Monday, December 18, 2006

... But Not A Dry Cold

New Englanders take great pride in our ability to navigate the roadways in all kinds of driving conditions, especially those caused by winter storms. We malign and curse those in other parts of the country who are not as familiar with these situations. And who, when confronted with even the least amount of cold weather precipitation, either bring their motoring life to a complete halt or (even worse for those of us behind them) slow down to an excruciatingly slow pace.

Nevertheless, my worst ever winter driving experience took place during early October 2000 in the arid desert of the Big Bend part of Texas.

Mars and I were ending up our second week of vacation in that part of the country. It is a place that we prefer to visit in early Autumn when the tourists, such as they are, have left to get their kids back in school, but the temperatures are still normally in the low sixties to mid eighties - perfect for hiking in the Chihuahuan Desert by day, and staring at the mysterious Marfa Lights at night. And it's a dry heat.

After seven warmer than expected days in Lajitas mostly spent trekking in Big Bend National Park we were now staying at the "Historic" Prude Ranch in Fort Davis, at about a mile in attitude the highest town in Texas. It's a "dude ranch", but we weren't dude-ing, just using it as a base of operations for our travels to the towns of Marfa, Alpine, and within Fort Davis itself to the McDonald Astronomic Observatory "Star Party" and the eponymous original cavalry fort.

On Thursday of that week, at four o'clock in the afternoon it was too hot (mid nineties) and the sun was too intense for us to lay and read by the outdoor pool. The next day remained overcast and foggy all day and the temperature never got above fifty. We hiked in Davis Mountains State Park, just outside of town, wearing sweaters, Gortex parkas, gloves, and hats (the latter of which it had been recommended to us that we pack on all our trips in case of unexpected cold).

Saturday we spent the day at the opening exhibition of Dan Flavin's Neon Light Installation at the Chinati Art Foundation in nearby Marfa. The institution resides in an abandoned military base about one half mile outside of "downtown" Marfa and consists of a series of disconnected building (all former barracks) that have been converted into either art spaces, living quarters or offices. The Flavin show was located in three of the structures in the center of the complex, each separated from the others by a few hundred yards of open walkways. The land around the building is flat and mostly barren.

Since there was to be a Mexican Fiesta Dinner on the streets of Marfa that afternoon, and since parking is extremely limited at the foundation we parked downtown and walked to Chinati. The skies were gray and cloudy. The temperature and the unrelenting wind were both in the low thirties. We had on all of the clothes that we wore hiking yesterday plus our Gortex rain-pants over our regular ones, and a second layer of tee shirts.

Mars and I walked as quickly as we could to the site, at times leaning forward like ski jumpers in order to move through the onrushing cold air currents. At Chinati we moved even faster from building to building where the prevailing breeze was stronger because of the canyon effect within the complex. Once inside we lingered perhaps longer than we normally would have over the colored lights of the abstract neon installations - the only warmth that we could find in the Chihuahuan desert on that Saturday.

Because of the cold and wind we decided to forgo the outdoor dinner reception. However we did stop at the local Dairy Queen on our way out of town for a small Hot Fudge Sundae. New Englanders do love their ice cream.

Sunday morning we were to drive back to El Paso, a trip of about three hours. When we awoke at six thirty it was snowing but the ground was still warm enough so that the white precipitation wasn't accumulating. By the time we hit the road about an hour later the snow had turned to sleet and the ambient heat had dropped to the point where the falling ice was remaining in that state when it hit the roadways.

There are very few people who live in this part of the world - that's one of the things that Mars and I like most about it - and as a result very little traffic. The roads are generally straight. And when you look ahead over the many miles of future driving that are stretched out in front of you, there generally aren't any cars or trucks coming your way. On our first trip to Big Bend, a beautiful early fall weekend day, we saw twenty vehicles during the eighty-mile trip between Van Horn (the turnoff from Interstate 10 out of El Paso) and Marfa (our destination on that day). This was the same route we would be taking back today.

You are probably more likely to see a descanso (those southwestern roadside shrines decorated with artificial flowers and personal memorabilia that mark the location of a fatal car accident) than an actual, healthy moving motor vehicle. In the weather that we were heading out in we didn't expect to see anybody at all.

And we didn't.

We did however see frost-encrusted cacti standing incongruously on the ice covered desert floor. The wilderness in this part of the world is not the most colorful to begin with - especially in September during one of the many successive drought years that the region has endured - but normally the landscape has at least the natural look of an old faded sepia photograph. The frozen sleet had obliterated even that tiny bit of color leaving us with something slightly less colorful than a basic black and white photo.

Most of the land, although it looks vacant, unused and uncared for, is privately owned and is used for grazing cattle. Because vegetation is so sparse on this land, the number of acres required to feed a bovine necessitates either very small herds, or very large spreads - or both. I don't know the ratio of cattle per acre but in our informal observations we would frequently measure (from named gate to named gate) ranches of five or more miles. And we'd see perhaps a handful of steers - all of them spread as far apart as possible, like the unspoken protocol in the men's public shower at my health club, each going to farthest available geometric point in order to take advantage of the full amount of social space allotted to them.

On this day however the bovines that we saw were all grouped together into an ill shaped huddle with their backs to the wind - with what we assumed was the highest-ranking member of the pecking order snugly sequestered in the innermost part of the formation and the neophyte grazers taking the brunt of the storm. (More likely the latecomers simply got consigned to the outside.) The faces of the steers displayed the empty-minded determination of someone confronting an unpleasant situation the cause of which they had not a clue about, nor the expected duration, nor the possible outcome. Other than when they were being herded into their pens for one of the cattle-raising rituals it was probably the only time that these ruminants ever got together for group socializing.

Our car, a rental Chrysler Cirrus, was looking like one of the outermost steers - pelted by ice and buffeted by winds, with ice rapidly sticking onto any surface not warm enough to immediately melt it off. Periodically the front wiper blades looked like the icicled eye lashes of the badly beleaguered bovines.

There were no tire tracks in the freezing slush and at times it was impossible to tell where the road itself was. But we pushed on slowly, hoping that the small front-wheel drive sedan was capable of handling the icy road conditions. Several times however the tires seemed to be stuck in an unseen groove, unable to be dissuaded at all from the path on which they were heading. All I could do was let the car slow down and then steadily turn the steering wheel until the vehicle reluctantly moved in the direction that I wanted.

During those moments of non-control, and even more so after when we finally made it to El Paso and cool but sunny weather, I thought about how the media would report our accident - "Texas Ice Too Slick For New Englanders - Several Cacti Shattered".
And what our descanso would look like.

We first learned about these thruway memorials in 1992 on our initial trip to New Mexico and have seen more and more of them on each of our subsequent visits to the "Land of Enchantment" and to Texas, its neighbor to the south. Each one is different, and each of the differences tells you a little something about the person whose life ended at that very spot. All of them have the names, and most have crosses, usually wooden, and plastic flowers, usually red. Sometimes there are containers of the deceased's favorite beverage - mostly Budweiser beer - but we've also seen kayaking equipment and other indicators of the decedent's other interests. Occasionally there are family photos.

The overall ambience, to me, is celebratory. It is a memorial that the honoree would be proud to display in his or her living room. And if it weren't for the isolated location, and the story that you know goes along with the display, it would bring great deal of joy to the viewer

In most cases it is pretty easy to picture how the fatal accident occurred. The roads are unlit and little traveled. The locations are spots where cell phones futilely search for a tower and car radios set to "seek" endlessly cycle the dial. There rarely are any objects to crash into - definitely no manmade ones, and ninety percent of the time not even a rock or a tree close enough to do damage. Drivers just lose control, for whatever reason - too tired, too drunk, or just too careless. The vehicle flips. And no one comes across the wreckage until its too late.

We were none of the above - but still we were concerned about becoming a roadside shrine.

Obviously we didn't. Now, several years later, having successfully survived the sleet-impaired drive to El Paso and several other New England winter weather events, I can clearly see how our descanso would have been.

There'd be water bottles instead of beer cans, Birkenstock sandals rather than cowboy boots, and a Tonka Toy fleet of heavy-duty snow removal vehicles. Which would finally reveal that the real secret to being a good bad-weather driver in Connecticut is to never, ever go out onto the roadways until after they've been plowed and sanded - unless you really have to.

Descanso photos by Mars

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Pot Culture

National Public Radio's Morning Edition had a short piece about Vince Guaraldi, the jazz pianist who did the music for the "Charlie Brown - Peanuts" television specials. And it brought back lots of memories - of pottery

Several years ago I practiced it at a studio in the basement level of a small retail mall in a neighboring town. The workspace was owned and run by two women: L, a freelance graphic designer in her mid to late thirties, and J, perhaps five to ten years younger. Both were married and L had a young son. Unlike L, this studio was J's only job.

They offered lessons for children and young adults, and also organized craft parties for youngsters who were celebrating various occasions - birthdays, etc. And one night a week they had a session for adults. J was the teacher.

I had previously studied pottery for several years at Wesleyan Potters - a very professional studio modeled after the crafts guilds of earlier times. This time I wasn't looking to take a class but just to use the equipment (wheels, glazes, kilns), get some coaching and advice, and make a few pots. It was a good deal for both of us. J got a really low-maintenance, paying customer and I got one night a week of unfettered time to play with the clay.

I was there for about nine months and Mars and I got, among other pieces of stoneware, a complete set of dishes that we now use as our everyday china. Each class was six weeks in duration and limited to five people, with most students taking only one session, so there was a pretty much continuous parade of new faces.

There were a couple of women about my age (late fifties at that time) who came for about two lessons. All but one of the remainder were married women and, like J, members of Generation X - "the generation born after that of the baby boomers (roughly from the early 1960s to mid 1970s), often perceived to be disaffected and directionless." as defined by my online dictionary. And, based upon what I saw at these classes, totally immersed in the popular culture that has surrounded them since birth.

Sitting invisibly in the far corner of the room, working quietly on my own private projects, I quickly realized that these evening sessions were less about increasing the revenue of the business and more about J's need for adult conversation. Conversation of the feminine Gen X variety that usually started with the previous week's episode of television's Ally McBeal and slid back and forth between her fictional dilemmas and J's real-life ones so seamlessly that sometimes I wasn't certain what the correct context was - although the main subject was always J.

I never saw the TV show. Not being of the appropriate age group, I felt I was much better off listening to the translated version - kind of a play about a play performed unknowingly for an unnoticed audience in the back of the hall.

Only once did the actors actually break through the wall and involve me in their psychodrama. J abruptly interrupted their conversation and asked how long I had been married. At that time the answer was probably thirty-five years. She and her fellow performers looked both impressed and baffled by the possibility of such longevity. I remember hearing "wow!", and "that's really great!" couched in tones of disbelief.

There was always music in the studio from whatever CDs J thought were suitable for the mood of that evening. No one seemed to listen - but music being such a constant presence in their lives I'm certain that somehow they heard every single note. Occasionally I tried to use the rhythm of some song to help control the pace of my pottery work. But mostly I just wasn't aware of it.

Then one night during the weekly re-telling and subtextualization of Ally McBeal, J began to play what she announced was "just the best" album ever. It was one of the Vince Guaraldi "Charlie Brown Christmas" CDs and the simple, clear, bittersweet piano notes immediately brought the class to silence, and kept them there for several minutes. There might have been a little nods of recognition exchanged but that was the only interpersonal communication.

Everyone, including me, just kind of stopped and stared - some wistfully, others with small smiles.

Popular culture is like the water that's used to soften and shape the clay on a potter's wheel. Most of it is superfluous and is spun off immediately. Some is absorbed and temporarily retained as the object is taking shape. And a very, very small amount, just what is really necessary in order for the pot to actually become a pot, survives the final firing and remains a part of the objet d'art forever.

Like other essential relationships - some of which even last for thirty-five years, or more.