Archive for February, 2010

I Dream in Orange

Posted in Boyhood on February 28, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

In the spring of 1965 my mom and dad transplanted our family to the outskirts of a burgeoning young city where housing developments were springing up and orange groves were falling down. Our sparkling new neighborhood stood at the edge of town on the front lines of the advancing new world. The homes were huge, hulking two-story monoliths, every one painted white, and under contract by the new homeowners to remain just so preserved for the next ten white years.

At the time, I was under the naive illusion that my house did not, itself, supplant an orange grove. That, I think, is why I was always alarmed and offended when the next grove fell to became another construction site. We were newcomers to this agrarian world – outsiders, even – living on the west side of a boulevard that delineated our new world from the the old. While my neighborhood was named Meredith Acres by the marketing group that sold my folks our home, across the street my friends lived on real acres, with real roosters and chickens and cows and horses.

But at school, all boys were equal, and I, the newcomer, was invited to spend an afternoon on the property of the legendary Guzman family. We called the place Fernando’s – my buddy’s name – as if he owned it. Fernando’s was a string of orange groves a half a mile wide and five miles deep. His dad tended the groves, and that, to me, was as good as ownership, because it entitled us to adventures that simply weren’t available to kids on my block.

Fernando’s family lived in a small clapboard home built around the turn of the century. The house was positioned at the end of the paved city road and stood as a kind of sentry, guarding from intruders the countless acres of fruit-laden trees, bee hives and meticulously assembled irrigation systems. As one approached the house, much could be understood from the dirt road. The lawn, littered with small children’s toys, indicated that a large family, maybe too large for the house, lived there happily. The days’ laundry fluttered in the breeze. Around back, chickens and roosters wandered freely, pecking at the ground. A sweet smell of Mexican food hung in the quiet stillness, mixed with the somewhat unfamiliar odor of a septic system that needed some attention.

A typical excursion at Fernando’s started slow and ended even slower. Since we were still too young for motorcycles, we traveled by sneakers, starting out along the southernmost service road that pointed directly east toward the back of the property. Bordered by eucalyptus trees planted as windbreaks, the dirt roads served only as a means to work the groves. This was an unpaved, unpopulated and positively magical place for an afternoon adventure.

When I showed up at Fernando’s, Casey and Fernie were chasing chickens around back. Well, Fernando made it look like he was chasing them, but it was little Casey who was doing all the catching. Fernando was a well-fed kid, to say the least, and at twice Casey’s size, was simply out of the running. Not that it mattered to anyone – it was just a matter of fact. Fernando seemed to be comfortable in his roll as the biggest kid in the entire 8th grade. Heck, if my mom cooked like Fernie’s, I’d be that big too.

I’ll have to admit to being surprised to see Casey and Fernando both pick up their 22s, which they had left leaning up against the side of the house. I shot a gun once at Y camp with my dad, but that was on a shooting range with adults all over the place and rules for every move. Out here in the country, even kids had guns. I marveled.

What happened next was insubstantial, but to me, otherworldly. We started out on the southern road, bordered by a chicken farm on our right and endless orange groves on our left. The palette out there was simple and tidy – light blue, cloudless sky above our heads, deep, rich brown earth under our bare feet, and surrounding us everywhere, dark green foliage punctuated by thousands – maybe millions – of bright orange fruit. The smells of the eucalyptus and citrus mixed and mingled, and even the slightly putrid odor of the chicken farm was a delight to the senses, because it meant freedom. It was a kind of abstract, personal freedom, but all the more important to a 12-year old. It was the smell of the country.

So what were the guns for, I wondered. They were for plinking — not hunting, plinking. Plinking cans. Plinking bottles. Plinking lizards. As soon as Casey took his first shot, I got it. I heard the plink, and saw immediately that in the right hands there was nothing to fear from a 22 rifle. Casey and Fernando knew their guns. They had obviously been well taught and had taken their lessons seriously. As we walked they cradled their rifles in the crooks of their forearms with the barrels pointing downward. If either of them wanted to shoot, we stopped, the shooter advanced forward a few steps and when all was in order, the shot was fired. It was as though they had both read the same gun safety book, a book unknown to me.

But of course I was reading their unwritten book as we walked, and soon it was my turn to take a crack at it. Fernando handed me his rifle in a way that told me that he took gun safety seriously, but at the same time proved his trust in me. The gun felt heavy and solid in my hands. Casey and Fernando stood behind me and coached as I took aim at a can next to a eucalyptus tree. Plink! I felt a surge of pride as I saw the can jump – I hit it on my first try! Casey and Fernando burst out in excited approval at my marksmanship. I couldn’t hide my smile, and didn’t want to.

The mystery of gun play melted away as I realized that it was no big deal to draw a bead on an unsuspecting beer can and then to take it out in one smooth action. It would be hours before we made it back to Fernando’s house, and along the way there would be orange fights, a minor skirmish with a lizard and an abortive dove hunt. Any one of those activities would have been entertainment enough to keep a kid occupied for an afternoon. I felt energized and renewed in a way that seemed to propel me ahead as we ambled down the sun-dappled dirt roads. I was far from my neat, upscale, bleach-white suburban neighborhood, but I was accepted here. I had learned to shoot and tote guns around as if it were nothing at all. Out there in the orange trees, in the kingdom of the boy, we were all equals.

Living in the Now

Posted in Books, Life After 50 on February 21, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

If there is one thing that middle-aged men and women can agree on, it’s that their memories of childhood are powerful. For me, just a whiff of orange blossoms can bring back waves of emotions long buried under a lifetime of clutter.

But if your experiences growing up were painful, some of those memories can haunt you and hurt you decades after they should have faded away. Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now deals with this subject very effectively. But not all of us have read the book, and even after reading, we forget. A bitter memory creeps in. We slip, we fall, and damn it, it hurts all over again.

And twice in as many days, I have met people who are, from time to time, literally prisoners of their memories. Did you think, as I did growing up, that life would get easier and easier? Did you think that middle age would be free of problems and that the sweet golden glow of retirement would begin to loom bigger and brighter? It’s not working out that way for me.

I am in no way any kind of expert here. I’m looking at my eleventh month of unemployment and had almost convinced myself that I was an expert in pain. But I have a couple of friends who have been dealt more than their fair share of trouble. When you see friends in pain, you want to help, you want to do or say something that somehow would make it hurt less, but often that isn’t what they need. Often all they need is someone to listen to them and perhaps provide a shoulder to lean on.

Nonetheless, I think Tolle’s advice is useful. No matter what kind of hurts and difficulties we are dealing with right now, they can be lessened if we remember that the past and the future are illusions. When we feel longing for that idealized past or that shining future, we are imagining constructions to which we are comparing the present. But the present is real, and it is alive. We are alive right now, and we need to focus on that.

Thomas Wolfe Is Always Right

Posted in Life After 50 on February 17, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

A few weeks back I was out on a drive with my son, burning time with no destination, and I subconsciously pointed us in the direction of my mom and dad’s old house. My brother, sister and I grew up there from 1965 through the mid-80s, and my folks finally moved out in ’97. Dad passed on 10 years later. I’ve been back a dozen times since my folks moved out, but this time it seemed different.

It was evening and already dark when we pulled up in front. At the time that these spacious homes were built the neighborhood was perched on the edge of several orange groves and strands of gigantic eucalyptus trees, but inside the neighborhood you’d never know it. The huge, hulking homes were all painted dazzling white. The slumpstone block wall, enclosing the neighborhood as though it were a fortress, was also painted white with silver sparkles. On the ever-creeping edge of suburbia, our neighborhood was an alien, an interloper, and was impressive in a way that paid no homage to ranch style living. It would never fly today, but in the 1960s the pretentiousness of the name “Meredith Acres” suited the up-and-coming defense industry executive perfectly.

But that was the 1960s and things around the neighborhood have changed. My dad was aghast at the way the new owners so quickly countrified the place with picket fences and gnomes and all forms of bric-a-brac. Nonetheless, our old home was plainly visible through the new decor. My son idled the car in front as I sat there in silence, drinking it in. There was something about my dad being gone that made it resonate more, but I looked at that front door with the big quartz rock wall, the steps going up to the front door, the wall of windows and the mature white birch trees and it just got to me. I felt like I was savoring a steak — you want to close your eyes and deny yourself any other sense but exactly the one necessary to take it in. I was in a loop, feeling a memory, conjuring up images, feeling another memory, conjuring up more images, feeling another memory. . .

I could see myself lurking around, long haired, maybe listening to Bowie or Iggy in the garage, my dad tending to the lawn that he was so proud of, my little brother pulling wheelies on his red Schwinn Sting Ray; feeling all of it at once and at the same time thinking of nothing at all specific.

I don’t want to go back — no thanks — but I do treasure the things that I remember. Of course there were good times and there were bad times, but as I age it seems as though the bad stuff is bleaching away into a shade that is much brighter than I originally experienced it. And as for my dad and my mom and our old home, Thomas Wolfe was right.

Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer”

Posted in Books on February 16, 2010 by Thomas N. Schenden

Here’s an animated version of The War Prayer, published posthumously in November of 1916.

Man, when you hear that prayer spoken, it has an ageless, timeless resonance that is just beautiful.

Coincidentally, I am reading a book called “Mark Twain’s Wound.” It’s an assembly of essays in response to a book written about 10 years after Twain’s death called “The Ordeal of Mark Twain” by Van Wyke Brooks.

At first, the very idea of being critical of Twain’s life and his output irritated me. The structure of the Wound book is to present Van Wyke Brooks’ idea, and then counter it in essay form from writings of the era. Brooks thesis was that Twain was damaged goods; that because his father was weak and died early in Twain’s life, Twain hid behind his mother’s skirts and then transferred that relationship onto his wife. Brooks grants nearly no quarter for Twain and complains that he didn’t use his talents for greater and greater achievements. Brooks was eastern establishment, and had no use for the West and what it meant to men of the era.

Brooks is not without insight, but does rely too heavily on Freud. I just don’t think all the psycho-mumbo-jumbo bears up under the weight of day-to-day Western experience. I read about what his life was like in Virginia City, and it was not a place for psychologically nuanced analysis!

So the best of the book is the criticism of Brooks from his contemporaries, who seem to understand the man much better:

— we’re fallible
— we all have our strengths and weaknesses
— we all live with our own contradictions
— life can make you cynical and sarcastic
— you never really escape your youth
— etc.

And more than anything else, Twain wrote to Americans about America. He didn’t write to be a part of a literary establishment (although he did revel in the adulation).

It’s an interesting topic. The more I learn about Twain, the more I respect him.