Monthly Archives: May 2011

The economics of self-publishing: anecdata

In March 2008 I self-published Walking with Zeke, an anthology of blog posts and a few other pieces of writing about my late dog.

It has since sold just under 300 copies, if you don’t count the ones I bought. I get a pretty good-sized percentage of those copies that people buy directly through Lulu (the printer): $7.27 out of the $17.99 cover price, which is likely a bit higher than it could be. If someone buys it through Amazon or some other retailer, I get $2.49. At a sales rank of 2,527, it’s a relative success by Lulu standards. Here’s a chart showing sales patterns over the last three years:

Those short little spikes along the bottom of the chart represent days when someone out there in the world bought one copy. There have been 44 days since March 8 2008 on which I sold more than one copy, 25 days on which I sold more than two.  On three distinct days since the book launched has the daily sales total reached ten or more copies. Those three days were March 8, 9, and 10, 2008.

I will admit that I missed a few opportunities to make the book more of a success. One such was publishing the thing immediately prior to getting a divorce, moving out of the Bay Area, and being essentially offline for the following eight months. There were places I could have flogged the book, dog-related magazines and trade shows and such, whose readers/members/visitors would likely have found the thing worth buying, but I didn’t do that because I couldn’t, being instead out in the desert and generally without resources.

Another missed opportunity was the whole thing about telegraphing the fact that the hero of the book dies at the end. I know of a lot of people who won’t read the book because they know it ends unhappily. I could have followed the lead of certain more popular dog books and kept the ending under my hat, I suppose.

And lastly, I am certain I’ve missed opportunities to promote the book to my network of friends and acquaintances and readers. This is something between a character flaw and an absence of skill set. I did attempt to take advantage of social media to push the book, and it’s gotten some wonderfully kind reviews, but whether it’s my own lack of persistence or just the way the biscuit crumbles, it hasn’t amounted to much.

I’ve recently considered pulling the book offline, because it saddens me to check my sales stats and see that no one’s bought the thing in a month. A couple of friends have tried to dissuade me from doing so, since it’s not costing me anything to keep it available. They have temporarily swayed me. There are moments when my gratitude for each individual sale outstrips my regret that the thing isn’t selling better, for instance when I got my most recent quarterly royalty check a couple of weeks ago, and even though it was under $50 it was enough to keep my bank account from zeroing out. I’ve gotten in the habit of whispering thanks to Zeke every time I toss a royalty check into the great yawning maw of my accumulating debt, and that does provide a sense of perspective.

I mention all this because I have another book sitting here, of which I sold a few copies as the “e-book” (really a pdf) The Irascible Gardener. I’m wondering whether to self-publish it or shop it around, and so I started to run the actual numbers I have from Walking With Zeke sales, amortizing it against time spent and expenses expended.

Since publishing Walking With Zeke in March 2008 I have received a total of $1688.15 in royalty checks, more than half that total in the first year. When I published the thing Lulu was charging $100 for an ISBN, which allows sales via book distribution channels. I also had to buy a couple of copies for proofing before the release of the book, at eight bucks each.  So we’ll subtract that and round the result for easier figuring. Call it a net of $1550.

The book consists of 107 “chapters,” each of them a former blog post. Some of the chapters are a sentence or two long, others took me the better part of a day to write. Let’s assume an hour as an average amount of labor per post, then round down: 100 hours.

I spent a full week editing the posts for grammar, typos, relevance, selecting which posts would remain and which were too ephemeral. 40 more hours. 140 subtotal.

I spent another two weeks designing, typesetting, making the Table of Contents, formatting the pages according to the printers’ instructions, and then doing the same for the cover with artwork thoughtfully provided as a donation by Carl Buell. Another 80 hours: 220 so far.

As a rough estimate, I’ve spent another (paltry!) 80 hours a year since publication talking the book up, giving out copies to people I think might spread it around, setting up Facebook and Twitter venues (essentially unused for the last year) and doing similar kinds of talking up the book. That’s another 240 hours for a total of 460.

$1,550 for 460 hours worth of work comes out to $3.37 an hour. That’s not including the week I spent teaching myself the proprietary formatting for Kindle so that I could sell virtual copies on Amazon (subsequent income less than 20 bucks) or the additional time I spent trying to do the same thing for the Apple iBook store, with no income thus far.

You might argue that perhaps I also shouldn’t include the time spent writing, as I only decided to put out a book after it was already written. So divide $1,660 by 360 instead of 460: you get $4.31 an hour.

If I had spent that same amount of time ringing up sales at a McDonalds in Temecula, I’d have $1,300 more to my name, plus benefits.

All this, mind you, is in the context of rather notable public support for the book. I had 100,000 people come by the blog in the month of Zeke’s death. I have had nothing but kind words and support from regulars here, people have taken the time to talk up the book to their friends, and only one or two semi-anonymous emailers ever complained about me asking people to buy the book, and only about five people responded unpleasantly when I said I couldn’t afford to send them a box of the books for free.

The math has me thinking second thoughts about self-publishing the garden book. I know that most publishing houses now expect the writer to do much of the book’s promotion, and though large houses are an exception very few of those large houses are likely to have any interest in a California-specific gardening essay book. But I can’t afford the money I’d make by publishing it myself.

Peninsular Bighorn Sheep

Peninsular Bighorn Sheep

A zoo photo, but I like it nonetheless. That’s partly because the zoo enclosure essentially consists of a fence across a corner of actual bighorn habitat. This is kinda the patron saint endangered species of the hills around here. (The fringe-toed lizard gets the flats.)

Also notable today: the jaguar in its large enclosure, mesh fence between us so I didn’t even bother with photos. He watched the passing young children with a particular gleam in his eye — a friend on Twitter referred to it as the “dessert cart” gaze — and then noticed a rabbit just outside the enclosure, treating a few of us to a very dramatic few minutes of recreational stalking. Impressive.

They used to live here too, a century ago or so. Maybe they will again.


[Dug up out of old comments, in part because I’ve been admiring Nancy Parmalee’s Twitter avatar.]

In a Yucatecan grottl
Lives the mighty Axolotl
Fine-toned skin all pale and mottle
wears the fearsome Axolotl
Fearsomer than any bottle-
driven specter, Axolotl
brave prehensile-fingered glottal
gills denote the Axolotl
salamandrous sideburn wattle
decorates the Axolotl
Poets who fear being shot’ll
spurn rhyming the Axolotl
but the wise will never coddle
those who spurn the Axolotl.
Doling verse with spoon or pottle
little serves the Axolotl
Doggerel spun at full throttle
honors best the Axolotl
“Never mind the who or what’ll!”
Shouts the fearsome Axolotl;
“Cowards, grant me kisses caudal!”
Dares bravehearted Axolotl.
In our hearts, the pale and squat’ll
live forever: Axolotl.

The 10 Least Successful Facebook Video Virus Come-Ons

  • Dental Surgery Bloopers: You have to watch this!
  • A friend has tagged you in this colonoscopy video
  • Rush Limbaugh Wardrobe Malfunction?*
  • LOLOL! Hilarious math word problems!
  • Jacques Cousteau’s Undersea World vintage outtakes: the seasickness collection
  • Ben Stein Vlog
  • We shot this AW3S0m3 footage at the Christian Rock Festival
  • AWWW! Adorable kitty dies in labor.
  • New Zoo Revue Cosplay Slash
  • OMG did you see the leaked Glenn Beck Sex Tape

*Hat tip: Hank Fox

How Not To Be An Asshole: A Guide For Men

I wrote an incendiary piece on sexism for Pandagon a few years back that is no longer available at that site. It’s been reprinted a couple of different places, but every once in a while I get a request for it.

I’m thinking about it today because of the situation venture capitalista Tammy Camp talked about on her website. Short version: Camp says she was told she’d be barred from her favorite tech conference unless she fucked the conference organizer. She didn’t name names either of the man involved or the conference she wanted to go to, but a rough consensus in the comments has settled on one possible not-yet-alleged source of the harassment.

Whether the commenters have it right is unknown. What is known is that as in the cases of Kathy Sierra, and Noirin Shirley, the accusers of Julian Assange and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and hundreds of thousands of other cases of alleged sexual assault, there has been no shortage of people lining up to criticize Camp for having made the allegations — either at all, or in the specific manner in which she made them. Camp has been blamed for bringing the harassment on herself, accused of fabricating the allegations, and told that by not naming names she’s not being feminist enough.

There is one sense in which the identity of the harasser is less important than the response by men at large (though men have no monopoly on said abusive responses.)  The harasser’s conduct is odious, but he affects one person at a time. Making public comments deriding women who’ve made the difficult choice to say something public — to whatever degree — not only lend cover to that harasser but to all others, and contribute to a mass loss of freedom for any person who has had to deal with harassment. A small minority of men commit sexual harassment. The rest of us merely make it possible for them to get away with it.

So here it is again, sadly not in need of much updating other than a couple links for specific context. (The link on Sierra’s name will take you to the geekfeminism wiki, a brilliant resource on sexism in IT. Bookmark it.) Let’s stop giving cover to the harassers.

How Not To Be An Asshole: A Guide For Men

In the recent discussion about Kathy Sierra and Markos’ febrile and clueless response to her, I see there are some kind, helpful men who are taking pains to make sure emotion doesn’t run rampant in the discussion, that unfair accusations of misogyny or characterizations of harassment statistics get spread in an understandable emotional response to a few very upsetting instances of harassment by piglike men who fall far outside the norm. Surely, these men reason, we mustn’t let these nasty experiences color our judgment of the actual events involved. Surely it helps no one to make wild and baseless charges without looking, in uber-dispassionate detachment, at the actual statistics and methodology and margin of error of the studies that show women get harassed more than men. Come, let us reason together calmly, they say. References to Salem and the McMartin pre-school and such come unbidden to their lips.

I’m a big fan of dispassionate, rational, fact-based discussion of the issues myself, and it is in that spirit that I offer, to my brethren who’ve taken it upon themselves to be a shining light of dispassion on this topic, these fraternal words of guidance:

Shut the fuck up.

Here are a few of the actual facts that prompt the above sage counsel:

— You are not saying anything the women you’re talking to haven’t heard a thousand times before. You are not saying anything the women you’re talking to haven’t told themselves a thousand times before. If you would actually stop your reflexive know-it-all yammering and pay attention to what women actually SAY about the offenses they suffer on the sexual harassment -rape continuum, you will note that almost to a woman they second-guess their own gut feelings about the putative offender far beyond the point where almost any man would.

— You are wrong. If you doubt that the nature of abuse and harassment women suffer, online or off, differs from that men experience, then you don’t know what you’re talking about. Oddly, the Internets offer a way for you to verify this fact for yourself. About a dozen years ago, at the urging of a feminist online acquaintance, I logged on to AOL using an obviously female but non-provocative handle. (”AliciaMN.”) Within five minutes of logging on I had sexually abusive IMs popping up from men I didn’t know. Didn’t matter which room I was in: general chat, politics, classical music. I kept up the experiment for I think four days, a couple hours a day, sometimes chatting with people about non-sexual topics, sometimes just lurking. Two of the men who IMed AliciaMN with blatantly and obnoxiously sexual messages — “Hey, I’m up in Alaska! How ’bout you thaw my dick out with your throat?” being an example I recall — responded to my NON-response by telling “Alicia” she deserved to get raped.

This is neither new nor surprising information to any woman here. I mention it because 1) maybe if a man says it it’ll be taken seriously and 2) it implies a suggestion that disbelievers find a venue equivalent to AOL in its heyday and repeat my experiment, in the spirit of dispassionate empiricism.

— If no woman in your life has ever talked to you about how she lives her life with an undercurrent of fear of men, consider the possibility that it may be because she sees you as one of those men she cannot really trust.

— Finally, let’s assume just for the sake of argument that you’re right. You aren’t. But just as a gedankenexperiment, let’s pretend you are, and that the women who are talking about the massive deadweight silence from men about the harassment they experience, and who are getting all upset and speaking in terms of “war zones” and “hate crimes” and such are just being emotional, hysterical even, and — like the people who forward that bogus email about the guy with the ropes and duct tape in hs trunk in the mall parking lot — just need to be set straight with a calm, measured dose of logic and fact-checking.

In most situations, that’s a fine impulse. There really is no reason to get upset about LSD in blue star tattoos, and Bill Gates really isn’t paying people who forward a chain email.

But this situation is qualitatively different. When the topic at hand is men not taking an issue seriously, suggesting that the issue might not really be all that serious is not being dispassionate. It is, in fact, taking a side. And the people on the side you’re taking, incidentally, include the gropers, the rapists, the sexual-favor-demanding bosses.

In short, if you’re interested in quibbling with the data or suggesting alternate interpretations of what Kos really meant when he called Kathy Sierra a lying “crying blogger,” and your goal is not to be a flaming asshole, shut the fuck up.

And when you shut the fuck up, two magical things happen:

1) You’re no longer actively contributing to the very problem you’re discussing;
2) It’s easier to listen to what the women are actually saying.


We walked today in the desert from grove to grove of fan palms. It was growing from the broken trunk of an old screwbean mesquite. “That’s mistletoe,” I said, pointing at its smooth, dark leafless stems.

“Perfect,” she said, and turned her face upward.

The groves are points along the fault, the fabled San Andreas. Water beneath bedrock finds the fault, is forced to surface. We watched dragonflies pursued by orioles. Desert pupfish stuck to the pond’s shallows. I thought of a pond in a garden where I lived in Berkeley. Summer mornings I would watch dragonflies mating in flight above its surface. The female, beneath her mate, would bend her abdomen to the water and lay one egg, then another. Each egg was picked off in turn by waiting, hungry mosquitofish.

The Curious Case of The Peanut Butter Sandwich in The Night-Time

After I moved out of Zeke’s house, divorce papers filed and storage locker crammed full of the leavings of what had been my life, I flew elsewhere for three weeks, to a moist green place that was not the desert. A friend met me at the airport. We drove to her cabin in the woods. We had been corresponding for some time. Our intent was to see whether our epistolary friendship might blossom into something more. It didn’t. In the short-to-medium term this proved to be good news; most of what makes me happy in my life today would never have come about had she and I started a life together. We saw each other in early summer, and by October we hadn’t spoken for months, which was primarily by my choosing.

Those few weeks were painful. Some of it was certainly displaced grief over the marriage, and over Zeke. How much more comfortable to mourn the failure of a fling, my subconscious seemed to say, than a marriage of two decades’ standing. Seen from outside, the affair was tawdry and predictable, a middle-aged newly separated man seeking emotional affirmation from a woman 15 years his junior, the fling’s epistolary portion starting before I’d moved out of my ex-wife’s house, a timing of events that caused all three of us unnecessary pain. This is all clear in retrospect, of course. It should have been clear at the time as well. The further removed I become from the two years that followed Zeke’s death, the more obvious it becomes to me that I spent those years in a state that could be reasonably described as insane. We make light this week of people sabotaging their futures because of some illusory pending Rapture, but I can tell you that when Zeke died I had about 12 thousand dollars in the bank, and I figured I would stick around only until that ran out. My entire purpose had been fulfilled. With Zeke gone, and no one to carry up the hill from the park each morning, I was an empty husk. The universe was an empty husk. A few months of distraction and a few loose ends tied up over the subsequent months, I thought, and then I could just conveniently fade away when the money ran out.

My friend Tim offered me a job two months in, which completely ruined my plans.

I was despondent nonetheless. It was terrifying, the sadness. I distracted myself from it by whatever means I could find.  I engaged on the internet with people who were devoid of the ability to argue in good faith. I spent money planting herbs in a garden atop Zeke that I knew would not last the summer. I left the house to go hiking, got halfway there, and turned around to come back, unwilling to leave the hole in the ground in my backyard lest it need me for something. I saw no end to my sadness save the irrevocable one.

It was in this context that I met her. She seemed brilliant and passionate, empathetic, interested in my well-being. I grabbed at her attention, a drowning man grasping a slim bankside reed. This process quite often fails to save the drowning man. It is rarely beneficial to the reed.

By the third or fourth day of my visit it had become clear that we did not communicate well. Our passion was blunted, awkward. I had put my back out badly on the flight in, which didn’t help. (It hurt horribly for a month, seized up to the point where I could not turn or lift my left arm. In July she called me in the desert and — inevitably — broke things off. My back was fine the next day.) The litany of reportage on things I did not do correctly — in bed and elsewhere — was as crippling as the pulled muscles. I hiked wrong, I patted her dog wrong, I asked the wrong questions and gave the wrong answers. I touched her wrong. She described one short bit of lovemaking as “flawless,” her tone suggesting she meant exactly that: she’d been on the lookout for flaws and I had failed to provide her with any to catalog. Her judgment was important to me. I had flown there to be evaluated, our life together on the line, and I was failing.

At around half past midnight one night we lay in her bed, and I was chatting desultorily about something I no longer remember. She responded to one statement with a long, seemingly pointed silence. I forged on, saying the next inconsequential thing that came to mind. She groaned.

“I’m trying to get some sleep,” she said.

What could I say? It had been one more Failure To Perceive on my part. “Oh! I’m sorry. Silly of me. Sleep well.”

“It’s okay, I’m just tired. Are you hungry? Do you need anything? You know we have that good bread we picked up at the co-op.” There was something odd in her voice, a new impatience. Faint,  but palpable.

Best for us both to just get to tomorrow, I thought. “Yeah, I know. I’ll make myself a peanut butter sandwich if I get hungry. But I’ll probably just nod off. Good night!” I turned over on my non-spasming side, felt the sweat dripping down my back against the humid air, listened to rain on her roof and the distant thunder.

I had something to prove, she’d been saying that week. It was too important to me what she thought of me. It got in the way. I’d puzzled over how I could show her I had nothing to prove. I had walked for months on eggshells. Her intensity could switch directions in a flutter of long lash. In one arduous conversation some months before she’d made it very clear we had no future together. A week later I was looking at real estate land listings in central Arizona, thinking I might buy a few acres of desert with the money I’d be getting for my half of the house, and she was livid. I was giving up on us, she fumed. I had to care less about what she thought of me, but not caring what she thought could prove disastrous.

Perhaps some sleep, I thought. Maybe the rain will ebb, and the humidity will lessen, and my back will repair itself. Maybe everything will sort itself out in the light of day. Maybe tomorrow we will be the people we’d promised each other we were. I started to doze.

“Are you going to go get something to eat?” Her voice was dead flat.

“No,” I said, sleepily. “Not really hungry. Just going to go to sleep.”

She sprang from the bed, the comforter nearly hitting the far wall. She was livid. “I am trying to get to sleep,” she said. “I am tired. I am in pain. And all you can think to do is sulk at me because I won’t make you a peanut butter sandwich.”

It took me a moment to comprehend what she was saying. “I don’t want you to make me a sandwich. I can make one myself if I want one. What’s this about?”

I do not have the energy for this. You’re constantly trying to find ways for me to take care of you. You need constant affirmation. I always have to praise your writing, coddle your ego, just like everyone else in the constellation of women admirers you draw to yourself and keep in orbit around your blog. And now you’re sulking about a peanut butter sandwich? This is narcissism, rampant narcissism. And it’s really disappointing.”

I was startled. It wasn’t that the criticism was new. These assessments weren’t anything I hadn’t heard from her before, or from myself for that matter. They were artful, really. Criticize me for something I know not to be true, and it’s relatively easy for me to shrug it off. She was accusing me of the flaws I feared most in myself, and her words found purchase. But why had this rage in her erupted now?

“What’s going on here? I don’t understand why you’re angry. I promise you, I don’t want you to make me a peanut butter sandwich. Really, I don’t. I promise.”

“You just manipulate, and manipulate,” she continued. “You just want me to set aside what I need. It’s always been the case. I have suffered in this relationship. I have lost sleep to stay up and chat with you. I can not do that anymore. It’s not sustainable, and even though we’ve talked about it, and you say you understand it has to change, here we are arguing over me making you a stupid peanut butter sandwich.”

“Seriously. I never expected you to make me a sandwich. I don’t even want a sandwich, and if I did, why would I sulk about it? I know how to make a damn sandwich.”

She was on to other failings without missing a beat. She’d known brilliant writers her whole life, the acclaimed and the unknown who passed through the writers’ retreat her family ran, and on their worst most uninspired days those writers were far more talented than I was at my best. I didn’t work hard enough for it. I was lazy. I expected everything to be handed to me. Throughout my whole life I had been praised for every tiniest thing I’d ever done. My silver platter life had sapped my initiative and corroded my character. Also, I kept interrupting her, which was annoying. She was going to go outside and smoke a cigarette now, which she hadn’t done for months, and by the way her smoking was my fault.

She left. After a time I remembered to pull my lower jaw back up into place. I felt something very much like vertigo, as if I had been yanked out of my world and tossed somewhere else.

It’s not my intention to diagnose either of us. Frameworks can both illuminate and obscure. One person’s splitting and hypervigilance is another person’s world-weary guardedness. She told me herself she was skinless, and I wrote poetry to her about my splintering eggshells beneath my feet: right there is data sufficient to any armchair speculation. Such speculation helps no one. But that night as I heard her front door slam, I wondered if I had finally, irrevocably lost it. Her anger had always been so perceptive and incisive. That night she had started off as usual, but gone on to diatribe against a me I did not recognize. The charges stung less as a result, but they were far more disorienting. She knew as well as anyone my history of neglect, of family showing me time and again that I was of no consequence at best, and more usually a disappointment. So where did that comment about growing up with constant praise come from? For that matter, what the hell was with suggesting I’d provoke an argument to get her to make me a sandwich? She knew my siblings and I had to fend for ourselves to feed ourselves throughout our teens; if we’d waited for someone to make us a sandwich, or even to buy the goddamn peanut butter, we’d have starved.

In months to follow I told myself I’d at least get a piece of fiction out of the argument. A stage play, maybe, or a short unpleasant idyll like I’d written about our other disagreements. But fiction should be believable. Each character’s statements should be compelled by motivations that are, at least in theory, knowable. Her intent was opaque to me that night. It still is, in the main. But when I think about it, who am I but another person beset by overwhelming unhappiness, sublime joy, and frequent confusing combinations of the two? Who am I but an aging man reeling from injuries dealt out to a child? I learned early in life that my needs would not be met, at least not reliably so, and that wound festers though the weapon that inflicted it is crumbled to dust. I am loved, I am fed, I am granted some measure of value by those important to me, and yet that visceral hunger remains. She called me out, though she got the details wrong. If only a sandwich would slake this void! I have filled it with food, with alcohol, with anger, with passion, I have filled it with mistrust and overweening pride, I have filled it with lust and with song and with the cadged praise of others, and it roars back each time as voracious and empty and negative as if I had never tried to fill it.

Nothing that will fill that void. I realize these days that I have healed as much as I ever will. I will never be whole. The demons will always ride my back. It angers me, and there are days I feel that lifetime of need settling in my chest, making my heart race. Knowing that nothing will sate it does not sate it. I only find peace in becoming the void, seeing my life from the void’s point of view. All the rest becomes detail: the small litany of accomplishments, the praise, the triumphs. The sandwiches.

Up to the elbows

My friend Susan posted a photo on Facebook this week of herself planting a tree in her Minnesota town, part of a campaign to plant a thousand of them. It’s a sweet photo. She squats at the base of the tree, one begloved hand on the ground as if to steady her, the other on the sapling’s thin bole. She smiles up at what will be the tree’s crown.

Her gaze is clear and open, directed at the sky. But when I look at the photo my own gaze is drawn downward, fixed by the patch of upturned Minnesota soil and compost around the rootball. I want to sink a spade into it, stick my fingers into it the way Susan’s doing, except without the glove. I want the humus beneath my nails, the thin rime of black in the furrows of my hand.

I miss that kind of soil. I haven’t felt it in a while.

Soil like that is hard to come by in California. Black soil, deep soil, soil alive with nematodes and earthworms, springtails and salamanders, soil that only begins to lighten into clay at two spades’ depth, what is soil like that but water slowed to a crawl? A landscape that gets less rain than it is capable of evaporating is generally called a desert. Much of California is above that threshold. Most of California gets enough water to support actual forests, thick growths of meadow grass. And in some California places where there is abundant water, deep humusy soils do form. Alpine meadows in rock bowls carved out by glaciers, where solid granite holds the rainwater in; the floors of redwood forests in places where the bedrock is not so shallow, the edges of Central Valley rivers.

But in most places in California, even outside the deserts, building humusy soil is about like filling a birdbath. It’s not that hard to do, what with composting and trucking in soil amendments and watering even in winter, but you have to keep doing it all the time. Stop for a year or two and the soil reverts to the native type: in the most fertile parts of the California Coast, that’s an inch or two of humus, oak leaves and sedges and the spent remains of annuals, above a hard-baked clay.

There’s another climatic threshold, I think, where the amount of water in the landscape not only exceeds the amount that can be lost to the air, but it exceeds the ability of large organisms to contend with it at all. The landscape’s only hope is to sequester that water, to tie it up with CO2 into long chains of cellulose and chitin, bury it under layer upon layer of itself in sowbug runs and mole galleries. The earth where I grew up was like that, moss-captured dust and organic matter and clay ground fine by glaciers over tens of thousands of years, stirred by sumac roots and maple, intermixed with the shaley remains of crinoids and brachiopods dead 300 million years. I slid shovels into it and sulked bleak curses at my father for forcing the labor from me.

I got a note from my ex-wife last week. She is restoring what was our garden, and sent word that much of what I planted there has survived four years of complete neglect. The olive? the apple? I didn’t ask for details. When we moved in a decade ago I sank a shovel two inches into the soil and hit bedrock. It was diatomite, a nicely porous and aquiferous bedrock if you had to have one a hand’s breadth down, and in a way it fed the garden the same way a Minnesota glacial till would: a bottomless sponge with its abyssal seat in a reservoir. Two inches of oak leaf mould were enough for the Bishop pine and Ribes, and I sank my arms up to the elbows in the compost pile when I needed more than that.

These days my nearest shovel is in a storage locker. The nearest organic soil of any depth is eight thousand feet up San Jacinto. In the desert, soil is rock of varying sizes. Some of it flows freely before the wind and flood, and some of it is cemented together near-permanent as caliche. There are places where you can carelessly collapse burrows as you walk, ruin the homes of ground squirrels and rabbits and palo verde root borers and other tunnelers.  The soil is alive here too, but fragile. Call it a difference between East and West: East of the 100th meridian, turning your soil over is an uncomplicated thing, possibly beneficial and likely harmless. With foot-deep humus, turning the top foot of soil over merely aerates the soil. West of that Stegner Line in places like Coastal California the same practice buries the most fertile part of the soil under ten inches of clay. Eventually, it may heal, but it’s a setback to fertility. In the desert? You kill a soil crust that may have taken five thousand years to grow, and as soon as the wind kicks up the silt beneath will all end up in the next county.

That square meter of loosened soil at the base of Susan’s tree seems profligate to these desert eyes, seems reckless. That same act out here, while not exactly unheard of, bears a completely different ecological subtext. Loosen the soil without battening it down, spreading burlap or something else to trap the dust? Reckless. It seems harder to care for the desert sometimes, harder to live in it without hurting it. Sometimes I miss living where you can stick your arms into the soil up to the elbows without getting bitten. Of course in Minnesota you get bitten sticking your arms into the moist air. Not so many mosquitoes and blackflies here. The desert does have its compensatory luxuries.


Somewhere in the hoopla over this past week’s political assassination I let fly my 10,000th tweet without noticing. At the end of this month this site will have been in operation, under one name or another and with a few hiati, for eight years.

I don’t have much in the way of wisdom to offer about either one of those facts, except that boy, was my life different eight years ago. My life now is better in so many ways, aside from my having been, back then, sufficiently employed and abundantly endogged. I am happier nonetheless.

Not perfectly, of course. It’s been a tough couple weeks on a variety of fronts. I find myself turning into a complainy old man. Last weekend a guy pulled his van into the bank parking lot across the street and started power-washing the sidewalk. This would have been fine if it hadn’t been one in the morning. I fumed for half an hour, called the local cops’ non-emergency number, fumed for another half hour, and then put on shoes and went across the street to chew the guy out. Poor guy. I’ve been in his shoes, been the guy with the leafblower at 6:30 am in the parking lot. Somehow it’s always the guy who has no control over the time and place of the offending cleaning noise who bears the brunt of the public abuse. It didn’t make me any less mad, but at least I remembered not to make him the bad guy. I told him he had woken us, told him it was way too late, mentioned that I understood he had a job to do and it wasn’t personal, and he apologized (after a little defensiveness) and went away.

And then I laid awake for another two hours with the adrenaline.

I went over to the Coachella Valley Preserve last weekend and walked a little. There were Gambel’s quail all over the place, young jackrabbits undaunted by my presence, sparrows and swallows. After a mile of hiking I watched three ravens try to mob a kestrel. They lost. I think all five of us were a little surprised. In the dunes the honey mesquite were blooming, and for the first time — not sure why it never occurred to me to do this before — I stuck my face into the masses of dissected bloom, inhaled deeply. The tree is accurately named.

I’ve been afraid that the desert will stop being a source of solace to me. I’ve been afraid that the bitterness and rancor, the grief, the futility and fatalism will poison my heart. I still am afraid of that. But for a minute last weekend, as I took the honey scent of mesquite blossoms into me, the fear went mostly away.