The prolific author John Updike once said:
“It's always a push to get up the stairs, to sit down and go to work. You'd rather do almost anything, read the paper again, write some letters, play with your old dust jackets, any number of things you'd rather do than tackle that empty page, because what you do on the page is you, your ticket to all the good luck you've enjoyed.”
(quoted by Paul Gray and Peter Stoler, "Perennial Promises Kept," Time magazine, October 18, 1982)
Summertime is my season of procrastination and distraction. In Costa Rica, during the US winter, I have perfect solitude, not only a room of my own, but a house of my own. It is quiet. There are no stores to shop in. I have no address, and so no Amazon Prime, no trolling the computer for good buys on this or that. No eBay. My credit card bills go almost to zero. The big decision is whether to eat a mango or a pineapple with my beans and rice, or both. I wake up in the mornings when the howler monkeys howl, and go to sleep early in the deep black of the night that starts promptly at 6PM every evening.
By June, I come “home” to the US, to family and friends, magazines and mail, stores and the internet. The days pass quickly and I am exhausted by nightfall, which in Seattle may not be until 9PM. Most days, it seems I don’t make it to the computer and to the mental spaciousness I seem to need to think and write.
This summer was particularly complicated. Senior citizen type medical problems bothered both me and my husband. I have a new granddaughter, an endless source of distraction and delight. At the end of the summer, we did what I would have thought impossible: a family reunion, with the Barash clan. David and I drove our camper truck to Yosemite Park from Washington by way of Cannon Beach, Oregon and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at Ashland. We spent 4 days, and 3 nights with the family, staying in a very nice large house near Mono Lake, Lee Vining. Then we spent another 8 nights driving slowly north, up the eastern slope of the Sierras to Lava Beds National Monument, then Crater Lake, the Newberry Lava Fields, Smith Rock, and finally the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. I love road trips, and this was exceptionally wonderful for several reasons.
First, we had a project: we read Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov out loud, from Forward to Index, along with a guide to Pale Fire by Brian Boyd, eminent Nabokov scholar. We both remembered Pale Fire mostly as a poem. WRONG WRONG WRONG. Pale Fire is a chess puzzle, an extraordinary work of fiction that can only loosely be described as a novel. The miles floated away as we puzzled our way through Zembla and New Wye, trying to understand John Shade and Charles Kinbote (or is it Botkin?), trying to understand how anybody could write such an intricate puzzle, accessible on many levels and abstruse on many more. We concocted a new expression: to Kinbote. That is, to be exclusively self-preoccupied, narcissistic, grandiose, and insensitive. Kinbote is the essence of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, no matter what changes are made to DSM5. Reading Pale Fire makes one a better reader and rereader. The more engagement, the more sense it makes. However, one needs endlessly uninterrupted miles to go through this process, it is not a fast-food read.
Our family reunion worked out well because we had lots of space and freedom, to be alone or to be in affinity groups. A travel blog must mention at least one restaurant, and Lee Vining is home to a spectacular place – the Mobil Gas Station. What? You say? You eat well at a gas station? Ah, yes, this Mobil Station is the home of the Whoa Nellie Deli, and finer lobster tacos, Jumbalaya, meat loaf, and steaks are not to be found.
We delighted in the ubiquitous forest service campgrounds, built by the CCC during the Roosevelt years, which provide lovely, safe, quiet camp spots for $6 or so per night. At Lava Beds Monument one could see photos of the work crews, mostly young men who were paid $5 per month plus room and board to work on the parks and forests. Sadly, some of this is decaying due to lack of funding. What genius Roosevelt showed when he put Americans back to work during the Great Depression building infrastructure that lasts to this day. The proof of the benefit of Keynesian economics can be seen in the backcountry, where good men did good work for little pay, but for the benefit of the nation.
Now the days are getting shorter and the leaves are turning yellow. I’m packing my suitcase, and saying goodbye to the US. Certainly, I’ll miss the Apple Store and tech support; wonderful organic grocery stores; paved roads; NPR; friends and family. But I know that all of this busyness is a great distraction, and it will be lovely to be quiet enough to hear my own thoughts, independently, soon. There are authors like my dear husband who can write a 1000 word article on a picnic table in the middle of a campground with a lousy internet connection off the top of his head in an hour or two. He can focus on writing like a laser, and easily turns the whole world to mute. By contrast, I am distractible. A cluttered room, errands to run, repairs to conclude, or a new Jack Reacher novel hijacks my mind and I lose my way in a cloud of To Do lists.
Pura Vida, here I come!