October, phantom summer. Air clear as an iPhone screen and a hot dry wind blowing yellow leaves around. It’s not right. The devil’s out riding.
When I was a kid my mathematician uncle gave me a book on number theory, which I never got far into, but took a lesson from the first chapter: “Consider the set of U.S. Senators who have two heads. Consider the set of real numbers which are equal to the square root of -1. These two sets are the same: ∅, the empty set.”
Well I wonder.
It was snowing outside and I was dead. Only R. could see me. She wasn’t sad; when people thought she was alone, we were together as we’d always been. Other adults came over to the house, talked, laughed, put up Christmas decorations, looked through me. I realized that R. would now be subject to their decisions, and that as time went on I’d be ever less able to help her.
I got sleepy on lunch break and sat in the sun. Everything was quiet and all the cups and bowls around me started to look like Velázquez cups and bowls.
The bus stop at night is nicer than the BART station at night: side-street bus stop, nothing much happening. Crickets, bright traffic signals. The last dusk faded plum. The trees spread in their realm. Because the street is closer the sky seems closer likewise, and parts of the world slip right past, uncordoned. The last patrons leaving the library. People stopping to clean their windshields at the ancient Chevron.
The Silt Sermon
I’m 40, and glad about it! Went to Redwood Regional Park above Oakland. The outer rim trail is broad, bright, hot, lousy with professional (?) dog walkers doing their best to trot along at the hub of an asterisk of leashes. If you take the broken path downward you end up at a narrow, deep-cut streambed, dry in this parched season of my birth except for a few silty pools. I look for fish sleeping out the summer but can’t find any. Ferns, madrones, chickadees at work in the pines.
It’s cool down here, but enough sunlight cuts through to remind you of the heat above. When you try to take a picture it comes out seared white.
Now and then a bike goes past, or people walking in pairs. The older ones don’t have anything to say. The younger ones all seem to have grievances.
(—and I was really pissed, that she’d reach out to a donor in that way, someone who’s invested so much...)
(—maybe parents think that’s an intuitive way to put it, but it’s not intuitive at all, it’s not like, I don’t want to see you...)
I’ve felt that too, the sense that the forest must have a use, and that use must be to get square with whatever is outside the forest. I don’t have to do it now. I’m 40.
After the people go by, the birds restate their themes. Jays of course, and ravens, smaller calls I’m not sure about. Droning bugs, airplanes way up. The underlying rope weave, meant to hold the soil in place, is exposed and fraying.
Coming out of the canyon I pull out my phone, find some welcome email and the news that my birthday gift from Jerry Brown is his signature on SB 100.
Paradise is conceivable, but only tangible at—well—a tangent point. No one abides there.
“Daddy, when your book is published, are you going to be, like, a famous writer?”
“I mean, not right now. But maybe in two hundred years, or something?”
“But I guess monkeys might not read your book. Because we might evolve back into monkeys, you know.”
Isaac Babel’s war diaries. It’s not just the Red Army that imagines it’s fighting for a new world; on the Polish side the new state, the Rzeczpospolita, has only been in existence for a couple of years. Does it help to explain the brutality on both sides, that they both lay claim to the future? Probably not. After a point Babel despairs of explanation. Part of his job is to explain the coming marvels of socialism to the terrified families on which they’re billeted.
In 1920 there are still so many Jewish towns about, so many shops and synagogues. Reduced and scrambling, but extant, expecting more centuries of hard survival.
A Rzeczpospolita is a fragile thing. A people less so, and yet.
To reach for the historical lens, and think of the present as past, is not a matter of removing the obligation to act where one can, nor of washing out morals in blanket fatalism. One speaks of historical tragedy as one wouldn’t speak of geological tragedy.
The live trees, the dead trees, in Sequoia National Park. Venus can’t happen here, they said—
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, gathered speed, shed branches against its neighbors and slammed to earth thirty feet away, raising 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.