Monterey in my mind

Four days into the new year, and off I went up in the air. There I was, peering down the plane's window over the desert of Arizona en route to California to join a multi-cultural gathering of writers, editors, linguists, translators, and professors in the scenic peninsula and city of Monterey.

So there I went spanning the bridge, so to speak, between the fact of loitering after each day's seminar session through Cannery Row, Monterey's most historic spot celebrated by John Steinbeck in his eponymous novel--and the fiction of lives he rendered more vivid into immortality. Where nothing now stays of the "stink and a grating noise" from the fishing industry that Steinbeck scribbled for posterity, the air continues to stir true to the opening line of the novel: "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem... a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." Amen, I say short of humming.

For someone who owes his lifelong faith to the power of literature in no small measure from Steinbeck's body of works (Of Mice and Men, The Pearl, Grapes of Wrath and, yes, Cannery Row, among others), all that I could exhale was nothing less than the inebriated air of exhilaration.

It was also a blast reuniting with a long-missed friend and former colleague in Cebu, Cathy V., with whom I had an exquisite dinner at the Sardine Factory. That Hollywood celebrities gorge themselves here when they are in Monterey is not hard to swallow, pun intented, with its world-class cuisine and ambiance (such a lazy word, I know, for something that takes your breath away). Clint Eastwood shot one of his films here once, or so the book about the Sardine Factory reveals. That Cathy and I had the luxury of having our fill in this adjective-choked restaurant renders only one fact a tad fantastic: How can such fabulous service and delectable menu and ambiance (there goes that word again, waxing ever so pretentious) be so affordable? But, I swear, to slurp is to believe.

Four days drifted like opium smoke: The post-prandial chatter about language and its distances and disguises, the cross-pollination of cultures and its greenhouse of complexities and possibilities and, yes, small talk and side-splitting asides over wine or beer. No wonder, on my flight from Monterey back to my family in Kansas, the cumulus of memory still hovered over my head even as I sneaked a bird's eye view over the urban sprawl of Los Angeles and the Hollywood marker on a distant hill. Always near, these: what the heart opts to hear above its beat. The squeal of a thrill, as if from a shared secret, with Steinbeck's bust. The roar of the shore-scraping surf against the rocks where seagulls gathered to roost. The silence from a fragment of a time-crusted shell that I picked up and promised to keep so it would echo bits of what endures of Monterey inside me.

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