Monthly Archives: February 2010

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Unfinished business

I am impatient with myself these days.

My life is, objectively speaking, good. I am loved. My relationship with The Raven is likely the healthiest I’ve ever had, and all my important exes love me. I know what makes me happy — being in the desert — and it’s readily available, just an hour away. I am respected and I can turn that respect into income. Though that income is far from enough lately to keep the debts from mounting, there are glimmers of change on the horizon there. I’m making progress on the book: I can see it finished now, and I know what it will say.

Why then this persistent sadness?

Yes, I’ve lost a lot in the last few years. I had lunch with Becky last week in Los Angeles. It was nice. It was good to see her. She came up to the apartment and petted Thistle for a while. It was good just to relax with her. And so of course, my defenses down in a way they have not been since before the divorce, I started — again — to miss us, to mourn what we’d lost. That’s predictable. I’m not any less persuaded that we made the right decision, but it’s a weight to carry. And digging through the remains of that old life to write chapter after chapter of the book, dredging up happy memories of Zeke whole and the marriage unquestioned as handy metaphors, grafted-on plot in a book about a tree? That’s picking at wounds not completely healed, and it has its effect.

There’s something deeper going on, though. I’ve lately started wondering whether something along the lines of PTSD might be at issue here. It has confused me in the past that I don’t have a specific trauma to point to, just a long grind of endurance of the first twenty years of my life. The topic bores even me. Who cares about a fifty-year-old’s unhappy childhood? I want to get on with it already. But I keep fighting the same demons I fought back then, back when the people who really mattered to me seemed to do everything they could to show that I didn’t matter to them.

In the wake of my blisteringly stupid dive into a rebound relationship after moving out of Pinole, once that assignation had quickly — blessedly — fallen apart, I talked to Larry the Gestalt Guy, the pshrink that had seen me and Becky through our parting. Why was it, I wondered at him, that I fell so hard for someone who seemed to stake her ego on undermining mine? Who responded to upset by finding my nearest hot button and hitting it, hard?

“We have a concept in the gestalt world called ‘unfinished business,’” Larry said. “You have old unresolved issues from your past, with your parents or siblings or whoever, and someone comes along who seems to fit into that same mold, and you think ‘aha! this time I can get it right, make this person see that I’m worth something!’”

Larry had something there, I thought. It’s the sadistic inversion of the aphorism about it never being too late to have a happy childhood. In fact, it was too late for me to have a happy childhood, I realized, and I probably ought to stop trying, start trying to have a happy adulthood instead. All the friendship and love and recognition in the world would never undo that thing about my mom trying to give a serial killer my birth certificate for fake ID, would never rewrite the history of the early 1970s to award me even a parental pat on the back for, I dunno, getting into college at age 14 for instance. For that matter, none of the good things in my life will cause me me to have felt like less of a failure in subsequent decades for my inability to forgive my parents their failings, which after all they committed when they were younger than I am now.

I know full well that I ought to stop pouring those good things, the present-day friendship and love and respect and work, down the rathole of unfinished business. Doesn’t mean I’ve been able to stop. That rathole doesn’t even exist anymore, except in me. It’s mine, I own it, and yet it seems increasingly these days to own me. I’m getting really tired of the feeling of worthlessness, and knowing its untruth only makes that feeling all the more painful. Rebound Relationship Person periodically bemoaned my apparent and constant possession of something to prove, a handy accusation in that the only possible response, other than “see ya,” is to try to prove you have nothing to prove. This is like that: the constant internal dialogue in which I argue that I’m not worthless is an activity engaged in by those who suspect they are, in fact, devoid of worth.

I read someone somewhere recently, and I wish I could remember who and where, comparing depression to the Cordyceps fungi that infect ants and control their brains chemically. Responding to fungal instructions overwritten on their neural circuitry, the ants climb to the tops of plants and die, which gives the fungus’ spores a better chance to spread. Depression does feel that way sometimes, like an external influence, a mental parasite. If only there were an antibiotic for it. I find myself wanting to grab that network of fungal mycelia, gouge it out of my nervous system root and branch.

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How will I know when it’s time?

One of the results of having written about Zeke, on the old blog and in the book, is that on occasion, people come to me as their dogs reach the end of their lives, in search of a sympathetic ear.

A lot of times they’re just looking to vent with someone who’s been there, an impulse I completely understand. This society isn’t really set up to handle grief over the loss, or impending loss, of a pet. There aren’t a lot of resources out there aside from formal counseling, which is sometimes not worth the bother. I know Becky and I were quite disappointed with the options presented to us by Zeke’s vet, for instance. A bit of sympathy, a bit of listening, sometimes helps a lot. Readers at the old blog did that for me as I was going through losing Zeke, and helped keep me going. I’m happy to lend an ear once in a while to pay that forward.

But sometimes people want more than a sympathetic ear. Sometimes they want an answer to the hardest question a person faces as a dog ages. I got that question today in email from an online acquaintance and fan of Zeke, who faces a parting from a sweet older dog she adopted late in that dog’s life. I struggled for an answer, the way I always do when someone asks that.

And I realized that there wasn’t an answer online for me at the time, and there still isn’t. I’ve decided to take what I wrote to my acquaintance, make it more general and more detailed, and put it here where it will show up in that least happy of all Google searches. Not that this is the definitive answer: It’s just the one I wish I’d had when I asked the question. 

How will I know when my dog’s time has come?

The fact that you’re asking this question proves that you’ve done right by your dog. You’ve kept her safe, treated her well, given her a long life. Or perhaps you’ve adopted an older dog, which so few people do. So many dogs aren’t lucky enough to make it this far.  Thank you for taking such good care of your best friend.

There is no easy answer to this question.

When my dog Zeke approached the end of his life after 15 years and change, he began to lose strength in his back legs, making walking a risky proposition. He also lost a lot of weight, and toward the end was in obvious discomfort from arthritis in his hips. Well-intentioned people told me that I would “just know” when it was Zeke’s time. That answer was unhelpful. Though the people saying it meant only the best, the answer just made me feel worse, because I didn’t actually know, and I wondered if I was doing something wrong, if there was some obvious sign to which I was blinded by separation anxiety.

I wasn’t sure it was time to put Zeke down until he literally could not get up off the floor. “His time” may actually have been some days or weeks earlier. It wasn’t something he could tell me. He was alert until the end, had a good appetite until the day before, and went for his last long walk only five days before the end. He wanted only to be with me, to make me happy, and he would have held on for me for significantly longer than we let him if I’d asked him to.

You want to relieve your dog’s suffering, and your vet may be able to shed some light on the degree of pain your dog is in. They want so much to be brave for us: they will mask pain, ignore it and hide it, in order to live up to their own impossibly high standards of duty to us. If your vet says the dog is in pain, and that pain cannot be controlled easily, that may perversely make your decision easier. Or at least clearer.

But what if it’s not so clear-cut? That’s a tough call. One of the things that prompted our decision with Zeke was our fear that his weakness would mean a fall, with possible painful injury. That didn’t end up happening. A few months before his end, we actually had people come up to us on the street and berate us for cruelty in not putting him down. He was thin and walked achily. To those outside observers, the decision was obvious. To us, not so much. We saw the aches and the stiffness, but we also saw his fierce grins at going outside first thing in the morning, the happy barks at squirrels, the random spontaneous tail wags and voracious hunger, the groans of pleasure at scratches and knuckle-rubs in his ear canals. He even still liked getting in the car, despite the fact that the only place he ever went in those days was to the vet.

Were those drive-by people right, with their unsolicited advice? It’s possible. He did have a lot of discomfort in weeks afterward that they would have kept him from feeling. They would also have kept him from enduring quite a few sunny naps on the lawn in the park and many pounds of roasted chicken.

There are times when it becomes very plain what the right thing is, and Zeke was kind enough to give us one of those times. Until that time comes, and in the absence of strong recommendations from your vet about pain, the only navigational aids you have are shades of gray.

Unless you get hit by a truck before your dog’s time comes, you will soon be looking at all this in retrospect. You will have the rest of your life to second-guess what you do now. So you might as well put that off until later. You know how to take care of your dog. You know how to feed her, keep her as comfortable as you can, keep her warm and dry, administer whatever meds she needs. You’ve gotten her this far already.

Your dog is experiencing something that is almost completely new in the history of life on earth. She is coming to the end of her life without reason for fear, without unnecessary discomfort, with a loved one there devoted to making her passing as easy, even joyous, as possible. What an amazing gift to give someone out of love: the second-to-last gift you will ever give her.

The last gift, of course, is taking on the pain of separation for her: she would grieve so much more were she losing you. That notion helped me immensely after Zeke left. I would do it again for him if I had to.

You will make a right decision, as long as you pay attention to this animal you love as her life winds down. And no matter what happens, you will be tempted to wonder afterward if you did actually make the right decision.

The most important path to clarity is to love your dog right now, as hard as you can, while she is still here. To the degree there are answers for you to find, loving her fiercely will provide them. Your time together is drawing to a close anyway. She is not sitting around wondering if you’re going to make the right decision for her. She wants your comfort, your company, your love. Give her that — give yourself that — and the rest will follow. 

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With apologies to my readers in the Low Countries

Someone using rotating Netherlands-based IP numbers has been deluging this site with spam comments. We’re talking thousands of them.

I’ve cut off commenting privileges from an entire country as a result. I wish there was another way to address the issue.

If any actual real living Dutch readers are moved to comment here you’re welcome to do so, but you’ll have to indulge in a bit of subterfuge yourself by using a proxy service such as anonymouse.org. My apologies for the inconvenience.

Incidentally, the fact that none — not a single one! — of these thousands of spam comments have gotten through to the live site is a testament to how well the Akismet service works. I’m using the ExpressionEngine plugin for the service, but you can use it with WordPress and a whole lot of other platforms as well. I cannot recommend Akismet highly enough.

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Comment on the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station

I posted this earlier today at Desert Blog. My publicist tells me I should put it here as well. Today was the deadline for public comment.

re: Ivanpah SEGS Public Comment Thursday, February 11, 2010
To Whom It May Concern:

Of other public comments arriving with regard to the proposed Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating Station south of Primm, NV, I am confident many will address the abundant technical, hydrological, and wildlife-related problems contained in the proposal to bulldoze a broad swath of publicly owned ancient desert habitat for private industrial development. It is on these details that projects such as the Ivanpah SEGS are either approved or denied, and I am grateful that others can speak to those details more authoritatively than I.

What I can address with confidence and authority, however, is the fact that the Brightsource project threatens one of the most beautiful places in the United States. True, that beauty may not be apparent to the casual traveler on I-15 speeding through the desert with the airconditioning cranked up as they peer through tinted safety glass. It takes a few moments of quiet for the Ivanpah Valley’s beauty to sink in fully.

I lived in the Ivanpah Valley for much of 2008. I have been spending time there and in neighboring places in the desert for much of my life. The Ivanpah Valley is not wilderness, at least not that part of it outside the Preserve. There are many visible human intrusions there. Freight trains roar through the valley sounding loud horns, engines on both ends straining to build up momentum for the long climb to Cima. Off I-15 there is traffic on Nipton Road, long-haul truckers heading for Searchlight, vacationers in RVs and motorcycles heading for the Colorado River. One can in fact hear them from several miles away. They approach. They grow louder. They pass. The noise recedes.

And then the noise ebbs, and the cricket song swells, and the coyotes’ song, the breeze, the sound of blood in your veins. In the south end of the Ivanpah Valley, at least, human influence is limited and inconstant. From the Mojave National Preserve even Interstate 15 recedes in significance, becoming not much more than a pretty string of far head-and taillights in the distance, and that only at night. The sere backdrop of Clark Mountain, the McCulloghs and Lucy Grays in the east, and the protected peaks of the New York and Ivanpah mountain ranges contain between them a vast, largely wild piece of the Mojave. The Ivanpah Valley contains nearly all the Mojave’s landscapes in its boundaries — alkali flat, old-growth creosote and ancient Mojave yucca, Joshua tree woodland, piñon-juniper forests on the slopes of the fringing ranges. There is even an alpine sky-island overlooking the Ivanpah Valley, white firs clinging to the higher slopes of Clark Mountain, directly above the project site. The Valley is the Mojave in microcosm.

Paving thousands of acres of the Ivanpah Valley with mirrors would utterly destroy the wild character of the place. It would be an encroachment on the peace of the Preserve and the lands around it, with the noise and dust of construction and the subsequent blinding glare of the completed facility an intrusion into a peace I have found nowhere else on earth.

Others will question the actual carbon reduction benefit provided by building this plant, and rightly so. They will question the validity of tortoise relocation and mitigation, the additional demand on the 12,000-year-old water in the Ivanpah Valley’s aquifer, the loss of Mojave milkweed habitat. These are all crucial questions that absolutely must be answered. Neither Brightsource nor Interior have done so.

The loss I want to question, however, is the loss of our soul.

Are we really so bereft of wisdom that we see this beleaguered but beautiful stretch of ancient desert as nothing more than a blank spot on a map? Are we really so callous that we can consider the improbably old creosote, Mojave yucca and barrel cacti on the Ivanpah site less valuable than leaving our closet lights on when the door is closed? Many of the plants growing there are older than this nation. Some may pre-date European presence on the continent. We may as well raze the Parthenon to build a strip mall, knock down Stonehenge for use as highway berms. There is something very wrong in us if we value this place not for its beauty but for its square footage. There is something broken in us if we look at the Ivanpah Valley and see not peace, but merely a way to increase our power and the profit we derive from it.

In 2008, just before sunset after a day of scattered small rainstorms, a friend and I got out of her car near the abandoned railroad siding known as “Ivanpah,” in the southern Ivanpah Valley well within the Preserve. We had a clear and unobstructed view of the whole valley there at the end of the paved section of Ivanpah Road. A desert tortoise stood at roadside. We’d stopped to make sure no passing cars hit her as she tried to cross but there were no passing cars, and she had no apparent intent to cross. Unperturbed by our presence, she fell asleep as we watched. A band of coyotes began singing somewhere off toward Morning Star Mine Road. It was hard not to feel very small. The valley held an immensity of space and of time as well, humbling both in the sense of personal insignificance it conveyed and in the realization of our frightening capacity to do unintended harm.

It was one of those moments I have found surprisingly common in the Ivanpah Valley, a place that though altered by human hands is still precious, still wild in essence, well worth being defended from further unnecessary and destructive change.

I urge you to halt this project.

Chris Clarke
Private citizen

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Bighorn

[This piece was published in 2008 at Qarrtsiluni. I figured it was time it came over here to live, but do go there if you’d like to hear me read it — or if you like fine artistry by many other people.]

Thin clouds blow in from the ocean to the west. The desert air bears a tang of distant rain. Dark clouds swirl from the sea to the south. Sage and datura strain thirsty leaves toward the sky.

Soon the rain will come, will slick these canyon walls with wet, quench the lichen and the moss. The rock will darken. Fifteen thousand years of rain and the rocks turn black as blood.

You grasp a rock chisel, your callused hands hard as hooves. Place the chisel against the rock. Strike it with the hammer. A fleck of desert varnish falls away, pale granite underneath.

Sweat beads your forehead. It runs into your eyes. Below you and miles away is the river, blue and tempting in this heat, but you are not fooled.

When you dreamed of the beginning of all things, your mother knew it. Your father argued. “That doesn’t happen anymore,” he said.
“She has the headaches.”
“It wasn’t that kind of dream.”
“It has to be. She has to be. Look what’s become of us.”
When the dream came again your father understood. He cut off your hair. He bought you boy’s clothes.

Clouds blow in from the west, from the south. A deep bass whisper comes from across the river. Dry lightning strikes the far mountains. You watch smoke curl from a distant peak. The remembered taste of tobacco smoke flits across your tongue.

The desert burns piece by piece. The others brought strange grasses with them, weeds that spread as quickly as the very fires they fed, and what had once been clean bare soil between the creosote bushes now lies choked with fuel. One spark eats an entire mountain. Flame piles on flame, smoke on smoke, and nothing escapes. The desert dies. Centuries-old piñons die, and junipers. Each fire roasts jackrabbits alive, and coyotes. All that remains is ash and char. You try to chase the image from your mind.

There comes above you a scrabbling of claw on rock: spiny lizards contend for territory, doing pushups. The vanquished one dives for cover in a crack, disappears into the other world.

How many times have you died of fire? How many times has the smoke filled you, brought the haloes, the headache, how many times have you died and gone to him? He met you there the first time, the man with the spiral horns, he came to you and he folded himself into you and you became him, and you flew out over the desert and fell wet onto its greedy soil. It all made sense then. Who better to bring rain than a man who bleeds? The others were like the river below: stopped up, plugged up, unable to come up out of their concrete tombs. How many times have you come back from death, puking, longing for the permanence of the deaths the others die? Girl become man, become ram, become rain: how many trips through that crack in the rock, split hooves clinging to the thinnest flake?

Too many such deaths to remember, and after each one another bighorn carved into the rock.

Too many such deaths to remember, and after this one there will be just one more to come.

You try to chase the image from your mind. You were not there but you see it plain. The desert dies. A wall of flame, a cliff of flame, and it blocked the canyon mouth. There was no escape. There was nothing to be done. All bones; all bones. All char and ash. The sky turned black as blood.

Still, she was lucky: she only had to die that once.

Hammer hits chisel, and again. You free another fleck of rock. The new bighorn takes shape, forefeet raised, standing like a man. Another hour, perhaps two, and then all will be finished. Sweat beads your forehead, falls upon the soil.

Soon the rain will come, will quench the fires. The river will swell, will burst. The dams upstream will pop out one by one, teeth on a zipper. The sky will darken. Loud cataracts in every canyon will scour the desert clean; will sweep away the fetid river cities as dead, dried leaves on a sudden wind. Cattails and tules will sprout where once the jet skis fumed. You feel a raindrop, fat and cold, hitting your shoulder. Then comes another. Your children will plant beans on the graves of old casinos, soil marled with the ashes of those you loved.

You grasp the chisel, your callused hands hard as hooves. Fifteen thousand years and these rocks themselves will dance. Place the chisel against the rock. Strike it with the hammer. Distant thunder comes from across the river. A fleck of desert varnish falls away, pale granite underneath.

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On clownsourcing

In a well-thought-out, provocative (as opposed to incendiary) 2006 essay on the perils of online collectivist thought, Jaron Lanier offers the following near-parenthetical tidbit:

The question of new business models for content creators on the Internet is a profound and difficult topic in itself, but it must at least be pointed out that writing professionally and well takes time and that most authors need to be paid to take that time. In this regard, blogging is not writing. For example, it’s easy to be loved as a blogger. All you have to do is play to the crowd. Or you can flame the crowd to get attention. Nothing is wrong with either of those activities. What I think of as real writing, however, writing meant to last, is something else. It involves articulating a perspective that is not just reactive to yesterday’s moves in a conversation.

The whole thing is well worth the read. If you do read the whole thing, his bio at the end becomes utterly hilarious.