Thursday, September 19, 2013

While you're busy making other plans*

This gets personal.

Three dozen sketchbooks threaten the integrity of a high shelf in my office closet.

The books mesmerize me, not for their number alone (have I really filled that many books all this time?) but for their content.

These are my everything books, for notes and sketches and scraps, part of my glacial epiphany of keeping it simple, Stupid. I used to have notebooks for notes and sketchpads for drawing, and would bring the one I didn't need and vice versa. Enough! Hence, the one-book system. Which is also the closest I get to a smartphone.

The books have become the wrinkles of my brain, where I go for reference and remembering — names and phone numbers, but mostly sparks for upcoming projects.

But they are grossly inefficient in that way. Unnumbered and out of any sensible order, they require I leaf through six or seven books at a time. In such large dosage, and susceptible as I am to serendipity, they are poison. In their intoxication, I can lose parts of workdays to reverie.

Here is a perfect example. Finally finding a long-ago drawing style experiment to resurrect, I turned one more page and found this. It's a journal-less journal entry, the summary of a day camping 13 years ago this summer.

We have mostly camped for vacations, and I used to get cheap composition books and write about them, trying to elevate the trips to a high plane of providence: Life-changing escape.

Then, life being what happens while you're busy making other plans, I stopped.

I brought my sketchpad on this camping trip, I'm sure, because I had a carry-over project to finish. I can never quite leave work at home. For whatever reason, I used this one page to record our trip. The preceding page contained vague notes for a project, and the following page held the experimental drawing swatches.

Here is that entry, enhanced with running commentary (I'll spare you the handwritten version):

Aug 14, 2000

Camp is quiet and we're glad — me, Mom, Maura and Liam. It is our second day here @ Reversed Creek Campground and what we feel is the pick of the place. Our site is secluded @ one end of the campground, set against a hill and deep in a grove of aspens toward the creek (which we have not found) and pine up on the hill. We can hear the cars on the road, but that's about all. Last night, Maura said, "It'd be nice out here without all the cars going by," and we had to tell her it was the wind in the aspens.
We try to pick a new destination each time we camp. This time, the June Lakes area near the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. The mountain range gradually rises from the west, but then drops sharply stark and treeless in the east. June Lakes is a last oasis of cool green peace before the breathtaking drop.

I was reading Farewell to Manzanar at the time, and saw the stark beauty of the eastern Sierra in a new light, the massive jaw of a wild dog, forbidding U.S. citizens of Japanese descent from thinking their country would welcome them back.
Wind drove us here, about four miles from where we were @ Silver Lake Campground, up in the eastern Sierra southeast of Sacramento. Teeta gave me a book of campgrounds for my birthday, and we took its advice.
"Teeta" is my sister Tara. Auntie Tara became "Teeta." She is reliable for the right gifts at the right time.
At first we liked Silver Lake, even though we got the last site (on a Sunday afternoon!) out in the middle of a small grassy plain. A small, windswept grassy plain. We put up with the wind the first night, since that is what you do when you're camping. The breeze squeezed our tent to the ground until nightfall. We were entranced by being in the cradle of such steep, sawtoothed mountains, and the way they glowed by the nearly full moon.
Funny how fast I dismissed the squeezing-tent image. I can't remember if we had the giant tent with aluminum poles, or a dome tent with plastic poles. We camped big and sloppy back then, before Scouting taught us economy and austerity. Either way, the wind was so strong that it pressed the tent flat, right on top of us, our weight being the only thing that kept it earthbound. A pole broke, I remember; I also remember I was upset, but the journal entry makes it sound like I carried on with breeze and blithe.
By Monday morning, we were lulled into thinking the site would suit us, until the wind picked up and never let up until early af before we finally decided to look elsewhere.

This new site is so good, we wondered what the catch is, since the other people were holed up in lesser sites.
Truly, this is the Site of Sites, a place so perfect it makes campers jealous the world over. It had a long driveway off a hairpin turn, just enough sun, just enough shade, out of view from the campground road and other campers. We thought it must have been bedeviled by sewage backup or bubonic plague, because we couldn't believe our good fortune. Not absolutely quiet — nature-quiet. The wind in the aspens really was wind in aspens, blowing high above our perfect shelter.
So now all is right with us. With a quiet site, no breeze to frustrate us, we can get busy camping. This morning, Maura and Mom took an hour-long horse ride while Liam and I hiked four miles round trip into the sawtoothed mountains to a mountain lake. Each pair had fun, and we capped the day at a crystal clear beach on June Lake.
Liam would go into fifth grade a couple of weeks after, Maura into third. For me as a parent, particularly where our son was concerned, school was still reaching the "Lord of the Flies" fever pitch, the flaws and hypocrisies of Catholic school starting to reveal themselves. But both kids, one in and one out of college, will tell you they made out all right. At this trip, on this summer, they were still children, hopeful and at play.

Liam was not yet in Boy Scouts, but we were both anxious to learn how to backpack. Though we didn't go far up the mountain trail, we might have gone farther than what we had provided for in food and water, and we were wearing the wrong clothes for the task. But the reward was great: Towering views of the lakes around us. A group of backpackers came down the trail, their bear bells ringing. We longed to have gone on the trip with them. Someday. On my office wall I still have the panorama I shot of the trail, assembled David Hockney style, Liam slightly out of focus in his San Francisco Giants spring training hat on the right end of the spectrum.
@ the moment, Maura, Liam & Mom are busy making furniture for Maura's Playmobil™© people. It's quiet time that makes us reflect on the week ahead, tasks waiting for me, and about the journals of Lewis and Clark I'm reading.
God bless Nancy, always up for play, for setting the safety net for imagination to leap far above the earth. Maybe the journals (I had finished Stephen Ambrose's Undaunted Courage and wanted to read the primary sources) inspired this page.

The campsite inspired us to return, but we never have. In fact, family emergencies and various expenses and circumstances prevented us from camping or even taking more than a few days off this year.

What John Lennon said.

* most popularly attributed to John Lennon in "Beautiful Boy," but others apparently said it first. Spot on wise, no matter the source, and this version still gets me.


  1. Dig it. Love the visual of a Hockney-esque collage. Right on. I stumbled upon an old sketchbook the other night and found some sketches I had done of my dogs asleep on the bed/floor. I realized that I don't draw nearly as much as I should for my mental health and personal journaling. Cheers, Shawn!

  2. thanks, robert! i'm glad it touched something. i don't draw nearly enough, either, at least not just drawing for drawing's sake. it is a salve that needs steady application.

  3. In my defense about the car/wind confusion, I was 8 years old. Probably reasonable because we had a few nights on long camping trips that were spent on the side of the highway in a small junction campground. Ha. I remember it was the big tent that we had at June Lake, and it was probably the last time we used it. One of the poles was really bent, and I think part of the tent even ripped. I remember Mom sewing it the next day, the same day that I was riding my bike around the road and fell after crashing in a big pot hole :(.

    1. i'm confused myself; i don't know from that passage whether you were in fact hearing car noise, or whether we were trying to fool you into thinking it was wind in the trees so you'd sleep. i'm also unsure whether that tent pole was bent there or at the zoo overnighter you attended. i have mercifully forgotten you got hurt in a bike crash. :)