Peter Matthiessen

He died on Saturday. He wrote my favorite novel: the Mister Watson trilogy that culminated in Shadow Country. He lived a remarkable life. The first striped bass of 2014 will go back with a kiss and an ave atque vale for Peter, who thankfully has one more novel at the publisher, his final words.

Here is the remarkable New York Times Sunday Magazine profile, published the day before he died.

I’ve blogged here about Shadow Country and I am very proud that my Amazon review of the novel is ranked #1 by other readers. I have pressed more copies of Killing Mister Watson into more friends’ hands than any other book with the possible exception of Barry Hannah’s Geronimo Rex.

Here’s what I wrote on Amazon:

“For nearly twenty years I’ve been obsessed by Edgar Watson, the Everglades Planter known as “Bloody Watson” and “Emperor Watson” for the 50-odd murders attributed to him by a century of legend and myth.

Peter Matthiessen was way more obsessed than me, writing four novels about Watson. I read the first in 1990. The last just this past December. It, Shadow Country, won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2008. It is Matthiessen’s masterpiece, and I have no qualms saying it is among the top novels in all of American literature, a book I would stack against Moby Dick, Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Gravity’s Rainbow, White Noise ….

Matthiessen does several important things that won my admiration. First, his voice, his writing, is a very spare, zen language that is short on embellishment but poetic in its nature. Second, the structure that he brings to the narrative is very inventive. The first part of the novel is the tale of Watson’s death at the hands of more than two dozen of his neighbors who gun him down after a hurricane in the fall of 1910, hitting him with 33 bullets. That part, which formed the basis of Killing Mister Watson, is an succession of reminiscences by those on that Chokoloskee beach, a backwater Rashomon that bring some amazing vernacular, history, and drama. The book starts with the killing — and what follows is an utter mind-twister of why Watson was killed.

The second part of the novel is the story of one of Watson’s sons, Lucius, who tries to reassemble the facts and seperate them from the myths about his father, who, among other legends, was the reputed murderer of outlaw queen Belle Starr. Lucius compiles a list of those on that beach, a list which makes him a very suspicious figure to the survivors and their descendants, back-water plume and gator poachers who would prefer that Lucius not be asking so many questions. The detective work, the sheer genealogical complexity of Lucius’ quest is a reminder to the reader — this is a true story. Matthiessen’s research and attention to detail would shame a historian.

And finally, the true masterpiece in the three tales is the first person account by Watson himself, a story that begins with his childhood in the post-Civil War Reconstruction of South Carolina (in the most violent county of the state), and his subsequent abuse at the hands of a drunken white trash father, his flight to north Florida and from there a descent into the American frontier, and Watson’s lonely home on Chatham Bend, the only house between Chokoloskee and Key West, literally the end of America.

Read it. Matthiessen won my respect decades ago with Far Tortuga, The Snow Leopard, Men’s Lives, but Shadow Country is my candidate for the Great American Novel.”

Cool Tools

If you want hours of fascinating, informative fun, buy a copy of Kevin Kelly’s massive tome, Cool Tools.

Cool-Tools-Badge

Most everyone over 50 remembers the  Whole Earth Catalogue of the late 60s and early 70s. A big bible on counter-cultural tools that covered everything from yurt construction to VW engine repair,the Whole Earth Catalogue was the book to have hanging around for hours of stoned obsessing. I can remember hanging out at my hippie cousin’s shack in Cotuit and spending hours going through that book (I was 12 and was not stoned!).

Kelly, one of the original editors of the WEC along with Stewart Brand, went on to co-found Wired and has been a leader of the DIY – Maker movement. His passion for the best in tools and gadgets has come together brilliantly in this lavishly illustrated, well designed, brilliant compendium of the best stuff in the world. Best vest? Filson Mackinaw (I own one). Best tweezers, best chainsaw, best book on chickens, best productivity applications ….

I Guano Kill Em All

There’s this bird called the cormorant, also known as the “shag”, which has been a part of the local wildlife for the last decade or more, arriving from the south and taking up residence along with the gulls, terns and ospreys. They are big black birds with long necks and cape-like wings they hold open to let the breeze dry them off. They feed on the bottom on mussels and crabs, popping to the surface to shake their heads and paddle along until spooked, at which point they windmill and run over the surface until they achieve escape velocity and can get airborne.

I want them all dead.

Cormorants exist to shit on my boat. I have strung up old CDs on strings like the rearview mirror of a teenager’s first car to scare them away. I have spent a hundred dollars on bird spikes for the spreaders on my mast. I have festooned my boom with old plastic grocery bags until the poor boat looks like a tree on the Grand Central Parkway in Queens.

But they shit and they continue to shit. And then they shit some more. They deposit prodigious amounts of fish-imbued filth all over the decks, the wheel, the cleats, lines, seats, dodger, windows, spars, winches and lifelines, coating the boat with a thick coat of white guano mixed with undigested mollusks, pebbles, and some sort of toxic waste that is impossible to remove. Flies love the stuff and the whole affair is just an invitation to salmonella, shigella, giardia, diarrhea, MRSA and whatever other flesh-eating bacteria you care to contract.

Yesterday was pull-the-boat day, so Sunday I put-putted out in the motorboat with my son to get things ready for the pulling of the mast at Town Dock. My buddy Tom K. was standing on the shore and bore the bad news. “Good luck with the guano” he said. Sure, I knew they had found a little gap in the bird spikes on the lower starboard spreader and one had managed to spackle the dodger with a blast of ass vomit, but that was okay, I saw that mess the weekend before as I returned triumphant with a bucket o’tautog, but like an idiot I didn’t clean it up. Leaving it there was tantamount to declaring the Bald Eagle was now a designated cormorant port-a-potti and they took advantage of the invitation. It’s a matter of dwindling opportunities, sort of like musical toilets where as the days go by the music stops and they take away another boat to poop on. Stay in past Columbus Day and the ratio of bird butts to available boat toilets get worse and worse until the last boat standing is a heaping, stinking mess of avian fertilizer.

It reminds me of the islands off the coast of South America in the Pacific Ocean that were so coated in bird shit that fortunes were made mining the stuff and shipping it back to the world as fertilizer. Guano was big bucks. But not my guano. No, my guano is my cross to bear.

So I get the boat into the town dock and start calling around for a power washer in the belief that I can use the dock’s faucet and some high pressure blasting to tidy things up before the kibbutzers and bored amateur wharfingers of Cotuit can point out the obvious and tell me it looks like birds have taken a massive dump (why are all dumps “massive?) on my yacht. I tie up. Test the faucet. Dry. The powers-that-be in the Town of Barnstable evidently believe the world stops on Columbus Day and have disconnected the pipes for the winter. Another boat arrives, also frosted with a nice layer, the owner asks me “Is the water on?” Nope. The term “shit out of luck” is invoked and I tie the end of a poo-covered jib sheet to the handle of a bucket and start hauling five gallons of sea water aboard every thirty seconds to try to soften it up and sluice it over the side.

The first helpful rocket scientist arrives with a cock-a-poo or a labra-dump on a leash and says, “Hey, someone got hit hard.” Ha ha. Very funny. Really? No fooling? You think? Scrub, scrub, scrub. Flies going up my nose. Backsplash in my mouth. The other boat owner has rubber gloves on. Not me. I just start rolling in the stuff and compose my obituary: he died a coprolagniac.

Six hours later and the sails are off, the turnbuckles on the rigging are loose, the neutral stop-switch in the throttle is fixed and the engine is running but the boat is still smeared with stalagmites of cormorant. I have been told to use lime remover, Comet, warm soapy water, screw-it-let-the-rain-wash-it-off, and to-hell-with-it–just-shrink-wrap the whole mess and pretend it didn’t happen. Being a nice day the dock was busy with spandexed cyclists, panting joggers, shoulder season tourists, local wise guys and friends and neighbors. Every single one of them expressed some rueful condolences over my messy boat.

Only one said anything that made any sense. I salute him.

“Next time put out mousetraps. All it takes is one and they get the word and won’t come back and if you’re lucky, you might see one trying to shake a trap off it’s claw.”

Thank you. I shall have my revenge.

The Car Plane

Texas. 1963. I was five years old, wore cowboy shirts with  pearl snap buttons, cowboy boots and a red cowboy hat.  The big kids in the subdivision tried to feed me cat turds because I was a “Yankee” and they were “Rebels.” JFK was shot in Dallas but we lived in Houston in a house with a checkerboard linoleum floor and a treehouse built on top of a phone pole because there weren’t any trees and my father decided his sons needed a tree house. The Mercury program was putting men into space and Houston had a NASA space center which made me obsessed with John Glenn. I played in a rocket ship at a playground near the Houston Ship Canal. My little brother rubbed a beached Portugese Man-O-War on his chest, went into shock and was placed in a bathtub full of ice at a Corpus Christi emergency room.

 

 

There were snakes in the back yard. We owned two Siamese cats. We had art on the walls that I have seen on the walls of rooms in Mad Men.

I was given a Kenner Car Plane because I learned how to read from Dr. Seuss and traffic signs.

I loved my Car Plane. It was installed in the back seat of the Ford station wagon to keep me occupied during the long trip from Houston to Cape Cod when it was time to leave Texas and return to Massachusetts where my father was going to take over the family business. I flew it through Mississippi which scared me from the television news. I flew the plane past the Iwo Jima monument in Washington DC at five in the morning. And I flew it down the Mid-Cape highway, fighting for the right to play with it with my brother Tom.

It was the coolest thing I owned. I loved it. I mean I really, really loved my Kenner Car Plane. It was my Rosebud. The toy I’ve never forgotten.

And then it got smashed by an over-exuberant cousin whom I have never really forgiven.

 

Tanglewood – The Pops do Garcia

I’d never been to Tanglewood, the music venue in Lenox, Mass — way out there in Edith Wharton-Herman Melville territory off of Exit 2 on the Mass Pike near the New York border — but got my first chance Saturday night with my good college buddy T____ who invited me to join him for the Boston Pops’ Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration with Warren Haynes.

garcia

Gorgeous countryside, amazing music under the full moon, and me and a gazillion other paunchy Dead Heads arriving in German sedans unsure of whether to wear tie-dye or summer dresses.

Keith Lockhart, the post-John Williams/post-Arthur Fiedler heir to the conductor’s baton of the Pops, conducted the two-hour concert in tie-dye. The orchestra was in their traditional formal evening wear.

The arrangements were amazing, especially on Terrapin Station which was originally recorded with a symphony orchestra and thus fit the venue perfectly. As a tribute to Jerry it was very well done, had a very eclectic set list ranging from big classics such as Morning Dew, to more obscure stuff such a West LA Fadeaway and Russian Lullaby. Terrapin was amazing:

The song begins around 2:15 in the clip below:

I was about ten rows back from whomever captured the clip. Haynes is repeating the event throughout the summer in Philly, San Francisco, LA and elsewhere.

setlist

Sterling Hayden: An Appreciation

One of the most influential books in my youth was Sterling Hayden’s autobiography: Wanderer.  For a young writer restless to get out of the confines of college and into the “real” world, his life’s story was an inspiration of boot-strapped pluck, luck, and determination to find some meaning on the deep blue sea. That he was a leading man during Hollywood’s Golden Era, married to starlets, called before the Communist witch-hunts of the House Un-American Committee, then revived in  the 60s and 70s as an actor’s actor in Dr. Strangelove and the Godfather was mere trim and icing on a life spent before the mast on a Gloucester fishing schooner and tall ships. Sterling Hayden was the real deal, a manly man who deserves a revival.

Hayden wrote two books: Wanderer is still in print and a very worthwhile read. His one and only novel, Voyage: A Novel of 1896 is out of print, but worth tracking down from a used bookstore. It is one of the better maritime novels on my bookshelf. As for his films, other than Strangelove and Godfather, his other big contemporary film was The Long Goodbye. His early stuff — beginning in 1941 after he was discovered by Hollywood on the deck of a Gloucester schooner because of some newsreel footage shot at the annual schooner races in Boston — is pretty obscure, B-movie stuff. He hated the studio system which cast him as a pretty boy/beefcake but he put up with it to finance his expensive tastes in wives and boats. Hayden was a self-admitted bad actor.

He spent World War II in the OSS, working behind enemy lines in Yugoslavia with Marshal Tito’s band of resistance guerrillas fighting Nazis. That built some admiration for the Communists which got him into hot water after the war during the Hollywood witch hunts, a period in his life he long regretted after he uncharacteristically named names.

I met him once, in Sausalito, California in the early 80s, shortly before his death in 1986, when I was tending bar in San Francisco and writing as the Bay Area stringer for Soundings, a weekly boating newspaper. I read a profile of his first mate, Spike Africa, in the San Francisco Chronicle, learned Hayden was in Sausalito and tracked him down. I was 22 and the two interviews I had with him were my first experience with true hero worship. I never wrote the profile, the editors at Sounding weren’t interested and I was too flaky to freelance the piece elsewhere, a mistake I kick myself for.

There is a great appreciation of Hayden, the sailor and writer, by Captain Paul Watson at Sea Shepherd International’s blog. I’ll borrow his quote of Hayden’s because it was the kind of sentiment that fired me up as a confused and rudderless young sophmore:

“To be truly challenging, a voyage, like a life, must rest on a firm foundation of financial unrest. Otherwise, you are doomed to a routine traverse, the kind known to yachtsmen who play with their boats at sea… cruising, it is called. Voyaging belongs to seamen, and to the wanderers of the world who cannot, or will not, fit in. If you are contemplating a voyage and you have the means, abandon the venture until your fortunes change. Only then will you know what the sea is all about. I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security. And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine – and before we know it our lives are gone. What does a man need – really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in – and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment. That’s all – in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up in a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade. The years thunder by, The dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?”

– Sterling Hayden

Olympian Blunder: The IOC drops Wrestling

I’m not a fan of the International Olympic Committee. I ran afoul of their ass-hattery in 2008 in Beijing when I was working at Lenovo, a one-time sponsor. I was dismayed at their decision after Beijing  to drop baseball from the Games — a strange decision given the global spread of the sport through Latin America and Asia — but the news in the New York Times that the IOC is dropping wrestling is truly jaw dropping given the legacy of the ancient Greek games where wrestling was most certainly one of the main events along with the usual Ur sports of running and jumping and hurling javelins and discuses (disci?).

This is a sport they painted on Greek urns.  A sport so essential, so basic that it would seem to be sacred. But no, the Red Bull generation must have their X-games and so while sports like water ballet and beach volleyball and BMX bicycling get their moment of glory, the true test of man versus man, a sport going back to the Bronze Age, is dropped in a secret ballot by a bunch of bureaucratic bullies more concerned with their television revenue than the Olympic ideal. As a former wrestler (high school) it’s all sadder to see it go.

Here’s a link to the New York Times story.

“When you think of the Olympics you think of wrestling,” said Cael Sanderson, the wrestling coach at Penn State and a 2004 Olympic champion. “It was a marquee event in ancient Greece and in the modern Games. After running, it was the next sport to be part of the Games. Like track and field, the Olympics are the highest level. Some sports, it’s just not as special.”

Fully charged

My daughter gave me a Duracell Powermat for Christmas and I’m loving it so much I bought a second one for my New York office. The system consists of a sleek base unit that can accommodate two devices, a case for my Samsung Galaxy S3, and a portable battery unit that can charge a fading phone away from the base. This is cordless charging, the same inductive technology used to recharge electric toothbrushes. I first saw it demonstrated in 2009 at Qualcomm, but it was a bit clunky and didn’t seem all that interesting at the time.

But in practice the system is awesome with a couple irritations. After fitting the case over the phone and plugging it’s male connector into the phone’s female micro-USB port (tight fit, which makes changing cases a bit of a hassle — more on that in a second) the phone can be placed on the charging base where it magnetically slips into the proper position with an audible confirmation that charging has started. I set the phone to go into “bedside” mode when its docked on the Powermat. Only two phones are supported — the Galaxy and the iPhone 4s — but the iPhone 5 case is expected sometime soon. The base units come in three, two and single device configurations. I thought the spare battery brick was a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have, but on a recent vacation it was pressed into use.

The hard plastic case isn’t as rugged as an Otterbox and has to be removed if I want to dock the phone in the car cradle. I imagine Duracell has a car unit in the works, but for now I have to peel off the Duracell case to use the phone in the car for the usual GPS/handsfree/Audible/music stuff.

Duracell is pushing the technology hard, painting a picture where charging bases will be available in coffee shops, nightclubs, airport lounges, stadiums, etc.. and apparently truly wireless charging is over the horizon.

Here’s the obligatory YouTube vision of Millenial bliss:

The double-device mat is $90 at Amazon and includes the portable battery pack and a case for a single phone.. A one-device mat is $32.

Learn a poem

I don’t have a photographic memory and can’t recite long soliloquies or famous speeches extemporaneously, but like being able to identify the stars I’ve always wanted to. Someone wrote that true genius is the being the first person to quote someone else, and I’ve always wanted a few great poems to be burned into my brain to be pedantically pulled out at the absolute perfect moment, thereby marking me as that jerk with the big mouth. One classic I’ve always wanted to memorize is Lord Byron’s The Dark, Blue Sea. The second verse will do just fine for those moments afloat when some noble sentiments are called for. Melville is good for such stuff, but Byron has the best sea poem of all in my opinion:

“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean-roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin-his control
Stops with the shore;-upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknell’d, uncoffin’d, and unknown.”

Poetry astonishes me sometimes.