Beautiful, ferocious and real

Thursday, October 30, 2003

Oct. 30, 2003

Dear C.C.,

DC and I are driving through California wine country on our way to see my old friend Julie in Trinidad. The hills are various hues of brown grasses and green scrub oak. The atmosphere is not as volatile here as in Southern California.

DC's sister, Danice, and her family had to evacuate their home near San Diego to escape one of the wildfires. They phone their home every few hours, taking the familiar voice on the answering machine as assurance their house is still standing.

California is as ferocious and thrilling as it ever was.

We spent a night at Deetjen's, the inn where we stayed on our honeymoon 10 years ago. It defines rustic and romantic. But the morning we left the septic system imploded, sending the staff to each cabin cautioning their guests against relieving themselves.

You hear conversations in California you won't hear elsewhere. At Nepenthe, our favorite Big Sur restaurant, two older men flirted with a young woman by engaging her in a discussion about firewalking.

We drove up the coast highway from Big Sur, reaching Half Moon Bay as the sun set into the ocean, each curve presenting a fresh mental postcard. Along the way we stopped at a monarch butterfly sanctuary in Pacific Grove. Many of the monarchs west of the Rockies winter there before continuing their migration.

At times the branches of the eucalyptus trees in the refuge erupted with the silence of thousands of butterfly wings fluttering at once.

The human beauty we encountered in San Francisco was as magnificent. A show of Degas sculptures -- I thought he only painted -- was at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. Chagall paintings and Diane Arbus photographs were at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. One night, we heard Randy Newman at Bimbo's nightclub.

A theme emerged. Many of Degas' women are not beautiful -- at least in the classical sense -- and neither are the poses he put them in. Arbus' carefully composed photographs of people not ordinarily photographed -- dwarves, strippers, a joyless young family at Coney Island -- shocked when they were first published nearly 50 years ago. People were accustomed to romanticized portraits.

Arbus wrote of capturing those subjects and those moments, "I want to gather them, like somebody's grandmother putting up preserves, because they will have been so beautiful."

With Newman it's the same, from the wrenching love song to his ex-wife to his froggy voice: Real is beautiful.

Real in California is people making a home of a sidewalk and a blanket of cardboard while surfers ride a backlit curl, politicians from outer space and explorers of inner realities, fires and mudslides and earthquakes and redwood forests whose stillness makes you remember what holy feels like.

We have arrived in Garberville, the town where DC and I spent the first year of our marriage. At Chautauqua in the natural food grocery, a woman introduces herself to the owner as a local artist who makes necklaces out of fruits and vegetables.

I wish I could have seen them. They would have been so beautiful.

Love, Sam

Sam Blackwell is a staff writer for the Southeast Missourian.

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