R.’s first day of second grade. Her class is all boys, the second grade is all boys—where have the girls gone? Private school? Oregon?
She puts on a plaid dress and leggings, elliptical hoop earrings, gets on her scooter, very chic, J. follows her around the corner to school. I get on my bike, clicking chain I still haven’t tamed, arrive at the office and am told, thanks for your recent supererogatory efforts on the big data project. I say that the portage over the steepest part of the mountain is over, and hope it’s true. The head of our department comes in, sees us all standing at our desks typing—“How can you do that all day?” We don’t know.
Lots of new people at the zendo, young and scruffy: must be the start of term? An older woman asking about the timing for a certain ceremony, is told, “We’ve had a lot of calendar-related challenges recently.” Low, fast fog, the sun keeps fading in and out, God’s mad hand on the dimmer knob. R. and J. both reading by lamplight when I get home. They’ve already eaten, I make myself a five-minute dinner out of the first things I find in the fridge: kimchi, carrots, last night’s orzo, fried eggs on top. I call it “Marco Polo Goes to Incheon,” and make a couple of extra gyoza for R., who’s still hungry. Quiet, warm.
Nothing’s on fire in Kings Canyon itself, but the burn follows you around and stings your nostrils, and the vista turnoffs that are meant to open onto miles of rock instead show a blank blue-gray. You feel like you’re driving into the void. (Bashō: mist and rain, can’t see Mount Fuji, interesting...)
Up on the trail were live pines, and blackened trunks and limbs shining with mineral deadness from some earlier fire. That’s the world, half alive and half dead. The world to come, half alive and half dead. (I read somewhere that Venus isn’t a possible scenario because Earth is too far from the sun. We’re just the asteroid, powerless constituents of the asteroid.) Squirrels, robins, woodpeckers, nuthatches, lizards, flies all moving around, doing what they know.
I got to a stream, a gust of wind came up and then a huge report, much deeper than gunfire; I thought some idiot must be setting off artillery from the cliffs. Then one of the huge blackened trunks slowly began to tip, shedding branches against its neighbors as it gathered speed, slammed to earth thirty feet away and raised a huge cloud of reddish dust. I was there to hear it. The birds did nothing for a space—thirty seconds?—but the wind and water were still moving, and soon the forest’s whole quiet machine started up again.
An hour before sunset I took the shorter trail to pay respects to the sequoias, which have a lot of companion manzanitas growing between—because their shallow root structures are compatible? Because the taller trees don’t grow thick and light gets through the canopies? I was so exhausted and happy that night in the tent cabin, curled up with my novel from Brazil and my old jazz guitar, practicing chord shapes up and down the neck. Cooked chili on the camp stove and ate it looking west, washed out the pan at the bathhouse and used it for granola the next morning at first light. I actually wanted to get up early. I’ve hardly had a coherent thought from start to finish in years.
My shoulder came back. For a while lifting my right arm brought only pain and incapacity, and even once stronger it suffered a queasy shift-and-pop on certain motions, especially washing hair in the shower, as some part of the architecture decided to try out liberating new living arrangements. But in the past couple of weeks it’s finally firmed up, solid, strong and rather more prominent to the touch than before. Don’t fuck with it.
For family reasons we’ve been traveling a lot through the new, hot western world; I’ve been reading, mostly good books (see lower right), but also the entirely of a T.C. Boyle story in The New Yorker, I guess because it was set in Kingman, AZ and I have a ghoulish fascination with Kingman, AZ. Fiction that thinks of itself as “ethical,” or anyhow takes ethics as its meat because that’s what magazine fiction has traditionally laid out on the butcher’s block. It’s correct in the way that a sonata is correct. But there’s no reason that these particular formal cuts had to be enacted against ethics as such: it could have been metallurgy. It could have been baseball scores. The actual revealed attitude toward ethics is something between sham and indifference. Statesmen still hoping to improve the youth are not encouraged.
The first doctor wanted to put screws and a plate in my shoulder. Luckily my brother-in-law, also an orthopedic surgeon, took a look at the x-rays and said I should go see a second doctor, who reassured me that it’s healing just fine on its own without encouragement from the knife.
While I’ve been laid up, the folks at the press are introducing my book to the marketplace by way of trying to crowdfund the first print run (i.e. “is it worth the paper it’s printed on?”). I hope it will be! The financial stakes of course aren’t the highest; it’s the economy of attention whose scarcity is being tried, and if you’ve read this far we’ve already beaten the odds. I should be saying thank you. If what comes out instead is “As you love me, would you buy a book?”, I hope you’ll take it charitably, as a quirk of translation.
I broke my crow
R. is more beautiful by the day—this even though my own face is coded in hers. Everything that’s ill-proportioned and wrong when I look in the mirror is balanced and natural in her. A weekend in the woods taught her to ride a Razor scooter and she’s since been tearing up our block, to and from the school and the library, much faster than I can follow. I’ve been especially slow since last week, when she dared me to ride the scooter down a hill and I somehow thought the dare worth accepting. Now I have a clavicle broken into three pieces, a wrenched coracoclavicular ligament (it connects your collarbone to your crow) and an enormous yellow bruise over the front of my shoulder, as if a highlighter pen just exploded in my shirt pocket. I’m reading, learning to write by dictating into my phone, not good for much else.
By coincidence, The Life of Henry Brulard was next up on the stack. Stendhal turning fifty in a dreary government post is something like my bout of enforced idleness just shy of forty; in either case the active life is foreclosed (which must be more galling for Stendhal, poet of youthful energy) and one is thrown back on contemplation. Stendhal sketches the curve of his life: he’s on the downslope and wants to write about the period when he was still rising. The jerkiness of those contours reminds me of my own yellow shoulder in the mirror, which, having lost the support of its ligament, now drops precipitously from the bone.
The plot of childhood is an endless series of mistakes followed by endless corrections, and it would be unbearable without the plotless elements, those apparent encounters with human faculties in a ground state that, met unawares, seems to offer a brief for the religious idea that joy and beauty lie in the heart of things. R. has restored some of that ground state to the child self in my memory, and made it easier to forgive that child’s blunders. Likewise it becomes easier to understand life writing as a devotional practice, and not simply—by way of my jaundice toward American publishing—as something one falls back on for lack of other ideas.
I have no faith in the idea that intelligence in a child promises superiority in the man. In a genre less subject to illusion, because after all its monuments survive, all the bad painters I have known have done astonishing things around the age of eight or ten giving promise of genius.
Alas, nothing gives promise of genius, perhaps obstinacy is a sign of it.
Stendhal, The Life of Henry Brulard
An Ambition To Squint At My Verses In Print
Crow picking at a dead starling, the live starlings wheel and screech. It’s all right. “Everything is just as it is. You don’t have to like it, but you have to see it.”
The “purple ghost” maple is most vivid when the leaves are just budding, those curled skeleton fingers, minuscule. Magenta more than purple. That same magenta in the two-winged seed pods hanging below.
J. says she’s been far from home, that writing is home. (I know where my home is—not unlike a shit-hawk in the snow...) She says my writing always puts forth an indifferent, take-it-or-leave-it stance, which might be why it so often strikes the world without impact.
In the midst of this muddle I quite forgot to mention that my book has a publisher now! It will be out in January, we think. I need to orient some things around it.
J. went to Canada again, came back again. Before that we all went to Washington state together. Chorus of ravens, chorus of loons. In the café of sleep I order a macchiato and the barista asks me for a favorite phrase.
“I’ve always been partial to, ineluctable modality of the visible.”
“I am not going to call that out when your macchiato is ready.”
“Clever boy!” breaks in a second, obviously hostile barista; “learned your ABCs a long time before everyone else, didn’t you? Why don’t you learn some new ABCs, that no one’s ever seen before, and fuck up Unicode for good?”
I stand my ground, inwardly writhing, till the macchiato is brewed.
The end of Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau moves from tides to texts, bringing together three in particular: Tlingit folklore of scarcity and contingent misfortune; the last stanzas of Cowper’s Castaway; and the Marcus Aurelius prized by his deceased father. “You cannot hope to be a scholar. But what you can do is curb arrogance....”
The priest who officiates Monday nights at the zendo asks (in contrast to usual custom) that tonight’s service be dedicated in mind to her sister, who is at the crux of a long illness. The server asks if a different text should be substituted for the usual Heart Sutra. “No, no,” with a melancholy smile, “everything’s in the Heart Sutra, really.”
There’s a koto at the front of the church; the performer can slide the stops around to get different scales. She presses her left hand to the stops and produces a thunk, like palm muting a guitar. The professor of piano is still obliged (a hundred years on!) to give a few minutes’ explanation of and apologetics for Schoenberg before commencing to play Op. 23 and Op. 25, wonderfully well. Two violins alongside each other, one violin alongside a huge bass koto. The program notes (the composer’s own?) read, “The materials used are very limited, and there is no development of these materials.”
I’m in a pew with a borrowed copy of The New American Poetry, ed. Donald M. Allen (1960), transposed into a vision of what the future used to look like: Allen Ginsberg sitting outside Dwinelle watching boys go in and out, the turtlenecked academic dereferentializers having to sit next to the sweaty guys on peyote because no one had completely worked out who was who.
Once the show is over we clap as well as we can, but there aren’t many of us in the pews and we keep awkwardly starting and stopping as the roses are handed out.
As everyone knows in this port town of idiotic, profitable machines, the entrepreneur’s task is to work out what the market wants, that anyone could have done, and be the first to do it. In the arts this is an awful strategy; not only because the field is so barren of money, but because works conceived in such a vein will only embarrass you later. They can hold no brief for their existence except that it was you and not another who made them: as if the melting self were a peg to hang anything on. To pick at a form and find nothing underneath but mewling ego.
The other works, the ones that would never have occurred to anyone else, are no proof against embarrassment either. For one thing, they’re likely to be technically weaker, having fewer models to draw on. But you are at least justified in doing them, insofar as without you they would not have been done; and this lends them a stability separate from their flaws. They can exist without being looked at. Which matters, since few will want to look at them, now or later (the idea of posterity being the entrepreneur’s complex all over again, displaced in time).
I walked under all the windows of San Francisco and nothing saw me. I didn’t even get in the way of the wind.
Our newest ambition
For the past year, unable to get traction on a book of my own, I’ve been collaborating on one with R. Really it’s her book: my role is editorial, and to supply leading questions if things are running too fast or too slow. She’ll type a few sentences at a time, asking how to spell things; then it all gets too exciting and she starts leaping around the room and vaulting over furniture while continuing to dictate to me. The centaurs, dragons, sphinxes, disguised princesses, portals to other universes are all her own.
Once we got to twelve chapters plus a Note from the Author (“I am six years old. This is my first book.”), she drew a cover and we laid it out in InDesign, using the same font as The Drowned Library. We used pure reason to work out which pages to print on the backs of other pages so the whole thing could be stapled into a forty-page booklet. Getting staples through a forty-page booklet requires spearing the starting holes with a sewing needle. At one point my hand slipped and I now have a stigma on my left palm.
We’ve printed five or six copies so far, gifts for friends and family. The longtime favorite babysitter got a copy as her wedding gift. R.’s first-grade teacher got one too, and in my opinion did not properly acknowledge the significance of the gesture.
“I want to be a writer when I grow up,” R. says, “but I’ll also need another job.” Scary to me, how closely she’s been watching, and how fast she’s caught on.