Tag Archives: Biography

Cutting board

1. Two nights ago I walked out barefoot, pulled the cover off the little grill. It was dark. My steak—$2.15 at the local store—was a shadow over red coals. I cooked by smell. Sear one side over the hot mesquite, wait, grab with the tongs and turn. Wait some more. When it smelled right I flipped it onto the hard rock maple cutting board. It bled onto the wood.

2. I am the age my father’s father is in my earliest memories of him. I see him in the mirror. My hair less white, my soul more dissipated, but it’s him nonetheless.

3. It’s a hundred days’ walk from Joshua Tree to Gorham. I could be there by the twentieth of January.

4. The turn of the season is sharper here than anywhere I’ve lived in a quarter century. October has settled in. The rabbits fatten. Sleek clouds turn bright pink before the workday’s close.

5. My grandfather’s last words to me were an apology. Christmas dinner cold across the street, leftovers packed and sent in different directions with my aunts and uncles, and I walked over to his house to say hello. He lay on the couch. “Chris, I’m sorry. I wanted to eat dinner with you.”

6. In his yard there was an old well head, cemented over with the pump still working. At six I could just reach the handle. Fifteen strokes, or twenty, and rust-colored water spilled out the spout. A scent of leaf mold and secrets. My grandfather worked in his garage shop. His sons stood nearby handing him tools.

7. My cutting board is well-used, a skein of sharp knives’ slices in its sturdy grain. It is 3/4 inch maple cut in the shape of a pig, a jigsaw project cliche, a hole in the tail for hanging on a kitchen peg. Each year I think to myself I should plane it down, take an eighth-inch off each side, the marks of cast iron rust and olive oil. Each year I put it off.

8. Tonight I walked out barefoot and in shirtsleeves and shuddered against the wind. It is 52 degrees. I have grown soft. The Milky Way shone diffused through a high haze. Cassiopeia pointed at Polaris. Between them, the head of the king, Gamma Cephei, grew brighter as my eyes adjusted. In a thousand years it will be our pole star. The Earth’s axis wobbles inexorably toward it.

9. My grandfather was proud of me. His clever grandson learned to read years too early, ridiculous polysyllabic words in a toddler’s mouth. He bought me high school textbooks before I started school. No one thought “multiple myeloma” was too difficult a name for me to understand.

10. 2,600 miles from Gorham to Joshua Tree in half a century. The light that reached my eyes tonight left Gamma Cephei the year he died. I do not remember the sound of his voice, except when he laughed.

11. When he was the age I am now, my grandfather placed a slab of 3/4 inch maple on his jigsaw, carved out notches for ears and mouth, drilled a quarter-inch hole for an eye and a half-inch hole in the curled tail. It was an idle kindness, a present for his young daughter-in-law who lived a few miles south. It is 500 times that distance from him now. I cannot use it without hearing his laugh.

Desert Pavement

lava desert pavement

This wind is a tide. Plant your footsoles on the earth: the wind will scour the sand out from underneath, send you toppling backward into the holes it digs beneath your heels. It is relentless. It is patient. Sandgrain after wind-driven sandgrain blasts the surface, wearing down rock, dislodging in turn other grains of sand.

Outside the desert, plants hold the soil in place with a net of roots. Atop this lava flow only the most resolute of plants survive, the red-spined Ferocactus and gray Atriplex hymenelytra, Mojave yuccas a few decades old and wizened. They stay far apart. Between them the surface of the earth is bare, a few wisps of annual grasses the only adornment, and those blown away nearly as readily as the sand.

The tide-wind digs out holes beneath each rock. Each pebble, each fist-sized crag of basalt moves in the wind. A little to the left; the wind carries away sand beneath it to the right. The rock tilts into the new-dug hole, and the wind scours the open sand on the other side. Each rock grinds itself into the soil. The wind works hardest on those that still rise above their neighbors. Sand smooths away the sharp lines, the corners and apices.

Each year or two the rains come and spend themselves against the earth. Where rain hits sand it flings it upward, roughens the soil so that the wind can work it. Where rain hits rock the rock absorbs the blow.

Wind and rain favor the rock. At length the desert paves itself, a tight and fragile skin, small rocks interlocking each one with its neighbors. All else is stripped away. Anything the wind can scour, anything the rain can drown is stripped away.

Last week I stood serene atop an old lava flow in the company of Atriplex and Ferocactus. I envied them their tenure. I envied them their tenacity. I would have stayed there with them permanently, were it possible: stayed to watch the winters pass into springs, to watch the rocks smooth and dwindle under the stream of sand.

It struck me then that for all their armor, for all their bristling spines and thorns and bitter saponin glycosides, the plants were vulnerable. Had my feet grown roots into the lava, had I sunk taps into the desert to sip a quart a month and watch the sun, I would have been as vulnerable. I would have watched helpless as the Sahara mustard filled the spaces between the yuccas, dried and caught fire. I would have watched the brome tinge the earth a deeper red. I would have watched ten thousand sunsets and a storm of new industry scathing the desert wilderness. Though I cannot stay here with them I can at least move to defend them, I thought, and then there in that desiccated place came a sodden realization: because I can, I must.

Bit by bit it gets stripped away, all of it. All that I was stripped slow away by the tide wind, and what is left? This desert and my obligation to it, our only armor the coals of old fires long ago gone cold and black, a paved and broken skin to parry the wind.

Conversations I’ll be avoiding in 2009

Talking to all different kinds of people is important, and I enjoy it most of the time. Modern life offers plenty of chances for insularity, parochiality, echochamberosity and related plaints, and it’s good to avoid those. And the exigencies of surviving in this society demand at times that you talk to people you’d rather not talk to, and do so as pleasantly and constructively as possible. But there’s necessity and then there’s time-wasting. There are people with whom talking is not exactly productive. They are a tiny minority of the world’s people, but I have wasted enough time. And thus, in 2009, I’m going to try not to spend unnecessary time conversing with people who:

• Spend more than a sparing and reluctant amount of time trashing mutual acquaintances. Amazing how long it’s taken me to figure out what sorts of things such folks say to their other friends about me.

• Send email or leave comments entirely in all-caps. If they haven’t mastered the notion that capital letters are for beginning sentences and proper nouns, acronyms, and occasional emphasis or exuberance, then it’s unlikely they’ve put enough thought into what they say to me to merit my spending a lot of time crafting thoughtful responses. Spelling errors may well be a result of disability, and both spelling and grammar problems might come from unfamiliarity with the language, so neither of those serve as a reliable marker of carelessness. But there’s no reason for all-caps all the time.

• Insist that complex political and sociological phenomena can be explained by lumping 20-year age cohorts into “generations” and assigning virtues and failings en masse to members of those “generations.” My favorite one of these took place recently over at Michael’s joint in comment five on this post. (You reject everything about the Baby Boomers? Way to be totally unlike the Baby Boomers there, pal.)

• Slag me for not fitting in to their crowd, clique, or world-view. Thing is, I realized this year I’ve never fit in anywhere — except by myself, in wild surroundings. People are free to think what they want about me being unhip, the wrong kind of activist, the wrong kind of writer, writing about the wrong topics, not traveling in the right circles, linking to the wrong people, not linking to the right people, or for that matter having the wrong brain chemistry. They might even be right. I don’t care anymore. I know what I want to do, and I’m doing it.

• Have only one apparent setting. Don’t care whether it’s snark, outrage, drama-seeking, passive-aggression, reflexive mockery, piousness, or self-conscious irreverence. There are people who can shift from one setting to another, and I like them better.

• Go out of their way to describe to me the multifarious ways in which I am worthless. The necessity of avoiding these people has been a surprisingly hard lesson to learn, and in fact I have on occasion felt a strange compulsion to get to know them better. This may be because being told in agonizing detail how I fail to measure up brings up all kinds of happy childhood memories. The Gestalt therapists call it “unfinished business.” Well, you know what? I’m finished.

• Are currently middle school students, or act like they are.

I think that’s it. Fortunately, that leaves about six billion people I can still talk to. Some of them are even on the Internet.

Wee Thump Sunset

wee thump

Slept on the ground last night in sub-freezing temperatures. Woke up surrounded by Joshua trees growing out of patches of snow. Drove with The Raven along Route 66. Ate lunch-dinner at the Bagdad Café.

Best Birthday Ever.

Also, please join me in wishing Coyote commenter Arvind and his beloved a happy first anniversary!

2008

It all fell apart this year, the affected exoskeleton I’d thought of as my life: the garden and the art, the home, the writing. There was a moment this summer it all sank in. I had been Becky’s husband, the one who walked with Zeke out of the house painted orange with the agaves out front, the one who hiked in the East Bay hills and wrote facile snark and tossed-off poetry on his blog, and all of it gone.

All of it, and I spent the summer taking that in, cowering beneath the creosote, wincing at each incoming phone call.

Nabokov said that “transformation from larva to pupa or from pupa to butterfly is not a particularly pleasant process for the subject involved.” The caterpillar at least has the consolation of eventual flight.

It is not all bleakness, by any means. I am loved and I love. I have redressed past wrongs, made amends long overdue. And even in bleakness there is solace, the honesty of stony ground and cholla.

The problem is distinguishing between the honest bleak and the bleakness driven by inward illness, in me and in others. I have sought out those who would undermine my heart, found the ring of truth in their declarations of my worthlessness. It is a subtle distinction this year. This year I have improved the lives of some I love by leaving them.

This year I most desired solitude when others’ absence left me battered by ghosts. This year I felt desolate in close company, walked away from friends to seek the companionship of moss-covered stones.

I am getting too old for this.

A month before Zeke died, or two, I helped him up onto our bed and lay there with him drowsing for an afternoon. I dreamed that again the other day and woke disconcerted, two years downstream and his absence not at all assuaged by time’s flowing. I can layer it over with the new, but it has healed as much as it will, his grave still glaring in me though I have not laid eyes on it for months.

Not to scale

The Raven had come up to spend Thanksgiving in the desert, and we did. Rather than feasting, we whiled away that holiday with a long walk in the rainy creosote, watching dark winter storms trail through the Ivanpah Valley. Friday was taken up with moving belongings to my storage locker in Barstow.

Saturday was my last full day in Nipton. So, of course The Raven and I spent most of the day not in Nipton. Instead, we headed for the Mitchell Caverns in the Providence Mountains, a visit to which I’d been promising her since she started spending time with me in the Mojave.

We stopped en route at my mailbox. The Post Office staff person was there, greeted us kindly, and asked again whether I was interested in her job. She’d offered it to me some time before, and I was tempted, but it would have been six days a week and four hours a day and less than ten bucks an hour to start and when I did the math the rosy romantic glow at the thought of becoming Cima’s postmaster faded in my mind. I told her I’d decided against it. Her attempt at PR thus made moot, she showed us a little of the conditions under which she was expected to work, including desk drawers full of rodent nests dating to the Eisenhower administration. Or perhaps the Pluvial.

Up Cedar Canyon Road a ways, I decided we’d need to fill the Zheep’s gas tank before we went on any cave tour, and so — forgetting that Fenner and its gas pumps existed — we went on past the turnoff to the Providence Mountains State Recreation Area and made for Needles.

We made it back to the park just in time to watch the sold-out last tour of the day head up the trail to the cave mouth. Our disappointment was tempered by the presence of screaming kids on the tour. “One more reason to come back,” quoth The Raven.

We went uphill to the Visitor Center instead.

The Providence Mountains State Recreation Area’s visitor center is a sweet little underfunded place in an old cabin of stone and wooden beams, with your usual assortment of natural items from the area, tortoise shells and bighorn skulls and the like. One of the items on display is a very old leg bone, labeled carefully in the display as “from either a Harlans’ or Shasta ground sloth.” I was looking at the bone in its glass case. The Raven made a noise of choked astonishment.

“Ground sloth leg bone,” I said, not particularly helpfully.

“No,” she replied, “look. On top of the case.”

In a freestanding plastic photo frame atop the case was an image the park staff had Photoshopped to provide visitors with a sense of the size of your typical ground sloth.

I got a copy of it.

Detail, WT(ATS)MFF

There may be some readers here who don’t quite grasp the effect, on The Raven and me, of walking into a stray park visitor center and finding the above image in a paleontology exhibit. I can only explain by offering a link to this painting Carl Buell did of me and my dog Zeke and a friend a couple of years ago.

I’m pretty sure I actually pushed my gaping jaw shut with my hand.

A ranger was sitting at the information desk. I called out to him. “I have a question for you.” He looked up helpfully. I grabbed the photo frame and brought it over to him. “Does this guy look familiar to you?” It took him about ten seconds.

It was a nice chat, once he realized I wasn’t upset, and that the artist probably wasn’t going to be upset either. (He wasn’t.) And what else could The Raven and I do but stage a reenactment?

A reenactment, sans Nothrotherium

I spent the evening considering what meaning I should derive from the experience.

I mean, visiting a natural history display in the Mojave Desert and finding myself as one of the exhibits? That has to mean something.

Maybe I belong there.

End of November

The valley here runs south to north. At sunset the shadow of the Clark and Ivanpah mountains creeps across the valley floor, a second hand marking the time in yards. From where I sit, a mile up the washed-out road to the Lucy Grays, I watch the shadow advance.

It is an odd perspective. From up here, two-thirds of the way up the east side of the valley and six miles from the dry lake, the shadow seems abrupt: a distinct terminator between sunlit and shadowed land. When the shadow arrives in a few minutes, though, it is hard to tell just when it begins. Up close, the line between shadow and light is near-impossible to pin down. I am sitting in full sun, and then after some time I notice that the sun is not quite so bright. A quarter of the sun’s disk has dropped behind the ridge, then half, but what remains above still shines brightly. It seems as though the sun will never set, Zeno’s tortoise there in the sky moving half the distance between it and the ridgeline, then half the remainder, then half of what’s left after that.

A sudden breeze raises the skin on the back of my neck. The sun is now a brilliant pinpoint atop Clark Mountain. The sun is now fully behind Clark Mountain, but the sky is still brilliant where the sun was a moment ago. I am fully in the mountain’s shade here, the light from the sky alone enough to cast my shadow within the shadow.

A man confronting loss and mid-life crisis retreats to the desert to work, to confront his demons: my stay in this valley has been predictable, has been clichéd. It has been five months since I moved into this little house beside the railroad tracks, and what I expected to get out of my time here I no longer remember. I have written, though not enough. I have hiked the hills and creosote flats here, though not enough. I have slept under the stars, but nowhere even close to enough.

I have spent three consecutive summer days without leaving the house, turned inward and grieving. I’ve trudged eight miles in triple-digit temperatures and laughed at my own giddiness. I have spent a month sleeping in three-hour shifts on the floor beneath the ceiling fan. I have argued on the phone and cursed the passing trains for drowning out words I didn’t want to hear. I have been cruel to people I’ve loved half my life. I have found glimmers of solace in old friendships. I have exulted in this valley and resented its remoteness. I have spent night after night trying to read with moths and flies and stingless wasps covering each illuminated page. I have been jolted out of sleep by those same insects as they land on my eyelids in the dark. I have watched a hundred sunsets, coming earlier and earlier each day.

I have watched the thunderstorms scud across the valley below me, smelled the acrid lightning, seen the stripes of renewed green where the storms passed two weeks ago and fed the creosote.

I have learned nothing, aside from a few facts.

These days the nighttime temperature is close to freezing and I huddle thankfully beneath my comforter, but I still have trouble sleeping. My last cup of coffee may have been twelve hours ago, or longer, and yet I lie awake my heart racing, mind running full tilt in its exercise wheel, relaxed but taut. The other night it was coyotes, singing an uncharacteristically prolonged chorus — 45 minutes, as opposed to the usual three. I didn’t know they ever sang that long, and then a passing train silenced them at 3:15 am.

They did not sing last night but I lay awake anyway, wondering at the pull this valley has had on me. I hiked with a friend in Wee Thump yesterday and our conversation played again and again in my mind, her gasp at the pink and backlit clouds as we drove down Big Tiger Wash and back into the Ivanpah Valley. No matter how distracted I have been these last months by my own internal turmoil, coming into the valley that way at sunset has filled my chest. I lose myself in the yucca and the slanted light.

This is my last week in this little house, and I pack my few belongings here a little at a time. I will spend December in Los Angeles with The Raven and after that, it all depends. I will have to make a living, somehow. Easier to find a job in Tucson from Los Angeles than from here. Easier to pitch stories to magazines from, well, just about anywhere. It takes me five minutes to upload five hundred words, from here, and sometimes it takes two or three tries.

It’s a strange thing. I spent my first months here enmired in leaving, aslog in my past’s tar pits. The last few weeks my eyes have been pointed forward, though I still track asphaltum on the kitchen floor. At some point in the last five months I went from shadow into dim sunlight, but I’ll be damned if I can point out when.

Threshold

A shift, someone called it once. The polarizing filter on my heart has spun, and all is cast into sharper relief. The colors more intense. My path less glaring.

The more I lose, the richer my possibilities become.

The more I risk, the safer this all feels.

Regret and loss remain, of course, and the pipevine I planted six years ago picked this week to grow exuberant at last. The swallowtails will feed on it when I am gone. I had hoped to watch them from my porch, and yet the desert has swallowtails enough.

How many more spins of this grand illuminated speck? One? Another fifty? I cannot know, and there is no sense in delaying my pursuit of beauty any longer. Life is short, too short. It is a terrifying beauty, as is most beauty when viewed correctly, and to face its full brunt is a task too daunting for most of us.

It is too daunting for me as well, but I have sought the secure my whole life, and eventually found it, and found it gratifying, and it is enough. It is enough. I have slaked my thirst for safety. It is time to rock my shoulders into position, flick my tail and flash my eyes, and leap.

The raven paradox

If all ravens are black, nothing not black is a raven.

If all love is fleeting, nothing that lasts is love.

The rocks are constant, and the air. Both flow like water. I set out once not knowing where I was headed, and the ravens led me. Over Altamont Pass I saw one heading south past Tracy and followed it. At Crows Landing three flew eastward toward the Sierra. I backtracked to follow. Dozens of them flew south along Route 99, and at the Tehachapis an orchard of them gleaning fallen oranges. At Lone Pine the sun set and I slept there alone, halfway up the mountain, my back against broad granite.

Lone Pine Creek flowed past, a carillon of rock and water.

You may display a thing not raven that isn’t black, but you will not thus provide evidence of ravens’ obligatory blackness. The statements are logically equivalent but not identical. That granite slab against my back cooled beneath the feet of sauropods. I cannot lean my head against it and prove love ephemeral thereby.

What is this that lingers in my breast? Nothing that lasts is love. Its half-life short, its breakdown products habit, distance, rancor. This endless sour yearning is not love. This eternity of lack is not love.

Black is the absence of all color, a character that is the lack of character. A non-raven, if non-black, is a thing that lacks this absence. A hole falls into another hole and vanishes. This emptiness unfathomable is not love.

I have given up my strength too often, laid it at their feet as tribute. I have draped it on the ground before them. The jaguar bears a new-killed fawn for its cubs. My heart will cool slowly, crystals of olivine and feldspar and quartz accreting. My heart will freeze at the surface, black basalt, and the lava flows beneath it. My heart black as obsidian, heart black as ravens. It flows like water with the air. It lasts so long I cannot stand it further.

Navigating by reflected light

The chorus frogs no longer quiet as I pass. Perhaps it is the angle of the moon, my failure to cast a shadow on the pool of reeded water where they sing, or my ill-advised black nighttime running garb, hard to spot for frogs and drunken drivers both. Perhaps my step is lighter.

My path illuminated by the moon, anorthositic light, an airless light. It was brighter once, these tides more terrible. It was an unimaginable catastrophe, a planet-destroying blow, and yet a partnership then slowly coalesced from the debris. A gigantic moon hung low and bright above the earth, passing overhead each 19 hours, wresting tide tremors in the Earth’s hot heart. Their pas des deux spun them apart. The moon is six feet farther from me than it was when it first lit up my eyes a half century ago.

The white soil shines in her reflected light. The path it opens up in her reflected light. Her reflected light limns the grass awns, the webs of hunting spiders.

I have too easily found my way by her reflected light. My eyes grown keen and sensitive to the smallest cloud across her face. She heads toward the horizon where I cannot see her. To the east the land is bright, lit by the daylight glory I have shunned. I would cast my own shadows there.

Crow’s foot VII

The sky is rent. The sun comes through it, seething. Dry wind scours me from the insides out. A tempest, a dust-devil of a life, and my eyes are closed against the stinging of it. I raise my hand partway without intending to. I raise my hand partway against the wind.

It takes my clothes, my hair, my skin. All these excrescenses I was, these trappings, a flexible and sensitive armor against a sullen world, now stripped away. Calcium is left behind, and potassium, and eyes still strangely and illogically moist.

Where cities suppurate across the Mojave desert ravens clump in massive and delinquent flocks, but away from our debris and waste they fly in pairs. Find one in flight, and wait: another will be close. Sometimes they are close enough to ride each other’s bow waves. Sometimes one is a minute behind, and calling to its mate: a raucous rasp.

Rarely a raven flies alone, and then always singing loneliness in its rock tumbler voice, a song to rend the skies, a call left generally unanswered. One came to me last night in sleep, massive and melancholy, and lit on a smooth and pocked Joshua branch.

Liveoak leaves under my bare feet today, humus so deep beneath them that I sank into the earth. Two ravens tumbled in flight above me and brought the dream full back. Raven lit alone on the Joshua tree and preened, I thought, grasped tailfeathers in talons, brought them to his beak. He wore an odd intensity, an odd intent, and pulled out the feather with a pained crow howl.

Raven feather floated prettily to the desert’s floor.

Another feather grasped, hand to mouth, and plucked. Another cry of pain; another blue-black blade made lazy downward arcs.

He stared holes in me, gauging my reaction.

The next one had blood on the quill. It dropped like a stone. He panted hard, eyes wide.

One could make light and pretty trivialities from feathers such as these, fake platitudes to hang on terra cotta walls. Another loss, another step toward flightlessness by hellish increment, and they shine such a stunning blue there on the bright hard soil next to the blackbrush. Black leathery crow’s feet and searing, iterative pain and loss, and I gasped remembering it, loud enough that birds took flight.