Clan of the Cave Bear Skull

June 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

Chauvet Cave painting


Last weekend I saw The Cave of Forbidden Dreams, by Werner Herzog. Only in France are scientists so attuned to art, so fluent in their discussions of Picasso and the freshness and boldness of the line. I immediately wondered how to befriend one of these charming and friendly people, or how to break through the steel door and sneak in to the cave. The as-if-done-yesterday paintings of horses, bison, lions and rhinoceros outlined against the bulging walls, surrounded by cave bear and other animal skulls, claw marks on the walls, paw marks on the floor, and thousands of years of crystalline stalactites and stalagmites will be destroyed eventually, as everything is, so why can’t I see it now? I know, I know, the world was not made for me alone, but I still wish I could sneak in.

Herzog was fondest of the painting of the female pubis with the bison head nestling in it (the only human image; and in the stone, the “steps of an eight-year-old boy beside those of a wolf.” I didn’t know you could tell sex from a footprint in stone. The lions were my favorite. Liking cats must be hardwired into humanity: the artists, possible prey to those lions, thought they were beautiful too, and deeply, for lack of a better word “human.”

France no longer has any of that, except for horses, but they do have albino crocodiles, who live in the hot baths created by the nuclear plants and maintained by the French nanny state which loves its monstrosities (and that’s a good thing). You’ll have to see the movie. Suffice it to say Herzog ends with a suggestion that modern humans are like the albino crocs: utterly foreign to the people of the cave; very weird; kinda cute. Or that’s how I took it.

Saturday was my wedding anniversary. In the morning, Charles and I had a loving discussion about our cats and the decades and I longed to be with him in Florida, floating on the waves like an albino crocodile. Today, I’m remembering my wedding day: light rain; my mother’s house on the ocean, me at 22 in my green dress, astonished to realize that I was actually the center of benevolent attention. It was something outside of my imagination. It eclipsed the marital union, which had, in most respects, already taken place.

The past clings to me, or me to it. Maybe it’s a ball and chain and maybe it’s the intemperate dwarf in fairy tales: if you refuse to carry him where he wants to go, you’ll miss the grand reward…in my profession we call it “material.”

Also, last weekend, the news about gay marriage in New York hit. A wild extravaganza took place under my window: I live right above the parade route. There was so much joy in the air, and so many different kinds of people, not just the usual show-offs, but an amazing cross-section of humanity, even I got a little rush. I do love New York. But no herds of wild horses gallop here, no cave bears sharpen their claws on the sides of buildings. Of course, there’s plenty of time for all that. Meanwhile, I leave my feeble marks, hoping the future superior race doesn’t build a parking lot on my corner of the Cloud.

“The Aquatic Uncle” from Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

The first vertebrates who, in the Carboniferous period, abandoned aquatic life for terrestrial, descended from the osseous, pulmonate fish whose fins were capable of rotation beneath their bodies and thus could be used as paws on the earth.
By then it was clear that the water period was coming to an end, — old Qfwfq recalled, — those who decided to make the great move were growing more and more numerous, there wasn’t a family that didn’t have some loved one up on dry land, and everybody told fabulous tales of the things that could be done there, and they called back to their relatives to join them. There was no holding the young fish; they slapped their fins on the muddy banks to see if they would work as paws, as the more talented ones had already discovered. But just at that time the differences among us were becoming accentuated: there might be a family that had been living on land, say, for several generations, whose young people acted in a way that wasn’t even amphibious but almost reptilian already; and there were others who lingered, still living like fish, those who, in fact, became even more fishy than they had been before.
Our family, I must say, including grandparents, was all up on the shore, padding about as if we had never known how to do anything else. If it hadn’t been for the obstinacy of our great-uncle N’ba N’ga, we would have long since lost all contact with the aquatic world.
Yes, we had a great-uncle who was a fish, on my paternal grandmother’s side, to be precise, of the Coelacanthus family of the Devonian period (the fresh-water branch: who are, for that matter, cousins of the others — but I don’t want to go into all these questions of kinship, nobody can ever follow them anyhow). So as I was saying, this great-uncle lived in certain muddy shallows, among the roots of some protoconifers, in that inlet of the lagoon where all our ancestors had been born. He never stirred from there: at any season of the year all we had to do was push ourselves over the softer layers of vegetation until we could feel ourselves sinking into the dampness, and there below, a few palms’ lengths from the edge, we could see the column of little bubbles he sent up, breathing heavily the way old folk do, or the little cloud of mud scraped up by his sharp snout, always rummaging around, more out of habit than out of the need to hunt for anything.
“Uncle N’ba N’ga! We’ve come to pay you a visit! Were you expecting us?” we would shout, slapping our paws and tails in the water to attract his attention. “We’ve brought you some insects that grow where we live! Uncle N’ba N’ga! Have you ever seen such fat cockroaches? Taste one and see if you like it …”
“You can clean those revolting warts you’ve got with your stinking cockroaches!” Our great-uncle’s answer was always some remark of this sort, or perhaps even ruder: this is how he welcomed us every time, but we paid no attention because we knew he would mellow after a little while, accept our presents gladly, and converse in politer tones.
“What do you mean, Uncle? Warts? When did you ever see any warts on us?”
This business about warts was a widespread prejudice among the old fish: a notion that from living on dry land, we would develop warts all over our bodies, exuding liquid matter: this was true enough for the toads, but we had nothing in common with them; on the contrary, our skin, smooth and slippery, was such as no fish had ever had; and our great-uncle knew this perfectly well, but he still couldn’t stop larding his talk with all the slanders and intolerance he had grown up in the midst of.

Buy the book to read the rest of the story.

El Yunque

June 16, 2011 § 1 Comment

La Mina waterfall in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico

On Charles’ birthday, we went to the rain forest, in the El Yunque national reserve. We hiked on a winding, steep path through lush forest a mile or so to a huge waterfall, where a dozen people lounged on the rocks and floated in the green pools. I was tired from the climb, but not too tired to crabwalk under the bridge and sit among the tall, slanting rocks. They were more difficult to navigate than the rocks of my childhood—each one was coated with slime—and I am far less nimble, but I wasn’t afraid. Careful, but not afraid. I found a little half moon shaped stone that had power in it; when I grasped it tightly, all the gods were listening for one instant. What I said to them I don’t exactly know: all I had in my heart: and then it was over.

The woman who runs the guest house we stayed in explained the Taino (indigenous Puerto Rican) belief that when people die, their souls go to heaven but their bodies turn to dirt and then rocks. Rocks have power because they’re our ancestors. She had asked us over the phone to bring her a rock from the waterfall, and we did, and then she had us each hold it while she waved her hands around us, and asked if we could feel the heat. We said we could. I almost did. Charles told her I was very spiritual with rocks and I muttered, “in my youth,” and she told me it was always there, the connection with the earth. She’s right, of course, whatever that connection means. It means I need to be in nature more.

Charles wanted to tell her about the old alkie we talked to in Charlottlesville one night, 30 years ago. He lived behind the grocery store and conversed with rocks—he told us how it went, the back and forth with the rocks, in one long, lovely, drunken monologue. “But I realized she might have been offended by the comparison,” he said. Perhaps. But we’ve never forgotten Alonzo.

After dinner, we swam in the pool with the grandchildren of the house, then took a walk in the twilight. The countryside was fragrant and beautiful, dense with life, both familiar and unfamiliar. It was like walking the roads around our old house in upstate New York on the first wave of good LSD. I slept ten hours.

In the morning we drove into the mountains on a road that narrowed and narrowed, colonized by moss, the deep rainforest endlessly below. The frequent potholes leading off the cliff were kindly marked by sawhorses—the woman at the rental office said the insurance covered everything but pothole tire destruction. We soaked up more beauty, then headed (hours early) toward the airport. We stopped for lunch at a local cafe and had the best food of our trip, then went to the wrong car drop off place. Once we figured that out, it was too late; we were sucked into the massive Obama traffic jam (the old guy in the wheelchair holding an American flag was traveling much faster than we were) and barely made our planes.

Home to the sadness of my other relationship destructing, and the paralysis about writing. Fitzroy woke me several times the first night, demanding reassurance, which I gave him. Nobody likes being abandoned.

One of the first poems I ever memorized

A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

William Wordsworth

Go Purloin A Sirloin, My Pet

June 4, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Ottauquechee River, Woodstock, Vermont

So we went to Woodstock, VT, for Memorial Day weekend, after a week of ferocious emotions, drama, a half hour spent stabbing my notebook with my favorite carbon steel knife, which is now permanently bent. Ah, love. Don’t worry, though, I’m much better now.

The country was beautiful, greener than you can imagine, green as spring on LSD when you’re 16, with rolling hills and sudden, conical mountains. The river bent and flowed, seemingly everywhere, gleaming in the occasional sun. Woodstock is a town of glorious 19th century houses, some with wide porches, river frontage, and outbuildings, some like wedding cakes with clever architectural frou-frous the proper name of which I don’t know; they looked like struts or brackets. “Christine would know,” said Philip. “If Andy were here, he’d say ‘Call Christine.’”

It’s getting easier to speak of her and of course, after 11 years of jealousy and worse feelings, now I miss her. It makes no sense, but that’s how it is. Let’s just say, she was a person of interest, one whose every mood and life event I was told about. I guess it’s like those fictional characters you don’t like but think about long after the book is over. Naturally, this makes me more determined to write from my darker side, something I resisted when I was young out of fear that I was a pretty girl with the soul of a chained monster. It’s worse to be a middle-aged woman with the soul of scared rabbit, isn’t it? No. But I wasn’t a monster when I was young, just misinformed. Christine wasn’t a monster either, but chained, yes, certainly.

Saturday we drove through the mountains, stopping in a bookstore/café where the middle-aged locals were lounging over coffee talking not about deals or career battles but rather debating, in a liberal spirit, the existence of God and the afterlife, referencing both Richard Dawkins and the recent literary novel Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlife with that casual ease I remember from, oh, 1982. I spent some time looking through four volumes of Ogden Nash, browsed old children’s books for my mother, but couldn’t decide if any were worth buying. It was a source of deep contentment, all those books of different periods and subjects jumbled into a few tiny rooms: impeccably clean and orderly but full of that serendipitous spirit that used to guide my reading—and still does, but now computer-mediated. It was better once (1982?), when books were things before they became experiences.

Onward to Middlebury, a college that did not accept me, and then south, listening to alarming radio news about a fierce storm (70mph winds, lighting, hail). “Look on the map,” said Philip. “Where’s Addison County?” “We’re in it,” I replied. We scooted, black clouds drifting ominously behind. I was a little sorry we evaded the storm. Why should we get to escape? The weather is angry at us all.

It was sunny back in Woodstock. We had a nap then went for dinner to Hanover, N.H., home of infamous Dartmouth College (infamous to Philip because it’s uber Ivy League; to me because my stepfather went there—enough said to those who know my history, and the rest of you, never mind).

Big mistake. No parking, the food was bad, the “cocktail” piano player didn’t know any Gershwin (or, really, anything else), and some malign influence caused Philip to speed exactly when he was supposed to slow down and he got a heavyweight ticket. That last bit happened on the way home, on the outskirts of Woodstock, but he blamed it on New Hampshire. Regardless of my years there, which were not all bad, he’ll forever think of it as the state of the Manchester Union Leader and unwarranted influence on Presidential elections. I didn’t speak of pines and rocks, or the lake I still think of as the king of lakes, the one and only lake, the lake that loved me. Well, maybe I did, a little. I attempt reticence about my privileged childhood around my still angry (“You think this is bad? You should have seen me when I was young”) working class sweetie, but on the other hand I have to listen, repeatedly, to how happy he was in junior high with his gang of buddies—a time when I was nearly catatonic from trauma and had no friends.

The lake? Winnepesaukee. The name alone puts it far about Lake George and Lake Placid.

In any case, Woodstock, where I went to boarding school at 15, has its own memories: Jerome in his black cape, sitting on the back stairs with me as we tried to figure out how to handle a sudden drunken night of intimacy; stealing horses from the barn one moonlit night and riding bareback with Kathy, who didn’t know how to ride either; outdoor English classes on sunny days; the ungodly beauty of bare-chested boys with hair to their shoulders and those young, young eyes.

These memories are just fragments, flickers. I can’t pull up whole days or nights with dialogue and why and how. Even so, they mean so much. They have that meaning that I’ve always believed, if I managed to evoke it in a work of true literary merit, would escape the second after it was netted. Because the point is not what things meant, or who we were; what came of an event or didn’t; the point is not a story, but only that it happened and we were there.

Jerome, Dede, Kathy, Ken, Amy S., Amy W, Caitlin who has never for a moment been forgotten, Cedar, Faith and Charity—didn’t know either well, but Faith was the smart, rebellious one, Charity the beautiful Christian known to be charitable with her following of smitten boys—and from afar, clever Jeff, sarcastic Phil, charismatic Lori, and many others.

What happened? Green nights, wind, horses, boys, girls, magic, whisky, pot, pranks and tears; and continuing social terror, which was, for one of the very few times in my life, a fair price for what I was given.

In honor of the brilliant and neglected Mr. Nash, and my new diet:

The Clean Plater

Some singers sing of ladies’ eyes,

And some of ladies lips,

Refined ones praise their ladylike ways,

And course ones hymn their hips.

The Oxford Book of English Verse

Is lush with lyrics tender;

A poet, I guess, is more or less

Preoccupied with gender.

Yet I, though custom call me crude,

Prefer to sing in praise of food.


Yes, food,

Just any old kind of food.

Pheasant is pleasant, of course,

And terrapin, too, is tasty,

Lobster I freely endorse,

In pate or patty or pasty.

But there’s nothing the matter with butter,

And nothing the matter with jam,

And the warmest greetings I utter

To the ham and the yam and the clam.

For they’re food,

All food,

And I think very fondly of food.

Through I’m broody at times

When bothered by rhymes,

I brood

On food.

Some painters paint the sapphire sea,

And some the gathering storm.

Others portray young lambs at play,

But most, the female form.

Twas trite in that primeval dawn

When painting got its start,

That a lady with her garments on

Is Life, but is she Art?

By undraped nymphs

I am not wooed;

I’d rather painters painted food.

Just food,

Just any old kind of food.

Go purloin a sirloin, my pet,

If you’d win a devotion incredible;

And asparagus tips vinaigrette,

Or anything else that is edible.

Bring salad or sausage or scrapple,

A berry or even a beet.

Bring an oyster, an egg, or an apple,

As long as it’s something to eat.

If it’s food,
It’s food;

Never mind what kind of food.

When I ponder my mind

I consistently find

It is glued

On food.

Ogden Nash

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