Saturday, April 5, 2014

Napa Valley Wealth, the CIA and Peter Matthiessen

I had an unstructured day in the Napa Valley today. I had a class yesterday and I'd have to come back here for work on Sunday, so I just decided to stay in the Napa Valley for the weekend. Of course, the place is crawling with tourists. The wealthy variety. If they aren't members of the ONE PERCENT, then they are at least in the top FIVE PERCENT.

Wealth intrigues me. It's a bit like a car accident: I try not to stare at the privileged, but I can't help it. Sitting in an espresso joint in St. Helena, I sat at a big table with my lap top. One older gentleman was actually reading a book; the majority of the very busy cafĂ© patrons had their noses in lap tops and smart phones. A well kempt man next to me was attempting to teach some assignment to his daughter. The daughter didn't resemble any child that has lived in my household: She was demure, also well kempt, wearing a dress, hair combed in a way that only a trip to a hair dresser could fashion it. She was polite with her father; she carried herself well as she worked on the homework assignment. You could tell she was being prepped for some Ivy League school: a future Yalie. Or Wellesley.

And the people around me carried themselves with a snootiness and a self confidence that only comes with having a future where you need not worry about anything. And you've had the best of everything given to you: clothes, education, organic chow, healthcare, wellness coaches, yoga, therapists. Their health radiates in trim vital bodies shaped well from gym visits and spa treatments.

Poverty leads to ugliness. Weathered skin. Poor teeth. Worry lines around eyes and forehead. Those who wish to raise the retirement age to 67 or 70, certainly don't know how debilitating it is to your health to be poor. Worry kills. So does financial insecurity. Poverty is the number one cause of mental illness. Raising the retirement age is just a bad joke played on the poor. The poor will certainly not make it much beyond the retirement age, which I think is the design.

Money buys happiness. Don't let anybody tell you otherwise.

I walked to the Sunshine Market in St. Helena. This is the local grocery store where you can buy Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in one aisle and a $650 bottle of Cabernet in the next. And the Cab isn't even behind a lock and key. It just sits there on the shelf amongst other bottles of $100 plus bottles of wine.

And when you go to the checkout stand, what do you see? A refrigerated display of caviars of the world. Most checkout stands have gossip magazines and chocolate bars. St. Helena has caviar displays instead.


Enough of wealth, I head back to my dorm room to do some laundry and read. It was there that I read a New York Times article on Peter Matthiessen. Later in the day, I learned that Peter died (a coincidence had the NY Times article published on the day of his demise; the article was amended on-line to mention Peter's death). Peter was a son of privilege, much like the people I'd been watching in St. Helena. He was uncomfortable with it, but he never gave up his fortune to the poor as Jesus instructed rich people to do. No, he lived with that discomfort and used the money to live a wonderful life. He traveled and wrote books about his travels. Bad things do happen to rich people, and The Snow Leopard was written about a grief stricken trip to Nepal to photograph the elusive Snow leopard. Rich people get to grieve in more interesting ways. And write books about the experience.

I've never been able to make it through The Snow Leopard. I find environmental Buddhists boring (Gary Snyder take note). I did enjoy Matthiessen's classic Wildlife in America--a book that doesn't appear in the biographies of Peter--but really, it is a great book. If anything, just read the first chapter about the Great auk.

Matthiessen was part of a generation that still revered the novel. Much like Ed Abbey, who considered himself more of a novelist than an essay writer, Peter Matthiessen also felt that the novel was his highest achievement. And Peter is the only writer who has won the National Book Award for both fiction and non-fiction. Quite an achievement.

And so I will give The Snow Leopard another try. And I will give Shadow Country a read. And also At Play in the Fields of the Lord (a book that Abbey cited as a tome he wished he had written).

Matthiessen lived in the same house for sixty years. He didn't live in opulence. Although he did spend time as a spy for the CIA back in the 50's. Some say he started The Paris Review with CIA money. He ran in literary circles generated by rubbing elbows with the Oligarchs at Yale and the East Coast Literary Establishment. But that doesn't mean he didn't have talent. He did. But talent is easy to find; opportunity isn't. The only difference between writers like Matthiessen and wannabee writers in some English Department in a PoDunk University is connections and opportunity.

Good writing is easy to find. All you have to do is have something to say and say it well. Many do.


  1. Well-said, Allan. "But talent is easy to find; opportunity isn't."

  2. The Snow Leopard is a classic thus deserves respect as such. Straighten up.

    It influenced my decision to go into biology. The great quest...and indeed, I almost died looking for Cryptantha shackletteana in Alaska. I was searching for it on a steep scree chute and was only by grabbing a dwarf shrub or two and hoisting myself back up the slope that I saved myself from falling hundreds of feet onto a pile of talus. Shades of the Snow Leopard? Yes but in this case, not charismatic mega-fauna; the quest for a charismatic (actually it's not) rare plant can be as exciting, esp. in Alaska.

    I think one of the greatest "environmental novel" writers was (of course?) Wallace Stegner. Angle of Repose should be considered one of the great American novels. Bittersweet and beautiful. Stegner weaves the threads of the land into his stories. There is no separation.

    You bring up a good point--is the era of the grand novel gone now that we cram everything into 40 letters or less=attention spans have shortened in answer to, God forbid, our species' inability to delay gratification? We are primitive, the human species, no matter what we think about ourselves. Scratching our asses at sunrise.
    Burping after a beer. Contemplating our deaths for a few seconds. Just a few seconds, then it's back to the remote.

    I drink tonite to the Snow Leopard and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton. Now there's another classic story...and to his namesake--an inconspicuous little plant that also seeks out extremes.

  3. Nice post Alan. I'll be back for more. Found you from Carrot's blog. I read hers last year and thought I was nuts for being so enamored with her. Glad I'm not the only one.