Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Spouter-Inn

“But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast.  A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted.  Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant.  Ever and anon a bright, but alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.—It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.—It’s the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time.  But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst.  That once found out, and all the rest were plain.”

“‘Landlord,’ said I, ‘tell him to stash his tomahawk there, or pipe, or whatever you call it; tell him to stop smoking, in short, and I will turn in with him.  But I don’t fancy having a man smoking in bed with me.  It’s dangerous.  Besides, I ain’t insured.’”

Sunday morning my family went on a hike above Aspen, Colorado, with Howie, a local guide who told us that the hanging valley we were standing in had been formed by a glacier that slid off the side of another glacier, that a human skull found in a local cave had been dated back 8,000 years, that aspen stands are one organism, connected through their root system and genetically identical, and that the bird we saw was a goshawk, which hunts its prey among the trees—something that is, I imagine, difficult to do.  Then we tried to get on a plane and fly home to San Francisco, but the flights out of Aspen were canceled and the flights out of Denver were full, and so we decided, by looking briefly at a map, that we would rent a car and drive to Las Vegas, where we could catch a morning flight.  Six hundred and thirty-six miles, plus an additional mile-and-a-half loop I drove when I started out in the right direction, thought it was the wrong direction, turned around, then turned around again.  No one complained.  We were all thrilled by our audacity, and eating the candy bars I’d taken from the free section of the hotel minibar right before we checked out.

At some point the sun set, and everyone grew tired, and we turned off the music so that people could sleep, and people cried from how tired they were, and other people shook the ice in their cups repeatedly in order to eat the ice, because we were out of other water sources, and I became enraged by this, and we turned the music back on, and people fell asleep briefly, before they were woken because the adults had turned to a satellite station that played political speeches, and we stopped at a rest stop and for some reason David didn’t want to use the rest stop right where you got off the highway, he wanted to use another one farther away, and we had a little fight about that, and we got more water and switched drivers so that I was driving again, and everyone including my husband fell asleep—but before that, and after that, the ride was everything I wanted it to be.  I drove us through the Roaring Fork Valley in the Rocky Mountains to I-70 and then down out of the mountains along the Colorado River as the sun set and great alien mesas rose up on either side of us, the road curving to follow the river, which, low from the year’s drought, revealed gravel spills and high grasses along gentle banks.  Speed limit 75, but it was so easy to go faster than that.  In Parachute I was clocked at 88 in a 75 zone and, for no good reason, let off without a citation.  Just look out, said the officer, because this is the time of day when elk try to cross the highway.  He gave us his card.  For the next 45 miles the boys watched for elk.

We got dinner at Burger King just as the sun set.  David drove 350 miles through Utah in the dark.

Now I was driving again, this time through the northwest corner of Arizona.  It was after midnight, although I didn’t know the exact time.  I was the only person awake, and I knew I had to concentrate very hard on what I was doing to do it at all.  I had been singing along with the radio but even that was too much, too extraneous, I had to marshal every scrap of consciousness to remain focused on keeping the car on the road; I couldn’t let my mind wander, or imagine that any of this was a dream.  The radio played on.  The speed limit dropped to 55 and signs warned me of high winds, strong curves, and falling rocks.  The only other vehicles running were big trucks, and if I wanted to pass one I had to get inside it and press the gas down more than I wanted to and then wait longer than I wanted to to get back into the right lane again.  At one point I fought the urge to pull over to the side and let it—by “it” I meant the curving descent—pass me by.

Then this was over, too.  The road into Nevada was flat and straight, and we passed into a section of the highway where the state was “trying out” a new speed limit: 80.  David woke up and we watched, together, as Las Vegas went from being a glow on the horizon to being a sea of lights below us.  I’d never been to Las Vegas before.  We took the highway down through the middle of it all.  When we pulled up to the hotel we were relieved to find out that Las Vegas was on Pacific time, and it was only 1:51 am.  We had  four and a half hours before we had to get ourselves to the airport.

There were people around, of course.  They were all drunk.  For the children, forced to march the huge marble hallways and the carpeted casino, each carrying a backpack, to our room, this last part of the trip was frightening.   At the elevator bank we let four guys in cargo shorts carrying orange beer bongs take the first elevator.  The next elevator disgorged a woman in a bathrobe with her hair teased and mussed, her eye makeup smudged, and her entire face, really, undone.  She couldn’t look at us.  When we all lay down in the beds, the boys fell asleep, quickly, and I must have done the same, but I was woken several times in the short, short night by the sound of one of them crying in his sleep.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Carpet-Bag

“For my mind was made up to sail in no other than a Nantucket craft, because there was a fine, boisterous something about everything connected with that famous old island, which amazingly pleased me.”

While bike-riding last week, my father hit his head and for a few hours could not remember the month of August.  He didn’t know that my niece had been born, and he couldn’t remember that David and the boys and I had been in Nantucket with him for almost that whole month.  I felt as if we both had been partially erased. 

My parents keep a boat on Nantucket that they named after their dead dog, although they did that before, rather than after he died.  The Great Ollie.  It’s a little motor boat, and we use it primarily to go to Tuckernuck Island, first weaving through grassy Hither Creek, then following the buoys marking the route through the Tuckernuck Flats, which are too shallow in parts even for a boat, like theirs, that draws only 3 feet of water.  Tuckernuck itself has a relatively deep harbor ringed on one side by a nice half-moon of sand, where we pull up and drop anchor among the other pleasure boats.  At the other end of the harbor there’s a dock used by the people who have houses on the island.

Every time we go to Tuckernuck, Dad wants to swim across the harbor to the dock, and he wants me to swim it with him.  And every time, I start out with him before betraying him by turning around and swimming back in.  I don’t intend to do this, but I always do this, because I’m afraid.  We swim on our backs, usually, or do that breast stroke where you keep you head up above the water, and the knowledge that beneath my body lies a living world filled with things I don’t know about unnerves me.

This past August when we performed this ritual, a ritual, on my side, of refusal, I decided that I wouldn’t let fear hold me back anymore.  I love my father, I love to swim, and while I was not going to swim the harbor with him that day, the next time I would come with my goggles and swim normally, as I swim in a swimming pool.  I would put my head under the water, and would see that there was nothing to be afraid of.  And so the next time we came, I brought my goggles, and we started swimming across the harbor, he on his back, blowing plumes of water out his mouth, as usual, and me on my front, doing the breast stroke I have done in swimming pools across the world.  But it turns out that if you put your head underwater in the Tuckernuck harbor, all you see is a blue-green wall.  It turns out, as well, that the vision of this wall is more terrifying to me than anything I used to imagine.  And even though I love my Dad, I now know that I’m never swimming that harbor with him, ever.

Friday, September 7, 2012


"[A]nd especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can."

"Though I cannot tell why it was exactly that those stage managers, the Fates, put me down for this shabby part of a whaling voyage … yet, now that I recall all the circumstances, I think I can see a little into the springs and motives which being cunningly presented to me under various disguises, induced me to set about performing the part I did, besides cajoling me into the delusion that it was a choice resulting from my own unbiased freewill and discriminating judgment."

When we first moved to San Francisco we lived in a furnished rental house which initially seemed charming to me and then within a short time seemed to me to be a monument to the wide variety of things that exist, and to the insanity of trying to possess them.  The owners cleaned out the house for months before we moved in but even so it was filled with so many things that required my attention, and because we had just moved across the country and I was pretty unhappy about it, the form of attention I gave those things was to hate them.

Near the end of our year there, I wrote:

If you were to write a book about the house we’re living in, you wouldn’t write it about us. We’re the interlopers. We’re the symbols of a new age, an age without poetry and imagination. We didn’t rescue the house, this very yellow house, from the wrecking ball and nurse it back to health. We haven’t wrapped ourselves in furs and done business in the icy wastes of northern China and eastern Siberia. We haven’t searched the markets of Iranian towns for little treasures that we later misplace somewhere in the kitchen cabinets. We haven’t entertained members of famous orchestras on a piano that is short three keys. We haven’t made or lost great fortunes, and no injustice, that I can recall, has been visited on us. We want to be able to get our cars in and out of their spots without having to negotiate about it, and we’d like our security deposit back. No, if you were going to write a book about this house, you’d write it about our landlords, and the lives they have led, the great deeds that they have done, and all the things that have run through their fingers, and, even in escaping them, left their mark.

There were Chinese urns by the fireplaces, and white silk couches, and on the floor next to one of the white silk couches a jagged piece of glass as big as your head.  Commissioned tapestries hung upstairs and down, living and dining room were ringed with high shelves holding a significant collection of artistic glass dishes, chandeliers twinkled in every room, and there was nowhere to go to escape the paintings, a number of which had been painted, although (pardon me for noticing this) not always to completion, by the owners themselves.  Users of the ground-floor powder room shared it with a couple of brass fish which I rather liked, actually, as well as a fake tree, ceramic wall tiles that depicted some kind of scene, and a magazine stand filled with auction catalogs from the late 1980s.  Thumbing through those catalogs revealed that certain items had been circled and, occasionally, annotated admiringly, acquisitively, “Good price for this.”  Had those things been bought, and were they somewhere in the house with us?  There were so many things in the house that you could  miss things, you could almost, for example, not notice an Austrian ceramic oven the size of my older son standing decorously in the corner of the kitchen.  If you did notice it, and looked inside, you would find a small brochure about hand-made Austrian ceramic ovens, unfortunately in German.

So we moved to an unfurnished house and had our things delivered.  When we did that we discovered that the house was a little small for all of our things, particularly our books, which we had to keep in boxes in the little room off the garage where David has also set up an exercise bike, and where we may try to cram in John’s drum kit, when we buy it next week.  We had been here a year when I went down there looking for Moby Dick, and it took me a half hour of slicing through packing tape with a key to find it.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012


"Since the Sperm Whale's eyes are positioned on opposite sides of his head, he 'must see one distinct picture on this side, and another distinct picture on that side.'"

I took Moby Dick to Nantucket, where I read Elizabeth Renker's introduction, some of Melville’s prefatory material, and the first ten pages of the novel itself, picking it up for a minute or two or at a time. That was about a month ago, at the beginning of my August vacation. Melville hadn’t visited Nantucket when he wrote Moby Dick, and in the end I wouldn’t read Moby Dick while I was in Nantucket, although I thought about it a lot.

I don’t know what Moby Dick will mean to me later, when I’ve read it, but not reading it, it still managed to mean something, or even many things: it was fear, it was happiness, it was writing, it was swimming, it was certainly fishing, it was death and it was freedom. It was the lost dog we found on a walk and returned to its house, where an empty red leash hung from the door. It was my parents‘ dog, who ate a bottle of suntan lotion and shit on the bed. It was my pregnant sister, who had to go home and wait to have her baby. It was my sick uncle, it was sunset, it was the swim and tennis club. It was It, it was out there, and it was waiting to reveal itself to me. When it surfaced, and I saw it, I would see the shape of the world.