Vulture or Condor

January 23, 2011


Went on a Northern California Science Writers group walk at Pinnacles National Monument, about 120 miles south of the Bay Area, whose hallmark feature, at least for the National Park Service, is the resident California Condor. At one point early on the 8-hour hike we made we saw 14 or 15 condors swirling above the pinnacles in the far distance; 14 of the 400 that remain worldwide, 200 of those are captive. So, we saw 7 percent of the world's wild population riding that warm updraft over the park. On the long ride home in the carpool of four, the question bubbled up almost unconsciously, maybe predictably, from me: "What's the value of the condor outside of its rarity?" It was almost rhetorical, but it spurred a discussion for at least an hour. Is every species worth saving no matter the cost? What is the cost-benefit analysis?

To a new Californian the condor has the tinge of myth; I thought it was a bird of prey, but being accompanied by several condor specialists on the hike, it's very much a variety of vulture. (That sentence has a tone that implies that vultures are less valuable than birds of prey. That's the impression. I wonder, ecologically, if that's true. Or, if it's just that birds of prey seem so much more dynamic because of what they do). So, the question becomes pretty prominent, why spend so much money saving a condor? B, who works for Cal, responded that some say it's better to save overall diversity than some specific species, however "majestic." The condors are no doubt majestic; I kept waiting for one of the 9.5 feet wingspans to soar over my head on the hike, but none did. One of the condor specialists, pointed out that birds' wings are complements of our hands. So, fold your wrists to your shoulders and spread your hands and imagine flying. It's not quite the same as spreading your arms and hovering with your humeri aloft. But, also, you get the sense of how refined flight can be with the minute use of each feathered digit. In the case of a condor they're 3.5 feet long. Amazing.

Green Blue

Pinnacles National Monument lies on the edge of the Pacific Plate side of the San Andreas Fault. Pinnacles is two-thirds of the exposed remnant of a 23-million-year-old volcano. The other third is 195 miles southeast, a testament to the reality of faults and possibly tectonic plates. The Pacific Plate moves north, the North American Plate, to which the Pacific Plate is abutted, moves west. New to the Bay Area, it's scary to realize that earthquakes are a reality. We're on the Ring of Fire! The carpool down, the long-time Berkeley residents described in detail their earthquake readiness plans. Apparently, you should be ready to live for three days without conventional access to electricity, water or food. Might not do that, but it inspired me to put some more Clif Bars in my camping backpack and backup flashlight batteries.


At one point along the trail, we came upon some hairy scat. The ranger pointed out that it was a bobcat; you can tell because of the hair. Bobcats only eat meat, and thus have a larger proportion of hair in their scat. If it's a smaller size, it's a bobcat; if it's much larger, it's a mountain lion. A good, simple, valuable insight. One small, much-needed aspect of a successful naturalist's repertoire - scat.

I brought my voice recorder, so I could take notes without writing. So, I did. As we took a lunch break in the craggy high peaks, a falcon ranger was explaining the ins and outs of bird of prey research; he was studying peregrines and marsh hawks. As we sat listening, one of our group was attacking a granny smith apple, alternately, with a chunk of gouda cheese. As poetic as it gets. Here's a transcription of my recording: "Gouda and granny smith apple and bite marks down the middle (where the two sets of teeth meet), rapid attack by the mouth, crazy impressive."

Silver Pine

See the grey pine. It stood out on the landscape, lit up across the hills in the great, clear day. It was one of the more stunning pieces of vegetation, at least for a coarse-eyed and -knowledged botanist. Hills looked like an impressionist painting with the silver brush marks scattered over the chapparal dusty green.


Don't you want to be on that rock? Pinnacles is a rock climbing haven. One of our group is a rock climber and was describing some of the different routes and their difficulty numbers. Somebody asked him what the numbers were based on, and he said with good comedic timing/rhythm, "Who knows? These numbers were devised by pot smokers." Ha.

The lichen is amazing, too. Lime green, streaked, electric, bright orange, copper, rust speckled, splotched all over the rocks.

Arriving in Iowa

January 20, 2011

I moved to Ames, Iowa, at one point for about six months, my first foray into the Midwest. The huge, disproportionate sky is what I remember most. I found an Iowa State University literary journal upon landing and read a poem that I was surprised to find in that wide flatland (evidence of my then coast bias; I had just come from Madrid, though). It had a cool form and I wrote a response in kind:

1. Alone, the setting sun answers plainlyd

dGoya's Saturn: Desperately, eating your sons; eyes to love you with.

2. Ah, the space between your mattress, tucked: metaphysical and pornographic; a metabolism wit sped away - a little man lost.

3. A perfect male, perfect, dying. a beliefe

ephotosynthetic assumption: the miracle of light in her eye.

4. Vermillion-shade, paled by the blossom, vexed, in your cheek, forever?p

pVengeance, it is the same for any god.

Downtown Oakland Menage

January 18, 2011

Oaksterdam Oaksterdam Filigree Tien-Hu Building sky Brown Couch So Dapper

A Heartbreaking Work

January 13, 2011

Paying respects to a previous post, here's something on Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

The book's story is great, the style and self-conscious self-consciousness is a lot much. In it, the rawness, excitement, fear and tragedy of youth paired with the supernova, lightning-in-the-sky devastation of losing both parents at 22-ish, becoming pseudo-parent to your 7-year-old brother (7 right?), makes for a rainbow, heartbreaking work.

Some snippets:

The ending:

What the fuck does it take to show you motherfuckers, what does it fucking take what do you want how much do you want because I am willing and I'll stand before you and I'll raise my arms and give you my chest and throat and wait, and I've been so old for so long, for you, for you, I want it fast and right through me--- Oh do it, do it, you motherfuckers, do it do it you fuckers finally, finally, finally.

In the last chapter, leaving it all in life and going to the volcano:

And we will be ready, at the end of every day will be ready, will not say no to anything, will try to stay awake while everyone is sleeping, will not sleep, will make the shoes with the elves, will breathe deeply all the time, breathe in all the air full of glass and nails and blood, will breath it and drink it, so rich, so when it comes we will not be angry, will be content, tired enough to go, gratefully, will shake hands with everyone, bye, bye, and then pack a bag, some snacks, and go to the volcano-- (433).

Nobody likes a critic, and Dave, if you end up reading this (for some crazy reason), this is out of admiration and love.

So on to your style, Dave:

There's real desperation in the book. I almost understand how/why it was a Pulitzer Prize finalist; its soul is strong. But many things about it seem like simply a polished journal, no doubt a polished journal of life flaming bright, burning, desolate.

The unsettling, irritating thing about the book is your perspective, exposed all too clearly in the preface, acknowledgments, and cloying appendix (Mistakes We Knew We Were Making). There's a lack of discipline and mystery, not that a work needs that, but why throw up everything that's in your head, heart? Because it works, I guess. The book is charming and probably couldn't be written in another style, but I got the sense that you're looking down on us, a pitiful, unenlightened, uninteresting audience; it's a haughty, an all-knowing stance from a so-special rubied perch in Berkeley, Brooklyn, Icelandic clouds. It's a lack of respect - can't we just be adults and assume the best? And you spent so much time justifying why it is the way it is (I guess you knew it was off, and basically said so a dozen times in various places in different ways in the book) - a little sloppy, a little careless. But that's youth isn't it?

This is your head explaining all its thoughts and its thoughts about those thoughts and its thoughts about those thoughts. Though, the way you weave death, rebirth, desperation and joy together is beautiful; it's not the words, it's the overt, clearly raw struggle that converged on you (your character?) in the story.

In your over-sharing, you give some rules for enjoying the book, which are actually accurate for approaching the hodge-podge that is the edition I read; in point 5, for example, you suggest the reader just read up to page 123, which after examining, I would completely agree with. The next 300 pages was a journal, an impassioned, somewhat-organized letter: "I'm still amazed that I finished it [the book] in the first place, and am also surprised when I see some passages, because, frankly, there are sentences I wrote and never reread; there are pages I never looked at again" (Mistakes We Knew We Were Making 8). AND IT READS THAT WAY.

"When I was done, I was ashamed, because I had written what I saw as a much too revealing and maudlin thing" (M.W.K.W.W.M. 35).

"but even so you wrote a book that was really a letter to them, a messy fucking letter that you could barely keep a grip on, but a letter you meant, and a letter you meant, and a letter you sometimes wish you had not mailed, but a letter you are happy that made it from you to them," (M.W.K.W.W.M. 35). You protect yourself by pre-empting, circumnavigating the impressions we can have from your work. I guess you have to protect your exposed heart, but it feels you at once exposed it, and then at the same time, tempered that exposure by couching it in a protected framework and then berate us for not appreciating what you did and how hard it was. I understand, it just feels like a little bit of a cheap, disingenuous way to go. And then again, that's part of its charm.


January 11, 2011

Somewhere is Sofia Coppola's latest film. I'm wondering/hoping that she's a somewhat-same-generation filmmaker to grow old with. Saw it last Saturday; it's only playing one place in the whole Bay Area. The limited run is disappointing and understandable. The movie moves in slow, languid paces, through a liquid, gelled atmosphere, languorous.

And true to Coppola's style, the movie was languid (that's her word), all 98 minutes of it. One of the very refreshing things about Coppola is her confidence. Her distinct style works, and it's nice to see, as always, a film that does not use rote filmmaking storytelling. The camera rests on Stephen Dorff's character, Johnny Marco, a movie star living in LA's notorious hotel Chateau Marmont, for long stretches of the movie as he goes through his disaffected and extremely disconnected life. Of course, it's only disaffected and disconnected in a charmed, Ferrari sort of way. Which is an easy criticism of the film's (and possibly Coppola's oeuvre so far) surface subject; all these problems going on in a crystal snowglobe - white castles and sweetness and love: one telescoped presentation of love's, life's full color, shape, being.

Many of the scenes are visual art in and of themselves, calling to mind Julian Schnabel's aesthetic (most notably in his exquisite Diving Bell and the Butterfly). Schnabel is (or was) primarily a painter, and some of his abstract, nonlinear, image-dominated cinematography is (the sensibility at least) seen in Coppola's films.

Somewhere is beautiful, but also a bit too delicate. Elle Fanning, playing Marco's daughter Cleo, was the star of the film, though it's hard to tell if that's because of talent or circumstance. The situation called to mind Scarlett Johanson's in Coppola's 2003 Lost in Translation. The part was perfect for Elle, as a real-life 11-year-old, because she embodied the tragedy of her young-ish father's disoriented life as a just-budding sexual being. She's on a cusp, in a sweet natural way: both woman and girl. Some of the sweetest moments in the film occur when she cracks up in that innocent, sweet, believing laugh of a little girl; you can tell, in several different scenes, Coppola told Jackass-star Chris Pontius, who played Marco's best friend in Somewhere, to keep adlibbing until Elle broke, cracked into a flood of sweet, genuine love-laughter. Paraphrased: "Most ballerina teachers are alcoholics. You don't know it cause you're young, but after you leave, they go in the back ..."

And the film displays real moments of sublime happiness. Some of the father-daughter scenes are nauseatingly happy; it's Marco's rawness to the world that opens up the chasms of the universe to such a sweet relationship with his daughter.

New Yorker film critic David Denby, who is sometimes dead wrong, concluded his unimpressed review with: "Mystification can become a crutch. At the moment, Coppola is an artist fixated on a single subject: this is her third film about an isolated soul living in a hotel. It’s time she risked losing her cool." In some ways I agree, but it's that cool that is so refreshing, attractive: it'd be interesting, compelling, approaching-genius, if Coppola took her sweet, aesthetic eye and turned it to less ethereal realms. Then, those sweet buds, in relationship to their full complements (the rest of their stalk, soil, sun), would really flower.

Don Quixote! (and translations)

January 9, 2011

I'm reading War and Peace, finally, and picking a translation (from the Russian) brought up the old problem of dealing with translated books. In the infinity of youth, I thought I could just learn every language that I wanted to read in. (What a great delusion.). The issue with translations was most profound with one of my top-five favorite books of all time: Don Quixote de la Mancha. I remember the day I was in the dusty Half-Price Books store on Guadalupe St. in Austin, Texas, now, as a mini-example to what's happened to the town as a whole, a series of boutiques; it was a sunny day, and the south-facing windows were presenting the late-morning sun's light on the fiction section as I browsed for all the books I was going to read. I came across Don Quixote and picked up several editions of the book. Most were abridged; true to my nature, I went for the "complete and unabridged" one: 785 pages, small type. A great decision. The book had me from the beginning. But I soon learned the essential role translation plays in a book, though that should've been obvious. I lost the book in the middle of reading it and bought a replacement, though not the same translation. The new one was so different and bad I couldn't even read a couple of pages. So, after much searching, I found the same Wordsworth Classics edition and finished the book. Below are several Don Quixote translations (below that are two translations of War and Peace and below that are links to my own translation attempts: three of Pablo Neruda's poems), born from a "spare" 45 minutes in the Cal library.

Here's the opening passage (witness the way Cervantes is able to set the book's tone immediately: genuine, sweet, goodhearted, funny):

The lovely Don Quixote de La Mancha (Wordsworth Classics edition by, I think, John Ormsby):

At a certain village in La Mancha, which I shall not name, there lived not long ago one of those old-fashioned gentlemen who are never without a lance upon a rack, an old target, a lean horse, and a greyhound. His diet consisted more of beef than mutton; and with minced meat on most nights, lentils on Fridays, griefs and groans on Saturdays, and a pigeon extraordinary on Sundays, he consumed three quarters of his revenue: the rest was laid out in a plush coat, velvet breeches, with slippers of the same, for holidays; and a suit of the very best homespun cloth, which he bestowed on himself for working days. His whole family was a housekeeper something turned forty, a niece not twenty, and a man that served him in the house and in the field, and could saddle a horse, and handle the pruning-hook. The master himself was nigh fifty years of age, of a hale and strong complexion, lean-bodied, and thin-faced, an early riser, and a lover of hunting. Some say his surname was Quixada, or Quesada (for authors differed in this particular): however, we may reasonably conjecture he was called Quixana (i.e. lanthorn-jaws) though this concerns us but little, provided we keep strictly to the truth in every point of this history.

Keys to the humor: "which I shall not name" "old-fashioned gentlemen" "old target" "pigeon extraordinary" "consumed three quarters of his revenue" "an early riser, and a lover of hunting."

Now see the same passage translated by Walter Starkie:

At a village of La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to remember, there lived a little while ago one of those gentlemen who are wont to keep a lance in the rack, an old buckler, a lean horse and a swift greyhound. His stew had more beef than mutton in it and most nights he ate the remains salted and cold. Lentil soup on Fridays, "tripe and trouble" on Saturdays and an occasional pigeon as an extra delicacy on Sundays, consumed three-quarters of his income. The remainder was spent on a jerkin of fine puce, velvet breeches, and slippers of the same stuff for holidays, and a suit of good, honest homespun for week-days. His family consisted of a housekeeper about forty, a niece not yet twenty, and a lad who served him both in the field and at home and could saddle the horse or use the pruning-knife. Our gentleman was about fifty years of age, of a sturdy constitution, but wizened and gaunt-featured, an early riser and a devotee of the chase. They say that his surname was Quixada or Quesada (for on this point the authors who have written on the subject differ), but we may resaonably conjecture that his name was Quixana. This, however, has very little to do with our story: enough that in its telling we swerve not a jot from the truth.

Starkie killed all the humor in the language. Of course, whose to say whether it was in the original Spanish to begin with. I dare say it was (see below)!

Another translation, by Tobias Smollet, who did his work in the early 18th century:

In a certain corner of La Mancha, the name of which I do not choose to remember, there lately lived one of those country gentlemen, who adorn their halls with a rusty lance and a worm-eaten target, and ride forth on the skeleton of a horse, to course with a sort of a starved greyhound.

Three fourths of his income were scarce sufficient to afford a dish of hodge-podge, in which the mutton bore no proportion to the beef, for dinner; a plat of salmagundy, commonly at supper; gripes and grumblings on saturdays, lentils on fridays, and the addition of a pigeon or some such thing on the Lord's-day. The remaining part of his revenue was consumed in the purchase of a fine black suit, with velvet breeches and slippers of the same, for holy-days, and a coat of home-spun, which he wore in honour of his country, during the rest of the week.

He maintained a female house-keeper turned of forty, a niece about half that age, and a trusty young fellow, fit for field and market, who could turn his hand to any thing, either to saddle the horse or handle the hough.

Our squire, who bordered upon fifty, was of a tough constitution, extremely meagre and hard-featur'd, an early riser, and in point of exercise, another Nimrod. He is said to have gone by the name of Quixada, or Quesada, (for in this particular, the authors who mention that circumstance, disagree) though, from the most probable conjectures we may conclude, that he was called by the significant name of Quixada; but this is of small importance to the history, in the course of which it will be sufficient if we swerve not a tittle from the truth.

The star of this translation, obviously, is "which he wore in honour of his country."

And Tom Lathrop's translation:

In a village in La Mancha, whose name I don't quite remember, there lived not long ago an hidalgo of the kind who have a lance in the lance rack, an old shield, a lean nag, and a fleet greyhound. A stew of a bit more beef than mutton, hash most nights, bacon and eggs on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, and an occasional pigeon on Sundays consumed three-quarters of his income. The rest of it was used up on a broad-cloth tunic with velvet undertunic for holidays, with matching slippers; and on weekdays, he adorned himself with his finest homespun outfit.

In his house he had a housekeepr who was past forty, a niece who was not yet twenty, and a houseboy who saddled his horse and did the gardening. The age of our hidalgo was close to fifty. He was of sturdy constitution, but a bit thin, lean of face, a great early riser, and fond of hunting. They say that his last name was Quijada or Quesada - for there's some difference of opinion among the authorities who write on this subject - although by credible conjecture we are led to believe that he was named Quejana. But this is of little importantance to our story - it's enough that in telling of it we don't stray from the truth.

And the original Cervantes Spanish

En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivia un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocin flaco y galgo corredor. Una olla de algo mas vaca que carnero, salpicon las mas noches, duelos y quebrantos los sabados, lantejas los viernes, algun palomino de anadidura los domingos, consumian las tres partes de su hacienda. El resto della concluian sayo de velarte, calzas de velludo para las fiestas, con sus pantuflos de lo mesmo, y los dias de entresemana se honraba con su vellori de lo mas fino. Tenia en su casa una ama que pasaba de los cuarenta, y una sobrina que no llegaba a lost veinte, y un mozo de campo y plaza, que asi ensillaba el rocin como tomaba la podadera. Frisaba la edad de nuestro hidalgo con los cincuenta anos; era de complexion recia, seco de carnes, enjuto de rostro, gran madrugador y amigo de la caza. Quieren decir que tenia el sobrenombre de Quijada, o Quesada, que en esto hay alguna diferencia en los autores que deste caso escriben; aunque por conjeturas verisimiles se deja entender que se llamaba Quijana. Pero esto importa poco a nuestro cuento; basta que en la narracion del no se salga un punto de la verdad.

I'm willing to bet that Google Translator does a better job than the non-Ornsby translations:

Somewhere in la Mancha, whose name I remember, not long ago a gentleman who lived those of lance and ancient shield, a lean hack and a greyhound. An olla of rather more beef than lamb, hash most nights, scraps on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays, sometimes squab as a Sunday, with three quarters of his income. The rest della concluded broadcloth coat of velvet breeches and shoes for the holidays, with slippers of the same, and the days of weekday vellori was honored with more than fine. He had in his house a housekeeper past forty, a niece a lost twenty, and a lad for the field and square, which saddle the hack as well take the trimmer. Was nearing the age of our gentleman of fifty years, was of tough, dry meat, lean-faced, very early riser and friend of the hunt. Mean that the nickname had Quijada, or Quesada, here there is some difference in referring to this case the authors write, although it is plain guesswork verisimilar named Quijana. But this matters little to our story, just as in the narrative of not point out the truth.

Maybe not better, but approaching more tolerable than the others, really.

So, on to War and Peace. I picked to read the one translated by Rosemary Edmonds. First read a passage of the one not chosen.

Trans. by Constance Garnett; Modern Library Edition, 1994. [Clunkier language]:

"Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family. No, I warn you, that if you do not tell me we are at war, if you again allow yourself to palliate all the infamies and atrocities of this Antichrist (upon my word, I believe he is), I don't know you in future, you are no longer my friend, no longer my faithful slave, as you say. There, how do you do, how do you do? I see I'm scaring you, sit down and talk to me."

These words were uttered in July 1805 by Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a distinguished lady of the court, and confidential maid-of-honour to the Empress Marya Fyodorovna. It was her greeting to Prince Vassily, a man high in rank and office, who was the first to arrive at her soirée. Anna Pavlovna had been coughing for the last few days; she had an attack of la grippe, as she said - grippe was then a new word only used by a few people. In the notes she had sent round in the morning by a footman in red livery, she had written to all indiscriminately:

"If you have nothing better to do, count (or prince), and if the prospect of spending an evening with a poor invalid is not too alarming to you, I shall be charmed to see you at my house between 7 and 10. Annette Scherer."

Then the one I chose, translated by Rosemary Edmonds; Penguin Classics, 1978 [better]:

"Eh bien, mon prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now no more than private estates of the Bonaparte family. No, I warn you - if you are not telling me that this means war, if you again allow yourself to condone all the infamies and atrocities perpetrated by that Antichrist (upon my word I believe he is Antichrist), I don't know you in future. You will no longer be a friend of mine, or my 'faithful slave', as you call yourself! But how do you do, how do you do? I see I'm scaring you. Sit down and talk to me."

It was on a July evening in 1805 and the speaker was the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honour and confidante of the Empress Maria Fiodorovna. With these words she greeted the influential statesman Prince Vasili, who was the first to arrive at her soire.

Anna Pavlovna had been coughing for some days. She was suffering from an attack of la grippe as she said - grippe being then a new word only used by a few people. That morning a footman in scarlet livery had delivered a number of little notes all written in French and couched in the same terms:

"If you have nothing better to do, count (or prince), and if the prospect of spending an evening with a poor invalid is not too alarming, I shall be charmed to see you at my house between 7 and 10." Annette Scherer.


See some of my own translations of several Pablo Neruda poems: El Tigre, El Insecto, Oda a la Naranja. They are faithful to the language and spirit of their original at least. I was somewhat trying to seduce a Spanish teacher with them. I think it worked, but we'll never know.

Del Valle Catfish

January 6, 2011


Life just sticks you with certain people for some reason. And it's beautiful. Me, maybe a little over -worked, -focused with best-man duties?, with Zach at his wedding's rehearsal dinner. His odd younger brother, throwing a west-side up below inexplicably.

Brown Couch

This is the image that prompted this post. That's Zach's first born, Zion Tonderai Kemp, and my mom. I don't know why it brightens my heart so much to see that, but it does. I've yet to meet him but my heart already (inexplicably, again) feels so close to him.

Guess I have to go back a few years. Zach and I met at LBJ High School in Austin, Texas, in our sophomore year at that gang-infested place. It was a Science Academy magnet school, an experiment at forced integration (it's pretty interesting that it was even done); the best students from all over Austin applied, were selected and then bused to the Academy, which did offer great classes; my biology and math classes in freshman and sophomore year were harder than anything I did in college, and I majored in Biochemistry (although it was St. Edward's University - focused on educating its students' "hearts and minds" - did it beautifully though: intellectualism was not the focus, a good heart was). So all these affluent, academically focused, privileged students were shipped into a war zone in northeast Austin. First of all, in Austin (though this is changing now some downtown), Interstate Highway 35, which cuts just on the east side of downtown, cuts the town's heart, too. West, affluent; east, poor. It was our train tracks. My family grew up just east of IH35 in a beautiful, stand-alone home on 1.5 acres with a 500-year-old live oak tree anchoring the property, which bordered, from 30 feet up, Boggy Creek, unchannelized, as wild as urban nature gets; the property on the other side was basically a park. So, it was a charming home. Thank you mom and dad. But that's a different story.

-- non sequitur --

I was in downtown Berkeley tonight, walking my bike from the YMCA after having sprinted some at the Berkeley High School track with girls soccer all over the football field and the track team on the track. I nice atmosphere in the bright lights on the clean, green field. Was walking my bike up toward Shattuck, the main thoroughfare for Cal's area of Berkeley, and then down it some south, and came upon this dude singing Barry White's "Can't Get Enough of Your Love Baby" into a mic connected to a mini-amplifier. He had black mittens on, slumped slightly in his seat; a black hood hugged his head, a straw cowboy sat on top of the hood. There was a handicapped cane (the kind that fits around your forearm) leaning on his left thigh, and he was staring straight forward at a slightly declined angle. The charm was his nonchalant, deep, into-it voice (mixing with the track experience), and probably more so his demeanor. It was a 50-ish black dude sitting on a bench at a dark intersection singing above the song's instrumental, playing several beats slower than the original, thumping from a small stereo. I pushed the front brake on my bike and sat on the cross-bar for a stunning few moments as he sang the chorus over and over for about 5 minutes (I don't think he bothered, thankfully, with Barry's talking parts of the song.). "My darling I, can't get enough of your love, baby. Oh no, baby. I don't, I don't know why, I can't get enough of your love baby. Oh umhmm ... " If you've tasted even a little bit of love that song sings in your heart, and mixed with that moment - Exquisite.

-- --

So kids from all over the city (we had graduates from my class go to Harvard, Duke, Yale, etc.) were sent to this northeast Austin ghetto. It was not equivocally the ghetto. It was the ghetto. Many of the houses that lined the streets across from the school and trailed away from it in several directions were bordered up (what were generally called "crack houses"). So, there was an extreme dichotomy/segregation: Science Academy upstairs in the triangle-shaped, prison-like building (which took about a year to figure out how to navigate) that was LBJ. By integration there was segregation. Hard to know if it was worth it for the school district. Maybe so?

And my first two years were legitimately scary for me. The principal, or someone, was incompetent, because there were a handful of serious Bloods and Crips at the school. Only a handful, but they flavored the whole place. I played basketball, so I mixed between the groups a lot. Often, I was one of two white people in the whole gym; a life-altering trip, seriously. The American black experience is a different culture, and I didn't get it then, though I understood it and liked it to a certain degree. So, I would walk through the halls and every now and then a much-stronger guy would put his arm around my shoulder and lead me into a locker well and tell me to empty my pockets and give him any money I had. I know in the scheme of things, that's no big deal, but there was a sincere helplessness, fear because the guy was strong, had an edge, etc. Probably a good experience to have in the long run, but definitely put you on edge. It happened to several of my friends, too. And I saw two guns pulled my sophomore year.

One gang fight I witnessed in school was between a Blood and a Crip. I happened to go to the bathroom during class and down the hall noticed this guy, who didn't look like a student, in a blue hat peering through the thin slice of vertical window that stood off-center on the upper half of the building's classroom doors. When class let out, I was walking behind him, noticed his tall lanky, body, out-of-sorts being and the blue hat. All of a sudden he attacked the best player on the football team (who was a suspected Blood; and a cool guy, really; he ran track, too, and so did I, and his running the 400 meters was a beautiful thing: one of the most graceful, beautiful things I've witnessed) from behind with a Masterlock in his fist. And then it was on. People started jumping out from all over the place it seemed, and right there, there was a full-on gang fight. No guns though.

I heard a rumor that the Crip guy was retaliating for one of his gangmembers whose mom was severely beaten (can you imagine?) because a group of Bloods went looking for him and found only his mama.

-- non sequitur 2 --

This morning went on a walk, found the trash can with beads of ice on it. Surprising. Froze last night. Walked to the park that I described in A Paean to Youth post, San Pablo Park. It really is an ocean. The sun was just rising to my right, the east, cresting that major inland ridge (must have a name - find it out) and slanting its light across the park. Walking, seeing my breath, hands in pockets, a chilly post-winter-solstice morning, cozy in its own way and crisp, easy to appreciate. As I was walking north along the east end of the park past the tennis courts where couples play pick-up ghetto tennis the way you play pick-up basketball (On Saturday mornings there's a line of dudes with doubles partners waiting outside the fence watching the action, waiting for their shot on the court. Winner stays on. Pretty cool. There's an urban vibe to it. Guys you would never think of as tennis players (their look) playing. And it's intense. Must say, that competition is fun, good.). North past the tennis courts the park expands for about four-fifths more; other than a bathroom building and several basketball courts tucked on the east end, the rest of the park is a sea of grass, a softball diamond at the far northeast corner. North and west it's all open ocean, and your soul smooths correspondingly with its expanse. All my walks and runs gravitate to the place, just like I described in the Paean post. Being such a wide, unbuilt expanse in the city, it presents the mountains on the near-horizon clearly; so there's that comfort of perspective. Anyhow, I was walking, passed a city worker ostensibly picking up trash, though really talking to a friend as they walked down the path, I saw guy in the distance just west of the bathrooms gazing west across the expanse of frozen grass, the slanting, fresh early-morning light flooding, a couple of early seagulls picking at the underlying slogged soil completing the forlorn at-sea image. Shortish, huddled in a flannel jacket, he had a seaman's air and was leaning into his stare that appeared to just glaze the grass, passing, appropriately, over the seagulls, as it shot northwest, as a shipwrecked sailor's might, (as he scans) scanning the horizon for any slight sliver of land. As I walked by, I said, "What are you looking at?" And was disappointed by his answer; I really expected him to say, "I'm looking for land." He said, "I'm looking for my twin brother; he should be coming any second." Huddled in his jacket was an open can of beer, completing the lost-at-sea, seaman impression. Stunning.

-- --

Anyhow, I first met Zach in the locker room at LBJ early one morning; we both played basketball, and the team had to meet at 6 a.m. in the preseason to do conditioning. My best friend at the time and I made an offhand, not-that-funny joke and Zach laughed at it from that morning, until that afternoon, when we met back in the locker room again for basketball practice. Odd. That's the anecdote I used in my speech at his wedding. "You know, if you know Zach, you know his odd sense of humor ..."

Our friendship was at first by default. My best friend decided to switch schools for cultural reasons. I understand. He wanted to have the drink beer, frat experience, and he did. I remember the day he said he was transferring. We were sitting on the wide expanse of smooth concrete that surrounds the diving board on the banks of the Barton Springs Pool. In the bright sunshine he said he was going. We had been best friends (though culturally different) since 5th grade. A beautiful relationship. We went through puberty, tried to lose our virginity to the same girl (not at the same time :) ; and, he failed) and basically talked and shared everything. It was cool. I don't think that happens so much (maybe so). We became friends because he taught me an important life lesson in a 5th-grade classroom. I was kind-of a jerk, not very socially adept (still not maybe), and kind-of haughty. I was pulling all of my friends ears one by one, just bullying them in a way. Not hurting them, but just being a jerk. I pulled Brian's ear and he said if I did it again he'd hit me. I did it again, and he hit me. Thank you. We fought, and from then on, I not only respected him, but I was thankful for that push back. Every person needs some and I hadn't had it until then. We hung out almost everyday after school - playing basketball, pick-up tackle football in the neighbor's yard and homerun derby in the street.

When Brian left in our Junior year, things changed. There's nothing like a wingman. We had some good times. We barely talked after he moved. And I haven't talked with him in years. At some point, I'll call him.

Zach and I had a different relationship. It was one of those experiences in life that enter from the backdoor and you only begin to recognize it's there after it has sat in your house a while and then you find it standing at the base of your stairs one day as it looks at you as if to say, "What's up? I'm here." I had a heavy (seemed to have an especially intense magnetic relationship with the earth) Volvo 740 (thank you again Mom and Dad) to drive the 14 miles (since it was magnet) to and from school and somehow started giving Zach a ride home from basketball practice everyday. He lived, kind-of, on the way home. So, everyday I'd procrastinate at his house for an hour or two when I dropped him off; I think sometimes of that time I "wasted." Would've been good to actually do something productive (or with more focus, but w/e), but home, for its own disappointing reasons, was never that comfortable of a place to be. We played homerun derby in his back yard, drank kool-aid, ate frozen orange juice and went down to the creek that, like my house, bordered his.

Zach moved to Austin in our Sophomore year from Del Valle, a country-ish suburb, east of Austin. I always think of catfish when I think of Del Valle; that's because, maybe, one of its most notorious characters in that era was a guy named Steve who played for the Del Valle basketball team. His skin was the flat grey color of a channel catfish and he had this inexplicable (there it is again), thin stache. A big, awkward catfish. (Interestingly, we became friends when we both played basketball at St. Edward's University. Up close in College he was just as crazy as he appeared from afar in high school.). As being from the country, and having a touch of the Steve-oddness, Brian and I dubbed Zach "Del Valle." And he joined our loose, more-or-less crew, as "Del Valle." There was "K-Man," "B-Man," and some others (forgetting the names, surprisingly). Brian and he always didn't get along, weirdly. Toward the end of our Sophomore year, they got in a fight; Zach kicked Brian in the stomach while wearing baseball spikes. Wasn't there, because I chose to run track that year, but its reputation, understandably, was character-less.

So, that action flavored things a little, but once Brian left, it was different, obviously. Sometimes Zach and I would go creekbusting - something I would do for hours everyday after elementary school in Boggy Creek. Creekbusting is where you basically "bust a creek" ha!. Since Zach was from Del Valle, he had the country bug bad; mine was more of a romantic's view (unfortunately) of the outdoors (born from my Germanophile father; he had the complete works of Marx in German on one of our family's bookshelves - studied in Germany and Austria). But anyhow, we came together, geared up and planned different bust routes. I slowly figured out that what Zach meant by creekbust was to find interesting spots to fish; I was about exploring, like some dude in Africa or the Amazon on some mega-transect adventure - seeing what was out there. So, that was a unifying aspect of our relationship. In the summer's between college we would always hook up to go on some creekbusts to different creeks around Austin. The best experience, surprisingly, was of the creek by his house, a minor branch of Walnut Creek. (Note: I recently did an ~18-mile creekbust of Barton Creek in Austin, from the overpass at Highway 71, all the way to downtown. Not all fun, but some very interesting segments. Unified that picture of West Austin in my mind. Barton Creek golf course was stunning, and there are some amazing sheer, limestone cliff-top (200 feet high or more above Barton Creek) homes.). More to come ...

I don't know what inspiration is, but if it finds me, it finds me working

January 4, 2011

Writing's always been a challenge, maybe that's why I'm doing it now.

Note: was reading Sartre's The Stranger out loud the other day (weirdly), and its language seems so effortless, flows so normal and natural (Side note: Is there anything better than reading to and being read to?). Seems like J.P. could have kept the precise, poignant descriptions flowing as long as his pen was on paper. I think that state of mastery is what we (at least I) imagine writing is - the unconscious On The Road inspired creative zone. At least novices, and apparently many masters, struggle. Notably, John McPhee, grandfather of literary journalism (see a piece of his in The New Yorker here (working on that - he's so popular, none are free on the NYer site)), says that each first draft of a story is excruciatingly painful - the birthpains of creating something out of nothing (see/hear the inimitable Juve sing about it below). Maybe effortless grace in writing is a fiction - certainly seems like none is coming out of any contemporary fiction (couldn't resist the dig). It's a craft, and we're artisans like any other.

As a becoming-better writer, here are a few revelations from the conscious study of the craft from someone just a little more than novice:

1) Know grammar. It really helps to know how to use the tools. Maybe this is obvious, but it wasn't to me before I took Magazine Editing with Jenn Rowe at the University of Missouri. Specifically helpful was understanding the use and structure of compound modifiers; they free language amazingly (though it's easy to overuse them horribly). And knowing where and how to use commas, etc. Surprisingly (maybe not), the knowledge helps smooth out clunky, forced sentences and paragraphs.

2) Know the precise flavor of the words used; only one source will do - The (Shorter) Oxford English Dictionary (the very definition of dictionary - really the first in one in the English language: took 70 years and some amazing crowdsourcing to complete! There will be a future post on it). The etymologies are fascinating, help you remember the word, and open up the realms, powers, poetry and immense interconnections of language.

3) Rewrite. In my limited professional writing life, I do close to 30 drafts for the magazine articles I've written. Don't mean to, but invariably that's what it takes to get competent, clear, accurate, somewhat-interesting prose. Hopefully, this draft number drops, but maybe not by much if what other professional writers say is true.

4) Use a thesaurus!

5) Know your subject, even if it's fiction. If you know it, the language flows, like a summertime's tubing down a shining-surfaced (compound modifier), willow-overhung (again) (maybe better to write Bald Cypress-overhung), springfed, Texas Hill Country river.

6) As Picasso said (paraphrased), "I don't know what inspiration is, but if it finds me, it finds me working."

Mas luego.

Happy New Year!

January 1, 2011

Happy New Year

Happy New Year!