The broad, deep bowl of cliffs; the enclosed waves, re-crossing and echoing. From above, it was like watching the sea being sifted. I arrived just after sunset, parking at a strange angle, a little ways down a crumbling road. The sky was clear and astir with color. I had not been to the ocean in several years -- which is funny, actually, because I lived in Long Beach for most of that time. It was something just to hear it again.
I was hungry, thirsty, and nervous. For dinner I'd eaten a bag of gummi bears, which I'd luckily bought and forgotten about two days earlier. Annie Correal, who I did not expect to see, and who looked electrically happy, pointed me to sandwiches. "I went into the ocean," she told me, beaming. "I warmed up by going for a run, and then I jumped in." "How was it?" "It was very cold, and very nice!"
Standing with us, wearing thick, black, alright-I'll-take-a-look glasses, was an old, friendly woman related to Jonathan. I think she was how we had access to the beach. She had the tart, self-contained air that all old serious artists have. (If you've seen La Belle Noiseuse
, you know what I mean.) She paints, oil on acrylic, and listens to jazz. She claimed to like Miles Davis; I suspect that's not quite true, and what she likes is the idea
of Miles Davis, which falls somewhere in that Bermuda triangle between serenity, loneliness, and uncomplaining work.
We both teach. She said, "When children are very young, their minds are still free." I mentioned the true story of a researcher who had gone into two classrooms -- one kindergarten, the other a 5th grade class -- and put a large, round circle on the board, asking the children what they saw. He collected over a dozen answers from the younger ones; the older kids, naturally, were not fooled.
Jonathan is short, with cherub curls. Part of the reason I was there was to meet him; if I didn't like him, I was going to quit writing for this site. He was sweet to everyone, moving around, playing host with a good host's restlessness. He's modest; he said comparatively little the whole night, which, looking back, is remarkable. A young couple standing nearby had driven up from LA: Ishan and Mar Lja. Ishan works on synesthesia. I listened to him, eating my sandwich, surprised by how loud and purple the salami tasted. I gave him the short version of my theory of synesthesia. If you think you have synesthesia, you may or may not have it, but you definitely
want to be a writer. "It's like academics and Asperger's," I said. Ishan looked aslant, gathering his pitch.
"I'm working on techno-synesthesia
," he said, which actually did clarify things. "I want to look at how experience can be changed in a rhizomatic way." I speculated about what he meant -- digital psychedelic art inspired by drug experiences, was my guess. Not wanting to go into all that, even though I love the whole genre, I mumbled about a German named Niklas Luhmann. I credited Luhmann with writing the "single most important post-Marxist structural analysis of society." The statement, which had, from a very young age, never meant much of anything, vanished into the actuality of the chill wind coming in from the ocean.
Dave Lauer was working on the fire. I grew up making fires; it's a pain in the ass. Either the kindling, and paper, and starter logs all compact together, forming an airless, immune clump -- or else you make a perfect little kindling tent, and it stays that way, every kindling for itself, and then gutters out five minutes later. You wouldn't necessarily know, from his stories, how gleeful Dave is. He's the kind of guy who can tell himself a joke silently, and then, after losing a fierce inner struggle, burst into audible laughter. Meanwhile, the fire was perfect. It blazed up. We were both, it turned out, struggling with Cowbird block. "Yes, I could tell a story about my baby every single day. I'm always tempted. But I don't want to do that. You know? I don't want to just write baby stories!"
Like an idiot, I was standing directly in front of someone: Mar Lja, who was thinking about the consciousness of objects, and even, a little, about the inner monologues of aliens. She was wrapped in these amazing strata of different cloaks -- it looked cozy and also fairly complex. "I was just planning to blog about that," I said, in the unbelievably earnest fashion of somebody talking about a forthcoming blog post. "There was a really atrocious article in The Atlantic
." Mar Lja was very nice about having his book
-- literally, the same exact author -- in her knapsack. "This guy doesn't need to invent how aliens think, at least not from scratch," I protested. "We've got lots of versions of how aliens think."
We talked about science fiction, then Cowbird. She confided the story she would later tell. "How do I find your stuff?" I asked. "Just search for brothers," she suggested. "Or you can search for Macedonia," Ishan added. "No!" she exclaimed. It was like she'd stepped on a thumbtack. "He could end up at a different story, set in Macedonia, remember?"
There were maybe twenty of us encircling the fire. Dave and another guy set an entire wooden pallet ablaze, and it roared, and it became so hot we all had to keep turning around like pieces of toast. Jonathan spoke up; the night was about to begin.