Jan 28, 2021
Global pandemic, midwinter. My woodpile, berm-shaped, is longer than the house. Cold nights I’m working my way along through it, a very hungry caterpillar. It’s been a year now, of everybody’s solitude. After all these unsociable dull months, there accumulates a physical yeast sensation. An unfitness for society anymore.
It’s one yearlong “sabbath,” so of course I wonder if pandemic isolation is putting everybody in mind of eschatological matters, that is, “last things,” whether personal death, species extinction, the evanescence of all organisms, the fragility of the planet. There seem to be more environmentalists in popular media lately and it can’t be explained by the new liberal administration alone. In the pandemic isolation, people look in the mirror and see themselves aging fast in a year. On Facebook, see their friends’ self-representations looking (while happy enough) blearier. Well, so death is friend to the philosopher. Maybe everybody will be acquiring some of the philosopher’s virtues, patience, analysis, attentiveness, which didn’t seem so helpful in a time when we were all careening around the freeways under the compulsions of vanity.
* * * *
You mostly see coyotes in motion. Dodging out of sight. Trotting somewhere. The new, lone coyote from the south woods, again today was sitting watching, at the far foot of the meadow, front paws planted together, a house-pet attitude, the ordinarily sarcastic little face looking now reasonable and even expectant. Having sat for a while, it flipped and drained to the background. Depredations of bears, coyotes, bobcats are way less common lately: I think all local predators, including any bears, may have gotten an electric shock over at the little zone of livestock fencing – even just one single memorable zap. So maybe they think the whole acreage is hexed.
* * * *
Eight to ten feet of snow last night over the passes. Here a half-foot, then heavy rain. The winter’s first big storm.
If this backup battery works out (a free, PG&E-subsidized installation; which I’m still skeptical of), maybe I’ll be able to get a little electric car, sell the old greasy vegetable-oil car, because, emergency backup aside, it will take in enough sunshine during the average day to recharge a car every night.
* * * *
February 2, 2021
It’s 1973. The San Francisco airport in the days when it was small and simple. It’s the old, small United terminal. I’m a kid, getting off a plane from hometown Chicago. Matt, my 55-year-old pal, picks me up in the old beige Chevy.
Duffel in trunk.
We’re going back to Sausalito. While we’re pulling away from the curb, this is the first thing he says to me, “So – Louis – what do you know about trigonometry?”
He’s got some kind of project. He has gotten the idea I’m well educated, a misconception I haven’t tried to correct, and somehow I’ll have to shrug out of this. Highschool trigonometry (two furtive semesters) was a season of shame and conclusive evidence that I shouldn’t be invested in. (Among a lot of evidence that was accumulating around that time.) But Matt’s tone is happy, peremptory, and obviously this is the opening fanfare for one of his big ideas.
Swinging out into traffic, he glances to see how I’m taking this. He says, “Clocksprings.”
That’s supposed to explain the need for trigonometry. He eyes me for my reaction, as if he’d just told a joke.
“I’ve been thinking about clocksprings. They’re energy storage. They’re energy storage way better than batteries – really enormous clocksprings – and when you’re talking about winding up a clockspring, you can either speak in trig functions or in radians of arc. I’m pretty rusty with trig.”
Both of us this year have read, and been alarmed by, a new environmental prediction (“Limits to Growth,” Potomac Associates, 1972) authored by an international coalition (dozens) of biologists, computer scientists, statisticians, geologists, etc., Italian, Chinese, German, Swedish, calling themselves the Club of Rome. In all their predictive charts of the next century (charting copper or iron or coal deposits, water-table health, oil reserves, pollution, malnutrition, overpopulation, arable land), the graphs come up right around the unimaginable year 2020 and the lines start swerving in steep curves. Exponential curves. No matter how they tweaked the data, this kept happening, everything seems to go crazy right around 2020 – all the curves aggravating each other, a fiasco.
During the days I’d been reading “Liimits to Growth” in the humid Chicago afternoons (teenage male on unmade bed, choked-full ashtray beside), I started reckoning I might survive to see all this. I’d be “old” by 2020 – but if I could be lucky, and wise, and if I don’t smoke so much, I could be a witness of a global tumult and maybe an active, helpful citizen. I figured either I’ll be safe somewhere, or I’ll be swept up in some general bad luck.
Solar and wind and hydro are what Matt and I talked about all summer sitting around his big octagonal table, Django Reinhardt and Benny Goodman and Janis Joplin, drinking coffee you couldn’t get in the Midwest, scorched-tasting, fog outside on Sausalito waterfront. Those were days when California’s hillsides hadn’t been covered with homes and malls; Interstate 80 was mostly a lonely, lonely road; all roads, come to think of it, were lonely; I had access to a motorcycle; I was probably wearing bell-bottoms.
Well, so what would the clocksprings put in motion?
Cars. Cars would be wind-up toys. A single huge clockspring under the hood, taking up the entire engine compartment. With so much torque packed into it, if this clockspring ever sprung open, it would kill people whipping out slithering all over.
But what would be the energy source, to wind them up?
Pulleys atop tall towers. Along the freeways, every few miles like gas stations, would be tall gantries with pullies at the top. You’d back your car in and hook up the string. An immense weight could be lifted to that height, and when it was dropped, the pulley would yank the car’s clockspring, like the big windup toy it is.
And how would you get the energy to lift the big weight to such a height?
Oxen! Pacing on a treadmill, on the ground beside the gantry, oxen (via pulleys) would gradually lift the stone after each drop. Big peaceable beasts. (And grass-fed! Which meant the oxen themselves would be solar-powered!) After the weight had dropped and wound up a car, the oxen could begin again pacing in their circle, again to lift the weight up by pulley to the top of the gantry, for the next drop. Once wound up, the car would unhitch and go zipping down the road with, maybe, well, who-knows-what miles of range before it might need another wind-up. The travel-range: that would be our job. Calculating it would require trigonometry.
Matt and I (Matt Krim was his name, dead now, unpublished novelist) never did build such a clockspring. We had other projects. We made fuel by distilling a backyard crop of sugar beets, in the kitchen a coil of copper tubing releasing clear ethanol, drip-drip-drip, into a Mason jar on a stool before the kitchen stove. Matt’s girlfriend complained about it. It was hard to cook a meal with the distillery in the middle of everything.
In writing of my new backup battery, now, I think of Matt (lung cancer, 1981) and his clocksprings. My battery here in the 21st century is called a Tesla PowerWall, and its manufacture needed a lot of lithium, from out of Chile’s Atacama. Cobalt from the Congo. At the cost of what human misery or environmental atrocity?
All our clever technological innovations may effect only to relocate the damage. I.e., not stop it or heal it. It’s very possible that battery manufacture creates a bigger carbon footprint than old-fashioned petroleum extraction would’ve. I personally got this for free, as part of an experimental subsidy program – but somewhere, the environment paid dearly. I still wonder if Matt’s gantries (dotting the open land by the freeway, oxen grazing in the meadows beside) wouldn’t have been better than Elon Musk’s white plastic caissons of volatile chemicals?
* * * *
February 5, 2021
9:00 am: Ingested one medium-sized (maybe 1500 mg?) psilocybin mushroom. We shall not cease from exploration.
No hallucinations. So, maybe one mushroom isn’t enough. A pleasant disinclination to concentrate will be the only story of these five sunny hours. Five hours is the predicted arc of a psil. trip. Loss of a workday, basically. However, this happened:
I’m walking down the road, keeping a sharp lookout for hallucinations among the tall pines, the oakleaves that flip in the breeze, the sunny/shady road. A figure at the roadside ahead turns out to be a young woman, kneeling, wearing short, pink pajamas, strappy shoes. She’s French, as I will learn by her accent, and she’s poking and scratching in the roadside bank of soil. This is a country road deep in the woods with zero traffic, and she’s out here high-heeled in some kind of negligee.
Factor in the possibility she might be crazy. I say, “Hi, what’s your project there?” launching my greeting from what feels the correct distance as I approach – (20 feet?) – a distance that precisely signifies a man’s cordial harmlessness. The figure I cut: shabby teacherly cardigan, hands clasped behind, unshaven. (One payoff of growing a beard (grey!) and looking elderly is that, finally, humor and the risk of intelligence can enter right away into random conversations with strangers, especially women, who must be a wary gender.)
She explains, in her French accent, “I am making compost.”
As perhaps that doesn’t seem like enough info, she adds, “Do you know compost?”
Clearly, she finds this situation amusing, too, and she sits back on her haunches, wanting to maybe dwell on it with me. This is Gordon and Malaika’s house, so she might be a friend or, more likely, an intern in their nonprofit.
“You know.” Hair-toss, smile. “‘Compost.’”
“Ah. Compost. Yes indeed.” I’m not sure I know how to – or feel the license to – carry this topic further.
I’m traveling by. Opposite side of road.
She offers, as if it might be a basis for rapport, “Do you have compost?”
“Beaucoup,” is my debonair response. I’m now getting past her, making it clear I’m not a conversation risk.
Of my boast of compost, she says in adieu, “Nice!”
I’m deciding, as I go further down the road, that that actually did happen and doesn’t qualify as a hallucination.
* * * *
February 7, 2021
Sunday. Brought in week’s firewood. The last dribbles of email correspondence involving a novel I’d critiqued.
For days now, walking around under the spell of this idea “conservatorship” and the theme of “inauthenticity” (or, implicitly, “tolerance of inauthenticity”). I.e., mauvais foi inauthenticity.
Then, starting at 1:00 pm, another shot at a psilocybin mushroom trip. This time I’ve talked Brett into trying it, too, for a Sunday Afternoon Idyll, and I’m taking a larger dose.
* * * *
Rain on the backstreet. Sitting in Three Forks, cappuccino and cornmeal cookie, reading Wallace-Wells:
“In just the last forty years, according to the World Wildlife Fund, more than half of the world’s vertebrate animals have died. In the past twenty-five years, the flying insect population has declined by three-quarters.”
“The mining of Bitcoin alone (excluding other cryptocurrencies) is on track to eat up more electricity than is generated by all the world’s solar panels combined.”
“The United Nations report: 200 million climate refugees by 2050.”
Around me as I read, at two different tables, where beer kept being ordered, lively, even rollicking conversations I couldn’t close my ears to:
“All the offers were fifty over asking. At least fifty.”
“Escrows are getting faster, you know. You want a fast escrow. It’s in everybody’s interest.”
“If I call it an LLC I can expense everything and flip it in one tax year.”
* * * *
For some reason, lately the first artichoke ever I had is on my mind. Boiled for an hour, on a winter’s night, it steamed up my face in that basement apartment, and steamed up the windows. Rain had gone on for days – Northern California isn’t paradise, its beaches not white-sandy but black, rocky, windy, all cliffs and bluffs. When you’re truly at risk of despair, you can’t consciously think so. (Mistrust anybody who tells you he’s at the end of his rope.) If ever you are at the actual end of your rope, it’s unthinkable. Certain things, you can only realize years much later, and in safety.
Realize it when you’re – now – a whole different person. My girlfriend at the time was a Californian, who therefore knew all about artichokes. Older than I. She’d been a heroin addict for many years (New York), and heroin had been hard on her, obviously, hollowed her out, but also made a fragile angel of her. I got her after. For some reason this whole thing makes me think of a Dostoyevski parable (in Karamazov) about an onion, an act of kindness that hoisted an otherwise wicked sinner out of the fires of hell: he clung to an onion that he’d once, in life, given a beggar, and that onion was his rescue in hell – or almost was – until, selfishly, he kicked off the other sinners who were trying to cling and hitchhike on his lucky onion. So he and his freeloaders fell back to the lake of fire.
This was Fairfax, California. I was living in a garage, end of a road, where forest began. She in a basement apartment in town. I could really scarcely move. Rain for days. Concrete floor. Something else I’d never seen before: a “potato bug.” Big as a thumb, so ugly it looked like two bugs awkwardly spliced, and doomed forever to struggle in that condition.
I was from the Midwest and she taught me to eat an artichoke. A large cooked artichoke is a surprisingly heavy massive thing. Its core remembers 212 °F for a long time. Eating my way down down to the middle of it, raised body temp, sweat on my face, flesh under my sweater sweating, and the windowpanes were steamed up. She administered it along with advice about pulling the leaves off, one by one, dragging them over my clenched teeth to scour the flesh from the fibers. Didn’t want any herself. In the sauna that was that apartment in the endless monsoon, by the time I’d eaten that whole artichoke, I could relax and sleep.
* * * *
This quiet sentence appears without fanfare this morning in the New York Times.:
“Royal Dutch Shell predicted that its oil production had peaked and would never again reach its 2019 level.”
People have been waiting decades years for that. Why is it folded deep in a newspaper untrumpeted? Let their stockholders now all flee. Tell the news to the Ogoni people in Nigeria whose river fisheries were long ago swamped in crude oil and whose people are every day killed and sickened, whose anti-oil dissidents were publicly hanged by Royal Dutch Shell’s people. Or try to bring the good news to the civilians in Baghdad, who actually can never hear about it because they’re dead, tens of thousands of them, women and children and grandmothers in their kitchens.
The real villain is us. The oil companies and the presidents like Bush are our employees, they work for us. It’s by living in affluence that you voted for George Bush. (Car, food, travel, house, heat.) Me: Years go on, and I still have the idea I’ll someday see the Acropolis in person.
* * * *
That the Parthenon on the Acropolis – and the speech Pericles gave there, and the remarks Socrates made below it – have been the guiding monuments in my life seems almost to make the Acropolis more impossible of ever standing in the midst of. They’re “idealized” indeed! Over the years, travel money has never worked out, mostly due to my other dedications. So I wonder, since I did receive this ideal to cherish, do I need to lay eyes on the actual old building? The Erechtheum’s Caryatids’ noses eroding leprously down to nothing from the sulfur dioxide of modern-day Athens. The sounds of traffic and car horns from below. Instead I will always have the holographic projection.
Another house for my ideals, like the Parthenon, is Thoreau’s cabin in the woods. Which I did see. Its replica. Sited where the real cabin once stood. Seeing “the real” cabin hasn’t damaged my intimacy with the one I imagined when I read Walden. Hasn’t improved/enhanced it either. I’ve still got that cabin in my mind. My imaginary one is situated a little more out in a clearing than the replica, in a sunnier spot. Its chinking between boards is a bit sloppier, and whiter, contrasting with the boards. Inside, the cot is in a far corner, not alongside a wall. My version isn’t so window-lit: it’s dimmer. And in my version, there’s clutter, cooking tools and ingredients, condiments, some kind of shelves, lamp accessories, necessary gadgets of nineteenth-century living. Clothes are discarded moiling on the floor, exactly as I myself might have left them, pants with muddy knees, or boots. I can use my own picture of Thoreau’s cabin. It’s always had practical, consequential uses in my scheme of my moral life – just as I have always put to use the Periclean Acropolis of my imagination. Which is, in a sense, the real Acropolis. That’s no figure of speech: my imaginary Acropolis is the real one. That last predication is something Plato taught me.
* * * *
This is maybe my fifth or sixth day creating a trailhead into this book I’m calling, for now, Whit and Canly. So far it’s felt like I’m doing competent storytelling and as if something might be taking shape underfoot. But I haven’t, yet, been surprised by anything. Scared by anything.
* * * *
February 17, 2021
Morning working on this thing whose file name is Whit and Canly. Then apply dormant spray to all fruit trees, takes forever, sour-looking stuff sloshing in the leaky old tank, suited up like an astronaut against the fumes.
* * * *
March 9, 2021
Mourning the death of conversation. Everybody, including me, is texting rather than phoning, and email has become a medium so brisk. So brusque.
“Conversation” used to be a performative candid space in which a lightness ruled, nothing was so grave, and nothing was graven, all remarks blew away on the breeze – so a natural conversation was an idea-incubator, a creative arena in which different selves and different beliefs could be tried on. A nice, fun etiquette of interruption – but collaborative interruption – made misrule the rule. Risks were taken. Ideas were born.
* * * *
April 28, 2021
Reading Edith Wharton’s “Custom of the Country” – an early-ish and more ‘apprentice’ novel, but yet showing the raw native strength of human-nature-understanding, which in fiction truly is “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower” – (Cust of Country is the predecessor to “Age of Innocence”) – I’m finding it’s weighed down everywhere by a scene-vs-summary defect. She maunders along exploring/explaining chains of consequences, evolutions of character. However elegantly phrased.
* * * *
April 29, 2021
First birdsong of the day, suddenly at 4:22 am, clear and clarion, like when Miles Davis, after the quintet’s (endless, quiet, plodding, 8-bar) intro, blares frankly into the open ninth measure.
(From mulberry outside the mud room.)
* * * *
April 30, 2021
Reading E. Wharton’s “Custom of the Country” wherein the girls she’s so disapproving of – the rich, uncouth American daughters who come to Europe trying to find and marry a duke – are pasted up as buccaneers. One of these spoiled, beautiful heiresses, in the novel, is given the name Looty Arlington. I’m so delighted, I actually laughed for some while, all by myself at a café corner table.
In these marriages, the ostensible dukes brought class but no money; the American girls brought all their gaucherie but also the loot. That Edith descends to a slightly vulgar pun, it’s so amiable. It’s girlfriendy. It’s like Jane Austen’s calling one of her marriageable women “Fanny Price” when surely the word fanny had long since taken hold in British slang for an important part of the female anatomy, which in society, even in Jane’s society, does get priced. Or when Shakespeare gets puns out of even worse lowlife peasant obscenities. That these highbrows weren’t prigs helps bolster the seriousness of literature.
* * * *
July 19, 2021
Thoreau. – Certain people in my set display some disappointment with him because after two years in his famous cabin, he just came home and, for the rest of his life, took over the family manufacturing business. Supported his wife and kids. Lived in a house the rest of his life. This is seen as some kind of flagrant, ruinous hypocrisy. I think they want him to have gone out barefoot into the West, perpetual American “Huck Finn,” immune to growing up as if by a freak hormone deficiency, lighting out barefoot for the Lemonade Springs on the Big Rock Candy Mountain that is the American West?
And/or taken up a literary “career,” the way people do these days. Writing more of the same kinds of things. Getting book contracts, expanding a fan base. Or do they want him to have stayed in his little cabin, living all his life only a couple of miles from all his friends and family? No marriage for Henry? No kids?
No, the thing Thoreau did do was write the book. He wrote the book.
* * * *
July 23, 2021
Packing out of Sq. Valley. Alone in the house. Haze in the whole canyon from wildfires to the north. The car has sprung a fast oil leak, so I’ll be driving the already-anachronistic jalopy over the pass (a stretch of I-80, and then mountain roads), leaving a dribble in the center of the lane. My mechanic back home is an Englishman who has a yardful of variously dilapidated Mercedes Benzes. He also maintains a big website for collectors and restorers and fanatics. (I’m not sure he entirely approves of my burning only biodiesel in it.) So before taking it to him I’ll have to clean it thoroughly inside and out, so I won’t seem to have been taking too irreligious an attitude toward it, when I ease it down into his meadow. For the trip over the pass, alongside me in the passenger seat I’ll have two spare quarts of oil, one eye on the dashboard gauge, the car packed to the ceiling with guitars and dobros, looking like a typical feckless musician in the right-hand lane.
* * * *
July 28, 2021
Hot spell in the foothills.
Heat keeps people indoors during middle-of-day, but I just keep moving through it. Lots of irrigation repair. First thing, a dump run, in the cool of the morning. I drive the pickup around the place, particularly behind the potting shed, where junk accumulates, and down by the studio in the woods (construction debris). At the dump, properly called transfer station, I back my tailgate into a slot at the old shallow precipice, beyond which Oblivion is the whole point.
Alongside me, in his slot, a tough-looking rancher has backed in a single-stall horse trailer (antique, classy, banged-up), which he’d used for ferrying trash. I make this joke as I pull in, because encounters in the rural mountains require some bonhomie: “You’re not throwing away your horse, are you?”
The old guy looks dismayed, then gets it, and shrugs, smiles. A minute later tells me, “You had me going there for a minute. We just had a horse die yesterday.”
So it isn’t funny. Not at all. A certain amount of apologizing pretty much mends my mistake. After he’s gone I get into throwing my own trash over the cliff, and in the truck bed at the bottom of my trove, among the last bits, a small mouse materializes and runs off the tailgate in terror, hops the cliff, into the path of the scraping bulldozer.
* * * *
We congratulate ourselves when we hear that “emerging” nations are developing a larger middle class. But we should be careful what we wish for. Should New Delhi or Guadalajara have nice new subdivisions? Well, fine. Capitalism is supposed to be a most egalitarian natural system. Let there be suburbs of Mexico City, too, and green, neat gated communities of Lagos and Mumbai, where homes shall have small lawns out front, Spanish tile roofs, satellite TV dishes, wi-fi, Weber barbecues and meat for the barbecues. All this is actually happening in our decade. Let wheeled, lidded bins for trash (and so-called “recycling”) be set out each week at the curb, one pair for each house, each week another two or three cubic yards to be taken away by a big noisy truck.
* * * *
Sears is no longer supporting customers with certain replacement parts. It used to be an assurance. This is the Sears publisher of catalogues that once-upon-a-century furnished much of “manifest destiny.” The Sears, Roebuck catalogue was called “the dream book” by my great-grandparents on the prairie, studied closely by children everywhere, especially as Christmastime was coming along. It provided not only luxuries but also necessities and the spare parts. Bootlaces and washboards. A new pane of mica for the door of your Franklin Stove. A choke valve for your kitchen range’s stovepipe.
Now, disappearance of replacement parts. This 21st-century betrayal of the customer’s trust happens at exactly the wrong time in cosmic history (or, at least, geological history). Always, men like me trying to care for some old machine were able to find the gadget’s exploded diagram (bolts and washers and sprockets drifting apart gravity-free, each identified by catalog number) and phone in a request. Some days later, a small padded envelope would arrive.
So, an essential part for my evaporative cooler will never again be available – though the well-made thing itself has many years of useful life left. “I’m sorry, sir,” says the voice with the South-Asian accent. He is actually deeply sympathetic. He has dealt with grieving remote husbandmen before.
* * * *
August 9, 2021
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change today issues big Global Warming report admitting officially that the planet is in “overshoot.” Meaning that even if we all reformed suddenly, and suddenly halted all industrial activity and instantly reverted to a neolithic economy all over the Earth (eating a plant diet, abandoning cars and walking everywhere), still the climate would worsen, the glaciers keep melting away exposing warm rocks, the mountainsides evolving from deep forest to open chaparral, the oceans becoming tepid and biologically simpler, the Arctic tundra releasing digestive stink. This widely reported announcement, I want to hope, is causing a lot of epiphanies and penitence. I have an idea, though, that people will still feel they have to support their lifestyle. Provide for their family. Be practical. – Here in SF, alone for the week, I am a big consumer. I have no choice but to oversee a roof replacement. The installation of a new dishwasher. The purchase of some fresh furniture because these are considered shabby/rickety/threadbare. This is all the coercion of being a family man.
* * * *
North Beach. In George’s market, buying carton of milk. Above me in the ceiling, from a perforated disk, quietly pulses an old tune from the seventies’ radio playlist, an instrumental. It’s the same pop song that underwrote my stride on New York sidewalks when, in my twenties, I thought I had to live in NYC to write. Whenever it plays now in latter years, I’m back standing alone on a curb, Flatbush Ave. Brooklyn, total endowment $800, cheap 3-piece suit for job-hunting, at a big complicated six-way intersection of Flatbush Ave, or maybe Rockaway Parkway, I was living in Canarsie. Defeat and discouragement (“if you can’t make it in this town, you can’t make it anywhere”) were inevitable, but somehow I was buoyed by this tune. It was a jazz-pop summer melody, mellow, comfortably gaited, a saxophone easily writing its script above happy chords, my anthem that summer, everybody’s anthem, the anthem of optimism. How could I have known I’d eventually do so well? Then, too, I could never have pictured myself yet further on, knowing now not to hope for hope. I’m back on the pavement again. Sidewalks are the same wherever you go. The saxophone is the one perpetual element.
So, I carry my carton of milk up Union Street. Having reaffirmed that despair is the bedrock condition, happiness is licensed again, as usual. It’s in my stride.
* * * *
August 10, 2021
Dwayne and Gia, Patrick and Sheila, all for drinks on the roof. I go to Molinari’s for carpaccio aged in Sorrento. The boy [he’s new on this job; somebody’s son or nephew] in the white smock, honored to fulfill this order, pulls out the black heel of beef and tenderly slices by hand. (For certain cuts, Molinari’s won’t use the slicing machine). He’s proud to be applying his training. When he tosses a bit behind him somewhere – like a rind, maybe? – I ask, What was that? Are you actually throwing away some of that? (Because whatever it was, I might take it.)
Oh, no no no. He looks about. “Never. If I am ever doing that, I will have to go across the street and talk with Father Vincent.”
[St. Francis cathedral, across Columbus]
* * * *
August 16, 2021
Home from a week in SF. Wildfires to the north send a smoky haze. In the nights, all California’s mass of smoke goes downhill along canyons heading for the sea. Then in the afternoons, it’s pushed back up into Nevada’s high desert by the onshore breeze, only to flood back in during the night, as California daily breathes, out and in, as it has done for millions of years.
I remind myself of – though it’s nothing like – the typical sentences of Cormac McCarthy, whom I’ve been rereading. McCarthy’s redeeming virtue – but it’s a supreme virtue – is the occasional great sentence. One of that generation’s great sentence-spinners; and spinning beautiful sentences is not a trivial – it’s a supremely important – reason for any literature. Sometimes style is substance. (In the superheated plasma state, truth IS beauty, and beauty truth.) This is the case with McCarthy, whose best subjects are geology, history, race. Not the violence he thinks he’s so enchanted with.
Mostly I’m getting dis-enchanted with him. Not just his itch for violence. Which might be tolerable if violence were seen just as necessary plot furniture. No, the violence is central with him. It’s ethical. It’s metaphysical. (I’ve always gone around saying that “violence is to Cormac McCarthy what sex is to Updike.”) However, I’m getting the feeling it’s an affectation. The whole ethos of it. As if it’s boots-and-hat, almost.
Along with the spectacular violence, in the fiction, comes the attendant nihilism, which is always an affectation. “Cynicism” and “despair” are the fake swoons of people who haven’t really truly been down, and it’s annoying. Annoying, also, is the picture of the Old West Cowboy’s code of gallantry always menaced by Bad Guys. Once you enter upon a “genre,” you’re stuck with its limitations – especially the limitations upon human nature, i.e., characterization. (In this case the Western. I’m reading Cities of the Plain.) So, however brilliant McCarthy may be as a describer of events, human nature comes down to Black Hats and White Hats and then racism fattens up the picture of the Black Hats south of the border. No doubt some of that is “accurate.” We’ve all seen it. It’s life. But in a novel, an artifact superior to “life,” it oversimplifies.
Great sentences, though, in McCarthy. Sentences about the land especially, and the history of the land. And sometimes a paroxysm of mysticism that seems for-real, because when it happens it’s gratuitous, serves no plot-or-character necessity.
But in the end, once I’m free of the printed page, and once I’m at large again in the real world, I can’t use Cormac McCarthy. People need literature they can use.
* * * *
August 23, 2021
The cobwebs on my rearview mirror are still intact after my errands around town (hardware, coffee, feed store, library). Back in the cool garage. Will spiders find it and get back to work.
Despite this pandemic, some of my townsmen won’t wear a sanitary mask, feeling it an insult to their dignity. In the bank lobby, there’s a line waiting for a teller: a young woman (masked) tells the older woman in front of her (unmasked) that the county is now requiring masks in indoor public spaces.
All of us in the queue have to listen to this quarrel. The young woman begins a Socratic-style interrogation. “Tell me, do you think there is a disease going around? Well, do you think it’s contagious? Do you think it sometimes ends where people die? Or do you think that’s a rumor?”
The older lady’s response to all these questions is: “It’s my right and my preference.”
“Well, is it your preference that people around you might get sick? Simply because you’re selfish?”
Then, from inside her sweatpants pocket, the younger woman’s phone commands in a cheerful female voice, “IN 500 FEET… TURN LEFT ONTO OLD TUNNEL ROAD.” All of us listeners have to laugh. Except for the young interrogator, who is embarrassed and gets out her phone to strangle it. One who does think it’s amusing – smiles – is the older unmasked lady. Ends the discussion turning away in disgust.
* * * *
September 1, 2021
Under the cherry grove, maybe almost a quarter-acre of old blackberries. (From which, over the years, we’ve made pies and snacks.) Loppers, clippers. I have to wade in. My T-shirt fabric. My wrists and forearms. I’m not outfitted for this. Every inch of the green whips us studded with little woody horns, all in a very old, large, well-established fiasco that’s taller than me, fresh green on top and dry grey basketwork below. My son has been telling me I need a heavy-duty trimming device, but I won’t abide the noise and the fuel, so I carry on with my piecemeal work, loppers and clippers and rake, creating heaps behind me on the meadow. Those heaps, like huge bird’s nests, will wilt over the weeks, and in the wintertime be fed to a bonfire. Andrew by phone advises me “machete, of course.” But blackberry vines are sneaky and the blow of a machete would too often make a tendril swing around from behind. First the loppers, then hacking with a rake. Chainsaw only every couple of hours. (Because a dozen new cherries are standing in the bramble).
I’m also advised I would be smart to rent a little tractor, which could finish the job in a single afternoon. But I prefer my Neolithic technology. The worse expense of a tractor is the “externalized” cost to the environment. With loppers and rake I’ll be doing the same job more elegantly in only slightly more total hours (if you figure in the additional bother of dealing with the rental place in the next town, the trailer and hitch, gassing it all up, etc.).
* * * *
Bear destroyed the lone pear tree near house. Branches pulled down, all fruit gone. Not a single pear left.
* * * *
September 3, 2021
In this time of year – September, when the meadow glitters, and rat droppings turn up on the shed shelves, and the apples are near ripe, and the spider spins above the straw bales – I’m spending afternoons hacking at the sea of blackberries. Mammal oddly making habitat. Possibly a century’s growth. George and Ginny would have fed on these same blackberries back when they were young and in love, cooking on Coleman stove here, showering in cold snowmelt ditchwater from an elevated cistern, rescuing this old farmhouse from complete ruin, while they lived out under the oaks in the time the place was uninhabitable. Now, all these blackberries’ dead understory is where, given a wildfire, a thrown ember might nestle. In my earbuds, I’ve got Julius Caesar’s Commentaries, hours and hours of it, while I hack and snip. Caesar certainly did mow down a lot of Gauls.
In the old thicket, as I go, not much of archaeological interest. Galvanized pipe, lengths of gutter and PVC, grey tennis balls and disintegrating plastic Frisbees. (The only valuable resource, some sheets of corrugated roofing metal.) However, a couple pieces of toy weaponry are here, of recent manufacture: a plastic shield with an embossed dragon, little-boy-sized, and a pistol that looks like it must have fired pellets of foam, part of a gift-box set. Evidently, some child threw this pistol into the thorns.
What was the story there? Why toss a toy where it can’t be rescued? When it got thrown, was another boy present? Most likely. A little boy all by himself probably wouldn’t throw his toy away. I can’t picture that. So maybe it was some birthday party or some game, and either one child or more than one was present. Was it an act of bullying? Spite? It probably wasn’t a resolve of pacifism. So, it may well have been snatched and thrown simply in wanton cruelty. It would have to have been a birthday party because a toy gun gift would have been exotic to us.
* * * *
September 5, 2021
New dimmer switches, patch for wheelbarrow tire, poultry hydrator, Simpson plates to reinforce old dropleaf table.
On the kitchen doormat this September day, a wooly caterpillar. Its coat deep as a beaver-pelt. It’s motions, like peristalsis, little throbs, are a mode of ambulation somehow intimidating to the observer who stands by, tall biped with neocortex and opposable thumbs. What is so intimidating about this little thing? That it’s so methodical, going over the bristles of the doormat? That it has such aplomb? That it will soon knit a cocoon, turn itself into an undifferentiated slurry inside that cocoon, and condense again into a folded butterfly.
This particular wooly’s coat was banded narrowly in orange. Broadly in brown. (Which predicts a severe winter, according to every almanac online.)
* * * *
September 6, 2021
Psilocybin mushrooms again. This time two, which is roughly double the last dose. I’m such an antidrug straight-arrow, and will always be, this seems an ungainly pursuit of insight. Still, “we shall not cease from exploration.” And in any case, this Labor Day Monday is a lost interval – writing stalled with no urgency, salvage stores closed, the heat too intense to work wisely outdoors. So it’s at 3:30 in the afternoon that I impetuously nibble down more than is required, of the gamy ropy twists, flavorful, muskily, something you might sauté to put on fettuccini.
* * * *
September 10, 2021
Rain in the night, a little remedy for drought. Many dry lightning bolts to the south as far away as the Interstate. Then, about 2:00 AM, the thunder ceases. Faint veils of what the NWS calls “showers” began brushing over. Things have been well saturated by morning, my irrigation Rainbird nozzles throwing their big rooster tails out over the tall grass the whole time in the dark.
Corner-cutting compromise: it turns out I can get an attachment for my ordinary string-trimmer device for twenty dollars: it replaces the plastic whips with stiff blades. It’s a spinning propeller. So I’ll attack ancient obstinate blackberry bramble more efficiently without having to resort to heavy machinery.
At the saw shop in town, I’m able to buy this attachment and, on the same trip, drop off the mower in their backyard infirmary among other mowers, to have its blade deck repaired. In order to get the mower up on the truck bed, again it must be driven up the Spencers’ hill and then, across a bridge of heavy old doors, off the little roadside bluff and onto the bed of the truck.
Cappuccino at Three Forks in town, getting a start on Richard Wright’s Native Son, having finished with Jean Rhys’s Quartet.
Asking for money again from foundations.
* * * *
September 12, 2021
Trip to Oakland and back, to pick up Dash.
Viewed his habitat on 14th Street. Dead backyard w/dismantled motorcycles and cars.
At Banh Mi, pork/cilantro/pickle sandwich.
Little tour of the entrenched homeless encampments. Their lifestyle fascinates me – as pioneering, as exemplary – though they themselves sure wouldn’t see it that way. It’s the American middle-class’s future – pop-up nylon tents, and a commute to work by bicycle – and it deserves a look.
* * * *
September 17, 2021
The summer wanes and, in cooler days now, the wildfire danger seems to subside. The half-acre of blackberries is being defeated yard by yard. Mostly I ignore it for other problems, letting days and days go by. Dash is in the cottage recuperating from his knee operation, groggy with Vicodin. Kat keeps him company in the nights.
The old car’s oil leak is stanched by John Wright.
* * * *
I’m done, extirpated all the old blackberries under the cherries. The area, a new glade, is now an open floor of dried brown blackberry canes lying broken, but now it’s a shady grove, cherry-tree trunks oddly dancing. They “dance” because, during the decades of blackberry dominance, new saplings had to poke their way through (writhe their way through) the five-foot-thick layer of dense thorns, then at the five-foot point, could begin seeking the sun in their own ways. Each tree now has grown thick and strong, in that permanent shape. So every tree trunk is shimmying, Matisse’s five frolicking women,
A truckload to the dump. The environmental crisis is choking that maw, too. I spent an hour in line with other heavy-loaded trucks and trailers, extending all the way out to McCourtney Road, waiting to pay my fee at the gate shack. Then in the dump itself, where there’s a small cliff to push your trash off, the unattended, unmoved heap of refuse had piled up so high that it spilled over the railings, over the curb. You were basically pushing your trash off your tailgate onto your own parking place. No bulldozer in sight.
Stopped for coffee in Grass Valley. Read paperback at a sidewalk table again, more like old pre-COVID times.
* * * *
September 24, 2021
Work on empty cottage goes on. Disconnect plumbing to repaint top surface of sink counter. Many, many coats of enamel – six or seven altogether – are supposed to be the way to make a wooden countertop rot-proof.
Rewire faulty dimmer switches.
Pull up agricultural fenceposts from meadow and dismantle shade structure.
Got a couple free hours, put in a round of pear-picking. Pear-picking always ends up being a euphoric pastime. (On the ladder, dizziness of craning all over reaching for pears among leaves that are radiant exactly like pears in shape and color, backlit and diffusing sunshine. Smell of ripe pears.)
Now, no longer the cardboard wine boxes, we’ve got a stack of regulation bushel baskets.
* * * *
September 25, 2021
When I say affluence, I’m not talking about money. It’s a much more widely inclusive, but also more strict use of the word affluence.
We’re an affluent species in the sense that (extravagant cost to the ecosystem) we heat our habitats. We heat as much as 20,000 cubic feet. We heat it when we’re not even at home. No other species does that, in this fragile planet. Also, when we want to travel more than a few feet, we like to sit down, and be carried by some device. This kind of thing is unusual among all the species that have sustained some relationship with earth over the long haul.
In an economic sense, you’re “affluent” if you’re a woman in, say, the Mexican high deserts who owns an old toaster but who, when it stops working, tosses it. She’s affluent (ad + fluere) in the sense that excess resources have been “flowing toward” her; but are now “flowing away” from her (ex + fluere): she’s generating an effluent, that’s the result: this old toaster is going to landfill. This ecological category of “affluence” includes a family whose monthly income is a few thousand pesos.
You’re affluent if you’re a Bangladeshi tenant farmer who has brought this year’s crop to the big covered market and you allow the local children (the very lowest-caste ones who scoot around squatting all day, all day underfoot and under the tables) to sweep together any few grains of rice or millet that may fall from your measuring table. Those children, hopping incessantly like sparrows, each at end of day can bring home to their mothers a pocketful big enough to make a porridge. In this way, the careless/generous farmer is part of an ecosystem.
“Affluence” is an ecological flow. You’re affluent if you decide to click ADD TO CART because it’s easy to get **free** next-day delivery,with Amazon Prime, and because, even better, you can always change your mind and send anything back by free (“free”) return-shipping. Or even, as it turns out, toss it in the Dumpster outside when it arrives, if you don’t happen to like it, along with its bubble-wrap and its cardboard, because the seller doesn’t want it back anyway, it’s not worth the cost of shipping it back, it’s so cheap for the seller to get new ones from Asian or Mexican distribution streams. It’s easier for everybody. Just throw everything away. (“The Great American Away” my Vietnamese-refugee friend used to call it, way back in 1975, remarking on how we throw things away.) That Mexican woman – I can see her in the big Super Gigante or the Walmart on the carretera, only a ten-minute walk from home, standing at the tall display shelves choosing a new toaster, turning it over and looking at the underside, a little bit dissatisfied with the chintzy standards of new manufacture – thinking she should have paused at home to unscrew the old toaster’s chassis, to see if there’s a shorted wire that could easily have been fixed. She’s not optimistic about how long this new one will last. It’s held together not with screws but with plastic flange-rivets, so it won’t be repairable if it does start acting up.
People are smart. They’re smarter than the economy will let them be. A woman in Los Angeles who has been buying shoes on Amazon may well know that, the fact is, none of the shoes in her freshly submitted order will be exactly what she was hoping for, she’s pretty sure of it. The futility of this cycle might almost give a conscientious woman a heartache, because this woman does think of herself as an ardent environmentalist. She may even drive a Tesla. She may even use recyclable shopping bags, she’s such an environmentalist. At the lip of the condo-complex Dumpster next week: there is her forgetfulness. Forgetfulness is redemption. And the clang of the Dumpster’s lid.
Those Bangladeshi gleaner kids are able (with children’s amazing stamina) to spend all day almost never rising from the squat position, as they scramble around competing. They do compete. But they’re friends, too. They’re the littlest members of their families, but they’ve got jobs, they’ve got work, and it makes them proud. There’s a technique: find a small scrap of cardboard to keep with you all day, and set it flat on the market’s concrete floor, where, with your free hand, you can swish the concrete to brush a few fallen grains of rice or millet onto it. Then, dustpan-like, tilt it into your pocket. On the way home (I’m not making this up; this is footage I saw in a PBS documentary long ago), at end of day they go back to their slum together, in the slant of gold sunset in the alley, silhouettes, still playing, knocking around, not tired from a day of scrambling all over the market floor.
* * * *
September 25, 2021
A day of minor fixes I’d deferred. Repair the old Adirondack chairs. (It’s about time.) County chipper arrives for roadside slash: $150. Cut hawthorns everywhere, especially north end of garden, and among figs. Lots of new little hawthorns in the roadside ivy beds. Kitchen drawer (whose false bottom we’ve all tolerated for years) needed only a screw. Swamp cooler’s duct tape had gone stale and my cardboard had fallen, making it less effective.
Under Gro-Lights indoors, Brett is starting onions, lettuce, arugula, beets. In general, this year’s summer crops were a disappointment. Everyone in the area complains of the same thing. Things are ripening wrong. Or not at all. Pears, however, are abundant, big, and sweet. Apples OK. Chestnuts a no-show this year. Same with plums.
* * * *
This house was inhabited, historically, before there was such a thing as trash pickup. In the 19th century nothing ever left the property. I think everybody lived basically (and in principle), in their own personal trash-heaps. But they would have been well-ordered trash heaps: recycling, composting, stacking-behind-barn, hardware sorted into drawers, animal fodder, and of course frequent, regular incinerating. There’s a midden of scorched glass/crockery/bricks/iron, in the woods where the old barn-foundation lies. It’s located right in front of where the barn door seems to have been.
* * * *
Dinner guests Jim and Lydia, Michael and Emily. African chickpea soup, and sausages from SPD. A very old local Grenache, better than my usual red. Candles in glass chimneys, outside on the brick paving in the dark. New foxes are in the neighborhood: the characteristic ghoulish bark in the nearby forest. For diners in the circle of candlelight, it’s spinetingling.
* * * *
September 27, 2021
Man comes today to look at swamp cooler. It’s inevitable that I replace it altogether now, at some cost. I can afford to be a cagey customer because, just as it is, it might get along fine indefinitely, bandaged with cardboard.
* * * *
Regrets. How obtuse/impolite/thoughtless I’ve always been. Permanently coarsened (I think, maybe) by my years among rough people, which were my entire twenties. In publishing and academe, everybody is considerate, tactful. They were born to it. And stayed in it. It’s how their liberalism is vulnerable: their inexperience in American society. My time in the genuine lowest working class was eternal. It was existential. I wasn’t merely visiting, I had no exit plan and I liked it there. My friends, those people are rough, and spontaneity/sincerity are the coin of the realm, w/risk of hurt feelings and unregenerate bigotry. Admittedly I didn’t fit there either, I was an oddball, always scribbling, but still they were my friends (and in the afterlife, still are).
* * * *
How the dead are on my mind a lot lately. You survive long enough. This is a stage as adventurous as the teens or the twenties. The adventures of remorse are all inward, but they’re more consequential. (More consequential than, say, earthquakes or politics or wildfires). What happens, in life, isn’t as important as what you make of what happens.
* * * *
The bad influence of this new thing the Internet, in society and in personality:
The Internet is causing of course “loneliness,” “distractedness,” “narcissism” – those are all common complaints – but also cynicism. I’m thinking of the risk to my two sons, who grew up looking at the trillion-ring circus that is the internet, the internet so swirling with deceit that’s open and full-frontal. As well as delusion. Of course it’s true that young people might learn some useful “critical thinking skills,” and some “healthy skepticism.” But cynicism. Healthy skepticism’s withered, toxic end-stage. Cynicism is the beginning of despair, actually. And despair, when it’s the real thing, is something few live to tell of. Despair could be the social epidemic that’s a bigger threat than the coronavirus epidemic. Especially these days. Beware the Jabberwock, my son, you’re going to need your imagination, you’re going to need your vorpal sword. The toy weaponry I was unearthing lately in my brush-clearing. The knight’s shield of vacuum-molded plastic. The padded bat that once slew a piñata.
* * * *
Coming outside by the back door into the dark, from the usual noisiness of the kitchen.
In the real world, outside a kitchen, it’s quieter. But in all directions, the wind’s new sound is seething, on Cement Hill, and in the old Erikson Lumber property on the south and west, on faraway Sugar Loaf above town, distant Banner Mountain. This particular distinctive quiet surf in the sky is the familiar prelude to rain, as the Nisenan people, too, would have known. (500 yrs ago, 1000 yrs ago?)
I prefer living in old badly insulated places where, indoors, you can hear a little of the outdoors. Most modern human habitations are intended to cut you off from nature, nature’s sounds, nature’s smells, temperatures, fresh air: those are what people don’t want. In a new-built home, you’re supposed to feel you’re inside a Contac capsule. (in old TV ads Contac was a drug in a clear plastic shell)
The house we lived in new-married in Mill Valley was so flimsy you could see cracks of daylight through the walls. The floor’s foundation joists, at the back end, rested directly on mud. To pick blackberries, you could climb up on the roof. It was beautiful. We wore sweaters, and the propane wall heater was fierce and the place was small enough, so we were never uncomfortable; but yet, the outdoors was always appreciable. – In this drafty farmhouse now in the foothills, whenever rain does arrive, the various tin roofs make the world very audible. And the place is drafty enough. (Whereas, in Barbara’s new cottage, built to county code, everything is so insulated that you’re deaf. You’re inside that Contac and you literally might never know it’s raining outdoors.)
In the dark outside the kitchen is the breath of promise. The Nisenan here lived in bark lodges. My species is an organism that feels good when it’s getting constant information from the environment. Smell the rain coming. Maybe smell the far-off village woodsmoke. Past the shed, the smell of horse manure sometimes from the McClellans’. Hear the creak of the faraway oaks, their thrashing when the wind is up.
Deep in a still night, my neighbor the cricket. The cricket is aware of passing beasts, and sometimes it stops its song, waits, listens, then begins again.
* * * *
The new “off-grid” hand-laundry gadget is a folly. Crap from the Internet. Too small. Plastic manufacture from Amazon.com always disappoints. I need something bigger. Most of all, I’ll require a wringer. Lacking a wringer, whenever I hang up dripping clothes on a line, they’re amazingly heavy. Overloads the clothesline near breaking. Triples inefficiency/drudgery.
* * * *
September 28, 2021
To Truckee with Dash, for surgeon’s check of his work. All is good. The knee is healing as it should. Lively drive and conversation, to and from, the sun flashing through trees. The analysis he wrote of Neil Postman is an essay of penetrating insight and rhetorical flourish. He asked for my grammar/punctuation grooming – so after dinner I removed myself, and it, to wing chair in glaring lamplight, with uplifted ready-to-stab pencil. But, turns out, mostly I left it alone. Mostly just admire it.
I’ll never get tired of Highway 20, the long stretch between Nevada City and the Blue Canyon interstate ramp. Hairpin turns, uphill, always wedging higher. Getting a glimpse sometimes of Matterhorn-like prospects ahead. Thirty miles, it’s like an old song I go through over and over with certain favorite sections. That it was the path of the Conestoga wagons gives it a certain wealth, and secret importance. In places, you can see the old dirt roadway permanently deep-rutted by wagon wheels, in the woods alongside.
Everybody here for spaghetti.
* * * *
September 29, 2021
At 7:30 this morning, Hunter’s old non-operational 30-yr-old BMW was set upon a truck bed for transport. One tire was so flat, on the ground it seems to pool, making the old “pancake” metaphor inevitable. Rats had gnawed all its wiring and built nests in its engine compartment, troves of acorns around the exhaust manifold. Still it starts up, the race-car rumble of the engine, and on its own power it climbs the slant of the truck bed. Seeing it go, I’m damp-eyed-sentimental about it, the release from that old headache and liability. Because what, after all, is parenthood? I’ve got an empty driveway now, which is what I wished for.
* * * *
September 30, 2021
All pears are in. Bushel baskets in the living room.
Dash gone back to Oakland in passenger seat, Kat at the wheel. His aluminum crutches.
My new laundry system (janitor’s commercial-size bucket on casters, with mop wringer that can express water from my clothes): semi-successful!
Painting in cottage.
Repair spalled brick paving at last.
Dinner w/Amanda and Greg.
Narrative Technique. Almost all real writers ignore or never even notice the various dogmata of “creative writing” teachers (for instance show-don’t-tell, or keep-POV-pure), and Richard Wright (Native Son) is another triumphant instance. I’ve never read anything like this. As reader you join together with the author in the project, you sit beside him, the author himself, while he explains his character at length, thinking things about his character you wouldn’t dare to, sustaining an objective psychologist’s analytic rude stare at the behavior of his young criminal. It’s amazing. Richard Wright is a real discovery, cold-hearted analyst, a heart of ice.
* * * *
Lately I’m so fascinated by the word cynicism – and I remember from my “education” that the Cynics were a school that made an ostentatious show of their abstemious poverty. Which happens to be an unflattering sketch of my very self. Poverty being my gospel.
* * * *
All over the property heaps of dead blackberry canes like hay ricks. I’m not looking forward to this burn pile, when I do get it together. Ordinarily a kind of pleasure – the whole Saturday leaning on my rake, country music on the radio, ideally a faint drizzle or snowflakes. That quality of peace and silence wherever snowflakes govern, dragging old slash, poking with rake, the column of smoke, it’s like a kind of harvest, but a harvest like Judgment Day: it’s the dry grass that goeth in the oven.
But this time, it’s entirely blackberry. Many cubic yards of dried-out thorny canes all tangled, and it won’t be such a pleasant afternoon. Then, too, there’ll be the tendency of tinder-dry canes to flare up hot, then vanish fast in ash. So keeping a decent flame going won’t be a leisurely pastime.
* * * *
October 3, 2021
In the open air behind Wild Eye Pub. Went to hear Randy’s quartet, stayed for both sets. Sands and Lindsey, Luke and Maggie, fish and chips. An unaccustomed delight. The music was delicate, intricate, logical paths discoverable only by working your way back in time. Improvising on reeds and horns very soft. I haven’t been in such a floaty trance since Immanuel Ax’s Brahms at the Grass Valley church.
Then the usual fate of art befell. After the first set, people started slipping away who had a music-profession reason for being there (about half). Collegial fist-bumps. Then, the remaining crowd dwindled at the steady half-life rate of radioactivity. As the mass grew cooler, and dark came on, many of those who’d stayed were chatting. Or pecking in their phones without shame, faces fallen over the glowing panel. Still the band played with passion. Playing for each other really, as musicians must do.
A band (this is a law of nature) always improves through the night. The last songs are generally where towering genius might make its (shy! shy!) appearance. By the time when all four men in that music-machine were working together with intuition and inspiration, nobody was listening.
So in the end, most people had stayed only for the less-than-excellent parts, then gone home. Now they think they’ve heard that band. This is how the very best in art (in books, in music, in painting, in movies) can come to seem like an elitist game only for the cranky few “tastemakers.” (Whom, then, everybody resents.)
* * * *
Sunday morning I’m on one knee in the gravel behind the Subaru, putting the new DMV registration sticker on the license plate. A little 2022 label (green) now covers last year’s red one (2021). I looked around. The pickup and the old MBZ, both had the up-to-date green sticker. Quiet Sunday morning. Not much birdsong in this month.
Surviving, as I have, so far into this century – as far as 2022, according to this DMV sticker here – surviving wasn’t something I had specific thoughts or plans for. Just vague assumptions about. The future dwells in our unexamined vague assumptions. (Fattening in the dark as they do.) When I was just out of college and a new pilgrim in the world, we all pictured the 2020 decade as a perilous, unpredictable space. Around 2020 was where “Total Environmental Collapse” had been prophesied by a small but persuasive (hard-to-rule-out) minority of scientists. In these apocalyptic dystopian times, at least bureaucracy seems to be persisting/thriving: we’ve still got the DMV.
* * * *
October 7, 2021
Morning rain arrives. Looks like the typical Pacific-coast precipitation which is really just heavy fog. It’s only mist exploring, can’t be felt, and then soon everything will be sopping. I’ve been pulling tools in, getting things into the shed, and I stop and eat an orange, standing in the shed. As usual a fresh rain is luring odors out – soil, wet granite gravel of the drive, the split-cedar fenceposts. Odors, in turn, provoke olfactory storms which are motions. Somehow, this smells exactly like Brooklyn, summer of 1978. How brave I was, at that age.
My belief that being a saint, and being a mystic, are not a pair of ambitions far out of reach of the ordinary person. Rather, that everybody is always already a saint. Everybody always already a mystic. It’s just that, day-to-day, the organism must be practical. The “reticular formation” (metaphor) won’t let the organism be distracted. Anyway, it’s an old idea of mine, never relevant or useful, never consulted.
Dinner at Three Forks.
* * * *
October 9, 2021
Drain all evaporative coolers for winter.
Hike up to weir and clear it.
Dinner of big heap of odd, bright-orange chanterelles, chicken sausage.
Drought conditions persist. Temps drop average 20 degrees.
* * * *
October 7, 2021
Most of afternoon getting in firewood, the first restocking of the season – in the mudroom and in the woodbox, and also behind the woodbox.
And then, too, a good hour or two of chopping the old oak of two years ago.
Benefit reading for Santa Monica Review.
* * * *
October 12, 2021
Controversy keeps flaring up. Our supposedly plagiaristic alumna. These are quarrels I have notions about, but no place in. They’re quarrels I stay as far from as I can. This woman (according to me) was one of the better writers in the program; and that alone (being a good writer) can pardon some sins, and this particular disagreement is so nuanced. All writers are such thieves and scoundrels, their ethics are in their books if they’re good, not necessarily in their lives.
Excellent removal of an entire section from “Immanence.” (Excursion off-road on a dark footpath, priest hugging the twelve-pack of Budweiser to his chest.) The one important trace worth preserving can be planted, ultra-quietly, in a latter section.
Repair of Bob’s “course description” for Brett.
Removal of money from savings to prop up the Macondray Lane house again, which we really can’t afford.
Must again hike up to clear the weir. It won’t be an unsuspenseful trip. On my last trip I noticed that water had gathered on the forest floor, about a half mile uphill, deep in the woods. A swampy patch, then a standing puddle in an old fire-road rut. The only conduit in that whole territory is my own underground irrigation line. So if it’s a leak, I may have to spend some time tracking it down.
———- Just returned from clearing the weir, and the same-size swampy area is still there. It hasn’t changed shape or size during the dry windy week since I last saw it. So it’s being constantly replenished. (Talmudic expression is living water.) It’s still and clear, so replenishment is slow, seeping. However, I may have found the source, a very small new freshet – which might be a breach in the ditch elsewhere on the Cooley property or the Robertsons’.
The ditchwater itself, when I got there, was (this is snowmelt already) icy cold, where I have to plunge my arm in up to my shoulder. Also it’s in high flood, which might have something to do with the little escape of water on the slope.
* * * *
October 13, 2021
Annual removal of Scotch broom, not much, only takes a couple of hours.
The “Letter from the Valley” (for Omnium Gatherum) suddenly needs radical revision.
Reframing grant-application language to comply with new rules of prose style requiring mediocrity because mediocrity is not elitist. I’m living on into an epoch of fresh culture where all my values are quaint. Must be a typical climacteric experienced by every generation. Like, I wonder if John Cheever watched a new generation of writers far exceed any popularity he’d ever dreamed of (Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins) and finally had to resign himself, sanguinely, to the vagaries of literary fashion. Hoping that, in the end, any fine sentences will always get their reading.
[When an aspiring anchoress (in England 1300) took vows and had herself “enclosed,” the ceremony ended with locking her in her cell, where she was to climb into a pre-dug grave in the floor. She was never to come out of that room (except for certain spiritual or hygienic occasons). North side of abbey, the cold sunless side. Three apertures: (1) a small window that gave a view of the outside world; (2) a so-called “squint” (slot) so she could view adjoining-chapel services and have communion wafer slipped to her; (3) and the little drawer where her gruel would be slid to her every day. Never to emerge, she was dead to the world and had to lie in the deep grave in the floor. But death to the world was construed as “birth.” This is from the handbook of advice The Ancrene Wisse: “Admiring their own white hands is bad for many anchoresses who keep them too beautiful, such as those who have too little to do; they should scrape up the earth every day from the grave in which they will rot.” Julian of Norwich applied to be enclosed in a cell after she’d had a girlhood mystic vision, a vision she hoped to subsist on for the rest of her life. Wanted nothing but the solitude to contemplate it.]
Dinner with Hunter and Lindsey at their house. Sands and Kat. Roast Chicken. A dessert made, by Kat, from our pears.
* * * *
October 16, 2021
Saturday. Gold October light at noon on the meadow. Work on “Thai Pirates” short story, for some reason. Then there’ll be more woodchopping. Kait to visit for the weekend, stay the night here.
* * * *
Conversation at the neighboring restaurant-table (on the subject of wine lovers’ trick of bringing a corkscrew to Trader Joe’s, buying a few different bottles to take outside in the parking lot to uncork and sample, then going back in to buy a few crates of the favorite):
“I could never do that. I’m not able to take one sip-and-swish, and decide right then. Actually, I think I only know whether I like a wine when I’m halfway down through a bottle. – However, I’m talking about reds. Whites I can get an instant opinion. Whites are fun and they’re not complicated, and you can know instantly, with one taste. Reds you can’t make a judgment right away. A red is like art, like that – like novels. You only realize much later. Not on the first page. Not even when you’re just finishing the last page. It takes a while just to know what it was.”
* * * *
October 17, 2021
Winter rains at last, and there’s a rush to bring in certain crops. So much basil, we get out the food-processor and make so much pesto, now in deep-freeze, we’ve got thirty meals for the winter. Also, butternut squash. Disappointingly small, but solid, resonant-when-tapped.
* * * *
San Francisco’s Victorian houses.
In their time (i.e., when they were built), they were not fancy mansions. Post-earthquake in “subdivisions,” they were miniature imitations of a back-east aristocracy’s grandeur, a kind of fad out here – you might say “McMansions” but they were wittier than that: little houses facetiously “quoting” a bypassed era. Bannisters and spindles and spokes and finials, mass-produced by jigsaw and lathe, they were something people (“common people”) could aspire to live in, in some kind of spirit of unashamed simulation, with a wink of honestly spoofing, which is typically west-coast, typically Frisco, a declassee exaggeration of the hoity-toity people. You drive along Pine Street today and they’re crammed together on their narrow lots, all made out of wooden boards, substantiated by two-by-fours, lath, overly ornamented and painted-up purely in a spirit of play, you might say “camp.”
The absence of any “class system” has always been SF’s special sneaky privilege. Rather, out here, you’re supposed to get class anomie – disorienting to the snob, carte blanche for the greenhorn/arriviste/complete nobody. The entire American West was always the territory where misfits could come to “live their dreams,” or more like, escape their mistakes and deficiencies. This is what the (truly authentically classy!) Eastern establishment finds offensive in California, and even insolent in California. California will pretty much always be in poor taste.
But it’s liberating – I’ve found it to be, personally. I came here in flight from my own unfixable mistakes and deficiencies and a predestination never to have any “advantages.” However – the downside of all this is: social class is an important ethical fabric: It isn’t only a pageant of intimidation and power-plays: “society” really does sort the good folks from the non-good, the reputable from the disreputable. Still, California is also where phonies can thrive. Phonies do well here, perhaps sometimes consistently outperform the authentic folk. You have to do some sorting, among the people you meet, which is what society is for.
[Of course, the generalization isn’t perfect. Wherever you go, there’ll always be people with genuine money or class, and people one-upping each other. That’s human nature.]
Anyway, I watch those little Victorians flash past the car window, each traffic light turning green ahead in sequence, going west on Pine Street where, for miles around, you can’t find a parking place for love or money, and you can’t buy a house for under two million, and I worry about San Francisco. I don’t exactly live here anymore. But I would always be willing to come right back, and move lock-stock-and-barrel into the city of my dreams, even if maybe it would be only that: a city of my dreams. Which is maybe what it always was anyway.
* * * *
October 20, 2021
San Francisco. Dinner last night at Diana Fuller’s. Picked up adoptee’s memoir.
At 91, she’s still the sharp-tongued peremptory maven. Living alone in her tiny citadel.
Every night of the week, including when she’s entertaining guests, she cooks by emptying a bag of frozen Trader Joe’s prepared-meal into a pan and sauteeing it. Tonight: fettuccini Alfredo. Barefoot in her kitchen, at her age she’s still Holly Golightly.
* * * *
Today at Molinari’s on Columbus, bought Xmas-present stuff of a misc. sort. The same kid who sold me carpaccio a couple months ago now has been entrusted with the whole counter, for an afternoon – and the service is pretty slow. People are being patient. Small crowd waiting. You have to take a number. At long last, he’ll take my money for the olive oil, etc. But the Amaretto di Saronno cookies I want aren’t available. (Big red cubical cookie-tin.)
“We’ve got lotta other amaretti,” he says, and he leads me to shelves of little cookies.
“No, I’ll tell you why I need Amaretto di Saronno. I want to set the wrappers on fire. It’s a trick. It only works with this one brand of amaretti.”
He wants me to buy a similar-looking thing called Amaretti “di Chiostro.” I have to explain that our family has always practiced this clever parlor trick, especially Christmastimes, setting a match to a paper wrapper carefully curled into a standing cylinder (and then set fire only to the tippy-top of the standing cylinder), then watching it lift aflame from a tabletop, carried by its heat-updraft, float up and turn to ash and gently bump the ceiling, then fall ashen back to the table. You can set these afire on a fine mahogany tabletop. The heat never nears the wood. This grocer clerk so delighted, I have to start getting specific with this explanation – because he obviously plans to go home and try it himself – he’d grown up in this store, but yet he’d never heard you can do this with amaretto wrappers. We end up annoying a big backed-up crowd, behind us, of unhelped customers, because he needs to get the complete instructions for launching flaming wrappers at the ceiling.
* * * *
October 21, 2021
Lunch with Oscar Villalon at Ferry Building.
More of the endless sadness of the book business. All the wrong values have pooled in this historical low-spot, precisely vulnerable because this business is where good values are supposed to rule.
Brett and me: dinner at the fancy white-tablecloth place on the corner we’ve never dared enter.
* * * *
October 22, 2021
The #17 house is ship-shape. The wall-heater has a new thermocouple and new thermostat, the six rickety dining room chairs have been replaced by six less-rickety chairs, and the short in the bathroom wall lamp is fixed.
Drive back up through Marin. Lunch at a so-called Asian Street Food place in MV.
* * * *
October 23, 2021
Home in NevCit. Another especially sad morning. Brett is the blessing in my life.
* * * *
October 24, 2021
Big rain to come (fomented in faraway Pacific waters and worsened by the waters’ warmth). Eleven inches of water in a 24-hr period is predicted. Plus high winds.
* * * *
Richard Wright’s “Native Son” has its one great defect at the end: peroration of lawyer. However, this defect is the sign by which you know a sincere human being (author) is gazing through the page at you. Great books are allowed to be defective.
Holden Caulfield’s criterion, that you can know a great book by the impulse to call up the author when you’re done, has never been an element in my reading life. I really don’t need/want to have met Henry James, or John Updike, or Virginia Woolf. Or Emily Dickinson or Jane Austen. I’ve got the best of them already. But Richard Wright is a first. I wish I’d been his friend.
On second thought, maybe it would better to leave him alone.
Dash and Kat arrive from Oakland, having driven through the worst of the storm. We feed them pesto.
* * * *
October 25, 2021
Huge deluge has passed overnight, sunrise, steaming roof, rhinestones tremble on barbed-wire strands and poultry fencing and clothesline. Judging by how buckets and wheelbarrows have filed, it was more like 16 inches that fell in a single long, loud downpour. Minimal damage on this property: trailer in the woods is OK, garden is tousled but thriving, a fresh leak in the cottage roof. And the loss of a few lbs of chicken feed wetted by sideways-blown rain.
* * * *
Invasive trees – “ailanthus”? – have begun establishing colonies near roadside. Must be either hand-pulled as seedlings or cut and poisoned.
Prune back grapevines to bare stocks.
Jano calls with news of David Tucker’s death.
Everybody here for my borscht, Brett’s pear cobbler with just a soupcon of ginger.
* * * *
October 27, 2021
Justin and all Baileys stop by, lunchtime. Lisa Alvarez’s short story, wonderful protagonist in juvenile-delinquent girl in rehab. The memoir of Beth Haas.
* * * *
October 28, 2021
Burn Day today, a day of saturation and calm winds post-rain. Burn pile below the chicken coop started at 9 am with a single kitchen match, even so dank, I’m such a Boy Scout. Kept it going all day, till dusk, quite smokeless, and still only about half the slash on the property is burned. The rest for another day, remaining piles under the cherry grove, heaps once as big as Volkswagen Beetles, since dried-out and sunken.
* * * *
October 29, 2021
Heartache all day. Spent some time reading Beth Haas memoir. Drinks after dinner at the National Hotel, Ben and Josh and spouses. But then I beg off, claiming unwellness.
* * * *
November 2, 2021
Second day burning cuttings. Thorny old blackberry canes, all cut into straws. Burn pile lasts all day.
Leaky flashing on cottage evap cooler: Henry’s Roof Patch all around flashing and vent boot.
Dinner at Hunter and Lindsey’s.
* * * *
November 4, 2021
Wild mushrooms, from the ridge. (So-called “pig ear” mushrooms, dank and sharp.) Made risotto.
* * * *
November 5, 2021
An idle day. Read Diana’s friend’s ms, spent some time obeying Brett’s various instructions re: primping up the cottage for rental. Played dobro a good deal. Afternoon, went up on all the tin roofs to caulk holes and leaks, and put up all upstairs storm windows, fixed the several old broken cleats that fasten the storm windows.
* * * *
November 7, 2021
All tomatoes are pulled from beds, and string beans and winter squash torn down. Lettuce is thriving already. Spread compost over two fallow beds (the two nearest the tall one).
(COMPOST: Churned up compost in stalls #2 and #3. Stall #1 is almost over-rich-looking and probably should have been first to be dug up; stall #4 for a year or more has been all cellulose, with chicken manure. Those two stalls (#1 and #4) I left undisturbed.)
Music at the Ruttens’. Large assembly, including Amy’s violin and Elyssa’s mandolin. Very happy with my own playing. Drank a lot, stayed late.
* * * *
In the time of a lull, one’s mind is at peace and naturally defaults to scanning for anything unthought-of that might be going wrong. (Leaks and erosions, imminent structure-failures, promises unkept, subscriptions unpaid, calls unreturned.) Everything in fact seems in good order, and the mind is dimly conscious, too, of the kinds of long-term background enterprises that tend to take care of themselves: prudently invested IRA is still meandering upward, unwatched; the hens are laying and nobody in the coop has Mareks disease. Even teeth never go long unflossed, everything being a sort of investment.
In such a review/tally tonight (glass of bourbon here), it’s meanwhile raining again. Loud clattering on tin roofs. NOAA has forecast 1 to 2 inches in this one. And on the checklist, this feels like the best investment of all: another good long rain: it’s an investment I don’t myself pay into, but yet an economic foundation for all other hopes and dreams and responsibilities. Thanks for the rain.
* * * *
These pandemic years are aging me fast. – Video of myself (I’m up on the roof, in the background of Brett’s cellphone footage of cute cat trying to climb stepladder) – I’m walking along on the slope with an old man’s pawky hesitancy. How did those old trousers get so baggy?
* * * *
November 10, 2021
Firewood into mud room.
DISCONNECTED FROM ELECTRICAL GRID
Partly sunny day: storage-battery hits lowest-point 48% at 8:40am, then tops out at only 80% charge (2:45pm).
[32% recovery in six hours]
* * * *
In café, sentiment surprises. Only in youth do a man’s eyes stay dry and clear. In my cellphone newsfeed I see that the int’l. climate conference has announced (a) that China and the U.S. have reached an agreement to collaborate devising an emissions-reduction plan; and (b) everybody at the conference says they’ll stop subsidizing the oil companies. All these announced good intentions are coming too late, and in fact, it’s likely they’re all talking through their hat. Still, my race’s mix of high hopes and corruption will always have been charming.
* * * *
November 11, 2021
DISCONNECTED FROM ELECTRICAL GRID
Storage-battery hits 10% bottom in middle-night (3:40am).
Sunny day: Back to independence of grid: 10:20am. (3.4 kWh total)
[shifted settings to THREE PERCENT reserve in battery]
Battery maxes at 83% at 3:00pm. Begins then to power house.
[73% recovery in 4hrs,40min]
* * * *
Visit estate lawyer, to determine, basically, what we’d already determined in our last will and testament. But all this is for Brett’s assurance.
Out to a movie at storefront theatre in town.
* * * *
November 12, 2021
To Auburn, for dobro lesson from pedal-steel player.
DISCONNECTED FROM ELECTRICAL GRID
Storage-battery hits bottom (3%) at 8:30 am, only minutes before solar starts coming in.
Sunny day: Battery maxes at 82% at 3:20pm. Begins then to power house for nightfall.
[79% recovery in 5hrs,50min]
* * * *
November 13, 2021
Board meeting, 10 am to noon, convened remotely. Sixteen smart, generous people onscreen, confined each to a little square in the grid, each in the gloom, or the sunny glare, of a separate habitat. I miss seeing all those people in person. I miss the Millers’ house, on a Saturday morning when, on Sacramento’s lawns, the leaves are gold or withering vermillion. After the meeting Mimi brings out her casserole.
Out to horsey country, McCourtney Road, to pick up a used bedstead, $100, “sleigh”-style. It will need lots of ingenious modification, to be suitable. Electrical work in the cottage rewiring ceiling lamps. Dig first exploratory hole for installation of irrigation filter, by the road.
Brett goes out to pick up Thai food in town. In a heartsick mood, I open the best bottle of red.
DISCONNECTED FROM ELECTRICAL GRID
Storage-battery bottoms out at 3% at 8:00 am.
Partly sunny day: Battery maxes at 69% at 3:00pm. Begins then to power house in nighttime mode.
[66% recovery in 7hrs]
* * * *
November 14, 2021
DISCONNECTED FROM ELECTRICAL GRID
Storage-battery hits 3% at 3:00 am.
(Solar starts restoring battery at 10:15am)
Partly sunny day: Battery maxes at 58% at 2:30pm. Begins then to power house.
[55% recovery in 4hrs, 15min]
[From Wallace-Wells book: The worldwide mining of Bitcoin, it alone, uses as much electricity as what’s generated by all the solar panels of the earth.]
More digging for locations of irrigation line. In the process I think I’ve damaged the main shut-off valve.
* * * *
November 15, 2021
DISCONNECTED FROM ELECTRICAL GRID
Storage-battery hits 3% at 12:30 am.
(Solar starts restoring battery at 9:55am)
Cloudy day: Battery maxes at 15% at 2:00pm. Begins then to power house.
[12% recovery in 4hrs, 5min]
* * * *
(The other news, today, is that Royal Dutch Shell is dropping the name “Dutch” and moving out of Holland. Moving to England.)
How this happened: Royal Dutch Shell today was simply “ordered” by their home country (Holland) to cut emissions by 30% in eight years. So they left.
(Royal Dutch Shell are the people who poisoned the Niger River and who hanged the Nigerian journalist Ken Saro-Wiwa by the neck, 1995.)
* * * *
November 24, 2021
Trip to San Diego. In the local paper is the old-fashioned page of fine-print legal notices – doing-business-as declarations called “Fictitious Business Names” – people announcing their ambitions for the world:
Cruiser’s Gourmet Subs
Advanced Hair Aesthetics
Zenfire Guitar Picks
San Diego Magic Maids
What will happen to all these hopeful people in Malthusian times in the prosperous San Diego economy? People are so wonderful, wanting to be useful/needed/creative. Over the years to come, will the San Diego middle class need so many housemaids? Or guitar picks?
(Somehow – (and I don’t think this is my personal bias) – I think the market for guitar picks will go on pretty steady. Housemaids being a more “elastic” economic good, sacrificable in hard times. Not guitar picks, though.)
* * * *
December 28, 2021
At last, true, prolonged power outage, and the battery performs.
This is luxury. The land outside is dead white, mounded high, and inside here, unconnected from anything, we’ve got lamps and music. It’s a sin.
* * * *
December 29, 2021
James Webb observatory is launched and behaving beautifully. It has to unfold itself from a couple of suitcases, alone in space, to become huge delicate structure of foil panels and sails, and precision mirrors, so it will be able to watch the beginning of time, or nearly. Its home planet is in political and biological endgame crisis, but it did put this up there. We still want to see the beginning of time. Still think that’s important.
(Canadian gov’t’s expense to fix indigenous-child-welfare system: 30 billion. Cost of James Webb project: 10 billion. Those seem like pretty fair values.)
Blizzard still rules this town. Lacking ATT&T, PG&E, internet. I’m sitting in town in café waiting for my to-go order, guys in cannibal tattoos, kohl-and-henna marijuana trimmer girls, Woookies rangy and sunburned, dagger in sheath strapped to hip, all the Calif. counterculture nowadays.
* * * *
December 30, 2021
Unprecedented sustained blizzard of heavy wet snow has broken thousands of trees and taken out power lines and phone lines. Just about every road in the west County, somewhere along its length, has a bramble of power-line cable lying across it. Gas stations not selling gas, grocery stores unable to open. On a very small scale of commerce, people are accepting cash, only cash. But as ATMs don’t work, nobody has cash. This will go on for a long time; repair crews will be overwhelmed.
Sagging roofs under white saddles. Birch fallen across power line (freed by “walking up” its trunk with crosscut-saw undercuts).
Here, so far, the battery is coming through. It got us through three blizzardy overcast days of zero sunshine (while, in our kitchen, we lived on a very stingy flow of (homemade) watts, plus using candles, etc., stretching the battery’s life). Now the clouds have gone and full sun, snow-reflected, is recharging the battery. Sunny days are promised.
* * * *
Last diary entry in this drib-and-drab diary for this year. I see I can be unfaithful to it for, almost, months at a time. A year’s end is an arbitrary point to end a chapter, but I’ll send it up, as is.