Reprieve

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Stories await the telling, scenes the description, ideas the unfolding. Terror that time will run out and the long list of magic truth will be locked away in my grave. Horror that the stories are trite, scenes familiar, ideas old compost. Of course they are, I console myself. But your telling, your words, your angle is new. Uniquely yours. Important to at least one other person. I stare at the blank page.

Revulsion boils up. I hate this. I hate the stories that wait to be finished, the stories half done, the stories not started. They taunt me from my imagination—I can never give them life. They will never be good enough, never true to the inspiration, never worthy of a reader’s scrutiny.

Just write it, I urge myself. Write and the vision will unfold. The character will speak his voice and reveal his future. Let the fingers fly over the keys. Words will form and the story will be wonderful.

But wait.

There’s laundry I should start, or I’ll have no clean underwear tomorrow. Floors long past grim, perhaps fifteen minutes with the broom. There’s a call to be made. A business matter to tend. A window framing spring drizzle, grass greening. Thank god.

It was the best of times, it was the worst…

People 3995Traditional publishing versus self-publishing used to be a simple question of whether an author frustrated with barriers to traditional publishing would spend a considerable amount of money to get his cherished story into print. Works published through vanity presses might subsequently gain legitimacy if reviewers found merit in the work. But the vast majority of reviews were solicited by publishers whose process in selecting which works to publish assured reviewers that whatever landed on their desks would at least have a coherent plot and few if any dangling participles.

Then along came Amazon and the proliferation of Internet outlets which allowed authors to upload a manuscript and cover image and place their cherished stories instantly on the market, kicking the estimated annual count of new books to the 300,000 mark. Within a short period of time, the avalanche of not-ready-for-primetime books became more than any erudite reviewer could withstand. “We do not accept self-published books” became emblazoned across the reviewing sky. Indies were left to grope in the dark.

Which is understandable considering the poor quality of many self-published works. Many wanna-be authors rush to publish without a grasp of proper grammar, composition, or plot. This creates a big problem for worthy self-pub authors whose work consequently goes unnoticed.

Some might claim the obvious solution for authors is to embrace the traditional process. Join writers’ groups. Enroll in writing classes and workshops. Submit short stories to literary journals in hopes of winning a prize or being published, which can then be touted as credentials. Find an agent who believes in the work (if not the author). Wade through the agent’s editing process. Wait through the agent’s marketing process. If the agent successfully finds a publisher, wade through the publisher’s editing process. After a couple of years and the best of all possible outcomes, the book hits the market complete with professionally-produced cover, solicited mainstream reviews, and a bit of marketing.

Please note that even when accepted by mainstream publishers, authors are expected to build their own ‘platform’ for getting the word out. To develop such a platform, authors must become a presence in social media, develop promotional materials, blog and host a website, and make public appearances, most if not all at the author’s expense.

All of which ensures that the hopeful author remains broke and left with little time to do the only thing he wants to do: write.

One wonders exactly what authors gain from landing a traditional publishing contract. There’s the affirmation, of course, something writers need more than air. The money can be good if the book takes off, which is what the publisher counts on to justify its interest. But once the publisher skims the lion’s share (you know, expenses) and the agent pulls out his fifteen percent, the author earns precious little for all his hard labor. There’s the argument that the traditional route produces a better quality product. But one might justifiably ask what is left of the author’s original concept once various editors have woven their interpretation into the story.

Indie authors don’t have to compromise their vision or wait two years (or centuries) to present their work to the public. In theory, Indies with authentic writing skill produce well-written, innovative stories that extend and enrich the literary frontier. In practice, many Indies may have an innovative idea behind the urge to write/publish but next to zero skills with which to accomplish this goal. It is this open door to lousy writing which has soured reviewers to Indie work.

None of this is new information. I state it as a starting point: now what? Should a writer plunge into writing short stories and spend $20 a pop entering literary contests? Join writer groups and spend days reading and critiquing other author’s works in exchange for bi-annual scrutiny of her own work? Wait perhaps forever to win a nod from the publishing industry? Self-publish in hopes of modest success with higher profit margins than traditional paths offer and then languish in anonymity?

What are the pros and cons of self-publishing?

Aside from the obvious benefits of professional editing, formatting, and cover design which come with a publishing contract, one enormous con for the Indie is the barrier to gaining reviews from mainstream reviewers like the Washington Post or the New York Times. Let’s take a moment to examine that world.

The romance market dominates book sales, Indie or not. According to one source, romance claims “16.7 percent of the U.S. consumer market in books, the single largest slice for any segment – a third larger than the inspirational book market and roughly equivalent to sci-fi and mystery sales combined, according to Valerie Peterson at About.com.” In 2012, romance sales topped $1.4 billion.

Despite strong standing in book sales, romance novels earn little respect from reviewers (or, in fact, just about anyone in the literary publishing world). One possible explanation for this is the disproportionate number of men within the ranks of reviewers. As noted in a Salon article, “Women read more books than men. Yet every year, according to counts conducted by VIDA, most major publications run more book reviews by men than by women, and review more books by men than by women. In 2013, for example, the London Review of Books had 195 male book reviewers to 43 women reviewers: a ratio of almost 4-to-1. The New York Review of Books was in the same ballpark, with 212 male reviewers to 52 female ones.” http://www.salon.com/2014/02/25/highbrow_medias_sexist_blind_spot_romance_novels/

Taking up the slack in this torrid genre, an industry of amateur, largely female reviewer/bloggers has grown to massive proportions. Many such reviewers begin in the thrill of free books and social community only to quickly sink under the same avalanche that buried traditional reviewers. Countless blog sites languish unattended with a notice “Not accepting submissions.” Requests for reviews often number in the hundreds in just one day.

Amateur reviewers aren’t a perfect solution to the review problem. Many fail to actually review the work. Instead, the reviewer falls back on secondary school experiences of writing book reports which summarize the story. Consequently, these reviews compromise the book for any potential reader. Reviews should give a brief overview of the story concept, a bit about the author, and focus on whether the story was well executed in terms of presentation, plot, character development, and writing craft. Without any certifying agency or criteria by which reviewers might be verified as adept at their work, Indies have no method by which to select worthy reviewers.

Websites exist which purport to connect books with reviewers. But like overwhelmed blogs, such sites can’t promise reviews and an author may list the book and wait. Forever. The well-trafficked Goodreads site hosts author giveaways where books are given to winners in a process that draws attention to the book. Relatively few reviews are generated in the process which costs authors not only hard copies of their books but also the expense of packaging and postage. Groups formed within Goodreads, focused on a particular genre or on read/review offers, devolve into countless posts pleading for reviews and virtually none offering them.

An ugly microcosm of this arena features authors retaliating against reviewers for unfavorable reviews and reviewers dissing authors in endless snarky commentary.

Please.

For authors of fiction works other than romance, the field of blogger/reviewers drops to near zero. In nonfiction, forgetaboutit.

Does one—gasp—pay for reviews?

Writing/publishing advisers recommend strongly against paying for reviews. Yet one of the biggest names in the publishing world, Kirkus Reviews, smoothly promotes itself to prospective customers by offering “the most authoritative book reviews” for the modest price of $425 (7-9 weeks). Or, for authors in a hurry, $575 (4-6 weeks). Into this confusion come  authors exchanging reviews in an implicit quid pro quo of ‘you give me five stars, I’ll give you five stars’ which benefits no one in the long run. Lousy works with five star ratings only discourage readers.

I know of no effort made by Kirkus or anyone else in the ‘legitimate’ publishing industry to develop a free, comprehensive vetting and review system for Indie books. Predictably, book sales slumped in 2014 and are likely to slump even further as free books undermine the industry. It’s not enough that other media and an attention-deficit population have driven book readership to record lows. Publishers aren’t exactly weeping that Indies struggle for a market share.

Aside from reviews, what are an Indie author’s options for attracting readers?

Well, there’s social media. This has become the primary avenue by which authors become acquainted with other authors as well as readers. Writers are advised to interact within this community in order to become ‘known’ and therefore, theoretically, generate more sales for their books. Facebook pages may be author pages, interest group pages (for example, domination/submission groups within the romance genre), and marketing pages which become a blur of post after post of book cover/blurbs generated by hopeful (increasingly frantic) authors trying to generate sales. Unfortunately, this is largely authors trying to sell books to other authors.

There are Facebook pages exclusively for posting notice of books that are available free or for .99, pricing strategies meant to introduce readers to an author in the expectation that once someone reads that person’s work, they’ll purchase more of it. I have no research to support my opinion that this is effective less than 5% of the time. Maybe 1%.

Amazon and other online retailers offer authors a variety of ways to promote as well. If an author grants Amazon exclusive rights to market her work for 90 days, they’ll tout the book to its list of customers who sign up for the benefits. Predictably, the benefits largely accrue to Amazon rather than the author. For example, Amazon can ‘lend’ a book to readers at no charge, theoretically benefiting the author by increasing exposure and potentially the number of reviews. The downside is that most readers don’t bother to review and instead see this Amazon service as a way to get free books. This benefits neither the author nor the industry.

There are strategies for how to categorize the book into a less heavily populated sub-genre and thereby increase the chances for a higher ranking. It’s ranking, after all, which determines which books appear first in searches. Romantic suspense is a smaller field, for example, than simply ‘romance.’ Another ploy with Amazon’s ebook platform is to use word groups in categorizing a new release, thus gaining more potential exposure in Amazon’s algorithmic toying with sales rank. The words ‘domination-submission-menage’, for example, create a narrower field than the word ‘erotic.’

Perhaps the strategy that makes most sense is to heed advice to write more books. Not only does an author continue to improve by writing more, she also gains more credibility by placing more of her work before the public. Variations on this theme would be to (a) schedule a set amount of time to build one’s platform in social media et al while reserving the bulk of available time to writing itself; (b) read the genre one is writing, but also other quality works; and (c) enter contests sponsored by literary journals and universities. Chances are you won’t win the $1000 first place prize, but your entry fee in most cases subscribes you to a year of that journal’s issues which in turn exposes you to the academic side of this seething snake pit of an industry you’re so anxious to join.

 

 

Intellectual Property Theft, Part III

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The Breast Book by Maura Spiegel and Lithe Sebesta, outrageously similar to the manuscript my agent had shopped all over New York, performed even worse with readers than the dry work of Marilyn Yalom. At present, Amazon.com finds the book out of print with nine reviews: five 5 star, one 4 star, and three 3 star. Goodreads shows one review and sixteen ratings with a 3.75 average.

One of the book’s biggest drawbacks was its format—too precious for serious readers with a four-by-six inch sideways layout and a ten-point font. The text had been edited to a barely-coherent minimum. The publisher attempted to balance cost with the relatively untried market for a book on breasts. Hardly the loving extravaganza I had in mind, the book became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Determined to gain justice, I collected my carefully outlined fifty-three points of comparison plus the hard copy of the book and visited an intellectual rights attorney. A week later he called to say that yes, there were “certain uncanny similarities” but that he wasn’t in a position to pursue the matter against the publisher. The reality was that in order to sue for copyright infringement, I’d have to hire a New York attorney because that’s where Workman Publishing offices were located.

In order to have grounds to sue, I’d have to prove ‘damages,’ i.e. show that the money produced by the book would have been mine if not for their theft. Since at that point no one knew what money the book would produce, I had to wait to see if the book became a big seller. I’d also have to figure out how to determine the book’s sales. And I would have to come up with money for that New York attorney, or convince him there would be such a large settlement in this lawsuit that he’d be happy to take it on contingency.

Not.

Was all this simply a horrible case of bad timing and “uncanny” coincidence? I’ll never know. But it taught me a lesson about publishing: it’s a very nasty bucket of snakes. Cut throat tactics run rampant in a world where lazy people with few if any original ideas of their own prey on those of us rich with ideas and short on connections. Publishing, like anything else, is full of ‘who you know’ and glad handed back biting. Perhaps a book published by a mainstream publisher enjoys legal protection against theft. But before it hits the street, there is no protection.

Copyright? Oh, it sounds good. But the burden of proof lies in the claimant. There are no copyright cops walking around checking on these things. If an author is lucky enough to discover a work has been pirated, there’s still the need for attorneys. (Read: money.)

With self-publishing, the author has an advantage in getting the book to print without anyone siphoning the manuscript or concepts, but unfortunately that hasn’t eliminated theft. Now it simply occurs after publication. Lifting an electronic file of a book isn’t exactly rocket science. Stories abound of books for sale through unauthorized channels without any royalties going to the author. Or major sections of books end up in someone else’s publication. I’ve recently heard of an author losing chunks of a manuscript to a wanna-be writer after trusting that person to read and review the work.

Overall, I’d rather take my chances and continue to self-publish than wait months even years for my idea to wind through industry channels of agent, editor, and publishing process. At least with self-pub, I can earn 70% of the sale price on an ebook and 30-50% on a paperback. With traditional publishing, I’d be paid a dollar on the sale of a $16.95 book, and the agent would get fifteen percent of that.

Stealing is a white trash thing to do, whether it’s taking someone’s package off their porch, downloading an illegal movie or song, or ripping off parts of a book. Fortunately for musicians, writers, and other artists, there’s some small solace in the pleasure we find  shaping our ideas into real-world forms. Slime bag thieves who steal our ideas may gain a few dollars for their trouble but the miserable creeps will never know the joy of the creative process.

Maybe a breast book as I envisioned it, told passionately, would have hit the market with the same dull thud as did the works of Yalom and Siegel/Sebesta. After all, breasts are magical in multiple arenas and words, even photos, cannot capture the essence of that magic. I doubt I’ll make another run at the project. I’ve discarded most of my research but haven’t let go—yet—of the manuscript. Tossing that into the trash would be akin to cutting off a breast.

Intellectual Property Theft, Part II

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Revived in hope of still capitalizing on my fabulous notion, my new version of the breast book followed these chapter headings:

  • When Breasts Were Bare: Why Fat Breasts? The Shape is the Thing; Apples and Other Allegations; Definition of Female: To Suckle; The Breast: Site of the Soul; Clan of the Breast Queen
  • Get Those Women Out of Here: From bare breasted goddesses to shrouded wives, Sumeria to Rome. What do breasts say about falling from grace?
  • The Amazon: Women of lore who gave up a breast to fight
  • The Breasts of My Distress: Cesspools of sin, women head for cover; how did that lead to corsets and décolletage? Only witches wear their breasts loose; breasts as ornaments
  • Restless Breasts: Breasts in Revolution; A Victorian Life; Women’s Liberation; The Birth of a Fetish; A brief history of breast coverings; Pop culture and breasts
  • Glands, Ducts, and Fat (physiology)
  • Mother’s Milk (milk and human reproduction)
  • Pointedly Erotic (sexual response, arousal, pornography)

Appendices would include personal stories about breast cancer, breast augmentation, breast size. A running text along the bottom of the pages would chronicle the many slang terms for breasts. Chapters would begin with a poem.

Richard began shopping the manuscript around NYC. By January 1999, it was in the hands of four houses. He said length was the primary issue among editors he talked with, but agreed that if they had any vision for the project, they would recommend cuts and help shape the focus.

No one did. New York City froze for a while after 9/11. My idea died cleanly in early 2002 when a cutesy little book came out by Workman Publishing. Entitled ‘The Breast Book,’ it was authored by Maura Spiegel and Lithe Sebesta, two young women who worked in New York City and had connections in the publishing industry.

I bought the book and again experienced shock at the similarities between this and my second manuscript. Furious, I carefully documented the fifty-three main points where the new book paralleled my manuscript. Here are a few examples:

The poem I quoted at the beginning of Chapter 1: “There is something between us.” From “Breasts,” by Donald Hall.

The poem Spiegel and Sebesta quoted at the beginning of Chapter 1: “There is something between us.” From “Breasts,” by Donald Hall.

My first chapter, opening paragraph addresses the question of why women have fat breasts. “Why do women have them? No other animal breasts swell to such voluptuous proportion unless they are producing milk. Even for the chimpanzee, whose genetics are less than two percent variant from humans, the female chest hosts only an insignificant nipple except when feeding young.”

Their first chapter, opening paragraph: “…humans are the only mammals whose females have breasts that are permanently enlarged. While in other mammalian species the paps grow full only during lactation when the mother is suckling her young, female humans are perpetually endowed…”

Second paragraph, mine: “Is there some evolutionary basis for fat breasts?”

Their second paragraph: “Evolutionists have pondered why women developed this outstanding trait.”

Over the second and third page, I discussed various theories of breast fatness, specifically the Desmond Morris idea: that “…primate males mount their females from the rear…primate males must have been naturally stimulated by the sight of buttocks…what if milk-filled breasts reminded the males of buttocks…”

Theirs: “According to writer Desmond Morris, ‘If the female of our species was going to successfully shift the interest of the male round to the front, evolution would have to do something to make the frontal region more stimulating…’”

Next page, mine: “…fat stored in breasts helped provide food to nursing youngsters even when the rest of the tribe went hungry. The female body’s ability to store fat before and during milk production unquestionably assured survival in hard times.”

Theirs: “…[breasts] simply functioned as fat storage areas for females who evolved under nutritional stress. Ancestral humans walked long and far in search of food and they needed fat storage for years of lactation.”

And on it goes, page after page:

Mine: “Most women’s breasts are not equal in size.”

Theirs: “Many women’s breasts are unevenly matched, with one slightly larger.”

Mine (chapter on nursing): The nipple and skin of the areola darken from pink to a brownish color as a woman progresses through pregnancy and with each successive pregnancy.”

Theirs: “…the areola darkens and spreads, sometimes to a shockingly different shape and color.”

Mine (chapter on physiology): “Sometimes…a person is born with extra nipples (polythelia). Occasionally, nipples appear at such unrelated sites as the armpits, stomach, and pelvic region and, rarely, some breast tissue develops in these locations (polymastia).”

Theirs: “An estimated one percent of the human population breaks the rule with either polythelia (extra nipples) or polymastia (extra breast tissue).”

Mine: “In recent years, some women have been arrested for breastfeeding in public…”

Theirs: “In 1975, three women in a Miami park were arrested for indecent exposure while nursing their infants.”

Mine: Regarding the progression of breast coverings through Western culture, I cite Crete and present images and description of bare breasted goddesses

Theirs: same

Mine: Medieval Europe, “The old garb of plain loose chemise underneath coarse woolen robes gave way to finer fabrics and tailoring. Among the favored features of women’s dresses was the tight-laced bodice made possibly by the invention of the corset, which consisted of two layers of linen stiffened with glue.”

Theirs: Women “traded their loose tunics” and “hit upon the innovative front-lacing corset.”

Mine: “During the time of Queen Elizabeth, upper class women experimented with steel corsets which laced up the back. These were lined with thin silk and served to flatten the breasts and give an upright posture…”

Theirs: “Elizabeth I chose rigid corseting that minimized her femininity while enhancing her authority. In such tight girdling, she must indeed have walked with unbending majesty.”

Mine: Historical review of breast improvement methods including creams, exercises, and surgeries. I cited annual plastic surgeries statistics.

Theirs: Historical review of breast improvement methods including creams, exercises, and surgeries. Cited annual plastic surgeries statistics.

I discussed size, is bigger better? Their section “Is Bigger Really Better?”

I discussed augmentation surgery, including price, silicone use, “hardening around the implant” (capsular contracture) and loss of nipple. They discussed augmentation surgery including price, silicone use, “capsular contracture” and loss of nipple.

I discussed ‘falsies,’ the history of their development and advertising terms such as “lemon bosoms.” Their heading: “The truth about falsies,” including history of their development and “lemon bosoms.”

I discussed the breast as a symbol: “Basic symbols derive from the idealized breast image, a circle within a circle…” Their heading: “Magic Circle.” “A round within a round…”

I briefly discussed breast tattoos and provide one photo from a collection. Spiegel and Sebesta briefly discussed breast tattoos and USED THE SAME PHOTO.

I could go on, but I fear you, dear reader, may tire of the tirade. Suffice it to say that if I mentioned Amazons and the derivation of the word in Greek (a=without, mastos=breast), they did too. If I mentioned strip tease and the casual exposure of the breast, so did they. If I related the story of St. Agatha in my group of stories about breast mutilation, so did they, including the same image of breast-shaped baked goods served on a tray. I presented the bare-breasted image of liberty by Delacrois in conjunction with its analysis by Anne Hollander. So did they.

In my appendix of slang terms for breasts, I begin with “abbondanzas, abundance, airbags, angel cakes, apples…” And yes, they have a list of slang terms, too, beginning with “abbondanzas, abundance, angel cakes, antiaircraft guns, apples…”

Those clever girls.

What did I do about this? Check my next post, coming soon.

A Journey West, Part 5/5

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Highway One Santa Cruz, early morning fog

My last night, again too anxious to get a good night’s sleep, I rise early for my flight home. The fog is in along the coast. Overnight chill permeates the distinctly scented air. Stately redwoods stand in silent observation as we merge into Highway One’s rush hour traffic.

Much as I dreaded the journey, I feel nothing but happiness that I came. Spending time with loved ones wrenches me, lingers like a lump in my stomach. Good that aircraft exist. A hundred years earlier, anyone traveling this far left loved ones behind forever.

San Jose airport. I say goodbye to my first born, swallowing back tears. Again I am thrust into a sea of humanity also venturing out into the world. Security is less stressful, boarding less crowded. Maybe I’m slightly inured.san jose copy

The gods smile on my seating, this time next to a window and not over a wing. My forehead presses the glass as the lumbering beast leaves ground and the wheels thump into the plane’s belly. Below spreads San Francisco Bay, San Jose, and streets, buildings, cars, and lives growing smaller by the moment. In striking resemblance to a circuit board, a network of roads, industrial complexes, and neighborhoods form the landscape below. Each serves a critical function, interdependent, vital, alive. Civilization, California style, 2014.

Last distant view of the Pacific. Goodbye salty spray, kelp-scented air. Long gray-blue line beyond jagged dark blue mountains. Horizon.

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Delta–Mendota Canal (left) and the California Aqueduct (right) near Tracy, California. Courtesy Ian Kluft

Soon the vista below changes to a patchwork of brown and green fields in the inner valley. Aqueducts glimmer blue-green. Bare brown hillocks become the southern Sierra Nevada range.

Across Nevada and then Utah, I marvel at the extent of this desolation. I’ve seen it all before, drove it more than once, but this time it seems even more a wasteland than I had previously considered. A handful of places feature a circular green patch and make me wonder who would struggle to pull water from the depths to grow anything in such a place. Even across New Mexico, the vista unfolds in desert tones of gray, tan, and ochre.desert copy

For the first time, I feel fear for us as a nation, for people everywhere, who confront the loss of rain as land slowly turns barren. For all our irrigation trenches, dams, and pipelines, in the end we are powerless to stay Mother Nature’s hand. Without fresh water, we can’t survive.

The land greens slightly in central Texas and by the time my commuter flight to Northwest Arkansas circles for landing, fertile green fields and thickly wooded hills welcome me home. Unlike the West Coast, the Ozark plateau is among the oldest land masses on the continent. I feel its old bones in me, welcoming me, holding me close in its eroded creek bottoms and smoothed down ridges.

Safely landed and walking to my car, I hear a familiar chorus of crickets and katydids. The air smells of cut hay and crushed weeds. For all my anxiety and curmudgeonly angst, I’m glad I went. I’ve been reintroduced to a world wider than me. I’ve shared a brief happy time with people I love and who love me. I’ve plugged myself into the Pacific for a deep charge of my psychic batteries.

I’ve been renewed.

A Journey West, Part 4/5

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Artichoke. Courtesy Jeb Campbell

lettuce

Fields of lettuce. Courtesy Jeb Campbell

One of the last days of my California trip featured a venture to Monterey and Seaside where my son lives. The old coast road, Cabrillo Highway, Highway One, muddled south out of Santa Cruz, Soquel, and Aptos in heavy traffic that cleared some after Rio Del Mar. The four lanes narrowed to two for nine miles through fertile agricultural lands. Fields of artichoke, Brussel sprouts, strawberries, lettuce, and kale lined either side of the aging highway. I wondered about irrigation—more wells, more groundwater. How long do these farmers have if the drought continues?

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Dunes. Courtesy Jeb Campbell

The fields gave way to huge sand dunes colonized by dune grass and invasive ice plant. Called ‘relic landscapes,’ the dunes occupy a wide swath between the road and the Pacific. According to local authorities, the dunes may shift but are thousands of years old. New ones aren’t forming. Older landscapes of rock and sand slightly more inland provide basis for roads, shopping centers, and neighborhoods. We followed the road around this last tip of the great Monterey Bay arc.

monterey-bay

Looking north to distant outline of Monterey Bay coast, from Sunset Drive, Monterey, California

It was a clear day, brilliant blue sky above and the bay vista stretched fogless twenty-four miles north to Santa Cruz. I thought of the Native Americans who made use of every living thing given by the sea and the fishermen who came on the heels of the Spanish missions to exploit the rich sealife nourished in the recesses of the three-thousand foot deep Monterey trench. I thought of the generations of immigrants—Chinese, Italian, Portugese—who settled here to wrest a living from the land and Pacific Ocean.

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Jewels of the sea: kelp strand, mussels, anemone. Courtesy Deste Campbell

At the seaside route around the Asilomar retreat grounds, we parked and walked a short distance to the water’s edge. The tide was outbound. Waves curled onto the sand and crashed against rugged rock outcroppings. Gulls patrolled the beach, peeking into straggles of kelp torn from its offshore forest. Washed up kelp leaves flared from narrow stalks long as a bullwhip. Hordes of tiny insects swarmed the tangled kelp heaps. Tide pools hosted anemone communities and mussel thickets in colors too amazing to believe.

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Jelly, one of many types in this bay. About two inches long. Courtesy Deste Campbell

I could sit all day here, fully entertained by nothing more than the movement of the water. A few surfers in wet suits challenged themselves in the unforgiving breakers. Others, like me and my kids, were content to walk at the high water line, happy to be occasionally caught off guard by a stealthy wave whooshing up to wet our legs. If this was all there was—if there were no bills to pay, schedules, obligations—would I make my life about watching the sea?

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Me with Deste and Jeb at Asilomar beach. Thanks Jeb.

Too short is the time at my son’s home, sitting in his living room, touring his garden, smiling as I visit with his family. I’m envious of his ten-minute drive to the beach. Sad as my daughter and I pull away from his home, I can’t look back.

Is an oceanside sojourn the future for my son, this child who became a man when I wasn’t watching?

Or my daughter, happily settled in the hills of her new home near Eugene, Oregon, an hour and half drive from the coast?

Those are among a thousand alternate lives I could have lived close to the sea. The waves murmur and slosh, crash and growl. Another world. I miss it already.

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Filtered beach shot. Courtesy Deste Campbell

A Journey West, Part 3/5

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San Lorenzo River

Part of my agenda for this trip to Santa Cruz and environs had to do with a novel I’m writing. I arrived with a list of locations to scout. Thanks to Ginny and Jeb’s patient chauffeuring and on other days my daughter’s use of a borrowed car, we managed to tour neighborhoods, the campus, the business districts, and the beach. I made copious notes.

Questions arose. Why is the San Lorenzo River dry at the crossing of Highway 1 and full of water further downstream near the coast? Why is Fire Break Road shown on the map stretching from Empire Grade down to the backside of campus but doesn’t exist in the real world?

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Alemany Farmers Market, Bernal Heights, San Francisco. First farmers market in California, established in 1943.

A flurry of investigation resulted in answers. The San Lorenzo is dry because of a two year drought, and the lower riverbed holds captured water because of a sand bar blocking the mouth where it drains into the Bay, creating what amounts to a long lake. No answer on the missing road.

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Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, on left. Courtesy http://www.planetware.com

We spent a day in San Francisco, tracking sites of my fictional events. The Alemany farmers market is surrounded by steep hillsides with rows and rows of colorful houses built literally wall to wall.

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Deste and I walk toward the point at Golden Gate

The Embarcadero  stretches along its long waterfront up to the Presidio—shops, wharfs, boats in sheltered marinas, mobs of tourists.

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Jeb and I ponder a large outcrop of serpentinite rock at the point. First pier of Golden Gate Bridge looms above. Photo courtesy Deste Campbell.

We walked along the old airplane landing strip, Crissy Field, and pondered the Civil War era red brick structures at Fort Point. Directly overhead, traffic thundered onto the Golden Gate Bridge. The narrow drive skirted a sharp embankment of crumbling pale green serpentinite that slopes down to sea level.

bunker

Standing on top of concrete bunker where guns were once mounted. Presidio, San Francisco. Photo courtesy Jeb Campbell

We drove up along the west-facing oceanfront cliffs of the Presidio where groves of redwoods shelter World War II artillery batteries. Ghosts of men in uniform seem to emerge from hovering redwood thickets. The urgent need to guard against invasion left its acrid residue in the air, in the massive concrete bunkers, along the pathways carved through the rugged terrain. What threats, real or imagined, kept these men awake at night, shivering in the cold coastal wind?

burmese

Burma Superstar, San Francisco

Lunch involved Ginny’s son Warren and his family at a hole-in-the-wall place on Clement Street serving Burmese food. After a wait on the sidewalk made friendly by a bench and hot tea, our party of eight was seated at a large round table.

How does one describe a Burmese feast? Savory catfish chowder, thick lentil/cabbage soup, lamb curry, coconut chicken rice noodle curry, tea leaf salad, crisp samusas—the large lazy susan kept turning as we sampled our way to gluttony.

Sated by our delicious meal, we said our goodbyes to Warren and his family. Our search for story settings then led south along the coast following the “Great Highway.” Densely populated streets disappeared behind us as the road merged with Highway 35. Soon our path became Skyline Boulevard as we neared Daly City. Our objective? The great and powerful magic spot at Mussel Beach, where the San Andreas Fault leaves land and enters the Pacific.

mussel rock

At Mussel Rock, looking north by northwest along the trajectory of the San Andreas Fault.

We missed the turn-off, assuming that such an important spot would be well marked. After doubling back, we found Mussel Beach disappointingly under-developed and lacking any signage that might describe the forces at work underfoot. The narrow shelf of land broke upward to the east with a steep eroding hillside and to the west down a sharp crumbling embankment to the turbulent surf below. Offshore, waves pounded the tilted outcrops of broken rock which continued the fault’s northward journey. The mostly paved ‘park’ area rolled and humped over conspicuously-disturbed ground. Multiple patches in the asphalt provided evidence of the fault line’s restless character.

houses at Mussel B

Mussel Rock shown with neighborhoods behind it. Rock outcrop from previous photo appears lower right.

Hovering above the precarious cliff faces and uneven terrain, housing developments cling to steep hillsides and beg the question of how anyone could in good conscience build houses literally on top of a major fault. The neighborhood centers on an elementary school and seems inhabited mostly by lower income residents. I took notes for my story as we rejoined Skyline Drive.

rr tracks Los Gatos copyThe drive back south along Highway 280 tracked the trajectory of the infamous fault. The miles-deep gash forms a valley between the Santa Cruz Mountains on the west and the less dramatic hills and rolling lands of the southern Bay communities of San Mateo, Redwood City, and Santa Clara. For part of the distance, San Andreas Lake glimmers in the day’s bright sunlight. Angling west onto Highway 85, and then Highway 17, we soon crossed over the fault itself at Los Gatos. The four-lane road jagged and bumped as it crossed the extended disturbance.

Then back to Santa Cruz. It struck me at this point that highways and landmarks tell only part of the story of what it means to be here. Less specific but more important is the feeling of the place. A unique scent permeates the air—pine, salt, kelp, eucalyptus. And something else I can’t name. It lingers in my clothing, on my skin.

The light is clean, thin, sharp. Fog rolls in and drapes over the roofs, hides the tree tops, waxes and wanes along the shore so that at one moment you see the lighthouse on the point, the next moment it disappears.

The whole place sits on an edge. The edge of the sea. The edge of light. The edge of visibility.

Here is the edge of North America, not part of the land mass that comprises the bulk of the continent but a sliver of earth’s crust emerging from the sea to shove eastward and cling to its reluctant partner continent. The energy of the rebel, the upstart, the adolescent swells from this nascent ground, lending its attitude to the human settlements that occupy it. From the shore eastward for a hundred miles, this new land presses its case, shoving up mountains and sliding along the tear called the San Andreas fault. Countless other faults branch off from it, all mute testimony to the mind-boggling forces at work on our planet.

You can’t live along the California coast and not feel the energy of this subterranean collision. What better place to set a novel that deals with the frontiers of human consciousness?