Posts Tagged ‘Katharine Grey’

Oregon

Sunday, October 8th, 2017

Rita

Rita photo by Todd

“He walked joyously, triumphantly, through the peace and beauty of springtime in California.” Katharine Grey

My great grandmother Katharine Grey wrote a pair of novels Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold, published by Little Brown in the 1930s. Based loosely on the experiences of my paternal ancestors, Rolling Wheels is about a family coming to California from Indiana via wagon train in the years before the Gold Rush of 1849, and Hills of Gold is about that same family living in California during the Gold Rush.

Throughout my childhood, my father impressed upon me that we were real native Californians, being descended on my father’s side from people who came here before California was even a state—never mind the indigenous people who lived here for thousands of years before my Anglo ancestors arrived, or the Mexicans who settled here hundreds of years before the first Anglos came to California.

I was also repeatedly told that my ancestors came to California in the same large wagon train that included the ill-fated Donner party, except my ancestors made it over the Sierras before the onset of winter and founded the town of Fremont while the Donners starved and ate each other.

And this is some of why when I travel to Oregon, I think of Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea and the Oregon Trail and pioneers and the wilderness that was Oregon and California before cars and freeways and computers and everything that has transpired in the last little while of human history.

Marcia and I just returned from an eight-day drive-about in Oregon, and the trip was a Big Deal for the likes of me, one who rarely leaves our watershed here on the Mendocino coast and rarely rides in a motorized vehicle for more than a few minutes at a time every few days. We spent two nights on the Oregon coast, four nights in Portland, a night in Bend, a night in Eugene, and another night on the Oregon coast before returning to California. We took many hikes, ate many good meals, communed with good friends, and saw many sights, some marvelous, some not so marvelous—a fine trip all in all.

The biggest motivating factor for making the trip was to visit our friends Bob and Rita who recently moved to Portland from our neck of the woods. They have both become adept at navigating the byways of Portland and were marvelous guides and hosts as we explored that sprawling metropolis full of trees and roses and bridges and breweries and cafés.

On our last full day in Portland, we took the light rail from a station near Rita and Bob’s house to the center of downtown. A few decades ago, Portland became the first large metropolitan area in America to begin using most of the monies returned to them by the federal government (from the federal tax on gasoline) to create an urban transportation system that would make a good life possible for city people who don’t drive cars. Thus Portland has an excellent and ever-expanding light rail and trolley system second to none west of the Atlantic seaboard.

While riding the light rail into downtown Portland, I became aware that everyone in the crowded car, save for Marcia, Todd, Bob, and Rita, was staring into some sort of portable computer and occasionally diddling the keyboard: small and large smart phones, pads, and laptops. Everyone. No one was looking out a window or at another person. The young woman sitting in front of me was scrolling through photographs of tattooed naked women posed provocatively; and the man sitting beside her was playing a violent video game and snorting every time he killed something.

When we detrained downtown, I noticed that many of the people walking around and sitting in cafés and on benches were also staring into portable computer screens and jabbing them with their thumbs. In fact, save for the legions of homeless people occupying downtown Portland, almost everyone who was not walking fast or riding a bike was staring into a screen and diddling. For some years now I have been aware of the entrainment-to-screens phenomenon in America, but I had never before seen this mass entrancement on such a huge urban scale; and I was both astonished and weirded out, if you know what I mean.

A few days later in Eugene, we were eating good Indian food with our friends David and Joan and Eileen. David is an elementary and middle school music teacher who combines song, dance, comedy, marimbas, ukuleles, drumming, improvisation—you name it—to create exciting and engaging musical experiences for his students culminating in fabulous group performances.

“But,” he said, while telling me about various aspects of his work, “I now feel the most important thing I can do for my students is give them time to engage with me and each other and their own creative impulses without interfacing with their diddle boxes. Because interfacing with their diddle boxes is the main thing most of them do all the time now.”

“If we live, we live; if we die, we die; if we suffer, we suffer; if we are terrified, we are terrified. There is no problem about it.” Alan Watts

There is a square in downtown Portland, one of the main squares, that has lots of places to sit and gawk at passersby, and in one part of this square there is a small parabolic amphitheater made of bricks. If one stands in the center of the parabola facing the ascending tiers of brick half-circles, and one speaks aloud at a normal volume, one’s voice sounds incredibly loud and clear in one’s ears—a totally neato auditory experience.

So I’m standing in the center of the parabola facing a young woman who is sitting slightly above me in the amphitheater and facing in my direction, though not seeing me. She is hooked up to her smart phone with wires connected to tiny earphones plugged into her ears, and she is diddling her screen.

I say, “Hello there,” and the words sound loud and clear in my ears. And then I say to the young woman, “You’re doing this aren’t you? You’re making this happen.”

She frowns quizzically at me and takes the earphone out of her right ear. “Are you talking to me?” she asks, her voice remarkably sonorous.

“Yes,” I say, nodding. “You’re doing something to make my voice sound loud and clear in my ears, aren’t you?”

After a moment of silence between us, a sweet smile claims her face and she nods in agreement.

Self-Archaeology

Monday, May 1st, 2017

rolling wheels

Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold by Katharine Grey

“Well-ordered self-love is right and natural.” Thomas Aquinas

Recent excavations on the shelves of my office have turned up some long-forgotten artifacts, including books and plays I wrote in my youth and loved enough to carry with me through several major moves over the course of forty years.

Indeed, one of my finds, a play I wrote when I was in my early twenties, has traveled with me since the 1970’s when I could carry all my earthly possessions onto a train or bus with me. In my pre-car days, the sum total of my stuff was: a guitar in a flimsy case, a large backpack full of clothes and basic survival gear, and one big cardboard box full of books and manuscripts and pens and paper and sketchpads, the box tied up with a length of sturdy rope.

Among the books I always carried with me, and still have today, were the two-volume The Greek Myths by Robert Graves, On Bear’s Head poems by Philip Whalen, Selected Poems of Robert Duncan, Collected Poems of Robert Graves, Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen, and Suzuki Roshi’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

This ancient play I unearthed is entitled The Last Temptation, and I read the faded pages with the curiosity of an archaeologist stumbling upon an opus writ on papyrus two thousand years ago. On the title page, a note from the young author explains: The title of the play and the setting of Act One were inspired by the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. Pilate’s dog in Act Two was inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s book The Master and Margarita.

I expected to find The Last Temptation a student work full of energy but lacking consistency and originality. But that is not the case. The play is wonderfully original, the characters complex, the dialogue not terrible, and the story full of suspense. To make things even better, the work is my favorite kind of play, an extreme rarity these days—a serious comedy with multi-dimensional characters. So I’ve decided to spend some weeks rewriting the play. Why not?

Finding and reading the play also jarred my memory about what I did with the blessed thing way back when; and as one memory begot another, there came an avalanche of memories, and for some hours I relived my interactions with several theatre companies large and small in California and Oregon and New York, and the many rejections I gained thereby. Nothing has changed in that regard. My recent plays, and The Last Temptation, should I rewrite it to my liking, have virtually no chance of being produced—the stages of American theatre off limits to all but a few privileged playwrights.

Still, a good play is worth writing whether anyone produces the play or not. That also goes for writing books, composing music, and making art. The artist’s job is to create. The rest is up to the gods.

During that same office dig, I found two novels written by my great grandmother Katharine Grey. Published by Little Brown in 1934 and 1935, Rolling Wheels and Hills of Gold are excellent novels featuring youthful protagonists and their families who, in Rolling Wheels, make the trek by wagon train from Indiana to California shortly before the California Gold Rush, and in Hills of Gold are farming in California when the Gold Rush begins. Full of fascinating details about life in California in the mid-1800’s times, and rife with adventures, these books would be fabulous additions to junior high and high school curriculum all over America. Sadly, these books are long out-of-print and will remain so barring some fortuitous intervention by the aforementioned gods.

In any case, I now have two good books to read, which is no small thing in these times when I find so little in the way of new books that appeal to me. Oh if only I hadn’t learned proper syntax and grammar. If only in my formative years I hadn’t steeped in great literature and poetry, then I wouldn’t mind crappy writing filled with unnatural implausible dialogue—think of all the contemporary fiction and plays and movies I could choose from.

Another of my finds on that revelatory shelf was a small plastic box full of thumb picks for playing the guitar. I haven’t played the guitar in nine years, and I gave away my guitar a few years ago because I felt bad about keeping such a lovely instrument sequestered in darkness, untouched and unappreciated—a guitar suffused with more bad memories than good, but still a fine instrument.

Since finding those thumb picks, I have had two vivid dreams about playing the guitar and being frustrated by my diminished playing skill. In my latest guitar dream, I played a new song for three people, all deceased now, and they were keenly interested in the song and enthusiastic in their praise of it. These were people who had been fiercely disapproving of me while they were alive; but in this guitar dream, they were supportive and full of love for me.

So today I bought a guitar.

And right after I bought the guitar, we ran into a friend in the grocery store and spoke of what we were soon to be cooking. This talk of food inspired in our friend a memory of growing up in Monterey in the Italian part of town known as Spaghetti Hill.

“It was called Spaghetti Hill,” he explained, “because every Sunday morning, in every kitchen in that big Italian neighborhood, the cooks would concoct their spaghetti sauces before going to Mass.”

And while those cooks and their families were attending Mass, the myriad sauces simmered—their spices conspiring divinely with wine and diced tomatoes and mushrooms and who knows what else—so that when the fasting supplicants arrived home from church, the neighborhood air was freighted with the divine aroma of hundreds of simmering sauces. Time and God had done their work and all that remained to do was boil the pasta to perfection, open jars of olives, bring forth loaves of bread, toss the great green salads, uncork the good red wines, and sit down to feast.

See’s

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

sees

(This article was written for the Anderson Valley Advertiser December 2014)

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.” Charles M. Schulz

Marcia and I are standing in line at See’s Candies in Santa Rosa, two days before Christmas 2014. See’s Candies is owned by billionaire Warren Buffet and has more than two hundred outlets throughout the west, most of them in California. Some of my earliest memories are of chocolate caramel lollypops from See’s. Hard as rocks and long lasting, those delicious teeth-rotting suckers were two for a nickel when I was a little boy—gateway drugs to a lifetime of chocolate addiction. Warren Buffet did not own See’s when I was a boy, and when he bought the business from the founders, he was wise enough to retain the winning formula: rich chocolate candies sold by matronly women in shops reminiscent of small-town bakeries.

We are in line here at this inopportune time of the year—the holiday season now synonymous with a mass fixation on buying warm clothing and useless crap—because Opal, Marcia mother, was given a gift certificate for one pound of See’s chocolate candy, all creams, please, and we said we would pick the pound up for her on our way to get takeout pizza for our supper with her tonight.

Santa Rosa, for those of us with weak psychic shielding, is a gigantic madhouse of malls and snarled traffic—a testament to stupidity, greed, and bad city planning, though people from Los Angeles find the place bucolic. And where is the pinnacle of madness in this insane city? See’s Candies.

As we wait our turn in the brightly lit shop with its black-and-white color scheme, we are accosted by a small hunchbacked lady in a blue granny dress with matching bonnet and thick-lensed glasses that magnify her bugging eyes and give her the look of an albino goldfish. With creepy urgency she asks, “When you leave here, if you’re going anywhere near the Flamingo Hotel, could you give me a ride?”

I defer to Marcia, not knowing where in Hades we are or in what direction the pizza parlor lies or that the Flamingo Hotel is only two blocks away.

“We’re going in the opposite direction,” Marcia explains. “Sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” says the woman, turning to another recent arrival and repeating her request for a ride, to which the recent arrival says, “We’re not from around here. We don’t know where we’re going.”

The line is not moving. The three matronly women behind the counter are boxing chosen chocolates and wrapping the boxes in reddish orange wrapping paper that stands out like neon against the pervasive black and white. See’s is a full-service last-minute gift-fulfillment center for people who can’t think of anything else to get friends who already have too much of everything, but never enough chocolate.

An enormous woman is ordering large quantities of many kinds of chocolate candies. She tells her matron she does not want her candies boxed because, well, I only catch part of her explanation because she is speaking under her breath and glancing around furtively, ashamed to be so obviously ordering hundreds of dollars of chocolate candy for herself—helpless in the grip of her addiction.

Meanwhile, the weird gal in the granny dress keeps letting people go ahead of her in line because she wants to be waited on by a particular matron who clearly dreads the coming of the albino goldfish. When Goldie finally gains the counter, she makes a great show of buying four pieces of candy, demands a large handful of the club mix for her free sample, and writes a check for four dollars and fourteen cents before resuming her quest for a ride to her apartment two blocks away.

We finally reach the counter and meet our matron from whom we purchase four dark chocolate raspberry creams to go with Opal’s one-pound of mixed creams and a box of dark chocolate molasses chips. At the cash register Marcia says to our matron, “What a busy time of year for you.”

“Yes,” sighs our matron. “And I thought this would be fun.”

“I guess it could be,” says Marcia, “if the customers are nice.”

To which our matron responds with a sweetly sorrowful look that speaks of innumerable customers who are neither nice nor fun.

“For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.” John Greenleaf Whittier

Over pizza in Opal’s commodious apartment, I regale Marcia and Opal with the true story of how, if not for my great grandfather’s inferiority complex, I would be heir to a huge candy fortune. Here is the story.

My father’s mother’s mother, the novelist Katharine Grey, married at nineteen. Shortly thereafter, her husband left her pregnant in Oakland and ran off to join the Alaskan gold rush circa 1897. Nine months later, Katharine gave birth to my grandmother Helen, and not having heard a peep from her husband (who had vowed to come back rich within six months) bought a big sturdy wagon, piled it high with the fixings for making candy, and set sail for Alaska with her newborn child.

Upon her arrival in Skagway, she paid a man with two strong horses to pull her and her baby and her wagon full of candy fixings to Dawson City in the heart of the Klondike where she opened a candy shop and started making money hand over fist. Several months later, Katharine’s starving penniless husband came staggering into her wildly successful candy shop, and after partaking of a hearty meal, told his resourceful wife that the Klondike was no place for a woman (other than a prostitute) and insisted they return to Oakland. Katharine revealed her enviable profits to her hubby and suggested they would be rich if they kept the candy business going for another year, but her husband was humiliated by his failure to find gold juxtaposed to his wife’s remarkable success, so they returned to California.

Thus whenever I see a See’s, I imagine the sign says Katharine’s.