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.

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Ozarks. Courtesy http://btoellner.typepad.com

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 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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

Goat on the Road

goatI met a goat on the road today. He approached from the opposite direction, running at a steady but moderate pace—not a gallop but more of a trot. It seemed about the same speed as my car had reached, as fast as I felt like driving on a hot August morning when a faster speed would have generated billowing plumes of dust from the powder dry land. He ran in a straight line along the roadway, his intention of uninterrupted travel quite apparent in his demeanor. He needed to be somewhere.

He was a small goat, not exactly a Nubian or Toggenberg but of some mixed breed, with a confidence attesting that in spite of his lesser size, he was most assuredly full grown. His foot-long horns flared from the top of his head up past his ears and off to each side of his black-marked face. The only other markings on his white body were on his legs, black from the knee down. His body held the features of a potent male, well-muscled in the chest and shoulders, his sides curved in health.

As it happened, we took the wrong sides of the road as we approached each other. He seemed to favor the right side of the road and I did not find it necessary to confront him about it. No doubt he had skipped the part of driving lessons that taught the proper side of road, but then perhaps not, since he was a goat and goats have their own firm opinions about what they will and won’t do at any given moment in time, rules be damned

We considered each other with curiosity as we slowed in meeting, a greeting and courtesy that, on reflection, I concede should not be limited to human travelers. His gold-flecked eyes came directly to mine, the black pupil slits narrowed against the sun already brilliant in the hot sky. It was not a hostile exchange, since I was quite willing for him to go on about his urgent business that called to him from somewhere to the west. For myself, I was already late for business to the east.

His expression conveyed a world weary understanding that we all have places we must go, or return to, in the course of conducting our daily affairs. It was not immediately clear whether he was coming or going, but then neither was that really any of my concern. His gold-eyed appraisal was brief and to the point, whether I was someone he knew, whether I meant him any trouble, whether I had any rolled oats he might nibble before continuing on his way. In moments, he gained the answers to his queries and began to move on.

Likewise, my glance carried questions. Was he seeking assistance? Was there any trouble? Was there anything I should do? No, it was clear nothing was required of me. His flat black nose lifted slightly, a nod of acknowledgment which I returned before thinking that I was, in fact, conversing with a goat.

I eased my foot off the brake and the car rolled eastward, tires crunching on the hot gravel. He hurried on without a backward glance which I knew only because I gave a backward glance in my rearview mirror. I did not ponder whether a goat, like fabled dogs and a few cats, might travel to find a family that moved on without him, or whether, once moved to quarters not exactly to his likely, he might make his escape and return to his preferred location.

Those were questions not to be answered unless I followed him. If I followed, as if examining a quark, I would have altered our original trajectories.

~~~

I’m wondering if this is a common occurrence–have you ever met a goat on the road?

One of twenty delightful essays about life on an Ozark hilltop, with watercolor illustrations. I Met A Goat On The Road: and other stories of life on this hill is available as e-book or in paperback.

Waah!

ID-10090006I admit it. Displays of emotion bother me. I’m not talking about a quick hug or peck on the lips in greeting, or a quiet dab of handkerchief at the corner of the eye. And laughter of just about any level slips past my discomfort zone.

It’s the wailing and shrieking of grief that sets my teeth on edge, a face wadded up with tears streaming, shoulders hiccupping. Whoever is suffering to this extreme shouldn’t be watched. Grief on display is, to me, a bit of fakery, or at least exaggeration, an attempt to garner attention and sympathy.

Similarly, I don’t want to observe someone convulsing in pain. If it’s an emergency, I would be the first to summon medical care or do what I could to relieve the injury. But if there’s nothing to be done, if the person is recovering from surgery or an illness and the moans and groans tumble from his lips in a constant agony, unless it’s a loved one who can benefit from my bedside assurances, I don’t need to be there.

It’s not that I deny soul-stirring experiences. But to me, these moments of extremis should be kept private. This was how I was raised, likely a tradition hearkening back to my cultural origins in the British Isles where a stiff upper lip practically goes without saying. I suspect an evolved survival instinct at work here. Indisposed by injury or seized in grief, a person is unaware of a lurking threat who means to take advantage.

And it’s not that I myself don’t wail and sob in sorrow, or writhe with a crushing headache. But I do it alone, behind closed doors, where I’m assured that no one observes. Alone, I am safe to let down my defenses and lick my wounds in solitude.

I’m one of those people who don’t want a hospital stay to become the next big event. I’m very appreciative of new laws requiring the hospital to gain my explicit permission before allowing anyone to wander into my room. Once, years ago, as I lay in a hospital bed in considerable discomfort following surgery, I was set upon by do-gooders from my mother’s church who stood at the bedside and murmured various platitudes as if (a) I could actually comprehend what they were saying through the fog of pain meds, (b) their words somehow provided me important comfort, and (c) we could all pretend that their visit had little to do with anything but a kind of distorted voyeurism. I hardly knew them. I was outraged, but of course I couldn’t leap up and show them the door, which—I think—may have contributed to their pleasure in being there.

Like church do-gooders, many people evidently get off on watching other people expose themselves. This would explain the otherwise incomprehensible rise of various types of television shows where people intentionally throw their bodies through sadistic obstacle courses, or wade into a competition for a love partner, or allow cameras to track their every private moment. Who are these people? And I don’t mean just those crazy or desperate enough to submit to this kind of “challenge.” Who watches this stuff? Who wants to observe someone farting, or gasping for air, or sobbing in humiliation? Ye gods! Spare me.

Is it a good thing that people are recently more willing to exhibit their pathos for public consumption? Some argue ‘yes,’ that it is only when we acknowledge our feelings that we can breathe through the suffering and grow as a person. But please note—I’m not advocating for denial of feelings. I for one am confident I can acknowledge my feelings and ‘grow’ without subjecting those around me to the process. Please explain how exactly internal growth benefits from an audience? If anything, the audience factor dilutes the event’s vehemence and immediacy.

Is emotive denuding a new kind of drug? Are we reducing our most heart-felt moments to ridicule and (excuse me, it’s time for popcorn) commonality as another way to avoid really feeling what we’re feeling? Are we watching gladiators fight for their lives while laughing in the stands? At what point do we connect the dots between routine trivialization of sensibilities and killing without compunction?

But pardon me while I change hats. I am not only an extremely private person but also an author, striving to create stories that someone wants to read. And while I myself will not let my personal emotions slip past my mask, I have to keep in mind that my characters will gain no purchase among readers if they do not spill their guts all over the page. In order to breathe life into made-up people, I must make them laugh, cry, tremble in terror, and contort in agony. Whether the descriptions of these various feelings are torrid or restrained as befits the tone of the story, characters must reflect their intimate experience of love or battle in ways that reflect what the reader would expect of a real person. My bias against overt expressions of passion thus works against me in my writing.

Consolation in this conflict between what I do and what I write lies in the fact that my stories are a private experience between the reader and the page. Even more to the point, the way in which I develop and expose characters to events that wring their hearts and tear their flesh is in itself a private process contained within the scene and its circumstances. Beyond that point, if the day arrived that a story of mine appeared on television or the big screen where all those intense moments were exposed to the scrutiny of large audiences, I myself would not be able to watch.

Oh, Writing

Performing Arts 0063Wake up. Shower. Dress. Computer—Pandora on New Age Electronic, email two accounts. Facebook sometimes, if I’m not deep in a project.  All that angst and friendly chatter impacts the story, the dialogue, the next scene that has penetrated my dreams, followed me to the toilet at one a.m., hovered around me until this moment.

This moment, when I start to write… Wait, make a cup of tea, get a glass of water. Eat a pear to stave off serious hunger, to buy at least an hour before I have to deal with food. Get the document open, remind myself of where I quit the day before, edit, equivocate, pep talk about how I’ll get there, how it will work out, how to let go and let the words flow.

Finally, the hunger becomes overpowering. It’s 9:30 a.m. I’ve barely geared up into the mind-frame of the story, what century I’m in, what character is speaking through my voice. I tear myself away to the kitchen for a bowl of granola, not in itself a major task, but then I’m reminded that I meant to do dishes yesterday, and the goldfish is swirling frantically in the tank, signaling in big gorps that it’s past feeding time.

And then there’s the guilt that comes in looking at cat food bowls now empty, cat water below their preferred level of freshness, dog food bowls also down to a few crunchies, and laundry wrinkling in the dryer. I should tend all these things, check the folder of bills due, write some checks, go to town for groceries.

NO! Carry bowl of granola to desk, sloshing milk on the floor (clean it up later) and get back into the story. The person. The scene. Belly shuts up loaded with granola and milk. I have maybe three hours now before my body makes other demands. Well, yes, I need to pee.

The hunger starts around eleven, but I sip the cold remnants in my tea cup and try to ignore the nagging voice in the back of my head. What will you have? Do you need to cook? What about grocery shopping? Finally angry with a hunger headache hovering in the top of my head, around 12:30 I peel myself away from the desk, the plot, the people, and try to find something to eat.

The kitchen is a wasteland. Oh, sometimes I’m very good and prepare a stew or chili or a pot of beans, anything that might work for several meals. I can eat stuff I’m tired of if I’m hungry enough. Open a can of blackeyed peas and have it with a bread and butter sandwich. Heat up the meager leftovers from last night’s supper, left in a thoughtful moment for this very purpose. I can no longer force myself to eat microwaved one-dollar frozen entrees, and peanut butter and honey on crackers is pretty much on its way out as well. Lunch, in other words, is hell.

But—I must eat, because I live inside a freaking biological entity that requires food. Once the belly is silenced, I’m back to the computer and this thing that drives me, this play of words, this world—multiple worlds—screaming for release from inside my head. More hours. My hips ache. My back aches. I want never to do anything but write, but the plants in my solar porch are shriveling. The floor begs for a broom. I have errands to run.

Cholesterol is gathering.

And phone calls, oh please God not the phone. Relatives, friends, whoever thinks it’s his or her duty to wish me a happy birthday, or Merry Christmas. Chat. Please take note. My happiest birthday truly would be a day left utterly and serenely alone, perhaps food served at my desk, the house cleaned while I don’t watch. Bills paid by magic, without me wrangling over every last dime, juggling which gets paid first, which waits until a bit more money finds its way into my accounts.

It would be dishonest of me not to say that I own two deeply mortgaged commercial rental properties, a total of sixteen units in one which are rehearsal studios for rock bands, and a total of ten units in the other which are low-cost entry level downtown business spots for fledgling entrepreneurs. These properties also have bills to pay and endless drama. Vacancies and eager new faces come and go. It’s a business. It’s how I pay my home mortgage, electric, and the numerous and sundry costs for existence in this world. Well, maybe not new clothes this year… I thank myself often for having the foresight oh so long ago to pursue these bits of real estate. Without it, I’d be working in some else’s employ into the dim days of my antiquity.

Never mind the dream that someday, with due diligence and supreme good fortune, this play with words might actually produce meaningful income. I can’t think about that. It’s too much to hope for, too out of the norm for all us who stumble along this writerly path.

So by four or perhaps five p.m. depending on the story, the people spilling onto the screen at the stroke of the keys, my creative juices finally dwindle to a drip and my writing day ends. In all, if I’m blessed with the least possible number of distractions, I’ve been able to write/plot/dream a total of eight hours. I collapse on the couch to watch mindless television, have a drink (or not) and deal with the last demon, that monolithic hurdle of What To Have For Dinner.

The body is relentless. As are the plants, cats, dog, goldfish gorping again at me from his tank, the dirt caked on my hapless Honda, the twigs and other debris littering my porch, the dust bunnies taunting me from the corners, the laundry still wrinkled in the dryer.The evening sinks into a war between my guilt for so many shortcomings and quickly jotted notes as one, perhaps another, plot point resolves itself in my subconscious.

The bed looks good, refuge, haven. But by the time I’ve wrestled my night’s sleep thru distant gangs of howling coyote, a relentless full moon, and the continuing bits of dialogue slipping in and out from wherever it lives, I’m ready to get up. It’s dawn. The story calls.