Posted by: HAT | October 16, 2014

Things Seen and Unseen

Hi, Gang!

image of dry Kings River bed and roadway supports

The Kings River in disguise (near Hanford, California)

We were sojourning in California, “we” being Number One Daughter and I. The experience was unexpectedly jarring. I was unprepared for all of the thoughts and feelings that would arise in response to visiting my home state, and relatives, that I had not seen for approximately four decades. Formulating coherent impressions was challenging, let alone getting those to coalesce into ideas I am willing to admit to having had, even to myself.

This unexpected difficulty explains, in part, why I failed to get some suitably pro-utopian text composed after sightseeing and before re-packing, in time to meet my self-imposed Wednesday morning deadline. I was still struggling to pull some thoughts together on the airplane yesterday, as we headed backwards in time, watching the sun brighten the clouds and noticing the black mass of the mountains that occasionally rise above them. We could barely see the earth from the plane, but we could see that bit of it. (As John Dewey said, “Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon the earth. They are the earth, in one of its manifest operations.” [1])

The main reason for going to California in the first place was to hold a memorial service for Dad in Kingsburg, where most of his surviving relatives live, as well as several lifelong friends. I’d hoped it would be possible for some of his friends and colleagues from further south to attend, too, but the distance, combined with the fact that Dad’s friends and colleagues had aged right along with Dad for all these years, kept most of those people away, except in spirit. The memorial was not fancy or formal, but it wasn’t bare, either. We had flowers and pictures of Dad, and tablecloths and centerpieces we had found at the last minute at Dollar Tree that gave the clubhouse of the senior community where my uncle lives an adequately dressed-up touch, in keeping with the spirit of the occasion. We had food from Sal’s, which everyone loves, and my aunt had recruited desserts and beverages and ice in abundance, so everyone was well-fed. Lots of people pitched in and helped clean up, so it was not too much work for any one person. I had made a program, but we didn’t follow it too closely. People told stories about Dad, and it seems he was a lot of people’s hero out there – something he never told us, maybe because he didn’t know it himself, or quite recognize himself in that light.

One of my cousins shared a memory from when he was very small, three or four maybe, of drinking cold cold milk in Uncle Jake’s (our) back yard, around a picnic table, on a hot summer day, from the bright metal tumblers we had (Oh, yes! Those!) My mom had put drops of food coloring in the milk. He said he didn’t know why that particular little memory had stayed in his memory all these years, but it had. Later, our friend from down south told me those metal tumblers were originally cottage cheese containers, which I never knew, till now.

We stayed a few days past the memorial, to “see California,” as my daughter said. This seemed to mean that she wanted to see the source of the images she sees on TV and in the movies, so we focused on LA and Hollywood. We splurged and stayed two nights at the Loews Hollywood hotel. When we arrived, we learned that for $20 extra per night, we could stay on the top floor. This gave us a spectacular view of the city: Griffith Park Observatory was directly in front of us, the Hollywood sign was clearly visible off to the left and highly photogenic, and we had a panorama of city lights at night.

The hotel is pretty and comfortable, but since it is a luxury hotel, there are naturally no ordinary amenities: no complimentary breakfast, no fridge or microwave (unless one asks), no pop machines, and oddly, to my way of thinking, no trash receptacle – just a tiny one in the bathroom, as if the kind of people who stay there never use Kleenex or eat snack-size Cheetos. But I have a diet pop habit, which I am too poor and cheap to satisfy with room service, so on Monday morning I went foraging. I figured that since the hotel was in a mall (!), there would surely be a pop machine nearby, if only in the parking garage. As luck would have it, the door to a loading dock was open and I caught a glimpse of a familiar logo and shape – mission accomplished! The nice man who was trolleying boxes into the back of a truck didn’t seem to mind. The boxes, I noticed, were labeled Chefs to End Hunger – oddly, perhaps, not one of the things that shows up in the “about the hotel” book in the room. We did see lots of people who appeared to be homeless, in Hollywood and in Palisades Park, though. I suspect people do not make a special effort to photograph them; we didn’t.

The premise that “Everything that appears is good; whatever is good will appear” [2] governs California, and I fall into its gravitational pull immediately. I know I’m invisible, mostly, something I share with most humans on the planet, and while I’m capable of getting over it eventually, my first reaction to noticing my own obscurity is always to feel that I’ve failed, that something is really wrong with me. It takes effort to remember that getting a better job so I can make more money so I can buy better jewelry, or working harder to become more excellent at something so I can gain more renown, while not necessarily bad things in themselves, are still losing strategies in the end. There are a lot of ways to be invisible. How to be invisible matters. It’s where all the degrees of freedom really are.

I told my cousin I thought I understood why he remembers that moment in our backyard. It was, I imagine, a vivid moment of pure joy. All at once: this, delight, here, now. A potent, albeit microscopic, recollection of what is really possible. Possible in this very world, though we can barely see it, most of time, from where we are.

I thought Dad’s ashes should stay in California, the few we’d saved from inurnment in Kentucky. Where in California was the problem. My uncle suggested the Kings River – “your dad always loved the Kings River.” It is dry at the moment, because of the severe drought and the needs of irrigation, and as luck would have it there is a country club with a parking lot right by the river, on the edge of town. I drove by on Saturday, but there were lots of people around and I felt too conspicuous. Early on Sunday morning, around sunrise, I tried again. I drove out to the country club parking lot, past the sign that said “Members and Guests Only,” and parked the rental car. The two golfers out at the nearest tee didn’t seem to mind. I walked across the street and past the sign that said “Private Property Keep Out,” down the river bank with its thick layers of thin, dry, light brown eucalyptus leaves, into the dry river bed. It was sandy as a beach, and hard to walk on. I poured Dad’s ashes out near the bridge, and covered them with a layer of still-damp sand. If anyone saw, they didn’t notice, or not enough to say anything or try to stop me. I hope it was just as harmless as it seemed. I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be, though I know that’s no guarantee. I’m sure I didn’t hurt any of the golfers by borrowing their access to the river bed for a few minutes. And I don’t see how adding a now-invisible, albeit memorable, handful of mortal remains to the sand of the river bottom would endanger anyone or anything, seen or unseen. They are not on the earth, or even in it. They are the earth, in one of its less manifest operations.

[1] John Dewey, Art as Experience, New York: Perigee, 1980 (1934), 3.
[2] Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, New York: Zone Books, 1994 (1967), 15.

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