Monthly Archives: August 2007

South by Southeast

It was July 5, 2006 the last time I was in the Mojave. September 5, 2007 will be the day I return. I have picked a typically unlucky time to visit. The nighttime low temperature in Needles has plummeted nearly to 80 degrees every night for the past month, reaching 78 on August 8. My campsite at Cima Dome, 4500 feet farther from sea level than the weather station in Needles, will likely be even colder than that. But I will be prepared: I will take clothes. What worries me is the daily temperature change, with such lows coming after cool, comfortable afternoon temperatures in the three digits. I hope I don’t catch cold.

It is only a few days, true. Not even long enough for the comment spam to pile up here, and besides there will be a magical blog guardian here, an e-faun, who will wreak a terrible, Daphnean vengeance on spammers and trolls. Which is good. We could use the bay leaves. This e-faun is a shy one, but there are those who claim they have heard a strange music emerging from the intertubes when no one is looking, a siren song that lures unwary surfers to their doom or to posting at Democratic Underground, whichever is worse. If you are very very lucky while I am gone, and if you set out the proper offerings of wormwood ashes, and dried chicken strips for her consort, the e-faun may sing for you here as well. Just lash yourselves to the mast is my advice.

Hmm. On second thought, “blog kobold” has a kind of ring to it too. Maybe set some cookies out there with the bitter herbs and jerky treats.

I expect to spend a significant amount of time sitting. This trip, I am hoping, will serve as a lens to focus me. The Mojave is a place where the skin of the Earth is stretched taut, crazy jumbles of mountain ridges chockablock with saline hotspring valleys, the turmoil of the mantle there to bleed through with a scratch, and so it is the place for me. These days I have been asked by more than one person what I want to do with my life. I have had no answer, and my life at least half over. Inchoate feelings rise in me like subducted batholiths, approaching the surface only by increment, until my skin is stretched taut as well. I could use some slack in that skin, some room to store water or words. Something else other than this mix of urgency and doubt in equal portions.

It should be interesting. The neotropicals will be at least checking their watches, thinking of flying back to Costa Rica, but summer still blankets the landscape. If the Scott’s orioles are there when I arrive it will officially still be the hot season. I may awake at four, use a few temperate hours to watch the sage sparrows and cactus wrens and whoever else shows up, and do the same in the evening with a long siesta between. There are worse ways to focus.


The Theriomorph is reading Lorca:

I share Lorca’s passion for bearing witness with specificity, grief, and love, to disappearing peoples. Sometimes deep listening is the most powerful activism there is; it keeps alive what nothing else can.

Lorca’s beloved “cante jondo” — the deep song to which Ms. T’morph does her deep listening — informed and nourished a life’s work spent chasing a thing that can be described succinctly in Spanish, but in English only with dissertations:


“Thus duende is a power and not a behavior, it is a struggle and not a concept. I have heard an old master guitarist say: ‘Duende is not in the throat; duende surges up from the soles of the feet.’ Which means it is not a matter of ability, but of real live form; of blood; of ancient culture; of creative action.”

— Lorca, La Teoria y Juego del Duende, lecture given in Havana, 1930

There are attempts to reduce the translation to one English word. Inspiration. A demon. A goblin. Authenticity. My understanding of the concept is limited, but it seems that all of the above apply, as one might give separate names to each facet of a carved onyx. The definition that seems most apt to me is the one I heard first, a long time ago, words burned into my memory by dark eyes and dim candles, from a pianist who fairly brimmed with the stuff herself. It was three hours before the sun rose, and we were idling, and we were talking about flamenco, and she called duende “the memory of the homeland the Gitano never knew.”

That seems like a good take to me.

I feel sometimes as though all of history and physics demands my attention in an instant, the nervous system of the earth surging up through my soles, all the grief and terror of a billion years charging each breath, each swallow, with beauty the result. This may seem an odd assertion in a time when the word “sublime” is used to praise a slice of cheesecake, but those who remember its older sense of “wondrous beauty of which terror is a crucial component” will understand. The Tetons in winter are beautiful. The Tetons in winter as the ice cracks beneath your feet crossing a half-frozen lake? Sublime.

If Whitman turned up no “foul meat” with his plow and spade, it was only for lack of seeing what was plainly there. Authenticity comes of burying what you love in the ground, a connection that cannot be rent through years of exile. A deep song lived here with me and is buried now, its component notes feeding the apple trees and we will eat them in the coming year. And then what is left when you lose that loss?

Duende is what is left. It does not translate precisely into English, but there are languages that will serve better.


I grow tired, again and after some rethinking, of what is sometimes called “edginess.” Or “attitude,” or “snark.” Three fine traditions, these, and well-placed in the rhetorician’s bag of tricks, each of them the precise and fitting tool for one task or another. And yet we rely on them too heavily. Maslow’s dictum about hammers turning everything into nails is relevant here. When the only rhetorical tool you have is an insult, everyone you talk to begins to resemble an idiot.

And I recognize the irony (sensu stricto) in my saying such a thing, of all people. I have flung sarcasm from one end of the political world to the other, it seems at times. Sarcasm is the weapon of the angry and powerless. I am, more than is comfortable, angry. I am, to a first approximation, powerless. I have been one acquainted with “yeah, right.” Who among us has not? It is a normal reaction to seeing your comfort stripped away, your water poisoned and your family endangered, to seeing the thousand little things that make up a good day sold off, one by one; to seeing the Orwellian equation of Freedom and Slavery embraced unambiguously by those around you, provided the freedom involves shopping and the slavery is confined to Saipan factories. Who with a healthy soul would not be outraged to the point of chronic sarcasm?

And yet that sarcasm corrodes the soul.

Stale sarcasm left pooling too long in the heart congeals, clots, becomes cynicism. The cynic hears a full-hearted cry and he resents it. The cynic insists the cry comes from a heart as clotted with sick sarcasm as her own. Open your soul, limn carefully and fervently the extent of your wound, and the cynic will ask what your angle is.

The cynic will accuse you of all the sins in his heart, of self-centered obstruction and circular firing squads. It is the cynic’s suspicion that sincerity conceals sabotage. The cynics will doom us. “Forward movement comes from relationship,” a friend told me this week, and she was right, as she usually is. No coalition comes without shared vulnerability. No victories come without mutual honesty.

And yet the cynic strategizes, wondering how best to manipulate his allies to his best advantage, and counts himself “tough-minded” and “pragmatic.”

I long these days for a pragmatic honesty, a tough-minded vulnerability. Strategy is easy; comity is hard.

Failure to observe

There was a full lunar eclipse last night.
I missed it. All her rutilance in view
just one craned neck from where I slept, immersed
in caffeinated dreaming of my own;
I did not see the moon. I did not see
the shadow fall across her face, did not
see the livid, angry blush grow dark
and fume. A world entire stepped in between
her and the light, and me upon that world,
a vanishingly small part of that world
but on it nonetheless. Such privilege
to dream contented, unaware that she
the luminous had darkened, to assume
that she, withal, would mind the daily tides.

Who says the 1970s were a total waste?


That’s one of the wall cards from “Black ABCs,” a 1970 attempt to provide positive modeling for African American kids in US grade schools. Becky brought home a pamphlet with low-res versions and I just had to share them. The whole set’s here.

This, kids, is what multiculturalism looked like when I was in grade school. A little earnest, a bit sappy perhaps, but upbeat and relentlessly positive despite plenty of important and outrageously profound reasons not to be. This was before the backlash, before crack, before the Rockefeller massacre at Attica, when people could — without being considered insane — think that things would keep getting better, that the civil rights and Black Power movements might actually keep winning social change on an ever-rising trajectory.

Burning Man

It’s Burning Man time again, that season of bacchanal for the affluent in a desert declared arbitrarily irrelevant to the proceedings, and I have as yet found no reason to revise my opinion of the whole deal.

The gist of that 2004 post:

Faced with one of the last truly wild landscapes left in the US, their response is to build a city. This is not creativity: it is dreadful, dull conformity. Finding one of the last sublime remnants of the unpopulated West, they want nothing more than to pack it with tender urbanites in a glorified tailgate party. This is not an alternative way of life: it is standard American operating procedure.

Read more.