A bit of a change of pace, here's my latest Sunday newspaper column:
I’m writing this on the day the world disappeared.
Beyond my low white fence is nothing; nothing but heavy fog and grey silence. Islands, water, mountains, as gone as if they were never there. It feels like riding the only bit of turf in the universe, or that there’s no universe at all except this little spot, disconnected, nothing above or below, in front or behind. Other than the cedar tree, visible only partway to its top, and the empty maple, only a step from passing into invisibility, there are no living things. Finding no markers between up and down, maybe the birds are disoriented. Whatever the reason, they’ve gone quiet, making isolation even more palpable.
Because I like living where the seasons change, I accept it. Until I don’t, at the point when it begins to feel claustrophobic. It’s been foggy for several days, now; this time around, it’s been lifting, or at least thinning to the point of moderated visibility, as the day rolls it up. It wasn’t too many years ago, if you remember, that we were fogged in, the whole city, for, maybe, a couple weeks straight, with no breaking through. That began to feel unearthly; a sense there was no way out, no direction to go. No direction at all, really. Just monochromatic nothing, with no points of reference. The mind needs horizons, and there were none.
Driving, slowing for the bleakness, oncoming cars appear suddenly, too close. It’s unnatural, unmaking the rules of sight and distance, the expected timing and rhythms having disappeared with the horizon. Headlights take on a feral and feline aura, creeping into view before their cars, undimming their way out of the fog, coming in on Cheshire cat feet. Menacing. Trees, what can be seen of them, stand colorless in silence, and, because it’s winter, their grey nakedness feels ominous, feels like they’re waiting to step out of the fog (or further back into it), biding their time for something nasty. Unbounded by edges, imagination confounds.
During my surgery training in San Francisco, our tiny mid-city house was right on the fog line. We could open the front door to the same sort of greyness I’m looking at now, except that our neighbors never quite disappeared. Out our back door, though, at the very same time, our Sunday morning coffee deck and Arizona-like rocky garden remained sunbathed. The house was magical in other ways, too, being our first. To get into the garage you lifted a trap door. Built right after the earthquake, the house was of wood, and low to the ground. Only 900 square feet, it had an improbably nice kitchen. And that yard. I wasn’t home much; but when I was, there were always sunny Sunday mornings, and coffee on the deck, and the fountain.
Always, no matter the weather elsewhere, the back garden remained sunny. With its lilies and, until they gave themselves up, one day, to wandering raccoons, koi, our artificial pond, into which I’d built that fountain, sounded us a million miles from the city. In memory, the fog never made it past the front door, or robbed us of the view of our cypress tree. I could be wrong.
Foghorns were more distant in San Francisco than they are here, far enough away to be always romantic, a reassuring foot- or mind-hold, orienting to direction, unlike the fog. Here we live not far from the Mukilteo Lighthouse with its foghorns, and the romance fades over the day; especially since – maybe because of the bluffs – it’s hard to tell from where the ever more intrusive moaning comes. But I know where it is; so the fact that the sound is directionless only magnifies the sense of disconnection.
So, you might be asking, what is a fluff-piece like this doing in the opinion pages? Two things. For one, I don’t like being a scold all the time. For another, I’ve noticed something which, in my opinion, deserves consideration: without foghorns, there is no fog. The louder and more frequent the horns, the denser the fog. Think about it: if there were no fog, there’d be no need for the horns. “Big foghorn” is behind this. The fog comes in because of the horns, not the other way around.