Sunday, May 25, 2008

Drunken Sleeping Master

Last week, a high pressure system enveloped the San Francisco Bay Area like a massive slab of steam-heated cat fur. In these parts, three days of this equals three years in a hot box in Brazil wrapped in bacon. If we still used old-time thermometers, geysers of globby mercury would’ve shot into the air, adding to the poison already in our systems via too many tuna sandwiches. Each night I baked awake in bed, my brain cooking with insomnia not even melatonin could cool.

On the third afternoon of the heat wave, work done, my jaw ligaments snapping, my mouth like a cargo bay, I turned on my biggest—and only—fan, a 26-inch, 3-speed Lasko and sunk down on my bed. As the cooling fan wind flushed over me, I kidded myself: 30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 . . . 90.

I awoke asleep. According to Wikipedia—unless someone’s making mischief again; last time, it was instructions on how to hunt grizzly armed with a butter knife and assurances that cooking with anthrax is perfectly safe and delicious--I had made mistakenly slipped across the door sill from “Power Nap” into the room signed with the sinister appellation “Slow Wave Sleep.”

“Slow Wave Sleep.” Say that out loud. Behold the bulb-headed saucer-eyed aliens in lab coats, thick, two-foot syringes twinkling in their bony long-fingered hands, standing around your bed with their Peter Lorre lisps: “We’re only putting you down you into 'Slow Wave Sleep!'” But why are you laughing!?

By napping too long, I had entered into Slow Wave Sleep and then broken it too early to my detriment. From Normal Sleep I awoke to Abnormal Consciousness, or "Sleep Inertia." My skull felt like a bowl of liquid rust that had bored a hole in the bottom and then seeped blood-like throughout my body; a rust that crusted on my nerves, my arteries and veins, and every cell muscle. If the police had come to my door, I would not have been able to think fast enough to identify myself. And then they would have shot me.

I wandered zombie-like through the house. If I am a zombie, my mind droned, then I must go out and eat some brains. Luckily, my wife arrived home just then and the next door neighbor escaped unharmed.

Some weeks earlier, I had bought tickets for a benefit concert for that night as a birthday present for my wife—in my decrepit stupor, I recalled only that her name was something like “Mrs. B.” After some desultory conversation, I finally grasped that we were scheduled to attend the “Mozart for Mutts and Meows” benefit for the Berkeley/East Bay Humane Society. Five minutes of patient explaining and hot coffee poured over my barren skull alerted me that it would not be Mozart as performed by dogs and cats (or, as the cat constantly reminds me, “cats and dogs”). In fact, no pets would be attending at all. I said I thought it unfair to exclude the animals, but my wife, sensing that I was unable to grasp complicated explanations, simply said “The animals don’t have any money, so they can’t afford the tickets.”

We left the house, my wife by the front door, I by falling through the living room window. “Grrrhhgg,” I growled as I waved my arms at all four points of the compass when my wife asked me for directions to our destination. We detoured through Martinez and it was very very nice, but it makes for a long drive to Berkeley, unless you’re trying to run your Normal Sleep Cycle like I was. I managed to doze through all of Walnut Creek, both directions.

We finally arrived in Berkeley with enough time left to annoy the staff at Moe’s Books by my insistence that somewhere in the world there was a first edition of Moby Dick by Dean Koontz. I then caught another five sprawled face down across the remainder table. I paid for the books I drooled on, among them, one called Spelunking for the Claustrophobic.

I snatched another five minutes on the walk to the Berkeley City Club, a journey made perilous my inability to discern the difference between sidewalk and street and the desire to lie down on both. In the lobby of the club, I glimpsed a sign that said “Bed and Breakfast.” But before I could get a bed for the night, my wife steered me toward a broad staircase laid with the softest, most comfortable-looking carpet. And so I stole another five minutes of Normal Sleep Cycle curled up on the second floor landing.

I am told the Berkeley City Club was designed by architect Julia Morgan, but it could have been Mies Van der Rohe for all I knew. The second floor was filled with hundreds of people. I bounced from body to body like a pin ball rolling from post to post, until I rolled in front of a bar and figured that a scotch and water was just the pick-me-up I needed. Five minutes later, I was sprawled face down across a comfy platter of smoked salmon where I happily snoozed until show time.

The concert, performed by members of the Mozart Midsummer Festival, consisted of a reduction of Die Zauberflote (KV620, arranged by Johann Wendt) and the Quartet in G Minor (KV 478). I am sure the performances were fine, but I remember not one note.

I did, however, receive compliments for the performance that I was unaware I had given. “My word! The Magic Flute sounds so evanescent when accompanied by loud snoring!” piped up a fellow concert goer as we shuffled out of the hall.

“Do I detect a note of sarcasm in that remark?” I riposted, arching a sleep-ruffled eyebrow.

“Not at all!” she cried, rhythmically thumping me on the head with her fist. “Next-time-just- re-mem-ber-it’s-the-Quar-tet-in-G-not-C!”

My wife hurried me home. By the time we got there, my sleep cycle was completed. I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, chipper and ready for action! “Wanna go somewhere!?” I chirruped like a bird, happily bouncing up and down on the bed.

“Oh shut up,” Elizabeth grumbled and stuffed the pillow over her face. She still hasn’t told me what she was so sore about.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Gun Man and the Arsonist

Right after I hoisted Don Quixote back to the bookcase, I sprinted to my homely orange paperback shelf and grabbed Gun Man (Fawcett/Ballentine, 1985) by genre veteran Loren D. Estleman. Estleman is known mostly for his crime novels set in Detroit, but he also writes excellent historical western novels that work as both ripping old-style entertainment and historically acute, tough-minded, observant and funny novels with a contemporary edge. His own shelves sag with many awards and he’s even been nominated for a National Book Award (now the American Books Award) for The High Rocks.

Gun Man’s protagonist, John “Killer” Miller, is drawn from the brutal myths of numerous notorious Old West gunfighters, Will Bill Hickok likely among them. His story is bristling, grim, and tersely told. My copy is only 212 pages but, like all the best genre novels, there’s always a sense that here’s more going on beyond the page count. Readers will find a pungent, sophisticated portrayal of the culture and politics of the American Midwest before, during, and after the Civil War, that bloody ground that was the mulch so many murderous American myths (like Jesse James). Action fans will soak up the gunplay; history and political buffs will find plenty to ponder.

But a good novel is more than the tale; it’s also the telling. Estleman, like another genre master
Donald Westlake, rarely puts a word wrong and makes it all seem fresh. Each chapter opens with song lyrics—written by the author—that set the yarn-spinning tone of what follows:

His pa he worked the dirt and dust
a-strainin in the sun;
But John he let the plow grow rust
And practiced with his gun.

Estleman’s stir of history and biography cooks up a bitter, ironic campfire yarn, full of character
and incident. The gun battles are written a terseness that conveys a hard and bleak pity for all
those involved, killer and, in the following passage, victim alike:

“There was no surprise on his face, only a sudden knowing, and in the black eyes a flatness that
was more flat than the flatness that preceded it.”

You can smell the death intertwined with the gunsmoke. This is a tale of a how twisted brutal world creates a twisted mythic life. I’ve liked all of Estleman’s novels that I’ve read so far. He hasn’t done me wrong yet.


Yes, I do I hate it when swell ideas wind up down the tubes. An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007) sounds like um surefire stuff: a lonely geeky teenager accidentally burns down the home of American poet Emily Dickinson’s, killing two people.

Years later, out of prison, he creates a new respectable life for himself and thinks he’s buried
his past . . . then one day the son of his victims shows up at his door. Not long after, a series
of sudden mysterious blazes consume the homes of other famous New England writers, poet Robert Frost among them (Odd coincidence: Frost’s home was actually recently vandalized by a bunch of dissolute teenagers).

From the typewriter of Donald Westlake, Arsonist’s Guide would have been an ingenious, fast-paced, whooping farce of obsessed, addle-brained characters bumbling their winding way to hell and back. A reader would also be the recipient of witty and graceful insights on the fate of books and literature in a post-literate world where some fear that, as related in a recent New Yorker article, reading may someday become an “arcane skill.”

Unfortunately, we are not in the hands of Mr. Westlake, but of a writer named Brock Clarke of whom I know little and, guessing from this, will likely not learn much more.

The protagonist is a self-admitted, chronic bumbler named Sam Pulsifer. Sam is also a self-obsessed ditherer, which may be why this story never seems to really catch fire, like the houses. Though accused of heinous crimes he didn’t commit, Sam seems more interested in other aspects of his life—namely his tortured relationship with his parents and his nonrelationship with his wife and children--even when taking the wrong action. It’s not that he bumbles the quest to prove his innocence and save his reputation--in a comic novel, he darn well better bumble it—but that this goal seems to be almost a distraction. A bumbler has to bumble like his life depended on it. The idea of being accused of burning down our monuments to our national literature strikes me as a blazing metaphor for something, but that’s not where this book seems to be headed.

Instead, we get long strings of such non-insightful insights as this one:

“Because this is also what it means to be in a family: to have two of its members break the family
and then wait around for a third to make it whole again.”

OK, I guess so . . . but it’s one of many insights that float around in the narrative with no
place to nestle in to. All the characters appear to be listless and poorly motivated. In the end, Sam is revealed to be so disconnected and indifferent to his own guilt or innocence and to the fate of literature that he makes, what strikes me as a pointless unbelievable act of self-sacrifice. If family is what this novel is really about, why burn down Robert Frost’s house to make the point?


For you writers who read this blog, John Hodgman, the guy you root for in those Apple v. PC commercials and who appears on the Daily Show viewers, also blogs on this service too, and has provided a link to this You Tube video by a Minneapolis writer named Dennis Cass that provides a hilarious illustration of the perils of the literary fame I so cravenly crave. Mr. Cass has published a book called Head Case. Judging by the video, I will probably buy it as soon as certain ships dock. But I will not stop my vain and ruthless quest to get you all to buy my book.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Don Quixote, No Broadway Tears


My New Year’s resolution for 2008 was to start reading one great classic novel a year. Reading and writing genre fiction is no excuse not to seek insight and inspiration from writers in different worlds than mine. Done wrong, of course, this can lead to creative paralysis (“Oh God, I’m never gonna write Moby Dick!”) or a warped and pompous ambition (“I’ll show the bastards! I’ll be the next Herman Melville!”). But done right, it may make me a better writer, maybe a more interesting person at certain cocktail parties.

And so I’ve read my Great Book for 2008: Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. Like so many old canon classics, this novel is more remembered than read. Our image of it these days seems mostly to derive from the 1965 Broadway musical Man of La Mancha by Dale Wasserman, Joe Darion, and Mitch Leigh, a celebration of the romantic liberal idealistic knight errant tilting at the windmill, which represents the unjust, corrupt, cynical and ignorant world. The song "The Impossible Dream" is now an annoying standard. The musical is stapled on the marquees of community theaters across the United States. I saw the 1972 movie starring Peter O’Toole, James Coco and Sophia Loren. Even as a love-struck college student, my heart remained unmelted, except for the scenes where Ms. Loren bends over.

Nevertheless my lazy memory of the musical and lazier assumptions about the book were more or less one: the novel would be a long-winded exercise in gauzy gooey bathos. Then a couple of years ago, a New Yorker review of the most recent translation (by Edith Grossman, Ecco, 2003) strongly indicated that this opinion might be like the old Don’s vision of the windmills that are the book’s central metaphor—a delusion.

The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote of La Mancha was first published in Spain in 1605. A contemporary of Shakespeare’s, Miguel Cervantes (1547—1616) was a frustrated playwright and poet, a soldier who lost an arm fighting real battles for the Spanish Armada and then later became a POW. Late in the 1500s, he became a tax collector for the Spanish crown and was jailed for apparent discrepancies in his accounts. It was while in jail that he first conjured the idea for what would be both his masterpiece and a founding work of modern western literature.

Judging from his life and this novel, Cervantes appears to have a been a man who knew how the world worked. Don Quixote is called the first “modern” novel: Among other innovations, it overthrew the traditional novels of its day, which were chivalric novels: romantic, heroic and non-realistic tales of dashing medieval knights and their loyal assistants (or squires) battling dragons and rescuing damsels. L’Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory is a most illustrious example. Chivalric novels are still very much with us in such volumes as The Mists of Avalon. (You could write a decent essay about the link between novels of chivalry and the modern hard-boiled detective novel, too). By the time Cervantes, soldier and prisoner, came along, the genre had crumbles into piles of cliché.

So Don Quixote, on its surface, is a spoof and is considered to be the first “comic novel.” Its humor and satire rips the armor off the chivalric novel and shows people as they actually are, not as we wish them to be. The errant knight is not a selfless hero, but a vain, egotistical, hypocritical fool. In one episode, he saves a young peasant from a savage beating by his master, only to blithely gallop away leaving the young man to suffer an even worse beating from his boss. It’s like watching The Lone Ranger and Tonto break up a bank robbery, only to neglect to jail the robbers, leaving them free to burn down the rest of the town. Not strong on follow through.

Here's another signal that this is a “modern novel”: More than one author is employed in the telling of this “history” and they’re a mysterious and slippery gang, grossly impressed with their own sagacity rather than the Don’s fruitless sacrifices, another sure sign that we are in modern literature's world of often unreliable narrators. Cervantes also inserts novels within the novel: One is a fairly straightforward and exciting fictionalized account of his own adventure as a POW.

Still, the experience of actually reading Don Quixote doesn't always feel modern. This is sixteenth-century Spain, after all. The literate class of that time was also a leisure class with more time on their hands and fewer distractions (they must also have been shocked to find themselves drawn into a world so earthy, gritty and boisterous). Like other works of its time, this is a long book. Twenty-first century readers with two-second attention spans may still find it long-winded and extremely dense. If there’s a way for a character to say something more than once—especially if it’s Sancho Panza—then it shall be said. The Don delivers many lectures on points of chivalry—some of which actually do contain wisdom. Meanwhile, Sancho Panza (who might be a distant ancestor of Gabby Hayes') speaks a delightful stew of old folk wisdom, much of it irrelevant, much of which has found its way into our modern vernacular.

On the other hand, the book's many chapters are all short. And Don Quixote is packed with as much violent slapstick as a Road Runner cartoon. No matter how often the old Don and his squire are splattered over the plains of Spain, they always peel themselves off the ground (or the floor, or the rock, or a wall) like Wile E. Coyote to fight on. In the gallery of great comic archetypes, Don Quixote (like Stephen Colbert) is the Man Who’s Completely Confident . . . and (Almost) Completely Wrong.

At the same time, though, this big, baggy novel, is as arch, witty and pointed as anything written by Noel Coward. It’s observations of the broken society through which the Don and Sancho ride ring true and are extremely pointed. Don Quixote not only satirizes romantic novels, but skewers the whole idea of romantic love. Like the bones of the dead, broken hearts litter this landscape, many done in by violence and death. A stark episode, near the beginning, tells the tale of a lovesick shepherd who dies of longing for a beautiful, but allegedly heartless, shepherd girl. At his funeral, she appears and rises to her own eloquent defense:

. . .but I cannot grasp why, because it is loved, the thing loved for its beauty is obliged to love the one that loves it. . . . . Why do you want to force me to surrender my will, obliged to do so simply because you say you love me?

Episode after episode, brings to mind that J. Geils song: “Love Stinks.” And with it comes the whiff of tragicomedy.

Vladimir Nabokov, who published a whole series of lectures on the novel, believed Don Quixote to be a “crude old book full of peculiarly Spanish cruelty.” I know relatively little of Spain, but I agree on this: Cervantes’ novel really is full of peculiar cruelty. Four hundred years cannot hide the sense that there’s hardly a sentimental bone in its dense body. Reality, not only in the sense of the physical world, but of the people—peasants and lords, priests and criminals alike—beats hell out of Don Quixote and his squire. Even Sancho’s minor victory, when he’s fraudulently given the governorship he spends most of the novel yearning for, ends in farcical heartbreak.

The odd thing though, that while treating his characters with such mind-boggling cruelty, Cervantes' comic wizardry creates an alchemy that ends up making the poor foolish Don sympathetic. In a bitter ironic sense, he does become heroic even when he finally surrenders to reality. In the end, we understand that he was one with his dreams. Without them, he’s forced to renounce Chivalry. And without that faith—and I think faith is an important idea here—he dies. I was left with the feeling that a life without faith, in a fallen world, just might be impossible to live for many, if not all of us.

In its bland reassurances, the Broadway musical drains all this away, leaving marshmallow. No wonder I don't like the damned thing.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Them Thar Hills! Thoughts of Trails, Trails of Thoughts

More pictures than words this week.

Elizabeth and I have made an arrangement: Because she has sculpture class on Saturday in Walnut Creek, on Friday I get the car and some badly needed exercise and fresh air. A few weeks ago, I commenced exploring the north-south string of parks that make up the East Bay Municipal Park District. Covering 91,000 acres, the district runs through the hills above East Bay cities from Richmond and unincorporated El Sobrante (“the leftovers”), through Oakland, to Hayward, Fremont, and San Jose.

We’d already explored much of the area north above the Caldicott tunnel through which Highway 24 runs into Contra Costa County. I decided to wander south. Last summer I explored around Sibley Volcanic Preserve a couple of times, but this year, I decided to start out with the Huckleberry Botanic Regional Preserve, located about two miles south of the intersection with Grizzly Peak Boulevard and Claremont Avenue. (From the west, this is best reached by taking Highway 24 through the Caldicott Tunnel than fanning immediately right up Fish Ranch Road. At the top you make a left onto Grizzly Peak Boulevard. There’s also an exit onto Fish Ranch Road from Highway 24 west.)

The Huckleberry Preserve is smaller than the other parks in the system and is all oak woodland. It was rather a dull hazy day as you can tell from the photo below, taken on March 7.

The trail was pleasant—what trail isn’t?—and only hikers are permitted. But I craved a wider range of environments and greater vistas. The next week, I drove a few more miles south, hooked up with Skyline Boulevard and found greater satisfaction.

Unfortunately, this was the day your correspondent forgot to recharge the batteries on the Canon, so I turned the hike into a workout that turned into an exercise in getting lost—not Dead-Man-Crawling-Lost, but lost as in making a wrong turn and walking all the way to the south end of the park before awaking to my mistake. (Sometimes I’m hiking through the woods; often, like many artist-types, I’m hiking through my thoughts. This was one of those days.) I totaled up six miles and wasn’t that sorry about any of it, especially after that first beer. No sore muscles the next day, either.

The next week, I returned, fully cameraed.

Redwood Regional Park is a 400-foot-or-so-deep canyon—thought no one calls it that--whose ridges are circled by two main trails. The environment is a mix of mostly oak and chaparral at higher elevations, with hushed groves of second growth coast redwoods towering from below. A century ago, this was a major logging site whose wood was major source of building materials. The Bay Area Ridge Trail, whose construction is still in progress, runs through here.

The second Friday, I took the east ridge trail, facing toward Contra Costa County. It was a long, mostly easy, walk, pleasantly uneventful. As you can see, spring was coiled and ready to . . . .

Possibly monkeyflower, though I'm not sure

Baby Blue Eyes? I doubt it . . . .

One remarkable feature is the park’s comparative sense of remoteness. At certain angles, you can fool yourself into thinking you’re seeing things as they were hundreds of years ago, when only the Ohlone people lived in these hills with their low-tech way of life.

The Big City's Not That Far Away

Unfortunately, the hum of the city and the roar of jets overhead from Oakland International Airport are there to remind you otherwise. As are a few signs of civilization like these:

Proof that Little People Exist

The cross, I’m guessing, makes humble reference to Iraq war casualties. Stonehenge . . . ? Yes, little people do live in parks! Why . . . ?

Two weeks later, I took the south ridge. By this time, spring was in full bloom.

Blue-eyed grass; not a grass, but a member of the iris family

Beautiful . . . and unknown
I enjoy taking photos of flowers. It’s more challenging than you think. Digital cameras become unstable when taking close-ups. You’re only seeing the good ones and there aren’t many.

So far, I’ve made my way south of the Chabot Space and Science Center to Roberts Recreation Area.

Chabot Space Center

Roberts Recreation Area is actually a separate park. The second growth redwoods that grow here are descendants of the ones used as reference points by early sailing ships to safely navigate their way into San Francisco Bay.

In Roberts Recreation Area

There’s much ground left to cover. In the meantime, my weight’s down to 175 lbs and my psoriasis has eased somewhat. I'd post pictures, but somehow, sadly, the camera batteries died . . . .

[Reedited 5/5/08; 5/8/08]