Archive for July, 2011

(This post from 7/24 managed to get lost and wind up somewhere else, but is now back, if out of sequence, thanks to the spot-on technical savvy of friend and author Mary Lou Locke. Yay, Lou!)

June was a trip up the California coast to Oregon, by train.  I hadn’t been on an American train in over forty years.  Not since in a fit of hormone-induced overzealousness I was compelled to secure a private compartment for a 170-mile trip across Illinois from St. Louis to Indiana.  Mothers of newborns are still chemically compromised, to put it mildly.  I thought there might be germs in coach, so the baby and I sat in sterile isolation all the way.  He slept the whole time and I was bored out of my mind.  But not this time!

I was the guest of friends for this first-class trip, an unprecedented luxury complete with a private sleeping compartment, private bath (the toilet is actually in the shower, a complexity no one chose to experience during the two-day trip), immaculately set tables and excellent cuisine.  But aside from the hysterically funny Keystone Cops routine staged by three women long past athletic prime, trying to navigate the stacked sleeping arrangements in a compartment the size of a phone booth, my favorite thing was just looking out the window of the glass-domed club car.

The perspective is available nowhere else, and revelatory.  Prone to disinterest in the tedious – systems, maps, the workings of anything – I was stunned to realize that, a la Shakespeare, we really do live on a stage.   But take a train and you’ll see what lies behind it – the entire support mechanism underlying every set.  A train trip is like a backstage tour at Disneyland, the business of illusion laid bare.

There, commercial laundries steam hospital sheets and restaurant linens beside countless tool and die makers fashioning a million little parts of clocks and cars and escalators and jet engines.  There also are the graveyards of cars, all the shiny dreams of forgotten advertising now a rusting tumble of cadavers, their vacant headlight eyes watching under coils of razor wire as the present speeds past.  There are the makers of fences, sheds, signs, paint.  Also awnings, tables, septic tanks and tents as well as electrical cable, lamp posts and trash cans.  There are exterminators, pavers, coffin makers and carvers of tombstones.  There are mountains of “recyclables” – tires, cardboard, cans and bottles – surrounding ratty little trailers linked by a single power line to the stage on which we drive cars, buy stuff in boxes and consume drinks from cans and bottles.  It’s all there along the tracks, the alpha and omega of stage business, hidden from sight but omnipresent, the circulatory system of the illusion, of the boards on which we strut and fret.  Seeing it was humbling, or something.

And then there was the graffiti.  Miles and miles of it defacing every square inch of cement block wall, bridge underpass and unguarded surface.  Last fall I was looking out train windows in Hungary, Germany, Belgium and France at identical graffiti, but only this time did it dawn on me that all graffiti really is identical -it’s all the same!  Adolescent males, specifically those who feel compelled to mark territory in this way, apparently share a wiring for the endless reproduction of cartoon alphabets.  They somehow create identical images the (Western and near-Eastern) world over, always colorful, three-dimensionally bulbous letters, the only difference lying in the languages.  They paint nothing else, only endless letters. The letters sometimes seem to encode indecipherable neologisms – GUUU! BLFFT! – which may be initials or gang markers, but really, their focus is on the elaborate decoration of mere letters.  So why?

I pondered this and came up with nothing but one curious comparison – illuminated manuscripts! Leonard Shlain in The Goddess vs. the Alphabet made the point that the invention of writing some 5,000 years ago further amplified significant changes in the human brain that began with the development of language millennia earlier.  The shift was to an almost exclusive domination by the left hemisphere, the linear, abstract, “masculine” realm, with a concurrent lessened focus on the experience of the holistic, representational, “feminine” right hemisphere.  Shlain made the point that the first book to be printed in an alphabet was the Old Testament with its ten commandments, the second of which makes a crime of the creation of images.

And yet the ancient right hemisphere, the “goddess” in every brain, demands not abstract glyphs to encode the stories of life, but images.  A compromise quickly evolved and found expression in illuminated manuscripts in which letters of alphabets became elaborate pictures.  From the second century through the Celtic Book of Kells, magnificent Muslim documents, the French Book of Hours, Duns Scotus and on, the clash of hemispheres (in the male brain – the female brain does not experience the clash and thus does not need to spray-paint letters all over everything) results in the creation of letters that are really pictures.  Of letters.

The wiring has probably degraded over the centuries, been derailed by innumerable influences; it may be recessive but it is not extinct.  In every generation a percentage of boys will be irresistibly driven to design letters of the alphabet and risk much in spray-painting these letters, in secret, in the dead of night, on every available public surface.  And in the weeds and rubbish beside railroad tracks where nobody ever goes, the letters survive for a while, gibberish seen only by passengers on trains.  Bloated, garish and pointless alphabet gibberish, the genetic debris of recent evolution.

At least that’s my theory.  There’s a world of breathtaking scenery along the coast as well, but hey, everybody writes about that.


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There are stories everywhere, and anywhere can incite stories in people who write.  The slant of light on a building or a hydrangea in a yard can trigger the conception of a story, and the process is sometimes heightened by new and unfamiliar locales.  And sometimes not.   There are places in which I see stories forming in every shadow, doorway, window and street.  And places in which stories are for some reason locked down, inaccessible.

I spent much of June in Portland, Oregon, a delightful city, green in every sense, literate and liberal, the home of Powell’s Books!  I’d been there several times before, but this time I intended to go deep, research the place and set a story there.  One of the Mandy Drus, or maybe a historical or something about immigrants.  Maybe horror.  Horror might be fun.

So I prowled the parks and streets, read histories, took tours and ate in atmospheric restaurants.  I observed that otherwise intelligent, open-minded people may become as rabidly fanatic as fundamentalists if obsessed by bicycles, but had not the slightest inclination to write about it.

“Fleet Week” occurred while I was there, various ships of the naval fleet in port, and cute young sailors in their dress whites were on every street downtown.  Eagerly pursued by cute young women in elaborate outfits and stage makeup at ten o’clock in the morning, passing out business cards.  The oldest profession and probably rife with stories, but I wasn’t in the mood for the gritty, wrenching reality behind the healthy young hucksters on the street.  They were just advertising and probably went home at three, leaving the hardened pros to greet all the nervous boys in white, eventually drunk in the Northwest dark, clutching business cards.  Too grim.

Portland is the birthplace of the term “shanghaied,” meaning to be conscripted on a merchant ship bound for Shanghai against one’s will.   From 1850 to the 1940’s, able-bodied men were, supposedly, plied with booze and occasionally drugs until they passed out, then shoved through “deadfalls,” or trap doors, in the countless saloons.  There they were kept in cages until ushered through a system of tunnels beneath the city to the Willamette River where they were sold to ship’s captains as unpaid crew.  This practice probably didn’t happen as often or as dramatically as the tour hype suggests, but it did happen.  Great stuff for a story!  Except I kept wondering why, since Portland’s vast array of saloons were widely known for this danger, any “able-bodied man” in his right mind would sit around getting drunk over a trap door.  (Look at the floor, you idiot!)  Getting shanghaied seemed a sort of poetic justice, but not much of a story.

And then there were the irises.  Our hostess took us to Salem to Schreiner’s Iris Gardens (http://www.schreinersgardens.com/) where I snapped eighty-five iris photos I have no idea what to do with.  Gorgeous, I loved them all and ordered a couple of bulbs that will almost certainly perish in San Diego’s inhospitable ground, but no iris story occurred to me.

Then, alone at LAX on the way back, I watched a large, somber woman in a too-tight maintenance uniform and plastic gloves load trash from trashcans onto a cart and replace the plastic liners.  The most mundane, uninteresting, quotidian activity on earth, and yet I knew she had a story!  It hovered in the gloves, her forehead, the way all the airport noise seemed to bounce off an invisible shell surrounding her.  She was thinking, and not about trash.  Something serious but not necessarily tragic.  I imagined her thinking of mathematical formulae, old mining maps or some puzzling line from Hannah Arendt.  I made her an American Renée, the dumpy concierge in The Elegance of the Hedgehog, who reads philosophy while hiding behind a stereotyped façade.

This is normal; I do this all the time; this is what writers do.  99.999% of these imaginings vaporize and are forgotten long before a first word is written, but they’re ceaselessly around.  Except when they’re not.  Why?  How is it possible to spend weeks amid obvious, glaring, rich and complex stories and not see their little ghosts, especially while intending to see them?

I think maybe places choose those to whom they’ll loose their stories, and those to whom they won’t.  I think maybe it’s love at first sight, or permanent, wordless indifference.


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