El tema central de este Blog es LA FILOSOFÍA DE LA CABAÑA y/o EL REGRESO A LA NATURALEZA o sobre la construcción de un "paradiso perduto" y encontrar un lugar en él. La experiencia de la quietud silenciosa en la contemplación y la conexión entre el corazón y la tierra. La cabaña como objeto y método de pensamiento. Una cabaña para aprender a vivir de nuevo, y como ejemplo de que otras maneras de vivir son posibles sobre la tierra.

viernes, 9 de marzo de 2012

"Cabin Fever: My Own Private Walden Pond " de Ken Gordon

Ken Gordon, freelance scribbler 

Cabin Fever: My Own Private Walden Pond 
 by Ken Gordon 
 The Literary life. 

It is 5:45 A.M., and after walking the thirty steps from my bed—quietly, so as not to wake my wife, or my three-year-old daughter or my almost-one-year-old son—I reach the study and blindly punch my computer's power button. As it starts up, I begin to inventory the various items on the oak desk I share with my wife. The papers and bills, the baby monitor from which sounds of my son coughing can be heard, my daughter's green butterfly princess wings, a pile of blank CDs, the phone, and the miniature toy "cubicle" that was given to my wife by her coworkers. "In this office, you're the boss!" reads the tag line on the box. Amid the detritus of my bourgeois lifestyle, I sit down to begin the day's writing. “Cabin life presents an austere contrast to those postmodern scribes who grew up in planned-unit developments and were fattened on Doritos, Three's Company, and Kasey Kasem's American Top 40.” What would Flaubert have said about my attempts at a writing life? Actually, he might have approved. "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois," he once wrote, "so that you may be violent and original in your work." Of course, what did the famed French novelist know about it? He didn't have to rise at an insanely early hour to write before feeding the kids, taking a shower, getting dressed, and then driving to his day job. As I survey my cluttered surroundings, my recently awoken mind clicks on another sound bite from my days as an English major. "Go to Innisfree," I think. "And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made." The quote is from Yeats; the inspiration, Thoreau, who for two years lived in a cabin in the woods and indulged a fantasy shared by writers for centuries. And he's not the only one: Mark Twain wrote in a shack set on what was known as Jackass Hill, near Sonora, California; the room in which George Bernard Shaw wrote actually revolved so that he could follow the sun as he worked. There are plenty of contemporary cabin-dwelling writers as well. Best-selling historian David McCullough's cabin sits just behind his house on Martha's Vineyard. Fiction writer Amy Hempel once had one in Bridgehampton, New York. And Rita Dove's writing cabin is plunked down just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. The former poet laureate once said in an interview with Sojourners: "When I go into my cabin to write, it takes a while for the junk of the world—and then the self-consciousness of being at the desk trying to write a poem—to fall away." Of course, sometimes a cabin allows the writing itself to fall away. Perhaps the most honest and unpretentious view of cabin life comes from David Mamet, in his book of essays called The Cabin (Turtle Bay, 1992).
In the title essay he writes about playing solitaire, throwing darts, smoking cigars, looking at deer, napping, reading, and generally avoiding work in his Vermont cabin. He recalls saying to anyone around him that he had to "Go and Work," and, having made the proclamation, would go off to the cabin, "happy with [this] happy fiction." Nathan Zuckerman, the narrator of Philip Roth's novel I Married a Communist (Houghton Mifflin, 1998), describes the transformative power of the cabin this way: "The palliative of the primitive hut. The place where you are stripped back to essentials, to which you return—even if it happens not to be where you came from—to decontaminate yourself and absolve yourself of the striving. The place where you disrobe, molt it all, the uniforms you've worn and the costumes you've gotten into, where you shed your batteredness and your resentment, your appeasement of the world and your defiance of the world, your manipulation of the world and its manhandling of you." Sounds good to me, I think, as I try to clear away a few inches of space on my "writing desk." So I remind myself to take another drive out to Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, to see Thoreau's cabin, where the author lived from July 1845 to September 1847, and ultimately started all this cabin fever. It costs five dollars to visit Thoreau's cabin. I feed the bill into an automatic ticketing machine, and it regurgitates a white-and-blue piece of paper that I place on my dashboard to show the authorities I have paid my way. Transcendentalism apparently needs to be financed nowadays, and if a little technology makes things easier, what the hell, right? The cabin isn't really Thoreau's cabin. It is, however, an authentic-looking replica—a life-size rustic dollhouse. A thin, temporary roof of snow rests on top of it. There are three architecturally accurate windows: One looks out on the tollbooth, one on the road you have to cross to reach Walden Pond, and one on the parking lot itself. Inside, I find a guest book, whose authors hail from such diverse locales as Madagascar, Japan, and Australia. They describe the place as "Small" and "Very small," "Tiny." Some write, "Cool" or "Wow" or "Well done," or "Better than reading." I can imagine writing in this cabin—the small desk and the wood-burning stove are extremely appealing—though I have to work hard at imagining the place not infested by tourists. Thoreau would have despised us (all of us) for being here, for buying into the easy romanticism of the Walden experience, and for not trying harder to live an authentic life; for the note on the parking ticket that reminds us not to bring in booze or pets and the sign that reads, BUTTS Are Litter, Too.… Lug 'Em Out! He might, however, have smiled at the snowball someone had stuck in the hand of the Thoreau statue outside the replica of his cabin. These thoughts follow me as I wander over to the actual site of Thoreau's home, which requires hiking a path of half-melted ice, brown leaves, and dry pine needles around the pond. Slap, slap go my Sambas. As I walk, I make notes in a little black book and feel like an idiot. The air is wonderfully fresh, the pond and foliage gorgeous, but I can't escape the feeling that it is all terribly inauthentic. Even the nerdy and effusive Advanced Placement (AP) English students and the Red Sox-capped naturalists must find the sight of me scribbling away unbearably pretentious. Once I tuck the notebook into my coat pocket, however, I am happy to be out in the woods, away on an extremely rare weekend excursion without my wife and young children. Here I am, thinking about cabins, identifying the two trees I know on sight (Hi, Pine! What's up, Birch?), and having a grand old time. Then I see a young couple toting around a new baby, and I miss the mishpucha. It is a relatively warm day for New England in November—forty degrees—but halfway around the pond I feel my hands and nose and cheeks getting cold, and begin wishing, despite myself, for the comfort of my heated house. The cabin site itself: deliberately underwhelming. Nearby is a big pile of rocks, called a "cairn," that visitors—Whitman and Emerson among them—have placed there. "That's the idea," I think. "Unpretentious and natural." I also think about the Jewish tradition of placing a small rock on the grave following a burial, and the annoying way Steven Spielberg incorporated this into his film Schindler's List. But the whole Walden Pond experience seems to say, Simplify! Simplify! I like it. And I am at peace. Until, that is, the AP kids come over and start yammering, in loud, awkward, adolescent voices, about transcendentalism and technology. Thoreau left his cabin nearly one hundred and sixty years ago, and many contemporary American writers, it seems, lack his self-reliance, the kind that living in a cabin—not to mention building one—demands. Cabin life presents an austere contrast to those postmodern scribes who grew up in planned-unit developments and were fattened on Doritos, Three's Company, and Kasey Kasem's American Top 40. We know little of nature. We know nothing of hard, physical work. Thus we admire and envy cabin builders. There's something masculine and worldly—rugged stuff a world away from trying to locate le mot juste—about constructing one's own rough writing room. For the writers who can muster it, building the cabin is as important as inhabiting it.
These are male writers, as far as I know, and they get great joy out of detailing the steps in the construction process. Fran Lebowitz once said that men "have this sneaking suspicion that writing is not the most masculine profession." So they relish the shop-class aspect because they know the disparity between describing something and actually doing it. Writing, let's remember, is not a blue-collar trade. The risk is minimal (carpal tunnel syndrome and eyestrain), though any good and true writer faces psychic, economic, and social hazards as well. So they linger on the jargon, suspecting that the reader—a non–cabin builder—doesn't really understand about, say, pouring concrete for the foundation. I'm thinking chiefly of writer Michael Pollan, in his book A Place of My Own (Random House, 1997). A word man, Pollan had spent most of his working life dealing with what Thoreau called "the mud and slush of opinion." He decided to build a cabin on the land behind his Connecticut home, "hoping by a spell of unfamiliar and world work to open the eyes of the body, if only by a squinty crack." Pollan's adventure, which is detailed in three hundred richly written pages, is rather safe and suburban compared to that of Dick Proenneke. You may have seen Proenneke on PBS, in a 2003 documentary called Alone in the Wilderness. In 1968, at the age of fifty-one, he flew to extremely rural Alaska and built himself a cabin from scratch. (He also spent a lot of time scribbling in a journal and making home movies of himself at work.) Proenneke was the ablest and most unwriterly outdoorsman-builder you can imagine. He worked with seeming instinctual efficiency, preparing his cabin for the onslaught of arctic winter. Seated in front of a big-screen TV, watching him, I knew I would have perished almost immediately had I been in the same situation. The irony: I never once thought of my incompetence or laziness while reading Walden—a book I've known since I was in high school. Shamefully, it took a TV show to bring this home to me. Now, I don't have the time, energy, money, or carpentry skills to build my own writing shack. But in an effort to put my soft writer's hands to work, I downloaded the plans for a cardboard model of Thoreau's cabin from a Web site called fiddlersgreen.net—which seems to have been inspired by Lester Walker's A Little House of My Own: 47 Grand Designs for 47 Tiny Houses (Black Dog & Leventhal, 2000)—and tried to put it together. Pay close attention to the word tried. Being a good Jewish craftsman—which is to say, a rather awkward craftsman—it took me a while (i.e., a considerably, ridiculously long time) to build my rickety little structure. Why? It may have been that my cabin was made, not of sturdy cardboard, but of flimsy copy paper, and that I held it together with staples rather than glue—and that my three-year-old daughter kept trying to help out with the cutting. The fireplace buckled; the writing desk was extremely unsturdy. My Thoreauvian chairs? A literary disaster. And yet my fingers were happy to have built it. Happy to have spent a little time doing something other than typing. I couldn't live in this thing— indeed, my kids got their hands on it and it soon found its way into the trash, like so many rough drafts—but I came a little closer to understanding what draws writers to such environments. Working on the scale model of Thoreau's cabin made me realize that dimensions are important. Build a tiny cabin and you're surrounded. A cabin is a whole little world, as is a book. Think of Thoreau in his "tight shingled and plastered house, ten feet wide by fifteen long," its "eight-feet posts, with a garret and a closet, a large window on each side, two trap doors, one door at the end, and a brick fireplace opposite." The late Arthur Miller secluded himself in a ten-by-twelve-foot cabin, and Amy Hempel's shack—a former chicken coop!—was twelve-by-nine feet. But both of these writers were bested by David McCullough. Not long ago, I was sleepwalking through a Newsweek article about McCullough, whose 1776 (Simon & Schuster, 2005) hit the best-seller lists like a pile driver, and learned that the man's big, fat books are produced in "a tiny book-lined shingled building, just 8 feet by 12." Clearly, size matters. A small cabin ensures a sense of solitude, allowing you to eavesdrop on the internal chatter that gets continually preempted in the crush of daily affairs. We let too many people into our houses, our studies, our lives as it is. As Philip Larkin once wrote, "Just think of all the spare time that has flown / Straight into nothingness by being filled / With forks and faces." Or as Søren Kierkegaard put it: "The crowd is untruth." A cabin provides the ideal sort of protection from the things in our culture that can make a writer feel less than authoritative. Critics. Sales figures. Gossipy bloggers. Ridiculous book parties. Self-doubt. As the sagacious William Gass wrote, quite a while ago, in a preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (David R. Godine, 1981), "The contemporary American writer is in no way part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward." For someone like Arthur Miller, the world did indeed greatly reward. But before it did, Miller built himself a cabin. In fact, the structure may have been responsible for his masterwork, Death of a Salesman. Back in 1948, Miller created, with his own two hands, a small cabin in which to write the Willy Loman story. "A pair of carpenters could have put up this ten-by-twelve cabin in two days at most," he writes in his autobiography, Timebends (Grove Press, 1987), "but for reasons I still do not understand it had to be my own hands that gave it form, on this ground, with a floor that I had made, upon which to sit to begin the risky expedition into myself." Of course, no cabin—no writing room of any sort—is going to make our writing the stuff of genius. But there's something about building a cabin, writing in a cabin, that makes us think that we're playing the part of artist. The four walls, the austere little notebook, the desk and the door. It's like being onstage in a production of a drama called Major American Author. Sad stuff, perhaps, but writing's a difficult business, and its practitioners are, by necessity, defensive and superstitious. If a cabin gets you to do good work, I wouldn't knock down the idea. Fact is, there's something touching about it. As for me, I suspect I'll continue to wake up early and write while my family sleeps. But I'll keep dreaming of my own little writing cabin. "And I shall have some peace there," as Yeats wrote, "for peace comes dropping slow." Ken Gordon, the editor of JBooks.com, contributes to such publications as the Boston Globe Magazine and the New York Times. He lives in Newton Centre, Massachusetts.

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