Trees of Christmases Past

One year, living near the ocean in South Bay, we got a fake Christmas tree. The metallic silver needles, like tiny confetti mirrors, reflected shades of yellow, blue, and red, emitted from a rotating electric color wheel placed beneath the tree. The colors turned almost as slow as a sunset. At night, with the lights in the room all off, the colors from the wheel flickered through the spaces between the thin tree branches and splashed neon paint over the walls and across the silver glittered stucco ceiling. It was our first and last psychedelic Christmas tree. The next year, we got a real tree, and the fake tree stayed boxed in the attic. Maybe it’s still up there, awaiting a psychedelic rebirth. One of these days, someone will find it and haul it off to Antiques Roadshow.

Another year, living in an apartment on the other side of town, now less than a mile from the water, and just under ten miles along the bike path from my first teaching gig, in Venice, Susan and I bought a live tree, a small pine, rooted in a five-gallon bucket. After Christmas, we planted the pine in my parents’ front yard. Before I went on the Facebook wagon, some time ago, I posted a pic and mentioned the tree to a few ES locals. “Who knew Joe would wind up so sentimental,” one said. The tree has grown to a height of 20 feet or so. It’s not shaped like a Christmas tree. It looks more like a thick, wind tossed, but healthy, lone cypress. It leans out toward the street, between the house and a fire hydrant next to the sidewalk.

In the Northwest, folks still drive out of the city to cut a fresh tree. In the wooded areas outside Portland, U-Cut Christmas tree farms are as common as surf spots along Santa Monica Bay. One year, up on a tree farm about twenty miles east of Portland, a full fir roped to the car roof, I suddenly discovered I’d locked the car keys inside the car.

Another year, Susan won a Christmas tree, in a name that tune oldies radio contest. The only problem was that the tree was in a lot across the Columbia River in Vancouver. Christmas tree time in the Portland area is often cold and rainy and windy. We drove across the bridge to Vancouver, the East Wind scouring the Gorge with elbow grease, picked out a tree at the lot, petted the farm animals, visited the gift shop, where we drank some hot chocolate, and drove off for the return trip to Portland. By the time we got back to the bridge, the winds were kicking up with 40 mile per hour gusts, and with the wind cutting across our eight foot fir tree tied to the top of our little Honda, the river crossing was like windsurfing on a sailboard. I held the Honda to 40, and we blew sideways into Portland.

Our cat likes a Christmas tree. She won’t bother it, claw at the ornaments. She’s at an age now where she just sleeps under the tree, on the white cotton blanket that’s supposed to connote snow. This year, I’m thinking it’s a good place to be, for me too, under the tree, but the cat prefers sleeping solo. Outside this morning the snow is more than a connotation. Those are denotative flakes blowing in a new east wind. If I let the Scrooge hiding in my soul emerge this year, I’m likely to wind up in the snow bed outside. Check it out – click on the photo gallery above. I’m off to find a tree. One year, I walked down to a local church and picked up a tree there, not quite a mile from our place, and carried it back home on my shoulder. You don’t see this sort of thing much anymore, I thought, self-complacently, slipping and sliding on the snow-muddy shortcut path up to our street. Maybe this year I’ll surprise Susan with a fake tree. Won’t she be surprised?

Two Ocean Surfing Poems at Berfrois – and a gallery of old ocean photos

“Ray, 1956” and “Watermarks from a Night Spring,” two poems with themes of the ocean, surfing, and working, were posted at Berfrois a couple of days ago, along with a few old surf photos.

Paddle on over to Berfrois and check out the surf poems.

And below find a gallery with more photos from the late 60’s thru mid 70’s. Most of these photos were taken with an Exakta 500 single-lens reflex camera (East German), with a 120 portrait lens, both purchased used and cheap to take surfing photos at local spots on Santa Monica Bay. Most are scanned from slides, Kodachrome or Ektachrome, and one is from a black and white print. The portrait lens was an affordable workaround at the time used as a kind of telephoto, and it worked ok. The camera was abused though, tossed in the sand, and over time the shutter began to stick. The photos starting coming out black. Some viewers may feel these the best photos. See etched drawing on one of the black slides. These are not “big” waves, and the surfers are locals, but the ocean is huge and alive and old and every morning new. Click any photo to see the gallery. And don’t forget to check out the poems.

Related: Watermarks from a Night Spring & Ray, 1956

Watermarks from a Night Spring

Embers of a partially burned ocean
In a box in a dank basement molting notes
A weathered surfer slowly descends the creaking

Worn stairs, dark swells yawning
Fish eyed and barnacle knuckled he climbs
Finds and opens the box, peers in, smells the pages

Runs salted fingers over the raised words
Rusting paper clips, chiseled letters in Courier font
Fading beached seagulls washing away in an incoming tide

Wired spiraled journaled waves
Bleaching across the page ink in water
Blistering sun burnt tattoos on old shivered skin

He can no longer read without bottled glasses
He chuckles, the tide receding washing scouring
White out rocks across words stuck buried in red tide pools

Breathing with a snorkel
The surfer leers over the smoldering sea
Takes up the seaweed soiled waxed manuscript

And paddles out of the basement
Walks down to the beach and what remains
Of the water and casts out the paper fish net

Into a set of scaling waves
Lit with a lustrous industrial moon
The waves curling letters in blue neon.

(Click any photo to view gallery)

New Excerpt from “Penina’s Letters” at the Boulevard

An excerpt from Chapter Six, “Light and Sculpture from a Surfboard on Santa Monica Bay,” from the novel Penina’s Letters, is now up in Issue # 5: Special Issue: Liberation, of The Boulevard, a publication of the Attic Institute.

Related Posts: Penina’s Letters at The Boulevard“Penina’s Letters”: Hawthorne Fellows at the Attic Institute.

Coelho & Doyle on Joyce

Every person alive has a story, but some don’t have voices. But there are many ways to tell a story, and stories can be told without words. Still, for the story to emerge, the storyteller must develop some kind of voice, allowing others access to their text – again, even if the text is without words. But some persons with voices remain unaware of their story, even as their story is read or enjoyed or devoured and repeated by others. Still others may be aware of their stories and have voices but choose not to share. Can all these stories be told, and who will tell these stories, using what voice?

I am moved this morning to tell this story as a consequence of a Twitter “interaction”: “Well, about Coelho, what can we say?” For I had re-tweeted a tweet calling attention to a Guardian Books post quoting the Brazilian writer Paul Coelho: “One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit.” The same article refers to a previous Guardian article, an interview with the Irish writer Roddy Doyle, who said: “You know people are always putting Ulysses in the top 10 books ever written but I doubt that any of those people were really moved by it.”

I think part of Roddy’s point, in the context of the interview, was to bemoan all the attention Joyce has received over the years, possibly to the neglect of other Irish writers just as deserving of readers’ attention. But both Coelho’s and Doyle’s criticism of Ulysses is grounded in their literary values – they think that for a literary work to have value, the reader should be moved, changed, brought to tears or laughter, that we should leave the theatre wanting to change our lives or somebody else’s life. For a story to be good, the Coelho-Doyle argument goes, the voice must be immediately recognizable, accessible, and force feelings to surface in the audience. And since Ulysses, for most readers, probably doesn’t do that, it’s not a good book, and since it’s nevertheless received so much recognition and so many writers have tried to use Joyce’s voice, it’s been harmful because it’s diminished the development of other voices, voices that might have reached readers and transformed their lives.

I’m reminded of the barbershop on Center Street in El Segundo, where I once dropped in to get a haircut. It was a one chair shop, and someone else was in the chair, so I had to wait, and while I waited, I listened in on what amounted to a lesson in art criticism. The barber had hung on the wall a painting of a mountain lake. “And I have a photograph of that very spot,” the barber said. “And if I hang both of them side by side, I defy you to tell me which one is the photograph and which one is the painting.”

Related Posts: Where Winston Churchill meets Roddy Doyle; or, the Library is not a Zoo. The Elite and the Effete: From Access to Egress.

“Penina’s Letters” at The Boulevard

A short excerpt from Chapter Two, “The Truth of Things,” from Penina’s Letters, a novel in progress, is now up at The Boulevard, a publication of the Hawthorne Fellows at the Attic Institute: A Haven for Writers.

Click here to read “The Truth of Things.”

I’m a Hawthorne Fellow at the Attic Institute for the period April though August, working on a novel, Penina’s Letters. For information on the Hawthorne Fellows, click on the Attic door below. They are accepting applications now for the next Fellows period, Oct. through Feb., 2012-13.

Related Post: “Penina’s Letters”: Hawthorne Fellows at The Attic Institute