Monthly Archives: July 2006

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Kisses

I have not written anything on Lebanon.  I have until recently found myself with nothing to say, aside from “No.”

I have watched as reports come in of devastation of the countryside, again. I have read of women widowed, children burned to death, I have read the prevarications and the spin, seen the pundits split the hairs of civilianry. I have seen the old ugly accusations of anti-Semitism dusted off and hurled at anyone who opposes bombing without regard to the symbols painted on the sides of the bombs — the accusers themselves often the sort who would have jeered as the cattle cars passed on their way to Bergen-Belsen.

I cannot stop thinking of kisses.

I loved someone, long ago, who left someone she loved for me. She was smouldering and troubled. He was hurt. He was Lebanese, a Maronite, a sensitive and young man who did not understand why she had left him. She was a Russian Jew by ancestry, a New Yorker by birth, and she broke me as surely as she did him, but that came later.

She told me he had bragged to her that Lebanon would be invaded. Israel had enlisted the Maronites, Lebanese Christians, as allies. Tanks would roll over the border soon, he told her. I dismissed it as boasting to impress her, a man in his early twenties trying to raise his estimation in the mind of a woman packing her bags.

She curled my hair around her finger as she told me, and a breeze from the open window played over her. She was getting ready to leave for New York. I would meet her there three weeks later: There was a huge rally planned to oppose nuclear weapons on June 12. Israel invaded Lebanon on June 6. I read the news. I wondered if I should have said something.

And then came life, and loss, and the passage of years, and my heart scoured from the inside. I sought it out. A friend invited me for dinner; she was a gardener, planting vegetables and tilling soil for the rich who had no time, and we ate the hummus she had made from her mother’s family’s recipe, handed down for a few generations back in Lebanon. We watched from her balcony as the sun set over Bethesda, and a breeze raised the skin on my neck. She curled a finger in my hair.

How self-absorbed, how trite: an old man delves his memories for metaphor, the sufferings of thousands watered down, recollections of idle dalliance with which to trivialize reciprocal and escalating atrocities. But we are the same, we are the same. Arab and Jew and American mongrel, the same. Our lips part with little gasps the same, love and desire catch in our throats with the sultry air, our hearts aflame and numb to the certainty of coming wounds. We ache, the same. We long, the same. The same we lose sleep over our loves, the same we grieve our losses. Let us be honest: we kill ourselves. We kill ourselves.

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Bloggy business

Item number 1: In case you were still wondering what I thought, it was nice having Lauren out here. She’s wonderful company, and from all the second-hand reports I have heard she kicked serious butt at the Blogher panel on which she spoke.

Item number 2: Becky and I went to pick Lauren up at the end of the conference, and sat for an hour or two in the San Jose Airport Hyatt courtyard with her as the BlogHer cocktail party wound down a bit. At Lauren’s urging, I approached a blogger pal I’d not met in the flesh and said “I’m sorry to bother you, but I have to ask: are you Sylvia Plath?” And somehow she guessed it was me and joined us at the table. Sitting in the nice evening air with Becky and Lauren and Lindsay, and Liza Sabater… life is good.

Item number 3: Janeen and Kimberly and Sue and I ate lunch today and then went to Cafe Trieste for coffee. Whee!

Item number 4: I got back to the office and got a phone call from Kat. (!)

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Lauren

The fog rolled over the ridgeline like a river, a tidal wave of froth. We rolled past nurseries and farms, huge road cuts with retaining walls plastered to resemble living rock. Bought hot things to drink and turned south along the coast.

We’d eaten late, drove across the Bay to San Francisco, met the fog there, rolled back with the clutch on the steepest part of Gough, rolled out Geary toward the ocean. I’ve lived here so long, so long, and kept the stories to a minimum, I thought. This was the neighborhood where Becky lived when we were dating. That’s San Francisco State with its radical students of color. This is San Andreas Lake, for which the fault that runs beneath it was named. If my need to explain things bored her, she did not let on.

We pulled off at a wide spot in the road, walked to the edge of a thicket of poison oak (we have that here instead of poison ivy, I explained) and looked out westward. The horizon was a sharp gray line. Wave after wave rolled up to the broad shore two hundred feet below. These beaches aren’t as rocky as I imagined, she said. These are uplifted marine terraces, I said. They are old beaches long buried, pressed into soft sandstone by the weight of ages, then raised as the earth shifts beneath, lifted up out of the ocean to crumble cleanly into sand. You can scratch your name into the rock of these cliffs with a fingernail.

At sea level the estuary wound lazily around the spit, barely brimmed over its outlet. Each tenth wave sent a bore six inches high upstream. The rock was smooth where storm and sandal had shaped it. We climbed among the drifted wrack. Pelicans, I said, and pointed off shore. How can you tell from this distance, she asked. I could not explain at once. They just were. The pattern of flight, the way the birds skim the waves close together, wings barely moving, as if each was connected to the next by a glass rod.

The wind raked her hair — the color of the dried grasses atop the bluff. Eyes the shade of the horizon followed a line from my finger to the rock. Fifteen feet up, emerging, a nest of scallops five million years dead. The next storm will shatter them, an evanscence there with us and over far too soon.

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What’s the appeal?

A couple days ago, Holly asked me a question.

Hi Chris — I’ve read your account of this hike and the one up Sabino Canyon a couple of times now, shaking my head in amazement each time, and I just have to ask:

why do you go hiking in the desert in the summer?

I recently posted something about how miserable it was to be forced to march in a parade in southern Arizona in July, and one of the MANY reasons I hated playing church softball each summer as a teen was that practice was always from about 6 to 8 a.m. because then it was only REALLY hot then instead of REALLY, REALLY hot.  I took plenty of long walks and went for plenty of long bike rides in the summer, but I always did it after about 6 p.m., when the temperature would drop to about 90.

So what’s the appeal of a 10-mile hike when it’s over 100 degrees?
Posted by Holly  on 07/26 at 04:40 AM

I have been puzzling over exactly how to answer this, because the answer isn’t immediately clear to me. (I love questions like that.)

There is an extent to which the question is based on a misapprehension. It’s not so much that I like to go for long hikes when the weather’s insanely hot, as it is I find myself so dependent on long hikes that I am reluctant to let triple-digit temperatures stop me. I have had it suggested to me that hiking fills the same need in me that church attendance fills in other people, and that seems not inaccurate, and so what if some days I go to a nice air-conditioned Episcopal service and some days to Bikram Yoga and some days to a fundamentalist Muslim self-flagellant mortification-of-the-flesh parade?

But there is more. Some of it is sheer joy at the subjective effects of my surface-area-to-volume ratio increasing: I sweat much less than I did forty pounds ago, and there is a kind of pleasure in feeling my body become more able to meet physical challenges with less strain. Some of it is knowing that I’ll pass fewer people on the trail if it’s 100 degrees than if it’s 75. And there is the boasting, of course. One cannot overstate the importance of the boasting.

But there is more. It is rather hard to pin down, but there is more.

I’m not the extreme sports type. I’ve gone rafting Class IV whitewater and enjoyed it and will probably do so again, and that’s about it for my active defying of death. I do understand, on an intellectual basis, the attraction of propelling oneself up a sheer rock face supported only by fingers and toes, the reading of the rock, the visceral, pre-verbal intimacy with it that must result. I just now finished reading Craig Childs’s book The Way Out, describing a hike Childs and a friend took across a forbiddingly remote stretch of the Colorado Plateau slickrock country, and the way he describes his groping his way up terminal rock surfaces is rather compelling. Of course, just about every single hike Childs writes about seems compelling and dangerous and fraught with peril. In fact, I’ve been playing with the idea of writing an essay called “Craig Childs gets a cup of coffee” in which the carrying of boiling liquid in paper cups and stirring into it of cream are described in florid, breathless tones.

I do not know exactly what I sought in the transaction. The simple, pedestrian dosing of the central nervous system with caffeine seemed important, but why, I thought to myself, does this society deflate the term “pedestrian” by using it as a synonym for “boring”? We have forgotten how to walk in this age, lost the vital forces and energies transmitted through the living rock into our soles.

The barista was not swayed by this line of thought, however, and repeated her request that I put my shoes back on. She handed me the cup of coffee, a volcanic venti steaming like the travertine-clad fumaroles of Yellowstone, and I grasped it with my fingertips. I carried the cup back to my table, where my wife, artist Regan Choi, waited with a maple scone glazed with the blood of far-off trees. What feet had trod this same path in years past, the songline from counter to table? I was heedful of the importance of balance. Too far in either the left or right direction, and I would blunder into a table and scald my hand. An ancient sacrament, this drinking of the juice of Arabic seeds scathed in the cleansing fire of the roaster, and not without its peril.

And then a way suddenly opened itself up to me in the Starbucks carpet, and it was as if I was seeing the act of walking for the first time. I reached our table in a heartbeat. But something in my wife’s face portended dread, as if she had read in me some hidden failure, a misstep that would force me to retrace my path, and then I knew it was true with a sinking in the pit of my heart: I had forgotten the napkins.

Etc. But that’s just rank envy on my part. I wish I could know the desert the way Childs does, and exposure to it brings out the grandiose in me without fail. Compared to what I know of the desert, Childs’ writing is subtle. Still, I tend to seek a quieter drama. There are viscera of the intellect as well. Sheer endurance is its own extreme sport, and all the knobby wheels and bungee cords mere trappings. 

But there is more. The heat is the way the desert is. I want to know the desert, so I must know the heat. The Joshua trees can’t huddle in the air-conditioning, and the kangaroo rats still distill water from dry seeds when the temperature peaks. And there is this: as the desert goes, so goes the world. I pore over paleontological references and imagine the Pleistocene pluvial, and the altithermal Holocene to come is every bit as interesting and far more hidden, so I explore it as it manifests. How will it feel to live when springtime temperatures reach 100 on a frequent basis? When Phoenix is depopulated and Los Angeles a ruin for lack of water, the aqueducts gone dry? How will it feel to be a child in that landscape? What will my niece Sophie’s children face? I want to know, and so I walk.

But there is more. A few short years and I will be fifty. I have sat too long. I have relaxed too long, have numbed my senses against my senses. Enough. I walk. It’s who I am, though I forgot for some years. A young man walked through snow drifts, tattered jeans and flat black Chinese shoes through the drifts, he slept in rooms with broken windows beneath a dozen scaveneged cotton sheets. He was porous to the world and it flowed through him, pleasure and pain, and he survived to write this. It is nothing new, and I have been too long away from it.

But there is more. How tempting to simply walk out into the extreme, to reduce all of life down to its elements. There is water, and there is heat, and there is rock, and there are those who are out in it, on two legs or six or none, flying or rooted. What more do I need from life?

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I get letters, chapter 43

This one came in in response to a shortened version of this post that ran as an article in the recent Earth Island Journal. It came in anonymously, more or less, so we can’t run it in the Journal. But the EIJ’s loss is your gain. Here it is, all gratuitous capitalizations in original.

Watch Your Language!

Chris Clarke’s article on “Green Sexism” had the good intention to protest sexism in the Environmental Community (as if the “progressive” status of environmentalism should be synonymous with feminism.) What I found most insensitive about the article was Clarke’s use of the phrase “Mexican whorehouse.” whether it was Clarke’s ignorance to the connotations of the word “whore” or it was his lack of respect for women doing sex work, this language should not be permitted in EIJ.

Thanks,
NSJG
PDX, OR

Quick! Someone inform Jill Nagle!