Monday, January 31, 2011

California as it is in 2000

From the University of Delaware Writenow Fall 2000

California as it is in 2000

The two most beautiful words in the English language are "early retirement." H---- and I are ecstatic at having washed ashore on the Central Coast of California. We have two furnaces and did not turn on either one all last winter, though we fired them up the first winter when the unacclimated Stillmans [Damie Stillman, retired Art History faculty member] and Olsen-¬Smiths (Steven Olsen-Smith, Ph.D. 2000) visited. At Morro Bay the temperature ranges between 70° in the day and 55° at night. The moon is full every night and at every noon the tide is low. Most days are dazzlingly clear, the ocean a prussian blue from Estero Point twelve miles north of our house, Angel del Mar, to Point Buchon, twelve miles to the south. Other days are mysterious, fog rising and low clouds falling, mist swirling, obscuring parts or all of Morro Rock, but always, all day long, a shaft of sunlight falls on and just around Angel del Mar. Morro Rock is the westernmost of several extinct volcanoes that extend inland in a row for 20 miles. We have climbed a few of these "rnorros" and have others on our list. The State of California and San Luis Obispo County are acquiring hunks of new parkland and new wildlife refuges every few months, so our list of new places to explore is lengthening even as we check off excursions we have made.

The birds are rarely as colorful as we saw in Landenberg, but Morro Rock is a peregrine falcon refuge, and we see red-tailed hawks, kestrels, and horned owls almost every day around the house. One noontime a large osprey flew up with a fish at least 14 inches long, perched atop a telephone pole across the street, and ate the fish to a skeleton over the next four hours. Otters and seals are pretty common in the bay. Last week I saw, from the house, a pod of a dozen or more humpbacked whales, as many as 5 or 6 spouting at the same time. Two days ago I saw several dolphins close to shore while I was running along the beach.

The Pacific is a quarter mile and one stoplight down the hill, seventy seconds if I catch the light on Hwy 1. No one under 50 is allowed on the beach unless accompanied by an adult, so it's pretty serene there. Occasionally a geriatric Fresnoid smokes on the beach until she is removed by the Chorizo Committee, a geezer squad affiliated with Wilmington's Kielbasa K-9 Korps across from Figiel's bakery. Other geezer groups decry the visual pollution created by sailboats and windsurfers, agitate to replace boardwalks at the beach with brick pathways, host wheelchair balloon-popping tournaments for Ralph Nader, and push other worthy causes, but I am still not a joiner, although I will red tag smokers as I run past, to help the Chorizos.

Physically we are in good shape. I run. H---- gets exercise working in the yard, which is on a 40 degree grade. She falls a lot but has learned to tuck in her head and hands and roll. She has the NordicTrack outside, facing the ocean, and uses it 40 minutes a day. At the border entrance-inspection near Donner Pass in June 1998 we agreed to certain procedures to fit us for California, most of which have been checked off the list--Lasik surgery for both of us (though I still wear glasses on the Harley), a dewlap nip under my chins, and very local liposuction for my love handles, hardly worth doing. We eat better than most politicians, thanks to the Farmers’ Market, where we bought, this week, strawberries ("half a flat"), a three-pack of raspberries (including an orangish variety), black figs, black plums, sugar plums, yellow freestone peaches, kiwis, heirloom tomatoes, Concord grapes, 2 kinds of basil--on and on. No white-fleshed nectarines this week; the oranges are little watery now; and it will be a few weeks before the tiny spicy See Canyon Anjou pears go on sale. Not even strawberries last all winter, but in rainy January there are wonderful fresh oranges, pears, apples, and pineapple guavas. My bread is better all the time thanks to the low humidity and the spores that waft down the coast from sourdough country.

H---- has done much volunteer work for the local opera company (not as thriving as Delaware's), and as PR person for the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden she has written press releases, done TV and radio interview and helped construct a web-site. She has the best, newest, and cheapest computer and printer in the house and has learned astonishing tricks such as scanning a photograph of me on my hog and sending it to Linda Russell.

We are slow to let the old cars go, but H---- has a new celadon-sage SAAB and I use the hog more and more now that I have enhanced the sound by perforating the muffler with a real harpoon thanatologist Edwin Shneidman sent me.

We worked for months reclaiming this Spanish Colonial fantasy structure with a west-gazing angel (hence the name Angel del Mar) in a niche high up outside the elevator shaft and below dragon-clawed corbels. Other features are a blue dome with a crescent moon and some yellow stars; a copper iguana running down the flagpole; double-headed ruby-eyed snakes hanging over the kitchen window (outside); assorted eagle-talons on less conspicuous corbels; on the main foyer floor a compass mosaic with sun-moon-and-stars images from Tarot cards; assorted sea-shells above exterior doors; projecting from the front walls, fish heads and four archangels blowing copper trumpets (functional downspouts); and for ocean viewing (and H----'s napping on a chaise) two battlements and a demi-Iune balcony on the top level, wrought iron balconies off the living room and the dining room, and, my addition last year, a whale-watching parapet outside the wine cellar tiled with swimming figures midmost of which is Mocha Dick, the White Whale of the Pacific. I call the house my Mies.

I swept up the cement mixes before I uncovered the computer. First I did a complete revision of the 1967 Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick then I focused on Volume 2 of my Melville biography, now complete in 2nd draft. I am polishing it before turning it over to Johns Hopkins for publication early in 2002. For the dust jacket blurbs I am hoping to line up creative people. Maybe Tony Kushner once more, and Sendak (who is doing the jacket again); perhaps Paul Seydor, the Sam Peckinpah expert; the novelist David Morrell, the creator of Rambo (who came to lunch last year and photographed Angel del Mar with expertise gained in writing Double Image); other novelists. No academics!

Saintly former students, Todd Richardson (1997 MA), Dan Lane, and Steven Olsen-Smith, have gone to libraries for me, and people from the Melville chat group calling themselves the Irregulars and have located items I needed such as a picture of a locomotive Melville's brother-in-law built in 1855 and details on a sister-in-law's will from 1890. Without their help I would have been stymied until I could get to the libraries at Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, or the Huntington.

The Internet has been a lifesaver. I use the Cornell "Making of America" site for surprisingly many 19th century books and magazines. Often I find just what I need at the moment on Google, such as a clear photograph of the monument to General Worth that Melville saw almost every day in his last years. The Internet is a bottomless source of battered, water-stained books that I buy cheap because no one else wants them, such as Ticknor and Fields 1850s and 1860s editions of Tennyson and Browning so I can see just what poems were in editions available to Melville. I have bought many ragged copies of books in the same editions Melville owned so I can mark them up with his marginalia. Without I could not have written V2 here. . . .

Soon I will be free to pursue other projects, some old like THE POWELL PAPERS, some new. I have completed a very rough draft of an autobiography called TO PLAY WITH THE WHITE KIDS (as in "all I ever wanted was to play &c"). (My last half-Indian aunt turns 100 this month [and survived to live in three centuries, but not very long in two of them].) I am far along on "The Beatification of Ginny Foat," an inside story based on diaries I kept in LA and just after going to Delaware. Another project less far along, WHETHER IT HAPPENED OR NOT, a history of academic theory, overlaps several arguments from FLAWED TEXTS AND VERBAL ICONS (1984). I very much want to write a popular, non-scholarly book on how previously-unknown episodes in biography get identified and created, a way of replying to New York intellectuals who are sure that no documentation for Melville’s life exists and that therefore anyone who writes a 2000-page biography has to be making it all up.

Trapped in the mind-set of the Great Depression, I have all my retirement in safe TIAA annuities instead of risky CREF stocks, but Social Security is ample for someone buying nothing much but marmalade-smeared sermons by Orville Dewey, and I am astounded at how much money the more elderly citizens here are willing to pay for a baguette held out toward them by a big old white-haired guy on a Harley, so we look forward to a secure older age. Our habits have not changed much, but the nature of retirement is being transformed around us. I type my name into Google to see if I exist and I learn just which graduate classes will be arguing this fall about my article on Walt Whitman's "Live Oak, with Moss"! New publications or not, I'm out there now, in cyberspace, still teaching passionately, and still hoping to get to play with the white kids.

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