Archive for September, 2007

Boats, Part 2

We scurried back to the waterline, our shoulders hunched as if we expected the spectral shape to take on an even more menacing form and swoop down on us.  What I could see of Dad’s face in the last dregs of twilight was tight and drawn.  “I didn’t like that at all,” he said, his voice tense and shaking.  I didn’t say anything.  I was too scared.

Eventually, we thought we saw the spot in the dunes we had reconned earlier, so we trudged through the deep sand and over the dunes, making our way through thick patches of central California beach chaparral.  The western side of the dunes was actually easier to navigate despite the thicker growth, because the light from the town on the other side of the bay illuminated our path.  After a great deal of searching in the wrong little sandy inlet, we realized that the boat was about a hundred feet north, in another little sandy inlet.  The pile of debris loomed darkly, and we quickly uncovered our find.

Although the tide was on the way in, at least according to the tide book, we didn’t count on the fact that it takes longer for the tide to make it the four or five miles down the bay from the breakwater, where the Pacific flows in.  The tide would be rising as we paddled across the bay, and this would help us since the currents would be favorable, but at the moment, there was still about a fifty yards or more of thick, viscous black mud to traverse before we could get to an open channel.  What to do?

Both of us knew from past experience that the mudflats are almost as good as quicksand–you would sink in eight or ten inches, and then the mud would suck at your feet and pull your shoes off as you tried to take a step.  With the added burden of the boat and our gear, it would be very difficult to cross the mud to the water.  Waiting until the tide reached us was not really an option, either, since Mom would be waiting at the town jetty.  The back bay is a great place for scavengers, as our little treasure proclaimed, and among the flotsam and jetsam were dozens of boards.  We carefully poked and prodded the edges of the dunes to find some long, wide boards that we could lay on the mud to form a temporary boardwalk.

Since we were on a commando mission, we had been very quiet the entire time, even when confronted with the Haunted Log back on the beach.  So, as we dragged the boards out, we were still whispering and trying to move with as much stealth as possible.  I showed my lack of commando skills, though, when I accidentally let one board go.  The noise it made when it splatted on the mud awakened a flock of sleeping pelicans, who took flight, adding their terrified squawks to the echoing gunshot sound of the dropped board.  I grinned at my dad in embarrassment, and we realized then just how silly our stealth was–no one knew or cared that we were out there.  We were two miles as the pelican flies from the nearest human habitation, and at least four or five miles by land from anyone.

Soon we had the boat in hand and dragged it to the channel.  As we were dragging, we could see the water getting closer with the incoming tide. We hopped in as soon as the boat started floating and unlashed our makeshift commando paddles.  I briefly wondered what we were going to do if the boat turned out to be less that perfectly watertight, but I shoved that aside with a sweep of the awkward paddle.

The paddles.  They were makeshift, for sure, and they were far from efficient.  Dad had gone for quickness and not for perfect design when he cut them.  They were shaped sort of like big, fat commas and paddled about as well as commas would.  In spite of this, after about an hour of paddling, we could make out the line of lights at the jetty.  Shortly thereafter, we completed our maiden voyage, bumping roughly against the boards of the jetty and smiling triumphantly at my mom.

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Messing About In Boats

My dad always had a fascination with boats, and when we lived in the San Joaquin Valley, our vacations to the coast involved a lot of time standing on the wharf, looking at the sleek sailboats waiting to be taken beyond the breakwater.  Once we moved to the coast, the obsession remained, and many family excursions were trips to the boat basin in the state park where the big teak beauties displayed their sparkling brightwork or to the Embarcadero, where the smaller boats held court.  Although I appreciated the boats, and enjoyed looking at the pictures and plans in Wooden Boat magazine, my interest never reached my dad’s level.

On New Year’s Day, 1984, we took a family hike on the sand dunes that protected the bay from the Pacific.  We parked at Shark Inlet and hiked over the biggest dune to the ocean side.  Then we traversed back to the bay side, slipping down the slithering sand to the dark, strong-smelling, reed-lined mucky shoreline.  There, tossed by the waves in a tiny cove was a small boat.  It had once been white, but was now a discolored and battered gray.  The fiberglass shell was peeling away from the plywood heart.  The small bench was covered with drying sea grass and splatters of mud.  Clearly the boat was a lost derelict.

“The law of the sea,” my dad proclaimed.  The salvage law, he argued, meant that anything that washes ashore belongs to whoever hauls it away.  Finders keepers.  We decided that the boat was ours by rights.  Since we couldn’t haul it back to the car over two miles of dunes, we would have to come back later that night when the tide was high and paddle our find to the other side, the home side, of the bay.  To secure our prize, we dragged it further up the dune and hid it under heaps of sea grass and other debris.  Then, noting carefully where the boat was by sighting across the bay and finding some landmarks on this side, we set off for home.

Once home, Dad and I realized that we needed paddles of some sort.  There was a sheet of half-inch plywood in the garage, so Dad whipped out his jigsaw and cut two stubby and terribly awkward-looking paddles.  We lashed them up with rope, since rope is something you will always need on a boat, and made slings to carry the paddles.  The rest of our gear was strictly commando-raid equipment.  I wore an old camo jacket and jeans.  Dad put on his field jacket and dark watch cap.  I pulled on a balaclava.  We both wore gloves.

Just as it got dark, Mom dropped us off at Shark Inlet again.  She would meet us at the town jetty in two hours.  We set out up the dunes and decided that it would be faster, easier walking on the ocean side, where the sand would be packed firm.  Slinging our paddles over our shoulders as if we were carrying M16s, we half-jogged over the deep sand, looking around intently to make sure we were not being followed.

As out adventure continued, we felt more and more tense.  Even though there was no earthly reason to suspect that anyone knew we were claiming the derelict boat, and no reason anyone would give a damn if they did know, we became very vigilant, ready for any sort of ambush.  The pale light reflecting from the ocean signaled the death of the first day of the year, and it was just enough to see our way over the dune.  Once the sun’s last glimmers faded away, starlight and the eerie glow from the power plant over the hill helped us but also tormented us with shadows and half-seen menaces.

On our left, the ocean glimmered a dark silver.  On our right, the dunes were pure and utter blackness against the sky glowing with the town’s lights. Keeping our eyes on the shape of the dunes, trying to remember where the boat was, we came across a slender dark shape jutting into the sky.  What is that? we whispered to each other.  The shape was vaguely human.  Tentatively, the same way a dog will carefully make its way to something strange and frightening, we inched our circuitous way up to the shape.  As we got closer, it looked more and more human, like a tall man standing there wearing a long jacket or cloak.  I shined my flashlight toward the shape.  We both jumped as the light seemed to illuminate a dark, snarling gray face.  It took several terrifying seconds before realizing that it was just a log, a piece of ancient driftwood, that someone had set upright in the sand.  The silvered grain of the weathered wood swirled and twisted in the dim glow of my flashlight like a bearded, angry face, speckled with sand.

“Let’s get out of here,” my dad said, sounding much more nervous than I wanted him to sound.  We turned and scurried back to the ocean and continued on our way.

I’ll finish this up tomorrow.  In the meantime, if I may be so bold, check out this post.  It makes me feel happy.

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Article Publication!

An article I wrote on Martha Stewart and Nigella Lawson is going to be published in Americana!  I am pretty excited about this because it got rejected by another journal of pop culture because it was too theoretical, something that makes me laugh.  I’m not a big theory guy, so anyone who finds my articles too theoretical is really not a theory guy.   Anyway, I’ll post a link when it’s published.

Here’s the funny thing:  I was sort of depressed that the article got rejected, so I sent it off, electronically, in sort of a throwaway gesture, without revising or doing anything to the MS to the other journal.  The lesson here is that you need to find the right home for your writing.  A rejection just means you haven’t found that home yet.

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Yesterday we closed the pool for the season. Before putting on the cover, I reinflated the big float that keeps the cover off the surface of the pool and attached a new rope to the float’s grommets. I fumbled with the knots untying the old, rotted rope and again with the new rope, wishing yet again that I had more skill with ropes and knots than I do. I can manage a square knot and a couple of other knots that probably have names, but I don’t know them.

I learned to tie the square knot in Cub Scouts. One day when I was in third grade, the school sent out a notice that there was going to be an informational meeting for boys interested in Cub Scouts. I thought it sounded like a lot of fun, even though most of my friends thought scouting was stupid and only fags would join. Nevertheless, my dad and I made the trip one night to the cafeteria of Del Mar elementary school with my mom’s admonition to my dad not to volunteer for anything ringing in our ears. There were a couple of dozen boys, many of them scary older boys who had made the transition from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, milling around. The Pack Leader called the meeting to order and started talking about Scouting. When it came time to organize the Dens, no one stepped forward. Fourteen eight-year-old boys looked sad–no Den Leader meant no Cub Scouts. Finally, to my immense joy and pride, my dad stood up. When we got home that night, my mom did not even have to ask; she saw my triumphant grin followed by my dad’s sheepish grin and said, “You volunteered, didn’t you?”

We had Den meetings at our house. My mom baked something for the boys, usually cupcakes or brownies, and my dad devised skills tests and games. The boys practiced the Cub Scout oath and salute and planned what we needed to do to get the three badges–wildcat, wolf, and bear (I think I remember the badges correctly). One of my dad’s skills tests was to stand over a large empty wine jug with wooden matches and try to drop, from varying heights, a match into the tiny mouth of the jug.

The other thing that vividly stands out in my mind is the square knot game. After demonstrating to us how to tie a square knot correctly, my dad gave us two pieces of rope. We gathered together in pairs, and Dad faced us off across a strip of masking tape on the floor. He looped a piece of rope around the back of one boy and handed the loose ends to the other, then he repeated the process with the other boy. The object of the game was to tie a square knot in the rope looped behind your opponent’s back and then pull the boy across the strip of masking tape. The first to tie and pull would win the round, but only after Dad had checked the knot to make sure it was, in fact, a square knot.

When my dad started to get involved with sailboats, he spent a lot of time learning new knots and practicing them with various types of rope. He grew very skilled with many knots and was quite proud of his splicing and turks heads. One year on my birthday, he sent me a leash he had made for Muttboy, with the splices carefully bound and reinforced with turks heads done in contrasting black cord.

So yesterday, as I was fumbling with my knots, I thought it would be great if my dad were around to show me how to do a really good knot, something elegant, neat, and effective. My thoughts fall that direction too frequently and I can imagine the things he would say or do if he had had the chance to come up to Connecticut to visit. I see and hear him when I go on walks with Muttboy–he would laugh at the dog’s antics as much as I do. Or at a bike race, I can see his big grin as he comes up to my team rehashing the final sprint around the start line, handing me a bottle of energy drink. Or on my deck, making fun of my lousy knots and telling me how to make a real knot so it looks like I know what I’m doing.

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Sister Mildred

Why isn’t James M. Cain revered at the same level of the big guns of 20th century American literature?  Why is he set aside as a “hard boiled” author or a noirish pulpmaster when he should, by rights, be fighting it out with Hemingway?  I have no doubt Cain could open a serious can of whoop ass on Hemingway.

Cain is perhaps best known for his noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice, which was made into at least two different movie versions that I know of.  That is one of the best-written, tightly-paced crime novels I have read, with Cain’s journalist-honed sense of timing propelling the plot, and his jaded eye providing the withering social commentary.  His non-crime novel, Mildred Pierce, has all of these attributes, and surely stands as a solid example of the persistence of the naturalist style well past the popular and critical demise of the genre in the early years of the 20th century.  In Mildred Pierce, Cain shows that he is the true heir of Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser.

Cain’s triumph over Hemingway comes partly because of what he doesn’t do.  Mildred Pierce lacks the immature misogyny, the little boy who hates girls, that runs through so much of Hemingway.  I like Hemingway, but his fear of cooties gets real old after a while.  Cain writes like a product of his time–he’s no feminist fantasy–but his women characters are believable, and Mildred is a fully functioning, though deeply flawed human character.  His men don’t fare any better, and, in fact, most of them are rather ineffectual and seem to be able to do little more than chase after Mildred and ogle “the Dairy,” as one especially shiftless mope calls her voluptuous breasts.

Cain follows the Naturalist mission of looking at the real and sordid side of modern life, and he seems to take great joy in it–greater joy than I can find in someone like Upton Sinclair.  Sinclair always seems to be piling up the horrors in a desperate attempt to make you believe what he’s seeing, but Cain avoids this pitfall with a more nuanced journalistic style distinct from Sinclair’s muckraking.  Cain likes his eponymous character and his sympathy for her comes through clearly.  As Cain follows ten years in Mildred’s life from 1931 to 1941, he shows us her struggles as she kicks out one worthless husband, starts up a successful business, marries another worthless husband, and then loses it all.

Mildred’s big downfall is her slavish devotion to her daughter Veda.  Veda starts the novel as a precociously snobbish society dame wannabe.  She speaks in an affected tone and looks down her patrician nose at anyone who has to work for a living (the horror!) and her life is complicated by the fact that her mother needs to work to support her snobbish rich girl habits.  As the novel progresses, Veda becomes more and more clearly a sociopath, a self-centered little mug who will do anything and walk over anyone to get what she wants, treating everyone around her with haughty disdain, and even going so far as to commit all manner of fraud to achieve her goals.  Mildred, poor sap, wants to secure Veda’s love more than anything else, and she convinces herself over and over that her darling little girls is not only blessed with immense talent (and she is) but is also a kind, sweet, devoted little daughter, so she underwrites Veda’s predatory lifestyle, sometimes unwittingly.

In the end of the novel, Mildred is back with her first husband, who, it turns out, is not a bad guy at all, but is just a bit of a loser.  They watch helplessly as Veda manipulates them and then deserts them on Christmas day to run off to New York, where her future, bought at the expense of her mother’s reputation, is secured.

This novel is really a study of family and social dynamics while also being a fierce and brutal indictment of class snobbery in America.  Veda and the polo-playing, mooching, philandering, incest-committing Monty can hardly makes themselves go to Glendale, the town that symbolizes to them the sordid life of working-class people, which loving Pasadena, where the rich can make sure the help stays out of sight and always uses the back entrance.  The sympathetic characters are all struggling to hang onto their middle class existence as it is threatened by the schemes and demands of the snobs, none of whom have any compunction against using their middle-class friends to maintain their snobbish lifestyles.  In the end, the lazy, shiftless, snobbish rich are nothing more than parasites sucking the lifeblood out of society.  Worse yet, society applauds them for it.

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Damn Updike

I rented a basement apartment in a huge old stucco house up on the north side of Berkeley on Walnut Street my freshman year of college. It was one of those rambling, boxy old houses with strange, dark closets and shelves stuck in odd places. At the top of the stairs leading up to my bathroom, hanging precipitously over the stairwell was one dark brown closet stuffed with old, mildew-scented paperbacks. I spent far too many of my freshman nights alone in my room, reading these old paperbacks and rapidly failing my engineering classes. Here I first read Cheever, Sayers, Barth, de Beauvoir, and Updike. I immediately took to Updike despite our complete incompatibility–he eastern and sophisticated, me western and naive.

I wanted to leave engineering and major in English, and not quite soon enough I made the transition, but only after finding myself on academic probation. As an English major, I was going to be a great writer, stunning the world with my virtuosity, verbal wit, heart-stoppingly dramatic plots. In Updike I saw a model of perfect prose. I envied his ability to slice reality into transparently thin leaves and hold them up to the light. His precise observations and meticulous descriptions always thrilled me, and I wanted to be able to write like that.

In reading Bech Is Back, I see a damnably offhand talent. Updike does not even seem to be trying with this one–it slips off the pages so easily, like one of his women characters casually tossing her bra aside before devastating his hero with a sly glance from the corners of her eyes. The plot of the novel is thin, vaporous, negligible. It doesn’t really matter. We watch Bech, Updike’s neurotic creation, his Jewish alter-ego, as he finally ends 15 years of silence and publishes a huge and popular new novel. As I said, though, it’s not the plot but the language. Look:

One night, reading at the New School, he became conscious of her in the corner of his eye. Over by the far wall, at the edge of the ocean of reading-attending faces–the terrible tide of up-and-coming, in their thuggish denims and bristling beards, all their boyhood misdemeanors and girlhood greivances still to unpack into print, and the editors thirsty to drink their fresh blood, their contemporary slant–Bech noticed a round female face, luminous, raptly silent.

Or this:

Ann’s and Judy’s boyfriends struck him as a clamorous and odorous swarm of dermatological disasters, a pack of howling wolves clad in the latest style of ragbag prep, their clothes stretching and ripping under the pressure of the growing bodies, their modes of courtship uniformly impossible to ignore, from the demonstrations of football prowess arranged on the September lawn to the post-midnight spinouts of their parents’ Mercedeses on the gravel drive after some vernal dance.

He can make simultaneously general and specific observations, using the specifics of the boyfriends to represent an entire class of Westchester middle-class youth that is both vague enough to fit almost anyone in that class but also insanely vibrant and real. In a way it feels to me the same as meeting a famous actor or actress–I have seen these people in many different fanciful settings that seeing them in the mundane (a bookstore, say, or a coffee shop) is both humdrum and surreal.

Thinking about writing another novel, Bech worries:

The thought sickened him. A whole new set of names to invent, a theme to nurture within like a tumor, a texture to maintain page after page…

He knows what he’s doing.  Damn him.

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Husbands and Wives

Tabitha King’s novel The Trap is a tense, suspenseful story with an additional layer of ominous meaning hiding in the shadows cast by the novelist’s much more famous spouse.  Tabitha’s novel is set, like her husband’s, in rural Maine.  Olivia and Pat Russell are a young professional couple facing some storms in the form of their adolescent daughter and Pat’s increasingly demanding career as a screenwriter.  She complicates the marital strife plot with an injection of pure King unease personified by a trio of downeast psychopaths, a sort of Yankee version of James Dickey’s inbred Georgia hilbillies.

Tabitha’s description of the tiny annoyances that accumulate and grow to maddening size begs to be read in terms of the author’s own background.  At the time she was writing the novel (it takes place in 1983 and was published in 1985), Stephen King was rocketing his way up the bestseller lists while busily trying to ingest every drug and all of the alcohol in the western world.  Olivia’s seething anger at Pat’s cocaine use surely echoes Tabitha’s despair over Stephen’s own habits.  This is not to say, however, that this is a roman a clef–it is too easy to substitute successful novelist for successful screenwriter and call it a day.  Instead, Tabitha channels her bitterness and anger into her characters and the plot.

Tabitha writes as if possessed.  There are several gruesome set-pieces, including a horrifying, brutal rape, and a couple of murders, and she does not allow her readers to turn away but instead forces us to look , wide-eyed at the horrors she has wrought.  As Pat’s career takes him away from home for longer and longer periods, the couple’s marriage begins to show the strain, until finally, Pat buys a house in California without talking it over with Olivia first.  Olivia is terribly angry about this, and leaves with their four-year-old son to their summer place on the lake.  She falls immediately into a trap.  Three terrifying brothers, old Maine types, are rampaging through the houses shut up for the winter and they come across Olivia and Travis.  Olivia manages to save herself and her son with the help of a rather crazy neighbor lady.  The last few dozen pages, where Olivia is trying to escape the murderous brothers, are among the most tense I have read.  Every muscle in my body was taut, I was sweating, and my eyes flew over the words, reading as fast as I could to get to the end.

This is not to say that this is a flawless novel.  Far from it, in fact.  Tabitha’s style in many ways reminds me of Stephen’s, and I mean that in a good way.  Her set-pieces and characterization, though, are frequently awkward, and I never felt that the novel as a whole had the same seamless feel that a more virtuoso writer might display.  I feel for Tabitha, though.  Were it not for her husband’s immense pop-culture and literary shadow blotting out her sun, she might shine more brightly among her fellows such as Mary Higgins Clark.  Definitely worth reading.

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