Monthly Archives: December 2005


I awoke this morning to find my apple tree, a sapling, blown partly over. A neighbor’s fence lay on the ground, and down the hill the topmost branches of a broad juniper caressed a parked car. The ground is sodden, and roots’ hold on it is loosened.

The creek, at nine, was full to the brim and roaring. Whole trees sped toward the bay in its brown embrace, tangled in the railroad bridge. Downstream the houses flooded.

Neighbors walked in the street knee-deep in water. They watched from their porches as the flood lapped at their foundations, and talked hopefully of better weather to follow.

Ninety-five feet uphill, two feet of water stood in our crawl space. I pumped it into the street with a seven amp impeller.

This year has been bracketed in loss, vultures to start it, an uncle’s death to end it. Faultline ended this year, a near decade of hope and work thrown down a hole. The Mojave burned. And yet, I thought as I watched the water from beneath my house flow back toward the creek, we did not drown in sewage after standing on tiptoe in our attic for five days as the government reveled in its ideological mediocrity.

That’s something.

Fossil hunting

Fossil hunting They have torn down the giant rusting tank on the shore. In its place are scattered piles of brick. Pipes and scaffolding lay rusting along the tracks.

The storms have ceased, at least for now. The creek roils brown and low of voice. Atop the path ducks bathe, wash their heads.

Each storm takes another layer off this cliff face. The rock is soft. It crumbles in my fingers. Two centuries, three, and this little outcrop will wear down to nothing, or the sea will rise ten feet and cover it.

I miss my brother. Were he here, I would point out the sanderlings gliding an inch above the bay, the kestrel in the eucalyptus. We walked down here one day, his life at full ebb. We scrambled at the rock with bruised fingers.

One face offers nothing, the next nothing. Some rocks, pried from the cliff, expose webs of roots. This was a shallow sea. Sand washed off a river long dead. Now grasses splinter the rock.

So many days in climbing loose, unstable slopes. So many stones wedged deep in the boot. Some forty years these hands have broken rock. Shale, sandstone, siltstone. Sometimes the rocks ask to be split. Walking some years ago I hefted a rock, dropped it on another. It cleaved to reveal a Miocene scallop. Becky was entranced. “How did you know it was in there?” I hadn’t known.

The third face is the one I wanted. The rock comes away with odd, round indentations. I free a rock, another, and then there it is: a clam, three quarters of an inch broad and thirteen million years dead.

Sometimes the rock preserves the living shell, and fossils bear a thin veneer of pearl. More often all that lived is gone. Only a mold impressed into the sediment remains. That mold fills, and a replica of the organism is cast in native stone. Held in the hand, this looks and feels like a clam. It is an echo of an echo. Seafloor was shaped. It shaped again in turn.

The rain will come tomorrow and the next day. Wet wind off the ocean will pelt the rock. The little clam saw light today for the first time in millions of years. I place it on the ground. A season or two will dissolve it.

Seven sevens

Grrlscientist and Jill tapped me for this one. I’ll figure out a way to get even with reward them some day.

Seven Things To Do Before I Die

1. Visit Washington, Montana, and Alaska, thus bringing the pointless list of US states I’ve been in to 50
2. Spend a summer in Bolivia
3. Drive to Tuktoyaktuk and dabble my toes in the Arctic Ocean
4. Hike at least the California portion of the Pacific Crest Trail
5. Become one of those Californians who sells a piece of inflated real estate and retires in an Intermountain West town, with access to mountains and desert so as to make both Becky and myself happy, probably Flagstaff.
6. Visit Australia or Ethiopia or Mauritius and dabble my toes in the Indian Ocean
7. Apologize sufficiently

Seven Things I Cannot Do

1. Free-climb El Capitan
2. Pay attention
3. Eat like I used to
4. Understand why people still support Bush
5. Keep up with my 76-year-old father-in-law
6. Figure out a way to keep Zeke with me for ten more years
7. Apologize sufficiently

Seven Things That Attract Me to — Blogging

1. The freedom to write without an editor
2. The risk involved in writing without an editor
3. Being able to be a writer instead of an editor
4. The instant feedback you guys provide
5. Having the sense that my blog doesn’t fit into anyone’s pre-defined blog categories
6. The discipline involved in having indistinct but immutable and terrifying deadlines
7. Attending the birth of a new literary form

Seven Things I Say Most Often

1. Admittedly
2. Wow
3. I don’t want to go to work.
4. I love you, Becky
5. Let’s GO, Zeke. I don’t have all day.
6. Can you please put me on your “Do Not Call” list?
7. Mmmmmm coffee.

Seven Books That I Love

1. The River Why
2. The Desert Smells Like Rain
3. Black Sun
4. Big Rock Candy Mountain
5. Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place
6. Raven’s Exile: A Season on the Green River
7. The Tortilla Curtain

Seven Movies That I Watch Over and Over Again

1. To Live (Huozhe): I’ve called it “the best movie made in the 20th Century,” and meant it. Heartbreaking, beautiful, and devastatingly political.
2. Manufacturing Consent: A documentary and profile of Noam Chomsky by Mark Achbar and Peter Wintonick. There is plenty to criticise in Chomsky’s work, and his fanatical admirers gve me the mild creeps, but this very watchable flick neatly disproves about 98 percent of the usual anti-Noamian talking points. And that’s not even what it’s really about.
3. Tremors: On the surface, a cheesy bad science fiction movie. Beneath the surface, a well-envisioned heroic saga with homage to deep mythic themes and trickster stories. Beneath that, still a cheesy bad science fiction movie. Also, I’ve camped and hiked on a few of the locations.
4. Pleasantville: A nice idea turned into an overwrought metaphor for civil rights, freedom of expression, and passion, then used to bludgeon the audience for an hour and a half. What’s not to like?
5. Ganjasaurus Rex: When a subsistence pot-farming couple in Northern California decides to plant a few seeds of the new hybrid Cannabis sequoia, the strain’s powerful resins awake a slumbering beast that evolved long ago to eat the gigantic pot trees. Can the city of Garberville be saved? And will the farmers elude the ineptly fascistic Campaign Against Marijuana Planting?
6. Office Space: Yeah… I’m just gonna go ahead and ask you to include this movie in the list here. Okay? Greaaaaaat.
7. Lonely Are The Brave: The first postmodrun Western, screenplay by Dalton Trumbo from the book The Brave Cowboy by Ed Abbey. Jack Burns (Kirk Douglas) breaks into jail to help free a friend imprisoned for aiding illegal immigrants. Douglas later said this film was his favorite of all the westerns in which he’d played. Also stars Walter Matthau, William Schallert, and Carroll O’Connor, not to mention Gena Rowlands, of whom I would watch two hours if she sat at a table and read the newspaper silently.

Seven People I Want To Join In Too

Bitch, PhD


Tonight we drive to San Jose for dinner with Becky’s mother’s family. Liam will be there, and Sophie, and I’ll get to be Uncle Chris for a few hours instead of merely Chris.

This will feel good. I have been Uncle Chris for 21 years and change. When Allison was five minutes old the nurses handed her to me. My sister Coral was pre-occupied as they sutured her episiotomy. I introduced myself to someone, for the first time, as “Uncle Chris.” It felt like destiny fulfilled, a hereditary title I had anticipated my whole life.

Here is the stuff of which an Unclehood, properly executed, consists.

Patience. The niece’s or nephew’s quirks are likely a source of deep annoyance to the parents, but you will be heading home at the end of the day, and the child will only tap your reserves a little. For the parents, each tantrum is one in an endless string. For you, it is merely punctuation of a long afternoon on the grass.

Indulgence. A parent’s rules must be respected. But respect comes from knowledge, and knowledge of a rule is best gained when you spend a little time looking at it from the wrong side. Coral made it easy for me: cookies were against the rules for Allison, and I think seventeen years later my sister may almost have forgiven me that Oreo. And then there’s the “beer at seventeen” thing, about which I had best shut up as Liam’s mother may well read this.

Fun. This one, oddly, is the hardest. Popular wisdom has it that two-year-olds are terrible due to their propensity for saying “no.” Fun uncles know the awful truth: the word you should fear from a two-year-old’s mouth is actually “again!” Just give up. Your back will stop hurting eventually.

Exemplary behavior. Some of your nephews — and, in this enlightened age, some of your nieces as well — may grow up to be uncles. They will need a role model. Tell them “no” yourself when you need to, but be fun. Be patient. Indulge them. Love them relentlessly. They will think of you when it comes their time to uncle.

I have fallen down in that task on occasion. I have owed my sweet Grace an email for some weeks, and James is still waiting for my answer to his question about dinosaurs and planets. James, and Carolyn as well, have made it all the way to starting school without meeting Uncle Chris for the first time.

I cannot blame my negligience on a lack of role models. I had the best one possible.

My father has three brothers, each one a fine uncle. When I see them, which happens infrequently, it is nice to catch up. I am smart enough now not to mistake for disinterest the taciturn nature they share with my dad. Also: playing favorites among family members is an odious and risky pursuit. With good men in abundance among my parents’ siblings and their spouses, who would be so crass as to confess having a favorite uncle?

Me, that’s who. But that’s neither criticism nor slight of anyone in my family. It’s simply that Carlyle Benedict is the best uncle anyone ever had. When I held Allison that morning in 1984 I had him in mind, and I wondered if I would measure up.

Uncle Benny Carlyle — “Benny” — married my father’s sister Joyce some years before I was born. I have known him forever. At family gatherings in the 1960s and 70s, where Clarke men tended to gather in deep silence around the television, content to say nothing for hours, Uncle Benny was a spark of infectious liveliness. The party started when he got there. He was not particularly a card. No joke-teller, he. It was more the way he approached life. He could walk into a room full of Clarkes and get us telling jokes.

I am trying now to remember a time when I saw him not smiling for more than a few minutes. I am failing.

The guy was a kid magnet. If there was a child under the age of five in the room with him, that kid would inevitably wind up clambering on his shoulders, placing a hand on his beautiful bald head. I loved him furiously as a small child, and then my sister Carrie did even more ardently, and yet I yielded my rightful place in his lap without resentment. I suspect my brother Craig — Craig Carlyle Clarke — loved him most of all.

There were times when we kids essentially lived at Aunt Joyce and Uncle Benny’s house in Penn Yan, or at least those of us who were born at the time. Lazy weeks in the summer with Aunt Joyce carting us to Keuka Lake, troubled times when my father was called up for National Guard duty or my mother was in the hospital having her thyroid removed. Their kids, Laurie and Tim, were older than us and we looked up to them. Uncle Benny would come home from work — in the service department of a local Dodge dealership, at least at the time — with a smile on his face that rarely ebbed, even when Laurie would play the same The Doors 45 sixteen times in a row, even when Tim was practicing his drums. That house was a second home to us.

Uncle Benny was a homebody. He spent his entire adult life within a twenty-minute drive of the farm where he grew up. We spent summer weeks camping in his father’s fields, tromping through the sheep barn in our good shoes. Driving two hours to Buffalo was an excursion to him, travel in the original sense of the word, a cognate of “travail.” Tim went on tour one year and his band split up somewhere in the Midwest, and he called his father to come fetch him and his drums, and the whole family knew that while someone like me might drive a thousand miles for a good plate of ravioli, Benny’s driving that far was an awesome sacrifice by which he proved his love for his son, again. Tim came to his senses and settled on his grandfather’s farm.

I took Becky to Penn Yan to meet them in 1996, and joked to Uncle Benny about his coming to visit us in California. “Yeah, right,” he smirked. When he saw me that day — the first time in some years — he grinned wide, held out his hand to shake. “That’s not gonna do it for me,” I said. I hugged him, kissing him on his ear just above the diamond stud. He looked a little surprised. “I live in California now,” I explained. 

The phone rang this morning. It was my father. Tim called my Aunt Sylvia in Gorham, who called my dad. Uncle Benny had been in the hospital again, a common occurence what with the cancer he’s been fighting, and the doctors had planned to release him this morning.

Instead, my favorite uncle died last night.

I will see my little nephew tonight, pick him up and clasp him to me, hold him on my shoulders, smile at him indulgently through his inevitable snit. This is what good uncles do, though not usually with eyes this rimmed with red.


Four older women around the table yell at one another, happily, in Cantonese. One of them holds her hands up in front of her. Her wrists are entirely obscured by beads.

In 16 years I have grown used to being the sole mute person at the table. The role holds an odd, serene comfort.

Becky’s father Bill leans over to me, translates. “She says the amber gives her energy. It gives her energy for housework.” He laughs a little at his sister. He is an engineer and a skeptic, but he appreciates a bit of folklore. 

I once suggested to Becky that I learn Cantonese. “Why bother?” she asked. “Just to talk to my family? They speak English.” “Well, ” I replied, “I could eavesdrop on conversations on the 30 Stockton bus.” But probably not. Cantonese is an outsider’s name, one word applied to probably two dozen mutually unintelligible dialects. If my seatmate’s parents grew up twenty miles from Bill’s home town, her language would be as far from his as Scanian is from mine.

Bill’s sister Marian takes off one of her bracelets, places it on the table. “The energy goes around,” she says in English. She gestures in a circle, traces the circumference of the bracelet.

Becky speaks up. “Mom, show Chris your bracelet.” Joan brightens and hands it to me. The bracelet is fine, with three colors of amber, from pale to dark brown like grades of maple syrup. Amber is the only gemstone that is always warm to the touch. “You can see the leaves in there,” says Joan. I hold the bracelet up to the light. Flecks of bark and leaf and random Cenozoic dirt sparkle there. It is beautiful.

Twenty years ago Elissa idly wished to own an amber necklace someday. A week later I wandered into the anthropology museum at UC Berkeley: there, in the gift shop, was a string of Baltic amber beads. At a hundred bucks, it cost a week’s pay. I intended it as a Christmas gift but couldn’t stand to wait, and gave it to her in November. She spent some minutes struck speechless.

Marian is animated. “When I wear these, I can vacuum all day.” Across the room a man chases fish in the big tank. They are a foot long and silver-gray. They do their best to elude the cook, slipping around behind the net and flattening themselves against the tank wall. One fails and goes limply off to the cutting board.