I think it was about five years ago.
Each summer (for a while) I did a weekend on Angel Island, in the middle of San Francisco Bay, in my most celebrated role as the young Mark Twain: in conjunction with the Victorian House Tour, an opportunity for the public to visit some of the houses which are being conserved by the simple expedient of having the park staff live in them.
It is downright shameful to see the decay which has set in due to neglect of this powerfully interesting historic site: but there is hope, as the park struggles to preserve some of San Francisco's most historic buildings.
Mark Twain came to the island during the Civil War in his role as reporter: to examine the newly refurbished defenses. Many of those defenses are long gone, but it was my pleasure and privilege to paint them with words for our visitors, and help them to see what it was like in that bygone day: and, there are some of the buildings of that period still standing, one very much restored by a couple who devoted great time and energy to the project.
Mark Twain was not alone for these tours. A great many costumed docents were on hand to show people through the houses, to serve them food of the period , to bake bread in the Civil War period bakery, and to teach general lessons in Living History.
One evening, after all the guests had taken the ferry back to the mainland, I fell into conversation with a woman who had been hosting at Quarters Ten, the elegant Civil War officers house which had been floated out from the City on a barge and drawn up the hill. Somehow the topic turned to the word 'arete,' which she assumed I did not know. I laughed, and assured her I did know it, and that it was very important to me.
"Well," she said, "are you a fan of football? You see, a school friend of mine made great use of that word in her memoir of her father. The word was very important to him. You might have heard of him: Y. A. Tittle?"
I assured her that though I am not a fan of American Football, even I knew the name of the man who has been argued to be perhaps the greatest football player of all time.
The conversation wandered, as it does at the end of a performance day, and I filed away the information with the intention of looking up the book.
In the Summer of 2007 I discovered that a talk was to be given at Boggs Mountain State Forest by one of our most illustrious residents, Mr. Don Emerson, on the history of the town of Cobb, and its glory days as a resort area. Mr. Emerson was instrumental in the building of my tea house, having provided me with permission to hunt and cut a madrone tree on his land, to use as the post of the tokonoma; so I was interested first to hear him speak, and second to know more about that romantic period when people traveled all the way from San Francisco for a week or two of relaxation in the mountains.
It was a fascinating talk, including the information that up until the early 1920s the last leg of the journey was still made by stage coach.
At the end we were shown a whole table full of photo albums and individual photos of the history of the area.
"...and here," said Mr. Emerson, pointing to a photo of the crowd in the dining hall of the old Hoberg's Resort (where Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, and later, Jefferson Airplane, all played) "you see a picture of Y. A. Tittle. And here he is again, golfing of the new golf course we built. He used to come up here all the time."
Hmmm. Time for another mental note about that book.
So here we were, in Greece, in the Summer of 2008, at Dr. Stephen Miller's house (you have already perused the party) and I was introduced to Mr. and Mrs. De Laet, who were to host an artistic event at their home the next night.
Mrs. De Laet, Dianne, had been instrumental in working on the musical and performing aspects of the Nemean Games in 2004.
You can imagine my astonishment when a little later Dr. Miller informed me that she was the daughter of Y. A. Tittle, the famous football player, and that she had written a book weaving her memoir of growing up as his daughter with the Greek myths.
In the words of Mark Twain: "I was floored!"
Thus we return to the main narrative, as Dr. Miller leads our expedition away from Argos and into the Valley of the Inochos River, and finally up a winding dirt road into the Artemision Mountains.
The orchards in this part of Greece bear the look of hard times. There are many abandoned farm houses, which, being made of stone, have held up much better than buildings of similar age in California, where they will have been built of wood.
One had no trouble understanding that the road on which we were traveling was a hundred years old, and probably built for donkey carts. Our procession teetered precariously up, then finally came to the house, where many of us parked precipitously along the edge. (Did I mention that Hellas is mainly vertical?) We had to park that way because a truck needed to pass us to make a delivery!
We went up an outside stairway to the living area, which is, of course, the top of the house. The bedrooms have been built where the sheep pens used to be, downstairs.
The De Laets told us that they had bought the old house from the brother of a friend, and with the help of excellent Albanian stone masons, were restoring it.
You can see what it looked like early on, and the breathtaking view, at the following website: http://www.aretepoetics.com/elagaia.html
I can assure you, it is now something of an artistic masterpiece, and the threshing floor is usable at a theater already. (You can see the stone wall that holds it up in one of the photos, and the round, flat area as well.)
The house is called EleGaea, and it is meant to be a place for the performing arts.
Dinner was served on the upper terrace, and I made bold to corner Dr. Miller with my mental list of the questions from the day before.
New information included the clarification of something I had previously misunderstood.
The dusting with various forms of fine earth did not take place over the olive oil, but rather, after the bath.
"I remember," said Dr. Miller, "when I was young, and one went to the barber, the last, finishing touch was to dust one with talcum powder from a fine bristled brush. That is what the dust was about. One tossed it in the air and walked through a fine cloud of it. It was done in a different room than the oiling."
I remember that dusting also.
"Okay," I pressed on, "What are all those chambers under the floor of the Temple Of Zeus about? Some sort of initiatory system?"
"Actually, they are just economy. The upright blocks are the same thing as floor joists in a modern house. They support the floor, but you don't have to use materials filling in between them."
Finally I mentioned the small fire in what I thought to be a possible adyton.
"Well, we are puzzled by that chamber, and of course we have no evidence to tell us what it was, as yet. But the fire... Well, I told the people kindling the torch to light the fire on the altar. Of course, the altar for that temple is the long, thin one in front. But in a Greek Orthodox Church, the faith in which most people here have been raised, the altar is inside the church, at the far end from the entrance. There being no altar there that they could find, they went down to a place where they would expect one to be, and lit the torch there."
It is well for those of a mystical bent to remember Solon's Seventh Tenet: "Make Reason Your Supreme Commander."
That time sitting on the wall, drinking wine and talking casually with Dr. Miller, was one of the high points of the trip for me. In all our previous encounters he had been so busy, so much at the center of things, that I felt as if I were imposing. Here, at sunset, I discovered him to be what I always suspected: a really nice guy.
Then it was dusk, and time for the performance.
Diana and I seated ourselves in the second row, on folding chairs, and watched as the lighting was tested and the sound system prepared. We didn't know what to expect, but what happened next was about as far from anything we might have expected as could be imagined.
Dianne Tittle De Laet is truly a Renaissance Woman, accomplished not only as a writer and poet but as a concert harpist, a sculptress, a performance artist, and activist in the cause of Peace. She has established the Arete Foundation, is exhibited in many art galleries, works with friends in a gallery of her (their) own in Redwood City, and goodness knows what else. Do a search for her on the net and you will be as dazzled as I was.
Near the opening of the performance I was downright pixilated to see a the Quail Dance from a Japanese Kyogen comedy.
Imagine that! After all my years of studying Cha No Yu, I saw my first Kyogen in the Artemision Mountains of Greece under a full moon rising over the Inochos Valley.
The heavy, central body of the work was drawn from writings by a hired soldier who was assigned to accompany the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears. This was part reading, part dance, part song: Cherokee song, as well as some pieces from other languages, and it was heart-breaking.
As the soldier told of the suffering of a Christian Cherokee woman who gave her only blanket to keep a sick child warm, and who died of exposure. along with so many others, I am sure there was not a dry eye in the house.
I do not believe that people have any need or reason to be cruel to each other, not in the name of anything. I think that at the heart of all this cruelty is the perverse Prokrustianism that seeks to trim our souls down to a single one-shape-fits-all kind of existence. That, and nothing else in today's world, is the root of evil.
The performance ended and there was much applause. If one has a chance to see any of the work of this wonderful woman, I recommend that one do so.
The pain seeped away, the night softened, and we all said our goodbyes. I managed to get a moment with Mrs. De Laet (her husband is as tall and imposing a figure as she is, but he stands back, no doubt in the same awe that the rest of us feel) and told her about the inevitability of our meeting, ever since that day five years ago when Mark Twain sat down for a cigar on the back porch of Quarters Ten, during the Civil War.
Then it was time for the scary scramble down the mountain and back to Napflion.