiculous religion is; as if one day we could all be rational! And overcome it! And everything would make sense! Such writers as Sam Harris and the author of The God Delusion are perhaps – I don’t know – too young, or too wilfully pretending an innocence. They would say they don’t believe a day will come when they’ll have to be saints and mystics. They pretend, publicly, that they have no idea what such a bizarre warning could possibly mean.
Well, the fact is, maybe they will succeed in leading a life entirely on that level. Maybe some people do. Like those who live without art, without reading a book, without sex in some cases, without cuisine, and are perfectly happy and self-sufficient. Maybe they’re übermenschen, those Christopher Hitchens types. Christopher Hitchins is a marvelous rhetorician, always a pleasure to read, and a lively entertainment-personality. But one with an interest in “truth” or “verity,” of some kind, ought not to go to an entertainment personality for it. Mr. Hitchins has some unexamined assumptions, and a useful way of defining God is: “a necessary logical assumption.” “A first logical assumption.” Most theologians would insist on its being an unexaminable assumption indeed.
* * * *
Few of my favorite things, Seven in number :
Lust Gluttony Envy Anger Greed Sloth Pride
* * * *
April 12, 2007: Zucchini planted, in pots indoors, to be moved outside on May 1.
This year in the fruit trees I’ll try something new. Traps for coddling moths. Last year their worms came to live in at least half of our apples, so that every bite was an investigative exercise and we couldn’t, without admonitions, give them away to people. These commercial moth traps are designed like cardboard-origami boxes, which you hang from a branch. They announce their brand-name in stylish letters on their side-panels, “Tanglefoot.” Pheromones seduce the moths inside, where, with their libido, they presumably die of impatience, hung up in the perfect breezes of May and June.
Personally, I’ve never minded eating an apple where a worm has lived. It only takes a little paying attention.
Plus, the worm isn’t there anymore. It’s just the tunnel he left behind in escaping. And I wouldn’t be surprised if one of those caterpillars, born innocent inside an apple, is cleaner and more bacteria-free than a human mouth.
The weather this spring was perfect throughout blossom time. Every petal and pistil has stayed intact, during a loud bee time. Already the pears are starting to look abundant. Knobs as big as marbles have appeared overnight, two or three for every foot of branch. I suppose culling will be in order. One particular stupendous old tree seems to produce a full unculled crop of pears as big as softballs. When the August nights come, the sound of branches’ snapping will come over the meadow. A real farmer, I know, would fashion crutches for the branches. It’s wasteful not to. (I’ve also seen slings, of torn bedsheets knotted.)
* * * *
The Power/Love Trade-Off.
In the journey of forking paths (Is not Life a Garden of Forking Paths?), at every fork, Love lies on one side, Power on the other. When you choose the one, you are forsaking the other. Also in choosing the one, you veer permanently farther from the other, as you go along.
(I notice this to be a constant theme in my fiction.)
* * * *
May 17. Hot days are here, and laundry is drying on the line. The rumble of the dryer, its jets of hot propane, will be idle for the summer mostly. Advocacy of clotheslines. I’d like to supply the kit (twenty wooden pins and a thirty-foot length of twine) in every mailbox, free of charge, to all americans. Rough-nap stiff bathtowels, folded on linen-shelves, can be the pride of every clever household. Let them be a status symbol. Along with organic gardens, on the lawns of Winnetka, the redwood decks of Sausalito. Let Michelle Obama establish, beside her First organic garden on the White House lawn, the First clothesline, where the First boxer shorts may wave in the breeze.
The sight of laundry on a line today has caught me unawares in a sentimentality. We’re educated to see really magnificent or summary beauty in certain conventional places – the Sistine Chapel, Bach’s B-minor Mass, Proust’s big book, the Grand Canyon, even a close look at a wildflower. I was conventionally educated and I’ve been, of course, made aware of all the usual ways we’re supposed to get access to “the sublime.”
But the sublime can sneak up from unexpected directions, and laundry on a line in the spring wind – the big bedsheets in various colors bellying out – comes at me now. There was a children’s-book we used to read to Hunter, called “All the Secrets of the World,” and it contained, spread out over two pages, a particularly moving illustration of a lawnful of laundry hanging out to dry, as seen through the eyes of a child. In a wind that was palpable from the artist’s pastel-strokes, on a slope of lawn that tilted with a moody passion and a predestined ineluctability, the great flying badges of laundry were framed to represent a scene a child would remember forever, a simple spring day, to one side a granny figure, slouched in her metal garden-chair. Today on the meadow behind our mudroom, filtered through my memory of that artist’s illustration, our laundry stretching from a pear-tree’s branch to the corner of the house above a cord of firewood – more than taking another crack at Proust, more than a day at the Louvre – exactly captures the thing I might come back for, if there were such a thing as “reincarnation.” I would leave the Louvre, for this: I would walk right out of the rooms of Dutch masters and down the staircase, and get on a plane straight back here on this meadow. The pure and austere “sublime,” according to my conventional education, is contaminated by such corny ingredients as a particular sentimentality, and in this case, the taint of nostalgia, too. But an education isn’t always-and-unfailingly a useful preparation for life. The whole organism is constituted for the perception of the elusive “truth-and-beauty” revelation.
I’m Elmer Fudd now. I’m Mr. MacGregor. A rabbit is my nemesis. He has dined systematically on my rows of broccoli, eschewing the lettuce and onions and the new asparagus-mist above the ground and Swiss chard. (The Swiss chard is, instead, food for green finches, and is a total loss.) So today I fortified the enclosure with finer-mesh wire, and I put a second latch on the garden gate at ankle-height, because a greedy rabbit can flow through the gap there. Will I soon be waiting at a rabbit-hole with a big mallet up-raised?
Interesting. Fencing wire at Ridge Feed and Supply is gauged according to the size of the varmint it forfends: “gopher-wire,” “rabbit-wire,” “hogwire,” etc.
June 10, 2007.
Broccoli has been mostly lost to the rabbit: two whole rows were nibbled down to nothing, in as many weeks. Now I’ve put finer-mesh wire all around, and all raids of the rabbit have come to an end.
Then this week, a quick hail storm put bulletholes in all the broad, soft leaves – pumpkin, zucchini, pepper, tomato. We were inside drinking with Oakley and Barbara. Had to run out in the dark, to (inspiration of the moment) pull molded-plastic chairs off their stacks and set them over the sprouts. The survivors are the corn, the onions, the cabbage, some of the lettuce that hasn’t bolted, and about half the tomatoes.
* * * *
Good Meadow Party this year. Three fiddle players, with all the courtesy of the eminent, were here among the usual mix of dobros and guitars at the campfire. Also a great mandolin player.
* * * *v
June 12, 2007. I’ve been making a practice, for some years now, of sitting in the rear pews Sunday mornings at a very traditional Episcopalian church. It’s fascinating, it’s informative, it makes me think, and when I can manage it, it’s an hour in the week well spent. Now I’m asked whether I “believe” in “all that.”
It’s an ineffectively framed question – the usual purely semantic trap – because “belief” is a word nobody has a handle on. The truth is, people don’t know what they “believe.” Rather, refer not to “beliefs” but refer to “things we say.”
Of the “things we say,” a few might be “beliefs” but the rest are just “announcements.” And they’re announcements for our own hearing, our own ears, our own enchantment. Especially when we talk of higher things – guardian angels, quarks – our one most-enchanted listener is ourselves.
An example of something we seem to believe, freely, is that this table here is solid and will go on supporting an elbow. Or, we believe that the light pouring into our eyes begins somewhere, and represents an object. Or, we believe that, at the lapse of one moment, another moment will rush in, consecutively, to sustain the “flow” of “time.” Those are things we believe. Call that theology.
* * * *
Flannery O’Connor, when asked whether she “believed in all that,” said something like, Well, if it were all just a lot of symbolism, then the hell with it.
* * * *
The logic of Western religion: If you paint a slash of lamb’s-blood on your doorpost, the bully will pass by your house. The message is: “Pass me over. This house has been ruined. The one thing most precious here has already been slaughtered. Pass on by.” Then X-ianity came along and did accomplish the slaughter of the son, quite publicly. [So purportedly “the game is up.”]
* * * *
I was in L.A. on Saturday at ten o’clock in the morning giving a commencement speech to graduating students who had won awards for Creative Writing (I spent much of the time warning them basically not to be writers if they can possibly help it). Meanwhile Brett and Hunter were home on the meadow, in canvas chairs, watching baby birds learn to fly. According to Brett, they would zip out from the appletree about fifteen feet, do a U-turn, and zip back into the tree.
* * * *
Other evidence of the season. Hunter on June 22 will get on a plane for New Hampshire. It’s something I find myself boasting about. On the strength of a couple of string quartets, he has been accepted at a summer composers’ school and been given a scholarship, so for six weeks he’ll be gone from home, for the first extended time. At the airport, he will enter that telescoping tube connecting airport to plane. He’s sixteen. His parents will be shrinking at one end behind him waving ‘bye, and he’ll go through the plane hatch alone, carrying his ticket in hand, and start looking for his seat alone. What a great pleasure that moment is, for him.
* * *
Don Knotts. He was “Barney Fife” in the television show about the sleepy small-town sheriff. The protrusion of adams-apple and eyeballs, the barfy mouth. He has been on my mind lately. When I was young, Don Knotts was, to me, an instance of pitiable show-biz mistakenness. He was a man who had built a life upon his own ridiculousness, his scrawniness and foolishness, all to make people laugh. Compare him with Mick Jagger, who was incarnated in the exact same physical form as Don Knotts (fact: they were twins separated at birth) but Mick Jagger parlayed it into a form of power and glamor. When I was young Mick Jaggers’s seemed a life much better spent.
* * * * * * * *
It’s been a big year for wildlife. Big animal populations. As in no other summer, squirrels keep invading the Annex, taking bites from the apples in the fruitbowl. Neat black defecation-pellets by the phone and message machine. So we set a Have-A-Heart trap and release them by the Truckee River. Then as more squirrels appear, to be trapped and released, we begin to suspect that, Heffalump-like, it’s the same squirrel over and over again, and not a multitude. It’s suggested that, for identification purposes, we should spray-paint this squirrel before releasing him again, and see if he turns up again (as there happens to be a Krylon spray-can of “Champagne Gold” in the basement); but this idea is discarded because the other squirrels around the Truckee River might “gang up on” a new squirrel who showed up with too dangerous a fashion sense, wearing Champagne Gold.
And the bears. At lower elevations, this year, they’re raiding my pear and apple trees. They leave huge piles of wet shit directly under the trees where they stand while sweeping lower branches of all their fruit.
At higher elevations in Squaw, they provide an instance of the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Here is that chain-of-events: For years the local bears learned to dine on people’s garbage. Then, in order not to train up “Bad Bears,” the new local law was that all garbage must be housed in bear-proof steel containers. Everybody invested in those, including poured-concrete footings. The result is that now bears, disappointed with garbage-forage, are entering houses and browsing around, hankering, gross, mystical. They need to be chased out by a featherless biped waving his arms and hooting.
* * * *
An unusually cold December. The compost heap outside in the mornings (last night’s asparagas stem, banana peel, coffee grounds) is frozen sparkling. But still a little bit of summer hangs around: beside the kitchen sink every time I lift the lid on the sloppy compost bucket, one little fruitfly appears.
(It isn’t the same fruitfly of course, it’s a descendent and heir of the fruitfly I saw the day before. September’s fruitfly seems to have reached a reproduction rate of exactly “replacement level” in there, months after his tribe’s proper season.)
* * * *
The form “Total Environmental Collapse” will take: It won’t be a dramatic crisis; simply an economic pinch will educate us. The price of an apple. The necessity to learn a new trade. An Ohio U-Haul on I-80, driven by a hopeful fellow with his family. (Or of course perhaps a disappointed fellow). That’s the “recession” for you. That’s ecology.
And the art of making things last; which provides a pleasurable kind of creativity and a constant education. All I learned in grad-school is irrelevant. Our streets and roads could one day look like Havana’s, with old cars nicely maintained.
My ergonomic “BalanceBall” chair (a pilates ball on a pedestal with no backrest) has a puncture in the inflated sphere, so now it’s patched with a bike inner-tube patch. Years ago I’d have ordered a new ball and spent forty dollars. This is how Total Environmental Collapse will look.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Cynic” in literature: one who sustains a display of eternal innocent wonderment at the portion of “evil” in the world which he is so uninquely sharp-eyed and high-principled as to discern. It’s a manner of evading looking within oneself to discover one’s own portion. So, as literature, it’s not really, anymore, for grown-ups. Good for kids. Samuel Clemens (twain) would be an American instance. It’s why so many of Twain’s books are, in the end, tiresome (*), his always holding his own “Having-Never-Grown-Up” before himself as a lamp to light the world. The world doesn’t measure up, for him.
Sorry, but Mr. Vonnegut is probably an example too. Very Twain-like. When I was young, his books got me interested in the moral power of fiction. A fond goodbye to Mr. Vonnegut. In heaven now with Barney Fife.
[* exception: “Huck” – who does contain and embody racism]
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Jan. 4. Hurricane-force winds are coming to the foothills. The National Weather Service radar shows a fantastic low-pressure zone offshore swirling, wandering our way. Have garaged both cars, set stones around the skirts of all my woodpile tarps, roped the loose-swinging gate, latched the screen doors by hook-and-eye from within, filled the bathtub with cold water (as the tub is our only cistern when the power goes out and the pump doesn’t work).
* * * * * * * *
Winter: chainsaw won’t start and needs servicing; the lettuce has stopped growing and its leaves are hard and bitter; the woodpile is shrinking faster than I’d planned; Hunter is doing home-schooling this year and drinks coffee continually; all of us in pajamas at noon; no word from my agent.
* * * * * * * *
Poor old San Francisco. Now, there, one feels as if trapped inside a J. Peterman catalogue. (“Here’s a devastating trench coat, as laconic as Bogie in Casablanca, as wounded as James Dean in Rebel. Oh and here’s a little café straight out of the Summer of Love. And in this little coffee shop for an afternoon, you can go back and be a beatnik again. Here’s Buddhism, complete with black cloth shoes, here’s Suffering Art, here’s epicureanism, here’s alienated mutilated subculture.”) It’s inevitable in pop culture, that the soul be trivialized, but SF used to be a small town and a provincial place, more isolated from the Great Marketplace of the Self. (Its reputation notwithstanding!) Indeed wasn’t every place, once, more provincial?
(Kierkegaard, yes: The only real religion is solitude. [Implying that, where “any two are gathered in my name,” it’s already poppycock.])
Even much of the literature of our time has turned to a form of paraphrase and sly quotedness, J. Peterman-catalogue-style, where, under the guise of post-modernism, it succeeds as a series of clipped-together cliché attitudes. The Reign of Irony. Sometimes I think the appeal of irony, for the practitioner, is that it can sustain the feeling that he’s immortal and never grows old, and stays beautiful, by never committing to any sincerity. Sincerity is death. When my son’s pop music employs a “banjo” sound, it’s only the idea of “a banjo,” it’s merely a quoted banjo, an ironic banjo, not the actual thing. An actual banjo, that would be a horror.
All I can suggest, at least for an artist, is, in the end, you have to love something.
* * * * * * * *
[Possibly even a sampled banjo.] [A banjo all made of diode oscillations.]
* * * * * * *
June. The mower’s “blade deck” whacked against a fencepost and is off-kilter. And all the belts need replacing. Fixing it is beyond my powers. I’ve been lying under it in the grass all morning. “Pearson Small Engine,” in Grass Valley, asks a fifty-dollar pick-up and drop-off fee, to send out a trailer for it.
* * * * * * *
May 1 — Have delayed all plantings, especially of corn, in order to make fruit last longer into the fall. At this point, in the small garden patch, all I’ve done is turn over the soil.