Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Spiral Jetty, take 4

The sunflowers are new. I swear they were not here the last three times I made the trip. Now they’re everywhere, a small-faced variety but perky and bright yellow, as if planted along the roads to welcome visitors and compensate for the long ride and parched landscape. Everything seems different this time, especially the last 16-mile stretch of unpaved road. It should beat at you through the washboard sections and loosen your fillings. It should take an eternity to crawl and bounce through the last mile, the gauntlet of basalt boulders, extracted giants’ teeth. But Box Elder County has leveled it all, hauled out some kind of insanely tough earth-moving equipment to slice through the rocks, built up a road bed and covered it in pea-gravel. I can’t explain why I’m disappointed by this. I should be grateful. But it seems that the trek is diminished by the added degree of comfort. It’s as if someone at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela installed escalators up the steps, the ones you’re supposed to take on your knees.

The students don’t know they are missing anything. They’re likely pleased that the trip has taken 2 hours 25 minutes as opposed to the 3 hours I promised them. As our two rented vans near Rozel Point, we can see the Great Salt Lake in full sun. It sparkles like the surface of a sugar egg. This part, at least, has not changed.

The newly leveled road cuts gently across the slope of the hill and ends in a parking lot (!) (what next, a gift shop?). I have never seen this many people here at once. This explains part of my disappointment. Once you make the pilgrimage less daunting, everyone will come. Not that I begrudge them the chance to visit the jetty. But how serious are they, really? Do they—these pampered tourists in sedans—care about the jetty like those who were willing to eat dust and slam their heads on the roofs of high-clearance vehicles for its sake?

My students pour out of the vans. There are eighteen in our group this time. I suggest we hike the hill first to get a good view. From the top we see the pink water and, in the distance, the baffling section where it scallops from pink to blue for no reason. From the shore, the Spiral Jetty curls in a counter-clockwise direction, slowly receding under the surface. The rocks that cut above the water hit against the small ripples of current and form jet trails. The jetty looks like it is plowing along through the lake, moving south.

We scramble down the hill (I note that there is an unmistakable trail—or more to the point, two or three trails to choose from—that were not here last time, and then I decide to stop grinding my teeth about the increased traffic. It’s not like the jetty belongs to me). The students change their shoes, a few keep on their flip flops (ya gotta love these kids) despite my previous warnings that the water level was high this year and they’d need swim trunks and good shoes to make it to the center of the spiral. I pull out my secret weapon: my husband’s fishing waders. They reach all the way up my legs and I tuck the straps into my belt. I’m prepared. I know the routine. I’ve walked the spiral before. I’ve been checking the lake levels online for weeks.

Note to arrogant self: fishing waders prove effective as long as you keep the tops above the water. If you were to, say, slip on a rock because the path you are following is nothing but a walkway of slippery, mostly submerged rocks, and you begin to fall and make the split-second decision (and a wise one) to put all your ebbing sense of balance into holding your expensive camera above your head rather than catch yourself, it is likely that as you lie horizontal in the water with one arm perpendicular—camera aloft—like a pyrrhic victory salute, the boots will in fact fill with water, your jeans will be saturated, and when you rise, you will be forced to carry gallons of extra lake water with you as you attempt to schlump, schlump, schlump, all dignity gone, around the spiral.

The students are good sports and despite the deep water and perilous rocks (soon they’ll have the ankle scrapes to prove it) they trudge around the coils to the center where they pose and laugh and congratulate themselves. The water is thick and rose colored. One student says it’s like wading through Kool-Aid. I could not have ordered a more glorious sky. It’s bright blue and dry-brushed with a few lines of pure white clouds. It was worth sacrificing myself for the camera to take these pictures.

We emerge from the lake, all coated in a thin layer of salt, the hair on our arms frosted with a crystalized mist. My jeans are starting to stiffen. I peel the boots off and dump them out. I tip and pour and the water just keeps coming; the moment is like something out of a cartoon.

The water level made it challenging this year, but I’m smug about the fact that of all the visitors who overlapped with our group at the jetty, we were the only ones who actually walked the spiral. This makes up for the crowd and the parking lot and the conditioned road. The others saw the jetty. We did the jetty. I think it’s a work of art that cannot be fully appreciated from a distance, just like it can’t be bought or sold or hung on a gallery wall in front of a velvet bench; it has to be experienced. I love that it’s never the same experience twice. And I love that it takes effort to get there and I love that to finish the trip you have to walk (or wade or schlump) your way to the center of the spiral. I think most art is a gift. But the jetty? This one you have to earn.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


I’ve written about Gabie on this blog many times. But believe me when I say I have failed to do justice to his single most defining characteristic: his intensity. By intensity I mean an abundant mix of stubbornness, obsessiveness and pathos. When Gabie puts his mind to something, he’s a bulldog who has latched on and will not let go. He’s the one-noted cricket. He’s a cow with its cud. He’s a horsefly who…well, you get the idea. And it doesn’t sound nice when I put it in those terms, but seriously, you have no idea how far he can take things. His persistence makes you want to pull your hair out and laugh with exhaustion at the same time.

The hard part is that I never know what’s going to set him off. Will it be the bear he saw at Yellowstone that will spark a month of obsessive ramblings about bears? (No) Or will it be the wolf he did not see at Yellowstone that launches a holy crusade against the endangerment of wolves, heartbreaking cries all the way home from Yellowstone about how we have to go back next week to see the wolves (and if not Yellowstone, then—once he has read cover to cover the book about wolves we bought to pacify him—Alaska, Montana, and various Canadian provinces), rants against cattle ranchers, and eternal enmity for all authors who have unjustly vilified wolves for centuries (Yes, oh save us, yes).

This week, he has moved on to chickens. Monday morning, I suggested that since we had eggs for breakfast, we should visit our neighbors’ chickens for a field trip. (I’ve been homeschooling Gabie; a short fieldtrip seemed like a great writing prompt for his journal-writing time.) And I’ll confess here that I have been wanting to see our neighbors’ chickens for a long time. And also I would really like to have chickens of our own. And, okay, I’ve begged Ken to let me get chickens for years. But we got a dog instead, which is nowhere near a chicken, but that’s another story.

Anyway, we saw the chickens. Two of them. Super cute, as far as chicken cuteness goes. They clucked softly. They staccatoed around. They even had two eggs waiting for us: one perfectly smooth, the shade of chocolate milk, the other speckled. But if I could go back in time, I would tell Julie of the past to, at all costs, avoid making any statements to my neighbor—in Gabie’s presence—to the effect of “We’ve talked about someday getting chickens ourselves” or “This setup doesn’t look that complicated. Maybe we can really do it.” And I would certainly tackle to the grass the Julie who, on her way home pointed out to Gabie that we have a chunk of unused space in our side yard that, with a bit of work and a new fence, would fit a chicken pen rather nicely. To any sane observer, these were the comments of a dreamer who knows that the chances of finally getting chickens are pretty remote. To Gabriel, they were promissory notes. He went from eating an egg for breakfast to guaranteed chicken ownership in under an hour.

For the next three days, every time I have turned around, Gabie has been on my computer with sixteen different tabs open to As of this morning, he has 1) selected the chicks we will order (two Barred Plymouth Rocks and an Easter Egg Bantam), 2) surveyed every member of the household numerous times about their preferences on egg colors, 3) calculated the price of 4 chicks ($23.25) and all the equipment (heating lamps, etc) we will need to raise them (all written up on a sticky note which he affixed to my desk), 4) planned the chicken coop structure in detail, begged his father numerous times to build it and even offered to build it himself, and most importantly 5) talked of NOTHING ELSE for the past 72 hours. You may think I exaggerate, but I have witnesses. Go ahead. Ask Gabie’s siblings or father when we will be getting our chickens and you’ll see their heads explode.

To say Gabie has a one-track mind is putting it mildly. In the course of a day, while the world is spinning around him and every other person in his life has passed from one task to another and had handfuls of conversations regarding a myriad of topics, Gabie has suspended these chickens—and nothing else—on a rotating pedestal in his head. He’ll pop into any conversation with a chicken-related remark. Actual examples of dialogue:

“Gabie, find your socks. We have to go.”
“Hey mom?”
“What do you think we should make the fence out of?”


“Gabie, do you want jam or honey with the peanut butter?”
“Hey mom?”
“On Easter, can we give them extra food since it’s like their holiday? I heard if chickens are happy, they’ll be more likely to lay eggs.”

And when I’m working at my computer:

“Hey mom?”
Heavy sigh. “Yes, Gabriel?”
“We’ll need to get the red heat lamp because the baby chicks will be able to sleep better… And if you notice they are huddled in a pile, that means they are too cold and if they’re spread all over, they are too hot.”

Plus random interjections at the dinner table like: “Would October 6 be good day for us to have the chickens arrive?”

Or, when I told him that *in the distant future, when we might possibly, if we’re lucky, get around to ordering chickens* we’d only get three and he wanted to know what we’d do with the fourth chick since the minimum order at was four and I told him maybe my friend Meg could use another chicken, I got questions for the next hour like: “How good of a friend is this Meg?...Could you call her today?”

And this one today while I’m driving McKay to his clarinet lesson:

“Hey mom? One thing I’ve noticed is their combs function on the same principle as a canid’s pointy ears. They shed heat. They’ve have adapted this way.”

I could type dozens of such non sequiturs and still fall short of the Gabie effect. His is the persistence of those rivers that wear down mountains or plateaus over the course of centuries. He’s the Grand Canyon of chicken lovers. It got so bad Monday night that Ken banned him from saying the word chicken for the rest of the day. (That evening during family night, Gabie played the martyr: “Yeah, I have something to say for family council, but I’m not allowed to say the “c” word anymore, so I can’t tell you.”) The next morning he picked up again talking about nothing but kickens, which he explained started with a “k” so it didn’t count.

Now before you conclude that I lack sympathy for the poor child, I have to clarify that I would like nothing more than to make Gabie happy 24/7. He’s an amazing child and I adore him. I even want chickens. But the problem is that we don’t have the money right now to buy them or the time to build the fence to accommodate them. This is where the pathos comes in. As excited as Gabie gets about his latest obsession, he gets equally devastated when he cannot realize it immediately. Last night he was moping around tossing out phrases like, “Do you ever feel that your life is not worth living?” And, when he heard for the tenth time that we weren’t going to build a chicken coup and order chicks right this second, he says, “You know what this is like? It’s like getting news that you’ve gotten a $2,000 payment, and then an hour later, you get a message saying, “Oh, we made a miscalculation. It’s only $2. Sorry.” Or maybe it’s like you’ve been looking for a job for a long time and someone says, we like you, we’d like to hire you and then they say, we changed our minds…we like this other guy better!”

So I worry that he’s on the brink of serious damage to his poor 9-year-old psyche from the depths of his emotional swings. I worry that when he grows up he’ll hurt himself while steering his Greenpeace boat between the harpoon and the whale. I worry that someday he’ll fall in love hard and do irrational things (I once had a coworker in Pennsylvania who fell for a con-woman; nothing we could say to him about how she was obviously lying to him with her various stories of being kidnapped in New York and needing ransom money swayed his affections; by the time he woke up, he had lost his entire life savings, his home and finally his job). I worry simply that Gabie is sad more than any child should be because he takes things so personally and we (meaning I) don’t have the patience to give him all that he needs.

The paintings running through my mind as I worry about the psychology of obsession (and try not to think about chickens anymore) are the Monomaniac series by Gericault. This was the 19th century and doctors were, for the first time, exploring different types of insanity. Gericault’s friend, Dr. Georget did studies in madhouses of people with certain acute sensitivities, people who had fixated on one thing to the point of total meltdown. Gericault painted these patients with honesty, but also with an aim for showing how their psychoses were supposedly written in their features and expressions. You decide if he succeeded.

This is his Portrait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy.
And Man with Delusions of Military Command.

It seems to me that these patients are all staring off the edge of the canvas; they never look directly at us. They’ve been frozen forever in time in the midst the exact kind of intense focus that has destroyed all their periphery vision or logic or sanity.

Not that Gabie has gone this far or needs a shrink yet. I’m just saying he has this scary personality trait. I even hope that his tenacity (from tenere, “to hold” and related to “tenet,” a thing held to be true) will serve him well someday. He’ll be the teenager who refuses to go with the flow. He’ll be the ultra-loyal husband. If he does end up as a doctor (and lately he wants to be a doctor AND work for the National Park Service as a wolf specialist AND own a bunch of chickens) he’ll be an intensely focused doctor, which sounds like a good thing. My goal is to help him see the value of balance. And help him understand that life rarely delivers instant gratification and it wouldn’t hurt to develop some patience.

And then I need to work on my own tendency to obsess about my children and hover over them and worry about their every move like a mother hen.