Weather Report from Portland

I’ve been living baroquely lately, coming into the new year, the confused seasons out of control – fall to winter for now though here seemingly obvious. It’s cold and wet and dark out, the darkest days of the year, the longest nights, the hardest streets. The homeless are between a rock and a hard place. They are the meek inheriting the earth, for what that’s worth. A week ago, when it started to snow, we were exactly six months from the freak heat wave of late June when one day we reached an absurd 116 degrees. Where I came of age, the southwest side of Los Angeles County, near the beach at the north end of South Santa Monica Bay, South Bay, for short, the mostly small, originally factory lodging, houses, and our little corner house, were plotted between the oil refinery and sand dunes and ocean and the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant and the sprawling airport and the growing aerospace industrial parks, while there were on the east side of our small town still strawberry fields, a few horses in stalls, and a railroad track from the east running behind our backyards through a curving dusty chasm, what the kids called Devil’s Path (or Devil’s Pass), a short cut along the tracks into town, that ended at a small depot near Main Street and Grand Avenue. But in spite of all the brouhaha surrounding us, the ocean nearby was the weather.

There were only two seasons in my childhood: summer, which was the school vacation season, and the school year, the months on either side of vacation. The weather had little to do with our sense of seasonality. The sky was close to blue, the water almost blue and hues of such, the yards and parks and baseball diamonds multi shades of green, the streets mostly clean. Of course there hung about our heads the gunbarrel-blue cake of atrocious smog, though not so much nearer the water, unless the Santa Ana winds were blowing, maybe for a week or so once or twice a year was all in those days. And June might have been the foggy season, but the breezes off the ocean usually pushed and cleaned as they blew east across the big basin, through the canyons up into the hills and up the long boulevards that ran east and west, and blew too through our house because there was always a window open (or broken) somewhere or a door might open or close any time of the day or night as we came and went to and fro through the blues and greens and sandy yellow days and well lit nights of Los Angeles and environs.

Why did humans leave Africa? If that’s what happened, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that our history, what little we can be sure of, might be a bit more compound-complex. In any case, I can’t answer that; I don’t even know why I left Los Angeles.

We live, it’s been suggested, but I don’t remember where I first saw or heard this, at the bottom of a sea of atmosphere (I googled the phrase just now and came up with about 30,000 results, so instead of quote marks, I’ve italicized it). But nothing like water, the rain, to wash out one’s punctuation marks.

Punctuated equilibrium suggests a paragraph whose flow of ideas is steady and stable, one thought logically following another in a gradual evolutionary movement that can be traced forward and backward and annotated. Sudden changes are more difficult to explain.

In Steve Martin’s movie “L. A. Story,” the main character is a television weatherman. But there is no weather in his Los Angeles, by which is meant change in weather. That is a paragraph without a main idea.

Locally, on the television news, consisting mostly of stable formatting, the studio news teams, that is, the players on camera, consist of an anchor, the sportscaster, and the weatherperson – the great American Triumphant (one pictures Benjamin Franklin flying his kite in a lightning storm, the on location camera crew shaking in their boots). The weatherpersons rarely seem to be given enough time to elaborate, as evidenced by their speed of speech. They sound like hawkers at an auction. The numbers and maps, highs and lows, radar of fronts, systems, and directions all whiz by, “put in motion,” and “hour by hour,” as they say, so quickly that as if to include the weather at all in the newscast seems to have been an afterthought. And the channels devoted to weather 24 by 7 are no different, everyone in a hurry to get out of the weather, whatever it is.

The newshour (or half hour, as our attention spans continue to wane) is not an essay, even though the principal parts may seem like paragraphs in some unified whole. The news relies on something new happening, but not even sudden changes in the fossil record can satisfy our quest to know, let alone understand, what’s going down.

Are we in the midst of a sudden change in the fossil record? Story at 11.

Marine Layer

Loveliest of evenings long passed
close kissed in dark dwelling alley
irate tenants hissing us go away
and we felt the marine layer coming.

Felt with our youthful tongues day
and night passing slowly into the mix
of salt and hair and wet sandpaper
rubbing away our persistent presents.

And while yesterday we had sun
today we have none though they say
the globe is warming you wear your
flannel nightgown winter and summer.

Weathered Weary Blues Band

Hotel Julian. Bunkroom. Jack Tar. Blues. 

Room 293, my room for the week, viewed Port Street, below the monthly rooms on the third floor of Hotel Julian and above the hourly and daily rooms on the first floor. Also on the first floor, located above the ground floor grocery, was a bunk or barracks room with twelve canvas and steel spring cots let by the night, two rows of six, one on each side, a three foot aisle down the middle. The Bunkroom opened at 7 in the evening and guests had to be out by 7 the next morning. The Barracks was closed during the day. A communal latrine at the end of the room served personal needs. Other than use of the latrine for cleaning and relief, the Bunkroom, or Barracks, was for sleeping only. The room was open to men or women, but not to couples. Singles only. But how Julian enforced that rule, I don’t know. Bunkroom conversation, if there was any, was sotto voce. If Hotel Julian guests wanted to hear or make noise, they climbed the back fire escape up to the rooftop, where an outdoor bar and grill, open to guests only, featured a house blues band Thursday through Sunday nights. The rooftop was closed Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and open from 9pm to midnight the other nights. I checked into Hotel Julian on a Monday, and it was a few nights later when I climbed the fire escape to the roof to hear the Weathered Weary Blues Band. Apparently, the band consisted of only one regular player, a guitarist who went by the name Jack Tar, and whether he came on alone or was joined by other players, he went by the Weathered Weary Blues Band. I got up to the rooftop around 9:30 and counted 9 folks including myself in the audience. I sat at a table in the rear and ordered a beer. But the tide was in and so was the fleet, and soon the rooftop filled to capacity, about 40 of us listening as Jack introduced none other than my disappeared flower girl who started in on “The Blues are Brewin,” accompanied by Jack Tar lovingly stroking an acoustic Gibson with a bottle neck on this little finger and a tall thin fellow blowing and sucking fills on harmonica. Up on the roof was lovely, and while dangerous waters might have been rising below, we paid that no mind as we got stuffed to the gills with the blues but never felt full.

“Weathered Weary Blues Band”
is episode 21 of
Ball Lightning
a Novel in Progress
in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.
(Click link for continuous, one page view of all episodes.)

Weather Retort

Sunset over PacificDay One: A trance of rain, ear churn momute.

Day Two: Slide high noontide, sundersthorms plate.

Day Three: Moistly scattered sneers and a few frizzles.

Day Four: Chants of wrinkles, dartly cloudy and chowdery.

Day Five: Humility Poor Boy Talls, Barometer IPA 75%.

Day Six: Moggy, very low viability.

Day Seven: Topical air mass pew point, wind clam.

Extended Forecast:

  • Thick hot pine tar air dropping from powerful trees.
  • Rosemary, basil, garlic, and spearmint mixing with tales of salt water.
  • Soft golden sun boiling over salsa garden.
  • Bare feet in wet sand, nibbled by sand crabbed bubbles.
  • Plenty of weather to write or not in the forecast. Some pressure to publish sun only.

On the ice with Thoreau

Reading Walden this time around, and coming near the end of the literary sojourn, the Portland east winds blowing out of the Gorge, cracking their taut, dry cheeks while I burrowed into the  “Winter Animals” and “The Pond in Winter” chapters, I reflected on where nature goes in contemporary life, for we spend sweeping resources to turn our backs to her, to hide from her, to ignore her, to close our eyes, ears, noses to her, to avoid her sound and smell and touch, to lock her out. Thoreau went out to meet with her, and he spent quality time observing her habits at close range. Why should we not comb our own urban woods, gutters and sidewalk paths, yards and parks, breezeways and carports, bridges and sidings, bushes and beaches and fields, vacant lots, and streams of rain water running down the oily streets to see if there’s anything left of the nature Thoreau observed and chronicled in Walden? Thoreau asks rhetorical questions; why should not we?

Some interest in nature is suggested by our obsession with the weather and natural disasters (many of which could be mitigated with the simplest of codes, for over 50% of the US population lives within 50 miles of a coastline, where most of the weather spends its wealth). But watching the Weather Channel or studying the sunny or cloudy day emoticons in the newspaper or on our cell phones falls short of Thoreau’s direct contact with the sun, clouds, rain, wind, ice. “But,” you say, donning jacket, scarf, hat, gloves, galoshes, and umbrella, though you’ve only a short walk from house to garage where the car is parked, “we spent a week camping out at the lake this past summer, and have the Facebook pics to show for it.”

Thoreau spends time on the ice in winter, ice-fishing, taking short-cuts across the ponds, viewing the shores from a new vantage point. He seems to have no fear of the ice. There are over one hundred references to ice in the Walden text. Thoreau had a theory, which McKibben remarks on in one of his annotations, that if the world as we know it were to succumb to some modern weather disaster, the calamity would be ice. Yet Thoreau is remarkably resourceful on the ice:

“Once, in the winter, many years ago, when I had been cutting holes through the ice in order to catch pickerel, as I stepped ashore I tossed my axe back on to the ice, but, as if some evil genius had directed it, it slid four or five rods directly into one of the holes, where the water was twenty-five feet deep. Out of curiosity, I lay down on the ice and looked through the hole, until I saw the axe a little on one side, standing on its head, with its helve erect and gently swaying to and fro with the pulse of the pond; and there it might have stood erect and swaying till in the course of time the handle rotted off, if I had not disturbed it. Making another hole directly over it with an ice chisel which I had, and cutting down the longest birch which I could find in the neighborhood with my knife, I made a slip-noose, which I attached to its end, and, letting it down carefully, passed it over the knob of the handle, and drew it by a line along the birch, and so pulled the axe out again” (“The Ponds” chapter).

Once, years ago now, never mind exactly when, I lived in a small house, for a little over a year, on Lake Oswego, a long but narrow lake fed by streams and the Tualatin River, south of Portland. I was there two winters, and both winters the lake froze over. During the first winter, I walked out onto the ice some distance and had my photo taken. It was a foolish thing to do, walking out on the ice. Unlike Thoreau, I didn’t know the thickness of the ice. The ice covered the water like a blanket with air pockets between the bottom of the ice and the surface of the unfrozen water. Thus the ice sheet moves up and down, cracks with its own weight, stretches and contracts, undulating like a monstrous, frozen jellyfish. I didn’t stay out on the ice very long. I walked out, had the photo snapped, and walked back to the boat dock. I was wearing a Navy flight jacket that I had traded a couple of years earlier for my Army field jacket. Neither would have done me much good had I fallen into the water. It’s taken me a long time to get used to the Northwest climate, but still, if I’m to go out on some water, I would prefer doing it on a surfboard, in warm, salty water, where nothing freezes. I like Thoreau, but I’m not following him out onto the ice again.

Related:

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. Boston: Beacon Press, July 15, 2004 [Introduction and Annotations by Bill McKibben].