A block east of where I stood along this cactus-fringed road tonight, a streetlight cast a yellow inverted cone toward the dirt.

I stand well outside the light.

A few months shy of 40, before the last millennium ended, I walked a night mile through clouds of gnats backlit by a lone streetlight in Oklahoma. Obligations pulled in several directions. Checotah, on the Canadian River floodplain, was where those pulls reached equilibrium. I stood watching the streetlight aeroplankton for some hours.

At 17 it was an inverted cone of illuminated rain, six in the morning in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, no rides coming and soaked to the shivering skin. I knew no one within 250 miles.

And again in Cheyenne, five years later, sleeping in the weeds when the rides gave out. I read Bradford Angier under the Interstate’s sodium vapor aura until my eyes crossed.

So many miles, and it is all the same. All the same. Light cast down upon the earth. I stand outside it.


Suite 101

Part 3, Chapter 5

At each stage of his imprisonment he had known, or seemed to know, whereabouts he was in the windowless building. Possibly there were slight differences in the air pressure. The cells where the guards had beaten him were below ground level. The room where he had been interrogated by O’Brien was high up near the roof. This place was many meters underground, as deep down as it was possible to go.

It was bigger than most of the cells he had been in. But he hardly noticed his surroundings. All he noticed was that there were two small tables straight in front of him, each covered with faux gold leaf. One was only a metre or two from him, the other was further away, near the door. He was strapped upright in a chair, so tightly that he could move nothing, not even his head. A sort of pad gripped his head from behind, forcing him to look straight in front of him.

For a moment he was alone, then the door opened and O’Brien came in.

“First of all, it’s great to be with you,'” said O’Brien, “You asked me once what was in Suite 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. Just read the polls. Suite 101 is the greatest suite, it’s really, it’s a beautiful thing. And they all agree, millions of people that I represent.”

The door opened again. A guard came in, carrying something made of wire, a box or basket of some kind. He set it down on the further table. Because of the position in which O’Brien was standing. Winston could not see what the thing was.

“We are going to stop radical Islamic terrorism in Oceania,” said O’Brien, “You have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families. They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, I’ll do a whole lot more than waterboarding. It varies from individual to individual. It could be buried alive, or burned up, or drowning. Waterboarding is some quite trivial thing, not even fatal.”

He had moved a little to one side, so that Winston had a better view of the thing on the table. It was an oblong wire cage with a handle on top for carrying it by. Fixed to the front of it was something that looked like a fencing mask, with the concave side outwards. Although it was three or four meters away from him, he could see that the cage was divided lengthways into two compartments, and that there was some kind of creature in each. They were rats.

“We’re going to have the best rats, the biggest rats,” said O’Brien. ‘These rats are gonna be so great that you’ll actually get tired of how beautiful they are.”


Back online

Hi, all. The Network was offline for a few days as a result of a database crash. But I’ve carefully handcrafted an artisanal replacement database, full of locally sourced bits. It should hold together for a while.

My apologies to readers for the interruption in vital blogular services, and to my fellow bloggers here for the annoying outage.


Mojave River

I would drink every dram of you, were you
not secreted away beneath all these
ten thousand years’ alluvium. I would
wade into you up to my chest, my brow.
Your stony countenance doesn’t fool me.
I know what flows beneath. I know the flood
concealed so artfully, that now and then
wells up like wounded lovers’ brimming eyes.
A day will come, and soon, when the dam bursts,
your empty bed a passionate torrent,
and I will warm my fingers by the fire
I aim to kindle in your lovely wrack.
That day will come, and so today I am
content here, a pale breeze’s slight caress.


Listening to the coyote

There was something about the noise
he made tonight
that got to me.

Something about the curdled yowl,
what seemed insensate rage
that came choking out
a rising-toned flood of staccato yelps

Or something I imagined
about his eyes, gleaming cold
and furious,
pinning some imagined quarry.

It is his nature
to prey on weaker things:
I understand that.
It is wrong to ascribe to him
a moral sense,
a willing violation
of some imagined ethical code.
It asks too much of him.

But tonight it was too much.
His manic yelps, incomprehensible
and fervid, sneering sniffle snarls,
his coiled-spring choking throat
as if his claws scraped blackboard.

Tonight it was too much,
and I spent the evening
listening to the coyote instead,
a clear healthy song to wash away the debate.


Cynicism and sentiment in the desert

Originally published February 17, 2015 on

I couldn’t tell where the feathers came from. There were no trees, no power poles or other perch from which they might have descended; just the bare Mojave Desert sky, uncharacteristically overcast. There were four of them, then six, then a dozen, arcing and twirling lazily toward the ground.

Had a peregrine or a prairie falcon swooped and caught one of the Eurasian collared doves that flock in my neighborhood, knocking a few feathers loose from its inflight prey? Had a hawk’s talon scraped them off a quail’s breast? I glanced at my dog Heart at the other end of the leash, briefly imagining she would nod, mutter “huh,” and confirm the oddness. But she was lost in thoughts of her own, sniffing after side-blotched lizards beneath the desert milkweed.

The feathers were beautiful and plain, a dun-gray color slightly darker than the sky, each of them the length and width of a fingernail. They pirouetted and eddied in the light wind. I craned my neck again to find where they’d come from. I failed again.

Sometimes the small painful pieces of a desert life provide their own creation myths. Sometimes they don’t. Walking a few days beforehand Heart had done a classic olfactory doubletake, doubled back forcefully to sniff at a patch of sticks, a bit of fluff. It was downy rabbit fur, and the sticks were spattered with a bit of gore, and a pile of coyote scat lay nearby.

“Clearly, Holmes,” I explained to Heart, “an unfortunate hare happened upon this sample of coyote dung, sniffed at it, and exploded.” She gave me the merest ear flick.

ravenThe dog is new. I’ve had her for two months. She is energetic and exuberant, and as a result we have spent a lot of time walking. We put in four miles a day or so, sometimes six.

A couple weeks ago, that odd Mojave overcast having reached its full and appropriate flower as a slow, soaking rain, we walked out at 8:30 in the morning. I had my phone to my ear. I talked with a close friend as we walked. A mile from the house Heart froze at roadside, stared off into the creosote. I didn’t see why for a few long minutes, but I was distracted and glad to stand. It took a moment for them to resolve out of the blur of creosote and fog: a pair of coyotes, then three, then four, out doing a few late morning rounds under cover of the sheltering gloom. One of them, a seeming youngster, approached to within 20 yards of Heart in apparent guileless curiosity. A moment of curious sniffing for both young dog and young coyote passed, and then the wild ones loped casually across the road in front of us and into the National Park.

Phone to my ear, I would have missed them if not for Heart, wholly in the present as dogs always are.

It was a good reminder of the value of time spent the way dogs would prefer.  I now spend two hours a day at least outdoors walking with Heart, afoot in the Mojave Desert. I have walked with her first thing in the morning and then after midnight.  The extra time spent away from screens has been instructive. I have felt more hopeful. I have felt invigorated.

Mainly, I have felt less cynical.

If you were to sum up the usual mood of the Internet as a whole in a single word, it’s would be hard to find a more accurate one than “cynical.” That’s a generalization, of course, but I think it’s a fair one. Cynicism is a suit of armor. If a video or a piece of writing threatens to teach you something new and uncomfortable, you can just dismiss it by arguing with the headline. No need to actually click away from Facebook and read the thing.

Modern cynicism defends itself by casting itself as the only intelligent alternative to mawkish sentimentality. But in truth, it’s only the mawkish sentimentality that cynics allow to survive. A video of a kitten giving a mastiff a shoulder massage will go uncriticized. So will a mass and useless catharsis over the political tragedy du jour, drip with sentiment as it may. As long as sentiment is utterly powerless to change anything, cynics like it just fine.

Sentiment with power behind it is a different matter altogether. Develop a passion for a particular place, or a cause, or group of people, and harness that sentiment to protect what you love, and you will be tweaked for caring too much. Caring too much about an issue makes the cynic tired. It makes the cynic defensive against the possibility that his or her life is lacking something essential. Hackles will be raised. Suggestions will be offered that you get a life, that you have too much time on your hands.

Personally, I’m thinking cynics have not enough time on their feet.

Heart and I don’t just notice the lovely things, the wondrous things, as we walk. We see the damage we’ve done to the desert as well as the desert’s attempts to survive. We find plastic grocery bags blown here from twenty miles away and fetched up against the shores of a stand of creosote, wrack on the sea of local commerce. (I disentangle them and fill them with dog shit.) We find broken bourbon bottles and illegally dumped mattresses. We find new tire tracks on the open desert. Some of them, the ones that end a few yards from the road, were left by people clearly just looking ineptly for a place to camp. Others, the ones that crash through the creosote and cholla and hold deep spun-tire ruts along their path, were left by off-roaders. That last is another generalization. There are some off-roaders, myself among them, who see four tires and a bit of clearance as a way to get to wonderful places where we can then get out and walk, or camp, or sit and look around, or drink in solitude and fall asleep under the wheeling stars. You almost never see these people breaking new illegal trails.

But there are others, the ones who find it fit and proper to blaze their new and aimless roads across intact deserts and decry the landowners if they object, who go out expressly to tear shit up. Incurious enough to drive over desert plants they could never name, too lazy to hike any slot canyon that might reasonably be driven, these are the people who lack the courage to face the landscape as it really is without the shelter of their metal and plastic armor. They leave gouges in the desert it will take centuries to heal — if those gouges do not metastasize by eroding into gullies, loosing eons of sequestered dust into our lungs.

Ed Abbey wrote that “sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.” He had a fair point. Sentiment devoid of the power that passion brings accomplishes little. It may be, like that quadrant of the Internet devoted to pictures of cats, of momentary value for entertainment and distraction, which few would argue we don’t need.

But sentiment without action, sentiment without passion, bolsters cynicism. It reinforces cynicism. It justifies cynicism. And cynicism is the off-road vehicle of the soul. It selects a goal and bee-lines toward it, heedless of what lives along the path. Cynicism is incurious. It obliterates nuance, breaks the branches of actual living detail as it roars past, then reaches its destination and declares there was nothing worth noting en route.

Yee haw. And yet the cynics miss the drifting of coyotes across their path, the unexplained showers of odd feathers. I could not give those up for anything.


End of summer

For seven days, chest-tightening melancholy
as the eastern sky purples.

We made it through another one,
little dog. The desert floor no longer sears our feet.

These seasons flicker by too fast,
bright and dark frames in a time-lapse film.

Last night I drove to Twentynine Palms,
scanning the road for deep rain pools.

A flood once caught me unawares.
By the time I saw it it was up to the undercarriage.

In the Mojave there are floods of water,
of air and lifted sand, of fire, of memory.

You have to be careful. Your wheels will slip
and you’ll find yourself facing the way you came.