I am reading John Steinbeck. The book, The Log from the Sea of Cortez, was first published in 1941. The reviews were not good. The publication of those reviews hit the press on the day Pear Harbor was bombed. All in all, it was a bad day.
As you do when you are travelling, you sometimes find a book quite by accident. I wasn’t looking for Steinbeck, but living here on the Sea of Cortez, the title called out to me. Sometimes it is good to have not read the reviews. It isn’t a stretch to see where the reviewers were coming from. One might say, “What a hodgepodge!” You might think that the book would be quite straightforward: Steinbeck and his biologist friend Ed Ricketts rent a sardine boat in Monterey, California and cruise down the Baja Peninsula into the Sea of Cortez on a tidal pool collecting expedition. You would think that this book would be a travel/adventure journey. But it is not.
Some chapters are very detailed as to the collecting process and the fauna collected at low tides. To me, these chapters interrupt the flow and would be of greater interest to a marine biologist. Other chapters are long philosophical musings on the relationship between the natural world and man. The lighter chapters are devoted to the sights and scenes encountered on the 4,000-mile journey. With so many contrasting threads, it is no wonder the book received poor reviews. It is a mixed bag.
That said, this book is taking forever to read because I’ll read a passage, make margin notes, think about what I have underlined, and read the passage again. Skimming the science chapters, I am intrigued by the philosophical chapters. Steinbeck looks at the natural world and speculates on the relationship between nature and man: When it seems that men may be kinder to men, that wars may not come again, we completely ignore the record of our species. If we used the same smug observations on ourselves that we do on hermit crabs, we would be forced to say, with the information at hand, “It is one diagnostic trait of Homo sapiens that groups of individuals are periodically infected with a feverish nervousness which causes the individual to turn on and destroy, not only his own kind, but the works of his own kind.
Yesterday I attended a fund-raising, dance performance at one of two San Carlos schools supported in part by Rotary. The Carne Asada program featured roasted meat, tortillas and trimmings. The highlight of the program was the school children costumed and performing regional folkloric dances. The costuming was wonderful. It was lovely to see the children and their parents taking such pride in their culture. The smallest children were uneasy with all the attention. The middle school and high school students were poised, proud and disciplined. During the feasting, kids shucked off their costumes and danced to a mariachi band. It was interesting to note the contrast between the kids so regal in their native dress and the same kids so boisterous and fun-loving out of costume.
It made me think about the importance of dress. I remembered my high school band teacher who required us to practice every morning for eight weeks during the summer. The purpose was to prepare for six weeks of Sunday ice cream socials in the town’s bandstand. Despite the fact that it was hot and summer vacation and the swimming pool called, we were required to dress in school clothes – that would be skirts or dresses for the girls. The band leader firmly believed that if we were not properly dressed for work, our casual attire would affect our attention to the music at-hand and the professionalism he desired. I think there is something to that.
Along the same lines, the purpose of this fund-raiser was to install air conditioning in the school. A friend wondered why the school should have air conditioning when the children’s homes did not. Wasn’t the installation of air conditioning a waste of money? I don’t think so. The school environment should (like costuming, discipline and attention to detail) inspire students to look beyond their daily lives and into the future.
Hopefully, I don’t sound too self-satisfied, but I love this picture to the left. If it were in black and white (I should print it in black and white), it could have been taken a hundred years ago. The picture reminds me of another bit of underlining. In chapter 17, Steinbeck wrote: As usual, a good serious small boy attached himself to us. It would be interesting to see whether a nation governed by the small boys of Mexico would not be a better, happier nation than those ruled by old men whose prejudices may or may not be conditioned by ulcerous stomachs and perhaps a little drying up of the stream of love.
I love the transformative nature of costumes. Think about costumes you might have worn and your emotional response to that costume. Work those thoughts into a short poem or bit of prose.
Think back to a memorable performance in you life. Use those thoughts and emotions/anxiety to build a character.