Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Defining Moments

Somewhere--you're not entirely sure where--the process began where you became conscious of the need to review most of the things you'd learned.  You'd progressed far enough to have had some experience, made some choices, experienced successes and failures.

Thus one pile of learning was heaped under the heading of experience.

There were other things learned, say the multiplication tables, the Periodic Table of Elements, Valence Equivalents, Ohm's Law, and a number of physics-related behaviors.  Okay, you even questioned the fact of water boiling at 212 Fahrenheit degrees at sea level.  Such things went into the pile of keepers--uncontested keepers.

Then there were the critical and propaganda things, which was the largest pile of all and which you still find yourself challenging, sometimes on a daily basis.  Through discussions, arguments, essays written to test the waters of your own opinions, you return to paradigms that were held up to you, sometimes appalled at the way you bought in to conventional wisdom.

Such testing reminds you of a book you'd been looking for all your early life, one you admired the moment you found it, but still needed additional years to realize how powerful a guide it was.  The title of the book is an ironic view of what you were for so long and may yet be:  The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim's Progress.  A good part of the irony resides in the importance Twain has held in your life as it developed, including your frequent return to Virginia City, Nevada, hopeful of discovering there what Twain discovered, which is to say his voice, his attitude, his vision.

The irony continues in the way, fascinated and delighted with The Innocents Abroad as you were, first time through, you took it literally. You did not see yourself as the innocent you were; you'd not yet begun to think in terms of reading like a writer.

You might as well get the rest of this out of the closet.  You were well into your fifth decade taking the second of three Twain works as fact rather than attitude or voice.  You refer to Life on the Mississippi, which at first and second and even third blush seemed to you so majestic and magisterial that you were stopped by the voice, the style, the lush evocation of Twain's love of the River and the consequences of his life on it.  Writing with that conversational eloquence and love seemed an almost impossible accomplishment.

By then, you'd worked your way through most of his voluminous work, including--to your great dismay--the thing he'd begun to consider his best work, a biography of Joan of Arc.  You knew enough about him to know he was serious about that, driven to be a serious writer as opposed to the Mark Twain of, say, his work on Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science.  You could not read more than a page of that without laughing.  You could and did read pages of Joan of Arc, wishing you would not groan.

Then the matter settled into place.  Twain spoke in several places of using dry facts and statistics to achieve an effect.  Suddenly, the opening pages of Life on the Mississippi were suspect.  They could well have been true, but they could have been a gigantic hoax or sham, masquerading as true.

Your first fondness for The Innocents Abroad fit perfectly in your sense that things from Europe, antiquity, history, culture, needed to be shown in a more practical perspective.  For the longest time, you were--and may still be--the innocent in your own culture, being taken in by language of praise as opposed to language of exposure.

You were going off to seek your fortune, for that is how you thought of it, as a reporter for a newspaper in Calexico when Ronald A. Lawrence parked his outrageous Cadillac, its rear trunk and seats filled with teddy bears, on Corning Street, where you were staying prior to departure.  

Lawrence was a troubled man, whom you'd met through a pair of mutual friends when all three were patients at the Langley Porter Clinic in San Francisco.  A merchant seaman and carnival roustabout, he'd already done time in the Atascadero State Prison and had ahead of him some time in San Quentin.  That Sunday evening when you drove off with him, you were heading north, to Tulare, and the Tulare County Fair, not Calexico and the Calexico Chronicle.  The truth was, you did not want to be a newspaper reporter, you wanted to be a witness.

Most memorable works of drama have what you call defining moments.  An obvious defining moment is when Romeo and Juliet first set eyes upon each other.  There would be no story without that defining moment, any more than there would have been no Catch-22 if Yossarian had been rotated home after serving the required number of  combat missions.

One defining moment in your life was driving off into the unknown with Ronald A. Lawrence, whom you would later have to append the designation A50147, which was his ID at San Quentin.

A major defining moment in your life was reading Huckleberry Finn.  Yet another was reading The Innocents Abroad.  Another still was your reading of what you considered to be the illustrated guide to the human heart, Life on the Mississippi.

Never mind that you are more or less a contemporary of Philip Roth and that when you read Norman Mailer's explosive first novel, The Naked and the Dead, you had the same sinking feeling you'd got from reading early Roth.  They were both defining moments.  You had no business trying to pursue the things you were pursuing in the motion picture and television industries.

One of the things you keep in your pile of experience information is the vision of early seafarers the world over, taking chances by moving beyond sight of the shore line and such lights and reference points as they could see to help with navigation.  These ancients relied on navigation by instinct, by the stars, by the moon, and the sun.

To understand what it is to navigate the seas of writing, you need to turn away from the shore, heed the pull of some far away place, wondering not merely if the place exists but how you will find it.  You need to know days and weeks and months of doubting you will ever find your way anywhere.  You need to see the enormous pile one one- and ten-dollar bills you eventually earned working various jobs at various carnivals begin to vanish.

You needed to wander the streets of the Bunker Hill area in Los Angeles, looking for the likes of characters set in motion by John Fante, sneaking rides on The Angel's Flight cable car, eating Basque meals at the old Taix Cafe on Commercial Street, where coffee was served in a glass and desert was an orange.

You needed to reach the point where you doubted you would ever publish, then take some available job to buy boxes of typewriter ribbons and reams of Eaton's 20# Corassible bond paper on which to type and send out the stories you knew would never find a home.

When it comes, the voice does not emerge from the pile of the conventional wisdom, it comes from the way you question the conventional wisdom the way Twain questioned the European sense of self and, finally, the way you questioned Twain for bringing Tom Sawyer back into Huckleberry Finn to mess up all that splendor.

Your river was not the Mississippi; it is the Los Angeles River, occasionally seen but more often spoken of as though it were somewhere else.  Your shoreline extends from the Santa Monica Palisades and ends a tad past Hueneme Rock, with occasional glimpses north of San Luis Obispo, up toward The Big Sur and Garipata Beach.

People come to these sudden, heart-breaking vista points, having been lured to Los Angeles and San Francisco, but not finding those dreams to their liking.  Instead, they seek the quirky aloofness of Santa Barbara, the edgy loneliness of Morro Bay, and the November sunsets at Marina Park in Ventura.

You watch, drink coffee, take notes, dream.

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