Archive for the ‘Landscape’ Category

Some days I take the train to work. Some days I drive. Part I.

In Job, Landscape, Myth, People Watching, Story, Tourette's Syndrome, Train on 9 November 2011 at 5:06 PM

On days I take the train—the Metro Link Green Line in Los Angeles, from Norwalk to Redondo Beach—I park my car at the Norwalk station. The parking lot is big and quiet. It holds many cars. I arrive to the parking lot at 4:57 AM, park my car, walk to the ticket-selling machine, buy my train ticket, then wait with the others. Even though we see each other most mornings and totally recognize one other, and even though we all repeat our habits and stand in the same places and sit each morning in the same seats and open the same books, and even though in this sharing the same space over and over again we might as well be roommates or siblings, we do not speak to one another. No one says words. Still, while I have not come to know them, I have come to love these people. Sadly, though, 4:57 AM is too early in the morning to make friends. And yet there they are, every time I take the train: my don’t-talk friends.

When I show up to the ticket-selling machine there is sometimes a bicycle man—he was there this morning but not yesterday—who has attached enormous 1970s-living-room speakers to the sides of his bicycle seat. How do I describe him to you? The bicycle is, how you say, pimped out. Many, many accessories: dozens of reflectors in the spokes, big side view mirrors, flashy colors, as though Pee Wee Herman designed a bicycle with Super Fly. The speakers are covered in purple and black fabric, in a leopard pattern. They play loud bass-heavy soul and funk from the 1960s, 1970s. (My boss plays the same songs from his office computer nearly every day, though not with quite the same amount of bass; plus, my boss also likes the 1980s, especially Luther Vandross, known as Lutha’! around the office.) Now it’s 5:02 AM and the bicycle man is buying his ticket for the train (yes, he brings that thing onto the train, though on the train he turns the music off), and his bicycle is playing slow jams very loudly this morning, and I feel like I should be making out with a pretty girl after our third date, just the two of us on my thrift-shop couch, hoping to God my roommates don’t walk in.

There is the man in the blue windbreaker and cheap-nice black shoes who looks like the man who played Jack Bristow on ALIAS. He is boring, mostly, but when I look at him I want to smile and say something rad and clever and TV-like, but I just end up staring too long at his face, and he sees me staring, and of course he doesn’t know why I’m staring, but I smile anyway as though he does know why I’m staring, a smile that says, Hey, you look like Jack Bristow, you loveable lying tender cruel-hearted piece of shit spy killing worried dad, you.

There is the heavy-big-round-fat-many-keys-keychain carrying facilities services custodian guy who brings his Razor scooter—yes, a grown man in his forties rides a Razor scooter—and who wears clear braces and who looks like Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat but combs his hair back much like but not as cool as Pat Riley. He, the only one of my early morning unfriends who ever spoke to me,  has approached me several times to join him in investing in and selling alternative energy sources; there is always a convention “in a couple weeks” at a nearby hotel. “If you show up, make sure you give them my name, bro.” He makes to hand me the flyer. I am polite, never say No, but I keep my hands in my pocket. Now when I see him I keep away from him. Problem is, we get off at the same stop and there is always a little bit of awkwardness as we leave the train for the crosswalk. After the light turns green, sure, I walk and he rides off on his Razor, but first we both have to wait for the light to turn green, which can take up to two minutes, and, until that damned light turns green, there we are next to one another pretending he hasn’t offered me a place in his stupid effing pyramid scheme, pretending I haven’t done anything I can to keep away from him. And what now? Do we say Goodbye? See you later? Kind of. He looks over and I do that head flick thing like, Hey. But I make sure to have my ear buds in even if I’m not listening to anything.

Here is the young woman with too-long too-thick dark brown hair who is a little pretty and who puts on makeup the whole time. This is embarrassing, I think, for everyone on the train who can see her. She is about the only thing on the train that moves because everyone else is sleeping or reading or listening to music, they are silent, sitting still, everybody is not moving at all in a way that should be called Look At Those Sleeping Bunnies, and so to move your eyes toward where you see her movements—is natural. But then she’s putting on makeup. Lots of it. For twenty minutes. In front of everyone. That’s a bedroom thing. That’s a bathroom thing.  That is definitely not a ride the train thing. She opens her eyes in a funny way, very very wide, so that you can see the red guts of them underneath her eyeballs, and her cheeks get long and strange, and her forehead wrinkles up in a yucky way, and the skin of her cheek mixes with the fat of her neck. And I can’t help thinking how she believes, Right now, in this moment, right now I am pretty. Because every time she approves of a movement she’s made with that brush or lipstick or powdery fluffy pad, she has approved the movement because she’s thinking, I am prettier now than I was a moment ago. And while I know that this is a normal thing for people to think, and while I know everyone who wears makeup thinks something similar at some point, the thing is this: I do not ever want to know when someone is thinking it. I don’t make you watch me strut in front of the mirror every morning, saying, O Baby, yes, this is a hunk of man right here! And I don’t want her thinking those things in front of me, either. Or I would feel like a voyeur. Because you can’t just stare at someone putting on makeup while reading their thoughts without feeling like a voyeur. So I look down, I look away, I close my eyes, I sit in another car.

And, among the many other people who wait for the train at 5:07 AM with me, there is the man with Tourette’s Syndrome. He is nice looking with nice gray hair combed nicely and he has a big nice smile and he is tall and he wears nice clothes (like nice-casual, comfortable-white-collar stuff, I-play-golf-sometimes-and-I-also-BBQ-my-own-meat-and-wash-my-own-car stuff). He is married. He is an engineer of some kind, since he gets off in El Segundo near the aerospace companies. He has coached children’s soccer, you can tell, and he was awful at it, but he loved buying everyone pizza at the end of the season. He is the sort of man I would gladly carpool with and tell stories to, whose weekends I’d love to hear about, whose jokes I’d laugh at even if I thought they were only half-funny. I’m sure he has a daughter he’s proud of, whom he loves very much, who graduated college three years ago and is traveling abroad now, and now he’s chosen to ride the train every morning in order to save money for her, so he can send the extra cash to her in Germany or Bolivia or something. Every five seconds he twitches: his shoulders roll, or his cheek clicks his eye shut, or his head knocks back with a muscle spasm. I feel for him when it happens, but I imagine he is used to it and does not need my pity. I imagine his wife who loves him can by now ignore it. She hardly notices it anymore. And I imagine him playing with his daughter years ago, when she was just three, four, five, and, when she asked him—Why, Daddy, does your body move around so much?—he just made it into a game. He made it into a tickle fight somehow, took a few seconds to exaggerate the twitching in order to become a limping pretend-scary tender careful tickle monster, and, rather than actually scare her; rather than say, I have a disorder called Tourette’s Syndrome, Honey, and I don’t have full control over my body, Sweetie; rather than allow her little girl mind to think her daddy was not the strongest daddy in the world, different than other daddies, less than other daddies, weak somehow: he instead played this tickle monster game and she ran away, pretend-scared and screaming, and she laughed as he tickled her until bedtime. Like her mother, the girl also learned to ignore it, was able finally to be grown-up and accept the truth of “Tourette’s Syndrome,” but really she forgot the name altogether. She accepted it deeply, without words, without its name, the way you accept the sound of someone else’s laughter. It is a part of him how his big nice smile is a part of him, how his smell is a part of him. You don’t name those things. You just love those things. Sometimes, the man with Tourette’s Syndrome falls asleep on the train and nearly misses his stop in El Segundo. (I wonder whether I will ever have the courage to wake him up if in fact he’s still sleeping when the train arrives to his stop, admitting to him in my touching his back, Hey, yes, hurry, I have noticed, this is your stop, isn’t it?) Those are beautiful moments, when he sleeps, because his whole body stops moving, is at rest, carries with it no spontaneous muscle contraction, is peaceful. When he is sleeping like this in his own bed or on the couch in the afternoon, I bet his wife touches his hair, his neck. She kisses him on the shoulder. And even though she has for years ignored his uncontrolled movements, and even though she almost does not ever really notice them anymore, she loves this moment best. In this moment she sees his face as it appears in photographs, as it appears in her memories when she thinks of him during the day, this still, this quiet, this perfect, this handsome, this strong, this good.

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The real stuff that is out there wanting to be known. You know. Poetry. Landscapes. Persons.

In Breath, C.S. Lewis, Dante, Dionysius, Genesis, Herman Melville, Landscape, Myth, Paul Simon, Plato, Robert Frost, Story, T.S. Eliot, The Voice and Arms of God, Walt Whitman on 2 August 2011 at 3:16 PM

Dante’s 14th century poem, The Divine Comedy, begins with a man “midway” through his life—and he’s walking down the road.

In medieval Italy, in Florence (or, in Dante’s case at the time, just outside Florence), looking out his window, looking up at the stars every night, these hillsides and mountains provide him with just the images he needs to create a confused lost cowardly road-walking man who cannot find his way, who descends into hell, who comes out the other side into purgatory, to climb this mountain (the first-ever image of purgatory as a mountain going up, borrowing from Dionysius, borrowing from Plato), who then leaves the mountain with Beatrice, his great love on earth, to go up, up, up, to find God in the heavens among the stars. Looking around and up, Italy provides Dante with the landscape to render the entire range of emotion, of suffering, hope, mystery, love.

T.S. Eliot’s early 20th century, modern poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, begins with a man midway through his life (“with a bald spot in the middle of my head”)—and he’s walking down the road.

Now we are in 20th century London, and instead of a road that leads into hell, a road that goes up a mountain and finally into heaven—there is this confused lost cowardly road-walking man who cannot find his way: who does not, in the end, find his Beatrice, who cannot profess his love to a woman, because, in short, he was afraid. And now, in 20th century London, here is the same journey (with a different ending, yes), and here again the landscape just outside Eliot’s house provides him with the entire range of emotion—or the potential of it—all of suffering, hope, mystery, love.

Paul Simon’s 1986 pop hit, “You Can Call Me Al,” begins with a man midway through his life (“soft in the middle now”)—and he’s walking down the road.

Here now we are in rock n roll, surrounded by saxophones and bass players, and he’s rewriting Dante’s Comedy, rewriting Eliot’s Love Song, asking Beatrice (“Betty”) to be his bodyguard (as she is for Dante in the Comedy), inviting her to call him “Al” (or, as in Eliot’s poem J. “Alfred” Prufrock). Here instead of Dante’s terza rima (the rhyme pattern Dante invented to push the poem forward on its journey), and instead of Eliot’s sometimes-iambic, sometimes-free verse, sometimes-rhyming, sometimes-not-rhyming, stream-of-conscious poetry (participating in the innovations of modern poetry), we have a rock n roll legend using his own landscape—the 1-4-5 chords of the blues—and we have him taking his confused lost cowardly road-walking man up, up, up, like Dante did, finally “spinning in infinity,” saying, “Amen, Hallelujah,” but rendering everything in the stream-of-conscious style that Eliot used, borrowing from both poems and pushing them into the rock n roll landscape. And here again, built into the landscape, here is the entire range of emotion, of suffering, hope, mystery, love.

So what of it.

In the novel I am writing—set first in Ecuador where my father grew up, then in Hermosa Beach where I grew up—I believe all the world is there, the entire range of emotion, of suffering, hope, mystery, love. I believe that the landscape, that any landscape, provides us with all the metaphors necessary to create full persons who love and hate and worry and want.

In 2007, I traveled to Ecuador to see it, smell it, feel it with my own hands, to eat its food, to touch the low clouds from the mountainsides of Quito, to feel the danger of the night streets in Guayaquil, to see for myself the rows of whorehouses, to climb the giant hill overlooking the bay, so that its landscape—and, by its landscape, all the truths of the universe—could make their way into my chest and belly.

But then the great nature poet, Robert Frost, once said, “I guess I’m not a nature poet. I’ve only written two poems without a human being in them. Only two.” But now I’m thinking, if Frost is not a nature poet, then who can be one?

So then I think: Maybe no one. Maybe we look at nature to get at true stuff, and so does Frost. Nature helps us make the images we need for the metaphors that build up art, that build up persons.

Then there is this. C.S. Lewis points out in his book The Four Loves:

If you take nature as a teacher she will teach you exactly the lessons you had already decided to learn; this is only another way of saying that nature does not teach. The tendency to take her as a teacher is obviously very easily grafted on to the experience we call “love of nature.” But it is only a graft. While we are actually subjected to them, the “moods” and “spirits” of nature point no morals. Overwhelming gaiety, insupportable grandeur, somber desolation are flung at you. Make what you can of them, if you must make at all. The only imperative that nature utters is, “Look. Listen. Attend.”

The fact that this imperative is so often misinterpreted and sets people making theologies and pantheologies and antitheologies—all of which can be debunked—does not really touch the central experience itself. What nature-lovers—whether they are Wordsworthians or people with “dark gods in their blood”—get from nature is an iconography, a language of images. I do not mean simply visual images; it is the “moods” or “spirits” themselves—the powerful expositions of terror, gloom, jocundity, cruelty, lust, innocence, purity—that are the images. In them each man can clothe his own belief. We must learn our theology or philosophy elsewhere (not surprisingly, we often learn them from theologians and philosophers).

But nature cannot—can it?—be neutral! If the Hebrews were right, then the world is a breath from God’s own mouth, and in the world, in any part of this world, we can find God himself. Nature, then, helps us find God.

And yet in our landscapes we find so many different gods.

So, what do I see when I look at a landscape, look at the coast I grew up on, look at the Guayaquil my father grew up in, look at the suburbs where I live now—knowing that here is where all the world’s truths exist while simultaneously knowing that there is such little hope, among so many found gods and truths, to find any kind of truth?

I write stories, and I write stories about persons, and I write stories in language and images that come from the landscape that creates the persons: nature, landscape, any landscape, provides me with the range of experience, all of suffering and hope and mystery and love outside my window waiting to be seen and felt and tasted and heard—and I render it onto the page. All the world’s truths are here in God’s breath, in the world around me. Let us agree that while there is maybe no such thing as the nature poet, nature provides us with the metaphors we’re building persons with. And, even though different poets, from their views of nature and landscapes, build different kinds of persons (nature and persons in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick are much less generous than in Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself) Lewis, though he is right, is also wrong. Because nature, God’s own breath, cannot be neutral.

So may I learn to see rightly, to find the world’s truths in the landscape, to render all the emotions we can feel, to get every fingernail and drop of blood, to get them right, and, while these are spoken by me and come from the view I alone have of these landscapes, may they be of God’s own breath.