Friday, May 11, 2007

Connecting the Dots

Sitting at the outside patio of the Xanadu Bakery & Coffee shop yesterday afternoon with two long-term pals, Brian Fagan, and Steve Cook, I experienced one of those introspective flashes of wonderment in which I simultaneously celebrated our friendship and experienced the great curiosity at how we became friends.

The Xanadu has long been a venue for coffee even though the coffee there is worse even than Starbucks. I would walk with my then dog Molly from our condo on Danielson Road, along Coast Village Road to the shopping mall we locals came to think of as the mall of Von's of the Stars, in honor of the glitzy market, Von's, where so many carpetbagger residents from down below--Los Angeles--came to shop.

My morning group then consisted of Louie Dula and Phil Preston, actors; Ben Frank, a sculptor; and Jack, the butcher from Von's. Long before we were properly introduced and before I knew him to profess English Lit at the nearby Westmont College, I'd see Cook, often with a group of young people, holding forth on some aspect of literature. Once, on my way inside for a coffee refill, I heard Cook making an observation about Nathaniel West, an observation I could not let go unchallenged.

Cook challenged my challenge. "How do you know that?" he asked.

"Because John Sanford told me so and John was sharing a cabin with West that summer and was there while it was happening."

"You know Sanford?"

"Drives an old model Jaguar, loves Sara Lee coffee cake, hates Republicans."

"Listen," Cook said, "maybe we could talk later."

We have been talking ever since.

Until he recently went emeritus at UCSB, Brian Fagan professed archaeology. Now he merely gives private lectures, revises his text books, and turns out what I will call scientific mysteries and curiosities at the rate of one book every eighteen months. My memory of how we met is less clear than my memory of the beginnings with Cook. Suffice it to say that some years past while editing The Santa Barbara Review, I acquired a splendid Fagan rumination on camel saddles, and have edited at least five of his books, including the most recently published, Fish on Friday, and the most recently finished, The Elephant in the Living Room: A Global History of Drought.

Cook, Fagan, and I have stood one another glasses of the local ale in the downtown section of Fagan's birthplace, Lyme Regis, most recently famous for being the site where the film version of The French Lieutenant's Woman was filmed, and not too far from a spot where Fagan gently took my arm to deter my progress: "Mind! You're stepping on Jane Austen."

At a party simultaneously celebrating Cook's fiftieth birthday and his having been granted tenure at Westmont (an evangelical Christian liberal arts and science college), when it came my turn to say a few commemorative words, I gave the blessing for wine in Hebrew, then offered a l'chayim--good health.

Cook's wife, Terri, once observed to me that there seemed to be no power point in the tri-partite friendship, we seemed somehow to admire, respect, be amused by, and not be overly impressed by each other.

Before meeting these two worthies, I'd lunched at Joe's with Barnaby Conrad, which may in fact have caused the speculation I indulged with Fagan and Cook. Conrad began his academic career at Chapel Hill, then moved to New Haven to get his B.A. from Yale before going on to various art institutes in Mexico and Spain. I'd read all his earlier works on bullfighting as a younger man. When I arrived in Santa Barbara to step onto the tenure track at a scholarly publisher, I was recruited for a career day program on writing-publishing at Cate, the local prep school where Conrad taught art. This was an opportunity to thank the man for the joys I'd had from reading his books.

Some months later, I saw Conrad at a party of the sort where, because of the boredom factor, it was easy--too easy--to take advantage of the plentiful display of red wine. And yet again, at a boring party, our paths crossed to the point where Conrad invited me to try my hand at a workshop at his writers' conference, the Santa Barbara Writers' Conference.

We are not at all alike, which is perhaps the draw. In addition to his close friendship with Herb Caen, the journalist who put San Francisco on the map and even after his death has kept it there, Conrad knows a seemingly endless stream of men and women I grew up on, either in admiration or in a kind of at-a-distance opposition. William F. Buckley, Jr. comes to mind in that context, although his son, Chris, with whom I shared a splendid turkey salad at Conrad's, fits the "other" side.

Conrad and I meet at least twice a week for lunch, which is an on-going exchange of books, things torn from newspapers and magazines, gossip, speculation. In the process, Conrad is fond of saying that he writes the books I suggest but which I am too lazy to write. Santa Barbara, being the small, smarmy place it has become, enlivens the possibility of contact with familiar faces, and although I have my share of recognized acquaintances, my share is dwarfed, overwhelmed, by those who approach him with a greeting. Thus my great joy for the one time I was able to trump him: We were seated at our usual table at the Montecito Pharmacy Coffee Shop when a pleasant-looking woman, actually a neighbor of his, greeted him by name. Ever the gentleman, Conrad sought to introduce me, but I waved his attempt off. "No need," I said. "I've probably known Sylvia longer than you. Providence, Rhode Island. John Howland Elementary School, right, Sylvia?"

"Right, Shelly," She said.

"Well, I'll be--" Conrad said. Because among his other qualities, Conrad is never damned, and darned simply doesn't suit him.

Why me? I sometimes find myself thinking. There is no answer, really, and so I go on, setting things aside to bring for our lunches, things I believe will interest him because they somehow catch a vision of the world, not through a lens, but through a prism.

Well, that leaves him who is in Canberra at the moment and who, for reasons I shall probably never learn to my satisfaction. We have exchanged confidences and ambitions over many a plate of pasta, Digby Wolfe and I have ; we have shared classes and advised each the other on unshared classes.

Why me? I think from time to time, enjoying the seemingly unexplainable riches of confidences, confidence, and comfort that has come upon me . Somewhere within this maze of friendly pole stars is a map of the heavens--my heavens--that will help me navigate through this succession of events we call days.

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