Losing the plot, the British say of someone spacing out. Forgetting the traffic light turned green, or the library’s closing. My question: whose plot?
The mythical plot being the most elusive. This seems to be the one that gets cut the minute the aircraft door closes. A mythic sense may be woven through the United Airlines experience. The wax wings of my own wheelchair melting, perhaps, as this earthbound thing sails to inappropriate heights. But, no, this feels like a stretch. The problem is that travel stretches so much of me in the wrong way that the plot, or the point, can easily get lost. I can get lost, lost to myself.
The next time I shove off for a reading at a bookstore, if there is a next time, do remind me to define my destination. Simply put, a bookstore, certainly an independent one, is not a place where the mobs gather to jeer. The Place de la Revolution perhaps, but not Elliott Bay Books in Seattle. Bookstores, particularly independent ones, tend to be full of books. And with a bit of luck, people who read books. That is to say, people who are full of books. Like the store. At some point a certain number of people will gather in a small room and listen to you give a small talk, which will be followed by a small amount of applause, sales of a small number of books, and so on. Think small. Think small and you’re just fine. Think period. Don’t stay up half the night in California worrying about the reading. It’s too small to worry about, and so are you.
Runnng on three or four hours sleep by the time the aircraft door opened at Seattle-Tacoma Airport. And the doorway of the aircraft soon framed a clown version of my wheelchair. For Jane had sat by the aircraft window getting a front row view of baggage handlers staring at the conveyor belt holding my 150 pound wheelchair. They stared and stared. I believe that they grabbed it by the flimsy plastic seat, a nonstructural part. Whatever happened, here it was, not as it used to be. That is to say, it used to be a wheelchair, something with a seatback so that the human occupants could lean a spine against a supporting surface. Gone with the wind, that was. The seatback had been tilted into something approaching the supine. It would be a great arrangement for, say, gazing at stars. Inspecting ceilings, maybe. But no way to get around the Northwest for the next four or five days.
Of course, there was a plot, an unfolding narrative. Which involved me talking to the United Airlines baggage people, insisting that they bring a mechanic over from one of their hangars. And damned if this guy didn’t work his magic with a couple of wrenches. There it was, the seatback where it should be. And within a surprisingly short amount of time Jane and I were out the door. Greatly delayed, unfortunately, and driving up Interstate 5 it became clear to me several times over that only a dumb guy would not have a smart phone. It is my belief that the latter will somehow complicate my life, when demonstrably it is the opposite. In any case, we were late, late to the hotel, late to meet with my financial advisor. Yes, I have one. Which is a good thing. He has a smart phone, by the way, and was waiting in the lobby when I finally made my way there.
Nothing quite as relaxing as going over money matters for a couple of hours on no sleep, is there? Followed almost immediately by the short trip to the bookstore. Where sanity prevailed, of course. As it tends to in bookstores. You must be the author, someone said, matter-of-factly as I rolled in the door. I was thinking the same thing. I must be the author. Why not? Elliott Bay Books recently moved from Seattle’s Pioneer Square to a most pleasant converted warehouse on Capitol Hill.
The reading? Oh, I faced about 25 people and flipped through the pages of my own book, regaling them with this, holding forth with that. But before we got to this stage, just as I was entering the room, a man handed me something. Here, he said, I can’t attend, but I want you to have this. I thanked him. He had given me a paper, apparently a napkin, something written on it…and I carefully folded the object and placed it in my pocket. Once the proceedings were over and I was making my way toward the door, I found the man’s note. ‘You then…for. I was to. And seated.’ There was more, but you get the gist. I showed the note to the bookstore manager. What is this? Oh, he said, that’s Fred. He often comes in. He’s having some difficulty with his medication. Thus, the bookstore manager. Thus bookstores.
* * *
On the next afternoon, I have to open the door and glance outside, just to make sure that the sound I hear is not rain. No, it is the wind rushing. Not that rain would be a bad thing, just an unknown thing in this, the month of August. But the late summer breeze blasts with such unexpected force through these heavy forests, that the sound is unnervingly foreign. As foreign as August rain is to a Californian. The Olympic Peninsula, 800 miles north of home, is another world, that is true. But it is also true that I rarely get into wild places these days. The sound of the wind rushing through lodgepole pines in eastern California might sound very much the same. Sadly, my exposure to the North American land is infrequent.
The glaciated slopes rising above Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park easily reach 1000 meters. I have an odd affinity for their steepness. Jane and I are bouncing along the lakeshore trail, me in my wheelchair, when I stop to look, ponder, muse. It does not make sense to me that a forest of trees could cling so densely to what looks more like a cliff than a slope. It seems such a richness, this woody green covering of the sheer mountainside. To hike there, to somehow work one’s way up and up and up the sheerness, must fall between rockclimbing and walking. The trees themselves probably serve to steady the walker.
To steady the walker I regularly dragged around the courtyard of the physical therapy hospital that was my summer and autumn home in 1968, required something more. I am not really certain what it was. Partly my left arm, partly my hip flexors and torso muscles. I am aware of the muscular strength it took to exercise in this fashion, because some of this is now leaving me. Or seems to be. It is easy to let up on physical maintenance in one’s mid-60s. After all, the work involved keeps increasing, as does the background pain. It’s infinitely easier to let the wheelchair do the work, although this is a highly seductive illusion. No, things simply collapse, twist and settle in all the wrong musculoskeletal patterns, unless one intervenes.
So I am making it a point to stand slightly more these days. Here on the shores of Lake Crescent, I roll my wheelchair onto the small dock, rise and lean on the wooden railing, gazing at the mountains. I give Jane a hug, prolonging the experience for reasons of both affection and musculoskeletal efficiency. Call it multitasking, the quadriplegic experience involves getting as much as possible out of every physical action.
Consider the blankness of the steel National Park signs along the wheelchair-accessible loop trail leading from Lake Crescent Lodge. They are solid, permanent fixtures designed for decades of tourists to read and consider beside the waters. A few still explain the presence of bald eagles and river otters, the history of the native tribes, how this bit of ground is actually a delta. But most of these park signs are entirely white. I believe this has to do with our so-called austerity, tight living in tight times. Budget cuts, these the unkindest cuts of all.
And the mountains? These slopes are beyond the cardiovascular reach out any 65-year-old. I hiked them as a boy, mountains this steep. At least it happened. And I grew up looking at sheer slopes. That happened too. And the plot? I keep losing it, then come to places like this where it finds itself.