Friday, June 30, 2006

4: Utah

Lindsey looks over the San Rafael seabed

THE COUNTRY CHANGES once you leave Delta, Utah, driving east on Highway 50 -- "the loneliest road in the country." West of Delta, after you've crossed into Utah from the mining country of central Nevada, the landscape had softened into farm country: alfalfa, some truck farming, maybe a few orchards. Delta would be a provincial capital in another country; in the USA it's just another county seat bisected by Highway 50, serving for twenty minutes or so as Main Street, impossibly wide.

Then it's back for a short time to farm country and then the red rock begins. I'd only seen southern Utah before -- Cedar Breaks, Zion, Capitol Reef. Central Utah shows the origin of those amazing formations. Here the flat country begins at the same time to solidify and to break down. From the automobile, at nearing eighty miles an hour, grain gives way to mass. It's no longer sand, pebbles, rocks, brush, bush; it's simply red rock, white clouds, blue sky: American colors. (Yes: and Dutch, and French, and...)

From time to time the highway finds a long grade, cutting through the rock, and the geological history reveals itself: layers of white stone, grey, red again, layers put down by various forces I suppose, in eras dominated by different pollutants -- volcanos? shellfish? forest? And at the new level, lower, you get out of the car at a viewpoint on the bluff overlooking the coast, and look out over a vast ancient seabed.

The kids run off exploring and climbing where they dare, and you contemplate time and space so extensive, marked by change so incredibly slow, that you cannot reason it; you can only meditate on it -- rather, you must contemplate rather than reason. You know the general principles of geological change; you have an idea of the geological pace; but you have no way of relating it to your own life experience, not even after seventy years.

There's none of Christopher Alexander's "half-inch trim" here. Everything that is not human -- your kids, your car, the road it drives -- is more than monumentally huge. Monuments are made to human purpose: this landscape has no human concern whatever. To think of it in any human terms is to be either insufferably arrogant or insufferably sentimental.

This realization is so striking it's been expressed over and over. I remember being seized forty years ago by the insights in Ross Parmenter's The Awakened Eye, recording his own enlightenment, by desert contemplation, beyond the human concerns of his previous years as a journalist. I apologize for repeating his discoveries here, badly, in brief and not persuasively: but the experience, like the landscape that inspires it, cannot finally be expressed verbally: one has to absorb it on site, at one's own pace.

We descend through an amazing cut in this seabed to arrive in one lower yet, though the distant horizon still looks like the end of the world, another final drop-off into who knows what. The nearer horizon is threatening toward evening, and as we approach this evening's motel we drive through a dust-storm. Ah: this is what has carved those caves and arches, what has worn away the soft earth to reveal the hard bones within it.

The road drops a bit more, to a live river, the first water we've seen in this landscape, other than a few absurdly transitional irrigation projects, in a day of driving. The Green River, which rises, I believe, in Wyoming, flows through Utah into Lake Powell, and is joined by the Colorado, a relatively minor tributary which nonetheless takes over naming rights to the Grand Canyon and the now pathetic conclusion, sapped by irrigation projects, hardly surviving to its eventual outflow in the Sea of Cortez.

At Green River we check into a motel whose pool, of course, is not working; then set out for one of the many fine restaurants the motelkeeper had mentioned when I telephoned for the reservation. There are three: a fast-food franchise; a Tex-Mex bar; the "family restaurant" Tamarisk. We choose the last, and are rewarded with nothing memorable.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

3: Highway 50

Austin, Nevada

THE CALIFORNIA MISSIONS, as I understand it, were built a day's journey apart -- a day by foot and mule, of course. The towns on Highway 50, you'd think to look at the map, were similarly distributed -- a day by jalopy, not mule. You'd also think that modern automobiles would make the trip faster, and they do. But it's still a long way between them.

Until fairly recently even the automobile club was advising against this trip except for travelers with "strong survival skills." Until thirty years ago we wouldn't have attempted it without a toolbox in the trunk, a spare set of hoses and belts, and five gallons of water. Today, so complacent and credible have we become, our only preparation is to fill the tank; and even that isn't so terribly necessary: one tank will get us across Nevada and halfway across Utah!

(34.6 miles to the gallon, if you want to know; 17-gallon tank. Oh: $3.09, on the average.)

In truth it's probably just as well there are so few towns along this road: they take a distant second to the open spaces between them, in my opinion. The Intelligent Designer has arranged things with a better eye, if perhaps a less obvious sense of humor. But the aesthetic and philosophical rewards of Landscape aren't enough for the questing human mind and spirit: one wants as well food and drink and repose, and the occasional bit of society.

We'd planned to spend the night in Ely, I don't know why -- roughly a comfortable day's drive across Nevada -- but a couple of phone calls revealed there was a convention in town, and a movie being shot on the outskirts, and not a room to be had. So we stopped the next town short, in Eureka. While in Reno I'd researched this a bit, gullibly, in the easy way Internet blogs offer: Man in a Suitcase had made this exact trip recently, though east to west, and had offered his own recommendations, with enticing photos.

If you're curious about Austin or Ely I'll refer you to him, and his comments on Eureka are interesting as well. But just how recently did he make this trip, anyway? The "gourmet meal at the Jackson House's restaurant" hasn't been available for years, the girl at the visitor's center told us; the place has been desperately for lease. We'd checked into the Best Western, where the only room sleeping four was a hundred-dollar suite, well beyond our normal limit, so we had little choice as to dinner: we were eating in Eureka.

I don't recall the dinner, so it can't have been too bad.

Next day we drove across the desert to Ely, where we found hundreds of motels, nearly all with vacancy signs lit up. Well, these days we reserve motel rooms from the AAA guide, so we miss all those little mom and pop motels, the twentynine dollar ones that look quaint and clean and nostalgic when we drive by, next day.

On across the imperceptible state boundary into Utah and the town of Delta, where we find a Radio Shack franchise. Maybe they'll have an adaptor for my laptop! I left the power unit back in Reno, of course, the one I bought in Glendale when I forgot to pack one for that trip, a couple of months ago... The Reno motel said, when I called, that it hadn't turned up, and I regretted the tip left for the housemaid, but chalked it up to the increasing carelessness and forgetfulness that comes with one's seventies.

Well, of course, there isn't an adaptor for the low-wattage adaptor in our car, used for the cell phone and the handheld. No matter: when we get to Santa Fe I'll be able to borrow one, and I've ordered yet another to be sent on to Albuquerque. I can get along a couple of days without a computer -- but that's why this is being written three days late and the memory fading...

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

2: Desert Grain

Sand Mountain, Nevada

THE EYE LIKES CONTINUITY-- continuity of line but also continuity of grain, and when it cannot have continuity it tries to feign it by filling in gaps. That's hard, though, and the eye fatigues. Christopher Alexander writes about this among his hundreds of architectural "patterns," recurring postulates he gleaned from observations of vernacular architecture in various cultures. "Half-inch trim," he calls it: ornament of a size sufficient to accommodate the ocular nervous system as it jumps from the grain of stone, plaster, or wood, on essentially plain surfaces, to the bigger events of corners, doorways, steps.

There's a lot of grain in the desert. Grain and grains. The sand ranges from almost a powder, at Sand Mountain -- about which more later -- to irregular grains recalling their origin in shell or stone. The stones themselves, worn and carried to these flat places, are of all sorts of color and texture.

But there are few flat places; the desert undulates, often imperceptibly, occasionally more certainly when washes wind across its surface. Here the finer grains have been swept away by water -- when might that last have happened, one wonders -- and the smallest "grains" are pebbles, the softest of them more rounded, water-worn.

Then there's the botanical grain. I'm no more a botanist than a geologist; I lack names for these things -- another failure of grain, of lexical grain this time. The rocks are all just rocks, or pebbles, or, ultimately, sand; the plants are all just brush, or bushes, or, rarely, flowers.

But you don't need literacy to appreciate the architecture of these plants, the feathery foliage attached one way or another to sticks that have followed some hidden instinct or influence in growing by twists and curves. Or their delightful palette, finding a hundred ways of mediating grey and green.

Or, for that matter, their instinct for location. For miles there will be little vegetation, and then the desert will fill with it, plants clustering closely or keeping their mutual distance, responding I suppose to the hidden ability of the soils to retain moisture. The plants on the flat desert are often different from those on hillsides, even adjacent and under the same huge sky.

Everything you see responds to some set of consistent influences, I'm sure of it; that's why everything in this desert looks "right." This in itself is reassuring and restful. Perhaps there's an implication that where such things as sand, rock, and brush inevitably find their proper place, determine themselves their proper distribution, why then all will ultimately be well with humans too, even the humans who stick these absurd fenceposts in the ground, and stretch out their rusty barbed wire to mature in the desert air.

But then you come upon Sand Mountain. Sand Mountain is an anomaly: an enormous pile of perfectly soft, perfectly white sand, limestone I imagine deposited somewhere else by a glacier distant in both time and space, ground into powder by unimaginable forces, and blown here and only here by currents of wind rising only at certain times (themselves determined by some secret agenda) and responding to the contours of the surrounding hills and mountains.

You turn off Highway 50 a few miles east of Fallon and follow a gravel road, perfectly straight and due north, to this pristine thing; and as you do your heart sinks a bit, or at least mine does, at the sight and sound of recreational vehicles -- motorcycle-like things but with four wheels, most of them -- scurrying along, not particularly fast, a few feet above the base of the sandpile; or occasionally, with a more strenuous snarl, riding straight up.

At the end of the gravel road, say a hundred yard from the mountain itself, is an improvised city of campers and trailers, a community whose citizens have only one purpose: to transport themselves in these mechanized crawlers across the sand. To do this they wear protective clothing: goggles, helmets, brightly-colored synthetic-cloth shirts, gloves. I'm sure they hear nothing but the unmuffled complaint of their engines; smell nothing but the hot-dirt-oil of their exhaust.

As to what they see, I can't imagine. Their view of nature must be constantly jostled and bumped; the glare of the sand and the brilliance of the sky must overcome the exquisite ocular system we humans have evolved, normally so sensitive to subtlety.

I suppose there's another layer of values in this community, a hierarchy (or at least a system) determined by the trappings these citizens surround themselves with. The Sierra Club published, years ago, a wonderful book of photographs of families posing in front of their residences and surrounded by all their possessions. This community recalled those photographs. These sand-bikers, let's call them, sit in front of their trailers and campers, shaded by improvised ramadas or patio umbrellas, coolers and things scattered about, sand-buggies parked nearby, helmets and gloves piled on their saddles or hanging from handlebars.

A glance reveals differences of economy: some of this stuff looks pretty trashy and well-used; some seems newer and fancier. But there seems no system to the distribution: this is clearly a transitional community, here for only one purpose, the strange rite of burning oil to travel purposelessly across these sands.

I write this a few days after seeing Sand Mountain -- and, after it, the isolated Nevada towns; the red-rock Utah country; sandstorms; the sudden nostalgic relief of the southwestern Colorado farmland; and the climax of Mesa Verde. All this has changed -- no, not changed, focussed -- the experience of Sand Mountain. Internet availability allowing, more on this to come.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

1: Reno, of all places

Reno, June 22

The drive is a familiar one: down 101 to Novato, across the Black Point cutoff past Mare Island, onto highway 80 at the improbable roller-coaster garden, through the Vacaville hills and into the central valley.

How it's changed in the last fifty years and more. When I was a kid the Black Point cutoff was something out of Dante, a narrow road through heavy fogs, chasms real or, worse, imagined on each side. You only took that way if the ferries were out of commission, because of a late hour, or heavy seas on the Bay, or perhaps, who knows, some kind of labor issue.

Now the road's uneventful. Everyone drives at the same speed, of course, since there's only one lane in each direction: but everyone is now able to drive at the same speed, whether through the cruise-control or, less likely, attentive competence. The cars don't break down; you never see anyone pulled over onto the shoulder: it's just drive, listen to another CD, answer the phone, drive; and then you come to the amazing humpback bridge past Mare Island, and stay these days on a multi-lane freeway across the canyon toward Six Flags or whatever it is, and you're out of the Bay Area and into the Valley.

One hundred six outside the car, says the thermometer on the dashboard, but we're hungry, it's past one o'clock, so I pull off the road into Davis and stop at the park, two or three blocks north, two or three blocks west. One parking bay is shaded, and there's a concrete picnic-table and -benches in the shade; and afterward we walk across the park to Ciocolat (301 B Street, 753-3088), a fine place for an iced mocha at a table on the deck.

From home to Reno is 250 miles, five hours not counting the Davis stop (but including time wasted in Santa Rosa, driving to and from the AAA office to pick up some maps). Finding the motel was easy: Lindsey picked the cheapest one in the AAA Tourguide, a Travelodge on West Fourth Street -- forty-four dollars for us and two grandchildren, who made friends quickly with other kids in the pool while I got the e-mail on the free wi-fi that doesn't work in the room but comes in okay on the parking lot.

While online I look for a restaurant. Zagat has nothing in Nevada north of Las Vegas, it seems. We find some other webpages, though, and reading between the lines, and making allowances for local enthusiasms, we settle on the 4th Street Bistro. Good thing we do: the place is genuinely good. There is a place to eat east of the Waterboy in Sacramento: I would not have believed it.

I have a nice Greek salad with boquerones, those sweet little Spanish anchovies innocent of salt and olive oil; and afterward a truly inspired plate of lamb noisettes, grilled, touched with lavender-scented salt, and set about a mound of pureed cannelini, with a mint-based "pesto" and tracings of harissa sauce -- not Italian, not Sard, not Provencal, not North African, but beautifully balanced, integrated, fully arrived; a thing I'll happily order every time I'm in this town.

The hostess looks at us appraisingly as she brings something or other: Aren't you Lindsey, she says; and Lindsey admits she is. Natalie the executive chef comes out with Lindsey's book, for a second inscription -- for Natalie did an internship at Chez Panisse back in the late 'eighties, before cooking stints at Stars and Bix, and then opening this place of her own in Reno six years ago.

4th St. Bistro is, in short, a Bay Area restaurant in Reno, the only slow food-like place, she says, in the entire state of Nevada. She's working with local farmers and purveyors, moving the Waters revolution into the Basin & Range, and to judge by tonight's dinner with both authenticity and real polish.

We have dessert, of course: pot de creme, apricot upside-down cake, semifreddo, and -- my choice -- a clafoutis that's just the ticket, the thin batter, the cherries, the sugar crystals --

We're on our way to Santa Fe, if you don't mind a little rhyming. Tomorrow we cut across Nevada on the old highway 50. I'm not sure where we'll eat tomorrow night. But even if it's a total wash-out we'll have the memory of tonight's dinner, better by far than anything I'd have looked for along this part of the road.

4th Street Bistro: 3065 W. 4th Street, Reno; phone (775) 323-3200

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Crucible in Healdsburg

Every great civilization has its theater. The Greeks, the Romans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Elizabethans, the French court -- all those great civilizations depended on the theater for public contemplation, discussion, and enactment of the pressing issues of the day. Actors, a public space, an engaged audience, and speech served as a sounding board for the verbal examination of the great issues: moral, political, personal, familial, religious.

Tragic, comic, historical, or fictional: playwrights from Aeschylus to Harold Pinter and beyond have kept this tradition vital: considering timeless problems of human life on earth; casting various points of view on memorable dramatic personae; examining conflicting versions, opposed actions, irreconcilable passions on what remains arguably the most flexible, all-encompassing, fascinating focus yet devised for human attention: the theater stage.

One thing wrong with contemporary life is the relative absence of community theater. The great issues of the day are debated, if at all, on television. Generally one-dimensional considerations of public matters are given short, often superficial notice in the newspapers. Virtually every issue that is discussed in this multicultural country which prizes individual dignities is reduced to polarized opposing positions which are given “equal time.”
Theater, which spends an entire evening on the airing of its dramatic subject, has been largely replaced by commercial entertainment increasingly enjoyed in private: television, videotape, and the DVD have replaced the movie theater with the living room, as surely as the movie theater replaced vaudeville and burlesque, not to mention the legitimate theater that once prospered in small cities across the country.

Technological and commercial evolution has changed not only the means of entertainment but inevitably its quality and meaning as well. But theater is irrational in its will to persevere, if only because of the dedication, the passion, of its practitioners. In Healdsburg, of all places, pop. 10,000, there is relevant, resourceful, entertaining, provocative, and above all communitarian theater.

Its most recent production was The Crucible, written by Arthur Miller in 1953, in response to Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communism campaign -- vital history to fewer and fewer of us, but suddenly all too relevant again. The program quoted McCarthy:

Today we are engaged in an all out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity… Can there be any one here tonight who is so blind as to say that the war is not on? Can there be anyone who fails to realize that the Communist world has said, “The time is now” -- that this is the time for the show down between the democratic Christian world and the Communist atheistic world?

Miller’s response was a dramatic meditation on the intricacies of the Salem witch hunts. Massachusetts, 1692: a few adolescent girls dance naked in the woods, led on perhaps by the exotic Tituba, a slave nursemaid brought from Barbados by the tense, zealous, egotistical parson Samuel Parris, a Harvard man determined to be important and to keep his congregation strictly at heel.

In this rigorous, autocratic, monocultural (and monomaniacal) community there is no explanation of such lewdness but witchcraft. Before long nearly everyone’s indicted, because the only plausible cause of a succession of stillbirths, or a wife who insists on reading books, or a sick child, or an inability to raise healthy pigs, is witchcraft. What cannot be explained through common sense can only arouse suspicion, and suspicion inevitably leads to denunciation and punishment.

There is really nothing simple about any of this. Miller’s play is “about” morals, “moral politics,” the morality of politics (and the politics of morality); but also about the growing distance, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, between landed gentry and honest farmer, between preacher and serving-girl, between freeman and slave. (Mercifully, Miller leaves the American Indian out of the picture -- except for one gruesome recollection by the complex, passionate, troubled Abigail Williams: “I saw my parents’s skulls smashed on their pillows.”)

If the play is about these public crises, it is also about all the familiar individual ones: adolescent yearnings, marital infidelity, proud careerism, insolence, weakness before authority, hunger. Eternal issues arise at the intersections of these individual crises with the public ones, and that’s what The Crucible is about.

But it’s more than anything else about the conflict between the natural human animal and the societized civil unit we all must be if we are to live in a civilized society -- or even a tribal one. This is a matter of some concern. If you don’t think we must all think long and hard about confronting pressing social (what some call, misleadingly, “political”) concerns, think about Iraq -- or go see the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Well, our local community theater company has done a first-rate job by The Crucible. The production is in the round, set out in the country, out of doors on a grassy field by an oak woodland, beginning at twilight, the girls’s songs ringing from down by the creek, Deputy Governor Danforth scowling at his desk.

When not on stage, all the actors are seated among the audience, always in character. This is brilliant, for it eases the link between Miller’s play (and its matter) and us in the audience. Since actors are seated among us, we inescapably take our place within the action.

Last summer this company put on a haunting and memorable production of Sophocles’s Antigone, like The Crucible a tragedy about the conflict between individual moral responsibility and an authoritarian society. This week’s performance of The Crucible reveals those similarities -- across two and a half millennia of history! In 2,500 years, society has refused to learn from that history!

But the performance also reveals the strength of this theater company -- strength of ensemble, shown in the ease of their interruptions, the quick exchanges, the vivid flow of emotion and intelligence; even, when necessary, the resourcefulness with which they meet unforeseen problems: the sudden drop of a few pages of dialogue; the insistent screaming of a neighbor’s peacock or the drone of a nearby tractor.

There’s also individual strength. Karna Southall was a fine, brooding, sinister, wholly troubled Abigail. Alex Walker did well as the complex, high-minded, essentially weak preacher Samuel Parris. Avery Sholl was a resourceful, often commanding John Proctor. Nicole Mitchell made sense of the intricate, finally ethical Reverend John Hale. Caitlin Coey personified the absurdity of individual moral commitment even at the cost of life and family as Elizabeth Proctor. Odin Halverson rose, after a problematic first night, to the bluster and complacency of Governor Danforth.

Secondary roles were often just as well achieved: Amanda Haecker as Tituba; Quenby Dolgushkin as Mrs. Putnam and, later, Ezekiel Cheever (for a number of roles were double-cast); Anna Fuertsch as both Rebecca Nurse and her husband Francis; Ian Houghton as Giles Corey.

Emma Monrad took the pivotal small role of Mary Warren, whose eventual turnaround tries to bring Salem to its senses; and here I must reveal that (as many of you know) she is my granddaughter, and thereby that all these actors are in fact adolescents. The company producing this Crucible is the “Teen Ensemble” of Healdsburg’s Imagination Foundation. But this is not children’s theater: it is simply community theater, with the difference that some of these community actors may well become professional actors in the future.

Of course it adds to the pleasure, not to mention the intellectual reward, of any thoughtful member of their audience, that in this production one sees adolescent minds coming to terms with what is essentially a drama about the adolescent mind -- literally in the case of the unfortunate girls whose woodland revelries lead to hanging; more extensively the case of a society like Salem’s, formed by rebellion against authority, attempting an idealistic community of conformism, failing to understand context or complexity, innocent of irony. (A society troublingly like our own, needless to say.)

And that adds one more layer of meaning and relevance to this production. Seeing it, thinking about it, we deal with so many issues, from Salem to Sonoma County, from 17th-century Christian zeal to 20th-century ditto; elections, the death penalty, the uncertainty of social justice, the irrationality of animal instincts in the context of social structure -- and we see a group of intelligent, eager, relatively innocent boys and girls -- I insist on calling them that, and not “young adults” -- working with their own approach to the world into which they must soon take their adult place.

The final paragraph from the program:

The Teen Ensemble has been working on this play for four months. In every way it has been a challenge; material, speech, historical context, maintaining ensemble. That is why we chose it. And through this process we confront ourselves -- our habits, judgments and fears. Now we share with you the inherent challenge of this play and the legacy that Arthur Miller has left us.

Those are the words of the directors of both the company and the production, I believe: Brent Lindsay and Amy Pinto, who with characteristic modesty leave their own names off the program. Any community is fortunate to have resident such intelligence, commitment, insight, and artistic power; and the young actors who work with them are particularly fortunate.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Half a century

from left to right: “the Etruscan Warrior,” a welded-steel-rod sculpture by Mel Strawn (I believe) bought from Contemporary Arts in Berkeley. We still have it, sitting on the garden wall outside our bedroom. A coral-colored stoneware bottle from David ____, a handsome, bearded, middle-aged potter who had a well-known studio in Larkspur, where there used to be a brick factory and is now a shoppingmall. The “fish dish,” also from Contemporary Arts, and still resident on a top shelf in our pantry. In it I had carried a loaf of French bread, split, rubbed with garlic, spread with butter, coated with grated cheddar cheese, and toasted under the broiler, when I went to dinner at Gaye Notley’s apartment in Berkeley a couple of years earlier, and met there her roommate Lindsey Remolif. I can’t read the book titles from here, which is too bad; I’d like to know what they are.

Three planks; five concrete blocks. On the bottom shelf a white speaker cabinet I made to house a loudspeaker salvaged, I think, from an automobile radio. At the center of the speaker cone, to serve as a high-frequency diffuser, I glued a half-eggshell carefully cut with embroidery scissors from a hard-boiled egg. On the wall hangs Lorraine Crawford’s oil painting of an abstracted standing figure on a blue ground. On those rush squares, on the floor, a corduroy-covered cushion, orange as I recall, no doubt made by Lindsey. The scene is lit from above by a hanging lamp I made of two plywood discs and a sheet of splotched fiberglass, with an ordinary light bulb hanging from a length of zip cord plugged into the wall, right. It was our second home.