The Pastor's Kids

The Pastor's Kids

Sunday, November 9, 2014

"A Truly Humble Cottage"

I finished the first draft of Pulled Into Nazareth today. Finishing a draft is always a memorable occasion. I will spend the rest of the year editing it, but at least some of the suspense of is over. Five years ago I laid out the over-arching scenario of the series of books I am writing. But the details! I never know how the details are going to go until I write each chapter for the first time.

As I write, I keep in mind my desire to be “truly humble.” Christopher Alexander writes: “I say that even humble buildings cannot be made, because the infection which comes from our mechanistic cosmology is mainly one of arbitrariness – and the arbitrariness breeds pretension. In the presence of pretentiousness, true humility is almost impossible. A truly humble cottage even, seems beyond the reach of most builders today.” [Footnote, p. 24, The Luminous Ground, volume 4 of  The Nature of Order]

This small paragraph, an aspect of Alexander’s research and attempt to get beyond a mechanical world view to one in which value has an objective place, strikes me as getting to the heart of the problem writers have as well. Much of current literature certainly seems arbitrary to me, the corollary being that pretension is required to insist on its importance. But pretension doesn’t get you very far.

Of course striving for humility too can also be a dangerous. I keep in mind Neil Innes’ (of Monty Python fame) “Protest Song,” which he introduces by saying “I’ve suffered for my music. Now it’s your turn.” As Don says, “When you give people something it should be a gift, not an invoice.” I certainly don’t suffer as I write, and I do hope my work is a gift to others, and not a demand for attention.

This month also, through the heroic efforts of my brother and sisters, nieces and nephews, the small beach house my Dad built at the edge of a Minnesota lake was reconstructed. The little one-room beach house was a blessed retreat for many of us, but it had become uninhabitable for the last few years due to rot and foundation problems. It is no longer possible to build so close to a lake in Minnesota, but existing buildings are exempted from the rule.

My sister Naomi wrote of her stay in the beach house in 1981, “Never having had a chance to stay down there by the water before, I was overwhelmed by its magic. A small square room with a bed, a rocking chair and a lamp, it perches above the shore. The only thing you can see out of any of the windows is trees and sky and lake. At the head of the bed there is a low window so you can lie on your stomach and look out at the stars over the lake at night. The effect is rather like living in a treehouse – the breeze blows in and out the windows and sings in the branches. And at night if it’s rough you can hear the sounds of water lapping the shore as you lie in bed – or if its quiet, sometimes there’s the eerie cry of a loon echoing across the still space.”

The beach house is indeed “a truly humble cottage.” It of course plays a part in my fictional writing, as do many other aspects of my extended family.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Patterns of Wholeness

Christopher Alexander published A Pattern Language in 1977. It turned up at my architectural firm almost right away, its thin Bible-paper pages dense with ideas, photographs and diagrams. He felt that he and his associates and found a ‘timeless way of building’ which enabled people to design for themselves their own houses, streets and communities.

The impact of this, and other books by Alexander, has been far-reaching, going to the heart of a larger debate about ways of making buildings. Alexander followed up with a four-book series The Nature of Order [2002-2004], in which he pointed out that the limited mechanistic view of the world we now use must begin to include statements of value as matters of objective truth. Though skeptical himself, he tried to show in these books how this could be done.

In 1990, Christopher Alexander’s “unique, world-class Oriental rug collection” was placed on display at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco. It began to be clear that Alexander’s study of ancient rugs and carpets was an essential part of his work. In 1993 he published A Foreshadowing of 21st Century Art: The Color and Geometry of Very Early Turkish Carpets. In it he writes, “to study wholeness we must have an empirical way of distinguishing it from preference”[p. 27].

It did not escape my notice that, throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, the architects who were able to were buying Oriental [for lack of another inclusive word] carpets. Rooms generally had white walls and modernist furniture made of leather and steel, sitting on colorful patterned floor coverings as ancient as the person could afford.

In 1971, long before I knew anything about Alexander, I bought a camel bag at the Alameda flea market because it was there, because it was lovely and I could afford it at $25. It had a small piece of masking tape attached to it at the back with the word “Caucasian” on it. The camel bag has hung on the wall of every apartment or house I’ve lived in since. As you can see from the photograph, it has strong natural colors, and wonderful designs. Having lived with it so long, I surely take it for granted, but at the same time it has probably influenced me immensely.

Nowadays we must be sure that the carpets we buy are not being made by children who are not getting an education. The Rugmark Foundation in India has set up a certification process to ensure that a rug has not been made by child labor. Other groups, such as Azerbaijan Rugs, strive to bring life to forgotten traditions, studying ancient designs, returning to hand spinning, carding and natural dyes.

Georges Gurdjieff, whose books we also read in the 1970s, traded in carpets throughout his life. A more beguiling description of wholeness than what he told P.D. Ouspensky of the rug-making process would be hard to imagine! Gurdjieff “spoke of the ancient customs connected with carpet making in certain parts of Asia; of a whole village working together at one carpet; of winter evenings when all the villagers, young and old, gather together in one large building and, dividing into groups, sit or stand on the floor in an order previously known and determined by tradition. Each group then begins its own work. Some pick stones and splinters out of the wool. Others beat out the wool with sticks. A third group combs the wool. The fourth spins. The fifth dyes the wool. The sixth, or maybe the twenty-sixth, weaves the actual carpet. Men, women and children, old men and old women, all have their own traditional work. And all the work is done to the accompaniment of music and singing. The women spinners with spindles in their hands dance a special dance as they work, and all the movements of all the people engaged in different work are like one movement in one and the same rhythm. Moreover each locality has its own special tune, its own special songs and dances, connected with carpet making from time immemorial.” [P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, 1949, Chapter 2]

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Paradigms New and Old

I went to college a little before structural analysis set in, so I didn’t know what a syntagm was (though I had some idea of paradigm) until I met Don Starnes. Don went to San Francisco State in filmmaking. I’ve seen him, when editing a piece, plot the paradigm, what the piece means, against the syntagm, the sequence of things that happen. This is the simplest way I have been able to understand it. In filmmaking, it means that a visual language delivers the meaning, plotted against things that happen on the film’s “timeline.”

Don laments the lack of meaning in much of our current “entertainment.” This morning he told me about a reality show he has agreed to work on briefly. “It’s horrible,” he tells me. “Philosophical people don’t make good television,” I remind him. “They don’t even make good Facebook!” Nevertheless, people are hungry for stories that involve them, that encompass the complexity they live in without demeaning their sense of themselves and their possibilities.

Duane Elgin has taken this problem head-on. He notes that we are in a time of transition. New stories could involve the ideas that the human race is growing up; communication is awakening our consciousness to a global, rather than a local scale; and the hero’s journey could now be a story of return to living in harmony with the earth and each other. He suggests that the despair and destruction we see around us may be part of the difficult birth we are all going through. The project on which he collaborates to develop new stories is described here.

We will always need new stories. But, like most people deeply involved in literature, I am also happy with the old ones. Humans and their patterns have not changed very much, and a richly told story invites us in to watch. As Kenneth Rexroth says, in his book Classics Revisited, all great fiction is “the story of the immensely difficult achievement of personal integrity.” He is here referring to The Dream of the Red Chamber, sometimes called The Story of the Stone, a novel written in China between 1754 and 1764. In it, Cao Xueqin looks back at the aristocratic family he came from, writing in poverty at the end of his life. I am reading an English translation by David Hawkes.

Bao-yu, the protagonist, is surrounded by a hierarchical family structure which requires daily filial obligation. He lives in a beautiful garden, and knows the poetry of China so well he excels in composing allusive poems. His father, however, wants him to study the Four Books, the basis of the Confucian philosophy which structures Chinese society. When Bao-yu doesn’t, his father beats him badly “for the honor of the family.” His friend says, “I suppose you will change now.” But Bao-yu is intransigent. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I shan’t change. People like that are worth dying for. I wouldn’t change if he killed me.”

The paradigm of this book is unlike any Western novel. The syntagm is well-populated! One thing happens after another, the action shifting from one part of the huge family complex, in which more than 300 people live, to another. Servants and masters all take their turn. Characters die and are mourned. The family fortunes sink. Infighting and chaos begin to undermine the household. It’s a big melodrama which draws you into it with its lively characters, said to be based on real people.

Though willful and mercurial, gentle Bao-yu struggles against the hate that results from the difficulties around him. Rexroth suggests he embodies the Taoist principle of non-action, that of water seeking its own level and eventually wearing away mountains. It is a feminine, yin principle, reflecting the way the Chinese people see and interact with nature. Neither yin nor yang is evil. They alternate, each containing a little of the other. Knowing it cannot last, Bao-yu is determined to enjoy, appreciate and celebrate his young life.

The yin/yang interaction of the rise and set of phenomena is a more grown-up way of looking at the world than seeing it as black and white, good and evil. It does not pit people against nature, as we somehow do in the West. Evil certainly exists, and heroes and heroines must fight it where it arises. But the interaction is messy and our heroes and heroines would do well to look into their own hearts and motives as they go forth into battle. The paradigm of fighting and battle itself should be questioned. As Duane Elgin suggests, the hero’s journey might now be more about a return to harmony.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Songwriters

Buffy St. Marie
The great writing of my generation does not always appear in novels or poems. It’s mostly been spent on songs, which, in performance or recorded, had a lot more audience. The great opening out of American culture in the 1960’s and 1970’s absorbed amazing lyricists. Especially if you count the Canadians among them! It is hard to write about the music of this time in a short blog post, but also impossible not to mention how much we lived, and learned, from the messages in songs.

Civil rights marches and the protests against the Vietnam war were powered by song. I’ve read how the Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, starting point for all of the civil rights marches out of Selma, reverberated with songs and spirituals. All of the marches I was on began and ended with speakers and singers. A friend of mine was in love with Phil Ochs, whose songs were very much to the point at the time.

I bought a cheap record player to be able to buy and listen to albums. Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell albums were the first two, and after playing them over and over, I knew the songs by heart. This became a pattern. I didn’t listen to the radio or buy pop singles. I bought the albums of songwriters for whom the lyrics were as important as the music. That doesn’t mean I didn’t love a good rocking beat. I remember how we danced! But the albums I knew best were about the words.

Bob Dylan and John Lennon were perhaps the most influential songwriters. We had The White Album and George Harrison’s triple album All Things Must Pass.  We waited for Dylan’s albums: Nashville Skyline and Blood on the Tracks. I loved Kris Kristofferson, for both his writing and his acting. He wrote some of the anthems of our lives, such as “Me and Bobby McGee.” I knew all of the songs on Music for Big Pink, many written by Robbie Robertson. The title of my current book, Pulled Into Nazareth, comes from one of his songs.

Kris Kristofferson
Buffy St. Marie’s voice and her lyrics as well were mesmerizing. They are still wonderful. Joni Mitchell’s lyrics grew tiresome pretty early for me, and Carole King was way too poppy. Carly Simon was everywhere, and therefore uninteresting, though I got to love some of her work later. We all hoped for a lot from Phoebe Snow, but we only got one album. Linda Ronstadt covered Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s wonderful songs, though I didn’t know them until later either.

I resonated to the words of John Prine and John David Souther, as sung by Linda Ronstadt. Sad songs like “Angel from Montgomery” and “Silver Blue.” But also I loved Boz Scaggs, who was from our town (San Francisco) and wrote his own unique music. I had Moments and Silk Degrees, his best selling albums. I cut photos of him dancing out of The Rolling Stone and taped them to the walls of my office! I also loved Ray Charles, who was a little older, but actively writing and performing during this period.

By this time I wasn’t in much control of the stereo. These were the days that, unless you put on headphones and shut everyone else out, everyone in the house (and maybe the apartments above and below you!) listened to the same music. I loved Bob Marley, but only got to know him thoroughly later. Same with Randy Newman and Jackson Browne, whose work I find amazing. These are only a few of the many wonderful songwriters whose lyrics and music soared through our lives.

Recently, Neil McCormick wrote of a 2010 performance by Kris Kristofferson at Cadogan Hall: “At 74, standing tall and straight at the centre of an otherwise empty stage, he held a London audience completely spellbound by the magical power of an open spirit and truly great songs … Now that Cash, his first public champion, has passed away, Kristofferson provides a rare link to an old idea of a mythic, honourable America. His English audience responded with generosity and respect.”

My character Paul is a reasonably good folk guitarist. He is often made welcome because of it and the number of songs that he knows. I can’t help but quote some of these songs in the stories I am writing, and I hope that the songwriters will be happy with my declaration of “fair use” as commentary and criticism, as noted in copyright law. Their great work united us and expressed what we were thinking. Literature may have been the poorer, but public life was enriched.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Molly Hootch Ruling

Public education in Alaska took a radical turn in the mid 1970’s. Previous to this time, kids who wanted a high school education, and even some younger kids, could only get it at large boarding schools. High school was not available in the villages strung out across Alaska. Kids were sent far from home to schools run by the Board of Indian Affairs or to schools in the larger cities. Kids from different native Indian, Eskimo and Aleut cultures were mixed together and speaking their native languages was forbidden.

My aunt Helen Frost established a Lutheran Center for native students attending the Mt. Edgecumbe School, a boarding school run by the BIA in 1955. She especially worked with the students who came from the towns where she had been a missionary: Igloo, Teller, Shishmaref and Nome. “They were far from their home villages and enjoyed having someone they knew to visit and worship with on Sundays,” she writes in Frost Among the Eskimos, a memoir of her time in Alaska from 1926 to 1961. This boarding school still exists and is known for its science programs.

It was very difficult for young kids to leave home, but also for the villages to say goodbye to their children during the school year. Debby Dahl Edwardson chronicles the experiences of her husband in boarding school in My Name Is Not Easy. One of her husband’s siblings was sent to school in Oklahoma without the knowledge of their parents. One was killed when, desperately homesick, he left for home in bad weather and was lost in a small plane crash. The kids learned to stick together during their difficulties, and, according to Edwardson, became the generation which created the Alaskan Federation of Natives. This organization, still a powerful force in Alaskan politics, originally worked on negotiation and implementation of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, passed in 1971.

In 1974, a class-action suit, charging discriminatory practice on the part of the state, was filed on behalf of rural secondary-aged students, for not providing local high school facilities for predominantly native communities when it did for same-size, predominantly non-native, communities. The suit became known by the name of Molly Hootch, a Yup’ik Eskimo student from Emmonak whose family was among those filing. Molly was no longer in school by the time the suit was settled out of court in 1976, with the Tobeluk Consent Decree. It declared the state would establish a high school in every community where there was an elementary school, unless the community declined the program.

The settlement fell at a time when social, political and economic factors were favorable to the success of the program. Alaskan native peoples were becoming more involved in political and social aspects of their lives and Alaska was suddenly wealthy due to pipeline revenues from the oil discovered at Prudhoe Bay. Schools built in small villages across the state quickly became community centers.

As Nick Jans describes in The Last Light Breaking, a record of his years teaching in Ambler, these schools faced enormous challenges. One unexpected result was the prevalence of basketball! Ambler residents “specified that a gym was first on the list, and they got what they asked for: a basketball floor with cramped classrooms tacked on as an apparent afterthought.” Cultural renaissance also came about, with locally-controlled school districts mandating that local language and culture be taught to every child.

Paul sees all of these changes. When he begins teaching at Lathrop High School in Fairbanks, he is especially sensitive to the Eskimo and Indian kids who are boarders, sometimes treated like servants in the houses where they live. During pipeline construction, double shifts are instituted to accommodate all the students. Paul assists in building local schools during the summers after the Molly Hootch agreement is put into effect. In 1976, he moves to the burgeoning West Valley High School out near the university when it opens, behind schedule and with 250 more students than it was built for. Fairbanks is the city Paul hoped for, diverse, complex, but at the edge of a natural wilderness.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

On the Move

The 1970’s was the decade in which airline travel became normal for us. Aisf Siddiqi confirms this here, describing how advances in jet engine construction led to new social habits for the middle class: “students were now traveling to Europe for summers, and families were now vacationing in far-off places for a single weekend. By the 1970s, the convenience of jet travel made vast international cultural exchanges a norm.”

The United States is a very large place. Line, Marty and Paul, take up residence far from their parents in California and Alaska. Mother and Dad still have young children at home and do all of their vacationing at their cabin on a northern Minnesota lake. They hardly travel at all. But affordable airline travel allows Line, Marty and Paul to travel to Minnesota to visit every once in a while.

Travel set off all kinds of innovation in luggage and gear to make it possible. Researching questions such as “when did roller bags come into use?” or “when were baby backpacks first used?” reminded me that many of the things we now take for granted were new, or didn’t exist at the time I am writing about.

Ann Moore with her daughter
You could find the first Snugli in the 1970’s. It was patented by Ann Moore in 1969. She had noticed how peaceful babies carried on their mother’s backs were, in Togo where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. With her mother’s help, she crafted a backpack so she could “wear” her daughter and have her hands free. There was no advertisement. People just kept asking Ann, “where can I get one of those?” Ann sent the orders back to her mother in Ohio, who sewed them with the help of her friends. It was then featured in the Whole Earth Catalog, and became a cottage industry for the little town in Ohio where Ann grew up.

About the same time, Owen Maclaren, an aeronautical engineer, heard his daughter complaining about the difficulties of traveling with a baby carriage. Maclaren came up with the idea of a lightweight, safe stroller that could be folded up like an umbrella, getting a US patent for it in 1968. With a strong, aluminum frame the stroller weighed six pounds and took up very little space. Maclaren products, manufactured near Rugby, England, and exported everywhere, led the innovation in strollers that continued throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

You did not see many suitcases on wheels in the 1970s, much less the colorful little roller bags kids all have now. Bernard Sadow had trouble selling the idea when he first had it in 1970. Mr. Sadow was frequently told that men would not accept suitcases with wheels. “It was a very macho thing,” he said. He did begin to sell them, but big suitcases tipped and wobbled, pulled on a strap on their little wheels. In 1987 Robert Plath, a Northwest Airlines pilot, put two wheels and a long handle on his bag, calling it the Rollaboard. He sold it to his fellow crew members. When travelers in airports saw flight attendants striding briskly through airports with their Rollaboards in tow, everyone wanted one.

I’ve taken airline travel pretty much for granted ever since I took an Icelandic flight from New York to London in 1966. The most hair-raising flight for me was on an ancient airplane upholstered with ruffled green cushions from Chengdu to Chongqing, China, in October, 1990. I didn’t find out what the vintage of the propeller-driven airplane was. It clanked and bumped down the runway, but it did have cabin pressure and cheerful uniformed stewardesses. My heart was in my mouth, as they say, but I reasoned with myself that all of the other perhaps 100 passengers expected to arrive safely, and indeed we did!

I’ve never been in an airline emergency, or even lost a suitcase in all these years. I suspect my experience of the airlines is common, though I travel a lot less these days. One’s suitcase, as it comes bumping out of the baggage handlers and around the moving belt, will always be a welcome sight! And, like the character in Love Actually, I find the meetings of friends and relations in airports forever thrilling.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Half Way Mark

This year’s book in the series about the Mikkelsons, Pulled Into Nazareth, was slow getting started. I was doing more research for the book, as some of it is set in places I’ve never been. And also, things just seemed to get in the way of writing. In May I started worrying. The previous year I had been much further ahead. Would I finish half the book by the end of June? I began to put writing first, and yesterday I uploaded chapter 14 to the location where my first readers can find it, reaching the half way mark.

As I walked through San Rafael yesterday I noticed that the majestic old jacaranda which grows in a street park near the reconstructed Mission was blooming. The mysterious, spicey scent of the blue trumpet-flowers opened up in the hot, sunny afternoon, but the thick branches made a heavy shade and under the tree fallen blue flowers carpeted the grass.

I haven’t lived with many jacarandas, so each has been special. The first was in North Oakland, in a residential neighborhood which I passed through each day on my way to work. I struggled with the name jacaranda, which was pronounced with the ‘j’ sounding more like an ‘h.’ Its origins are lost in time, but is believed to be from a Guarani (an indigenous language of South America) word meaning ‘fragrant’. I especially enjoyed the few weeks in early summer when it bloomed.

Toward the end of those years, I talked to the owner of the tree. She threatened to cut it down as its roots were upending the concrete sidewalk. She was older and had no money to pay for insurance claims. So sad, I thought. Then I worked in Los Angeles for a few weeks in spring and found little ornamental forests of jacarandas on the plaza levels above the downtown streets.

Place is so important to all of us. Jacarandas don’t grow everywhere. Here the coastal morning fog cools us each night and clear, bright days are leaving us a very dry summer. But we are listening to the predictions of an El Niño which scientists perceive developing off the Pacific coast and hopeful that winter rains will alleviate our drought. I have long felt much more related to the rim of the Pacific than to Europe. Does this affect my writing, I ask myself.

When a Japanese-born friend tells me she is reading a lot of the Shishōsetsu, or I-novels written in Japanese, I research these and find that they are a particular genre in which writers used the events of their own lives for their subjects. Beginning in the early 20th century, the writers wished to portray a realistic view of the world involving real experiences, often showing the darker side of society. Except for the realism involved, this did not sound like my work.

But then I found that Gish Jen, a contemporary American-born Chinese writer, has written a book entitled Tiger Writing, about the “profound difference in self-narration that underlies the gap often perceived between East and West.” She believes that the novel is essentially a Western form that values originality, authenticity and the truth of individual experience, while Eastern narrative emphasizes morality, cultural continuity, the everyday, the recurrent.

I’ve had trouble thinking of the stories about the Mikkelson kids as a series of novels, though by some definitions, the novel is such a big envelope it can contain almost any kind of fiction. My work is certainly about “cultural continuity, the everyday, the recurrent.” It’s about family and how our personal and public lives interact, with emphasis on the private aspects. In the end, of course, I am not the one to say what the books become. I must just write them and hope that they eventually find their audience.