Monthly Archives: April 2008

Some housekeeping

[Update: 0) A few people will be arriving at this page in the next couple days because I’ve suggested they look here for samples of my writing. The desert writing can be found here, and the pieces that I’ve decided best represent what I can do in general are sorted here.]

1) In a month I move out. I don’t know where I’m moving to.  There’s a good chance I’ll actually be homeless in the month of June, except that I will call it “camping.” I’m tracking down writer-in-residence gigs, volunteer opportunities with housing involved, rental of desert shacks and the like, but since I don’t know where I’m moving to, I don’t know whether I’ll have internet access on any kind of reliable basis.

This will make running a blog difficult. I’ve been thinking about how to address this: the community here has been so valuable to me, and there’s a little income from the blog ads that it would be a shame, though not fatal, to forsake.

If I can be assured of regular internet access, on the order of once a week, I can upload a week’s worth of short posts and set them to publish one at a time. This doesn’t allow, though, for comment moderation, and I’m not willing to let abusive or spammy or troll comments stand for a week. And shutting off comments, or moderating them with a week’s wait, would squelch the good conversations.

2) In a month I move out, and I have a household to split up and packing and giving away and sorting and address change forms and house search and truck rental and Jeep registration and smog inspections and long serious conversations to accomplish, and that’s not gonna allow for much blogging time, even if I ignore getting any book writing done.

3) The personal life blogging has proven to be a bit of a negative issue these days, and perhaps fittingly, I will not go into details here except to say that the number of times the word “div*rce” has popped up in the search logs for this site is kinda ooky. I know I brought that on myself, but it is not just myself onto which it has been brought. And at some point I hope to have a social life, and a social life free of ook is a thing worth having. So this paragraph is very likely the last Relationship item that will be appearing here. Thanks for understanding.

4) I’m trying to get work published in non-self-published dead tree form. Some of the work I want to try that with has appeared here. This is an impediment to publication in many journals. So there will be an increasing number of 404s here as I turn posts off and take them down. I apologize for the inconvenience.

5) In a month I move out, and I am not taking the creek with me. I am still mulling over the whole “blog name” issue as a result.

6) Given all of the above and my resolve to get book writing done, big changes are in store here, with continuing publication of short science essays, nature observation, poetry, and occasional political pieces limited to environmental politics — which is what I do best and is thus probably the most effective politics I can indulge in online — at the “continuing” end of the spectrum, and reformatting of faultline.org into a writer’s portfolio and book sales links and updates on the Joshua tree book’s progress at the “ending the blog” end of the spectrum, with resolution likely by July. In between, there’s gonna be a lot of crickets here, and you may want to avail yourself of the RSS feed so you can avoid fruitless mouse clicks.

7) Some of those desert observation naturey pieces will also show up at DesertBlog, which you should check out.

8) Anyone know of a shack for rent in the Mojave? Wi-fi would be a plus but not necessary.

Commute

The tracks come up out of the earth at Peralta, rise above the houses on brutal concrete pylons. Metal wheel scrapes metal rail as the train heads north. For a few blocks the tracks run above a linear park, an old right-of-way. The old Key Route took this path before the oil and auto companies bought up rail lines across the country, plowed them under.

At Solano the old right-of-way narrows. Houses press their backs up against the verge. From there north you can look down from your seat into the backyards of a thousand neighbors.

If I lived in one of these houses I would imagine my privacy uninvaded. The trains pass quickly, the passengers near-anonymous blurs in the windows preoccupied with newspapers. A whoosh of engine and a scrape of wheel on rail, and we are gone and the residents enjoy their yards in peace. I have been riding this line, though, for a quarter century, and a quarter century of daily four-second glimpses adds up. My time riding this train has been a reel of film, each pass by each yard a still frame.

I have watched the neighbors’ lives through the train’s lens. The new plastic toy tricycle left in different corners of the yard fades in the sun, is supplanted by a series of bicycles of increasing size. Trees are planted, grow, bear flowers and fruit, are pruned, succumb to blight. Roofs deteriorate in each winter’s storms. The signs go up, the house is sold, the paint goes on and fades and the grass grows unkempt and brown and possessions are removed in separate trucks and the signs go up. A second story is framed and roofed and finished and then I forget there was a time it wasn’t there.

An odd intimacy, this, a knowledge of people whose shadow on the earth I have not once seen. An odd affection, this, for the yellow-leaved lemon tree people, the pile of old lumber people, the purple stucco and peace sign people, the turquoise ‘67 Malibu under a tarp people. Their lives flit past as flickers on a screen, and though they are immediately and warmly familiar the train rounds a curve and slows for my station, and they pass out of my mind until the next commute.

Soon

the wind will shift, run fingertips
through the long grasses, combing them
in feathered, cat’s-pawed fields.
I will plant trees, an orchard
at the forest verge, will feed the deer
on mast, will prune the watersprouts
for kindling. A cultivated wild,
a sweet disorder carefully distilled
and in spring the wind will shift,
will drive fallen plum blossoms
before the livid dawn.

Is a humane online politics possible?

The Internet and real life are different.

More specifically: political discussions, or for that matter discussions about any contestable topic, differ greatly in their online and offline dynamics.

Here’s an example. Say you’re talking with some friends at a café. One of your friends overhears a conversation at another table, gets offended, and starts arguing with the folks at that table. So far, not an impossible thing in real life. I imagine we’ve all overheard things in public places that got our blood boiling, and perhaps even regretted that we didn’t confront the racists in the corner booth, or whatever.

But it doesn’t end there. The conversation at your table starts to shift course, so that now you’re talking about the people at that other table, whether they’re right or wrong, and your friend that started the cross-tabular conversation is now standing near their table, arguing. He beckons to you to come over and join him. If you’re reluctant, he comes back to your table and quotes inflammatory material said at the offending table, and points your way over there.

At this point, you’ll pretty much have decided, if you’re like me, that your friend is an asshole.

Of course, maybe café tables aren’t the best metaphor for blogs. After all, most blogs at least theoretically welcome newcomers, while café tables are often inhabited by people who just really want to talk among themselves. Maybe the better metaphor is a set of bars with closed-circuit televisions, and exhortations to go to the place across the street and join the barfight already in progress. Or an Episcopalian congregation leading an insurgent raid on the Latter-Day Saints Temple. I’m sure there’s something better.

The point is, what would be looked at as an act of aggression in real life is taken as standard operating procedure in the blog world.

It’s not even necessarily seen, or intended, as a hostile act, this rousing of people to go over and join in a conversation somewhere else. I know I’ve done so with nothing but sterling and benevolent intent in the past, aiming various firehoses of traffic at threads whose owners weren’t expecting so many guests. That practice has a name: “linklove.” It’s the strength of the web, after all, the core of the whole concept, this linking.

And I’m certainly not for a second suggesting that linking to good things ought to be seen as destructive. That’d be silly. How much have I learned from other people’s links? Reading people like Kevin, like Dave, like Lauren and Jennifer?

But there’s something about the widespread practice of negative linking that seems inevitably to lead to dog-piling. It makes sense. People are much more likely to take the trouble to write something when they’re upset. How often do you see letters to the editor praising the paper for their coverage of an issue? Factor in the relative ease and speed with which links propagate throughout the web, and you have the Atrocity Of The Week phenomenon.

And sometimes, you know, the AOTW really is atrocious. Sometimes the negative links direct attention to things that need to be addressed, to offenses that would have flown under the collective radar in offline life, and sometimes the mass uproar that follows educates people who would not have been reached by position papers. As a glorified phone tree to alert people to actions that need to be taken to combat short-term horribles, the net is a wonderful thing.

It’s just that it seems to me that there’s a threshold of linkage beyond which political discussions, as opposed to political alerts, become less than useful over time. I’m not suggesting any hard and fast metrics, but I do know that some of the most useful, challenging, rewarding and worthwhile conversations I’ve read online have taken place among regular readers of the blog in question, and I know that I’ve seen outside linkage derail more useful and enlightening conversations than I can count.

All this said, it’s not really the links that constitute the problem. They just facilitate it. The problem is the kind of behavior that is, advertently or in-, rewarded in the blog world, and the people that exhibit it, myself included on an embarrassingly frequent basis. With enough links to form a critical mass, a discussion becomes a target for the drive-by bombthrowers, the narcissist derailers, the wounded arrogant martyrs and their sycophants, the one-liner snarksters, the social-climbing blog-pimps. Not a single online demographic fails to possess most of these types, from racist reactionaries to radical women of color to shallow A-List mainstreamers and their toadies to misanthropic dog-and-desert nature poetry bloggers.

These people exist in real life too, and chances are that the net factor merely exacerbates an existing condition. I know I’ve been the annoying joke guy in real-life situations far too often, for instance, and I only pick that trait because I don’t really want to think about how many times I’ve also been a narcissist derailer.

But here’s the thing I’m thinking, and tell me if you think this seems too far off: in real life, such behavior is tolerated.

Online, it’s rewarded.

It’s rewarded, and combined with the dogpile dynamic, it creates conditions in which no forward motion is possible. A discussion of the Atrocity Of The Month becomes an argument, and not an argument among two or three discrete positions, but an argument in which hundreds of distinct positions are grouped into two or three rough tendencies, with each of the arguments in a tendency undercut by its putative allies. Anyone wanting only to win an argument rather than to engage need only pick out the most extreme statement on another side — and there will always be one — and either cast it as a ridiculous statement that represents the entire spectrum of the arguer’s opponents, or as the only real question being discussed.

Which means the people who stomp around doing actual harm, who commit actual lies and theft of words and ideas, actually enriching their status at the cost of making their prey’s lives smaller, get to excuse their actions by pointing to the misstatements of a few overzealous people on the other side.

Nuance is lost in the shouting. The crucial subtleties that characterize actual politics in the real world are ignored, when they are not actively dismissed with the call of “which side are you on?” Broad statements are set in opposition to one another, and the notion that both could be true — to take a recent example, the notion that the statements “Islam as often practiced is a reactionary ideology responsible for the brutal mistreatment of Muslim women” and “Anti-Islam sentiment in the US is usually odiously racist in nature” might both be equally valid — that kind of complicated thinking is dismissed with a wave and a snarky comment.

And so I wonder. Is a humane online politics possible, where reasonable differences of opinion are respected, where the goal is to exchange viewpoints and learn from one another and move forward? If so, is it necessarily restricted to venues where the traffic firehoses don’t reach? Is a humane online politics the stereotyped Mesozoic mammal always hiding in the underbrush while the Snarkosaurs and Sitemetrodons rampage out in the sunlight? I’m willing to be persuaded otherwise by any optimists among CRN regulars.

Lichen on pallid manzanita

lichen on manzanita

There are two places in the world to which this manzanita, Arctostaphylos pallida, is native. One is a small part of the Oakland hills in and near the Huckleberry Regional Botanic Preserve. The other is where Matthew and I hiked yesterday, on Sobrante Ridge.

I haven’t been there in so long.

The species’ habitat is mostly protected from development, though some of the Oakland Hills stand is on private land, and a few got cut down to the ground by utility right-of-way brush clearers in 1992. (I found the amputated limbs lying by the roadside a day later. I don’t think anyone ever paid for that particular crime.) But a couple good fires with bad recovery conditions following, or a five degree increase in average temperature combined with more summer precipitation (a strong possibility on the coast) and these plants could be in serious trouble.

Those are possibilities, though. We sat beneath the current reality yesterday:

Pallid manzanita berries
Seeing new growth and a new potential generation on an endangered species: a good feeling.

 

Demons

Running is wrestling.

Running brings the demons to the surface, the doubt, the defeatist self-loathing. It reveals them more quickly, more reliably, than weeks of the most skilled therapy.

I ran fairly well last night, an unathletic 5K for those of us who quantify such things, and a fifth of the way along I had already persuaded myself twice to keep going. A demon manifests and points out the sore knee, the stitch in the side, the sudden hungers literal and metaphoric, the likelihood of something better happening somewhere else. They suggest, rather pointedly, that I stop.

They are angry bees. Stop to address them and you feel their stings, but if you keep running they will only follow you a little way. I pick a landmark a hundred feet ahead, a hundred yards. I tell myself to run at least to that lamppost ahead, to the bridge over the creek where the swallows build their nests, to make it at least that far and then decide whether to continue. If I stop there, it is a victory of sorts.

More usually, I remember hundreds of yards past the mark that I was supposed to make a decision of some kind. At least in this one way I can make the attention deficit work for me.

Distraction is armor against the demons. Last night, rumination on a friend’s recent note about the notion of “redemptive grief” got me much of the way up two kilometers of hill. What is “closure,” after all, but the expectation of conclusive redemption? Crating Zeke between book covers did nothing to prevent the muddy paw prints tracked across my mind, the claw scratches at the back on my neck as he asks to be let in. It was a night like this 18 months ago that the inevitability of that loss sank all the way in, and the Futility Demon suddenly sucked all the oxygen out of the bay-side air as I ran. I stopped short that evening without conscious thought. Any path I choose to run leads back to the demons eventually.

The hilltop is only three blocks away. Make it that far, 2.5K, and then decide.

At one block from the top I meet the end boss, the demon most difficult to beat. My ankle starts to ache, and I think without intending to of that time in 1997 when I ran on a sore ankle and limped afterward for months. This demon is suave, a fighter native to my internal territory. He knows the terrain well. His voice is comforting, nurturing. “Are you overtraining, Chris? You shouldn’t be forcing yourself to run if it hurts.” He plays all the angles. “What’s with the ridiculous stoicism, the macho? You’ve done great already. There’s no shame in stopping here.”

I tell him to get back to me in a hundred yards. A hundred yards won’t make all that much difference to an overtrained ankle unless I twist it, which I could do just as easily walking home.

Twenty yards on, as I run down a narrow walk cloaked in overgrown oat and mustard, a rustle comes from my left. This is skunk country. I am hypervigilant these days. Every hair stands on end and then I see the source of the noise: a black-tailed deer.

We run together for a hundred yards, my pace feeling the way hers looks, a long series of slow, buoyant arcs.

I am demon-free for another mile or so.

Divorce is looming, though, and displacement, dislocation as of bone from socket. This is a perfect run, I think, even running into this tree-shattering wind, even running into this North wind driving tall whitecaps on flat San Pablo Bay, and after June when wilI I see the Bay again? My laps through this neighborhood are numbered.

I stop running then, without even thinking about stopping, at around 3.5K. I walk a little.

I turn around and walk past the spot where I stopped, about a hundred yards past, and turn again, and when I am ten feet from the demon spot I begin running again, a hundred yards at a time. Again I approach the swallow bridge, a quarter mile away. I will stop there, I promise the demons. Let me make it there and I will stop. That’s 4.5K. I can live with 4.5K. Let me get that far and I’ll let you win.

At the far end of the bridge I turn, ready to stop.

An enormous red moon is rising. It hangs low over the hills only eight hours before it’s full. The wind shifts a little, blows my hair off my back and over my shoulder. It streams in front of me.

I force myself to stop at 5K.

Some Observations on Xantusia vigilis

I

The quartz-pebbled path blinds.
Cicada song in waves
rises shimmering hot.
Joshua limb is down.
In the sparse shade beneath,
tiny eyes watch, placid.

II

Lift the Joshua trunk.
It is light as balsa.
Termitary crumbles;
dust frass wafts, aimless.
Suddenly sunlit, they
make for the shade, panting.

III

They breed in the late spring.
They bear their offspring live,
One to three in each brood,
August through October.
Though they’re called “night lizards”
They’re active in daylight.

IV

Janós Xantús exults.
Baird funds more collecting!
He must leave the desert,
Meet the Fort Tejon stage.
His glad boots break blackbrush.
Tiny eyes pale in fear.

V

What is this small dead bird
impaled on yucca leaf?
Shrike-struck, wizened, sun-dried,
left there for months, it falls.
Pale fly alights, too close:
Night lizard is hungry.

VI

Mojave night is cold, now,
Pleiades rise at dusk,
And the hard-gained morning
is stingy with its warmth.
Hand-sized rock faces east;
Luxuriate on it.

Music

I have for the last few weeks been in possession of the new The Selected Letters of Wallace Stegner, edited by son Page Stegner. I have been working through the book since, given the vagaries of work and stresses domestic and otherwise.

I should say that reading it is hardly work: it’s a delight, the epistles of a man who was uncommonly gracious to friend and occasional foe alike. Stegner’s letters are thoughtful both in their content and its delivery. The rhythm the man brought to what, in other hands, would have been simple workaday correspondence is remarkable. His letters sing.

It has reminded me that I’ve often thought that many aspiring writers would do well to pay more attention to cadence. One of the best tricks I learned early on was to read my writing aloud. Not only will you tend to stumble in speaking the text where a reader would in reading it, but the cadence, if you listen for it, jumps out at you.

It was while reading Stegner that I first consciously noticed my habit, while reading well-crafted prose, of near-singing the words in my head. An editor for a few years then, I was accustomed to breaking up unwieldy sentences, to finding the short stark statements buried within and freeing them, panning the bright sharp nuggets from endless expanses of gray placer gravel. I was an environmental editor. I should have known better, given the one true lesson of the science of ecology, than to think that was all there was to editing for cadence. Context is everything. It was the long, unbroken river’s flow that put those nuggets where they were supposed to be.

I still break up the long sentences while editing, though these days I mainly edit my own text. As often as not I will look on either side of the new short sentence for two that can be blended. Or three. There are writers who can make a long staccato chain ring but I am not, strictly speaking, one of them. I need the smooth passages between the rapids.

Stegner was a master of cadence, that music generated by the smooth friction of adjoining sentences. It showed in his polemical writing as well as in his fiction. Here’s a paragraph from his famed “Wilderness Letter,” sent to David Pesonen at UC Berkeley in 1960 when Pesonen was helping to craft federal wilderness protection policies, and later much-anthologized:

I am not moved by the argument that those wilderness areas which have already been exposed to grazing or mining are already deflowered, and so might as well be “harvested.” For mining I cannot say much good except that its operations are generally short-lived. The extractable wealth is taken and the shafts, the tailings, and the ruins left, and in a dry country such as the American West the wounds men make in the earth do not quickly heal. Still, they are only wounds; they aren’t absolutely mortal. Better a wounded wilderness than none at all. And as for grazing, if it is strictly controlled so that it does not destroy the ground cover, damage the ecology, or compete with the wildlife it is in itself nothing that need conflict with the wilderness feeling or the validity of the wilderness experience. I have known enough range cattle to recognize them as wild animals; and the people who herd them have, in the wilderness context, the dignity of rareness; they belong on the frontier, moreover, and have a look of rightness. The invasion they make on the virgin country is a sort of invasion that is as old as Neolithic man, and they can, in moderation, even emphasize a man’s feeling of belonging to the natural world. Under surveillance, they can belong; under control, they need not deface or mar. I do not believe that in wilderness areas where grazing has never been permitted, it should be permitted; but I do not believe either that an otherwise untouched wilderness should be eliminated from the preservation plan because of limited existing uses such as grazing which are in consonance with the frontier condition and image.

Read this paragraph aloud. Set aside for now the quibbling with the phrasing, the mid-twentieth century archaisms of gender in simple noun or inapt metaphor, the range politics long-supplanted by new science. (Stegner was a thoughtful and generous soul, and while he resisted what he saw as trends he would likely have written this paragraph differently today.) Pay attention instead to the rhythm of each clause, each sentence, the rests and pauses. A sentence of 43 syllables leads, followed by one half as long but still complex, and then another with 46 syllables. Then comes a lull in the tall breakers: a sentence of 14 syllables, with one of 12 after that. The rhythm within the longer sentences is lively and complex, a dance of iamb and dactyl, trochee and anapest conjoined, a burbling stream of meaning. That fourth sentence accentuates the nuance. Two distinct clauses, each worthy of bracketing with capital and period, six syllables and then eight, and say each of them aloud again: the second’s rhythm matches the first, with an unstressed syllable added on either end. Stegner has provided the relief from the long stretches, but softened it so that the change is not so abrupt.

How much of this cadence was deliberate, and how much just flowed from his fingers through the typewriter onto the paper, set without margins for economy’s sake? Who knows? It was almost certainly some of each, part careful blue-pencil work, part first-draft inspiration, a drawing of music into the lungs and breathing it out in sentences.

John McPhee is another writer to whose work cadence seems to come as naturally as breathing.  Look at the first paragraphs of Rising From The Plains:

This is about high-country geology and a Rocky Mountain regional geologist. I raise that semaphore here at the start so no one will feel misled by an opening passage in which a slim young woman who is not in any sense a geologist steps down from a train in Rawlins, Wyoming, in order to go north by stagecoach into country that was still very much the Old West. She arrived in the Autumn of 1905, when she was twenty-three. Her hair was so blond it looked white. In Massachusetts, a few months before, she had graduated from Wellesley College and had been awarded a Phi Beta Kappa key, which now hung from a chain around her neck. Her field was classical studies. In addition to her skills in Latin and Greek, she could handle a horse expertly, but never had she made a journey into a region so remote as the one that lay before her.

“Meanwhile, Rawlins surprised her: Rawlins, where shootings had once been so frequent that there seemed to be — as citizens put it — “a man for breakfast every morning”; Rawlins, halfway across a state that was spending far more per annum than to support its nineteen-year-old university. She had expected a “backward” town, a “frontier” town, a street full of badmen like Big Nose George, the road agent, the plunderer of stagecoaches, who signed his hidden treasure maps “B.N. George.” Instead, this October evening, she was met at the station by a lackey with a handcart, who wheeled her luggage to the Ferris Hotel. A bellboy took over, his chest a constellation of buttons. The place was three stories high, and cozy with steam heat. The lights were electric. There were lace curtains. What does it matter, she reflected, if the pitchers lack spouts?

There is so much to appreciate in that passage: the alternation of long and short sentences, the feeling of momentum building in sentences like the first two in paragraph two, and artful landing in the short simple declaratives that follow.

It is writing that nearly begs to be read aloud.

It is music.