Monday, April 21, 2014

Bring It, Birthday Week


You know Ima find me some sotol to fill this.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Who Likes It?

Mary Ruefle shares an Osage poem she translated into English when she was young:

To have to carry your own corn far—
who likes it?
To follow the black bear through the thicket—
who likes it?
To hunt without profit, to return weary without anything—
who likes it?
You have to carry your own corn far.
You have to follow the black bear.
You have to hunt to no profit.

If not, what will you tell the little ones? What will you
speak of?
For it is bad not to use the talk which God has sent us.

My version today begins something like:

To have to clean you own cupboard shelves—
who likes it?

Then on This American Life (as I’m cleaning the cupboards) I hear stories of coincidence. The theme is No Coincidence, No Story—based on a Chinese proverb, I believe, that suggests that all stories are based on a happening of coincidence. Is there meaning in coincidence? As someone who has experienced many coincidences in my life, I do not attribute meaning to them. Maybe it’s because I see coincidences where others may not; this is certainly a point made in the radio show. I’m someone who sees patterns easily. And what I’ve learned is that patterns mean nothing. The only patterns that matter are the patterns in my own behavior and thinking that I can change, evolve.

I’m moving this week out of my darling apartment and into a friend’s spare basement bedroom because my lease is up and I don’t want to commit another year to Fort Collins. My pattern.

To have to reinvent your life again—
who likes it?
To have to lay it all on the line again—
who likes it?
To not know where the road is taking you—
who likes it?
You have to reinvent your life.
You have to lay it on the line.
You have to take the unknown road.

If not, what will you tell yourself? What will you
dream of?
For it is bad not to use the life which God has sent us.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Museum of Exquisiteness

I suppose that there is art to see at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but I'm afraid it's lost on me. For you see, the enclosed courtyard of this Boston gem--this mansion-turned-museum--is what has always enchanted me. One day probably in the fall of 1987 I sat on the stone bench and finally, held captive by the courtyard ambience, digested the Kandinsky book I was assigned for my 20th Century European Thought class (probably should have taken my Proust here as well--alas, for me still, a madeleine is just a cookie).

This evening I have returned to the Museum of Exquisiteness and it does not disappoint. Tendrils of nasturtiums studded with orange blossoms cascade nearly two stories from upper windows. Around the courtyard are large pots of clivia, both orange and cream--probably 15 all told. I'm sitting now next to a fountain that is loud but can't compare to my sneezes that just echoed down the arched hallways. White orchids, fern trees, potted palms, small cream azaleas, and pots of deep purple asters complement the vined statuary. In the corners, small orange trees bear small oranges. Many years ago I met someone who had worked as a young man at a nearby nursery supplying plants to this garden.



I had dinner in the cafe in the new wing of the museum opened a couple of years ago. The specials were a flower-themed menu featuring nasturtiums. Turns out this was a favorite April display of Mrs. Gardner's--the cascading nasturtiums. And so I had a scallop appetizer with pickled nasturtium pods and a stuffed quail with a nasturtium pesto and blossoms.

Once when I was here--and I did end up coming here frequently in my college years--I ate at the cafe and enjoyed a cream of smoked turkey soup with anadama bread, which reminded me then and reminds me now of my Aunt Doris, dear woman. I don't remember in what context she talked about anadama bread, but these are my only two references.

And now I return on a work allowance--a very far cry from my college days of paucity when a museum cafe lunch was a luxury and a dinner out was the $3.29 Tuesday night spaghetti special at The Rat which included a glass of beer or wine and a meatball or sausage. Yes, different days.

So much of what I remember in this post is now gone, but the museum lives on--an oasis of exquisiteness.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Curly Fries

A couple of years ago when my dad and I took a road trip from New York to California via Michigan, the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming, we stopped at a lot of diners and restaurants. Near the end of the trip we had lunch just the west side of Yosemite in the town, I believe, of Oakdale. The place seemed decent, the bathroom had cool faucets, and our waitress was very nice. When I ordered my sandwich, one of my choices of sides was curly fries. I enthusiastically selected the curly fries.

Our meals were nearly inedible, alas. Dad's corned beef was disgustingly fatty. My tuna was so bathed in mayonnaise as to need a spoon. When we walked up to the counter to pay the bill, the waitress asked us cheerily how we enjoyed our meals. Without missing a beat, I responded, "Those curly fries sure were good." Walking out to the car, my father thanked me profusely for saving the moment.

There's a corollary here to my day, but it suffices to say sometimes a little truth is all that's needed.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Looking for Signs

The third good thing I did in Marfa this time, in addition to the poetry and the flower quest, was to go looking for those dang 1930s aerial navigation arrows.

What a confounding adventure. Three of them are a couple hours’ drive north of Marfa. One I suspected and confirmed was down a maze of dirt roads on private land, gated off to us Yankees and ferners. But two of them are right alongside the east/west highway from Carlsbad to El Paso.

I’d put a pin in the map on my phone with the coordinates of the Salt Flat arrow. For that reason alone, it would have been easy to find. But it was easy anyway. Turns out, Salt Flat is an active settlement with the Salt Flat Café and bus station, and I expect the post office as well in that building. The sign said Open so I went on in, a bit early for lunch yet. I asked the woman about the arrow as I took a soda from the fridge, happy to buy something for a little information. Yes, the arrow was out back, she said. Why did I want to know? Internet story, I explained. She didn’t have time to walk me out to it, she was making lunch for the crew. I took this to mean the pipe-laying crew I’d seen working down the road. I asked if I could walk myself out there. She led me out the door and pointed through the garage and toward the red shed and to the left. We went back inside and I paid for my soda. I asked her about the others. Yes, the one was far beyond locked gates. But the other one on the highway was just behind the W. I should have asked for clarification on “just behind the W,” but she seemed busy.


I walked myself and my soda out through the garage and toward the red shed and to the left. Wasn’t sure where to go from there, I was looking off in the distance for some indication. Then I noticed very close the small rusty red patch of concrete. Oh, there it is, right there. Much smaller than I expected—maybe 20 feet long. I walked around it and took pictures and was wholly unimpressed. The only thing that impressed me was the VORTAC out across the field—obviously the location of the arrow had stood the test of time, even if its size brought into question its original usefulness. When I was done, I popped back in the café and told the woman she was right, not much to see, but I was much obliged. I use that term “much obliged” much more as a Texan than I ever have before. Part of my cultural camouflage?


Below, look closely in the distance and you can see the modern navigational beacon--the white upside-down cone thing.


Then I drove the thirty miles or so up the road to where I hoped I’d find the next arrow, the Hudspeth arrow. Behind the W, that was my sign. I drove and drove, past where I thought it might be, unable to plug it into my phone map due to lack of anything resembling a signal. Finally I came to the sign for the Double U Ranch. Oh, Double U, of course. But what did “behind the Double U” mean? I figured I must be close, so I drove up and down a ten mile section of highway a couple of times looking for clues. I had a print-out of the arrow and immediate surroundings, but the road looked the same for miles. Across the road from my arrow, in the print-out, I could see the lines of the power line road and another dirt road that crossed it. But nowhere on the landscape could I find a similar pattern.

Finally I drove back to the pull-off to the Double U, assuming I'd misunderstood the "behind" part of the woman's statement--but obviously right about the Double U. I zoomed in to the map on my phone that showed me blinking. I zoomed in so far, and obviously that map signal was working, that I suddenly was faced with the same road pattern as I saw on my print-out. I was practically sitting on the arrow, according to the similarities between what I saw on my phone map and what was shown on the print-out. I turned out and drove maybe a mile, mile and a half, down the road, realized I’d overshot the arrow, turned around and pulled over. As soon as I was next to it, it was very easy to see—not more than a few steps beyond the right-of-way fence. I parked the car and walked over to it. Even though I could easily take good pictures, I felt the need to crawl through the barb-wire fence and stand on it and walk all around it. Nearly identical to the first: crumbling concrete in a faded rusty red color, three sections, pointing east. I took some pictures and then headed home.




The long, lovely, lonely drive back to Marfa gave me plenty of time to consider the intention of the arrows, the night flights of mail planes, the folly. And why are they still there after all these years. The woman’s question: why am I interested in the arrow? My question back: why have you kept it? What is the arrow’s story? I’ll give it this much: it’s steadfast in its direction. More than I can say for myself. I go south 14 hours, I go north 14 hours. The wind blew tumbleweeds into my car from the west. The meteorite shot east to southwest. The surprised coyote on the road ran straight ahead along the center line an unnaturally long time before turning left and ducking into the shrubbery around the cattle pen, looking back at me. And somewhere I was dazzled, and I don’t know which direction it came from or how to hold it. I’m just out on the highway looking for signs.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Inflorit

Which is to say, in bloom. The desert is in bloom and I have witnessed it. Drove down on Thursday to Big Bend National Park to see if the ocotillo were in bloom, and to do a hike. These strange Chihuahuan Desert cactus have been described as looking like you took a handful of snakes and stuck their heads in the ground and let the tails fly off in different directions. They look dead most of the time, but rains will make their small green leaves pop out, and they bloom seasonally--evidently with or without rain. Little moisture this year, so flowers but no leaves. And a really spectacular show of flowers. The west side of the park is a wonderland of ocotillos.


 

More flowers bloomed along the roadsides. I do not know their names. Also, the mesquite shrubs are doing their electric green spring thing--infrunzit, I should think: in leaf. One type of yucca are starting to bloom, many of them were more tightly budded than this one.


The trail I chose was the Mule Ears Spring trail, also on the west side of the park. A field crew member I'd talked to in doing some brochures recently recommended the spring as a destination. Lovely hike, although hotter than I expected, and the heat affected me more than I had expected. So I stayed a long time at the spring, in the shade, eating my lunch and reading the poetry that I'd purchased at the Marfa Book Company the day before.

 
Above: Mule Ears peaks in the distance, the spring is to the left of the peaks in this photo. Below: two different cacti in bloom and the view from my lunch spot with maidenhair fern on a travertine fall.
 


Later I stopped in Study Butte at a store and bought an iced tea and a yellow squash. I normally wouldn't think to just gnaw on a yellow squash, but they kept them in the refrigerator and it seemed refreshing--and it was. I was very tired, exhausted hot when I got home. The car said 94 degrees in Study Butte and I believe it. Well, I've had some summer. Fortunately Marfa is much higher and cooler with our days now in the 70s. The heat was very much worth it though, and so delightful to see the thousands of ocotillo in bloom.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Marfapalooza Day 1

I met an improbably tall man over dinner at the bar at Maiya's. He's a poet in residence. He told me the name of his small hometown--a name I recognized from somewhere, maybe NPR, I said. Only later I realized I had read his poem about his hometown in the book store earlier. I didn't buy his book. I bought the one next to it instead, the one about jagged, broken love; it seemed happier.

I thought the circus was in town, but the city of tents that sprang up in my campground was just a bicycle tour passing through.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

I Like Brown

Went in to the thrift store today and bought some more brown t-shirts and brown leggings to go with the dresses I’ve ordered from my Etsy lady in Lithuania. I’ve committed to a particular brown dress that I can wear every day, like a uniform, and I ordered multiples. It’s a growing sign of my comfort of one particular perk of aging—the right and the confidence to move more and more in the direction of my singular selfness. For better or worse, I am doing that thing that aging people do and becoming more and more of who I am. We stop trying to be what society or our families and loved ones want us to be and listen solely to the voice in our head. I say for better or worse because we can also choose to let rip our lesser qualities. I hope I’m not doing that too.

Anyway, I’m only going to be wearing brown, with an occasional colorful scarf or pair of earrings. And yes, this is contrary to times when members of my family tried to dress me for appropriateness. I can’t blame them. And it’s really only an external manifestation of the internal search for identity and voice. And truly I have at times been an embarrassment to myself as well. In other words, I’m not saying I was right—only that I prefer to own my wrongness. So, the brown dress.

I will also say in my defense that the friends I cherish have vindicated our awkward, earnest search for voice by producing true, society-validated expressions of art and life on our own terms and in our own way. So mock me, question me, distrust my motives if you will, but know that if I were not the kind of person to strap a cow skull to the front of my car, to shave my head from time to time, and to find the perfect brown-dress uniform so too I could not be the kind of person to join the Peace Corps, to tilt at the windmill of community diversity initiatives, to write a novel, and to fly an airplane. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Your Best Shot

After another challenging work week during which I took my big award from years past down off my wall and cradled it, remember fondly back to a time when my work was valued, I made myself a really stellar Friday off.

Started with breakfast at Lucile’s with Todd and Ginny to solve world peace, or at least strategize on how to make the hellfires in my head die down. I had a really delicious plate of pan-fried trout, poached eggs, sauce Bernaise, and roasted potatoes with a bottomless cup of Lusianne-style coffee. And on top of that, I found a place to park right out front—as if it were destiny.

On my way to the highway I stopped at my old favorite self-storage facility to secure a unit as I move my stuff around in the next few months. I can’t really define that further.

Then I headed to Denver for the absolute highlight of my month. My friend Chiemi made a documentary about legendary Broadway star Elaine Stritch. It’s probably playing at a city near you. Well over a year ago I took a look at a rough cut, so I had an idea of what I would be seeing. Meantime, the film has opened on the coasts to rave reviews. You may have caught Elaine dropping the F-bomb on the Today show, or seen them on CBS Sunday Morning this past week. Chiemi, and Elaine too, has been out tirelessly promoting the film and the articles and interviews have been fantastic. We’re all so thrilled for Chiemi and the film’s success. And finally I got to see it today as it opened in Denver. So, so good. I mean, Elaine is simply dazzling to watch. But more than that, Chiemi earned her trust and forged a compelling story. The movie made me so happy—and it would have even if not made by a friend. Go see the movie!

Then I thought my happiness would continue as I visited the recently opened Trader Joe’s. Wow. Even mid-day on Friday, the parking lot was a zoo and it wasn’t much better inside. Terrible parking situation. Maybe once it’s been open a while things will calm down. But somehow I doubt it—not a good layout. So maybe I won’t go to that one again. However, that said, and it was a stressful experience, I’m so glad to have gone and to have my yummy things. I’d forgotten how much I like to have tomato hummus and artichoke tapenade and cheap tissues that are 80% post-consumer recycled.

Then I drove home mostly before rush hour and enjoyed having my windows down on this warm, almost-spring day. And the flowers, for me and others. And a very amusing crafty project with my friend Courtney that I can’t talk about because Veronica might read this. Something that is absolutely taking my mind off work nonsense.

And finally, the concluding line of the movie in all is profundity and levity (and I don’t think it spoils anything to repeat it here): Elaine is on the phone with her nephew in Detroit where she is discussing semi-retiring to after 65 years of NYC show biz and she laughs and repeats what he says, “You can’t say you didn’t give it your best shot.” Credits. Brilliant.

And so in the end, what is the lesson of giving it one’s best shot? Had a follow-up conversation with Chiemi this afternoon about other failed projects, and how failure is surprisingly OK if one feels one has given it her best shot. That’s my experience anyway. I’d hate to have to say I didn’t give it my best shot.


Above, my snowdrops, my soldiers of spring. Below, the reinforcements on their way.


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Things People Say

Things I wrote in emails this week that may or may not have been serious: “Today’s disastrous misjudgment is tomorrow's entertaining story.” “Everything I ever knew about dating I learned from Nancy Botwin.”

Something I read in the New York Times: David Brooks and Gail Collins discussing Putin. Brooks weighs in with, “Now I’m thinking that every human story is so unbelievably distinct that it defies typology and generalization of this sort…(example)…Everybody’s life is freakishly unlikely.”

In the birthday book I sent to Holly: “One day before breakfast, an orange rolled off the counter and escaped its fate, bounding happily through the kitchen door. Filled with hope, the egg followed.” I polled friends to see which we were—the orange or the egg. B. responded: “I'm the grape that rolled off the table and under the stove.”

Another friend coined “Marfapalooza.”

I went to the dentist today for a crown. The dentist was great, I’m new to her. But her assistant made the worst small talk.

Her: Complaining about doing taxes. Asks if I do my own taxes.
Me: “Yes. Since I don’t have a house, or a spouse, or children, my taxes are pretty easy.”
Her: “You’re so lucky.”
Yup, she said that.

Her: “Where did you grow up? I mean with that name? Where are you from?"
Yup, she went there.
I realize that people who don’t look of European descent get questions like that one all the time. I’m so sorry.

And apparently the Pope dropped something akin to the F-bomb in a speech this week. In the same way I probably asked for a bj instead of lemon in Romanian. Not in the same way Elaine Stritch recently dropped the F-bomb on the Today Show.

“I’m done.” Me, at work, yesterday. Which in no way is akin to “I quit.” But maybe the precursor.

Remember this: “Everybody’s life is freakishly unlikely.”

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Reminders of Things Past

Recently I have been reminded of good times past: experiences, people, places. Ate at a sushi place last night and had tuna poke, which I once ate on a magical Hawaiian kayak picnic, and yellowtail with jalapeno, which I ate at Nobu in NYC many years ago with my friend Anne. Nobu’s was better—less fussy, exquisite fish. But the recent one brought back a nice memory. And they both, maybe the juxtaposition of the two, made me feel like I have led a very privileged life—Nobu, Hawaii—and have known some very wonderful people.

Then went to the Lyric last night for the kickoff of the Wes Anderson retrospective with a viewing of Bottle Rocket. Not my favorite Anderson, but a reminder of fun movie nights with friends.

And today is Martisor, my favorite Romanian holiday. And I’m sitting in my coffee shop looking out a snowstorm, wearing my bracelet and necklace gifts from Romanian friends and my earrings made by Holly as my wedding officiator gift. And my martisoara designed by Veronica, made by me.

 

And Roxy Music is playing on the sound system in the coffee shop as I drink my Brooklyn Woodrow coffee drink, and I’m filled with warmth for the times I’ve had and the times still to come, and all the ways we are resilient in the face of snow and change and disappointment and hardship.

And curiously, how very obvious it is to me that Fort Collins is not my home in ways that I can’t explain here and now. But I knew that and I’m doing what I can. And I come across these little touchstones.

“There’s a band playing on the radio”

Sunday, February 23, 2014

20,000 Words

My job has been frustrating this week, new levels of frustration. Frustratingly frustrating. So let's not think about that.

Let's talk about the new novel. Again. Still. Here's the thing: I'm a dreamer, I dream big, I dare to try impossible things. And then I get frustrated when I can't do them, and things that I want seem out of my control. And so I write, because that is something I can control. So although it seems like a big, impossible dream to write a book, that in fact is the one thing I can do.

It's nice to look back at a week ago and see how far I've come. Part of that was the blessed Monday holiday. Anyway, the word count today is just over 20,000. Really. And yesterday I took a good class in character development. In two weeks I've got a class (this one free from the Library) on point of view.

I have reached a slight impasse, though. Part II of my story is a road trip following the arrows: http://sometimes-interesting.com/2013/12/04/concrete-arrows-and-the-u-s-airmail-beacon-system/ You may recall this going around Facebook a few months ago. Anyway, I think I need to go find some of these arrows myself. I spent last evening plotting them on Google earth and designing a route. At least I should go find the one outside Cheyenne sooner than later--it's only an hour away. And a few are a not-so-far drive from Marfa. So I need a road trip, mostly Utah and Nevada it seems.

I don't need to do this immediately to continue writing. I could go back and do some beefing up of Part I--I already see a whole layer that I need to add. Also, although the road trip is the frame for Part II, my character isn't  just looking for arrows. He needs to find something else.

Anyway, that's the week's update. We're all looking for signs.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The New Story

I had hoped against hope that I would be able to write another novel, and it’s happening. I have been outlining and making notes for a number of weeks, maybe even a few months. The first step was to decide on which one—I’ve had lots of ideas: the middle-grades novel set in Hawaii about orchids and sacrifice; the middle-grades novel set in rural New York state about eminent domain, reservoirs, mental illness, and grand gestures of love; the sequel to the Veronica story, also middle-grades; or the adult novel set in yet another fictional Marfa.

I decided in the end to attempt the adult west Texas story. Mostly because that is where I want to focus my time and effort in real life. And so I have spent time on characters, plot, theme, and all that, making chicken scratchings in a notebook. Then finally a couple of weeks ago I started writing—that confounding and inexplicable process of making clay. What I’m doing right now is making clay, as I've talked about before. I’m not anywhere close to shaping a pot, let alone glazing and firing. It’s a really fun process when it works, because there is no pressure to make it anything but raw words. Therefore, what I have now is completely unsharable. And that’s OK.
What I have right now is 11,600 words. That’s about 34 pages. My goal is to write 1000 words every day; I figure I need 100,000. This weekend, this quiet, lovely, extended weekend, I’ve visited my coffee shop each day and put down 2000 words at a sitting. I’m much better working in the morning and in daylight, so I’m banking words in preparation for dark weeknights when I’m more hit and miss.
I have joined a writers group and thought I would like to be part of a small critique group, but what I’ve got now is not anything I’d want to show anyone. It’s not that I fear the criticism, just that I hate to waste people’s time by having them tell me things I can see for myself. No, at this point, these words and pages are simply mine for the later shaping.
So what is my story about? Hard to say yet, but this: It’s about how the stories we tell become our history, our mythology. And from that, our identity. And how we create our own suffering from that. And it’s a failed love story, and a road trip, and redemption. And it’s Marfa and Romania. And it might culminate in the first annual Trans-Pecos Homegrown Tomato and Jugband Jamboree. And there’s a film crew, and a story within a story of alien invasion (it’s a metaphor, yo).
And it is saving me from February. I had hoped this would happen. Last February I was struck by literary lightning. And it seems to be happening again. I don’t know how to write a novel, but I’m now writing my second one. The first one is good, better than I ever could have imagined. It might not be good enough to sell, time will tell. But it’s definitely good enough to encourage me to write a second. I think that’s all I can hope for this time. November is national novel writing month, but November is too horrible a time of year, with winter just coming, for me to feel like writing. February is still dark and cold and of the inner life—but there is hope. So I write.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Valentine

My apologies if you are one of the many to whom I was too lazy to send a Valentine this year. I did get out some. Mostly I was motivated by the special stamp used by the Valentine, Texas, post office. Each year the school kids in the town of a few hundred compete to design the cancellation stamp. And people from all over the country send bundles of valentines to get the stamp. This year, I joined the club. Oddly, having lived the past couple of years just up the road from Loveland, I was never tempted by their stamp.

This is the special stamp:


This is my valentine message:


This is part of my collection of heart-shaped rocks:


I wish I were more consistently motivated to make and send cards. I know they mean a lot; I certainly enjoy getting them. And this time I had one really great moment of validation. (Here comes the cat story, sorry B.) Friend B. sent me a note on Wednesday that his beloved bunny kitty had died. After sending a few messages back and forth, I told him to go check his mailbox. Turns out the valentine was a last love letter to bunny kitty. The timing was perfect. I love you. I am here with you. Don't be afraid. Go to sleep.

And so winter continues. Me personally I'm still just up the road from Loveland and not yet just up the road from Valentine. I wish you a very happy Valentine's Day full of love for yourself, your fellow travelers, and this sweet old world.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Across 110th Street

So I started telling a story today about my friend's recently departed cat, and I stopped and thought that I have a lot of stories that include dead cats. And banjo affinity. And an array of other similar, crazy $#!t.

And then today Bobby Womack came up in conversation. I was discussing with my wetlands colleague the report that we are writing about our September trip to a National Natural Landmark in South Dakota, a slough. At one point in our driving around the slough back in September, I saw on the map that the extremely rural road that crossed the long, narrow slough mid-way was named 110th Street. In the middle of nowhere. Of course I started singing the Womack song, but neither of my traveling companions was familiar with the song. And I'm pretty sure I was the youngest one of us.


So today when we were talking about the poorly placed culverts on that road, the ones that connect the northern and southern halves of the slough, Kevin mentioned that he would have to look up the name of that road. "110th Street" I said casually. And I laughed all over again. (That's Heather, above, on 110th Street)

So I have random stories about misappropriated and misplaced culverts and the urban ghettos of rural South Dakota. And you have your weekly dose of Bobby Womack. I'm missing my weekly dose of Bobby Womack while my late night DJ runs for public office. So I stay up late writing my next novel, no $#!t. I'll tell you the story about that another time.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Angle of Repose

Made it halfway through Bernard DeVoto’s Course of Empire and had to return to fiction. I’ll try again with his Across the Wide Missouri about the post-Jed Smith mountain man era. In the meantime, I’ve turned, not surprisingly considering his association with DeVoto, to Wallace Stegner and his fine novel Angle of Repose. I’ve read this before, but I enjoy Stegner and especially esteem this novel. And I had a free copy left at my house some months ago. And, by the way, this winter is particularly wintery and good fiction is the antidote.

The story is of an infirmed historian writing the story of his grandmother’s life. He follows her adventures as she follows her husband, a late 19th century mining engineer, from New York to California to Leadville to Mexico and eventually back to California. The Angle of Repose from the title refers to both the geologic term of the angle at which dirt, sand, or other granular material can be piled before sliding, and the eventual resting place that his grandparents achieve after a life of rich adventure, yes, but also harsh realities.

I’m only two-thirds of the way through the book this time. But I remember being very moved by this book, the lessons, the steel of this woman and what she had seen. This time around, I’m struck by the undeniable achievements of both grandparents—he in mining and she in art and literature—and the futility of that. About how at the end of the day, it is the resiliency, the forgiveness, and the humility that matter. I look forward to re-reading their settling into their angle of repose. Well, there’s that word: settling. It’s become such a condescension: settling. How does sand feel about settling into its angle of repose? How does the storyteller’s grandmother feel about settling into her angle of repose?
 
At my middle age, am I looking for my angle of repose? I do feel like I’m looking to settle, in the sense of sand. Stegner is to me truly a great author and thinker of the 20th century. He is considered “western” (and therefore alas, I think, lesser). Perhaps that is why I am drawn to him. He and DeVoto did their time in Cambridge with the Harvard intelligentsia. But his Saskatchewan and Utahn upbringing gave him the soul of open skies and a relationship with nature, both the romantic and the cruel. I look forward to the conclusion of this story to see how it might apply to my current place on this pile of sand.

In the meantime, I've been invited to a ladies' tea this afternoon. That's a pretty good antidote too. Stegner's grandmother would agree.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Me and My Berm

I’m typing up this blog post on Friday night but I won’t actually post it until Saturday because my home internet is out. Two weeks ago, yes two long weeks ago, our internet went out because city crews were working out in our alley ripping up turf for some unknown emergency that must be addressed in January. When we were finally able to get our internet man to go take a look, he indeed confirmed that some cable had been severed by said city crews. So he couldn’t fix it that day, but he was assured that they were moving quickly down the alley. He told me to call him when the backhoe et. al. were clear of such and such a pole and he’d come do his thing.

And then it snowed. And it snowed some more. And it was the weekend. And it snowed. And then it snowed some more. And the backhoe doing the emergency thing in January is planted next to my pole. And we go other places to use the internet.

I would say that it resembles something one might find in a not-quite-first-world country where I may or may not have lived. Except internet there was half the price, twice the speed, and never went out. On the upside, Colorado does have snowplows. And shovels. The funny thing about the snowplows, though, is they only plow main thoroughfares, not side streets. Because I’m on a school bus and ambulance route, my street gets plowed even though it's not really a thoroughfare. This is good in a moderate snow, but the problem in a heavier snow is the berm it creates between the street and the parking lane—the berm that must be surmounted to get in or out of my parking space. It also creates a berm at the intersection of plowed and non-plowed streets that makes for interesting passage. Must…climb…the…mountain …to…get…onto… ughhhhhrrrrevvvvv…the…side…..street… ooof.  

I went out early enough today, when the snow was still soft, and packed down a route through my berm for the car. We’ll see how tomorrow goes. (Saturday addendum: I was not able to surmount the berm this morning and friend Todd had to fetch me for breakfast at Lucile’s with he and Ginny.) Meanwhile, I did lots out today on my Friday off. Mailed a few valentines—early enough that they can get a special cancellation stamp from a thematically named town. Then sat at the café, in my favorite window seat, and wrote a synopsis of my book for the purpose of entering a contest. Due today, no dilly-dallying on my part.

Then I went to the Lyric and saw two movies at matinee price: Dallas Buyers Club and Inside Llewyn Davis. I thought Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto were both fantastic. My big surprise was Llewyn Davis. I had heard from two reliable radio voices (both of whom knew Dave Van Ronk on whom the character may or may not have been very loosely based) that the movie was a let-down. True, it’s really not making a broad statement on the early 60s Village folk scene. And no, the plot is not particularly lively. But it does make a statement and it does have a plot. Perhaps I was blessed with low expectations begging to be exceeded. Anyway, I really liked it. Llewyn Davis is not a particularly likable character, but I feel like I got it, got something.

And the movies, the valentines, the contest entry, and the snow have taken my mind off what may become Plan 11 from Outer Space. Or shall we say Plans A, B, and C in my attempt to move to Marfa. Let’s be clear: I am moving to Marfa, Texas. I just don’t have the how and the when figured out. I have three angles I’m working that may or may not involve staying with the NPS (Saturday addendum: Ginny and Todd, as expected, have helped me strategize how to have the right conversations to make one of the plans work). Yet today I feel like I need to find a Plan D, whatever that may be. So that this will be the last winter with the berm. Forever. And ever. Amen.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Who Are We to Demand Happiness?

A fundamental teaching of Buddhism is that suffering exists and suffering can be alleviated when we understand the true nature of existence. Further, when we stop fighting the reality of the world, we are more at peace with it and better able to improve our corner of it.

I do not know how to reconcile this with the inherent cruelty, even viciousness, that lives in our hearts and exhibits on a broad scale on a regular basis. This contemplation is brought on by my viewing yesterday of 12 Years a Slave. Which reminded me very much of everything I learned about the Soviet Gulag camp system—differences in details but similarities in cruelty. As Alfre Woodard’s character in 12 Years says, “The curse of the Pharaohs is a poor example of what awaits the plantation class.” And last week’s viewing of Nebraska eloquently painted a portrait of the suffering caused by the small, unseen cruelties of everyday life. At both ends of the scale, we are denying each other, and therefore ourselves, a measure of happiness.

The human spirit is resilient, no doubt, as I learned in Romania with the stories of small joys in the oppressive Communist era. But in the extremes of slavery, survival is paramount. As Solomon Northrup contemplates the unthinkable future as a slave, he must choose between survival and life; presumably, life is the road that includes happiness—a luxury unaffordable in the struggle to survive.

The other part of Solomon’s story, the one I lay awake thinking about, was the damage to his family and particularly his children—the ripple effect of suffering. The missing father is an archetype writ large in our culture, and perhaps nowhere bigger than in the African American community. This is a link that once broken cannot be fixed. Solomon returns to his children, but I cannot believe that unfixable damage hasn’t been done, alas through no fault of Solomon’s. What is the cost to generations to come from that damage?

So knowing this cruelty—an equal opportunity behavior across cultures, ethnicities, races (I’m not ready to lump “across genders” into this as I still hold out hope that women-led cultures would not do this: perhaps I’m naïve)—what can we do to diminish this suffering? So many answers and they all seem far away and too difficult for one person to affect.

But here’s what I believe: I have every right to demand happiness for myself as long as I demand it for everyone else too. Survival is not enough. A birthright of every human should be life, with the inherent inclusion of happiness. Argh! What does that mean, how do I contribute to that?

I’m also reading Bernard DeVoto’s account of the murderous rampages of conquistadors in the Americas. Who are we that we can do this? I keep looking for the key. What happens when we are damaged and can’t be fixed?  

For today, I’ll keep at that Buddhism thing which teaches me that we are all connected: people, animals, plants, the earth. Maybe in understanding, I can see the reasons behind the insanity. Maybe in understanding, I can help to fix the unfixable. As I’ve said before, at least keeping my eyes open is a beginning.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Across the Great Divide

You will not be surprised that a song I heard on my satellite radio has prompted a blog post. If there has been a constant in my life, it is that music—and the poetry contained therein—saves me on a regular basis; by that I mean it offers answers, explanations, solace, validation, or simply the bare acknowledgement that there are no answers, explanations, solace, or validation.

This time it was an explanation of my current phase of life. This is a Kate Wolf song long known by the Nanci Griffith performance. I’ve known this song for a number of years because Holly used to sing it and I commandeered it too. It’s about finding peace in change and growth—the great divide. But when I heard it this time, it really struck me that it’s not about just any of life’s changes, but really about middle age—and I was surprised to acknowledge that I am there. Exactly there, on the mountainside where the rivers change direction.

I’ve been walking in my sleep
Counting troubles ‘stead of counting sheep
Where the years went I can’t say
I just turned around and they’re gone away

I’ve been sifting through the layers
Of dusty books and faded papers
They tell a story I used to know
It was one that happened so long ago

It’s gone away in yesterday
Now I find myself on the mountainside
Where the rivers change direction
Across the great divide

Now I heard the owl a-callin’
Softly as the night was fallin’
With a question and I replied
But he’s gone across the borderline

He’s gone away in yesterday
Now I find myself on the mountainside
Where the rivers change direction
Across the great divide

The finest hour that I have seen
Is the one that comes between
The edge of night and the break of day
It’s when the darkness rolls away

And it’s gone away in yesterday
Now I find myself on the mountainside
Where the rivers change direction
Across the great divide

I don’t suppose there is anything at all profound about arriving at middle age. The luckiest of us do it. And I’ve been feeling it in the past year as I’ve become all consumed with moving to the town in which I hope to live the rest of my life. One odd aspect of my arrival is the lack of dusty books and faded papers. Those were lost in the flood, and for that I am grateful. And actually I don’t wonder where the years have gone. I have lived them all the best I could, not always well and with grace, but truly the best I could. Even my Peace Corps years, which feel like the closest thing to lost time, I know served a purpose.

My favorite part of the analogy of the great divide is that perhaps, like climbing a mountain, the second half gets easier. If it’s all downhill from here, as it were, it may go faster, but it may not be the struggle that so much of the first half has felt like. That seems good, although I admit there is great reward in the struggle.

I feel untroubled at this juncture. Just allowing the darkness to roll away. So much that I’ve had to let go of on the journey up this mountain; and what is left behind I now see is the essence, what I’ve been trying to find. I’m sorry sometimes that I seem to do things so slowly, come to things so slowly. But I have still arrived on my own mountain where the rivers change direction. So much to experience, so much to learn.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Happiness is...

Coming home from a delicious taco/fried chicken/green chile cheeseburger-eating trip and making a big pan of Isa’s vegan cauliflower-leek kugel.

Meeting really delightful and talented people and having them invite me into their home and share their stories with me.

Having camped in very cold, crisp weather. The happiness during waxes and wanes, but the feeling afterward is sublime. Clear skies that make cold nights also give stars.

Hot showers and firm mattresses.

New tires.

The chance of aurora borealis, even unrealized.

Words, words, words, and more words, and some music.

Finding the one dress that I can wear every day for the next year, or more.

Deciding the next fictional story that I can work at telling every day for the next year.

Knowing what I want, even if the path is obscured.


Above: the Presidio County Courthouse in Marfa lit up with community-funded holiday lights. The iconic water tower is to the right. Below: random west Texas early morning scenery. I wanted to get a rear-view picture of Marfa as I was leaving yesterday with the words "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear," but I got distracted.



Above: Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock entertain New Years Eve in Marfa. Both men have sons who play music and who played with them this night. In the audience was Jimmie Dale's mother who looks just like him. Below: my bowl of black-eyed peas at the Terlingua annual New Years Day black-eyed pea-off. Delish. And as a matter of fact, Clint, I AM feeling lucky.