“Li Po’s Restless Night: Improvisations on a Theme” is now available in e-Book and paperback formats. Ideal reading for those with restless nights in quarantine, “Li Po’s Restless Night” includes 101 original variations on a theme of Chinese poet Li Po, with an explanatory personal essay, “Florence and Li Po,” though the essay may make better daytime reading. There was a time when I was able to close my eyes and not open them again for eight hours. Then the moon rose.
Toedeloe to the floor of the Vespa scooter, I cruised north up Hwy 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, in real time, present time, though I wasn’t always sure what week I was in or even what day it was, and guessed the time of day from the position of the sun in the sky and its shadows on the ground. I had no plans, no expectations, great or small. I had no doubt the locals I passed along the way had some, if only to make it to and from work without going stark staring bonkers, mad as hatters, excited as the March hares, gaga and crackers, freaked out. I wondered how it all held together, the daily commutes, full of horrible honks and screeching brakes, from the kid who was off walking and whistling to school homework in disrepair but excuse at the ready, to the CEO rolling off in his Rolls to explain to his Board of Directors the various whistleblower reasons for the latest decline in stock value, still revising his business plan, the new crew hired yesterday to be let go tomorrow. The buses jostling stop to stop, the big box ambulances curling their way noisily through a mess of traffic, the delivery trucks, 18 wheelers, pickup trucks, station wagons, hot rods, muscle cars, convertibles, vans, bicycles, skateboarders, walkers, and scooters all sharing the same roads. But unlike a schoolyard where the chaos of recess empties like a beer bucket with a bell the yard quickly returning to the quiet of pigeons descending from classroom roofs to snap up the crumbs of snacks, the kids all back inside heads on desks for a rest, their teacher reading aloud a short story, or his head too on his desk for a rest, and all is quiet – unlike the school yard, the road never fully empties, all day long, every day, vehicular traffic moving like the tides, in and out, up and back, to and fro, stop and go, this way and that, all manner of folk crisscrossing at the crossroads. Back in the 1950s, hitchhiking was more prevalent than today, and a military uniform and duffle bag in hand almost guaranteed a quick ride. In the 1960s and early 70s cardboard signs signifying destination were popular with travellers on street corners seeking long rides: Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Francisco, Portland. So I was surprised when I rounded the Long Beach Traffic Circle on Hwy 1, on my way to Redondo Beach, and I saw a bald man in a Franciscan robe holding a sign saying El Segundo / Mission San Buenaventura. I glanced at him and shrugged my shoulders, as if to say no room on the scooter. But I was even more surprised when, a few hours later, having cruised leisurely through the beach cities on a solid gold weekday, and again stopping at Wormy’s Orange Tiki Room in El Segundo, where I planned to spend a few nights out back, working some maintenance to pay for my stay, Wormy planning a weekend long Pip Pip at the Pup in celebration of a local annual surf festival, and who should be there standing in his brown robe at the Orange Tiki Room bar, but the Franciscan I’d seen back at the Traffic Circle. You made it, I said. Pip pip, he replied, picking up his beer and taking a long gulping drink. Ah, he said, that’s the ticket to the pip pip. Wormy came in and introduced me to the monk, a Brother Juniper, a regular, apparently, who never failed to make Wormy’s annual fundraising Pip Pip at the Pub, this weekend being the 12th year in a row, all proceeds going to help fund the surf festival. Late afternoon now, evening glassoff in the offing, but I sat with Juniper in a corner of the bar where we both relaxed after our harrowing commutes from down south through the beach cities up to El Segundo. Wormy’s place gradually filled with pip pippers, a three piece country swing band showed up, a dart tournament grew some serious competitors, and out back a dunk tank was busy with dollar a throw chances to dunk a few local celebrities. The sun went down and the tiki torches came on and the festival was going, the street blocked off, the band now playing some straight ahead surf riffs. Out in the street a travelling carnival with rides for the kids started up. Face paintings. Balloons. Arts and crafts tables. Booths for local businesses and churches to pitch their stories. A police car parked at each end of the block.
“Pip Pip at the Pub” is episode 49 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
We climbed aboard the Coast Starlight in Portland, bound for Los Angeles, 24 train-ride hours away, but we stopped unexpectedly somewhere up in the Cascades southeast of Eugene. Snow was falling. In those days, you could walk between the cars and open the top of the dutch door for some fresh air. The air was raw and cold, the woods dark, and the smell as strong as a cigar of pine sap. The tracks followed rivers, valleys, passes, built along paths of least resistance. It’s possible now to consider the railroad a naive form of travel.
When we speak of losing our train of thought, we are comparing thinking to a train, I suppose to indicate how one thought after another coupled together are all headed in the same direction, or should be, if the logic holds water, but thought does not move like a train, the engine a thesis statement, the coal car fuel of claims, the cars one example after another, all following the same track of thought, the dining car full of opposing arguments, the caboose a bright red conclusion.
News travelled slowly on trains in those days. Long and longer minutes passed without anyone new coming into our car. Our conductor reappeared and explained we were stopped because a freight train ahead of us had derailed. At first, it wasn’t clear how long we would be delayed. Equipment to reposition the freight train was en route to the wreck. Minutes, as it turned out, became, as they always do, hours. The conductor came through our car again to announce we would all be treated to a free dinner in the dining car. There was also a club car where we could hang out while waiting.
Thought, if it moves at all, is more like the flight of a bird. But Thomas Hobbes, in his 1651 book, “Leviathan”, put us on the track of thinking of thought as a train, to wit:
“Of the Consequence or TRAYNE of Imaginations. BY Consequence, or TRAYNE of Thoughts, I understand that succession of one Thought to another, which is called (to distinguish it from Discourse in words) Mentall Discourse. When a man thinketh on any thing whatsoever, His next Thought after, is not altogether so casuall as it seems to be. Not every Thought to every Thought sueceeds indifferently. But as wee have no Imagination, whereof we have not formerly had Sense, in whole, or in parts; so we have no Transition from one Imagination to another, whereof we never had the like before in our Senses. The reason whereof is this. All Fancies are Motions within us, reliques of those made in the Sense: And those motions that immediately succeeded one another in the sense, continue also together after Sense: In so much as the former comming again to take place, and be predominant, the later followeth, by coherence of the matter moved, in such manner, as water upon a plain Table is drawn which way any one part of it is guided by the finger. But because in sense, to one and the same thing perceived, sometimes one thing, some times another succeedeth, it comes to passe in time, thatjn the Imagining of any thing, there is no certainty what we shall Imagine next; Onely this is certain, it shall be something that succeeded the same before, at one time or another.”
I ordered a salmon steak and a glass of red wine. I don’t remember what Susan ordered, but since she dislikes fish, I suppose she might have had a filet mignon with a glass of white wine. We were not in a hurry. Had we been in a hurry, we would not have taken the train in the first place.
By the time we pulled into the station at Santa Barbara, the train was five hours behind schedule. Another, new conductor had come aboard in San Louis Obispo. A group of passengers who had been on board even longer than us, having boarded in Seattle, were told to wait at the door at the end of our car. It was noted this door had not previously been used at any of our stops; nevertheless, our new conductor insisted the group wait at this door. An anxious wait ensued. The door did not open. The train began to move. The group would have to travel with us all the way to Los Angeles, where Amtrak would put them on a bus which would drive them back to Santa Barbara.