Sitting on beach, San Carlos, bare feet in sand, beer, in shade of palapa, [this American diversion is not my style, but it’s a patient father’s job] eating great Veracruz snapper in unwrapped foil. I’m reminded of Oakley, who in his latter days, 80-some years old, sat in precisely such a situation saying happily, “My blood pressure is going through the sand.”
It’s got echoes because Oakley was of that generation that saw in bullfighting a literary value, and valor, and because in Mexico, arenas and sangre have always been so mixed.
* * * *
November 22, 2017
Short stories in a bundle have gone to Joy. Now I’m returning to “Immanence” making asked-for changes, and I’m put in mind of William Maxwell’s dictum: that a New Yorker-magazine sort of story employs “the sentence as the unit for advancing narrative. Rather than the paragraph.” I’ve been reading so much old stuff – Ivo Andric – which requires extraordinary patience of the modern reader, for the modern reader is spoiled by prose’s richer density.
* * * *
November 10, 2017
Good-hearted Gov. Brown is in Europe campaigning for carbon-reduction commitments, climate-change mitigations. He says, in his exhorting tones, “This is real, it’s coming, it’s catastrophic, it’s going to alter civilization, and it’s happening faster than you think.” Which is good. Jerry is a stalwart.
But hearing him say so made me think, what if new generations’ expectations and senses are so degraded, they won’t care anymore that the tapwater smells bad, because that’s just how the water is; they won’t really remark anymore that you can’t get certain kinds of seafood, because that’s how things are. (\And who, anyway, ever did go see a coral reef?) – and don’t care anymore if you can’t freely lie down in a meadow. Or care that you can’t go outdoors between noon and 3:00.
Don’t we already live in a compromised degraded world, which, if it were portrayed thirty years ago in a sci-fi movie, would have looked like preposterous toxic filth and competitive meanness and unthinkable dystopia. – The climate-refugee migrations, the multitudes drowning as their boats capsize in the Mediterranean, the well-water you can’t drink because it’s full of fracking chemicals (Pennsylvania) or agricultural shit (Nebraska and Iowa). People are living in this. People think this is how it is. Nobody thinks it’s wrong. Farming families think it’s ordinary to bring in 5-gal jugs of drinking water. Because anybody’d be a fool to drink the regular water the Good Lord gave you.
The new POTUS is what makes me think this way. His vulgarity and dishonesty are getting routinized. People get used to such things. He’s changing the discourse permanently. People will think that gangsterish banana-republic politics and open bigotry are the real world. A world of integrity will be treated as mythic or legendary or naive. Same with a natural world that was once benign.
* * * *
October 28, 2017
Morning in the Annex working on “All Things.” Afternoon in hard labor excavating, with shovel and pike, old retaining wall. The moralistic pleasure, the Protestant or “deist” pleasure, of exhaustion/dedication. Then glass wine reading Joyce Carol Oates’s essay in NYRB while eating pork sandwich in PlumpJack corner table, Squaw Valley’s little parlor-den.
(Lucky me: I was sizing up that unlovely old aspen – which now really did have to go, because my digging would be exposing its roots. But my chainsaw is down in Nev. City. I might have actually felled it with a tiny pruning saw plus elbow grease, but then I would’ve had this big tree lying across the road, not to be dressed with a pruning saw. And Kevin happened to come across the street with his chainsaw. Got the whole thing sawed-up and disposed in a half-hour. Now in the moonlight, ribbony woodchips are strewn in the driveway and across the road.
* * * *
October 27, 2017
Joy calls, early AM. Talking with New York (actually she’s in Rhinebeck, but) – I hear occasional incessant background “ding”: She’s got her laptop open and it’s the sound of emails’ constant impact. (The comparable thing here, on my un-busy meadow, is the Perseid meteor showers in August.)
The sheer number of needy people who are constantly assailing a New York agent! I think, “Well, I guess she loves that turbulence. Might feel a bit lonely if it ever stopped.” And then I think a little further, and I thank Providence for her. Those are (possibly) some of the most wonderful, difficult people in the world who are importuning her by email. And there she is, at her laptop in New York, their catcher in the rye.
* * * *
October 24, 2017
“All Things”! Awake early.
Afternoon on grant-request folderol.
Angelo comes by to look at huge pine with dangerous spar over cottage – wants too much money to take it down.
Dinner: lamb shanks are ecologically sinful (frozen in vacuum-seal plastic, yet!) but delicious.
* * * *
October 22, 2017
Auden, on the itinerant life of the writer who must be a public peddler of his own literature at universities and writers conferences (which Frost called “barding around”):
Since Merit but a dunghill is,
I mount the rostrum unafraid…
* * * *
October 21, 2017
Still on that inchoate story about “poverty” ethic.
Strenuous afternoon, cutting up downed cedar and sorting its slash. To roadside.
Letter for “Stern” grant.
The crop of winter squash was brought in last night (pre-freeze), and Brett is out there today stripping the garden of all its summer festivity. Bare poles. Cadaverous heaps. The nightfall adventure (always dicey) of cooking out of our own garden is becoming routine in Aug/Sep/Oct/Nov. The pears in a gallette, the trompetta squash in rice. Roma tomatoes heaped in every available vessel.
Frugality is one of the elegances (a little-discussed but essential elegance) of the kitchen, the cocina, the cuisine. Frugality the “beauty” element, as in mathematics.
* * * *
October 20, 2017
Home again in Nevada City. Get down traces of new Poverty story but intend to bring up “All Things” again, when I feel I’ve got a stance back. Still no word from Joy about “Immanence.” I think she’s considering how (whether!) it can be put into the world.
Fell the smaller of the two firewood cedars, and do a bit of limbing. Dash is staying home recovering from the removal of all his wisdom teeth. When I bring down these big trees, Brett and Dash bring chairs (wrought-iron, like in an ice-cream shop) and set them up at a distance in the meadow like a Victorian audience of spectators at a set battle between Indians and townsfolk. Little dog on leash.
* * * *
Squaw, three days:
- Monday eve: Pick up a bit of lumber at Mtn. Hardware.
- Tuesday: truckload last month’s so-called greenwaste to the Placer County dump; materials at Mtn. Hardware; groceries at Safeway. Fashion two post-and-pier supports for deck and install, as well as a chuck to clog the house-corner weakness. Clean old ceramic tiles for annex stovetop repair.
- Wednesday: Glue stove tiles in place; soil for upper-house posts, forestall erosion; put away swamp cooler for winter; bamboo shades off both decks; fallen hood replaced on annex gas meter. (PlumpJack dinner solo)
- Thursday: awake 5am, worried over Squaw properties’ insolvency; by flashlight I hunt up the right thin little wafer of wood to shim up the Annex’s wiggly butcher block; quadruple-shot cappuccino, hardware store; rodent barrier behind fireplace stones (insultation foam and steel wool); build retaining wall below annex swamp cooler as the sky is clouding over. Then cleaning up and packing truck while squalls come in.
Dividend of my solitude: notion of a story describing a new marriage and its invasion by the Prophet of Poverty in all his righteousness.
* * * *
October 16, 2017
Squaw Valley alone. As I get above the 5000-ft elev. the air starts to sparkle (October), and the little mountain maples are popping up golden. Then at 6000ft, the aspens popping up with different gold. Dry and stony now are the gullies that, last spring, were bouncing with wide snowmelt water.
Stop at Mountain Hardware, Truckee, for 3 doug-fir studs and the proper work gloves for this weather. In the truck, can of soup, loaf of bread.
On the drive, I’m thinking about what a vexing writer I am. I’m not much of a people-pleaser – (which risks being vexing to all, from my agent on down the whole chain of readership) – because of course “pleasing people” is the supreme desideratum of any commercial product. And writing is a commercial product. Maybe any human artifact’s one main desideratum, and reason for existence, is “to be pleasant.” I certainly do know all the “craft” secrets of making publishable writing and I’m a sometime part of the Literary-Industrial complex that retails those “secrets,” but yet – this is my hypocrisy – I’m unwilling to deploy them at my own work table, not under the sight of my own highly esteemed reader. Whom I respect above all. Who recognizes poppycock and turns from it.
* * * *
Happy day: two neutron stars collide (or rather, collided 100 million years ago), and their blip is detected here both by LIGO and by telescope – i.e., both gravity waves and electromagnetism registered the thump. So the universe is getting knitted together intelligibly by “science.”
* * * *
October 15, 2017
Back from San Francisco, where I always do well. Andrew and I walked all over town. Good food everywhere, good “Lit” celebration in the Mission.
The train ride, back up into the mountains, I’m starting to think, is a bigger pleasure than the drive, and not just an environmentalist’s obligation. San Francisco isn’t a small provincial town anymore. And parking: that alone is uncivilized.
However, from the train, the view is of the Union Pacific right-of-way and the California suburbs’ backside (not the old industrial districts’ backsides, which were wrought beautifully by working men, by necessity, by entropy, rust and other oxidation, lovely neglect). In the suburbs, I see the California that is more of a disappointment, comfortable, ignorant, maybe even exclusive, self-aggrandizing. Reading “Bridge on the Drina,” by Andric.
Then, home again, I find the bears did get into the pears while I’ve been gone. Whole branches pulled off. Lost only 2 or 3 boxes pears, but the offense stings. (At least a dozen mounds of scat around the property. Could this be one bear only? Probably a mother and cubs.)
So I get a piece of meat marinating and I go outside in emergency mode to spend the afternoon saving a few banker-boxes’ full of pears. This occupies the rest of the day. Soon I’m (this is a new experience) actually slipping-and-sliding in stepped-on pears and abundant bear shit underfoot while I work – because the bears, otiose as the upper-class Romans, shit while they eat, where they eat.
* * * *
October 12, 2017
Luke and Maggie and their livestock still here. Last night, they brought salmon and spanakopita. Today: I alone to SF, for LitCrawl reading, but also to meet up with Andrew, visit SFMOMA for highly anticipated show, and to be in the city I love, in its time of worry, during Northern California fires.
Brett gives me ride to Colfax for train to SF.
* * * *
October 10, 2017
Fires on Kentucky Ridge climbing up from Deer Creek. (High winds last night.) CalFire updates have been saying the same thing for the last few hours: “900 acres and rapidly spreading, 0% contained.”
The only people we know out there at risk are Luke and Maggie, who in afternoon come up the gravel drive in two vans, packed with framed artwork, file boxes, their two cats and three oddball rescue dogs, and about two dozen guitars and dobros and banjos. (A couple of these still in pieces, partly-built or half-repaired.) This is the best employment of a kitchen table. Cheese and fruit and tea, and corn chips and eventually beer. On kitchen laptop computer we’ve got the police-scanner all afternoon – its steady hum, its occasional rapid-fire burst of protocol and digits, and sometimes interpretable info. We make a big roast, get out the better wine. In van they’ve brought, along with their chattel, their bottle of old scotch, and we get out tiny cracked demitasse cups and toast the vagaries of fate.
* * * *
This morning I’m working on somebody’s critique while all over the house, all refugee folk and their animals sleep. At dawn the sound of helicopters starts up again, and CDF spotter planes, followed by retardant-dropping bombers with the sloping red bar on the fuselage like the heraldic bend sinister, flying low and heavy over the meadow.
* * * *
October 8, 2017
Short story again. Resist editing work, as I could use a day or two’s “distance” on it.
Then get a start on pears. Bring in just four boxes, with plenty still out there. They’re not ripening correctly, variously precocious after this hot-and-dry summer. Some hard-green, while many lie mushy gold on the ground.
Dash and his friends are in the mud room, and while I climb in pear branches, I can hear plenty of laughter. There’s a kind of an unchained, delighted laugh Dash has when he’s with his friends. Never heard except when he’s with his friends, it bounces off a new place somewhere in his chest, and it’s good he’s getting practice with that laugh. That will come in handy for him, in his outward life, and in his inner life. That’s what friends are for, I guess, partly.
By being judicious and patient, I can pick all the exactly ready-for-independence pears, which, green, will ripen together in their boxes on garage floor. Pears do better when they can mellow in proximity to other pears. There’s a pheromone they share as they soften and get complicated – (I think maybe “sweetness” is how the human nostril accepts the airborne chemical). Thus the ripeness gets turned on as a social thing.
* * * *
Evap. coolers all shut down and drained and covered.
* * * *
October 7, 2017
To Marin for board meeting.
In the mailbox, little padded envelope: Sands sends twist-tied Baggie of hard-to-get spice sumac, necessary in Israeli cooking, a powder so vermillion it looks more like an indelible dye.
4am, I see my neighbor’s lamp lit, and I think, everybody’s got woes.
* * * *
October 6, 2017
More chainsaw troubles, more delays, another trip to SPD saw shop. Since I sharpen the chain on my own workbench, must have filed one side’s teeth sharper than the other side’s. So now as I buck logs into rounds, every cut tries to yaw off in a fancy French curve.
The saw shop: two customer-guys come booming in. Heavy flannel shirts. Fella wants a saw. This one here on the wall will do, whyn’t you sell me this one here?
He’s a small, late-middle-aged, cowboy-handsome guy, his sidekick larger and quieter. He’s already got his checkbook out, but the two oil-stained saw technicians, joined by another customer (clean-cut bystander kid), all get together and talk him into a bigger saw. That little one he’d chosen is for weekend warriors. He ought to have a twenty-four-inch blade, at the very least, and he won’t regret it. If he bought that little one, it would be in the repair shop all the time.
So he buys the big one. What the hell. Extra hundred bucks. The kid tells him he made the right decision, and the man behind the counter says again, that little one is for weekend warriors, as if he’d just thought of that expression. And the kid says again, ‘You’re gonna be happy with that saw.” (Yeah, gimme a quart of bar-and-chain oil, too. And a 5/32-inch file. Well, shit, I got the wrong checkbook.) He goes out to his car to get the right checkbook, and comes back and starts filling out a check, meanwhile complaining, grumbling as if to himself, “Take my advice, don’t get cancer. I already had fuckin’ chemo this morning. Fuckin’ awful. Don’t get cancer.” General silence. He finishes making out his check, signing it with a flourish, and the kid says at last, “Well…, you’re gonna be happy with that saw.”
Farewells, they get into their pickup. A few politically conservative bumper stickers. The truck is from the Highboy Mine, up in Allegheny, the savage boondocks (so they’ve made the long trip for chemo this morning to the hospital here in town), and the counterman turns to me, “Now what can I do for you?”
* * * *
October 5, 2017
Int. Monetary Fund yesterday: The recovery from the 2007 recession is complete, global economic “prosperity” has returned, and everywhere the human species is repainting/repaving/reengineering the earth surface. World economic growth is at 3.6% per year (says IMF). This is, of course, “good news,” and it’s being treated as such. Taking any other view of it seems perverse, cranky, merely picturesque.
The bear is back in the neighborhood. It’s the season when big hibernators have to do a lot of eating. Last night we had a forager here, evidently, and now I’ll have to be getting all the pears in, maybe on the too-early side, because they’ll be a temptation, and there’s so many, their depredation would be an economic loss. The prospect of early harvest screws up my week, slightly.
* * * *
October 3, 2017
Back to woodcutting today. Restoration of email makes for a tiresome pre-dawn morning, sorting, endless sorting, and in fact I give up and decide all this old bygone email is a waste of my time. Afternoon with Dash, a beautiful drive, Highway 49 to Auburn, Dash at the wheel, Bon Hiver on the stereo, for replacement of lost passport at the Placer County Clerk’s large, efficient, briskly-staffed new offices. (“How much do you think working in this place is like working at Dunder-Mifflin?”)
* * * *
October 3, 2017
Awake early, the “music-critic” story, working indoors in mud room, the season’s first woodstove-fire. Happy: a story isn’t made only of big things, it’s got plenty of details, too, plenty of small pleasures, which the writer in his habitual enforced austerity can tend to forget, and this morning the right details came fluttering in.
No work outside, this day: yesterday the chainsaw came apart in my hands – somehow every screw in the thing (muffler; cover housing) was vibrating loose. Unable to thread muffler bolt, where gasket has been heat-fused to the engine block. I brought it to saw shop under SPD Market and – typical small-town stuff – the gnarly guy down there wouldn’t let me just drop it off and leave it, he hauled it up on his low scuffed steel counter and got interested in the problem, so after about five minutes, I was able to bring it back home in one trip, eight dollars.
* * * *
October 1, 2017
Sunday morning, tinkered with music-critic story pre-dawn, but today will be mostly working outside. Yesterday I took down the bigger cedar (felling wedges did prove crucial: the felling cut approached the notch at a too-oblique angle and the resulting triangular hinge of wood wouldn’t flop: so it was tapping in the felling wedges that tipped it) and there’s maybe two days’ work there in the butchering. Beached whale almost the length of the meadow, to be taken apart with diligence, parsimony: My ambition this time is to have almost nothing go out to the roadside for the chipper.
Brett has been fooling around with the staffing for Squaw, and she’s happy. She’s like her father, a strategist, a convivial strategist – and a creative-writing conference is similar to throwing a party, a kind of large-scale convivial strategizing. Sometimes discouraged about it all, this morning she’s been phoning Michelle and Lisa et alia and getting some hoped-for email responses, and she’s saying, “I’m so excited!” Her father always pretended to dread it, but she loves it openly. She disappears into the bathroom, drawing the pocket door, saying (about staff who’ve committed), “I’m so excited.” On radio, Click and Clack, the Tappet Brothers, keep kidding each other around and I’m suiting up to work outside. At kitchen table, she comes back, sits back down before laptop and she says again, “I’m so excited.”
* * * *
September 29, 2017
Friday afternoon, to Auburn to view small offices on wheels.
Ingredients of a tagine, as Heather and Troy left us this choice lamb – cinnamon-cardamum-coriander. Turkish apricots.
* * * *
September 26, 2017
Greater self-sufficiency these months (from maybe July to October): dinners provided entirely from within fifty yards of where I stand at hearth cooking – (with, most nights, one exception; tonight the exception of thawed smoked-chicken sausages from SPD). Season of candles is coming back, as at this hour, beyond the pines, amber and salmon vie, also a curious bruise lavender. Dash has been somehow demoted from all his sophisticated Bach/Villa-Lobos, and he’s been assigned the Canon in G. Guitar notes arrive from the next room. – It’s an overused piece of music, but it gets its poignancy 100% back when it’s explored, haltingly, suspensefully, by a new cherub. We listen from the kitchen. Measure by measure, the Canon in G keeps emerging OK. The dog, tired from play, has been sleeping in a corner chair, and now his eyes aren’t closed: they’re half-open. – I think he’s not sleeping but “listening to the music.” That’s how it looks. The older I get the more I wonder about my fellow creatures’ states of consciousness and how they compare to my own rumored consciousness. (Dog has no verbal language, but he is informed by other kinds of actionable data far surpassing my own sources. I know a dog has got knowledge. Got it in spades.) What’s inestimable would be his “wisdom.” He’s getting to be a middle-aged, life-experienced dog now. And he may not know about Donald Trump or traffic-stoplights or the SATs or quantum physics. He doesn’t know that Pachelbel just went from the tonic to the relative minor, which, in G, would be E-minor. I do know about that kind of stuff. But I’m thinking such extra information doesn’t necessarily much influence my actual moment-to-moment experience of the world.
I’m not sure any “wisdom” I’ve acquired over decades is any better-founded or more useful than the dog’s. Literally I think our accomplishments are, in many ways, equal there. He knows it’s his boy playing that guitar in the next room. He must have some sense that those are ordered tones – so maybe there’s “aesthetic pleasure” for him in that. His belly is full, and he has some justified expectations that, soon, he’ll pile into bed with everybody. He knows all his people are here and everybody’s safe.
* * * *
More of the feeling-my-age department this morning, this dewy morning. Need to take down two cedars at meadow’s edge, one big and one medium, for 2018-2020’s firewood. For the first time ever, I may call upon (and pay) a “youngster,” that ubiquitous local creature – just because the one’s diameter is bigger than my saw blade’s length, and while I know how to fell such a biggie, I’d have to invest in some felling wedges. Most of all, though, I think a man’s mid-sixties can signal (be realistic) the age of clumsiness and incompetence and bad luck. (Or the onset, anyway). The thing is, the “youngster” has gotta make a living, and, it turns out, wants a tremendous amount of $, just to fell it. He would be asked only to make two cuts and watch it fall down and leave. I’d do the limbing and bucking. Still.
* * * *
September 24, 2017
Sunday. The story of the music critic and the quadriplegic is done: at least a solid first draft to sit and develop a rind and declare its fine sourness.
More repairs to weir: I hike up to the irrigation ditch while listening (via earbuds) to podcast (three delightful brits in a Chelsea pub discussing Lowry’s “Volcano” novel), and I tack a finer-mesh screen over the face of the box. Dig deep in the metal box, arm’s-length deep, to scoop up the accumulated mud at the bottom, as fine and silky as what potters call “slip.”
Back home, with old pork roast, I’m making posole, getting exactly the taste, homey and dishwater-sour, of hominy and chilies and cumin. (The secret of a lot of Mexican cooking sometimes seems to be: stick to canned, store-bought ingredients.)
Dash has done enough raking today, in the perpetual, unfinishable project of “defensible-space” firebreak, and has gone skateboarding.
* * * *
September 23, 2017
I come into Barbara’s cottage and Brett’s domain there, after much work in the woods brush-clearing, thinking of myself as “hankering, mystical, gross.”
Brett has been interviewing Barbara, as she often does, about her childhood memories. Which are always the same few – but this time there’s an embellishment. Barbara thinks we all really ought to go back to her childhood home by the Sac river. All of us. Why? Because of the big lawn, where “you could run and scream and play all you want.”
* * * *
September 14, 2017
First cool day of the season.
* * * *
September 10, 2017
China this week reversed an old policy, sharply and without warning: Their ports have stopped accepting boatloads of our garbage, the stuff we like to refer to as “recycling.” They’re actually intercepting the boats in their ports, turning them around and sending them back to us. This will suddenly make an important American business unprofitable. I.e., the garbage/recycling business.
The story of the packaging industry, presently unwritten, is one of the great American scandals. Its booming growth in the 20thcentury. There was once a time when every general store in every town had bins, with scoops. Nowadays the attractive stylish “can” or “box” or “carton” is really the commodity Americans are laying out their money for. Reaching for on store shelves. Tearing open with their fingernails, or by the leverage of a pop-top ring. (“Container Corporation of America” was one of my dad’s commercial PR film clients, in the sixties.) What’s inside the container (beer? cereal? Los Angeles tapwater? sugar?) is less an interest or a care.
Years ago, when I was a bartender in Midwest, I remember Pabst Blue Ribbon drinkers scorning Budweiser drinkers. And heaping contempt on Coors. Meanwhile, some were undyingly loyal to Coors and thought Budweiser horse piss. Or were gourmets and appreciated Michelob, looking down upon the guzzlers of Coors. Each of these people – everybody at life’s barbecue – was holding an aluminum cylinder containing pretty much the same stuff, possibly identical stuff, whose unique label design they identified with.
After this China decision on garbage, we American environmentalist liberals, with our “recycling” bins out at the curb heaped up in affluence, we’re about to discover ourselves hip-deep in our own effluent – effluent of the paper kind and the plastic kind, pizza boxes, Amazon Prime cartons. – The old days of our great-grandparents’ filling their own jars or sacks at the store will be hard for the average person to envision, or ever bring back.
* Affluent is Latin for “flowing away.” You’re “affluent” when your wealth is flowing unchecked away from you. Those natural resources in the “recycling” bin at the curb: they are our wealth.
* * * *
“Basurero” – Latin American term for one whose métier is “basura.” They who live in the gully where the avalanche of trash spills, eking a living there. Similar construction to “caballero,” “vaquero,” “marinero.” The point is, we’re all always getting closer to being basureros, if we plan on collectively surviving (with, e.g., compost bucket soup stock, and with salvage lumber pile and recycling archive).
* * * *
September 7, 2017
How to iron out your short story:
Take out any “telling.” Substitute “showing.”
No unlikable protagonists. Ideally, readers must “identify” with a character, which would mean creating a mix of only the proudest aspects of the reader’s personality.
Kill a few darlings, of course.
Above all, sustain the fictive dream. This means that the reader should be able to fall into (and remain in) the swoon of believing that these are actual events transpiring: the reader is supposed to believe that he doesn’t think about an author who is inventing this story, and actually to remain on that level of innocent credulity, throughout.
Such regularization, evidently, can make for a very acceptable and publishable story.
* * * *
September 3, 2017
Squaw Valley. Alone without Brett. The dilapidated risers in the stairs that climb from the Annex to the upper road. The Miller party and the McClatchy party.
To accomplish the annual brush clearing on the hillside, for the first time ever I’ve hired an apparently “undocumented worker,” name of Placido (averted of eye, florid of complexion, bravo of demeanor, disconcertingly middle-aged for this hard work all day on steep slopes under sun). This kind of hiring is, on my scale, extravagant and elitist, but this year necessary/unavoidable. So today I have to bring Placido his packet of cash.
The note Placido left on the doormat, weighted down by a stone:
“PLEASE CALL MI” (followed by given name and matronymic and patronymic, and cell phone number).
This note was jotted on the back of a page that had obviously been rolling around in his car for a long time. On the reverse side was the following information:
Tahoe Forest Hospital District
Thank you for visiting the Tahoe Forest Hospital District-Emergency Department. You have been evaluated today by Brestens, Charles H., MD for the following condition(s):
SUBSTANCE ABUSE: ABUSE OF ALCOHOL
ALCOHOL USE DISORDER WITH ALCOHOL ABUSE. ANXIETY REACTION WITH TOTAL BODY NUMBNESS NOW RESOLVED WITH LOW-DOSE BENZODIAZEPRINE.
Drink plenty of fluids. No alcohol.
Diazepam 5mg: Take orally every 8 hours as needed for anxiety. Dispense fifteen (15) as needed. No refills.
Understanding of the discharge instructions verbalized by patient.
When Placido showed up to get his money, I of course didn’t mention the note. He accepted the cash in sealed envelope and pocketed it without counting it: I had to urge him to count it, to make sure it’s right. He stayed for an hour, solamente para platicar. (Of Trump and immigration troubles, etc, Y sus hijos que no tienen papeles.) He may sometimes drink himself into oblivion, but – at age forty or so – did a much more thorough and scrupulous job clearing weeds than I ever do.
* * * *
“Spencer the Rover,” as sung by Chris on Idyllwild deck:
And his children come around him with their prattle-prattling stories,
With their prattle-prattling stories to drive care away.
And he’s as happy as those
As have thousands of riches.
Contented he’ll remain and not ramble away
* * * *
August 30, 2017
Flooding in Houston.
This Doomsaying Environmentalist might almost get a little schadenfreude pleasure out of this, nature’s revenge on Oil City, but this isn’t funny anymore.
* * * *
August 29, 2017
Back from Lucy’s wedding (wonderful). Back in the saddle.
* * * *
The Vatican has to devise a new, 21st-century policy. What shall they do about the gluten-intolerant supplicant, hands cupped for the wafer of bread? The Holy See issues the following bulletin:
“Low-gluten hosts (partially gluten-free) are valid matter, provided they contain a sufficient amount of gluten to obtain the confection of bread.”
* * * *
June 21, 2017
William Maxwell, who edited fiction at The New Yorker during certain great decades (from Fitzgerald through Nabokov and Cheever and Updike, Salinger and Townsend-Warner and Gallant) was asked whether anything distinguished the magazine’s style. Response: “Something that is characteristic of writers who appear The New Yorker is that the sentence is the unit by which the story advances, not the paragraph.” I find that fascinating. My own work, too, puts a bigger burden on the sentence, in that way.
Lately I’m reading Dreiser, seeing how that now superannuated generation did make paragraphs the unit of narration. Turgid. Philip Roth claims Dreiser as his earliest influence, and one definitely sees that pacing, all that exposition. Even fellow Midwesterner Jonathan Franzen has a bit of the Dreiser-style exposition.
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In long email from John Clark, re: the Diebenkorn/Matisse show:
“Picasso: ‘To copy others is necessary. To copy oneself is abject.”
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May 22, 2017
Sands’s house. All around the dinner table, lots of laughter. Maggie and Luke, Nancy Carlin and Howard and everybody. Barbara meanwhile, in her disorientation and constant panic-stricken distress, has been excused from the table, and from where I sit, I’m the only one at the party who has a steady view of her. She’s in a wing chair in the dim far corner, the fixed look on her face. She makes me think of the Auden poem: “About suffering they were never wrong, the old Masters… They never forgot that even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse scratches its innocent behind on a tree.”
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March 16, 2017
Noticing how disloyal I’m being to this diary. Letting months go by without entering anything. I suppose I get tired of the self-regarding aspect of it. Not knowing really anymore what are my motives for keeping it.
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March 16, 2017
Not to have the battery replaced in Barbara’s pacemaker was a decision made two years ago among the sisters. It seems that, at that time, they were told that the battery would have about two-and-a-half years left. This medical technicians can know with some accuracy.
That was a February afternoon. The implication is, if it comes on schedule, the 2-and-half-year point comes this summer in August. It’s the month of being up in the mountains, the time of tennis in the afternoons, and gin-and-tonic, the time of sleeping outside under the dependable late-summer meteor showers.
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March 14, 2017
Stars are far outshone by full moon. Jupiter is the only lamp visible, because moon’s light is diffused all over the sky, the pair of them, moon and Jupiter looking resplendent together these mornings.
Paradox, counterintuitive: The elderly are tender and impressionable, the young jaded and tough. Long ago, I used to find it a bore that wildflowers are considered to be so cute. Now that I’ve done a lot of thinking about death, not just death as a fantastic inconvenience or threat of misery, but death as a condition of life – I come up the road this morning and see the wildflowers lifting their small trumpets among roadside rocks, and I see, what a heartbreak, what a gift, is their ordinary ambition.
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On the radio are the Nisenan tribe members Wanda and Shelley. When they were here at our house, I didn’t really fully feel the fact that this was their meadow, literally in history, and in the present moment existentially. All my sins are on my head. My brand-new solar inverter is an Israeli product, which, I learn, is manufactured in an occupied West Bank village. So then I go Google-Earth searching for the factory. According to my internet researches, Ein al-Beida is an Arab village traditionally dominated by two old coexisting Palestinian families. The factory land claimed by Israel, adjacent, is shaped like a guitar pick. Or like a Ouija board planchette. Get down on Google-Earth ground-level, on a Palestinian desert highway, there’s a bus stop shelter where two women in hijab wait, their faces blurred by Google’s pixelator algorithm. Can’t find out much more about the situation, so I give up, let my solar panels go on drinking the wealth of the California sun.
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March 9, 2017
Sprayed all fruit trees against fire blight, but I fear through my inaction I may have already lost a couple of apples.
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March 7, 2017
My car is parked by a creek, the freeway rumble audible but – (this is odd) – a hectic perpetual freeway tumult is peaceful. I’m watching a gray bird hop and peck by himself – identifying with him a little bit: the notion of empathy-across-species is still on my mind.
For I think that that small brown bird and I share many assumptions, and are more cousins than not. Sufficient sheer data-storage space for “Assumptions” is about equal, between birdbrain and my own. The assumptions about the world I share with a bird are only slightly less than the assumptions about the world I share with, say, a local car salesman or a brain-damaged homeless man, or our president, Donald Trump:
This bird and I both know what the sun is, for example. That is, maybe I have an extra 0.005% more experience of a certain kind of data about the sun; but he knows richly what most of my experience of – and daily use for – the sun is.
Same goes for gravity. We share knowledge of it.
What a “tree” is. Its uses. A tree’s threats or nuisances. A tree’s beneficence.
He probably knows I’m an “organism,” over here fifteen feet away. Which means he probably assigns me characteristics similar to those I assign to him: activity (motility), unpredictability, some kind of inner mystery, agency, this quality called “life.”
We both know about appetite, and a full belly. And (if only because I’m a potential predator who might lunge and grab him) it’s possible he ascribes “appetites” to me. This even though I’m flightless, featherless, dependent on a two-ton steel carapace for much of my motility. I may deploy other superpowers. So he’ll keep his distance.
He and I, in this sense, share a “contract.” I guess it’s a kind of “social” contract. He probably knows I’m not malicious. But might be hungry. We get along. We can share this patch of greensward. We’ve been sharing it for a million years.
All this knowledge is jointly owned by us not just intellectually, but sensually, too. This knowledge is in our shared biome. It’s in our smell-glands and on our epidermis, and it’s in our brainstems and spines and (bible phrase) our bowels of mercy. By this time, my two-ton steel carapace has carried me on rubber wheels to a different place, where there’s coffee and a newspaper, and I’m still thinking about this bird and the sensuousness of our shared knowledge, when, looking down at a page of the local small-town newspaper, my eye is attracted by an interesting headline, and without thinking, I tap the paper page right there, as if the text of the story, hyperlink-wise, would spring open under my finger.
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March 3, 2017
A writer ought to wonder why people read – why books are written, bought, lingered over at length, then either forgotten or cherished. Today, here, I offer a physiological theory of reading (or maybe or evolutionary theory of reading):
Reading is a slightly unnatural activity. What the organism wants is to be moving about, moving physically, finding food and love and beauty and knowledge. That’s what organisms do.
So reading, as an activity, is then only for the sick one? The one who is too old, or too immature or inutile, for life’s real activities? The one not out foraging or flirting?
Well, there are two motives for the typical human adult organism’s sitting alone reading.
- One is the desire for helpless distraction: By the tricks of narration, a writer can simulate life-or-death situations, amorous situations, situations that stimulate fight-or-flight or reproductive compulsions. Thus a reader can be drawn into wasting time in entertainment only.
- The other is reading to enlarge your viewpoint usefully, to become wise, to change your life. In reading, you can learn about the world, make helpful revisions to your view of human nature, enlarge your own hopes for yourself, learn empathy, devise a sturdier attitude, etc. (This would make reading yet another kind of foraging, searching for resources.)
I suppose the cleverest kind of writer combines the two. But the latter is the more admirable. I guess I’m an elitist: the latter is just superior.
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February 21, 2017
Went alone to see O’Keefe’s play “Times Like These,” in dramatic reading at the Foundry, with an audience talk-back afterward – because author himself had come to town for it. The first question in the talk-back was directed to the author by a middle-aged woman in the front row, “You’re not Jewish! So how can you think about or write about the Jewish experience in the 30s?”
My heart sinks, of course. I complain of this to Eric the Bookseller afterward in lobby. How come people are (supposedly; in these times) only allowed to write about themselves? What would Tolstoy have done under this constraint? What would Eliot or Woolf or Franzen or Chabon or Brophy or Shakespeare or Flaubert or Hilary Mantel have done? Eric’s response is, he happens to be reading two James Baldwin novels presently, both mostly with mostly or entirely white characters. Thou Constabulary of political correctness, where did “empathy” go?
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Thinking about the race-and-ethnicity conversation in this land, as, now in the days of Trump, that conversation has been made more dangerously, hurtfully impolite and, at the same time, maybe more frank and thus more important:
How class– way, way more than race – is a determinant: I’ve had working-class friends who might regularly spout common racist language but then have black pals they drink with in the pub and work alongside, and would attend each other’s weddings and funerals; also, I’ve known finer people who would die before uttering a racial slur, nor ever entertain a politically incorrect thought. But yet would be (quietly, implicitly) just as happy not to have African-Americans around the office too much.
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The standing joke is, how many book titles, these days, follow the formula “The Professional’s Female Relation” – (The Sea Captain’s Wife, The Hangman’s Daughter, etc.) So everyone at the dinner table goes riffing:
The Insurance Adjuster’s Mother-in-Law
The Arby’s Franchise Owner’s Ex-Wife.
Mildly amusing joke but, also, it’s weirdly fundamental or axiomatic with me: how little I’m interested in the sea-captain situation, or the hangman situation. I’m interested in the home and family of the insurance adjuster and the fast-food franchise owner.
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February 18, 2017
Big storm. Lots of flooding around town.
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How, early on, I saw that the writing I liked wasn’t written by adventurers and charismatic celebrities.
A writing mentor of mine told me once – (this was back when I was starting out: I twenty, he fifty-something, he and I in a place on Second Street in Sausalito) – that he didn’t like “closeted scribblers,” rather he favored the writing of people who have had experience in the real world, unique, important experience. In corralling together “closeted scribblers,” I think he was alluding to the stylists publishing then in The New Yorker. I kind of assented, as a young protégé will. But I started thinking. And I started adding them up and decided I must prefer closeted scribblers. To have fought in a war, to have been lost in a jungle, to have hitchhiked across Asia and loved many exotic women, etc., those experiences didn’t necessarily (tho’ they might!) give an author something useful to say about human nature or our particular lives. The people who astonished me, and changed my mind about some things or helped me live, were writers who had, in some important sense, stayed home. They’d written about the village, about their families, their neighbors, themselves. Or, in the rare instances of those who’d gone out abroad, those exotic places, too, were limned as “their village.” The ordinariness and the limitedness of most great writers’ experience can be, paradoxically, a boost. Maybe the soldiers and explorers can be somehow distracted by their life experience, from what matters.
I suppose this is a little bit of an apologia pro vita sua, which maybe I’m allowed at this point – because long ago I did make the active decision, and have continued to intervene this way in my own fate: not to go Paris or join the Merchant Marine or hitchhike cross-country. I was at my post (in my trench, in the saddle) when I was writing at the Dunkin’ Donuts counter, or the IHOP’s vinyl-upholstered booth, Home of the Bottomless Coffee Pot.
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Niccolo Machiavelli, on the subject of reading:
When evening has come, I return to my house and go into my study. At the door I take off my clothes of the day, covered with mud and mire, and I put on my regal and courtly garments; and decently reclothed, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them lovingly, I feed on the food that alone is mine and that I was born for. There I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their humanity reply to me. And for the space of four hours I feel no boredom, I forget every pain, I do not fear poverty, death does not frighten me. I deliver myself entirely to them.
I happen to be holed up with “The Fire Next Time,” James Baldwin – which I’d never looked into, and which Steve sends as a gift, and which well answers Niccolo’s description.
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January 26, 2017
New solar panels go up on garage roof today.
We’ve been without solar energy for five months.
Cost to me, after BPSolar’s warranty-refund and fed tax reduction, is $6,000.
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January 24, 2017
Funny hillbilly moment. Luke and Maggie and Sands and I are playing in the cottage, lamplight mellow, dinner plates still on the table, drams of Scotch glistening, all musical instruments unsheathed and resounding – And in a lull, between songs, it is observed by our guests that that must be chicken shit on the wheel of granny’s walker. Yes. Looks like it. But nobody is going to get up and do anything about it, we’re all laden-down with, for instance, Luke’s great-sounding tenor-guitar, Maggie’s flashing accordion, dobro, etc.
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January 14, 2017
Asparagus goes in, 15 bare-root crowns in central raised bed.
(First sunny day in two weeks. During this week, we in foothills got 18 in. rain total, while local Sierra ski areas got 25 ft. snow)
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Useful new word: “Mbuki-myuki.” It’s Bantu, and it means: “to shed one’s clothing and dance naked in celebration.”
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January 3, 2017
Carburetor of the generator: dismantled, cleaned, rebuilt. (All while lying on cement floor of garage, in this weather, without gloves.) All my life, I think I demeaned or else just pitied men who could clean a carburetor.
Derek Parfit died two days ago on Saturday. A man dedicated to clarity. He’s gone now – I never met him, of course. Didn’t need to of course. What will always remain is the cool, clear, amiable thinking.
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