& Other Delusions of a Free-lance Writer

Chapter 4: California Musing

AT ABOUT 7:30 AM, Amtrak 708 departs from Oakland, southbound towards San Diego. Actually it gently nudges out of the station--one, two little pushes at your back--then quietly picks up speed. Complete opposite of taking a plane where you roar down the runway like a charging beast, then barely, oh, just barely, pull up and off.

In the train it's gentle and slow also because of the tracks. No high profit margin to keep them in shape these days, I suppose. So at certain places the train slows down to walking speed. You can see where you are going, count crows or cars or cattle, and, if you get tired of that or feel cramped, you can take a leisurely walk to the front of the train and back again.

And when you get to your destination, the train pulls to an easy stop, halts before a nice little building with a sign on it that assures you that you are where you think you are and not in a foreign country due to a misunderstanding back in the ticket office. No dramatic roar of engines, no powerful back-thrusting, no strange sprouting of extra flaps or wings upon wings to grind the plane down onto a shortened runway--no, none of these engineering marvels backed by "redundant systems" that never fail but do the one time they are needed.

If you want excitement, fly; if you want to meditate, take the train. You will be as content as the Buddha.

Well, maybe.

Before we pulled out of the station, I was suddenly surrounded by a group of young Germans--students apparently on vacation. After tiredly stowing their bags in the overhead racks, most of them seemed content to go back to sleep and wake up to California a little later on. But not so the young woman with the shaven head and her moderately hirsute male companion in front of me.

"Was fur ein . . . Eigentlich? . . . Unmoglich, unmoglich . . . Sagte er das? . . . Langweilig, stumm . . . Was fur ein Stadt! . . ." was about all I picked out in the rapid rattle of conversation, interspersed with little explosions of amusement and laughter, between these two highly intelligent-looking young people who seemed to be courting each other with every ounce of mind and wit available. She talked more voluminously, but he appeared to have the subtler wit, the keener edge. Finally, when the young man told her a little story that caused her to gasp, fold over, suck in her breath, then shriek so loud it seemed like the train would derail, I decided it was time to move forward. Courtship is a lovely ritual in its many forms but mainly to those doing the courting; to a captive audience in the early hours it is nothing but bad theatre.

Now if you think California is shiny and new and all ablaze with the glitter of gold; or if you think it's sunsets and sunrises and sexy woman and seductive young men; or even if you think it's only sleek new cars on big crowed freeways jammed up to the next off-ramp (more accurate)--take a trip through its backyard on an Amtrak coach. There can be found a strong antidote to any illusions one may have about the "Golden State." California has been collecting junk since the 1850s and piling it by the back fence to rust into oblivion. It’s not a pretty picture--neither the industrial junk you see as you pass through Richmond, Martinez, or Pittsburg-Antioch, nor that which you witness in people’s backyards along the way. Rusty machinery, cables, and containers; an old couch slouching among mustard weed and dry grass--it’s not "scenic" but it is an eye-opener.

After Pittsburg-Antioch I had seen enough old stuff heaped by back fences. I had also seen another sight that surprised me but that I suppose I should not have been so naive about: Round silver car after round silver car of chemical compounds sitting on side tracks in yards along the way, cars with labels like Tri-chloro . . . I do not enjoy the role of the alarmist in today’s industry-versus-environment drama--and so many love the role that I would never get it away from them anyway--but there were so many of these sinister-looking cars, all so accessible and yet unattended, that one couldn’t help but speculate about other "backyard litter."

With such thoughts, I slumped down in my seat by the window--I could just barely hear the laughter of the young German couple now--and dozed. I suppose I was exhausted from the lack of sleep of the last two days and the tension of the drive, especially that drive across the bridge. Had I really made it? Maybe I had not stopped when all the lights had gone red in front of me. Maybe I had slammed . . .

It was a warm, profound sleep that I found myself slipping down into. Warm, profound, deep; as though I were passing through a wall or a membrane into another world, as though I had been heavily drugged and was now descending into a warm, subterranean world.

A world of dryness, a desert; a place without water. Only sand and a few shrubs; dry, rocky river beds. And a sun that did not shine but rather glared through an unpleasant, yellow-brown haze, reducing all distant objects to colorless forms, remote yet dully threatening. A hot, debilitating sun that destroyed, that broke down, that subtracted life, took it away, rather than gave it. It was a harsh, interrogating sun before which life cringed and cowered without an answer, so that the sun punished, tore down, broke apart, decomposed everything--sepal, stem, stalk, flesh, bone--into its elemental parts.

Here in the waterless place it was a harsh sun but an impersonal one, a masked executioner doing its job. Call it cruel, if you like; but it was no more cruel than a chemical formula or a law of physics--a solvent or a body in motion.

If life had no answer, then dissolution--chemical or otherwise--was its function. So had it always been.

And life had no answer. Purposeless and impotent, life did not, so it seemed, even hear the question. Life was out shopping. Or life was busy turning a knob or pressing a button or angry about a delay that it, life, was responsible for. Life, if it were female, was pouting; life, if it were male, was angry and ready to go to war. Butt to butt, bumper to bumper, life was closer to death than it thought.

Life was dying, but life did not seem to know. Life, babbling away about a new beginning, was busy with the final stages. Life was looking in a mirror one last time as the mirror cracked.

I found myself crawling in a river bed, digging in the sand with raw, bloody fingers. I was unbearably thirsty, my throat was on fire. I could think of only one thing: water. I wanted to sit by a pond one last time under the cool shade of willows; I wanted to hear the trickle of water over damp, mossy rocks into the pond; I wanted to see the sun’s light play in the pale green canopy of branches swaying gently overhead. I wanted to see wings, just one bird--a dove or a hawk, a robin or a jay--among those branches. Life that was gentle and loving, or life that was daring and bold, but life that was really alive.

I awoke as the train slowed and we approached Modesto and Riverbank. I looked out the window and saw The Valley--the vast San Joaquin. Valley without end, space without delineation, I feel some evil here. Dull green or brown, those were the only colors; and flat as far as the eye could see. We had entered this infinite space of two colors through its western boundary and were now headed south. The sights, beyond vast fields that did not refresh the soul: occasionally a riverbank with a little grass and a few trees growing along it; occasionally heaps of stone from the days of gold-dredging when the belly of the earth was torn open for phantom treasure. My thoughts: few, fragmented, unproductive, leading nowhere.

My mother was born in Modesto in 1918. Her father was president of the bank.

She remembers the Great Depression; he lived it. Fortunately, his great love was not money; it was art and music.

Before the Depression he voted Republican; afterwards, Socialist.

He had a silver-plated trombone and enough sheet music to open a music store.

Dressed as a banker, he used to take me and my brother on wagon rides down to the river. He looked care-free, happy.

My mother was valedictorian of her high school class, her passion was drama.

As a child, I can remember her on stage in a Shakespeare production. I think she played Ophelia in Hamlet, but it may have been some other play entirely.

And I can remember her at the dinner table telling about the big bank robbery in Modesto at her father’s bank. Oh, and I can remember her flexing her tennis arm muscle at the dinner table too. It was huge.

My mother was a very spirited young woman, but all my thoughts about her now seem so dead.

Each thought remains separate, as though having lost the desire to mate with, or even relate to, other thoughts.

Her father died at fifty-six. I remember him being carried out of the house on a stretcher covered by a white sheet.

His wife, my mother’s mother, lived to be one hundred and four. Towards the end she confided in me: "I don’t know why I am still here."

I was older then but could not explain it either.

She wanted to die, felt that the Lord truly had business for her elsewhere, and did not understand the delay.

Still, separatist thoughts say leave us alone, this is our town, who asked you . . .

Nasty small-town thoughts, narrow-minded thoughts; or the thoughts of another, more private time.

But I refuse to leave town.

I try to picture my mother as a young woman in Modesto back in the 30s. Black and white frames, jerky, like an old-time movie. But it isn’t real. I add color, make her more real, bring her image before me again (I do not compress the data!), let her move about on a little private stage reserved for my mother. She is almost real now. I can almost bring her back to life as she once was. If I can only concentrate a little harder, think only on her living image as a young woman. She is coming alive, she is moving about before me; I hear her voice, I see the soft texture of her skin that is the same texture of my own, I . . . Suddenly she is slipping away from me, I am losing her, the lights on the little stage are growing dim. She is gone now and I am exhausted, but it was worth it; for I believe now that she was real once and the departure point for my onw life's journey; so I let it go, let it fade away, think on other things, any other things. And the little thread of thought sinks back into the Great Thread of Thought. But maybe I will pluck it out again someday. Or be plucked out myself by offspring. Hey, I am alive now, child!

Now emerging from Modesto and Riverbank and memories of my mother that leave me feeling sad and alone--what do I expect picking up fragments of a life that is gone?--we are back in the vast agricultural valley that grows and groans for money; grapes, walnuts, dates, figs; apricots, peaches, pears, oranges; cotton and corn and probably dope. From a Sacramento point of view, the San Joaquin Valley is the biggest profit center of the state; it produces far more vegetable matter than California’s citizens consume. It’s a real junky when it comes to pesticide use--California’s farmers use 160 million pounds of the stuff--and it is also drinking the state dry. Ask a salmon. Ask a fisherman. They speak the same language these days: gloom and doom.

A depressing story told in a language that is not beautiful.

"If you haven’t got anything pleasant to say, don’t say anything at all"--an old refrain I heard at the dinner table many years ago.

Indeed, I was too much the critic for my years back then. My father should have shot me at times.

But these days I hear sincere voices say: "We can’t breathe the air, the water is unclean . . . ."

Other voices try to hush them: "If you haven’t got anything pleasant to say . . . ."

Other voices hush the hushing voices, but it is probably all over for salmon and fishermen anyway.

I stare out the window. I try to think of something pleasant, but my mind does not cooperate. Or maybe it gets confused and does the opposite. For I see computers and computer chips everywhere--California’s other big "cash crop." I see them in the fields growing side by side with watermelons; I see them swimming upstream like salmon. Then I see them eating watermelon and shitting salmon and counting heads of fishermen and farmers. I see them on the highway driving Porches and shouting obscenities at accountants in old tan Fords. I see them frustrated, building their own highway, the Greatest Highway Ever, the "Information Superhighway." (I see politicians pouring over schematic diagrams late at night, trying to figure out what it all means to their constituencies.) I see processors and packets and DRAMs & SRAMs; I see coaxial cable and Hubs and LANs; I see cross-point switches and local repeaters; I see SANs, LANs, and Wide Area Networks; I see . . . I see . . . stars and bright lights and cherubim and seraphim; I see the Divine Master seated on a throne and he's the president of Intel Corporation. All knees, industrial, financial, and governmental, bend in his presence.

Back on earth in the Valley of No Good we are passing a large field that is being plowed.

You there on the big green John Deere tractor in the field, what do you think of this Superhighway? Turn off your sprayers, remove your mask and goggles, come join the discussion. Let us talk fast bytes by the lettuce.

You say it’s the wave of the future; you say it’s sexy. You say you’re planning to surf those lovely swells of data on your next vacation; you’d pay anything to know her better.

You, sir, are a plant. An industry PR plant. Back on your tractor, be off with you; your goggles looked too new. Tell the account executive that your little stunt did not work.

But don’t get me wrong. This new data highway is probably a good thing. But good things are often spoiled by the human factor. You don’t have to go beyond Genesis to read about that.

Let us backtrack to the article about a company’s graphics coprocessor. My own motives seemed simple enough: earn the money to go from point A to point B.

But nothing is simple these days, oh, no; not a kiss or a hiss or even a piss; a Nash named Ogden might have said but didn't.

As explained earlier, the technology was fairly complex. Due to insufficient semiconductor memory capacity and microprocessor speed, a company was devoting itself--so were its competitors--to a process of fooling human perception. A process of deception that borrowed, with insult instead of gratitude, sophisticated mathematics from another field.

But then here we come along writing a paper about it--a sort of immodest confession in which you boast of the cleverness of your crime.

Sound like a recipe for disaster? But that’s not all. There’s an additional factor, dark and purely human. Brian, the engineer I am or was writing the paper for, loves it, says so, and in his infatuated state decides to send it around the company for comments. Does he think he will get compliments? Things like, "Great article, Brian. Didn’t know you were such a talented writer!" or Wow, Brian, I wasn’t aware of the effect of the coefficient of . . . . You have set me straight!" or from the corporate tower: "Fine article, check no proprietary leaks!"

Of course not. He is going to get criticism, and not all of it friendly and well intentioned. Especially since he is new to the company and is considered an upstart in the Land of Upstarts. Let me put it simply: Some at IST do not think he should be so quick to be writing papers and getting his name in print as the company’s expert. That can mean prestige and even a salary increase.

You see, the human factor and the dark forces begin to work in this land where complexity rules ans some "thrive in chaos." And it is hard to counter the dark forces where they blend so well with "coporate culture" and other industrial streptococcus.

Certain individuals set out to destroy the article, to shoot holes in it any way they can. One goes so far as to assert that there is no order to it until we produce an outline, signed off by the journal, that reveals a boringly logical sequence of topics strictly adhered to in the writing.

Critical brows furrow deep as trenches and waterless "wells" become shallow and apologetic, as it is admitted that perhaps, just perhaps, there is some logic in the presentation of the material.

So the battle goes till some detractors, seeing the way the wind is blowing, begin to hum a new tune called "What a good article" in A-major; they just objected, so they say, to a certain word, a word they are now unable to find.

Have you had this experience? If you work with dignity in the fields, probably not; if you pick lettuce in the Salinas Valley or harvest mushrooms in Santa Cruz or prune the esteemed vineyards of Napa or even grow dope in Mendocino, you have probably been spared this. But if you have ever done hard mental labor for one of California’s high-technology companies, you know what I am talking about!

Complexity, cleverness, deception, smugness, and the Dark Forces.

A job for the hot desert sun. But not now; the paint is still too new on all the cars.

But now we are approaching Bakersfield, and I resolve to direct my mind in another direction.

Return to Literary Page?

Return to Main Page?