Monthly Archives: July 2009

Marginalia, no.70

Esther liked books out where everyone could see them, a sort of graphic index to the intricate labyrinth of her mind arranged to impress the most casual guest.

~ William Gaddis, The Recognitions

A psychology of bookshelves.  But there might be other explanations beyond sheer vanity.  First, it helps to draw a distinction between wanting one’s books in reach and wanting them in view.  The former is for those of us who’ve given up hope of having many friends other than books; the latter suggests vanity but may also serve for those who still hope to attract human friends with like interests, without loving their books any less.

Leave a comment

Filed under Marginalia

Marginalia, no.69

Misunderstand me correctly.

~ Jean Sibelius, to his critics

I try to be charitable toward myself.  It’s more difficult extending that generosity to others when the possibilities of misapprehension are so entertaining.  Years ago, an employee at a hostel in Ireland winkingly confided to me that the little hamlet of Timoleague contained ‘sex pubs.’  I was scandalized; it didn’t seem that sort of place at all.  A stroll through town with a friend showed me my mistake: there were exactly six pubs in Timoleague, and not one of them was a brothel.

Leave a comment

Filed under Marginalia

Notes for a Universal History of Tobacco

My wife had a teenage crush on James Dean. She confided it to her father who latched onto the idea and bought her anything he could find bearing the beloved likeness. Grateful for his generosity, she came to regret sharing that bit of information. Her bedroom was slowly transformed. James Dean books and videos, mugs, and knick-knacks colonized her shelves and the tops of her dresser and nightstand. Wall décor of her own choosing was exiled farther and farther into the corners with the arrival of each new poster. By the time she’d outgrown her infatuation, she was the reluctant priestess of a shrine dedicated entirely to the perpetual adoration of the Rebel-Without-a-Cause.

It once came to the attention of my father-in-law that I enjoyed an occasional cigar. Soon they began to multiply in my hands. I was given two or three at each visit. He returned from a cruise to Puerto Vallarta and presented me with a dozen Cubans he’d smuggled through customs, for which I thanked him heartily. But his inclination to give me cigars soon outpaced my inclination to smoke them. I had a raucous bachelor party’s supply of them in my sock drawer pining away for the flame, desiccating for lack of a proper humidor. Then one day I came home from work to find a package waiting. I opened it and discovered inside a veritable Wunderkammer of gloriously banded and beribboned cigars of all shapes, sizes and varieties: Cohiba, Cu Avana, Man o’ War, Gurkha, Indian Tabac, Rocky Patel, La Flor, Joya de Nicaragua, Romeo y Julieta, H. Upmann, etc. He’d found a deal too good to pass up. There were over seventy-five in all.

“It’s James Dean all over again,” said my wife.

That was a number of years ago. I don’t smoke cigars anymore. The day of my last cigar I’d driven to a vista point in the hills to light up one of my rich, chocolate colored Gurkhas. Watching a group of retirees pilot remote controlled single-prop barnstormers over the parking lot, I lost track of my puffing and gave myself a severe case of nicotine poisoning. To keep from retching and passing out I had to lie down on the grass, breathing deeply, sweating and shivering for an hour before I was able to stand up. After that, I swore off smoking. The thought of it turned my stomach.

I admit, however, the romance of tobacco. It’s more than just the Hollywood glamour of monochrome swirls on celluloid. Tobacco smoking is a quintessentially Western Hemisphere pastime with an ancient pedigree. While the Achaians set fire to Troy the Anasazi were pleasurably smoking the tobacco leaf. While Norman knitters were embroidering the Bayeux Tapestry, Mayan sculptors were carving petroglyph images of pipe-smoking priests. And of course we’re all familiar with the peace pipe’s ritual use among North American tribes, to aid meditation or symbolically seal pacts and alliances. As a member of a family with more than ten generations on this continent and in whose children some measure of Native American blood is mixed, tobacco smoking is for me a quiet way of illustrating my personal allegiance to the New World.

It wasn’t until smoking was popularized in Europe that it met with any objections. England’s King James I was perhaps the most famous early detractor. He instituted a 4000% tax on tobacco to stamp out the barbaric practice. He considered it, as he wrote in his Counterblaste to Tobacco, a “filthie noveltie,” a custom that was

lothsome to the eye, hatefull to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.

Which is about as subtle as most of the anti-smoking rhetoric peddled these days. But despite King James’s prescient estimate of the health dangers of smoking, the prohibitive taxes and the Counterblaste failed. Soon afterward the crown saw its mistake and turned the tobacco trade into a lucrative government monopoly.

If I’m a failed smoker it’s not because I haven’t tried. In the years immediately following college and well before the Affair of the Chocolate Gurkha, I strove to become a cigarette smoker. German-made Botschafter cigarettes were my favorites, but I lacked the budget and requisite capacity for addiction, and anyway didn’t like the way it made my fingers smell. Plus, with mass-produced cigarettes one has all the toxic additives to worry over and the guilt about second-hand smoke. Add to that the taxes on cigarette sales in the United States (which are fast approaching King James levels again) and it’s a wonder anyone bothers at all.

I was given one more chance to be a smoker, however, and I kept it up for little while. My son inherited his grandfather’s compulsion to gift me with tobacco products. For Father’s Day one year he insisted I ask for a pipe as a present from himself and his sister. His Papa, he thought, ought to be a pipe smoker. (He wanted me to grow a beard too; eventually we figured out that he was modelling me on Charles Ingalls from the Little House on the Prarie books.) I told him I might prefer a professional massage, but he begged me to ask for a pipe instead. So we marched into the local pipe shop where I presented myself at the counter:

“I aspire to being a pipe smoker,” I said, and pointed to my son. “Or at least, he insists.”

I was fitted out with a handsome Savinelli briar pipe, a bundle of cleaners, a three-function Czech pipe tool, and a mild custom blend of tobacco which, to the nose, was something like a pleasantly drinkable Cabernet: vaguely sweet, somewhat leathery, aromatic as light incense. I gave the pipe its maiden smoke on the balcony with my children and their mother looking on. I packed the bowl and lit it. My son was laughing with excitement. My daughter called me a dragon each time I belched out a mouthful of smoke. The traces of nicotine danced away in my head and sang pleasantly. The light of the setting sun took on a hue of linseed oil as it filtered through the willows. The oleanders bobbed in a light breeze and the doves cooed softly from a neighbor’s roof. I sighed, relaxed, and suddenly, briefly, there it was: the potent, happy mystery of being human, of being alive.

“Well, what do you think of it?” my wife asked.

“Not bad,” I said. “Not bad at all.”


Filed under Levity

Marginalia, no.68

‘We embraced, and since then we are mortal enemies.’

~ Asmodeus in Alain René Lesage’s Le Diable boiteux

It may hold as a general pattern for demons or lovers.  The relationships of boys, however, move in an opposite direction.  In sixth grade, it was only after Eddie and I had got our fisticuffs out of the way that we found the timid mutual respect permitting friendship.  Maybe Fight Club got it right: maybe adult men find it hard to make friends because they’re less inclined to punch each other in the face.

Leave a comment

Filed under Marginalia

Marginalia, no.67

We are all amateurs in and of our own lives.

~ Julian Barnes, Nothing to Be Frightened Of

It’s when you forget it and start imagining you’re a professional that you get to grumbling about the pay.  Death is poor compensation for life, but everyone cashes the check.

Leave a comment

Filed under Marginalia


Highway 101, the old Spanish El Camino Real, cuts through a grove of eucalyptus in the hills that separate San Juan Bautista from Monterey Bay.  As a child the dappled shadows of those tall trees and the green medicinal odor of their scaly leaves marked a sort of mystical boundary, a division between everything that was vaguely home (the greater San Francisco Bay Area) and the particular away which meant we were going to visit my maternal grandparents near San Luis Obispo, another 150 miles south.  My grandparents are gone now, but I still like to visit San Luis Obispo once a year.

As it descends to the alluvial plain where the Salinas Valley empties into Monterey Bay, the highway winds through a patchwork of changing landscapes.  Artichoke fields flank the road in the fog belt near the bay, where the weather is mild year round.  But south of the city of Salinas the summer sun tyrannizes.  Between the wooded scarp topped by Mt Toro and Palo Escrito to the west and the rocky Gabilan range to the east the July heat licks up from the scorched floor of the Salinas Valley like flames in a gas oven.


Grant Street in Chualar

This is where Steinbeck’s Okies came to work in the 1930s.  Today’s Okies are the mostly Mexican farm laborers who fan out in teams across the irrigated fields and steer harvesters and tractors through djinn-like columns of whirling dust.  We made a brief stop in the valley town of Chualar, situated halfway between Salinas and the charmingly-named Soledad (‘Solitude’).  Chualar is a migrant worker town with a bit of an Old West feeling, a hint of bleak doom.  The Union Pacific rail line runs west of downtown.  The heat is breathless.  There are few trees, a few run-down houses, a handful of liquor stores. There are no pedestrians.  Everyone keeps indoors.  Late-80s-model cars cruise the streets and stop to disgorge a half dozen sweaty laborers in ‘Santa Muerte’ T-shirts who vanish into windowless saloons.  Vultures sail the updrafts overhead.

South of King City, the valley begins to lift and though the heat is still relentless the rolling hills make it somehow bearable.  Treeless white and yellow ridges fill in the uninhabited regions to west and east but near San Ardo there are vineyards planted for miles along the highway.  It’s easy to imagine you’re passing through some pastoral corner of Palestine or Lebanon.

Near San Ardo

Vineyards near San Ardo

Continuing south the hills grow higher and cover themselves with scrub oak and chaparral.  East of the highway are dozens of pumpjacks (also known as ‘nodding donkeys’ or ‘grasshopper pumps’), sucking oil out of the wells that still produce it.  This is the part of central California where Daniel Plainview in Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (and There Will Be Blood) made his fortune.  The oil men of central and southern California today are enjoying a counter-recessional boom thanks to rising crude prices.  From Coyote Hills southward to the Los Angeles basin, a scan of the region on Google Maps will turn up isolated grids of pumpjacks all through the Coast Ranges.

Near the headwaters of the Salinas River and the southern end of Monterey County is Camp Roberts, an abandoned army base that reaches into the hills toward Nacimiento Lake and San Antonio Reservoir.  A pair of retired howitzers frames the old ‘Camp Roberts’ sign on a hilltop.  To the west of the highway are blocks of empty barracks, review halls, storefronts, a post office and a church, all intact but broadcasting neglect in their shattered windows and the steel-blue paint that peels off in hand-breadths and collects on the gravel.

Hills near Camp Roberts

Ridge near Camp Roberts

South of Camp Roberts is Mission San Miguel Arcangel, which is under repair for structural damage suffered in a 2003 temblor.  The sanctuary and portions of the grounds are off-limits.  But the arcade, cemetery and perimeter wall are unrestored and give off an antique 18th-century air.  After the Mexican government seized control of Alta California and secularized the missions, Governor Pio Pico sold Mission San Miguel to an American named William Reed, who lived there with his wife and children for several years before they were all murdered on the grounds.  In 1859, nine years after California’s admission to the Union, President Buchanan gave Mission San Miguel back to the Catholic Church.

Mission San Miguel

Interior of Mission San Miguel, ca. 1934

The landscape freshens up considerably as Highway 101 passes the communities of Paso Robles and Atascadero and climbs into Los Padres National Forest and the Santa Lucia Mountains, redolent of deer and wild boar and mountain lion.  Then at Cuesta Pass the mountains are stripped bare again and the highway makes a steep, snaking descent to Los Osos Valley.  At the base of the grade is San Luis Obispo, spread out beneath Cerro San Luis and Bishop Peak, two dacite volcanic plugs in a string of nine that extend twelve miles to Morro Bay, the southern terminus of Big Sur.

Mission San Luis Obispo was founded in 1772 by Junipero Serra and the city that’s grown up around it retains much of the historic charm on offer in places like Santa Barbara, but on a smaller scale and with less pretense.  It’s also a university town and so is thick with students and the coffeehouses, restaurants and bars they support.  We were lucky enough to be there on market day when several blocks of Higuera Street are converted to an open air farmer’s market cum carnival and performance space.  My children were particularly interested in the massive barbeque pits, the Air Force Reserve brass band, a scruffy fellow riding a bike mounted with deer antlers, and a group of students at one particular street corner advertising free hugs.

SLO Market Day

Market day on Higuera Street

From San Luis Obispo we made a day trip to Pismo Beach (my son kept quoting old Bugs Bunny cartoons: ‘Pismo beach and all the clams we can eat!’).  There we spent several hours hunting dragons through the dunes and collecting sand dollars on the shore.  That evening at the hotel I had the pleasure of smoking my pipe to the hooting of owls under the stars.  The next day I spent an undisturbed hour at Phoenix Books on Monterey Street, where I purchased paperback copies of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and Cynthia Ozick’s The Cannibal Galaxy.  San Luis Obispo used to have an even better bookshop, Leon’s, on Higuera Street.  It was an awful loss to me personally to find Leon’s gone a couple years back.  But Phoenix has only improved since then.  And it’s consoling to see that the old Leon’s sign -permanently affixed to the façade of its building- still lights up after sunset.


The old Leon’s Books sign

Ah, books.  Ah, roadtrips too.


Filed under Misc.

Marginalia, no.66

You are immortal for as long as you live.

~ Alvaro Mutis, The Snows of the Admiral

A nice example of what I’ll call Nonsensus Profundis.  Reminiscent of a comic battle cry I once dreamt up: “DEATH TO ALL MORTALS!” – which put me deeper in tears and laughter the more barbarically and bloodthirstily I delivered it.  When this sort of thing starts sounding deep, you know it’s time for a vacation.

Leave a comment

Filed under Marginalia