Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Mother's Day on Turtle Island, 2021


Arrived in Michigan the day of my mother’s 90th birthday and leaving the day after Mother’s Day. Lucky and blessed to spend these days with her.

 

My mother lives on a lake in northern Michigan. The place is wonderfully serene before Memorial Day. Earlier in the week I kayaked out to the wetlands in the rain in the morning. The air was cold but windless and the lake was glassy but for the raindrops. I did not see the heron I searched for until I returned home where it stood in Turtle Town not a hundred feet from where I had set off.  My feet were cold four hours later.

 

Today at the Mecosta Bookstore I found a pristine copy of Gary Snyder’s Turtle Island, unyellowed pages, possibly unread, and priced less than it would have cost in 1969 dollars.

 

O!Coot (John P. O’Grady) mentions in a message that today is Gary’s 91st birthday.

 

Turtle Island is dedicated to Snyder’s mother, “Lois Snyder Hennessy, My Mother.”

 

Perusing the book, well known to me, I find the only sign of a previous reader, the last sentence of the Introductory Note underlined in ballpoint:  “. . . all share views at the deepest levels of their cultural traditions African, Asians, or European.  Hark again to those roots, to see our ancient solidarity, and then to work together on Turtle island.”

 

My son and I kayak out to the wetlands.  We coast silently past the loon’s nest, the mother flattening herself over her eggs to hide from our view.  We paddle lightly, sorry to have worried her. In the distance I see a line of shining spheres on a log. They look like football helmets lined up for game day. Turtles. We approach as slowly as possible.  The log is about forty feet long. Over twenty-five painted turtles shining in the sun, dropping off one-by-one as we approach. 

 

I am in Michigan for only a couple more days, my wife in Anchorage.  I imagine her receiving the cut flowers our son sent.  She reminds me telepathically from great distance that our son needs to deliver the statue of the Blessed Virgin that we inherited from my aunt.

 

I last saw Gary the pre-pandemic summer in Davis where we talked, as ever, of the mountains of our youth, the Cascades.  And also of the spectacular black and white photographs of Vittorio Sella, which he remembers vividly from the Mazama club house in Portland and I know mostly from books.

 

When you read Turtle Island on Mother’s Day you become acutely aware of the Mother-ness of the work, in addition to the recurring themes of gratitude and stewardship: “all created things are of the mother.”

 

My son has remembered to turn over the statue to me.  It’s encased in bubble wrap and I pack it carefully.  He says he kept it in his attic with its face in the little attic window watching over the street in his blighted neighborhood.

 

When I hug my mother goodbye she says, not entirely kidding, “David, don’t go.” She steps back and adds, “I’ve been saying that for fifty years.”

 

My son drives me to the airport.  I leave Turtle Island with him. Also a copy of The Nick Adams Stories. He says he’s fished the Two-Hearted River but hasn’t read the story. This is somewhat different from others who know the “river” because a craft beer is named after it.

 

Home: the Virgin survived the 3500 air miles intact.  But when we unswaddle it from its bubble-wrap, we discover the statue is not of the Virgin at all.  It is Saint Ann, the Virgin’s mother, instructing a smaller, supposedly younger, blue-clad Virgin, pointing with her index finger at an open book.  Two-for-one.

 

I think my favorite line in Turtle Island is the coda to “Why Log Truck Drivers Rise Earlier Than 

Students of Zen”: “There is no other life.”

 

 

 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

The Barking Man

                                                                


“The Barking Man” is a photograph, maybe, that I took on the summit of the Aiguille du Midi in 1980. It shows a man, a French man, “barking” at the statue of the Virgin Mary that adorns the summit. His back is to Mt. Blanc. He is very literally, “sounding his barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”  When I organized the photographic slides from that trip,” The Barking Man” did not make the cut into the “show” carousel.  I’m not sure why exactly; I may have felt it unbecoming of the seriousness with which I took the whole enterprise back then; it may have been that I felt compelled to keep the moment private rather than make it “public,” as if dozens of people would see the slides, when in fact, perhaps  a half-dozen would.

            As years passed, I realized that particular climb was one of the very best I had ever done. 

It went like this: we left Chamonix in the last tram up to the top of Aiguille du Midi at 12,605 feet.  There, we guerilla-bivouacked just outside the tunnel that went from the labyrinthine, mostly-tourist-safe structure to access the actual mountain.  When the sunrise hit the mountain top we descended down to the glacier and hiked over to ridge we had to gain. We had to overcome a bergschrund, ascend a steep snow slope to a ridgeline, and then drop down the other side of the ridge to the Col de la Fourche hut, a bare bones structure with no amenities, designed to sleep about eight. We were the first ones there, early afternoon. A pack sat stashed in one corner.  We had a long time to gaze across the glacier at our objective, the Brenva Spur on Mt. Blanc. Too long, in fact, as the longer we looked at the thing, the more intimidating it became.  Climbers began to trickle in. Late in the afternoon a helicopter appeared overhead and dropped down out of view to our right.  When it rose again into the air a human body was attached to a long line and dangled in the air as the helicopter whacked out of view. We came to believe that the dead climber had left his pack in the corner and we allowed it some space, despite that the hut would soon become overcrowded.

Sleep in an eight-person hut packed with twice as many bodies is a pretty thought.  The climbers begin stirring to depart at midnight. Besides, we were too scared to sleep.  Somehow John, my climbing partner has misplaced his glasses and while we hunt for them, pairs of alpinists left the hut, until finally it was just him and me. The glasses are not found. Nonetheless, we rappelled off the railing on the hut’s porch and soon we were on the glacier looking up at the starlit Brenva Spur, which has only grown more ominous, somehow, in the dark.  

Now the climb is officially abandoned–is a decision that’s obvious even a decision?–and we turned our attention to the problem of getting back to the Aiguille du Midi.  The prospect of retracing our steps, starting with the rappel route is unappealing, if not impossible. Despite our headlamps and a map we decide to sit tight until we can see, a few more hours of darkness to endure.  While we sat shivering in the dark an astonishingly white light began illuminate the sky from behind the shadow of the ridge.  We could not imagine its source.  The second coming?  In retrospect, obviously it was a full moon rising.  But at the time it wasn’t obvious, we simply did not know the moon could cast so much light. 

Moonlight aside we waited for the sun. Yes, it appeared we could access the ridge that led to the Tour Ronde. Once on the ridge could we follow it to the summit?  We wouldn‘t know until we were on it? Was this a climbing route? Who knew?  Up we went. 

It was a wild remote place with no evidence of human passage. We were like the car on a dark road whose passengers could see only as far as the headlights illumined. Up we went rope-length by rope-length.  I mantled over a lip and found two perfectly formed crystals, as if in a shallow dish, waiting for me since time immemorial. Soon we were on the summit, an incredible spot centrally located in the Mt Blanc range with spectacular views in every direction. And it was here we met the Barking Man.

The descent was well-travelled and soon we were trudging back up the trail to the Aiguille du Midi, bone tired and feeling like failures. Until, waiting for the tram back down to Chamonix, we explained to a pair of Brits what we had done.  “You did what?”  and “Brilliant.”

            Years later, the memory took on the brilliance it deserved and I began to think about the Barking Man. But I couldn’t find the photograph.




 

Now it’s forty-one years later and I am downsizing. Books must be reduced in number. I shed  skis like bad pennies, cutting the quiver in half. Clothes, goodbye. I decided to take my photographic slides out of their carousels and put them in boxes. I know, I know, I should have digitized them, but I don’t have time for that just now.  I did get a bit ruthless after a while and if I couldn’t recognize the mountain and it wasn’t particularly beautiful I flung it into the trash.  Unfortunately, this concept came to me late in the process.

            I did not find the photograph of The Barking Man.  I did, however, find every other photograph I had considered missing over the years: my wife reading a book next to her beloved dog, Yida, at Tamarack Lodge near Mammoth Mountain; the shot of Denny Cliff wandering through the towering seracs of the Carbon Glacier on the north side of Mt Rainier; the summit photo of me on Mt. Stuart wearing my white Peter Storm sweater and cotton knickers–a print of which had hung in my aunt’s house all these years and disappeared from the estate sale after she passed away.

My friend John is writing his “climbing memoir” and asked me for some details. I remembered that about twenty years ago I had typed my journal from that summer in Chamonix.  Good thing, too, as I have no idea where the original is. I read through it before I sent him a copy.  I find this description: “John & I sit on the summit, where a jolly French photographer snaps our photograph and barks at the statue of the Virgin Mary.”  The photograph the barking man took of us exists (dull and generic). But I couldn’t find “The Barking Man.”

His image is burned into my mind, but maybe the photograph doesn’t exist at all, maybe it was always nothing more than memory and language.  Yawp! Yawp!

Sunday, March 14, 2021

A Short Dialogue with David Markson

 



Salinger, wasn’t it, who said the sign of really good book is that you want to call the writer up on the phone when you’re finished reading it?  The strange thing is that now you can almost do it—you can find writers through the internet, send them a note.

 

Unless they’re dead, of course, like David Markson is. Sad, because there’s so much I want to talk to him about. In the tetralogy he addresses Reader and identifies himself as Writer or Protagonist

 

Bahktin, wasn’t it, who said that all texts are a dialogue?

 

David Markson and I share most of a name: Mark and Steven distinguish us. Also his erudition, compared to which mine is nearly nonexistent.

 

Here is our dialogue:

 

Reader’s Block, 1996

 

A used book once property of the Linn State Technical College Library of Linn, Missouri.  Checked out once and due back 11/21/04.

 

M: If forced to choose, Giacometti once said, he would rescue a car from a burning building before a Rembrandt.

 

S: That time my friend Tom Hazuka was visiting and reading from his work in the art gallery and a tornado was upon us. The building had no basement so we hid in an interior closet and the gallery director gave us each a valuable painting to hold on to.  My friend Tama hugged a Rembrandt.

 

M: Impoverished and freezing, Gerad de Nerval hanged himself near a cheap Paris doss-house after no one responded to his late night knock.

 

S: Once I got a message from my son in which he was desperate, hungry, sleeping in his car, near the end.  I was able to answer that particular late night knock.

 

M: Will Protagonist have sold any of his books before moving?  Could he be selling some of them now, piecemeal, as it were for pocket money?

 

S: I am now trying to reduce my personal library by two-thirds. Most of these books have no resale value whatsoever, no value at all, except to me.

 

M: Does Reader still possess recordings?

 

S: I just gave away all the classical vinyl, sold sixty more (all they’d take) and donated the rest. I own CDs, also an anachronistic technology.

 

M: Protagonist’s son or daughter may one day want his books. (Double book-marked)

 

S: My son once said he would keep my mountaineering book collection (considerable in number) intact after I was gone. He had no interest in reading them, only in comforting me.  But, alas, I have outlived him.  Markson’s books, by his direction, were somewhat mysteriously bequeathed to The Strand bookstore in New York.  Some learned of his death by finding copies of his books on The Strand’s shelves.

 

M: Are any of the books Protagonist is packing inscribed by their authors? Or are those the ones he is more likely selling, for their added value?

 

S: My scenario is different. I just don’t have room.

 

M: Protagonist’s obsolescent phonograph. And scarred long-playing records, never surrendered for compact discs.

 

S: I saved about thirty vinyl albums, to play on my simple department store record player.

 

M: Robert Louis Stevenson died of a cerebral hemorrhage at forty-four, but had been emaciated by tuberculosis before that.  A bundle of sticks in a bag, Henry Adams said he looked like.

 

S: Tuberculosis plagued my grandparents all their lives. I am writing about it in an essay-in-progress, so noted this.

 

M: Not sorting books and phonograph records merely, but the narrowing residue of an entire life? Papers, files of correspondence?  

 

S: “The narrowing residue of an entire life.”  I tried to throw away a couple stacks of letters and ended up retrieving them from the recycling bin.  I found a 15-page letter written in 1985 by a dear friend who died last summer.

 

 

This is Not a Novel, l 2001

 

M: Space is blue and birds fly through it.

      Said Werner Heisenberg.

 

S: Of every entry in all four books, I love this one most.

 

 

M: Philip Larkin died of cancer of the esophagus

Only hours afterward, a twenty-volume diary that he had kept for almost fifty years was destroyed by one of his executors.

 

S: My father died of same.  He left no writing, very few material possessions, too, took his secrets with him.  Was much nicer person than Larkin.

 

M: Caesar’s corpse lay in Senate for some hours before slaves finally bore it away on a litter. 

With one arm hanging down, Suetonius makes note of.

 

S: After my friend died last summer, two women arrived with a litter to bear him away in a hearse.  His sister reported to me that when they negotiated the front porch, they dropped the litter and his body rolled into the bushes.

 

P 48/49 have a bookmark.  Why?

 

M: No matter how frequently, always given pause at remembering there is no color whatsoever in the canvas.

 

S: No color whatsoever?

 

Pages 100/109 have bookmark from an earlier reading. Again, why?

 

Pages 110/11 have our son’s counselor’s business card as a bookmark.  Perhaps, random?

 

M: Writer incidentally doing his best here—insofar as his memory allows—not to repeat things he has included in his earlier work,

Meaning in this instance the four hundred and fifty or more deaths that were mentioned in his last book also.

 

S: Because of my interest in tuberculosis, I tallied the number of deaths M mentions in this volume alone, by tuberculosis.  39.

 

 

Vanishing Point 2004

 

M: William Faulkner once allowed himself to be interviewed on radio during a University of Virginia football game.

And was announced as the winner of the Mobil Prize.

 

S: America.

 

M: White does not exist in nature, said Renoir.

 

S: Renoir should have been in Anchorage on Wednesday when sixteen inches of snow fell.

 

M: Does anyone ever die who is not remembered through the remainder of at least one other entire lifetime by someone?

 

S: We hope not, but wonder, don’t we? I remember my friend, typed out his 15-page letter. 

 

M: Luca Signorelli, at the sudden death of a young son—having the corpse stripped and making a full-length drawing of the boy for remembrance.

And with extraordinary fortitude, shedding not a tear.

 

S: I write often about the sudden death of my young son. I can do so without shedding a tear.  But if I try to read the words aloud, to an audience, there are tears.

 

Bookmark 170/171.  Not sure why.

 

Bookmark: The train ticket Chicago to Macomb Jan 14. Does not specify the year.  Departs 5:55 p.m.

 

M: According to his own wish, Liszt’s funeral was conducted without music.

 

S: My son had made it known that he wanted Townes Van Zandt’s cover of Jagger and Richard’s Dead Flowers to play at his funeral.  The priest did not care for it, but the wish was granted.

 

 

The Last Novel, 2007

 

M:  In November 1919, after a solar eclipse had irrefutably verified Einstein’s concept of Relativity, British physicists convened a major press gathering to announce it.  The New York Times assigned the story to a man named Henry Crouch—a golf reporter.

 

S: America!  Again.

 

M:        What, still alive at twenty-two,

 A fine upstanding lad like you?

 

S: Kingsmill’s parody of A.E. Housman, misquoted; it’s clean not fine.  In any case, twenty-two, being the year my son did not surpass.

 

A Prairie Lights Books receipt indicating the book was purchased on 9/17/08. Remembering that, although I have been in Prairie Lights dozens of times, I was definitely not in Iowa City in September of 2008.

 

A receipt indicating I purchased it from aa internet bookseller called HollyLooyaBooks on 1/11/10.

 

M: Books weaken the memory.

      Says Plato in the Phaedrus.

 

S: Imagine what Plato would think of computers, the internet.

 

M: Future generations will regard Bob Dylan with the awe reserved for Blake, Whitman, Picasso, and the like.

Said an otherwise seemingly rational writer named Jonathan Lethem.

 

S: I wonder what M would think of Dylan receiving the Mobil Prize.  Actually, I guess we know.  I wonder if Lethem has seen this?  Will ask him–he’s one of the writers I have conversed with over the internet.

 

 

Markson died, alone, in 2010, three years after he finished The Last Novel, the fourth of what critics have informally titled The Notecard Quartet.  He feels alive in these pages, as long as readers keep him so.


Thursday, February 4, 2021

Writing "The White Death" with guest appearance from a black dog

                                                                        


 

I don’t consider a piece of writing finished until it’s published. Until then, it’s an amorphous thing, a rough beast, perhaps, waiting to be born.

During the writing of this new piece­–the one I just hit “Send” on– I misplaced, lost, the most important source book for it, the cornerstone of the whole essay, mid-writing. I was absolutely positive it did not leave the house.  I searched, somewhat manically, for about three days before I ordered another copy. I concluded that I must have placed it in some crazy unbookish place, like a bread basket, if we had a breadbasket. A man who mistook his wife for a hat kind of thing, I fear. But damned if I could figure out where.  I also thought that the act of ordering another copy would somehow conjure the lost book out of the ether just to spite me.  It did not.

I remember when we moved out of our big old Victorian house in the midwest I found the desiccated corpse of one of our son’s (many) escaped pet rodents. So that’s where you’ve been all these years.  I remember that one of them lived under the stove for years and could be enticed out with a single Cheerio. 

            I let the writing sit a few days and then asked my two most trusted (i.e., sympathetic) readers if they’d look it over.  Good.  Then I let it sit a few more days.  Finally figured out three places to send it.  Sent it.  Now forget that it exists and wait for six months.  Repeat.

            Our son’s dog, Kushlakhan, is a source of much comfort to us, though she has nothing but contempt for most of the world, growling under her breath at just about everything that enters her radar.  She has particular contempt for magpies which she believes she can bark out of the sky. She also dislikes drunks and gets furious at our son when he climbs a tree or rides a skateboard (he’s almost thirty years old).  They’ve been together for ten years and are inseparable. She weighs ten pounds.

            When she stays with us she insists that it is I who let her outside at night.  She knows I am the softest human in the house.  One night I had already let her out twice, and, now, she wanted to go out again. I decide to watch.  She walked over to a flower bed, pawed out a shallow hole, pulled out a bone.  Finding it satisfactory, she placed it back into hole and pushed the dirt over it with her muzzle and sprinted back to the house. That concern satisfied, she could now rest.

            The night after I had sent the essay out in the world, I woke out of a deep sleep certain that I had used the word “warn” when I had meant “worn.”  I rushed downstairs, opened the laptop, the file.  Nope, I had it right.  Although, I had literarl for literal.  This sort of error drives me to madness.  I rationalized that the error occurred very late in the essay and if anyone was still reading at that point I’d notch it in the win column.  I muzzled some dirt over it and went back to bed where I repeated the transgression literarl literarl literarl until sleep found me again.


Friday, October 30, 2020

Remembering Sherry Simpson

 

 


Sherry Simpson, brilliant writer, beloved friend, and mentor to a whole generation of Alaskan writers passed away unexpectedly last week after a brief illness. Since 2008 I had the great pleasure of working closely with Sherry, teaching in the Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at UAA, where she was, in the words of one of our colleagues, “the heart and soul of the program.”

 

The word “remembering” in my title can’t be right, can it? It implies she’s no longer here, that she belongs to the past. The news of her sudden death has been met with disbelief by all who knew her.

From the first sentences of her award-winning essay collection The Way Winter Comes: Alaska Stories we hear an iconic and uniquely Alaskan voice: “I live in Fairbanks, far from the sea where I grew up.  I live so far away that the skies of Interior Alaska have become my ocean, an unbound place of constant motion and changing light.” 

Sherry possessed a self-deprecating sense of humor (the working title of her essay collection, The Accidental Explorer, was A Nuisance to Myself and Others), rare intelligence, unbound generosity, and the ability to turn anyone within five feet of her into a “bad teenager.”  Social media was flooded with testimony to our collective loss, the most common sentiment voiced by her students being something along the lines of “Sherry Simpson changed my life.”

I make it a practice to buy books written by my friends when I see them cast off by their original owners in used bookstores or thrift shops.  I wouldn’t want them to find the books there themselves. I plucked a copy of Sherry’s The Way Winter Comes off some sale table or other.  This book was inscribed with love, as a Christmas gift: “I got the book for the moose story, “Strange Grace.”  But the whole of the book has charmed me beyond words.”  This seems exactly right to me: in both her writing and her person Sherry was “charming beyond words.” But, as Sherry knew best, words are all we have. The source of that charm may well have been her own utter indifference to it: she was simply herself, natural, authentic.

At a writing conference reception, Sherry whispered to me about a writer we hadn’t met in person before, “She’s one of us.”  I didn’t interrogate this “us” too deeply, but I knew it had to do with being Alaskan and being a writer. Thinking about it now, I think she was talking about a kind of purity of motive: she didn’t “work the room,” court editors or literary judges, or play the writing game.  She wrote, simply that, following her innate curiosity about the world and herself, and she held herself to the highest standard.  

As a friend, there was none better. When our son died unexpectedly Sherry was there the next morning holding my wife’s hand in our living room. She had flown 3,700 miles overnight.

This morning my Facebook “memory” from 2013 is a poster of Sherry’s making inviting her friends to a book launch celebration for her masterwork, Dominion of Bears. She lists four steps: Research, pictured by a vintage poster featuring a bear wrestling a robot; Despair, pictured by her super-messy writing desk; Miracle, featuring the cover of the actual book; and lastly what she described as “Profit Party.”  Dominion of Bears took a decade to write. She didn’t want to write a book based on research that would be outdated by the time it was published.  The notes and bibliography to the book number over a hundred pages, a book unto themselves.  Dominion of Bears was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for a work of distinguished natural history, an honor she shares with Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, and John McPhee. Sherry didn’t write for “profit,” at least not in the commonly understood meaning of the word.  She once articulated it nicely: “The reward for my writing is that I am allowed to keep doing it. I am allowed to follow my interests and chase them down and try to get them into words. It adds up to a life.”

Sherry and Scott, her husband, were together for 42 years. They shared 16 of those years with Bix, a blue heeler, who was mischievous, loving, and, well, a little nutty. He liked to retrieve a tennis ball so much that even when no ball was available Sherry would wind up and pantomime a throwing action and Bix would chase down the invisible ball and “retrieve” it, coming back to Sherry for another “throw.”  This might go on indefinitely.  I like to imagine that it’s happening right now.  

I mentioned her rare intelligence earlier, and it often strikes me as wisdom.  You can find it in any sentence she wrote. And sometimes that wisdom takes on a prescience. From a late, unpublished essay, “The Art of Fainting”: 

“. .. fainting does feel as if I’m practicing dying. Already I know how abruptly 

the world withdraws even as people call out your name, how darkness and confusion shutter your vision and bewildering images crowd your brainpan, how you cannot simply  will yourself to return once you’ve entered that shadowy place. Perhaps I awaken with tears falling not because I’m afraid of where I’ve been, but because I’m so relieved to be back, so terribly grateful to be my own beautiful burden for even a little while longer.”

 

This time she won’t return. Sherry may have been a beautiful burden to herself but never a burden to the rest of us–only beautiful.  She made the world a brighter place, and though it’s dimmer now, she showed us how to find the light.


Sunday, August 16, 2020

On the Beach: Pandemic, Week 20



Sunday

We walk Gleneden Beach every day.  It’s never crowded enough to make social-distancing a big issue.  We do see, particularly on weekends, groups of people for whom this is not a concern, but they are easily avoided.  This day we see the red Coast Guard helicopter flying low and making a couple passes.  Then, a low-flying plane making the same loop.  One of us says, “There’s only one thing they could be looking for.”

 

Monday

Jock Glidden passed a way this week.  With George Lowe he made the first ascent of the fearsome north face of Mt Alberta in the Canadian Rockies in 1972.  A route which would take the life of Tobin Sorenson, the gifted alpinist from Southern California, and which has, in the nearly fifty years since, seen fewer than a dozen ascents. The black and white photographs published in Ascent were grim and I remembered that some of them showed that Jock or George had painted some kind of lightning bolt or dragon on his helmet.  I would paint an imitative yellow bolt on my own red helmet, an artifact long since lost to history.

            I was honored to meet him in 1995 when he was seven years younger than I am today. He was suffering from increasingly debilitating effects of Parkinson’s. He chose to stop eating and drinking and went out on his own terms.  85 years old.

 

Tuesday

A fatal bear mauling in Alaska.  Scant details.  All known circumstances—location mostly–leave open the possibility that the casualty could be a friend of mine.  Hope, Alaska has around 200 residents. I send out some queries. Finally, after a few hours spent fretting, my friend answers safe.  The man was a friend of his and the whole community, small as it is, is on edge and in mourning.

 

Wednesday

The news that a dear childhood friend has passed away.  The guilt for not having seen him in a couple years. The way he hung on for eleven months after the doctors said his body would give out. His sister told me that in his last days she asked if he wanted to see or talk to anyone.  “He said he just wanted to sit and smoke as much as possible for as long as possible.”  His terms. The way the world keeps spinning but I sense a hitch in it, that tiny missing tooth in the great flywheel, that space formerly filled by my friend, Dennis. 

 

Thursday

We are accosted (literally) on Road’s End Beach by an angry man with a stick.  It’s 7:30 in the morning, we are sitting on a log drinking coffee out of a thermos. According to the police this guy is a local who believes he owns the beach.  “You’re in my yard, man.  This is my yard.”  I describe his behavior as menacing, not quite threatening.  We hustled back to the car, nature’s spell broken.  Thinking maybe a can of bear spray could be a useful multi-task tool.

 

Friday

Body washes up on the shore somewhere just south of us near Otter Rock. At first the public’s help in identifying her is requested. She is wearing a lacrosse shirt. Then, after she is identified, as 58 year old woman from Portland, the police issue a statement that says no further information regarding her will be released.

 

Saturday

By walking 45 minutes we can get to place on the beach pretty much completely uninhabited. We are walking back at the end of the day and because it’s the weekend there are places where we have to detour around the large groups, the squealing kids, the kite-flyers, sand-castle-builders, the leash-less chihuahuas and inexhaustible retrievers, the Nike exec on his beach chair with his sockless loafers and laptop.  And finally, the lovers. We avoid them all.  And then: the newly married couple beaming with joy as the wedding photographer records the moment. And then, yet another wedding, ceremonial, with music, and kids running around.  The couple and their witnesses, the celebrant, and all the guests lit-up in the fading golden light as the sun nears the horizon.

 

Coda

The lousy week comes to an end. But we are reminded, in its last hours, that people continue to love, to look to a better future, to move forward into it.  We will, too.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

That One Night We Thought We Were Immortal: Remembering Dennis Archer 1952~2020

     Pharoah Sanders circa 2016, a Christian Weber photo*

 

Dog days of summer 1974.  Nixon is being impeached. A television news broadcaster commits suicide on live tv.  Mama Cass dies of heart failure at age 32.  The Detroit Tigers dynasty has run its course and beloved hometown hero Al Kaline will hang up his cleats at season’s end, outlasting Nixon by a couple months.  The war in Viet Nam is waning, at least as far as American lives lost goes; our allies though lost 120,000 soldiers that year.

            The war is something we have thought less and less about since we escaped the draft a couple years earlier.  Dennis drew a low draft number and was ordered to report, but showed up with a last-minute medical excuse signed off by his pacifist family doctor.  I had an untouchably high draft lottery number.  Rosemary, Dennis’s girlfriend, couldn’t be drafted of course, but I remember that her brother Tom, who shared a birth date and therefore a low number with Dennis, had to join the National Guard to avoid going to Viet Nam.  We had all known each other since middle school days.

 

Our nights often began, and sometimes ended, at Misko’s, where a shell of beer cost thirty-five cents and the jukebox hadn’t seen a new record since about 1962. Misko’s was a neighborhood bar that featured hand drawn posters of the owners: “the fighting Misko brothers,” amateur boxers in the 1950s.  One of their sons, Charlie, a year older than us, tended bar. Charlie had played football at one of our high school’s rivals and sometimes I’d sit at the bar and reminisce about what then already seemed like the old days.

Obviously there was nothing happening at Misko’s.  There never was. We were like bored children, whining “there’s nothing to do.”  I was vaguely aware of Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, reputed (and disputed) to be the oldest jazz club in America, reputed also to be the scene of Miles Davis’ getting off heroin (disputed, by Davis himself, though the story never died).  I knew Coltrane, everyone, had played there.  I put a dime in the pay phone and asked who was playing that night.  Pharoah Sanders. We didn’t know who Pharoah Sanders was, but that didn’t matter. 

Dennis was a classically trained viola player who played in orchestras as long as I had known him and yet, his musicianship was part of his life never shared with me. In the winter he would bring his viola into Misko’s because he didn’t want to leave it out in the car in the frigid air. He endured interminable remarks suggesting the case held a machine gun–these were The Godfather years.  He was probably the only classical musician who ever hung out in Misko’s.

Okay, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. We’re in. How do we get there?  It’s on Livernois, can’t miss it. We were off.

I remember that I drove, which was unusual, as I hadn’t always had a car.  The fact that I did is what allows me to pinpoint the year in memory. 1974 was the only summer I had that car in Michigan.  And, also, my last summer in Michigan; the following spring I drove west until the road ended and didn’t hardly look back.

I can’t remember if we expected to be the only white people in the place.  We should have. But we felt more accepted than merely tolerated.  Yeah, you’re white, we’re over it.  (Note from the future, i.e. now: white privilege much?)

The club was small and dark and the room was almost empty.  We sat at a table directly in front of the band, ten feet from Pharoah Sanders himself.  He was backed up by a drummer, stand-up bass player, and a guitarist.  Sanders was wearing some kind of khaftan, a gown really, and he looked like  some old testament prophet about to summoning the angels with a sacred instrument. And then he blew that horn.

To say that we had never heard, or experienced, anything like it would be an enormous understatement.  It was almost as if the music was inside us, or we were inside it.  Something was happening.

 

Writing in 2016, Nick Marino described Sanders this way:
“A free-thinking astral traveler and spiritual gangster, he’s the official saxophonist of your soul’s awakening.

His definitive song may be “The Creator has a Masterplan,” a thirty-two minute vision quest that journeys from moments of pastoral beauty to demon-purging squall –just like life itself.”

 

That was what was happening: our demons were being purged.  We were hearing a long mad riff on “The Creator has a Masterplan.”  ** Dennis was out of his chair much of the night, moving—you couldn’t say dancing exactly—to the music.  It was as if you could see those astral planes opening up a direct line of communication between Dennis and Sanders’ horn.  Dennis looked as if someone had nailed his feet to the ground so that he couldn’t fall over as he rocked and bowed and howled.  In between tunes Dennis threw all his money at the stage.  If he could have spoken it would have been in tongues.

At some point, we noticed we were the only patrons in the place.  At some point closing  time passed.  We were outside of time.

And then we were out on the street, as if having awakened from a dream.  I drove through the deserted Detroit streets back to our lives which I now knew were unnecessarily ordinary.  Dennis and Rosemary lived in a rundown house just inside the Detroit border.  I vaguely recall that the rent was $100 a month.  I don’t remember dropping them off or what he may have said.  Probably just, “Yes.”  Or something equally succinct.


Dennis and I would stay in touch, but not see each other in person very often in these intervening forty-six years.  He suffered from poor health due to various habits to which he was faithfully wed.  His sister told me that when it was near the end she asked if he wanted to see or talk to anyone.  “He said he just wanted to sit and smoke as much as possible for as long as possible.”

The doctors had given him six months but he took eleven more after that, a fact from which he derived much pleasure.  I have hundreds of memories of him, most great, a few confounding. But if I had to choose one, I’ll take this one, the night he and the music and Pharoah Sanders were mysteriously and mind-blowingly all one beautiful alive thing.***

Shine on you crazy diamond~

                                                                            



* This photo is placeholder until I can access my archives and find one of Dennis and me.

** You can heard this tune on the album Karma from 1969

*** I wrote about Dennis previously in the  essay "The Purposes of Ascent" in my book of essays,                     Warnings Against Myself.