Mid-October means "Columbus Day" to me--not necessarily the date on the calendar, October 12th, or the Monday after the weekend which bank, postal and other government workers get as a holiday. I guess Columbus Day is sort of like Ground Hog's Day in my mind: an otherwise forgettable calendar date mostly because it can't really be commercialized. I don't even attribute much historical value to it except that the world became a little larger, a little more well-rounded place when, "In Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two/Columbus sailed the ocean blue."
As in this year of 2003, October 12th fell on a Sunday (or perhaps it was a Saturday) in 1978. I distinctly remember, though, that it was on a weekend because Susan and I found ourselves walking in the Parque Maria Louisa across from the Plaza de Espana in Seville when at noon we heard an impressive and frightening cannonade fire off in celebration of Dia de la Raza, or as it is now called in Spain with more political correctness: Dia de la Hispanidad. The shock and awe on our faces must have been obvious in those loud moments because local Spaniards in the park came right up and reassured us that "No es la guerra todavia!" [War hasn't broken out yet!] Other bombs did go off that year: E.T.A., the Basque Separatists, were quite active and there was a coup attempt to restore a Caudillo which failed.
In 1986, when our son was born on October 14th, my first reaction was that he had been born on Columbus Day. In fact, we had gone to hear the Tokyo String Quartet the night of the 12th and a French friend remarked, "Ca arrive toujours a cinq heures du matin." [That sort of thing always happens at five in the morning.] The next day, sure enough, at five in the morning Susan's water broke and she went into labor by afternoon. Fulfilling the role of "coach" as the day got longer and longer, I could only compare my feelings by nightfall with jet lag. We realized that that Monday, October 13th, happened to fall on Yom Kippur that year, the Day of Atonement in the Jewish Calendar, but it took me about a week to be reminded that Columbus Day is really always on the 12th, not the 14th of October.
This year "Columbus Day" meant a morning class on Saturday the 11th, a much appreciated massage on a boat in a slip at Marina Del Rey, a quick lunch at the Firehouse Restaurant in Venice before picking up my wife and son for a journey north to Pismo Beach. Susan, after a lengthy search for appropriate lodging, discovered that Columbus Day weekend was booked solid in Paso Robles and Moro Bay. A new seaside spa called Seaventure between the pier and the dunes at Pismo Beach sounded to her like a place to try out that night. And it turned out as perfectly as we could hope: a comfortable room, a nice restaurant complete with a small chocolate cake to celebrate our son Bengt's birthday, and a whirlpool jacuzzi to unwind in. The next morning was sunny and bright. Even the locals were amazed at the lack of early morning fog. The ocean was bluer than blue; the beach, cleaner than clean.
The real goal or not-so-hidden agenda for my son--soon to turn seventeen--was a return trip to Ashland, Oregon. Patiently, day after day, negotiations had proceeded so that he could accept first Davis as his second best choice of destination, then Harris Ranch on Interstate 5. Not willing to spend the night at Harris Ranch, Susan and I brokered a deal so that Pismo Beach could substitute for the beloved Bandon on the Oregon Coast--a place we often went to to celebrate his birthday when he was younger--and Harris Ranch could then be included in the return trip on Sunday afternoon.
The plan worked and included Susan stopping at yet another spa, Sycamore Springs, while my son and I explored the fish, crab, oyster, and seal wonders of Avila pier. Still there were many miles to drive north, then east past the Jack Ranch Cafe, where in the Fifties James Dean crashed his Porsche and died at 24 years old. From there a short distance over the arid mountains connected us to I5, but we still had to go north to get to Harris Ranch, which we made in time for dinner. We had all the trip south to Santa Monica to ride into the twilight and early evening, arriving at their apartment before 9PM, with yet the last leg, north again, for me to do alone by 10PM.
That kind of long-distance driving drives out lots of thoughts and feelings. Although some professionals may call our triad of a family unit dysfunctional, no one can claim that any of the three of us in inarticulate. Still marginally educable in a school-room setting, my son, nonetheless, may hold the equivalent of a Master's degree in Psychology, Philosophy, and Theology. At least we cover all those disciplines in depth with great regularity, especially on long road trips.
For example, at the restaurant Saturday night, Ben asked the waitress clearing the table of our dishes, "What were you like before your first memory?"
Balancing the plates in both hands, she took her time trying to figure out what he meant by this question. (By now I have learned not to try to "translate" for my son by mentioning his interest in reincarnation. I am just glad that he is at least not beginning with the usual question concerning her age.) Finally, she said that she didn't know, but he pursued his inquiry until we finally convinced him that she was likely to drop the dishes if she remained frozen under his cross examination.
It was clear by the time we left the restaurant that Ben had made an impression on all the servers he had come in contact with. One waiter he said looked like Elvis. The next morning the waitress came up to Susan and remarked about how gifted Ben is.
But to return to Columbus, I am getting used to getting mixed messages regarding discoveries. When the quincentennial arrived I was participating in a conference in France and writing a poem, "False Discoveries" based on a poster by the artist Jean Charlot depicting a miniature Don Quixote figure planting the Spanish flag on a giantess (I remember adding "not yet Rigoberta Menchu" to my description of her in the poem) with a horn of plenty next to her ample breast. Through my own Lutheran background, early on I experienced a religious faith which took a quite existential turn in adolescence, then proceeded into various phases of skepticism, rationality, and multiculturalism. Finally a debilitating mid-life crisis took me back to Kierkegaard and forward to Edward Schillebeckx: religion as a response to human suffering and NOT directly related to ethical imperatives. Teaching a semester at Loyola-Marymount, while undergoing post-operative radiation at UCLA, reconfirmed my radical Lutheran roots, and during Easter Week six months ago in Visby, Gotland, I attended rather high-church masses presided by a bishop, several priests, and numerous deconesses of the Swedish Church. I took communion on Skaertorsday (Maundy Thursday) of bread, and wine from a chalice. Whether that experience is evidence of consubstantiation or subsubtantiation is a matter of scholastic quibbling, but I felt at home singing familiar hymns in their Swedish versions, while smelling incense from a censer I only remember from attending a Catholic funeral in Toluca, Mexico at age fifteen in 1961 and a visit to a Russian Orthodox Church still under the Soviet system in 1984.
All I seem to learn from weekends like this is that it is useful--up to a point--to record dates and memories as one is hurled headlong down the highway of life. Modesto is out there somewhere, and searchings for it entail the modest recording of significant dates and perhaps equally important misconceptions about dates and perceptions. I can't resist, for example, recording here, as the Polish Pontiff celebrates the quarter-century mark of his papacy, that I am thrown back again to Seville--a few days after the incident across from the Plaza de Espana--to a mid-October evening in a restaurant in the Barrio Santa Cruz (once called the Barrio Judia, the Jewish Quarter), when the bells of the Giralda (once a minaret of a Moorish mosque) clanged loudly for nearly twenty minutes and strangers poured out wine from the bottles on their tables into our glasses saying, "Tenemos Papa!" ["We have a Pope!"] In 1978 in Spain, post-Franco, taking its first perilous steps toward "democracy" and European Union, there was nothing NOT to celebrate, and, still young and in our thirties, we easily joined in clapping and dancing the flamenco all night long.
Twenty five years later, I husband my energy far more carefully. The habit of the afternoon siesta isn't so much an option as a necessary interlude once or twice a week when driving gets stressful or decisions worrisome. But if you go on living and keep your eyes open on the highway, you still make about the same number of modest discoveries along the way. Nothing remains the same. Heraclitus was right about the river. Lao Tzu was right about the Way. And experience is a harsh teacher: it gives you the test first and the lessons long, long after.
14 October 2003