Saturday, December 20, 2003

David St. John - Venice, CA

I see "the actor" before my wife does. We're killing twenty minutes in a Mexican restaurant in Venice while waiting for my interview with David St. John. "The actor" is not famous. He's not George Clooney or anything. I mean, if he was, I'd be sitting here typing this minus one wife. (I'd wish them well, you know, I'm not a bad sport.) 

But anyway, "the actor" is a TV guy. You'd know him. He was on a sitcom in the 90s. He's well known enough that he's wearing a sort of disguise, dark glasses (though it's dusk), and one of those stocking hats that he probably thinks suggests "hip hop" but makes me think of sledding.

This is the only reason I might live in L.A. I don't get the appeal of the weather. It's 71 degrees in my house 365 days of the year, too. The freeway thing is okay, but my enjoyment of them only extends for a few days. Now I just feel like getting a moped and staying on surface streets. But of course those paths have their own risks as well. Let's just say that there are a lot of reasons to want to live in L.A. They just aren't right for me.

"The actor" gets his chicken burrito and scurries over to corner stool/table combo and faces the corner to eat. His cellie rings and he gets into it with Paul, giving directions or giving them. He's getting lousy reception so goes out onto the street leaving his food behind. A little girl, about 9, pokes her Mom and they both look out the window. "Is that him?" she asks her mom. And the mom nods. When the little girl looks over at me she smiles and then points out the window, making sure I see him, too. I give her a nod and a smile. She's a nice little kid.

"The actor" is talking on the phone still but walking away now. I can see he's left about 85% of his burrito. Never took a swig of his bottled water. I can't remember when, but my wife says his show went off the air years ago.

David St. John lives in a friendly and warm little house in Venice. We stand on the street in front of it for a couple of minutes when I first get there to get some photos. It's late in the day and I don't want to miss the last of the light. Usually we shoot these photos at the end of the interview, once we've grown comfortable with each other. But I ask the favor and David says, "Sure." We make small talk and I shoot David against a backdrop of towering palm trees and his pretty, quiet street. He's interested in the crazy trip so asks some questions that I'm happy to answer.

We go in after a while and settle at dark wood table (I'm thinking arts and crafts) and talk about a variety of things. David's work is majestic, serene, literally shimmering on the page at times. He's a literate guy, but his poetry is only better for it - this is not always the case.

He talks beautifully about growing up in the nearby San Joaquin Valley, living and working in Italy, and being a teacher and writer for almost 20 years here in L.A. He's clearly thought about how place works in his poems, and I rarely need to say a thing. We fill one side of a tape, flip it, and just keep going. At the end we talk about some other folks I've seen or am scheduled to see. David knows them all. He has a message he wants me to take along to someone and I'm happy to.

He walks me outside to my wife and our rented car. He says hello to her and goodbye to us both. He tells us to keep enjoying the trip, which I think is a better send-off than almost anything else.

Carol Muske-Dukes - Los Angeles, CA

Dogs love me. Dogs see me coming and think, "Chewy Treat. Big Shiny Head Like a Ball. Slow of Foot. Easy to Lick." Carol's three dogs all go for me like I was covered in Gravy Train, even poor, dear Fletcher hobbled by a recent ligament repair to a back paw. 

I've been missing our poor old boy, Tucker Satellite, so I give all the dogs a little love before Carol and I settle in to big soft couches in a gorgeous room (paintings, piano, Christmas tree.)

Carol Muske-Dukes lives in a stately neighborhood east of Hollywood, an area that first boomed in the 20s. Her daughter takes two of the dogs for a slow walk around the block while Fletcher hunkers down at our feet.

We talk a little about L.A. I'm intrigued by the folks who live here. Nobody thinks of it as a city. It's too sprawling for that. It's a bunch of compact and busy towns built on desert and mountains, bounded by the sea on one side.

Carol tells me that it's a good town for a writer, easy to isolate oneself from the fray. Any place you want to go is 20 minutes away, so you've got the preliminary buffer of the car ride. Plus, if it's just too far, you can stay home.

We're talking about influences to Carol's writing and she remembers being 4 years old, pushed in a swing while her mother recited Robert Louis Stevenson in the backyard of the family home on Pascal Street in St. Paul, MN. "I had the sense of being pushed out into the world, and yet brought back," she says. She tells me that it remains a lovely and unforgettable memory, which of course I know.

We take all the dogs and Carol's daughter into the back yard and we shoot some photos under a steely winter sky. And then I go.

Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Donald Revell & Claudia Keelan - Las Vegas, NV

Donald Revell and I stand under a brilliant blue sky laced with Las Vegas's ever-present jet contrails. We're in the backyard of the house that Revell shares with his wife, the poet Claudia Keelan, and their son, Ben. We're south and west of Vegas near a tiny settlement called Blue Diamond.

Like most people who live here, Revell lives nowhere near The Strip, where the casinos pulse with gigantic and gaudy lights, and where the flood of tourists gamble on cards, dice, and love. (Oh, c'mon, let me wax a little poetic.) But the point is, Vegas is a city like most cities. You've got your downtown, your suburbs. There's industry (here it's roulette, showgirls, and magicians). And it's populated by a wide variety of folks: friendly, happy, creepy, noisy, kind, etc. People from all over the world come here, but the citizens shop, drive, work, just like it was a regular place.

Revell and Keelan both teach poetry; she runs the MFA program at UNLV, and he commutes to be a part of the excellent program at the University of Utah. (Revell flies to Salt Lake City once a week - 2 hours door to door.)

We talk for a few minutes, and when Keelan gets home from turning her grades in at semester-end, the three of us sit in patio chairs near their newly installed lap pool. They point out the spare desert landscaping. Everything out here was planted by them, including a lovely acacia, and - surprisingly - 6 full size Christmas trees, one for each year (minus one) that they've lived here.

Keelan is originally from California, and Revell comes from the Bronx. But they both are at home in the desert. Their work, too, is heavily influence by the empty spaces of their adopted home, especially in Keelan's Utopic and Revell's My Mojave.

After we finish talking we shoot some photos. Their son Ben peers at me through the blinds of a back window, and I give him a wave one time when I see him. As I'm finishing up with his parents, Ben emerges - taking a break, I think from some Tony Hawk game or likewise on Playstation2.

He stands between Revell and Keelan against the stucco wall of their home, and I shoot the family.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Area 51

I must admit to being a bit of a conspiracy theorist. (Nut, I guess, is what most people would substitute.) It's really not a good idea to get me started on the faked moon landings or the real killers of JFK. But I'm pretty reasonable about Area 51, the main jewel of the Nevada Test Site (NTS), a large and remote area 100 miles north and east of Las Vegas.

Since the 1950s, the NTS has been used as a test facility for the most advanced aircraft the U.S. military has (starting with the famous U-2.) Since then, everything from the F-117 to the B-2 has done its first trials there.

Of course, if that's all it were, perhaps the internet wouldn't buzz like it does about Area 51, a multi-acre tract of buildings and runways around the dry Groom Lake. Here are the essential bits of info:

- The past two American presidents have signed legislation exempting the NTS from having to release anything about its research, nuclear waste disposal, personnel records, etc. The Freedom of Information act does not apply to anything related to the NTS.
- Two past scientists - both now discredited badly through a variety of means - claim that when they worked at Area 51 (in the 60s, 70s, and 80s) they - hold on - worked on reverse-engineering alien spacecraft. At the time of their departures from the NTS, they were both credible, well-respected scientists. They now get painted with the "GREAT BIG NUT" brush.
- Workers sign confidentiality agreements that some lawyers believe are illegal. Workers are sent to the site for 4 day shifts via Janet Airlines, a private fleet of 737s that fly out of Vegas and go the NTS or the Tonopah Test Site further west. Security around the boarding ramp to the nondescript planes (white with orange stripe, no insignias) is very high - metal detectors, wands, armed guards, and police dogs.
- The NTS is in the middle of nowhere, geographically hidden by a variety of moutain ranges in the Pahranagat Valley. Any mountain vantage points that would allow viewing the site from within 30 miles have been closed off to visitors. The only photographic evidence we have of the area come from satellite photos from space - the first were released by the Russians.

But the place can be found. If one has a handheld GPS unit, one can use it to drive along the nearly deserted Hwy. 375 and find an unmarked gravel road (about 4 lanes wide) that disappears 13 miles through desert scrub and cacti. It is to be noted that once one is actually on this road, magnetic sensors are transmitting the size and speed of their vehicle to the guard post dead ahead. (This has been confirmed by a local researcher who was arrested last month for digging some of the sensors up and taking photographs of them - all on public land.)

At the 12 mile mark, one sees the first and last sign one will see here. It looks like this:

There aren't a lot of places in the country where the use of deadly force is authorized. Just here, I suppose, the West Wing of the White House, and probably in the locker room of the Portland Trailblazers.

Now, if one were to get to this sign, and then pause momentarily - say, to shoot some shaky video - a Ford F-150 pickup truck with two employees of EE&G (a private security firm whose only employer is the Department of Energy) drives down from its perch on a small hill nearby and keep rolling toward one until one makes a really crisp u-turn and heads the 13 miles the other way down the oddly flat and very wide gravel road. These so called "cammo dudes" carry sidearms, wear camoflauge jumpsuits, and have twin shotguns in quick release carriers in their pickups.

Of course one doesn't have to get that close to feel a little spooky. Or to see them through the continuing shaky video.

It certainly sounds like a neat place to visit. And one should probably take a rented car (in one's wife's name, for example) for greater security.

Should you still be reading, you can get a little more background on the real and imagined activities at Area 51 at this excellent, earnest - and maybe only a little nutty - site.

Oh yeah, one other thing. Fifty yards from the entrance to the unmarked road, right in the middle of Hwy. 375, was this. On whom it was used we do not know. Nor care to.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Sharon Bryan - San Diego, CA

Sharon Bryan's cat (the beautifully hirsute and husky Spencer) has an amazing trick. 30 minutes into the interview, I spotted Spencer in the middle of the living room, rising back on his haunches, reaching his front paws upward, stretching, a vertical and supplicant offering of some kind to the God of cats. He pedaled his front paws a couple of times and then settled back down. Sharon was in the middle of an answer to a question, but I never heard it, so amazed was I at the feline acrobatics. After Spencer was done, he turned around, gave me a once over and then settled back into a more normal horizontal pose on the carpet. I'll have to listen to the tape to see what Sharon had to say, but what I wouldn't give for a video of that trick.

I visited Sharon's bright San Diego apartment right at the semester end. A stack of graded essays rested on a barstool, and a higher stack - waiting for grades - waited nearby.

Sharon is a professional nomadic poet. She's been a visiting writer in a wide range of terrific places, Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, New Hampshire, and Washington just to name a few. Born in Utah, educated in the northeast, and a lover of the Pacific Northwest - she calls Port Townsend, Washington, home - she's a restless soul.

Sharon has a love for anthropology and a keen desire to name and understand our role in the bigger picture, the planet, space, etc. It's equal parts science and spirituality, I think, lower case "S" on both. We talked a lot about the west, desert spaces. She told me about a superb visit to southern Utah and a prop plane tour of the geologic magic of the area.

We talked about some folks I've seen on the trip, good pals of hers. One of the great benefits of the project is passing along greetings from town to town, hearing funny stories about so-and-so back in the day, etc. And Sharon knows a lot of folks.

After I left, I regretted not following up on Sharon's time in Memphis. She talked about the shrine, Graceland. She's got a picture of Elvis in her place. I made a little cross as I passed it, hummed a little "Suspicious Minds" on the walk to the car, but if Spencer would have had me, I'd have stayed a little longer to talk about the King.

Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Ralph Angel - Pasadena, CA

After weeks in tranquil mountains and deserts, the arrival in Los Angeles is a little jarring. The whole "freeway nation" thing is not so hard to get used to. It's eleven lanes going every direction. Big deal. My wife has the lead foot. We have the handheld GPS unit. ("In 1.67 miles, honey, jam on the brakes and skitter across nine lanes to hit that exit. It's either Disneyland or ... you know what ... even if it's not Disneyland, too bad.") 

What's interesting about the everpresent freeways is the absolute necessity of knowing what they're called (number and name) when getting any kind of directions. Los Angelenos seem to delight in sending you on a pet path. It's impossible to get directions that don't involve you "hopping" on the 10 or the 5. Even to go to get milk, locals want to get you up on the Pomona Highway. They spend half their days looking at brake lights, and it brings them a bit of comfort to know that you will be stranded likewise.

No matter where you stand in LA or Orange County, you can see an on ramp looming in the distance. It's a little romantic, of course, to someone who loves to drive. People come here for Disneyland and Hollywood. I'm here for the feeders, the acceleration lanes, the deliciousness and precision of the lane change.

We're here to see Ralph Angel today, a terrific poet originally from Seattle, but now a long time resident of South Pasadena, a lovely neighborhood east of LA proper. As we drive through quiet streets, we spot a Rose Bowl float being constructed along Fair Oaks Avenue. We pull in and peer through a little opening, but Marty - a large man with a small man's shirt - asks us to move along. "Come back next weekend to get a look," he says. "They're going to show it then. Or you can wait till the TV."

Ralph's got a two story blue house from the 50s. Inside, he and I climb a gorgeous set of tile stairs to the main floor, but then go out the back, around, and down a slanted walkway that leads to his office. The office is 20 X 25. One wall contains a large bookshelf. He's got two large desks, one with a computer, one with pencils and legal pads. During our conversation Ralph talks about the "trance," a period that all writers seek in some way, a period of time when we are simply writing, channeling the information. We're making our little things, poems, stories. Art. Ralph says, "If you asked me my name, I wouldn't have an answer."

We go out in the back yard for some photos, and I make him preen and posture more than either he or I would like. What can I tell you. The camera has a lot of dials and whozits. He tells me a bit about the neighborhood, about the young men who built this fence, planted these trees. It's been fifteen years in this place.

Friday, December 05, 2003

Death Valley, CA

This project started in part because I believe that where we live and work has a tremendous effect on the way we live, the way we work, and the way we write. I was born and grew up in small towns all across Canada, but in my adulthood, I have lived in cities all across the U.S. - Phoenix, Dallas, D.C., Miami, etc. I romanticized this trip out of all proportion for several months before starting it, but I continue to be amazed at how gorgeous and varied the big country is. (And have reconfirmed a long held belief that "real" America is out here, not in NY, LA, etc.)

Because of weather and our initial schedule, we've mostly found ourselves in small towns, countryside, and extremely remote locations. The poets we've met with have lived in a variety of terrific places, many of them in absolutely stunning physical locations - on mountains, in tree-covered valleys, overlooking lakes, mountains, cow pastures, etc.

I had nobody to see in Death Valley, but with a very busy December in Southern California and Nevada looming, we decided to take a couple of days in this remote and beautiful National Park.

We arrived at Stovepipe Wells at mid day, the temperature a polite and friendly 65 degrees. Stovepipe Wells is a little outpost in the middle of the big valley. There is space for about 50 RVs in the National Park area - no electric or water. And there are 14 spots with power and water right alongside the desolate and barely traveled Highway 190. Because I'm a big stinking baby, I opted to pay the $12 to plug in - man, can my DirecTV dish pull in signals out here with nothing around us!

At night the place was dead silent. About every hour or so a car might headlight through, bypassing the tiny gas station - open 7 am - 7 pm, regular gas $2.65 a gallon - headed either to L.A. or Nevada. At night we sat out under the stars and a 2/3rd moon and just soaked in the quiet. The desert gives up its heat easily out here at night, and the lows were in the mid 30s. (And this particular spot is closed to travelers between April and October because average highs here in the summer top 120, and normal lows in July are 85-90 degrees.)

In the mornings we sat outside again in our coats and watched the sun poke up over the Funeral mountains and light the desert floor all over again.

The cares and worries of our old life, the working life, the city life, just were not a part of the equation. The question we had both asked before this - what would we do if we did not live in the city and work like dogs? - was no longer being asked. We wanted to live a different life. It wasn't just a vacation. It wasn't just a book. It was the breaking of one life and the opening of a new one.

Monday, December 01, 2003

The Continuing Dilemma Surrounding the Human Beings

Coming out of the Redwoods of northern California, we began to think of big stretches of highway. We're due in San Diego in a week, and we'd been poking around the gigantic red trunks long enough. (But, it must be said, the Redwoods are everything you'd imagine, gigantic beautiful trees that tower above the twisting Redwood Highway. But the size of the trunks is a little daunting. Some of the trees measure 25-30 feet in diameter, and many of the largest ones push up against the shoulder of the highway, some of them shorn with chainsaws to afford room for big dumb guys in motorhomes.)

So, after leaving the Redwoods we headed south and east and hooked up with US-99, one of the twin north-south highways that runs through the middle of California. (I-5 is the other.) We ended up in the Sacramento Valley, a long flat stretch full of pasture land and a variety of blank and similar mid-size cities and towns. (I'm sure that Merced and Fresno are more different than alike, but it would have to be proven to me.) US-99 is hard like washboard, more narrow than most interstates, and truckers raced alongside us, shaking our windows as they blurred by. Every thing that could rattle in the RV rattled. Stuff in the sink banged against each other. The VCR and DVD player above us bounced up and down like Iggy Pop after some espresso and a couple of diet pills.

After 100 miles of this we were dreaming of mountain roads again, twisting roads like US-101 in Oregon. At Fresno, we entered the San Joaquin Valley (south of the Sacramento, running from Fresno all the way to Bakersfield), and at a gas stop we pulled out the map and looked for the tiny gray roads that we hoped would take us off the interstate. We picked 180 to the east, up and toward the distant Sierra Nevada mountains.

We started at 240 feet above sea level, but quickly it was clear that we were going higher in a hurry. On the right were thousands of orange trees. They swept away from us into the rapidly deepening King's Canyon. On our left was scrub brush, some trees, rocky terrain. We passed a 1000 foot sign, quickly followed by 2000, 3000, 4000. Winnie was straining, and every mile or so we'd pull over into a scenic turnout to let cars go past. At 5000 feet I could smell the engine's running hot so we pulled over for lunch.

It was absolutely dead quiet. Occasionally a car would go by. But we stared out into the canyon, the gigantic 11,000+ foot peaks of the Sierra Nevada ahead of us. We had sandwiches and soup - a pretty frequent meal in the big rolling tin can. And we looked out the window and soaked in the quiet of the canyon. It was a jarring experience for us, just months ago locked - it seemed - into a different world.

Afterwards, we pushed Winnie up the last 500 feet or so, and started back, this time going down on the opposite wall of the canyon on Highway 245. The first sign we saw said "Winding Road, Next 31 miles. And it wasn't an exaggeration. The switchbacks were tight. I pushed it into 2nd gear, and I pulled the wheel hard left and right all the way down. It took 95 minutes to get down. We never popped over 30 mph except at the bottom, once we were back into the valley.

We stopped twice on the way down, once as the sun is dropping below the foothills. We stood on the side of the road, looked at some big cows a thousand feet below us, and not one car went by us in all those miles. We'd seen some houses, some ranches, horses, cows. (I think I heard a snake, but who knows?) But it was quiet and it was clear that this was one of the things we'd been looking for.

We both grew up in small towns, but since our late teens we've lived in cities. Listen, I love cities. I love the convenience, the energy, etc. I like to be able to get Ding Dongs at 11 pm. I like to pick one of 25 movies at the mall. But once I reached 40, all of that seemed less important.

Human beings. That's the rub.

I've lost patience with the "getting along with human beings" part of the contract. I have 3 friends and a wife. I have some family I can stand. I know my limits, my urges, my remarkable ability to disappointment all I meet. So why do I need to live someplace where I'm surrounded by thousands of new people who will only bring about sadness. (Not to mention the crushing ennui folks feel when they meet me. "Oh, you're an academic. Wow, is that the punch bowl over there?")

But the sun went down and we rode Winnie's brakes down to the valley again and joined the racing throngs on US-99.

We found a nice campground, backed the RV into the spot and stared out at 40 more motorhomes just like it. We were in a town whose name I've already forgotten. It was on a big sign when we pulled of the highway. It had a big street full of fast food joints. I spotted a nice Wal-Mart where I knew I'd have to go tomorrow to get a can of three-in-one oil. But all I was thinking about was the forest, that place, the canyon, trees, the sound of wind rushing somewhere. A billion stars.