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Posts Tagged ‘New Mexico’

Coming to you from Whole Foods….

Well, for the first time on this trip, I’m staying at a place with less-than optimal internet, which is ironic since this is the most expensive place in which I’ve stayed (which is not saying a whole lot, but still. It’s in a somewhat chi-chi part of town and the owner has the rental casita on a booster from the main house. Even if I plant myself right next to the contraption, photos still don’t load. Let’s see if Whole Foods comes through.)

Update: It did.

(And you wonder – why not just wait until tomorrow? Because I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow – I may not have internet all day, at all – and I don’t want a huge backload of this type of writing. I have other things I need/want to do when I get home.)

Saturday morning was my last morning in the lovely, perfect Tiny House outside of Abiquiu, New Mexico. Here’s the listing – it’s not on the normal rental sites, but on a site geared more towards campers. Hipcamp features campsites, yes, but also lists lodgings that are perhaps on campsites (yurts, cabins, treehouses) and spots like this. It’s also on VRBO. I do believe that the gentleman who owns the property built the house and probably designed it as well. It’s cunning, smart, and cozy – and as you can see, the location can’t be beat.

Good-bye Tiny House!

I cleaned up, packed up and headed out to Mass.

Where?

Here.

As I mentioned somewhere – perhaps it was on Instagram – I’d discovered a couple of days before that since this parish, now St. Thomas the Apostle, was originally founded as St. Rose of Lima in the colonial period, her feastday (which was Monday) is celebrated with a fiesta, that begins with Mass in the ruins of the original mission.

Not something I’m going to miss, amiright?

There were probably 75 people there, mostly Hispanic. The Mass was in English, with all music in Spanish and the Agnus Dei in Latin. The priest was Vietnamese. It was a lovely Mass, in a beautiful, moving setting.

I was standing in the back, and there were probably twenty people behind and around me.

Followed by a procession – not Eucharistic, but with images of St. Rose and the Blessed Virgin – into town. It was escorted by folks on horseback and the fire department. It’s about a two mile journey, and I wasn’t going to walk it, so while I waited, I headed down to the Chamo River for a bit of a break.

The procession arrived – my position was from the parking lot of the famed Bode’s General Store – which is the main shopping stop in Abiquiu.

Up to the fiesta. The church, St. Thomas was open, so of course I took a look. As you can see, it’s peppered with images of both St. Thomas and St. Rose.

I understand the mayordomo is a common role in churches down here. Don’t you think it’s a good idea to have an official parish mayordomo instead of the unofficial jockeying for the spot that’s inevitable anyway?

To cap off an already very interesting morning, I discovered that the O’Keefe house and studio was doing special tours from 1-3. Abiquiu residents were free, and non-residents were asked to give a suggested $20 donation, which would then go to benefit the church. I’m in!

It was not the full tour, of course – more of a walk through with a docent, who gave the basics, but didn’t go in depth. I didn’t get any photo of her studio because there were a few people in there already. But I did get photos of her perfect mid-century mod sitting room – the rocks on her window sill are just part of O’Keefe’s rock collection, which she enjoyed rearranging and studying. The black door is a subject she painted quite a bit.

The setting is….unbelievable. And yes, inspiring.

And remember, it’s just around the corner from the Penitente Morada.

Time to hit the road south to Santa Fe. I stopped in Romero’s fruit stand to pick up some chile powder and some chili-sprinkled dried fruit, then kept going. My rental wouldn’t be ready until 4, so I continued to the Plaza, walked around a bit, got my bearings, saw the Cathedral exterior, where folks were arriving for Mass. Then back up to the rental, through clothes in the washing machine, and then….to the opera!

This was the last night of the season for the Santa Fe Opera, which is performed, of course, in this quite stunning setting, open to the west, so the setting sun provides a backdrop for at least part of the evening, and then twinkling lights for the rest. It’s a gorgeous place.

As I considered attending this performance, I noted that tickets were somewhat scarce, and of course, not cheap. I was willing to pay a couple hundred bucks for the tickets, but then read somewhere about standing room tickets – for $15. How to get them? It’s not on the website. Are they available just on the day? Is it a lottery? What’s up? So, I did the radical thing – called the box office.

“Oh, you can buy them now, over the phone,” she said.

Well, that’s a done deal, then.

There are maybe two dozen standing room spaces, and understand this is not a Globe Groundlings situation where you’re just standing in a crowd. There’s a designated area all along the back of the Orchestra seats – the mixing board is in the middle – with stands on which you can lean, and which also have the little translation screens. Really – I would definitely do it again.

I’m especially glad that I only paid $15 because…wow, this production was not good. This review expresses my reaction in a much more knowledgeable way than I could manage. It just did not work, although the second act was better than the first.

But you know what? It was 12 minutes from my rental, and hearing the singing and the music in that setting for that price is not something I’m going to complain about.

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My favorite thing about Wide Open Spaces is the sight of rain in the distance. Lots of that today.

Not because of it, but just because I needed to, I took most of the day for writing and catching up, not venturing out until 3-ish. At which point I got back on the high road to Taos, intending to make a couple of stops at places I’d missed the first time, and then going to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge – then circling back down this way.

Well, I didn’t make all the stops because I was trying to outmaneuver those thunder clouds much of the time. I enjoy watching them, but I didn’t particularly want to be in them. I don’t begrudge them their rain at all – they need it badly, and it’s great to see the “Forest Fire Risk” gauges at “low,” which they are right now.

So not a lot of photos today. But:

From my front porch this morning.

Then at the bridge, there was a huge storm that I’d skirted while driving, but reached Taos while I was there. My poor photography can’t capture it, but it was massive, with lots of lightening – quite fascinating to watch – from a distance.

The bridge is the…fifth highest in the US.

On the way up, a stop this establishment in Dixon – it seems like a good place to shop and get quality food. The folks I saw in and around reinforced my sense of the artsy/boho/alternative quality of the demographic around here. I just grabbed a pastry from, I think, a Santa Fe bakery. Ah yes – this one. If I had a freezer, I would have definitely gotten a loaf of the green chile bread.

Then closer to home (for one more night) in El Rito, a church and…something else.

That’s it, that’s all, watch out for that rain!

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What inspires you?

Here’s what inspired me on Thursday.

Mass, of course. Not only the Mass itself and all of its components, and the encounter with the Lord, but also having this encounter with others, past and present, in a simple, beautiful structure built by human hands, standing in this place for centuries now. A testimony, as was the presence of the couple of dozen folks there in that early morning hour, bringing whatever they have – burdens, joys – to the same Lord, not knowing how any of it will turn out, but trusting nonetheless, in the presence of the saints.

Considering creativity at Ghost Ranch, learning about Georgia O’Keefe. Hearing about a complicated woman living a complicated life, but also knowing herself and her own mind, and living it out. The tour I took was the “landscape tour” – on a bus (you can also do hiking and horseback tours – I was into efficiency yesterday) – on which the docent narrates O’Keefe’s life, especially in New Mexico, and compares images of her paintings to the landscape subjects.

To consider how she saw, how she worked, her focus, her self-understanding of what she needed to do and how she needed to live in order to share what she saw. Challenging and yes, inspiring.

The hike to Chimney Rock. There are several hikes originating at Ghost Ranch, and this is one of the most popular. It’s not a difficult hike, but the challenges are twofold: some scrambling up to the mesa near the end, and then the fact that it’s unshaded, except for some scrabbly junipers along the way. Maybe this was not the best choice for an August afternoon when the temperature, according to my car when I got back, was 93? (It hadn’t been that hot all week, so I hadn’t even considered that in my trail decision.

Other than that, it was a good hike, with spectacular views at the end. I had paused about halfway through at a point when I was high enough to get a good view of Ghost Ranch and the surrounding landscape from above as well as a picturesque view of Chimney Rock, and I thought…that’s good enough….right?

(Because it was hot.)

But then I heard the voice of my youngest, with whom I’ve walked and hiked countless trails, including at at least one on which I thought I just. Might. Die. He’s far away now, living life, but just as with every other of my kids, his personality and his interests enriched mine, and I doubt I would have even been on that trail if it weren’t for him. You’re not gonna stop now, are you? Keep going. It will be worth it.

It was.

Some of the voices that live in our head can be destructive, limiting, and should be exorcised. But others – so many, voices of those we’ve known well or who lived far in the past – where would we be without them? How impoverished our lives would be if, however unexpected, they had never snuck, barged or strolled into our lives, even for a moment.

A tiny cafe with a beautiful, perfect, green chili stew. To sit in a place so lovingly, carefully created to be a unique spot in this small town, the design and the food intentionally and purposefully crafted with care and vision?

And it’s not just this boho-hipster spot in the desert. It’s every person who’s taken a spot on the land, a spot in time, and made something of it, not knowing what will become of it, just knowing that this is the time and place to do this thing that’s rumbling inside, wants to get out, and might just add something that the world could use right now. Another inspiring nudge.

Georgia O’Keefe lived and worked at Ghost Ranch, but eventually she purchased a home and created a studio in Abiquiu proper. Tours must be booked far ahead of time (they’re booking October now), so that was impossible, but I drove by the gate anyway, then continued up the curve of the road to the Penitente Morada – the structure that the Penitente brotherhood uses for meetings and ceremonies. You may associate Penitente with re-enacting the Crucifixion, and I don’t know if they do that in this part of the world, but what they do engage in are charitable acts – they are, it seems, essentially confraternities.

There’s a couple of small museums at Ghost Ranch, one of which features a display of santos by a local artist named Max Roybal, who was a member of the brotherhood. If you click on the photo below, you can read more of an explanation.

How striking. O’Keefe, whose unique way of seeing expresses a sort of spiritual vision and who, while not tempted to convert at all, was a visitor to the Monastery of Christ in the Desert – lived and worked just a few yards from the simple structure where men gathered, seeking to deepen their own spiritual vision and the living of it.

The juxtaposition, the differences, but trying to work out the commonality, living and breathing out here in light of the same mountains, under the same heavens. It will never stop being fascinating – and yes, inspiring – to me.

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Let’s backtrack and finish off Wednesday.

Sidebar: It’s crazy to me to think that I’ve only been gone since Sunday. Einstein was right.

We left off in Taos, but let me backtrack a bit from that.

As I mentioned in that post, there’s a “low road” and a “high road” between Santa Fe and Taos. It’s generally recommended to take the low road up for more spectacular views and then the high road back for the small town stops on the way. I’m not in Santa Fe right now, but the advice still applies, so I took it.

I reached the Rio Grande Gorge Visitor’s Center, took in the situation and decided that there was another road that looked really interesting and would probably bring me to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, at which point I could head over to Taos and then back on the high road. Oh, yes, I’m so smart.

So I did this. I turned off the main road at Pilar and meandered up along the river, past campgrounds, until I reached the historic bridge. How interesting. I read about the origins of the bridge, how a camp had been established nearby in the hopes of finding gold, and so on. Some folks were kayaking on the river. I crossed the bridge and started up the winding road, confident that I’d be meeting up with the other road that would take me up to the Gorge bridge.

ROAD CLOSED.

No wonder no one else was on the road. Huh.

All right, so I “wasted” about 30 minutes, but you know how that goes – nothing is wasted. We can learn things along the way. In this case: Don’t be stupid, and maybe once in a while, just do what everyone else is doing.

It was pretty, though. It was.

So up towards Taos, the first stop being the historic in Rancho de Taos. You know this. You recognize this – photographed by Ansel Adams, painted by Georgia O’Keefe, and for clearly good reason. The interior is beautifully preserved, and it’s not a museum. It’s a living parish, clearly.

Into Taos, which is Tourist Central, completely unappealing to me. It must be a nightmare during ski season. I walked around for about ten minutes, stopped in the gift shop run by some Benedictines – a nice shop – and then decided I’d had enough.

Time to hit the high road.

The drive takes you through the Carson National Forest, and the difference in topography and flora from just a couple dozen miles to the west is astonishing. I stopped at a few churches along the way – as I explained yesterday, all were locked, and this time, I’m not mad about it. Given the historic and precarious nature of these structures and – I’ll add – given the number of interesting characters who are commonly seen on all roadsides in this state – it’s not a hard decision to keep these places locked up when they’re not in use.

I am storing up my thoughts on all of this, be assured.

It is amazing to be in a place where you can take in thunderstorms on your left and sunshine on your right.

This cemetery was an absorbing sight to me – full of sunflowers, several freshly-dug graves and unique memorials.

Keep going…to the shrine at Chimayo. We were there on our trip 10 years ago, but why not revisit? It was strangely empty, but perhaps not so strange for a Wednesday in late August. I did not get any dirt, as I still have a little pillbox-type thing full from last time. I was moved, as I always am at such places, by the images of loved ones to pray for or to give thanks for. I was interested in not one, but two areas devoted to Our Lady of Lavang, a devotion with Vietnamese roots.

Food here – it was very good.

Upon returning, there was enough daylight for a short hike – this one, not far from my rental. A half mile takes you up to a mesa where a puebla once stood hundreds of years ago. The views, of course, are marvelous, and it’s a gift to be able to take it all in.

And yes, I did get up this morning to see the interior of one of the churches at Mass….

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Got to Mass (at 7:05). There were 20+ folks in attendance. The church is quite lovely inside – bigger than my photo indicate because there are two side areas (cruciform) with a lot of seating as well.

More later. Got to go.

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…and I’ll take the low road. Or maybe I’ll take both

…except I wasn’t in Scotland, but in New Mexico of course.

Today, I got Taos out of my system. Again it’s late and I’m tired and I just got off the phone from a (good) 1-hour convo with new College Guy, so blogging all of this for you people is not my priority, especially since today I decided if I’m going to see the interior of any of these cool colonial churches I’m just going to have to – you know – go to Mass – and the closest one has Mass at 7am, and I’m 30 minutes away…well, this is going to be mostly a photo dump. Sorry, not sorry.

(Later: Not even a photo dump! Too tired. Sorry not sorry still)

I will say, though, that one of my many motivations for taking this (and other) trips is to figure out where I might want to establish a base in a couple of years – because, sorry Birmingham, Alabama, you’re not it – northern New Mexico, after two whole days, is looking pretty sweet.

There are two roads between Santa Fe and Taos: the low road and (surprise) the high road. The low road climbs up and the high road descends. It’s generally recommended to take the low road up for better views and then the high road coming down for the interesting stops along the way. So that’s what I did.

(If you want more photos and videos, check out Instagram, especially Stories at this point.)

Most of the photos I have to share are of churches. And that’s not just because religion is my jam. It’s because while the landscape is primo and the main attraction, the next most interesting thing to see are the churches.

Sorry, atheists.

My interest in seeing and recording these churches is not just because of a general “religion is my thing” or “history is cool” thing happening, eithre.

My deep interest is in faith, evangelization, truth, goodness, beauty – and also inculturation, colonization, and oppression. I think a lot about all of that historically and in the present. Going to these places, contemplating the history and trying to get a hold on the present – those are essential for me as I try to understand it all.

But for a blog post like this, you’re going to have to settle for the travelogue.

Oh, before I begin, let me say: I saw the exteriors of a lot of churches today, but the interiors of only two, only one of which I was allowed to photograph. Almost all of the churches I saw were locked – and that’s not something I’m going to complain about in this context. As I said on Instagram – these are fragile historical edifices in remote communities, all of which are still living parishes. If they are only open for liturgies and prayer times, that is completely understandable. You cannot leave 250-year old historic structures open to everyone and anyone with no security in this day and age. You just can’t.

Even before I left the area where my rental was located, I had the chance to consider some mission ruins.

My first night here, I’d gone out to the Family Dollar to find something to eat – my Tire Drama had left me no time for food, and while I normally don’t eat much anyway, I knew that if I didn’t get something in my system, there’d be trouble. So crackers and cream cheese from Family Dollar it was.

(I asked the guy – who looked like he’d know – if there was anywhere nearby to buy wine or some such. He told me about a nearby place [I didn’t go, by the way] and a customer, obviously a friend ,offered that he’d heard that some Family Dollars were starting to sell alcohol. “Not on my watch,” said my guy, who was also the manager. “I’ve got enough trouble with normal thievery, I don’t need people trying to steal booze….”)

Oh, yes.

Well, anyway, on my way out there, I noticed a cross by the side of the road, a cross lit up with a light on top. Nice, I thought.

Well, this morning I saw what the darkness of night had concealed. The cross stood with the ruins of the ancient St. Rose of Lima mission.

And then it was up to Taos:

Iconic, yes?

Well, I’ve got to call it a night with that. Let’s see if I can make that 7 am Mass….

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…and how it’s going:

With a bit of a mess in between.

That was a day!

Some good, some not so great, but I got where I needed to go and, as we like to say….learned an important life lesson.

Actually, I knew the life lesson and usually try to live by it, but this time ignored it, and yes, paid the price.

Although….things might have turned out the same no matter what. But I doubt it.

So we’ll begin in the morning. I know that view does not look enticing, but view was not the purpose of the stay. Sleeping was. And at almost free because of points, even though the brand was not high end, the room was immaculate and even updated, so no complaints from me.

(On the points: I do not have a massive number of hotel points with any one brand, but small amounts with several. It’s never enough to get a room for free, but I can usually swing a pretty good “Money + points” deal. Which was the case here. I mean, Econolodge is not going to be expensive anyway, but if I can pay almost nothing and it’s a good room, that’s what I’ll do.)

My goal for the day?

Santa Rosa – Pecos National Historical Park – Chimayo Shrine – New Place.

I had considered throwing Las Vegas (NM) in there, but eventually decided it would be too much. As it was, there was no point in stressing about it since most of the plan didn’t happen anyway.

I won’t keep you in suspense. I ended up spending 2.5 hours in a tire shop in Santa Fe, that’s what happened.

My tires are were mismatched and probably worn – I bought the car used two years ago, and at least two of the present (well recent past) tires came with the car. Maybe three. Anyway, it was kind of mess, and my instinct had told me, “Get them checked out before you drive across the country, idiot” – but – you got it – I didn’t listen.

That was the only piece of advice my mother ever gave me that I took seriously: Always trust your instict, she’d say: about people, about the answer on a multiple choice test, whatever. She was right, and I’ve preached the same to my own kids. And didn’t listen this time.

So Monday evening I was speeding on I-40 W when I hit a pothole. On the interstate where the speed limit is 75. I immediately listened for wobbling and kept my eye on the digital tire pressure monitor, but..nothing. Okay. That’s good.

Then late this afternoon, I did notice a wobbling. I stopped, looked – and yikes. A big old bulge popping out of that tire. I was able to safely get to a tire store, which told me that Mazda calls for weird tires and they didn’t have any in stock which was the same message given to me by the next tire shop – and the next. I was starting to think I was going to have to get a hotel in Santa Fe for the night while waiting for tires to come in from Albuquerque, which is apparently where all the Mazda tires live now. But then the third tire shop came up with a workaround which I still don’t understand: Your Mazda calls for this weird size tire that we don’t have but here’s a list of ten other tires that would fit.

Well, okay.

Just replace all four. Go ahead. It needs to be done. Take my money.

I was, of course, not a priority, being a walk-in, which is fine. I caught up on my phone calls. The only thing I worried about was getting to my new place before dark – which I was obviously able to do.

I might try to hit Pecos and Las Vegas on the way back.

So what did I see?

On the feast of St. Rose of Lima, I went to Santa Rosa and saw the gorgeous little St. Rose of Lima Church. I mean – gorgeous. It just shows what love and faith and, I’m sure, sacrifice – can accomplish. A small church can be quite beautiful.

The main attraction of Santa Rosa is the Blue Hole – a naturally occurring pool that is quite deep and incredibly clear. People can swim in it (there’s a limit to how many at a time), but its main use is as for dive training. There were a couple of guys practicing there this morning:

All right! Time to go to Pecos! Drive along, enjoy the scenery, stop at small churches along the way. When I’m less tired I’m going to retrace my steps digitally and see if there is any interesting history associated with any of them.

Look at the beautiful doors on this tiny church. St. Anthony, of course.

This is San Miguel del Vado in the village of the same name – which was once not a village at all. A really interesting history: after Mexican independence, this was the first entry point to Mexico for traders from the East – the first point where the Mexican government collected taxes. At one point it supported 3000 inhabitants. Not any longer….

Wait.

That wobbling definitely feels…like wobbling, not the road.

Ah well.

All I can say is that I had probably driven 150 miles or so since I hit that pothole, so I am extremely grateful that it held as long as it did, especially since for a big chunk of today I was driving through fairly desolate landscapes.

But here I am for a few days, and it’s lovely, and hopefully I can get this head cleared and my mind opened up.

Oh, and the other benefit of arriving three hours later than I’d planned? I saw the impact of the setting sun on the area around Santa Fe, and it is stunning. Since it had been raining off and on, I also saw the most impressive rainbow – instead of seeing so far off, as rainbows usually do, it was huge and seemed very close – so close that I imagined I could see where it reached the ground. Is that common here? I wouldn’t be surprised. It was gorgeous.

(No photos – I was driving, folks. Obey your instincts.)

Keep up at Instagram Stories and “Highlights”

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A day of driving, with a few stops along the way, one planned, the others impromptu, as it should be. That’s life: a mix of what you know and hope for is coming and then what you happen upon.

I had considered working Clear Creek Abbey into our July journey, but a friend who’s been there advised against it, saying that given the context and length of our trip, it would be too much of a detour – and she was right. It fit into this trip, though, so let’s go.

I had hoped to make Lauds at 5:45 am at Subiaco, but that didn’t happen. No excuses, it..just didn’t. I did manage to get up and out by about 6:45, with just a stop in the Abbey church while Mass was going on (I would be going to Mass later in the morning…if my plans worked out).

Here’s a bit more about Subiaco Abbey – it’s a Benedictine Abbey and boarding school for boys. If you are in Alabama, it’s similar to St. Bernard’s in Cullman, but larger – the abbey is definitely larger and the church is gorgeous.

They also have recently started a brewery and taproom! (Only open on Saturdays, sadly for me.)

Founded in 1877 – the history is here, and quite interesting. I stayed in the guest house, which of course regularly hosts retreats, but was I think essentially empty while I was there.  Reserving a room was very easy, everyone was quite hospitable, the place was quite nice and of course spotless. I didn’t eat any meals, but you can sign up and pay for that if you like.

I headed out about 6:45, drove in a semi-awake state over to Oklahoma and eventually – over a final stretch of gravel road – got to Clear Creek Monastery in time for their 10:00 Coventual Mass for the Queenship of Mary.

There is a lot of construction going on which impacts the upper church, although it took me a few minutes of sitting in there to figure out that no, Mass was not going to happen in this space, so perhaps I should find it – I saw some folks heading through a door in the back, followed them, went down some winding stairs, and there I was in the crypt.

I think there were about 30 monks there, plus 33 laity – 13 of whom were children. I assume a community of sorts is growing up around the monastery, which is on a beautiful piece of land which, you can see as you bump up the road, being cultivated and tended in various ways.

It was a Traditional Latin High Mass, of course.

Afterwards, I checked out the gift shop, saw Friendship with Jesus on the shelf, bought some bread (not great – the crumb was too crumbly and it had a hint of sweetness that I wasn’t expecting and don’t care for) and cheese – very good Gouda!!

(I have More Thoughts on the places I am visiting, but will store them up for later.)

Let’s hit the road again.

I had various scenarios in my head, but eventually decided that the best thing was to get as far as possible so I’d have to drive as little as possible on Tuesday. So I only made a couple of brief stops, both impromptu. I am, I reminded myself, driving back (although probably not the same way), so I can see Other Things then.

If you’ve driven that route, you know that one of the attractions is all the Route 66 stuff – I-40 runs alongside or replaced Route 66, so people like to see some of the remaining structures – gas stations and such – from the heyday, as well as some related museums. I…did none of that. But here’s what I did see:

I stopped for gas in Okemah, Oklahoma, saw a sign about Woody Guthrie, figured that what was there was about 2 minutes away from where I was standing, so of course:

There’s a little plaza set back from the sad downtown area dedicated to Guthrie, who was born and lived there through much of his childhood.

The childhood home is gone, but a tree standing there has been carved in memorial. I like it. It seems fitting.

(Remember, you can click on the photos and a bigger version pops up)

Moving on, of course I had to stop at the big cross in Groom – it might surprise you that in this land of evangelicals and mainliners, this was erected by an (independent) organization with a Catholic angle. But it was, as becomes very clear when you actually approach the cross and see it’s surrounded by the Stations of the Cross and there’s a Divine Mercy fountain. There’s a bit about the founder on the website, but not much that’s very specific. Stations of the Cross, Divine Mercy? Not Baptist, for sure.

There’s a bookstore/gift shop, but it was closed by the time I arrived.

One of my minor hobbyhorses is the wish that Catholics – local churches, religious orders, what have you –  would set up roadside shrines/rest stops along major highways and interstates. Well, here you go! Mega-sized!

Oh, I don’t have photos, but I also stopped at a rest stop outside Amarillo, which screamed, “THIS IS TEXAS WE ARE TEXAS AND WE ARE THE BIGGEST AND THE BEST.”  I mean – it was actually quite tasteful and beautiful, but it was certainly the most majestic state rest stop I’ve ever seen. Even the grills were shaped like Texas, though.

Sorry Texas, not staying this time. Instead, I moved on to a Better Call Saul episode, I guess.

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You must give up your old way of life; you must put aside your old self, which gets corrupted by following illusory desires.

Hey, there’s Paul writing to the Ephesians. It’s the second reading for Sunday’s Mass, and, very conveniently, a decent hook for talking about the return of Better Call Saul.

Yes, Saul. 

better-call-saul3Better Call Saul – which begins its fourth season Monday night – is at once a prequel and (we think- I hope) sequel to Breaking Bad. In that (great) series, Saul Goodman emerged in season two as Walter White’s smart, opportunistic criminal defense attorney (“You don’t want a criminal lawyer. You want a criminal lawyer.”). Better Call Saul takes us back in the timeline to explore the question of where this guy came from.

Originally conceived almost as a joke, and, before production really got rolling, as a mostly comedic treatment of an already extreme character who lives life at a pace as rapid-fire as his quips, Better Call Saul has evolved into something quite different and surprising: an almost leisurely, affecting deep-dive into the question of identity: Who are we at a given moment – and how did we become that person?

(There are plenty of articles online about the series. This interview with showrunner Vince Gilligan is particularly good. And before I dig into the deeper stuff and get all meta and serious, let me say that the show is just wildly entertaining – masterful cinematography, compelling direction and great setpieces, hilarious and always surprising. It’s the only show I’m currently watching.)

It’s not dissimilar from Breaking Bad, which traced the descent of Walter White from mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher to cold-blooded meth king. The dramatic arc is a little different though – there was always a level of uncertainty about Walter White: would he ever turn back? Would he respond to opportunities to take a different path? With Saul Goodman, we already know the answer (in part). When we first meet him in Breaking Bad, he’s a slimeball. So there’s no suspense on that score. There is suspense, though – which shows you how skilled everyone involved in this is – because we don’t know how Jimmy McGill became Saul Goodman – and we actually care.

And why do we care? Because, as singular as this character’s life is – low-life con artist getting through law school (University of American Samoa represent!) and trying to make something of himself, it’s essentially, in the end, about that question of identity and choices, presented in an engaging way that doesn’t shy away from complexity. Jimmy could be – and, if we’re honest, probably is, in some way  – any of us.

For it would have been easy to take this character – Jimmy McGill – and make his trajectory a sure thing because of either all his own choices or all what others and life have done to him. A clear-cut perp or victim, either way. A victim of a background in which he saw his parents, particularly his father, taken advantage of, and then a victim of his brother’s arrogance and contempt, as well as the usual course of bad breaks. A victim of his own flaws – as his brother Chuck (who has his own issues)  growls at him, more or less constantly, You’ll never change. You’ll always be Slippin’ Jimmy.  Of course he turned out the way he did!

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But no.

Every step of the way, we see, sometimes in subtle ways, the choices Jimmy McGill makes – and could make. One step forward, two steps back – that’s his life – sometimes because of what happens to him, sometimes because of his own choices. Like every one of us non-fictional characters, he’s a mix of inherent goodness, the lingering effects of original sin and the impact of temptation, pure and simple. It’s a hard sell, and it’s relentless and it’s exactly what Paul is telling the Ephesians.  He’s being sold a bill of goods: that his old self is his true self and his desires aren’t illusory, but real, and they’re not corrupting him – they define him.

There’s really not a thing wrong with anything fundamental to his drive or character: he wants to make something of himself, he knows he’s got charm and creativity, he wants to live well. But how it all gets perverted: perverted by greed, fear, a desire for revenge, pleasure in seeing someone twist in the wind, and most of all, because it is the root of all sin – pride.

And all of this – good and evil, possibility and cynicism, surge, course and fight for the soul of a man  – is he Jimmy, Saul, Gene – or all of the above? Or none?

There’s more than one battlefield. With Gilligan and Gould at the helm, every character is fully-developed, every one distinct and interesting, every one moving in one direction or another, every one of them making choices, too, using what’s at hand, reacting and bouncing off one another. It’s such a fantastic cast all-round with my favorites being Rhea Seehorn, who plays Jimmy McGill’s business and personal partner, Kim Wexler, and Patrick Fabian, who plays Howard Hamlin, a partner in Jimmy’s brother’s firm. Both roles are played, not against type, but simply not as a type, which is refreshing on television. Kim Wexler is one of the best female characters on television – ever – hard-working, real, but intriguingly reserved. Kim and Jimmy’s relationship is subtle: there’s obviously deep mutual affection and support, but it’s understated – so understated that’s it weird to see them express affection –  and works as a foundation (up to this point), not a plot point. Howard initially strikes you as typical high-powered, aggressive jerk, but he’s much more as he navigates his way between everyone’s best interests. He really is one of the show’s secret weapons, and I suspect he’ll play an even greater role in the coming season, as he has to grapple with Chuck’s death. (No spoiler alert – it’s in the plot synopses).

(You notice that I’m not saying much about the other two major plot lines – the Gus Fring/Nacho/Hector trajectory and the Mike storyline. I enjoy them, but they just don’t interest me as much as the Jimmy/Chuck/Kim/Howard material – although they are certainly on their way to converegence.)

In a series full of heartbreaking storylines, probably the most heartbreaking of season 3, and the one that expresses all of the contradictions and temptations of Jimmy McGill, is this one:

In a previous season, Jimmy had stumbled upon the dishonest ways of an assisted-living facility corporation, and had, on behalf of some senior-citizen residents, sued this company. Using all of his charm, Jimmy worked his way to a settlement that would benefit these residents and, of course, himself. There was fallout from that settlement that led to all kinds of complications, but it reemerged in this season and Jimmy discovered that the settlement had not actually been settled yet – that the law firm he’d left the case with (not of his own choice) was holding out for more from the company. Settling at this point, would solve all of Jimmy’s considerable financial problems, so he went to work.

The work involved essentially isolating the woman who represented the class in the suit from her friends – putting the pressure on her so that she’d go ahead and accept the settlement. Joining himself to the mall-walkers and chair-yoga practitioners, he planted seeds of doubt in her friend’s minds, building hostility to the point where the holdout broke down in tears after Jimmy rigged the community bingo game in her favor, trusting that this would be the straw.

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And of course it worked. She settled, all the elderly got their money, as did Jimmy – but at what price? That’s always the question.

There are, of course, other story lines in the show – story lines that will eventually converge in a way that sets the stage for Breaking Bad. But it’s the character study that has me hooked. Who are we? Why do we do what we do? Is the person I’m convinced I am at this moment inevitable?

Near the end of season 3, Kim Wexler, already a driven workaholic, takes on even more work to compensate for the partnership’s losses now that Jimmy McGill has been suspended from practicing law for a year. As a consequence of this and related choices, she dozes off while driving and ends up wrecked on the side of the road, her arm broken and documents scattered to the wind. This conversation between her and the future Saul Goodman encapsulates the moral questions at the heart of the show:

Kim: I could have killed someone, Jimmy.

Jimmy: Yeah, yourself.

Kim: I worked most of last week on maybe six hours of sleep and then I crossed three lanes of traffic and I don’t remember any of it.

Jimmy: Look, you were just doing what you thought you had to do because of me.

Kim: You didn’t make me get in that car. It was all me. I’m an adult. I made a choice.

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This moral dimension plays out in the aesthetics of the show in a number of ways, but in my mind, most powerfully in an aspect that some critique: the show often proceeds, let’s just say, at a leisurely pace. There’s the “let’s take a third of an episode to watch Mike figure out a tracking device” or “let’s watch Nacho create fake heart pills for ten minutes” or “let’s watch Jimmy doctor documents for a while now” and  “let’s watch Chuck tear apart his house forever.”

What does this say? I’d imagine the directors and writers have their own rationales, but the way it strikes me is as a powerful visual expression of the conviction that everything matters. There’s no such thing as wasted movement in this universe, no such thing as a meaningless gesture. No, we don’t want to tumble into scrupulosity, but you remember what the Man said, right?  Even the very hairs on your head are numbered. That tight, sustained gaze of Better Call Saul  won’t allow us to forget: We’re adults.  Every choice we make takes us in one direction or another, towards greater clarity or even darker illusions about ourselves. Every single one.

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How about we just read some books?

I’ve knocked a couple over the past few days, two books of very different genres, but both absorbing in their own way.

And I’m telling you – settling into a book is far less anxiety-producing than settling into social media news opining for the evening. Or even for fifteen minutes. Even if it’s a book about death. Weird.

But try it. It doesn’t make you a bad citizen, I promise.

I have written about Dorothy Hughes before. She is known today to the extent she is known at all, for pulp/crime novels. I initially came across her work via the NYRB reprints line – they have published The Expendable Man, which I wrote about here – and still highly recommend. A while later, I read her most well-known book, In a Lonely Place, made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart, and which I wrote about here.

So, what do we have so far? In the first, a physician falsely accused of a crime. In the second, we’re in the narrative point of view (in the third person) of a probable serial killer. In the third Hughes I’ve read – Ride the Pink Horse, we’re in the head of a still different type of character: a small-time operator and borderline criminal who’s been a part of the circle of a corrupt Illinois senator and who’s trying to settle a score of sorts – or to simply get what he believe is owed him.

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What adds another level of interest and meaning to Ride the Pink Horse is the setting. Sailor – for that is his name – has followed the senator down to Santa Fe for the Fiesta that takes place over Labor Day weekend.  Fiesta provides a fascinating background to the story, a background that reflects a changing understanding of America, insight into the Southwest and, most importantly, a glimpse into a greater, even transcendent reality that pricks at Sailor’s conscience.

The Fiesta begins with the burning of a huge effigy of evil – Zozobra.

On the hill the outsiders played at Fiesta with their fancy Baile but Fiesta was here. In the brown faces and the white faces, the young and the old; capering together, forgetting defeat and despair, and the weariness of the long, heavy days which were to come before the feast time would come again. This was Fiesta. The last moments of the beautiful and the gay and the good; when evil, the destroyer, had been himself destroyed by flame. This was the richness of life for those who could destroy evil; who could for three days create a world without hatred and greed and prejudice, without malice and cruelty and rain to spoil the fun. It was not three days in which to remember that evil would after three days rise again; for the days of Fiesta there was no evil in this Fiesta world. And so they danced.

Sailor is an outsider to this world, and so it’s a convenient way for Hughes to explore the noir trope of alienation, particularly in that post-World War II era.

And standing there the unease came upon him again. The unease of an alien land, of darkness and silence, of strange tongues and a stranger people, of unfamiliar smells, even Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Dellthe cool-of-night smell unfamiliar. What sucked into his pores for that moment was panic although he could not have put a name to it. The panic of loneness; of himself the stranger although he was himself unchanged, the creeping loss of identity. It sucked into his pores and it oozed out again, clammy in the chill of night. He was shivering as he stood there and he moved sharply, towards the Plaza, towards identity.

For three days, Sailor lurks and waits. Because it’s Fiesta, there’s not a hotel room to be found, so he sleeps where he can. He encounters the Senator and his entourage, with increasing levels of threat and intensity as he demands what’s due him. He discovers another Chicagoan in town – a boyhood acquaintance now police detective, also keeping an eye on the Senator. He forms a friendship of sorts with the man who operates the  Tio Vivo – the children’s merry-go-round –  whom he nicknames (of course) “Pancho.” There is, by the way, a lot of what we’d call offensive ethnic-related language in this book, but it’s all from the brain of Sailor, who uses language like that because that’s the way his character thinks.

Anyway, Pancho is one of a few characters Sailor encounters who hints at a different way. Another is a teenage girl whom he could easily exploit, but doesn’t, and whom, for reasons mysterious to even himself, he tries to help. It’s her storyline that provides the hughes-ridepinktitle – a title which has nothing to do with the dame on the cover of the reissue. What these characters do is  show Sailor glimmers of life as it exists beyond greed and keeping score, either by the peace they’ve made with the limitations of their own lives:

‘Even with the gringo sonnama beetches,’ Pancho said cheerfully. ‘When I am young I do not understand how it is a man may love his enemies. But now I know better. I think they are poor peoples like I am. The gringo sonnama beetches don’t know no better. Poor peoples.’

….or the small acts of goodness they draw out of Sailor himself:

Sailor called to Pila. ‘Ride the pink one.’ He felt like a dope after saying it. What difference did it make to him what wooden horse an Indian kid rode? But the pink horse was the red bike in Field’s, the pink horse was the colored lights and the tink of music and the sweet, cold soda pop. The music cavorted. Pancho’s muscles bulged at the spindlass. Pila sat astride the pink horse, and Tio Vivo began its breath-taking whirl. Sailor leaned on the pickets. He didn’t know why giving her a ride had been important. Whether he’d wanted to play the big shot. Whether it was the kid and the bright new bike, the bum with his nose pressed against the window looking at the clean silver blonde beyond reach. Whether it was placating an old and nameless terror. Pila wasn’t stone now; she was a little girl, her stiff dark hair blowing behind her like the mane of the pink wooden horse.

Sailor was raised Catholic, by a pious mother and an alcoholic, abusing father. His mother spent her life praying – and how did it help her? In his view, it didn’t.

He hadn’t come here to pray; he’d come with a gun to keep his eye on a rat. He wasn’t going to be sucked in by holiness. He kept his mind and his backbone rigid when the golden censers swung the musk-scented smoke, when the organ and choir blazoned together the O Salutaris Hostia. He got on his knees only because everyone else did, because he didn’t want to be conspicuous…..Sailor slid over to the side pew. A pillar protected him from the eyes of those moving up the aisle. The old men and the little children. The rich and the poor. The alien and the native, the magnificent and the black shawls. The monks and the choir and the Sociedads, a slow-moving, silent procession to the open cathedral doors, out again into the night. Candles flickered like fireflies from all the vasty corners of the cathedral

Now and then, cultural commenters would worry about the appeal of antiheroes Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) and Walter White (Breaking Bad). What does it Say About Us? Well, what was most compelling to me -and I think to many – was not so much these characters’ dastardly deeds, but rather the possibility that they might turn around – both shows were full of such moments and opportunities, and decisions had to be made in those moments, decisions about whether to be really courageous or continue in your prideful, destructive, bastard ways.

Ride the Pink Horse has that same kind of vibe about it. Sailor didn’t have to be in the spot he’s in, and he still has a chance to move in another direction. Will he take it?

It’s a little repetitious – so not as strong as An Expendable Man, which is still my favorite Hughes so far. But it’s got a great setting, and in that pulp context, effectively examines the notion of conscience, creates a haunting spiritual landscape through which sinful strangers in a strange land choose one path – and not another –  and wow, the ending is just smashing. I gasped. I did.

Well, that took longer than I expected. I’ll wait until tomorrow to write about the other book I read this weekend – They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell, published eighty years ago about events set twenty years earlier than that, but astonishingly fresh and deeply insightful.

Ride-the-Pink-Horse-Movie-PosterBy the way, Ride the Pink Horse was also made into a film. It’s been released as a part of the Criterion Collection, so…I guess it’s good? But the plot is very different from the novel:

He plays a tough-talking former GI who comes to a small New Mexico town to shake down a gangster who killed his best friend; things quickly turn nasty. 

…but the discussion at the Criterion site intrigues me…so perhaps I’ll try to find it and give it a go.

 

 

 

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