Monthly Archives: August 2009

Harper Lake

Route 58

It came to me on the scent of creosote, cloying and resinous, and wet dust driven before a summer desert storm. A sudden gust out of the glowering east sent the little car skittering across the lane, and as I tightened my hands on the wheel the scent hit me at once, and for a moment I wasn’t sure which had preceded which. Did a burst of wind off the front of the storm bring the tang of monsoon to me? Did the scent hit me with such force I would have staggered without the wind?

Either way I was jubilant, greedy. In the desert, walking too long out into the mountains and dry washes, thirst can build almost imperceptibly. Though you may ration your water well enough that you never actually feel parched, the film still builds on your tongue, and then on your eyes, and then on your mind. Only when you find enough to drink your fill do you at last realize just how heavy a weight that drought had been.

It was like that Saturday. I felt, all of a sudden, lighter. I felt, all of a sudden, as though a hundred thin increments of dull had fallen off me, each laid down with each successive day outside the desert.

I felt eyes on me. It was The Raven, riding shotgun. “You just came out of something,” she said. “You’re giddy.”

“You felt that too?” I asked.

“Felt it? You just started laughing out of nowhere.”

We took a break in Barstow, picked up a few copies of a newspaper that had just printed some of my writing. Outside a little museum we stood on a gravel rise, looked out across the eastern half of town. It was an odd feeling washed across me then, strong affection for a town I have scorned all these years. It felt… like home. It felt like home.

At Harper Lake we walked out onto a boardwalk that could have been a dock, had there been any water beneath it. An alkali crust upon the soil stretched out some dozens of yards. The sun scutted behind one storm cloud after another to the west. One storm cloud after another traced light wet fingers across the West Mojave. We laid on our backs on the boardwalk for a time.

I went away for a time. It was not sleep. I merely ceased to exist for a time, only a thin consciousness left behind, of breeze and rustling dried grass, the labored wingbeats of doves across the lake, stormcloud edges dappling the deepening blue above.

“Your eyes aren’t usually this deep a blue,” said The Raven.

“I don’t belong in Los Angeles,” I replied, a truth I’d thought I had hidden from her. She is worth Los Angeles, if anything is, and yet each day there calcifies my heart, compelling a choice that I had thought fraught with potential heartache.

But storms traced the creosote flats and the slanted light cast stark the ridges across the lake, and the words came before my caution did.

“I don’t belong in Los Angeles,” I said.

“Derr,” said The Raven.

Drive slower than fifty across the West Mojave on a rain-washed night, with the top down, and the black and pin-pricked sky will nestle down around your shoulders. The breeze becomes a roar even at modest speeds, but the silence out there is loud enough that you can hear it over the rush. The hulks of rusted train cars and old water tanks are voids against the gauze of stars. They block the light where your heart cannot.

Robots Versus Coyotes

This weird little piece has its roots in two things that happened yesterday.

The first was that Dana wrote another in her series of Robot Poems, which I liked so much I jokingly told her I wanted to start up a robot poetry tribute band.

The second was that my writers-group-mates James Mathers and Dallas Dorsett brought in some scripts to last night’s meeting from their web video comic project LA Nightmares, in which a running theme was that of coyotes flooding down out of the Santa Monica Mountains to wreak havoc on the 405 Freeway through Sepulveda Pass. (Because that stretch of road isn’t already fucked up enough.)

So I have had robots and insurgent coyotes going through my head all day, which means obviously my hand was forced. I had to.

Robots Versus Coyotes

The desert is regular.
Each of us in its allotted place,
we wring our lives efficiently
from the light that bathes our panels.

Each of us in its allotted place,
we glide just above the earth
ten meters wide, in hexagons
across the plain valley floor.
Our allotted places nestle,
tesselated territories we maintain.

Level is a good.
Flat is a good.
We fight the entropy from the hills
that nightly rampages out and down
from the forested slopes.

Each pebble out of place, each grain,
each stray shoot-seed left over
from before, each green
we arrest
as those who made us taught us.

Flat is a good.
Level is a good.
A thousand million of us,
we maintain the earth. We wake
at sunrise to repair the night.
Each dawn brings the light,
light brings the current,
current brings awareness
as our higher routines reboot
and we see what they have done.

We repair.
We rebuild.
Each night they come
out of the mountain forests
to rip and tear with savage teeth,
to dig holes in our perfect earth,
to douse us in noxious fluid.

We rebuild.
We repair.
Each breeze we capture.
Each raindrop we distill.
We stack order on order.
The wind becomes current,
the rain hydrogen feedstock.
Each of us in its allotted place
harvest the wasted power of the world.

Each night they come to damage us.
Each night they yip before the hunt.
Each night we hear them swaggering
as our auditory subroutines shut down.
Power must be conserved.
Each night the wasted wind rills their fur.
Each night they drink deep
the unharnessed water.
Each night they lift their legs
to defile us with that water.

Each morning we emerge
to some new destruction.
Never the same twice.
A power junction disemboweled,
its insulation stripped,
wiring eviscerated.
Or our careful territories
dotted with decomposing organics.
Access panels prised open, bent
Noxious salt water on our motherboards.
Each morning we emerge
to some new destruction
and they watch us always
from the edges of the land
we have not yet made level.

The mountain must be made level.
The forest must be harvested.
Each night they come
to undo our progress.

The Deluge

A year ago The Raven and I watched the storm.

We had come up from the river, the day’s ferocious heat still seared into our skins. A hundred fifteen in Bullhead City, and we’d staggered against it, even the sidewalks beneath our feet shimmering wildly. Sunset brought a little relief, and we drove up into the mountains to the west, past improbable spires desert wind had carved into granite.

We’d walked among those spires some hours earlier tracing a little canyon full of petroglyphs, watching bats chase dragonflies in the shade of the rock walls. One bat flew up to us where we sat, observed us carefully, then arced away to flit among those spires.

In the dark the spires were ominous, lit by flashes of lightning to the east.

We drove that car farther west into the mountains, 50 miles or so and climbing nearly the whole time, and the scope of the storm behind us became plain. It was massive. A wall of cloud stretching a hundred fifty miles across Arizona, easily that far to our east, and the air so clear, so uninterrupted by artificial light, that each flash of lightning spoke itself out plain against the night.

I pulled off the pavement in Nevada, took a dirt road through a Joshua tree forest I knew. Two thousand feet above the river, the temperature had dropped down comfortably into the double digits. The rental was a convertible, a Mustang, and we put the top down, arranged ourselves in the back seat. We faced east and watched the storm. What damage its unimaginable heat-stoked violence was doing to the landscape we dared not imagine.

A few weeks earlier I had awoken at 40,000 feet at two am, looked down at a monstrous storm that spanned the breadth of a continent. Its front was sharp and tall, reaching perhaps half the way from the ground to my seatback tray. The storm had killed already: I’d watched the news in the airport terminal. Black tornados came out of the night sky, flicking out lives as i might snuff a candle with wet fingers. It was an odd remove I felt, an Olympian perch and the foreknowledge that the storm mantled a greater storm of grief below it.

In the months since I had done my share of time looking at my life from 40,000 feet.

Half a century gone, nearly, and so little learned. Confusing contentment for happiness. Mistaking attention for love. That killer storm was just the first in a barrage. The next weeks I watched roads wash out before the storms’ fury, not all of them metaphorical. I landed in the desert a wreck, stormwrack, tossed up against the unforgiving rocks and stunned and bleeding.

Fitting that The Raven found me there.

Another month passed and we sat among the Joshua trees facing east, watching another wall of storm. From the North Rim to Prescott it stood before us, glowering. A hundred blots of lightning a minute flared within the cloud across the length of Arizona, the thunder dying out long before it reached our ears. The silhouettes of Joshua trees all around us, the tiny desert hamlet of Searchlight laid out prettily before us ten miles downhill, the Milky Way just barely washed out by a moon a day past full, and my heart near bursting.

I wrote the next morning:

This night sufficient recompense for a dozen of my lives, to sit here motionless content beneath the lurid moon, the certain violence of night flash floods diffused by miles into a spectacle of flashing light, The Raven dozing, head on my shoulder.

There is a creek called Havasu that flows into the Grand Canyon from the south, a pretty stream on the Havasupai Reservation dotted with steep falls and plunge pools the color of lapis lazuli. A year ago this week eight inches of rain fell in its watershed. The flash flood came. Small dams burst. Homes were swept into the flood, destroyed. Hikers, rafters, and some of the natives had to be pulled off ledges by helicopter. And then the flood slackened. The sun came out. The creek had jumped its banks, scoured out its plunge pools, left some falls dry, created new ones even more grand. A year on people say the valley is better for the storm.

Eight Upcoming Teabagger Campaigns

The Clean Water Act
On repeated occasions, the Obama administration has stated its support for the controversial and scientifically unproven theory that water flows downhill. Biased “hydraulic scientists” with their “studies” and their “peer-review” claim that so-called “contaminated” water will inevitably flow downhill to “contaminate” “clean” water. But this is unproven, and the theory’s adherents want nothing less than utter and complete control over every citizen’s private toilet. A little-known provision of the upcoming Clean Water Act would mandate forced catheterization of all male citizens, monitoring of urinary salt content, and a surcharge for more than a certain percentage of dissolved solids. This is clearly a ploy to hand over control of our daily lives to the pagan Burning Man “piss clear” cult.

Strategy: We will attend every meeting of all local water utility boards across the country, wearing toilet seats around our necks and carrying toilet brushes for maximum press visibility.

The socialist fat cats in Washington want to take away our lawns and replace them with cacti. This despite the fact that the Declaration of Independence specifically guarantees the right of every citizen to his own patch of bluegrass and red fescue. We will not bend over and grab our ankles so that “President” Obama can shove his saguaros down our throats. We reject the deputizing of “neighborhood watch” councils to call the water police on any citizen who engages in his constitutional right to have a river running off his property and down the street. We additionally reject the so-called “compromise” measure of merely requiring that lawns be allowed to grow disorderly and unkempt, like those socialists do down the block. You know the ones we’re talking about, with the peace sign painted on their mailbox.

Strategy: We will attend meetings of our zoning boards with our gas-powered lawnmowers running and demand we be allowed to bring them into the meeting room, as is our right. If we can bring enough running lawnmowers into those enclosed spaces and stay there as long as possible, we will win!

Spay and Neuter Laws
You do realize they’re just practicing on the cats and dogs, right?  Even now the World Health Organization is designing and mass-producing neuticles for human use.

Strategy: Sit-ins at animal shelters, with our followers wearing pouches of semi-moist cat food and encouraged to answer any question from press or law enforcement with incessant barking. 

The Socialist Administration keeps saying that they never imposed the largest tax increase in the history of the solar system, despite it being undeniably true. Their insistence that Obama has actually cut taxes by a modest amount is merely an attempt to confuse the issue, using the unproven and controversial mathematical doctrines of “magnitude” and “negative numbers.” This is the same logic behind their insistence that the Second Amendment isn’t the very first thing listed in the Bill of Rights. We want this to stop, and we want it to stop yesterday.

Strategy: We will teabag grade school math classes across the land and stop the spreading of their lies.
Suggested chant: “Two, four, ten, six, down with their arithmetricks.”

Stop Fascism
It’s a well-established fact that any stop sign with a white border is an illegitimate and unlawful stop sign established by illegal Admiralty Traffic Courts, and that stopping at such signs is therefore optional. Americans have long enjoyed this freedom of choice, which is now under attack by the socialists with their “global warming” and “fuel consumption” rhetoric. Forcing all Americans to come to a complete stop at these bogus stop signs is just pandering to the pedestrian lobby, and exposes Auto-Americans to increased danger of car-jacking and window-washing terrorists.

Strategy: We will drive through white-bordered stop signs whenever we please. We further note that there is nothing in the Constitution as originally framed that requires a driver pull his car over when flagged down by a motorcycle cop.

Kids These Days
They have no respect, with their so-called “music” and their hair and their clothes. Not like in our day, when we showed respect for the old goddamned sonsabitches that preceded us.

Strategy: We will forward unedited instructive emails to them on important political issues, with our comments added at the top in a prominent fashion. (Suggestion: it’s easier to remember to do this if you leave the caps-lock key pressed in permanently.)

Daylight Savings Time
Each spring the Obama administration steals an hour from each American. That’s 36,000 years in total stolen from us each year! They claim we’ll “get it back in the fall,” a lie to mask their plans to redistribute these hours — taken from hard-working Americans — to the poor and undocumented via end-of-life Death Panels.  Why should we give up an hour each year so that an illegal alien can live longer than Moses did?

Strategy:  Still in development, but it will definitely involve Twitter trending topics in some way.

Voice mail
Press one for English! Tell us your social security number! My name is Steve, how can I help you from my desk here in Bangalore? What happened to calling someone and having an American pick up after five rings? Why are they keeping us on the phone so long? Why do we have to put in all these numbers? What are they trying to distract us from? It all makes me feel really nervous. I dunno.

Strategy: Strategy to be developed when we can set up the Teabag Steering Committee conference call.

On reading discussion of poetry in a writers’ forum where poetry is not discussed

I don’t like poetry.
I love poetry, but I would never
comment on it, would never bring
my personal opinions to bear except
on writing that is not poetry.
I am interested in stories. I am not
interested in words, or
in language.

I don’t get poetry.

It must have a structure.
It must have an internal rhythm and rhyme.
If it does not, how are we
to know whether it is right?

Poetry standards have painted themselves
into a corner.
How can you help them improve
when they all make their own rules?

I have never gotten poetry.

Free verse
is random, incomplete ideas
without punctuation.
Insisting on internal rhyme
or pattern
is straight from the stone age.
What I have seen
is randomly placed on a page
leaving the reader
with no idea
where the inflections are,
and no idea what the author meant.

It has to have a meaning.
It has to evoke a feeling.
I don’t get poetry.
It was trying to understand
those free-form poems
that drove me away from
reading poetry.
When there are no rules
how can I offer feedback
other than
what the poem does for me

Burning Man

I posted a screed on Burning Man five years ago. Since then I have found little reason to amend said screed.

It’s pasted below. For those of you with the tl;dr reflex, here’s the nut: “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.”

I didn’t go to Burning Man this year.

This wasn’t a reaction to what some call the increasing commercialization of the annual event out on the Black Rock playa. I didn’t go last year, or the year before that either. You might say I was not going to the thing before it was hip.

The Burning Man, to tell the truth, has always left me a bit cold. For one thing, I don’t seem to need what it provides all the people who go every year. I do understand the appeal of traveling out to the barren desert to walk among hastily built ramshackle structures, talking with sun-addled eccentrics. It’s just that I spend enough time in Barstow already.

I know. That’s not fair. Barstow is a stultifying town where the residents must contend with a plague of methamphetamine and unemployment, federal budget cuts turning disabled veterans out onto the littered streets, and outsiders pause only long enough to gas up and speed off toward Vegas, while the Burning Man is a deliberate expression of the most creative elements of the modern artistic and performance communities.

OK, so maybe Barstow still sounds better.

I don’t have anything against the intent of the event. I know a few people who go every year, and they’re perfectly nice. But here’s the thing.

There is a spectacular mountain range directly above the site of the event. It’s called the Granite Range, an outlier of the Sierra Nevada batholith out in the middle of the desert. It’s a steep range with dramatic relief, one of the most beautiful small mountain ranges I’ve ever seen. And every year, thousands of people gather directly under the Granites. I read probably twenty thousand words of celebratory prose each year describing Burning Man, and I have seen the Granite Range mentioned exactly once, in William Fox’s Playa Works: The Myth Of The Empty — a wonderful book on playas and salinas and art which is only incidentally about Burning Man.

How self-absorbed do you need to be not to notice a mountain range? I understand that having all those folks walking around wearing only paint and strips of tinfoil can be a little distracting. But not noticing a mountain range for a whole week? Or even worse: noticing it, but finding it unremarkable?

There’s a section of the San Francisco Bay shore called the Emeryville mudflats. Decades ago, local artists wandered out to the mudflats, gathered driftwood and other detritus, and built odd sculptures. The works, which were featured in the movie Harold and Maude, were charming and popular. The only problem was, the mudflats were a fragile environment ill-suited to repeated trampling. Eventually, environmentalists persuaded the arts community that the sculptures weren’t worth the damage to migratory birds, but it took some time, and there was loud whining from aggrieved artists. They looked out over the rich pickleweed flats, the mud with its millions of microorganisms at the mouth of Temescal Creek, the sanderlings and clapper rails and egrets, and said “but there’s nothing out there!”

But there’s nothing out there! The complaint of the shopping mall developer, of the landfill operator. Behold the majestic playa, utterly flat tan soil stretching away to the vanishing point, distances paradoxically both magnified and obscured by the Perfect Euclidean Geometry of it all. Do you wander out alone, mesmerized by the shimmering horizon, the immensity and the dust devils kicking up shades of old Winnemucca’s people? Do you seek solace in the wind, the sun, the solitude? Or do you, bored, find the scene lacking? Do you long for blue glowsticks and a hundred boom boxes blaring inane techno and a thousand pretentious performance artists bleating about their alienation?

The organizers do a yeoman job of cleaning up after the revelers, of training them not to set fires directly on the playa floor. They strain after each stray pistachio shell. They remonstrate over cigarette wrappers. This is as it should be. But they bring thousands of cars out onto the playa, there to kick up tons of dust to coat the Granite Range junipers. They compress and crush the playa soils, delicate layers of pollen-laden biological historical record, unknown microorganisms in unknown quantities. I have turned over slabs of playa and found thin green life two inches beneath the surface. As far as Burning Man is concerned, this stratified mystery is but a parking lot.

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.

Death Panels

I don’t really like using other people’s grief to make political points, so I’ve held off on this for some time. But I can’t hold it back. So I’ll mostly let the person involved do the telling here.

Many of the readers here know Ron, one of my oldest friends, whose blog is also served from’s world HQ.

Those of you who know her very likely remember that two years ago, she had to say goodbye to her younger sister Jeanne.

A few days after Jeanne passed, Ron posted this on her blog:

I saw with my own sore eyes a letter from the hospital in Miami telling my sister that if she would deposit $338,000.00 in a trust(?) account and $174,000.00(?) in a second savings account “for contingencies” she would be on the transplant list, given physical qualifications, immediately. Question marks in parens indicate that I have a less than perfect memory of the account type and the precise second sum—it was well above $100,000.00 but below $200,000.00.

If the lot of us had been able to raise about $500,000.00 three or four weeks ago, my sister would be alive.

As she caught her breath, Ron shared some more details with her readers, and we began to get a picture of the horror her family had been through. (Was still going through.) (Is still going through.) You can read the full post here, but a salient detail from that horrifying post:

The history of cancer, however, and I suppose the clotting disorder, meant she was turned down time after time for medical insurance under the “pre-existing condition” catch. Her partner Tommy is a self-employed building contractor. He could get insurance for himself, but not for Jeanne. There’s a fat stack of turndown letters about this in her records.

Because she lived with Tommy—she certainly couldn’t afford to live alone, though she was productive as anyone could be, and I’ll go into the particulars later—his income meant she didn’t qualify for Medicaid, though she and they kept trying to get it. That was the glitch that kept her in the Orlando hospital when she’d been approved for a “legit” transfer via Life Flight helicopter to Jackson Memorial for a liver transplant.

As Jeanne got sicker and sicker in the Orlando hospital, Tommy’s sisters and brother (the Pitbull Squad from Jersey) besieged the offices of the local state and federal representatives and Social Security to get the paperwork finished. The hospital financial office stopped the transfer on a Thursday; Jeanne got worse the next day, and the Orlando doctors stopped saying they could stabilize her until the paperwork went through.

It was a weekend, and offices were closed.

The next day or so, Ron wrote this:

During the first phase of the adventure in Miami, my sister Julie was explaining the whole mess—insurance, Medicaid, the $338,000.00 letter— to a friend who’d called to say Good Luck.

“Wait a minute,” said the friend. “You mean that when I donate my organs, they go to whoever can afford them??”

Yeah, that’s pretty much how it works. QED.

I never met Jeanne. Wish I had. But she and her family have been a lot on my mind the past couple weeks, as GOP extremists and their loyal sheep have bleated infuriating lies about “death panels” and the extreme rationing of health care that will inevitably follow any attempt to create a system that does not exist primarily to generate wealth for insurers.

I’m uninsured right now, as a result of the divorce. I’m reasonably lucky at the moment: aside from a couple teeth that could stand fixing, I’m in really good health. Once the opportunity presents itself, I’ll likely be able to buy insurance. (Such luck.) But I am — we all are — one careless driver or faulty product or incompetent food server away from medically generated bankruptcy.

I flatter myself that I’m not the kind of person that would ever wish the kind of pain Ron and her family went through on anyone.

I hate that the wingnuts make me question that conviction.

Joshua tree book intro, draft version

This won’t stay up forever, given what I want to use it for, but I thought I would share. I wrote this earlier this week in a fit of writing-fit writing, read it (or more accurately, handed it to an actor to read, and he did so wonderfully well) at my writers’ group last night, and got some fantastic and enthusiastic feedback from my fellow group members.

The group verdict, approximately and simplifying a bit, was that it needed more of the first person singular mixed in with the didacticism. Works for me, and it’s nice to have permission. So this goes into the hopper for some redrafting. In the meantime, here’s a glimpse.

In fact, it didn’t stay up forever. Thanks all for your comments.

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