In looking back over what I have written these past six years, I notice that often I refer to parts of my life where I was simply a cipher. I was part of a track team at Cal and was far down the pecking order, only another body, unnoticeable among world class athletes.
I struck out with a girl at the Quincy Hotel, published novels that sold enough to pay for their publication, but I was never a Stephen King. My life work was ordinary, I fixed my house and rode the ferries and electric trains and outlived my parents and my brother Ronald.
I have cooked a thousand meals and have fished more than fifty streams, whose names I can remember. I outlived Doug Reed and Art Morris and Garry and Philippa Sayer and a whole lot of others, including all of my childhood family except my younger brother.
I wandered the flats of West Texas in August and I spent fifty years teaching English, often to students who had no interest in what I was saying. There are no plaques anywhere celebrating the fact that I was there.
Streets that I drove in Oakland have changed, are no longer the safe streets of factory workers, and the university that I attended has grown in size until it no longer resembles the place where I languished for four and a half years. I have no fondness for the school where I taught for more than a quarter of a century. It is a school housed in a building that looks like a factory. Which, unfortunately, it was. I taught in other schools and they are a dim memory of drearily similar classrooms and students, although I remember some of those students with clarity. They were sparks of brilliance that occasionally flared.
I have lived an ordinary life. The word comes from “usual, orderly,” and that has been the métier of my life: an orderly progression, one step at a time. I have three children now grown, with their own families, who are marvelous human beings. They are the kind of people I would choose as friends. Occasionally I have stepped out of the rhythm, but I stepped back in, and now I can see that I am chronicling that progression.
Patti Smith wrote, It isn’t easy writing about nothing. And she was right. There are few dramatic moments; no flashing blue and red lights, no broken bones or arriving ambulances. Not for me.
One year after another. One trout after another. One meal after another. The crows spiral down into the trees. Evening comes. I pour myself another drink and sit in the chair that I built. It is a chair that I found underneath Dora Williams’ cabin at Dillon Beach in decaying pieces, brought it home and traced a pattern. Now I sit in that chair, a copy of the original that no doubt, sat on Dora’s deck seventy-five years ago and I look at the mountain. The sun slides off the edges, deepening the darkness in the folds. An ordinary life. My father had an ordinary life, cut short by tuberculosis. So did my mother, whose dignity was cut short by dementia. My older brother had an extraordinary life, but no one noticed. His brilliance was over-shadowed by his own arrogance. He was, I think, a meteor that flared, sudden incandescence in the sky, and no one noticed. I did not understand his brilliance. My younger brother continues to defy the odds, dodging one unexpected major medical event after another. I told him that if he were a cat, he would be dead by now. His response was: several cats.
This life is mine. The extraordinary moments shine like silver dollars, heavy coins that resonate. They are filled with moments of sudden clarity. They came late in life. When I was a boy I kept marbles and when I won at marbles I sometimes had a big marble, striking, with colors that shimmered. The moments that are surprising in my life are like those marbles. They tumble in the shallows of the North Fork of the Yuba River..
A few stories are memorable: The Heeler, and The Lord God Bird, The Dog Sox and Tom Hall stand out. Perhaps there is one more: Ghost Trout, a collection of essays that chronicles parts of my life appeared in print in November. It is my swan song. According to the experts, swans don’t sing when they expire. They whistle or trumpet all their lives, but in the end, according to legend, they sing. It is a final expression of the life they have led. Ghost Trout is the song that the swans do not sing. But it is there. One more chorus.
Henning Mankell, in his final book, reflecting about his life, writes: “I am myself and nobody else, I cannot be exchanged for anybody else.” So it is with me. I am the middle son, the one who read books under the covers by flashlight, climbed over the wall of Edwards Field to run on the track where world champions had run. I corrected ten thousand student essays. I have written books, and in one of them I wrote: “The rivers run to the sea and I stand in the cold water, the current pulling at my calves and there is change all around me, trees growing green, an egret rowing upstream into the forest and I am, each instant, older, changed like an old dog that waits by the door, half barks at a stranger.”