Thursday, December 28, 2017

Auto Repair Shops, Broken Bottles, and Tolstoy

Daniel Cano                                        


     I live in a neighborhood where a  ratty 1940s two-bedroom, one-bath home, about 1000 square feet, sells for $900.000, give-or-take. Fix it up, like add a third bedroom and bathroom, and you are well into the million dollar-plus category. Still, chances are if you sell the house, the new owner will demolish it and build a modern 2,000-3,000 square foot, multi-layered monstrosity, like the house up the street. That's just the way it is if you live anywhere in the Westside near the 405 or what the old timers called the Santa Diego Fwy.

     Now, for those prices, one might think that the location would be Brady Bunch pristine--tree-lined streets, sparkling sidewalks, and little traffic. Not so. Two blocks away from my house, at the corner of Venice Blvd. are two grease-stained auto-repair shops, tattoo and massage businesses, a Cuban-Mexican fused panaderia and marketa (forgive my Chicanismo), two hipster bars, a Vietnamese noodles place, two hair salons, a soccer-only sporting goods, a fingernail specialist, and a number of Thai, Nepalese, and Middle Eastern restaurants.

     Each morning I leave the house to walk my two small dogs, I wonder what new discovery I'll stumble upon. It's like a journey into the unknown, Jules Verne in the city. A block down, I cross a pot-holed alley and see the results of the fun some kids had last might. There are broken bottles on a weed-strewn parkway. I pull my dogs close to avoid the shards. (I won't describe the spot where homeless folks use the sidewalk for a bathroom.)

     Except for people in a hurry or on their phones, everyone I pass is friendly enough. Mostly, they all say good morning or nod. Sometimes, I stop for conversations, like with Jeff, a Mongrel club motorcycle rider, who spent $7,000 on vet bills to treat a dog that wasn't even his. "It's my dog now," he told me, emphatically.

     As I walk my dogs, I need to keep their noses out of the high weeds where people throw trash out of their cars. My dogs are game for eating anything that resembles food.

     I recently read D.K. Suzuki's essays on Zen Buddhism, more an academic treatise than a how-to book. So, I try to find beauty in the world surrounding me. In the early morning light, and as the sun sets in the evening, most things, I find, are beautiful: the trees, the dirt, the grass, hedges, the sky, and even the reflections off the broken glass. I am conscious of my breathing and thankful that my body still functions, if not perfectly, at least effectively. I use fire hydrants to do stretching exercises and low fences for pushups.

     About a month ago, I discovered a box of dusty books in a cardboard box out in front of a house a few blocks from my house. Of course, whenever I see anyone tossing books, I always look at a title or two, and I usually keep moving when I see cheesy romance and mystery novels. This time, there were books on philosophy and biology, and classic novels I'd already read. I reached town to pick up a thick tome--Leo Tolstoy's biography. The cover was torn, and though dirt-smudged, the book seemed to be in good shape. Naw, I thought to myself, I don't need to start bringing home stray books.

     As I continued walking my dogs, I kept thinking about the book. I mean, I've always found Tolstoy's writing provocative and profound, like his short story "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" It's about greed and how a man is promised all the land he can cover on horseback in a day's ride. There is a devil in there somewhere at whose urging the man pushes himself and his horse hard, trying to cover more land than he needs. At the end of the story, the man dies from exhaustion. He is buried in a grave six-feet by six-feet, and the narrator tells us that truly is all the land a man needs. It's been a long time since I read the story, and I might have confused some facts, but, after all these years, it's impact still resonates, especially now, at a time, when I see so many becoming slaves to credit cards and possessions, as well as huge house expenses.
     Back around 2010, I decided to read War and Peace, all thousand, or so, pages of it. It was so large, I mean, literally big. I needed two copies, one to carry in my car and one to keep at home. I read it every chance I got, and it still took nearly six months to get through it. Tolstoy threw everything into that novel, personal stories, historical documents, newspapers accounts, and even anthropological studies.

     I really made headway on a vacation to Puerto Rico, where I read for hours each day as I sat on the beach or in cafes. Now, when I see the pictures of Puerto Rico's devastation after this last hurricane, I think of the place fondly, and how Leo Tolstoy accompanied me as I walked San Juan's streets and found solace on its beaches.

     How could I leave Tolstoy's life cramped in a dirty box to be thrown out next trash day? So, I reversed course, pulled my dogs back, away from home. They didn't come without a fight. When I found the house with the books, I saw the biography was still there, as if it had been waiting for me, like it knew I was returning. I reached down and snagged it. It is about 700 pages, so it's a commitment, and I've been plowing my way through Tolstoy's life for a month now.
     For me, reading writers' biographies has always given me, not only inspiration to write, but many practical tips, as well. I read that Steinbeck would write in a journal before beginning each day's writing, describing how he'd approach the story that day. He also said he could only write after sharpening a certain number of pencils each morning. He viewed writing like a skilled tradesman views his craft, punching in and out at the same time each day, six days a week. For me, one of his more engaging lines was, "I don't know what an author does, but I can tell you what a writer does," or something to that effect.

     I've found that Russian writers are excellent models for writers from working class backgrounds. Their language, unlike some British and French writers, is more accessible, direct. When I read Chekov, I could see my friends and relatives in his characters, and in the situations he placed them. Though Tolstoy wrote about the upper classes, he did so not by glamorizing and romanticizing them, but by showing they foibles, insecurities and weaknesses, the rich as commoners.

     Unlike many writers who supported themselves by their work, Tolstoy didn't have that problem. He was a count and fairly rich. He wrote because he wanted to write. His friends and his wife were often angry at him because he spent more time with the peasants than on his next novel. He spent time in the fields chopping wood, carrying water from the well, and hauling hay. He was interested in creating an ideal society. He struggled mentally because of the poverty around him. He started schools for the peasant children, and he wrote books on education, religion, and life. To his wife, Sonya, this was all just an excuse to avoid writing his next novel, a waste of his genius, she thought. After all, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and The Death of Ivan Ilich were viewed by many as masterpieces.
     Why do some good writers stop writing? I have friends, wonderful writers, who published one or two books and stopped. The great Mexican writer Juan Rulfo wrote only two books in his lifetime, Pedro Paramo and Al Filo del Agua, both considered masterpieces in world literature. He spent years on a third book he refused to publish, thinking it was never good enough. So, two books was his life time's production, not bad, like batting only twice in the major leagues and hitting grand slams both times. Then there are writers who write ten, twenty, thirty books, an astonishing production, but no masterpieces, not even close.

     Tolstoy suggested that he didn't write more fiction because he viewed it as frivolous when society had so many other important problems to confront. Yet, is it as simple as that?

     I know that each time I sit to a new novel, I must first overcome my fear. For artists, especially writers, whose words have direct meaning, fear is a constant: the fear of losing oneself, of failing, of insulting others, of getting it wrong, but mostly, for me, of entering the unknown.

     I understand how Tolstoy, after writing--no, struggling and suffering during the creation of War and Peace, including years of meticulous research, writing, and re-writing, was, then, terrified to have to do it again. This man, tortured by his wealth, knew that money, property, and possessions were an albatross around his neck. He tried to find ways to do as Christ told him to give it all away to the poor and come follow him. How could he do this and yet not hurt his wife and children, people who didn't want to be a saint like him? At the same time, Tolstoy turned his back on the State and the Church, seeing both of those institutions as the cause of man's suffering. Yet, he still attempted to live by the spirit of Christ's words. What must he have thought when asked, "When can we expect your next novel?"
     To Tolstoy, like all great writers, literature wasn't only entertainment, written for his audiences' joy of reading. Literature was life itself. When the masters create, it is only their creation that matters at the time. They must put aside family, friends, and obligations. Everything else becomes secondary. They must enter into a world where they are like gods whose creations wait each day for instructions to continue with their lives. When a writer's character dies, a little piece of the writer dies. When a character finds love, a piece of the writer experiences the same love. Is it real or only imagined? When a writer returns from his or her imagined world, how does he or she act after being so disassociated with anything outside that world? It's like living inside a paradox or an irony.

     There is no doubt in my mind why artists often seek refuge in alcohol, drugs, or even suicide. What must Ernest Hemingway have experienced when he knew he would never produce another For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, or A Farewell to Arms? Some might say that it is only pride and vanity. But those who create know that the truth lies much deeper.

     So maybe, for me, there is something to be said for the sound of the noise coming from the auto repair shop at the corner, the voices of homeless gathered around a bus bench, the sheen from pieces of a broken bottle, or even box of books tossed to the curb, for one never knows what miracles might arise from the detritus around us.





Antonio SolisGomez said...

a very thoughtful and well written piece, starting local and ranging far afield into the realm of writers. very nicely done

Daniel Cano said...

Thanks, Antonio. I appreciate your comment. I hadn't thought about this structure until you pointed it out. gracias.